On Episode 61 of Tea with BVP, Bill explained Tasks a little bit more. He said that Tasks are usually longer term goals, but also added that level-appropriate and input-based Tasks could be given right away. They certainly could be given right away, but they’re also unnecessary. Considering how hard it is to get multiple concrete examples of Tasks, the amount of planning that needs to go into an assortment of Tasks makes me want to set up a retirement countdown timer and hope it goes by in a blink.
Bill uses the terms “Exercises, Activities, and Tasks” to categorize what we do in class as they relate to communication. Exercises are drills, practicing language for language’s sake, which haven’t been shown to significantly contribute anything to a student’s acquisition or learning experience other than anxiety and frustration for most, so I don’t recommend spending any amount of time on them whatsoever. Instead, the majority of time would be best spent on Activities and Tasks, and there’s one major difference between them…
A Task is an Activity that has a purpose.
If you don’t have a purpose, you can still focus on meaning and that’s great. We can’t expect to always have Tasks, and they aren’t always needed. People communicate for a reason, though, so at some point we should address the purpose of everything we do. The two main types of purpose are Cognitive-Informational (i.e. obtaining information for an immediate or future task), and Psycho-Social (i.e. relationships, team-building, bonding). In clearer terms, it’s more helpful to categorize purposes as:
- to learn
- to build
- to create
- to entertain
- to socialize
My experience has been that entertainment is, by far, the safest bet in terms of purpose. Learning is probably a close second, seeing as I’m writing about teaching in school, but I’m not even sure about that. Learning about the Romans, Chilean customs, or the latest news from the target language-speaking country, for example, seems like a more mature goal to have. Most kids are in language class X because they have to, or just don’t want to take language class Y. That pretty much rules out learning as a purpose for most kids. If you have kids—all of them—interested in the target culture, learning as a purpose for communicating is a possibility. You might find that they are more interested in talking about their weekend and discussing the latest movies! Roll with that.
Is This a Task?
Unsure if you’ve got an Activity, or Task? The first step is asking “why?” when we plan/choose an activity. If we land on one of the purposes above, we have a fully-communicative Task. If we don’t, we have a partially-communicative Activity, which is fine, and probably what most of us can expect to do on a daily basis with the occasional Task thrown in there. One risk of overthinking Tasks is falling into some kind of Socratic loop. For example…
– Why am I planning this? To learn about Roman baths.
– Why learn about Roman baths? To appreciate ancient technology.
– Why appreciate ancient technology? To have a deeper understanding of ancient culture.
– Why have a deeper understanding of ancient culture? To compare ancient times to now.
That thinking doesn’t get us any closer to a Task when otherwise just “reading and discussing” a level-appropriate text would do the trick. Tasks aren’t always necessary.
In an example that Keith Toda gave on wrapping his head around Tasks, it’s important to recognize that Tasks are context-dependent. On the first day of a university course, introducing another student to the teacher makes sense. There is a communicative purpose to that Task. If the same Task is done in the 2nd week of a K-12 school, it’s not actually a Task since everyone knows each other’s name already, anyway! That’s an Activity because it lacks a communicative purpose. It might even be an Exercise focusing on some aspect of language since the point is obviously non-communicative given that all the information is known.
I must say, cavē! on Tasks, because they might come dangerously close to that ol’ Present, Practice, Produce model that usually lacks both purpose, and sufficient focus on input. Like the teachers who plan their classes starting with ACTFL’s Can-Do Statements, they’re that’s dangerously close to teaching to a test as “practice” creeps its way in (e.g. Novice Mid Interpersonal Speaking “I can tell someone what I am doing” – Teacher: “OK, class, turn to a partner and…”).
Want a guaranteed Task? Try co-creating a story for the purpose of entertainment via TPRS. In fact, most forms of storytelling is for entertainment (although surprisingly not Story Listening which excludes itself from storytelling according to the documentation). Keep in mind, storyasking for the purpose of teaching the subjunctive, however, is not a Task, even if students happen to have fun. In that case, your purpose will be to highlight the subjunctive, which could take away from any communicative purpose. That right there is an Activity if the focus is on meaning, but dangerously close to an Exercise used to “practice” the subjunctive. Activities could easily become a Task by adding on one of the purposes above (e.g. write a new ending to another class period’s story), but I recommend avoiding any add-on Tasks if students can’t do them, or if they would take away sufficient input time.