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TKT Module 1: Background to language teaching
Practice activities and tasks for language and language skills development

flute playing

Learning to use a foreign language is more like learning to play an instrument than learning a set of facts and figures.
Practising, therefore, forms the core of most lessons.


keys

Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • practice vs. assessment
  • task vs. activity: process and product
  • controlled and free practice
  • scaffolding and level of challenge (zone of proximal development)
  • task types:
    • language systems practice
    • productive skills practice
    • receptive skills practice

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.


rope

Practice vs. Assessment

These two concepts are entwined like a rope and difficult to separate.  However, it is clear that many tasks can be used for both purposes.  The next guide focuses on assessment and many of the task types discussed here will be relevant to that guide, too.
The difference is what the task is for, when it happens and what the learners believe it is for.  Here's an overview to make things a little clearer:
tasks


differ

Tasks vs. Activities

tasks usually have specific outcomes which are measurable in some way.  For example:
A writing task involving filling gaps in a paragraph from a choice of phrases may be a half-way house on the road to writing a paragraph without guidance and it will have a right/wrong outcome.  Either the learners make the right choices, or they don't.
A task to write a 300-word essay on a subject of the learner's choosing is almost completely unguided but it will still have a measurable outcome (although it may be quite difficult to identify success or failure).
activities do not usually have specific outcomes because it is the process of doing the activity which is more important.  For example:
Asking students to talk together and think of three good ideas for making their town better will practise both a speaking skill (presenting and responding to ideas) and some language structures (speculation, possibility etc.) but it will not have a measurable product and need not have one.  It is the doing of the task which is important, not the ideas which come from it.
Getting students to tell each other what characters in a video clip they find the most and least attractive is certainly valuable language practice and also requires them to understand and provide reasoning.  The process is what is important here because we cannot (and don't need to) measure the outcomes in any useful way.

feedback

Feedback

Both tasks which have a product and activities which do not can be used for practice.  One difference lies in the feedback which you give and get.

product tasks require more precise feedback
Learners need to know that the product of the task is acceptable and teachers need to know whether it is safe to move on to the next phase of a lesson.
Feedback, therefore, both from the learners and from the teacher has to be quite thorough.
process activities often need very little feedback
Because the doing is more important than the production, what the learners actually produce is probably not important.  It has to be valued in some way to maintain motivation and commitment but it needn't be judged on a right / wrong / not bad basis.

control

Level of control

We can divide tasks and activities into how controlled they are (i.e., how much freedom the learners are allowed).  This is not a simple either-or distinction because, as the lady on the horse will tell you, there are many levels of control and levels of freedom.
It can look like this:
controlled etc.
For example, writing an email with a list of 5 points to include will be more controlled than writing about anything you like but freer than a sentence-completion exercise.  Changing the tense forms of verbs in a text may allow for more than one right answer so is not as controlled as a multiple-choice test and so on.

thinkwrite Task 1: Divide this list in three:
controlled tasks
semi-controlled tasks
free tasks

Then click on the table to get an answer.

control

There is no absolute rule but tasks in lessons are usually linked, with controlled practice coming before freer practice.  We might get a sequence like this:
task sequence

Notice

  1. how the tasks and activities get slowly freer and more challenging as the lesson goes on
  2. how the freer tasks focus on language in use and the controlled tasks only on usage (i.e., form)

scoffolding

Scaffolding and level of challenge

This is a key concept.
When learners are engaged in practice tasks or activities, they may need help and advice.  The teacher's role here is to support the learners without doing the task for them.  That's scaffolding.

If the learners need no help
then the task is too easy or the activity is simply to get them thinking about the topic.  Tasks like these do not help learners to learn.
If the learners cannot do the task at all without help
then the task is too difficult and should not have been set.  It will not be helpful.
If the learners can do most of the task but need some hints, a bit of help or advice
then the task is at the right level and will aid their development.

Getting the level of challenge right is not a simple job.  The task needs to be pitched in what is called the zone of proximal development.  The zone of proximal development is the place where learning takes place and the word proximal tells us that the learner is almost but not quite there..  Too difficult and it demotivates, too easy and it bores.  Right in the middle and real learning takes place.
If you prefer a picture:
zpd
The trick in getting the level of challenge right is to keep the learners out of the anxiety and boredom zones.  It is not s simple issue.  There is a much more technical guide to scaffolding and the ZPD on this site.


different

Types of activity and task

There are far too many task and activity types for any list to be complete.  Here, we will focus on common tasks and divide them into some obvious categories.  If you look through a range of coursebooks or hunt the web, you will find more than you will ever need.
Each time you find a task, it is worth asking some questions:

  1. Does this task or activity practise or test?
  2. Is this a product or a process task?  How important, in other words, is the product?
  3. What does it target?
  4. Is it controlled or freer?  Where should it come in the lesson?
Task type Nature Comment
Drilling Controlled
Language systems
May be useful for automatising language
Gap-filling Controlled
Language systems
Can be made more or less controlled by giving choices or not
Skeleton sentences Controlled
Language systems
Expanding, e.g., She / yesterday / shopping / new dress into She went shopping yesterday for a new dress can be useful grammar practice
Multiple-choice comprehension questions Controlled
Receptive skills
For focusing on listening skills and reading skills.  The nature of the subskill the learners must use will be determined by the question type
Writing what you like on a particular topic Free(r)
Productive skills
Left alone, learners will often play safe and avoid structures or lexis they are not sure of
Dictation Controlled
Language systems and Receptive skills
There are different kinds of dictation with various levels of control
Role-plays Semi-controlled
Productive skills
The amount of control can be varied by giving people more or less information to include in their speaking
Information gap activities Semi-controlled
All skills
Each student has different information which they must put together to achieve a task.  Learners are forced to communicate
Read the headline / Look at the picture and speculate about text content Semi-controlled
Receptive skills
This is an awareness-raising activity to get the learners thinking.  Product is less important
Plan the perfect school (starting with a blank sheet of paper) Free(r)
All skills
This is a major task requiring a range of skills and language.  It could be part of a task-based learning approach
Match the picture to the word / the definition to the word / the intonation to the emotion Controlled
Language systems
Matching tasks are useful for checking learning and for introducing new language
Identify the difference between what you read and what you hear Controlled
Receptive skills
A useful intensive listening and reading activity
Put the paragraphs in the right order Controlled
Language systems
Focusing on text structure and ordering and sequencing markers and cohesive elements such subordinating conjunctions and a useful awareness-raising task
Transform the text from present to future (etc.) / from formal to informal / etc. Controlled
Language systems
This is mostly a meaning-free exercise focusing on form not use


self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


practice

Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A short matching task
Test 2 A gap-fill test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to assessment types and tasks.