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Designing effective communicative tasks

Communicative tasks are the ones that we design to promote meaningful, authentic use of English. That means we are not simply looking for accuracy here. These tasks focus on language proficiency and allow learners to exchange information and negotiate meaning, always using the target language. There is a specific goal or outcome learners are supposed to achieve together. For instance:

Not communicative: In pairs, describe the house rules you must follow.
Communicative: Imagine you are going to live together. Come up with a list of seven house rules.

What are the differences? Follow these tips.

1. Design tasks that depend on task completion.

In the first example, there is not a clear sign that students have achieved the aim. How do they know they are done? How can you measure whether they were successful in terms of content? How motivating is it to know you will have to keep on speaking until the teacher decides it is time to stop?

2. Bear in mind that you are teaching a means of communication, not a set of rules.

Think of students’ outcomes for both tasks above. In the first one, they would start making a list of things they must do at home, as if they were reading it in bullet points. On the other hand, in the second activity, they will have to share their opinions, negotiate meaning and content and reach a consensus, using the target language. That takes us to the next point.

3. Make sure the task requires/ develops communicative competence.

Tasks are to develop not only grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation – especially if not integrated. We have to provide students with enough practice of the language in the most reliable way. That means they will have to put into practice their knowledge of:

(1) skills and systems [what words to use = linguistic competence];
(2) interaction in society [which words and phrases fit the setting and the topic = sociolinguistic campetence];
(3) interpretation of the larger context [how to express a specific attitude = discourse competence] and
(4) recognition and resolution of communication breakdown [how to keep conversation going = strategic competence].

It is worthwhile to mention that having communicative competence means developing the

4. Think of motivating, realistic contexts.

Learners are not supposed to do a task “just because.” They have to want to do it. Bring a variety of speaking tasks with goals, information gaps, process-genre writing activities, etc. The closer to their reality, the more motivating it will be.

5. Monitor students to validate content and language.

Paying attention to learners and their needs is essential. When we talk about monitoring and informally assessing students, that means we need to look closely at their productions in terms of language, but it also means we have to focus on the content and task completion in order to give them reliable, descriptive feedback.

Coming up with communicative tasks may be challenging at first. However, they are essential to help our students develop the most effective competences of the language.

About author

Gabriel Lemos is an academic consultant, teacher trainer, materials developer, speaking examiner, and English and Portuguese teacher. He holds a teaching degree in Languages, as well as proficiency certifications and teaching diplomas, such as Cambridge CELTA, Delta, Train the Trainer, and other language training certificates from the University of Oregon.
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