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Choosing and Using Communication Tasks for Second Language

Instruction and Research

Teresa Pica, Ruth Kanagy and Joseph Falodun


In “Tasks and Language Learning” – Ed. Crookes and Gass

Summary by Guy Meredith

The aim of this article is to describe and validate the communication task as an
important tool in the language classroom and to differentiate it from any activity
which just gets the students talking.

The theoretical perspective which supports the use of communication tasks is


that which holds that language is best taught and learned through interaction.

- activities in which learners can exchange information and


communicate ideas.

- activities in which learners talk not for the sake of producing


language as an end in itself, but as a means of sharing ideas and
opinions, collaborating towards a single goal, or competing to
achieve individual goals.

Input and Interactionist theories – language learning is assisted though social


interaction and negotiation towards a mutual comprehension of each others
message meaning.

What is a task?

- Tasks are oriented towards goals


- They involve work or activity i.e. direct participation from the learners

What is the most effective task?

A task which promotes the greatest opportunities for learners to experience


comprehension of input, feedback on production and interlanguage modification
is one in which –

- Each interactant holds a different portion of information which must be


exchanged and manipulated in order to reach the task outcome
- Both interactants are required to request and supply this information to
each other
- Interactants have the same or convergent goals
- Only one acceptable outcome is possible from their attempts to meet this
goal

An example of this type of task is the jigsaw activity.

An Information gap activity differs from a jigsaw activity because only one
interactant holds crucial information and the other has to request that information
thus creating a one way flow of information and not a two way flow – it is
therefore less effective as a communication task.

Other possible tasks include –

- Problem solving
- Decision making
- Opinion exchange
Jigsaw and information gap are the most effective, opinion exchange the least
effective.

Research

Research into task based learning has been useful in supporting interactionist
theories of language learning.

However few studies have linked negotiation features found during task based
learning with acquisition processes themselves. As a result most of the
contributions of task based research on interaction have been inferential
i.e. the presence of negotiation implies the presence of learner comprehension,
use of feedback and modification of interlanguage production.

Pica, Young and Doughty (1987) used an information gap exercise to measure
(not just infer) learner’s comprehension through interaction.
They found that negotiation features such as confirmation requests and
comprehension checks served as mechanisms for repetition and thus increased
learner’s comprehension.

Other studies have found that opinion exchange activities often lead to some
participants taking over the interaction and others not talking at all.
That open ended clarification requests such as “what?” or “could you say that
again” led to learner’s modifying their interlanguage significantly more than
confirmation checks such as “did you say books?”

Decision making tasks have been shown to be more effective than opinion-
exchange tasks since they offer more turns for each learner and more questions.