Promoting Learner-Learner Interaction Through Tasks
Larissa Goulart da Silva
This paper provides an overview on the benefits of using tasks to promote learner-learner interaction in the classroom based on a literature review and in the author’s own experience as teacher and learner of the English language. In order to do that, this paper is divided into four parts. In the introduction, I present my motivation to pursue this topic and the goals of this paper. The following section introduces the definitions of tasks presented in the literature of ELT and the distinction between tasks and activities. The next section of this article discusses what types of tasks promote learner-learner interaction. The last part presents a brief overview of how tasks can be implemented in the ELT classroom.
Keywords: learner-learner interaction, tasks, project based learning
This paper focuses on the advantages of using tasks to encourage learner’s interaction and what features of tasks help promote interaction. According to Ames (1992) learner-learner interaction develops collaborative and cooperative practices instead of encouraging competitiveness in the classroom. In addition, interaction with other students promotes effective learning, in other words, we learn with others (Vygotsky, 1984; Lantolf, 2000). Pinter (2007: 190) also argues that “tasks encourage learners to communicate with each other in real time.” Therefore, through the use of tasks, learners will use the target language in the classroom with other learners in order to develop their language skills.
In my experience as an English learner I have always been encouraged to work in pairs or groups in order to achieve the lesson’s goals and, even when individual work was required, students were always stimulated to share their work with classmates before delivering a final version to the teachers. For this reason, I perceive collaborative learning as a positive practice. Hence, the focus of this paper in tasks and student to student interaction.
In the next section of this paper I will present what researchers define as “tasks”, displaying also what a Brazilian researcher considers a task and drawing some references to my experiences in the classroom as a student and a teacher.
This section aims at presenting and discussing what researchers in the field of Foreign Language Teaching (FLT) define as “tasks” regardless of teaching methods, since tasks can be a part of Task-Based Learning (TBL), Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), Project-Based Learning, among others FLT methodologies. As for the word “task”, it has a different meaning outside the teaching community, thus the first definition presented here is from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, which has two entrances for it, one being “a piece of work that somebody has to do, especially a hard or unpleasant one”. Considering this definition, a task is something difficult and problematic; nevertheless, this is not the kind of practice that teachers should encourage in their classrooms. In the context of FLT “task” has acquired a new meaning, which is also presented in this dictionary as “an activity which is designed to help achieve a particular learning goal, especially in language teaching.” Interestingly enough, in the Oxford Dictionary “task” and “activity” are being used as synonyms; however, Bulla et al (2012) present these as two different concepts that are part of the same teaching practice. For Bulla (ibid, p.108) pedagogical tasks are “invitations for actions to be carried out according to a suggestion (expressed in the task) for future activities and it is sustained by educational goals” whereas a pedagogical activity is “the set of actions needed to accomplish what has been proposed in a pedagogical task”. Hence, according to these researchers the task is the class planning while the activity is putting planning into practice.
Nunan (2004) also divides the concept of task into two, real-world tasks and pedagogical tasks. Real-world tasks are “the sorts of things that the person in the street would say if asked what they were doing.” (Nunan, 2004: 02). Therefore, real-world tasks do not necessarily require the use of language to be completed and it is associated with the first meaning provided by the dictionary. While the pedagogical task is
“a piece of classroom work that involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on mobilizing their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to manipulate form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Nunan’s definition refers to the necessity of a task outcome to stand alone or to be a communicative act, which relates to Ellis’s (2003: 03) view that “’tasks’ are activities that call for primarily meaning-focused language use.” Skehan (1998) summarizes – based on the literature about tasks – the following characteristics about tasks: “meaning is primary; learners are not given other people’s meaning to regurgitate; there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities; task completion has some priority and the assessment of the task is in terms of outcome.”
In my experience as an English learner, tasks always had a pedagogical outcome associated with real-world use of language. Usually, my teachers used a sequence of pedagogical tasks in order for us (students) to achieve a linguistic goal, for example, writing a movie or a book review, posting a video on YouTube about our culture, etc. As an English teacher, I try to encourage my students to use language for activities that will be meaningful to them such as doing an oral presentation about a research study they have read about. As all my students are focusing on EAP, it is possible to do tasks that focus on academic activities that they might encounter in the real world.
Willis (1996: 23) argues that the term “task” has been used broadly to label various “activities including grammar exercises, practice activities and role plays” however for this author a task is “always an activity where the target language is used by the learners for a communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome” (Willis, 1996: 23). Some features of a task according to Willis are that “all tasks should have an outcome” and that “learners are free to choose whatever language forms they wish to convey what they mean, in order to fulfil, as well as they can, the task goals.” Specifically about this last point, I believe it is important to shed some light on the issue of learners using L1 to achieve the tasks goal. As a beginner of English, I was allowed to use L1 (though not encouraged) as long as I completed the task outcome in English; however as soon as students reached a pre-intermediate level the teachers asked us to always speak in English in group discussions.
Willis (1996) also discusses the role of the four skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) in a task. This author claims that these skills do not exist separately; therefore, they form an integral part of the process of achieving the task goals (Willis, 1996: 24). This is as an important issue since it is unlikely that a task will focus on only one skill, usually to produce a written text, for instance, it is necessary to read and maybe listen about the theme; therefore, in tasks all skills are associated. Even in information-gaps tasks that teachers use with their students, they have to see a picture or read a text and speak about it, therefore listening, speaking and reading are associated in one task.
All the definitions presented above address the issue of promoting language exchange between students, focusing on meaning rather than on form, and simulating or producing real-world activities. However, none of these definitions acknowledge collaborative engagement among students as part of the task definition. Thus, the next section focuses on how tasks can promote learner’s interaction.
Task and learner’s interaction
Usually, papers that address tasks and learners’ interaction aim at researching interaction in the classroom (Mayo and Ibarrola, 2015; Bulla, 2012; Robinson, 2001). These papers do not tend to focus on the characteristics of tasks that promote interaction. Notwithstanding, the aim of this section is to present the research about how tasks can collaborate to promote learners’ interaction.
Mayo and Ibarrola (2015: 44) argue that “studies have shown that tasks that are most successful in triggering interaction are those where information exchange is required in order to complete the task, as learners exchange information among each other, solve problems and reach decisions.” These kinds of tasks are popular in coursebooks, which have different examples of tasks that ask each student to turn to a different page and to exchange information in order to complete the activity. These information gaps or spot the differences are examples of tasks that promote learners’ interaction.
Bulla (2012: 52) researched learner’s interaction based on a collaborative writing task and she summarizes the following topics as characteristics of tasks that promote interaction:
- “It requires the participation of at least two people.
- It requires participants to organize themselves in order to achieve the task goals. (…).
- It requires different frames to be co-constructed and negotiated in order to keep the institutional orientation to perform the pedagogical task.
- It requires the participants to negotiate how to divide the work and the modes in which each one is going to participate (…).
- It involves mutual help (…).
- It requires participants to solve occasional problems (disagreements, doubts, etc), that might occur since it is a collaborative pedagogical task, in order to finish it.”
As a learner and a teacher, I know that interacting with other students allows more than only learning the language. It also enables negotiating roles – for example, when working in a spot the difference task, learners have to decide who is going to be the first to talk, how they are going to organize the speeches – and solve problems like misunderstandings or disagreements that will affect the outcome.
Bowles et al (2014: 498) argue that “it is through interactional processes such as negotiation and pushed output that learners’ attention may be drawn to gaps in their L2 abilities.” Thus, it is by producing language that learners perceive the gaps in their knowledge and are able to learn from and with each other. As a student, I have learned several things by interacting with my classmates, one of these moments that I remember is when a classmate told me she had no siblings, through this interaction I noticed a gap in my L2 abilities and through meaning negotiation I learned the word “siblings”.
Moreover, as presented before, pedagogical tasks have a meaningful outcome; therefore, students are oriented towards a goal when working with it, which motivate students to interact in order to achieve this goal. According to Ames (1992: 163)
“students are more likely to approach and engage in learning in a manner consistent with a mastery goal when they perceive meaningful reasons for engaging in an activity; that is, when they are focused on developing an understanding of the content of the activity, improving their skills, or gaining new skills and when task presentations emphasize personal relevance and meaningfulness of the content.”
Thus, if a task presents a meaningful communicative goal it will promote student engagement with the task as well as among themselves. As a student, I have never felt motivated to fulfil a task that did not have a meaningful outcome and as a teacher, I notice the same pattern with my students; they need to know what is the purpose of completing a grammar exercise, or doing an activity, otherwise they will not do it or will behave poorly. However, I believe this is a cultural issue, students in Brazil are very inquisitive and want to exercise some control over their learning.
Willis (1996) argues that tasks give opportunities for students to use language more freely. According to her
“free use involves a far broader range of language and gives learners richer opportunities for acquiring. They need chances to say what they think or feel, and to experiment in a supportive atmosphere with using language they have heard or seen without feeling threatened. They need chances to test the hypotheses they have formed about the way language works, to try things out, to see if they are understood they are bound to get something wrong at first. But they will gradually get more accurate as their repertoire of language increases.” (Willis, 1996: 07)
If tasks motivate students to engage with each other in order to achieve a common goal, as discussed by Ames (1992), it also allows students to practice the language in a safe environment before using it in the real world. Usually, tasks simulate a real world situation and using tasks in the classroom gives students a chance to practice with each other. In my experience as a learner of English, my classmates and I were encouraged to interact in English among each other and to present the tasks outcome to other classmates before delivering it to the teacher. Even when the outcome of the task would be released to the real world – like when we had to write a university guide for foreign students – we should show it to other groups of English students and receive their feedback before publishing it.
Skehan (2003: 02) argues that even though tasks are focused on meaning they do not neglect the focus on forms, as this is also an important part of learning. Skehan (2003) quotes Michael Long (Long and Robinson, 1998) who says that
“even though learners may be participating in interactions, with meaning as primary, there is some concern for form (form-in-general, rather than specific forms). As a result, the naturalness of communication is not compromised, but form, and potential for development, do have some priority.”
Teachers who work with tasks in their classroom can find difficulties when trying to combine a focus on grammar, or pronunciation, for instance in the tasks (Bulla, 2012). As a teacher, I think this can be challenging, especially when working with a project-based methodology, since sometimes I present many texts or videos to my students, but focus only on discussing their meaning and not on the forms people use to express those meanings.
The objective of this section was to present what researchers present about using tasks and learner’s interaction in the classroom comparing it with my classroom experiences as a learner and a teacher. Some conclusions can be drawn on the topic of how tasks can encourage interaction: a) there has to be a need for an exchange of information; b) teachers need to encourage students to negotiate meaning, speech roles, misunderstandings, etc. among themselves; c) the classroom has to be an environment where students can produce language without being judged or bullied for their accent, or language choices; d) students are in the classroom to learn and use language in a safe environment before using it in the real-world; and e) tasks should have a focus on form too.
Even though in the previous two sections some implications for classroom practice have already been presented, the aim of the next section is to present other implications and summarize the ones already discussed.
Implications for classroom practice
Using tasks in a language classroom can be a fruitful practice since it encourages students to develop their language skills. Moreover, it develops other abilities such as meaning negotiating, which will be necessary in real life interactions. As a teacher, there are several implications for using tasks in the classroom. The first one is that teachers need to have a clear focus of what the he or she considers a task. Furthermore, the teacher needs to plan the tasks so that they focus on the language structures as well as on the meaning. Moreover, the teacher will have to learn to be the facilitator of the class and not the centre. The advantages of promoting student interaction in the classroom are developing their language skills in a freer way while developing social skills.
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Larissa Goulart da Silva entered Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in 2010. She graduated from the faculty of Modern Languages by obtaining a BA degree with distinction in English and Portuguese teaching. In 2016 she obtained an MA in English Language Teaching with distinction at Warwick University and she is currently an English teacher at the Language without Border Programme at UFRGS in Brazil.