On Mondays, I usually start my classes by asking students, “What did you do this weekend?” I like starting out class this way because: 1) It’s a nice way to warm up at the start of class, 2) Sharing information about what we do outside of class helps the students and me to get to know each other better, and 3) Sometimes this information can lead into very interesting discussions, especially if a student did something out of the ordinary during the weekend.
But I have to admit that sometimes these discussions can be a bit stale and feel a little forced. Sometimes, nobody did anything very interesting over the weekend. I’ll ask a few students what they did, and I basically just get variations of “I worked” and “I stayed home.” There’s not much fodder for interesting discussions.
There’s also the problem of who is doing the interacting. In my ideal “What did you do last weekend?” conversation, the students and I would all be interacting with each other and responding to what others have said. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often. I think that some students view this conversation as a kind of practice activity where each student is supposed to wait to be called upon and be given their individual window of time to talk to the teacher. So it ends up just being a bunch of separate, one-on-one conversations between me and several individual students. I call on Student A; Student A answers. I call on Student B; Student B answers. I call on Student C; Student C answers.
This kind of conversation is not necessarily the worst thing ever, but it’s also not my ideal. For a while, I’ve been trying to find ways to make these discussions more interesting and meaningful. Recently, I tried an idea that worked well. I decided to give my students a Task: They needed to decide who had the busiest weekend and who had the laziest weekend. (I’m using the word “Task” with a capital T the way that Bill VanPatten does when talking about a specific kind of communicative Task, which is different from general classroom tasks.)
These were the steps I followed:
- I asked the students to each write 4 sentences about what they did during the weekend. (This is partly to help students prepare and organize their thoughts ahead of time and partly to force them to come up with more than just “I went to work.”)
- I broke the students into groups of about 4 students.
- I asked the students to talk with their group members about what they did during the weekend and then decide who in their group had the busiest weekend and who had the laziest weekend.
- Each group reported back to the whole class on who had the busiest and laziest weekends. I asked a few extra follow-up questions to each group, like, “Why do you think [student name] had a busy weekend? What did they do?”
This Task worked very well; the students were interacting with each other and genuinely reacting to what their group members said. Since they needed to make a decision and come to a consensus, they listened carefully to what their classmates were saying. A few of the students wanted to convince their group that they had a busy weekend, so they started listing off every little thing they did!
I think it works well for a wide range of student levels (I used it with my high-beginning and my intermediate-level classes), though of course lower-level students will need extra support. My students also seemed to have fun while they were talking, and it got them laughing, especially when talking about who had the laziest weekends!
I don’t use this Task every single Monday, as I think it would probably get worn out if I use it too often. But using it occasionally has been effective for me. And, of course, there are a lot of potential variations you can use to keep it interesting. Instead of asking who had the busiest and laziest weekends, I’ve also asked students to decide who had the most fun weekend and who had the most boring weekend. One time, at the end of the week, I asked students to talk about their weekend plans and then we decided together as a class who we thought was going to have the best weekend. The next Monday, after we talked about what we’d done during the weekend, I followed up by asking if we thought that that student really did have the best weekend.
This is a very simple Task in the sense that it is easy to set up and doesn’t take any extra planning on the part of the teacher. But I am amazed at the fact that making just these few simple changes to our “What did you do this weekend?” routine transformed it into a conversation that felt a lot more meaningful and engaging.
It got me started thinking about Tasks in general. I don’t do a lot of Tasks—or at least not the kind of Tasks that are typically used in Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT). But I do see the appeal in it and why it can be effective. When students have a purpose for what they’re doing—a purpose other than just “language practice”—the students need to truly communicate with each other. They listen, read, speak, or write because they need to accomplish a Task, not just to “practice.”
Not that students always need to have a concrete task to accomplish. For example, Free Voluntary Reading is an important component in my classes, and it’s just about letting students enjoy good books—students don’t have to “do” anything after they read. But, at times, giving students a Task to complete can give a focus and can give students a meaningful purpose for communicating, whether the communication occurs primarily through receiving input or producing output. (By the way, I think that some people would consider FVR to be a Task because the purpose is for enjoyment or entertainment. But it’s different from typical Tasks, I think, because there is not a clear outcome that is immediately apparent.)
For me, the main challenge in TBLT is designing Tasks that are engaging and interesting to all the students. But the success of this “Who had the busiest/laziest weekend?” task has pushed me to try to discover other ways I can design simple Tasks. I hope to find more ways to make little changes to what I’m currently doing that will create a more meaningful context for language use and that encourages genuine communication between students.