IATEFL 2013: What makes a good task?

Yesterday morning, I went to see Felicity O’Dell talk about what makes a good task in the ELT classroom.  She was focused on learning, not testing (though this is often what ‘tasks’ are associated with).

According to the Cambridge Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, a task is:

a piece of work to be done, especially one done regularly, unwillingly or with difficulty

This raised a few laughs!  But it also highlighted the important connotations of the word ‘task’.  As a rebuttal, Felicity offered some more ELT-friendly definitions (with apologies for photo quality):

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With these preliminaries out of the way, we set about evaluating an example task.  Unfortunately, I don’t have digital copies of the handouts to share here, but the long and short of it was that the task we were evaluating was more like several tasks in one, and no one part adequately addressed its intended aims or suited its intended audience (of students).

Ultimately, we established a 7-point checklist for an effective ELT task, which went something like this:

  1. Tasks should be rooted in clear and appropriate linguistic objectives. (As opposed to ‘pointless busyness’, presumably.)
  2. Tasks should be fit for purpose.  They should suit the learners’ context and their objectives.  And, if it weren’t already obvious, the task procedure should suit its own task objective.  (e.g. if the point is to raise awareness of and practise the language of newspaper articles, then just reading articles and reporting on what was read is not enough – where’s the language focus?)
  3. Tasks should be graded at the right level for the students.
  4. Tasks should be engaging for the learners.  (An aside: this is self-evidently rather subjective.  I’d suggest this is one reason why some teachers dislike some tasks in coursebooks: because they’re clearly not going to be precisely tailored enough for one individual group of students.  So teachers need to have an idea of what will engage their own students.)
  5. Tasks must have clear and unambiguous instructions.  Obviously.  (But perhaps easier said than done?)
  6. Tasks should be effectively presented in the most appropriate way.  (My thoughts at this point were that this is pretty subjective, and someone asked a question along these lines at the end of the presentation.  Felicity suggested that images, for examples, are one way of enhancing the presentation of a task.  I suppose word-processing task handouts, rather than scribbling them down or spending forever writing everything on the board, is probably another way to present them effectively.  It would also help you save them for future use/adaptation.)
  7. Last, but not least, tasks must allow learners to get useful feedback from the teacher (or other sources).  If a task is too wide open, it will be hard to give feedback on what was supposedly learnt or developed through the task.

All in all, an active, interactive and useful talk.  Most of the ground covered was probably common sense, but then that’s always a dangerous assumption… and it’s always good to have reminders of the things we take for granted!

That’s the last post in my IATEFL 2013 series.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t blog about everything this year, but there were plenty of great sessions and I’m already looking forward to next year!  See you in Harrogate!

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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