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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #10 Present the tasks properly




Female teacher holding out her left armFollowing on from his first post, 10 Commandments for motivating language learners, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the last of the 10 Commandments: Present the tasks properly.

Another of Dornyei’s and Czizer’s motivational Commandments is one I wouldn’t have come up with myself. It reads: Present the tasks properly.

Mmm. I absolutely know how not to present tasks properly – for a clear set of instructions of what not to do I need only think back to my younger days in the job (far enough away now in time and place for the thought not to be too embarrassing). This list includes being unfocused, unclear, repeating myself, not explaining everything the students need to do or know and generally waffling unforgivably (all sins I’m sure I still commit often but not on such a regular basis. I hope).

That’s a lot of negatives.

We can put things more positively: we should be clear, we should make sure the students know which language they will need to do the task, and the reason for doing it. So, I suppose, we can give answers to all the wh- questions. What are students doing and using, which language, how long will it go on for, why are they doing it, and who are they doing it with. That may be a beginning to explaining things better. But I wonder what it looks like on the ground…

Here’s an exercise taken at random from New English File Upper-Intermediate. It reads:

e  In pairs or small groups, discuss the questions:

1  What do you think are the strengths of your nationality?

2  What are the weaknesses?

In what way would you say you are typical?

(Aficionados won’t need telling that it’s part of a larger lesson on national stereotypes, p. 20.)

Looking at my own advice, I guess I would present the task something like this. ‘OK guys, it’s time to have a talk about these things. Take a look at the instructions. Any questions? … No, OK. I think this is a useful thing to do because it gives you a chance to use some of the new words and ideas we’ve been working with. I think about five minutes is enough in your buzz groups. At the end I want you to be able to report back on one of your colleagues.’

Would you do the same or different?

Finally, as part of presenting tasks properly, we can also consider how to check students’ understanding. I learned a lot about this a couple of years ago from a colleague here in Bulgaria.

Instead of my rather lame ‘OK?’ or the (frankly worse than useless) ‘Do you understand?’ that I would come out with, he had a range of techniques that had worked very well for him. For more complicated exercises than the one I’ve given here he might ask check questions, such as what are you talking about? what’s happening at the end? who are you talking with?, all of course with a smile on his face. Or, and this really impressed me, with classes he knew well eye-contact would often be enough to check if the messages had got through.

How would you go about presenting a class activity properly?

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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  1. A few golden rules I always try to follow:

    1. Give instructions one at a time. I will never attempt to give out more than this, along the lines of, “Turn to page 6 and look at the second exercise,” as this will invariably mean half the class turning to the wrong page and the other half forgetting which exercise. No. I will give out one instruction and then wait… and wait till the whole class are there (it also means the slow ones don’t get left behind).

    2. Concept checking. As your colleague did, I try to make sure they have really understood (rather than just say they did).

    I suppose this means taking a class from the point of view of assuming the students don’t understand a word the teacher says! 🙂

    This is explained more here: https://teflworldwiki.com/index.php/Instructions

  2. There is nothing more frustrating as a student than not knowing what is expected of you. You are there eager to learn but feel hamstrung by lazy instructions. So I very much agree with this being one of the commandments.
    In my opinion, good teachers are good classroom managers, giving clear signals and clear instructions.
    I am pretty sure if I was setting this task up I would start by making sure I had the class’s attention, Maybe brainstorm a few examples first before putting them into groups to do it and make sure they had a sense of knowing when the task is complete.
    I agree the instructions should be checked but I find asking ‘Any questions?’ is dangerous because the very students who do have questions, are the ones too timid to ask a question.

    • I agree actually with the any questions comment. I suppose in the end a lot does depend on how well you know a class and how many different ways you’ve worked out of getting fedback from the students.

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