In language learning, tasks are activities that have a purpose other than just trying to learn the language itself. In an activity, students are just using the language without a real purpose. For example, asking everyone in the class what their favorite food is. This is just an activity, not a task, because no one really cares what the answers are at the end. Additionally, if students feel pressured to come up with a food in the target language, they might not even give an honest answer. Instead, a task might include taking a survey of all the students in the class to ask what their favorite food is, and then compare the answers to an article that shows the most popular food in every state. The students can find out if they are representative or not of the people in their state.
Which Tasks Work With Kids?
The key to doing tasks with kids is to make sure that the topic is something interesting to them and something relevant to their lives. For example, a task about pets is usually a hit because kids like animals. On the other hand, I wouldn’t design a task around which movies won Oscars in 1999 because my group of 8 year olds just won’t care. One task that I have done with my kids is about fears and what they are afraid of.
A Task about Fears
Language learning is all about getting that comprehensible input. We need to talk to students using the language in a way they can understand. I start this task by establishing the meaning of the phrases “I am afraid of XX” and “I am not afraid of XX.” Then, I read the story I Used to Be Afraid in Chinese (pictured below). Then, we make a chart of the things that the character in the book says that she is afraid of and compare if the kids in the class are afraid of the same things. To extend this task, we can compare what we think are the most common fears in the class to the most common fears of Americans in general.
The distinguishing feature of tasks is that we are trying to do something other than just use the language in class. We can make sentences about what our fears are all day long, but there is nothing really meaningful there. Tasks work for language learning because they are about something other than the language itself. Language learning happens on the subconscious level while kids busy doing something else.
Tasks in language learning are activities with a purpose. Many early language classes focus on doing activities with kids, making lady bugs out of paper plates when learning about insects for example. The kids do the activity while the teacher speaks in the target language. How are tasks different? Tasks are activities with a purpose.
Is it Communicative or not?
We know from research that people learn language from communicatively embedded input. In order for us to learn a language, we need to first get the input and it needs to be meaningful. We can’t just listen to someone reading a list of words and their English equivalents and pick up a language. The human mind knows that there is nothing meaningful going on there and will absorb very little.
Some teachers or parents may insist that activities do have a purpose. They are partially correct. If your goal is to make a lady bug out of a paper plate, then your purpose is to make a paper plate lady bug. Activities lack a communicative purpose, however. Students need to be engaged in the expression and interpretation of meaning in order to learn a language through what they are doing. Making an insect out of disposable dinnerware is fun, but there is no expression and negotiation of meaning involved.
Example of a Task with Kids*
Building a lesson around tasks for young children is not easy. It is worth it, however, because children need this kind of communicatively embedded input in order to learn a second language. One task that I have done with students recently is to figure out how many states we have been to as a class. The first step is to put together a floor puzzle of the United States. While we are working on this step, I begin to give the kids the input that they need, by asking “这是什么？” （What is this?) “这是什么? （holding up a puzzle piece) 这是Minnesota。你去过Minnesota没有？” (What is this? This is Minnesota. Have you been to Minnesota?)
Once the puzzle is complete, I begin to ask the students if they have been to different states and keep tally of their answers. The kids do not need a high level of Chinese at all to respond to these questions. They can nod/shake their heads, Since there are so many states (50 of them!), it is easy to get in a great deal of repetition during class. The kids hear and respond to “谁去过XX” over and over again. At the end, we can see how many states we have been to as a class. The purpose of this task is not to practice the verb form 去过 （have gone to). If it were, it wouldn’t be as fun. Our purpose is to find out how many states we have been to as a class. The children learn language through this task, not from it.
Caveats About This Task
One important caveat about this task is that it works because I know that my students have traveled to many different states. My students are fortunate enough that their parents recognize the value of world language classes and pay tuition for them. They are usually from comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds. I realize that this activity would not be as interesting (and would probably lead to some negative feelings) if no one in the class had ever left the state of Texas. Not every task is going to be appropriate for every group of students. That is okay and is something that teachers need to consider when lesson planning.
This post is for any students or parent who wants to understand what makes Mandarin classes at Lotus CHinese Learning different. It answers the questions about why so many parents and students are frustrated with typical language classes. It also explains what comprehensible input is, and why it is crucial for language learning. (7 minute read)
Common Frustrations in Language Teaching and Learning
While I was working at a school that used a combination of immersion and traditional (legacy) teaching methods for Mandarin Chinese classes, a colleague turned to me after class one day and said “I think that we are teaching the students to be mute.” She was frustrated with the fact that her students were not picking up the language. The way she phrased her disappointment was so striking to me that I have remembered it ever since. The students who had just walked out of the room where upper elementary/middle school aged kids. Some of them had been taking Mandarin Chinese classes for years.
My colleague was energetic and talented. She grew up in a large city in southern China and then pursued an education degree in the United States. On paper, there was no reason that the students in her class shouldn’t be picking up Chinese. My colleague knew the language, she was a native speaker after all, and she had a degree in education. The students were also the type of bright kids who took an extra language on the weekends and had parents who made sure that they did their homework.
Research shows students need comprehensible input
There is a simple explanation for why these students did not appear to be acquiring Mandarin Chinese: they were not getting enough comprehensible input. There is forty years of research to support the hypothesis that students learn a second (or third) language most effectively when they receive lots of comprehensible input in that language. Comprehensible input is simply spoken or written language that the students can understand. Depending on how much a learner already knows, comprehensible input might be a very simple story told by a teacher, or it might be a chapter book with an extensive glossary in the back. In the words of the scholar most associated with the theory of comprehensible input: “comprehensible input is the crucial and necessary ingredient for the acquisition of language” (Stephen Krashen).
A Typical Language Class
In a traditional language classroom, teachers introduce grammar points and vocabulary and then usually ask the students to practice, by making sentences or dialogues. If you studied a foreign language such as Spanish in high school, you probably remember a beginner lesson about time. The teacher would say: “ lavé los dientes a las ocho y media.” Then the students will go around the room saying what time they brush their teeth. One student might say “lavé mi dientes a las ocho y media” and then hear the teacher correct her by saying “los dientes not mi dientes.” Maybe a student will say “me lave los dientes a las ocho y media de camino a la escuela” and that will be the only moment of levity for the whole lesson.
One of the problems with this method is that students do not hear enough of the target language. The teacher will explain verb conjugations. She will explain that they don’t use a possessive article in Spanish. She will explain that it is literally “brush the teeth,” not “brush my teeth.” But the teacher will only say the target structure a handful of times. Based on what we know from the research, students really need to hear a piece of language repeated dozens of times before it really sinks in. Hearing a teacher say “lavé los dientes a las ocho y media” a couple times, then having to “practice” the structure is not nearly enough repetition.
Are Immersion Programs the Answer?
Immersion programs have emerged over the last few years as a potentially more effective way to teach learners a second language. There is plenty of research out there showing that immersion programs work. But there are many caveats. In the legacy methods covered in the previous paragraphs, students simply do not get enough input. They understand what they hear, but they don’t hear enough repetitions for the words. With immersion, a common problem is that there is not enough comprehension happening in the classroom. If a teacher begins an immersion kindergarten class on day one by reading a book meant for native-speaking children, there is no way that the children will understand what she is saying.
Common pitfalls in immersion classes
The language that immersion teachers often use is just too complex and abstract for beginners to understand. Think about how we talk to very young children. We use short sentences, simple structures, and simple, concrete words. Think about the last time you spoke to a baby. Did you say “Mommy is going to work now” or “Grandpa has a toy for you”? We instinctually leave out pronouns because they can be confusing and hard to follow. “But wait,” many parents say, “I did not use baby talk with my kids and they learned English just fine.” I trust that these parents did not often say “goo-goo, ga-ga” to their babies. They also probably did not come home from work every day and try to have conversations with their children about bilateral trade or nuclear war. Without even consciously thinking about it, they spoke to their babies using comprehensible input.
In his excellent book, While We are on the Topic, language acquisition expert Bill VanPatten illustrates the kind of language that parents use when talking to babies:
Parent: Ok. Where are your eyes [touches the child’s eyes] There they are!
Child: [squirms and giggles]
Parent: Where’s your nose? [touches the child’s nose] Yep. There’s your nose! [kisses the nose]
Child: [squeals and laughs]
Parent: Let me see your ears. Where are your ears? [gently rubs both ears…]
It is not goo-goo, ga-ga, and it is not the way adults talk to each other. It is language appropriate for a language learner, which is exactly what a baby is. There are too many immersion classes in which teachers use too-complex language. They talk to the children as if they are native speakers of the target language. These students are not native speakers, however. Students get a lot of input in the language, but there is so much wasted effort in the immersion class. So often the learners don’t comprehend what they hear.
Students Acquire Language Through Comprehensible Input
A major problem with traditional method classes is that students do not get enough input in the target language. On the flip side, in immersion classes, students get a lot of input in the target language. They often they don’t understand the vast majority of it, however. They are in over their heads and as a consequence, don’t learn as much as they could. There are the fundamental problems with both approaches, as they relate to comprehensible input.
Mandarin Classes with LCL Are Effective
Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning focus on making sure that kids get enough input. This happens through listening and later reading). Classes also focus on making sure students understand what they hear. Supporters of traditional method classes want to hear students speaking in phrases from the first day of class. Supporters of immersion models often want to make sure that the class doesn’t use any English. Students in thoughtfully designed classes do actively participate. We spend very little time speaking English. Lastly, we do not succumb to the downsides of a traditional or immersion class. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use task-based activities, simple stories, TPRS and other methods to give the comprehensible input that they need to acquire Mandarin Chinese. While every student is different, they all steadily acquire the language because they learn through research-supported methods.
More on how Lotus Chinese Learning classes are different (and more effective):
What are good tasks to do with novice students? We should start by defining a task. A task for a language class always has a purpose that is not language. So if we are going around the room naming the colors that students are wearing, that is not a task. We are just naming colors for the sake of using the words for red, blue, green, etc. A task would be to make a tally of all the colors we are wearing. Then to compare that tally to the school colors. The task has purpose because we are trying to find out something: whether there is a relationship between the school’s colors and the colors that students like to wear. (This might be a very boring task at a school where students wear uniforms.)
Tasks are great for learning languages, but creating tasks for novice students can be a challenge because they just do not have a great deal of language at their disposal. When the novice language learners are young children there is an additional challenge because they do not have the self-control that adults have. Classroom management is a challenge for any teacher, but when we are in language teaching, there is an extra layer of pressure to use the target language while also maintaining order.
A Task for Beginner Students in Chinese
One task that I have done with different groups of children is to read the book 大卫，不可以 (No, David!) with the kids. Then we make a list of things that are okay (可以）and not okay （不可以）to do in class. The book provides a great deal of comprehensible input, it is repetitive and probably already a familiar story to the kids. Once we have gone over 可以 and 不可以 over and over in the story, then it is time for our task. Together, we make a list of things that are okay and not okay to do in class. Children can act out their suggestions and use English if needed. These suggestions all get compiled into a shared document that functions as a list of classroom rules-a classroom management bonus. With a task like this, there probably is not enough repetition for the students to acquire a phrase like 打人 （to hit somebody). They definitely can acquire 可以 and 不可以 and use those phrases with gusto.
If they students can use 可以 and 不可以, that means they understand when the teacher uses these words too! This brings us closer to our goal of using the target language for classroom management.
Class time is a zero-sum game. Elementary students who are in 90-10 immersion classes spend the majority of their day in the L2, but students in FLES (foreign language in elementary school) programs have less exposure to language. This means that their teachers have to take advantage of every moment in class. A good use of class time is to focus on the most commonly-used structures in the target language. We spend a great deal of time talking about what we like, what we want, what we have, what we think… Especially for novice students, it is important to give students input in these structures. It is also important to use a topic that interests the students. For kids, my go-to topic is pets.
What a Task Looks Like
To that end, in one of my elementary classes we made a chart to show which pets the students have. Figuring out which students have which pets requires asking “who has a dog?” “does Mary have a dog?” over and over. By the time we have asked a small group of students these questions about several different pets, they have heard 有 (have) used in a sentence 20 times at least. I have read that language learners need to hear a word in context 73 times before it really sinks in. That number seems…. awfully specific, however the point remains that language students need a lot of repetition, in context.* This means embedding the repetition in a task that is engaging, rather than standing at the front of the class and saying a sentence with “have” 73 times. With a simple task, the students heard about 20 repetitions in less than 15 minutes. Not bad!
Our chart that we made is below, we talked about which students have which pets and also started listing what those pets like. Names are blurred for student privacy.