What are tasks?
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.
More on tasks and language learning
*I’ve also done a version of this task with adults