The art of task construction

Following Brian Tomlinson’s recent blog post about principles in materials development, Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson (no relation), set out the principles that they follow in designing and creating a task.

Of all the myriad things that we teachers do, one is that we are constantly creating tasks – and perhaps now more than ever. Personalisation and relevance are seen as essential to meeting the expectations of our 21st-century, global-citizen learners, and so designing high-quality, motivating tasks is a key skill for every teacher’s toolkit. You may have come across tasks in the sense of task-based learning, but here we are talking about tasks in the more fundamental sense; essentially a piece of work to be done.

So, how do we go about designing and creating a task? What do we need to think about and why?

First of all, we need to be clear about what constitutes a task. We asked some teachers for their views on this. Here is a selection of their responses:

  • an activity which enables students to practise a language point or skill
  • a classroom activity where the learner uses the language as a means of achieving an objective
  • A task is, as far as I’m concerned, an activity a student has to do with an end goal. It can be written, spoken or unspoken (‘Think about …’). It can take seconds or hours to do.
  • It is an individual or group endeavour with one or more goals or outcomes. The starting point and end point are often fixed by a teacher, but the process may be decided either by the teacher or by the students.

It seems, therefore, that a task has some essential elements. It’s an activity, it has an aim, and it enables learners to achieve that aim using language. The kind of activity could vary; perhaps your task is a simple grammar quiz, or perhaps it’s a longer communicative exercise.

How would you describe a task? Do any of the comments above resonate more with you?

Having established what a task is, we can now delve into some of the concepts that underpin their construction. We would divide these into two categories: the must-haves and the should-haves. By this we mean that there are some things that are fundamental for all tasks and other things that may be more context-specific or context-dependent. In our view, a task must have:

  • appropriate linguistic complexity, i.e. the task (and the instructions) should not be too hard or too easy
  • appropriate cognitive requirements, i.e. the task should not be too demanding or require too much thinking
  • defined linguistic or communicative aims, i.e. the teacher and the learners should know what they are doing and why
  • acceptable communicative demands, i.e. the task shouldn’t make learners feel uncomfortable or put them in difficult situations
  • the ability to be practically undertaken, i.e. the task should be relatively easy to set up and manage.

Essentially, then, the task should not be too easy or difficult, should be clear and do-able, and shouldn’t be too onerous for the teacher to organise.

Then we come to the should-haves – things that we may feel are desirable, but that are not essential. Remember that these may well be driven by context as much as anything else. We believe that a task should be authentic, relevant, engaging, measurable, consistent, unambiguous, connected and appropriate. Of course, all this depends on where you are, who and what you are teaching and what resources you have available.

Would you add anything else? Which of these are more important in your context?

So far, we’ve established some ways of thinking about tasks. Now we need to focus on the actual construction. This is not always as easy as we think so we have to impose some sort of order or system onto our ideas. At this point, a framework or process can be really helpful to ensure that we’ve been thorough and comprehensive in our task design, and that we haven’t wandered off on some irrelevant creative tangent, forgetting our original aim. To this end, we suggest a simple six-step process:

  1. Define your aim (what + why).
  2. Design your task (how).
  3. Check it against the must-haves and the should-haves.
  4. Try it out with students.
  5. Check it and revise it as necessary.
  6. Do it. 🙂

One of the nice things about such a simple process is that it enables teachers to focus as much or as little as they want on certain steps depending what they want to concentrate on. For example, a less experienced teacher may want to spend more time on steps 1 and 2 as they experiment with different teaching styles and experience different learner cohorts. More experienced teachers might be interested in exploring how the same task changes when alternative should-haves are foregrounded. Teachers who are starting to teach something new such as business English or an exams course could use this process to help them become more familiar with the materials and to integrate new tasks into their repertoire.

How do we know if we’ve been successful? Well, by asking questions such as Were my aims fulfilled?, Did I get what I expected? and Is this task doing what I want it to do? In step 5, we allow ourselves the time and space to reflect on and improve the tasks we create. For more on assessing the success of our materials, look out for our next post on the MaWSIG blog.

Fiona Aish and Jo Tomlinson are directors of Target English, a consultancy that provides tailor-made solutions in content creation, course provision, training and testing.

Fiona has a wealth of experience in English language and academic English teaching, and holds a DELTA and an MA in ELT and Applied Linguistics. After teaching in Japan and Peru, she managed university preparation courses. She has also designed academic English courses and assessments and trained university staff and students in cross-cultural communication skills.

Jo has worked in both teaching and testing for many years and has a broad range of skills in English language teaching, academic English teaching and exam and course development. She is DELTA-qualified and holds an MA in Language Testing. In addition to her teaching experience, her accomplishments range from developing e-learning courses to training teachers for exam classes. 

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One response to The art of task construction

  1. Geoff Jordan 12 October 2018 at 3:57 pm #

    In the interesting bit where you list some “should-haves”, you say nothing to explain them.

    Can a simple grammar quiz be authentic? Does “engaging” refer to Tomlinson’s “cognitive engagement”? What does it mean for a task to be consistent?

    Since they’re only “should-haves”, and you don’t suggest that all tasks should always have all of these characteristics, it’s presumeably OK if some tasks are sometimes not relevant, engaging, or appropriate, right?

    If we design a simple grammar quiz, and do it with a class foregrounding relevance on one day, and then do the same task on another day, this time foregrounding consistency, how do you think the task will change?

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