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How Might Language Teachers Productively Blur the Line Between Tasks, Games, and Testing?

How Might Language Teachers Productively Blur the Line Between Tasks, Games, and Testing? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

In the following essay, I consider something like a continuum from task to the game to assessment, but only in the bookend learning moments of “input” and “output.” I often think of learners in my classrooms as a gray box—not quite a “black box,” the inner workings of which are completely mysterious, but a thing into which we only ever have uncertain, provisional insight. We can do all sorts of theorizing about language acquisition and psychometry but will never have anything as exact as a litmus test. However accurate my notion is, it motivates me to focus on things that are much more knowable and observable: the inputs and outputs of a learning situation.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Charles R. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

My Personal Experience

During my first year as an English teacher in South Korea, one moment sticks out in my mind as the moment I felt like I really belonged in the country—and it was a moment of language learning. I was in the tiny grocery store in my neighborhood, bagging some green peppers. During peak hours, one of the grocers would get on a microphone and howl about special deals and such. As I was bagging my peppers, I suddenly understood that he was talking about me. “Help, somebody!” he cried, “The foreigner needs someone to weigh his peppers!” Smiles and laughter spread through the store. I laughed too, as I handed my bag of peppers to a clerk who had come to stand near me. This moment was a task: I had to buy groceries; it was also a test: did I understand the intercom announcement and react appropriately? And, even if it is stretching a bit, I still think of this as a pleasant distraction, if not a game: the purpose of the whole thing was to laugh together and have a good time.

Also Read: The Teacher’s Role in the Classroom Management

Teacher as a Medium of Real Life Communication

The teacher has a high degree of control over the input he offers by way of teaching materials and the “feats of learning” he demands of his students. The teacher will also be a central point of input for vocabulary, grammar and other rules of language, learning strategies, and feedback. However, the outside world also has its representatives in the classroom: other students. The teacher needs to carefully balance the accessibility, variety, and intensity of all these components toward a single end, that is, providing each learner with a “safe challenge.” A classroom of safe challenge allows for the confusion, mistakes, miscommunications, and other stressors of living in a foreign language to benefit learning in a way that is palpable to the student. The output is all that comes out of the student that can be tested and evaluated. The key output instructors should anticipate—and encourage—is communing, not just communicating. Measuring the student's comprehension and expression are part of this, but the instructor also needs to imagine, observe, and reflect on how his input encourages (or, when things go wrong, discourages) the student to take part in community, whether it be joining a club, enjoying their work, having a romance, or interacting with family. Hence, all output indicates where the student can go with the knowledge/skill appropriated from the present class. Indications that the student is somehow communing in new ways—at work, in the home, at school—are the most positive signs we can hope for. In brief, I will consider my classroom perfect when it feels like a term-long, team building exercise, the goal of which is to learn to live better without the controlled input of the teacher and to better take on the multifarious input of the real world. The safe challenge gives way to the unpredictable challenges of the real world.

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Activate Phase of The Lesson

In one of the unit reflections for this course, I wrote about how games, considered from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, can be understood as “real practice.” Allow me to imagine a hypothetical test, one that would be maximally authentic for ELLs living in an English-speaking country. (We won’t worry about practicality for the moment—let’s assume that the teacher has all kinds of high-quality camera surveillance of her students.) Rather than studying a picture of the grocery store and a vocabulary list (or some such material), the teacher assigns the students to make a pie or a casserole and bring it to class. The teacher is available as a resource, to answer questions and offer advice, but since this is a test, students are left to their own devices.

The teacher will evaluate the quality of students’ choice of recipe, noting whether they consult a cookbook, a website, or got the recipe by word-of-mouth from a friend. The teacher will evaluate the student’s interaction with employees and other shoppers at the grocery store. Finally, the teacher and students can evaluate the dishes together. To add a written component to the test, students could be asked to submit written reviews of their classmates’ dishes (to make it even more authentic, it could be a “Thank You Note”—“Dear Kyoko, thank you for the mulberry pie…”). The students have thus completed an authentic task, fully immersed in an authentic environment: all of the testing materials exist for real, in the world of the target language, and not just for the artificial purpose of measuring whether the student recalls “broccoli” and spells it correctly. The student makes real decisions, does real work, and really uses English in situations that don’t involve any classroom niceties.

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In our brave new world of social media technology, there would be feasible ways for the instructor to observe this task-game-test. Students could upload photos updating their progress to using a class hashtag, sharing recipes in a class google docs folder, and so on. I’m not as interested in the practicalities as I am interested in combining as many possible “tiny” activities into a capstone project that might also feel like a game. (How would teams, rules, snakes, and ladders be introduced into this ordeal? That remains to be play-tested.) But why? Because, I deeply believe that, whatever brings students to the EFL classroom, the experience of language learning can broaden and deepen their connection to the crazy, complex real world.

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