Published in newspaper ELT News in March 2002.
Another winter evening in, comfortably sitting on my sofa with my lap top on my, well… lap, thinking of possible ways the popular TV ‘show’ can be adapted for our learners. As promised in the previous article, I should be providing you with a plan for organising possible activities. Just to recap- the Big Brother TV programme had given me an idea that it could be easily adapted for our language classes. I made the association between the TV programme’s contestants’ TBL (Task-Based Life) and TBL (Task-Based Learning) in ELT. The semi-real situations/tasks that we could devise for our students are unlimited and could provide us with the golden key to the much-discussed authenticity issue in language classes. So how can we develop BB tasks and what’s their value?
For one thing, the kids are familiar with the idea behind the TV programme and as soon as you announce that there’ll be a Big Brother competition going on in their class/ school, you’re sure to have their 100% attention. Just by that you’ve achieved a great deal- arousing their motivation, and competition between peers will reinforce that. Moreover, as you already know, task variation does wonders, and hands-on practice where language will be used in a real context and will actually serve a purpose is something not easily achieved in our weekly classes. Meaningful activities that would involve the learners themselves will not only seem more interesting to them but also help them stretch their linguistic abilities by fostering flexibility in the foreign language. So how can we actually organise a school- (or even class-) based BB game, without the extravagant costs the real game has while at the same time being educationally correct?
SETTING IT UP
Well, first of all you need to decide whether the competition will be between classes, or between groups in one class. Then you need to arrange a time for it, i.e. whether you are going to let students work in or out of class on a particular task; or allocate some time every week for a period of time to complete the task; or organise a special session once a week during which the task needs to be completed. In this case, only for demonstration purposes, I’m going to choose a competition between classes (say of intermediate level- although tasks can be adapted to suit all levels, even juniors) and I’m going to ask them to work in groups towards the completion of a task within the time limit of a week. They can work on it during an assigned time of the week when a teacher will be at hand for help (and monitoring).
Make an announcement that classes are going to compete with each other over the term/school year in true BB fashion. That is, although it is a competition between classes, group work and co-operation are vital for the completion of tasks and the success of the group. Each week every ‘BB House’ (i.e. group or class) will be given an outline of their ‘weekly mission’ in English. They need to carefully read it, ask any questions, brainstorm and plot their working-plan in their group. They should be reminded that there is a time limit, say of a week, and that their work should be ready and appropriate for demonstration to qualify for assessment. Projects are going to be demonstrated in the school for all students to vote for the best one. Votes will be added up and the winner will be announced at the end of the term/year.
I have borrowed this idea from the BBC web site [www.bbc.co.uk/arts/poetry/wordplay/index.shtml] and it is the kind of thing we want our students to do, play around with language. I believe that it will involve their whole personalities, as they’ll be carried away to construct a poem. The poem could involve a subject that could be later expanded in our classes, for example Nature. What we’ll need to give our students is two lists of words that are to be used in the poem. One of the lists will be called ‘Nature‘ and will include words to do with nature, or any other subject you decide to focus on, and the other will be a list of ‘Handy‘ words, articles, pronouns, modals even endings.
NATURE | HANDY
Birds | A
Blossom | The
Day | Ask
Big | After
Colour | All
Child | An
Dawn | And
Field | Is
Orange | Are
River | As
Rock | Do
Sea | – ed
Sleep | !
See | – er
Water | Did
White | Do
Year | Take
Tree | What
Plain | Say
The lists above are only an example. I’m sure that you can find through them space for practising new vocabulary and structures, plus the whole idea can prove to be a good practice for sentence structure.
So our students embark on a journey to authentic use of the language. As mentioned in the previous article, what constitutes a task in TBL is that, apart from being communicative and meaningful, its completion has some priority, and that its assessment is in terms of outcome. In our case the outcome of our students’ task will be assessed by their fellow students, ‘the audience‘. This can be done by means of posters around the school displaying the group’s work. The better the demonstration, the more the points acquired. That applies to any kind of demonstration. We could ask the students to improvise and perform their poem in front of their peers, make a song out of it, or get inspired from it and paint.
I’m sure that many of you by this time will be worrying about the students’ language and how we’ll be able to ensure their use of English. Frankly, we can’t. Unless students work in class, we cannot ensure they will be using English to co-operate (mind you, we can’t even ensure that in class!). What we hope however to achieve through this is to make them think in English, use their existing knowledge of the language and their creativity to produce something in the target language. Moreover, the group work will give even our more introverted students the safety to play around with language in a close group, without the fear of being ‘exposed’. Thus, we also achieve to raise motivation and boost their self-esteem. Through freer activities we could also reinforce understanding of particular issues (in this case ‘The Environment‘, a favourite you’ll agree!), using ideas as starting points for related discussions, essays etc.
As mentioned in the previous article, to suddenly jump into such free activities when having taught in a structured, controlled, and may I say predictable, manner will not only intimidate our students but can also make the teacher uncomfortable. It takes time for teachers to leave their role of lecturer and see themselves as facilitators and monitors/supervisors. Unless we are comfortable with what we are doing, students will sense our uncertainty and feel numb and uncomfortable themselves. That is why communicative activities should be introduced gradually to avoid having the opposite results, that is the intimidation of students.
No one can doubt, however, the teacher’s satisfaction when faced with a lively and productive buzz in their classroom. Meanwhile, you as Big Brother(s) will be monitoring this ‘buzz‘, giving the support the students may need in their individual learning journeys, while carefully monitoring their language development, their strengths and weaknesses, the interaction patterns. As mentioned above it is the process towards the completion of the task that is important. If, however, we find ourselves eager to impart some of our linguistic knowledge, then we should try to focus on patterns that came up during the session and spend five minutes at the end of the session/task giving useful feedback, but most importantly feedback that would be relevant to the preceding task.
As noted in my previous article the language focus points and possibilities to develop and adapt the same task for different levels and age groups are numerous. One has to keep in mind, though that however attractive a Task-Based approach might seem it needs careful organization lest these numerous possibilities and the freedom it offers learners, becomes uncontrollable.
B.A, M.Ed in TEFL
ELT materials’ Editor for Macmillan ELT. She holds a B.A from the University of London, and an M.Ed specializing in T.E.F.L from the University of Bristol. Her research involved an empirical study of role-play and drama activities in the Greek EFL context and is interested in the issues that involve the implementation of communicative, interactional activities in the private language schools. One of her main academic interests was also CALL and the implementation of the Internet in the classroom.