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Task types


You should follow the guide to Activity Types (new tab) before doing this.  The assumption is that you have and know the difference between awareness-raising, skill-getting and skill-using activities.

This is not a guide to task-based learning.  There is one on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end, and if you follow it, you will be aware that in that tradition, the term task is used in a special sense.
In this guide, we are using the word to mean any exercise that you give learners at any stage in the lesson.  It mostly excludes teacher-fronted activities and focuses on the kinds of things you can get students to do in class and why you should ask them to carry out some kind of task.


Embedding tasks in activities: the relationship between task and activity purpose

As you know if you have followed the guide to activity types, we need to focus on activities which are purely to raise people's awareness, those which help them acquire new language or a skill and those which give them the opportunity to put the language or skill into action.

Tasks can be classified in the same way but the picture is a little more complicated because single task types can be embedded in all three activity types.
Here's an example of what is meant using a popular task type: the matching exercise.

Task Activity type Comment
Before watching a set of short video clips, students match a picture of a person with pictures of what sort of sports they play.  There are clues in each picture. ar task In this case, the task is designed to get the learners thinking about sports and activities and prepare them a little for what they will see in the video.  There's no attempt to teach or practise the language.
It's a controlled exercise but the outcomes are not as important as doing the task.
While and after listening to a short text about a man's life and the important things that happened to him, students cooperate to position events on a time-line of the man's life from early days to retirement. sg task In this case, the task is intended to give the learners a reason for listening and to get them to focus on the particular parts of what is said that allow them to complete the task.  It encourages both listening for specific information and ignoring irrelevance and on understanding what's said and what happened.
It is tightly controlled and outcomes will have to be checked carefully before the lesson can continue.
Students work individually to write important events that happened to them on pieces of card.  They also draw a blank time-line for their own lives with dates but no other information inserted.
Then they swap events and time lines and interview each other asking questions to insert the events in the right order on the time line.
su task In this task, the object is to get the learners to use questioning language and narrative tenses in a freer and personalised way.  They will also need to deploy language like, "So XXXX happened before YYYY, did it?" and so on.
They are practising (i.e., using) speaking and listening skills along with the grammar and some quite unpredictable lexis.
It is a free task with uncontrolled output from the students.

It's important for you to see that in all three cases here, the task type is unchanged – they are all matching activities of some sort.  What changes is the activity type into which the task is embedded and with it, the purpose of the task and the amount of feedback which is required.

task types

Task types

There is a huge range of task types that can be used in classrooms and a good place to look for ideas is in a variety of coursebooks to see what tasks the authors have designed.
What follows is an introduction to some of the commonest.
At the end of each description and example, you'll be asked to think about what activity types the tasks can be inserted into and what they do.
Matching exercises have been covered in this respect so don't figure in what follows.


Gap filling

These are almost always very controlled tasks and frequently there is only one possibility per gap to be inserted.  Here's an example:


To read about what gap-fill tasks are like, click here to try a gap-fill test for yourself.

Gap fills can be quite versatile and you can design one with virtually any text, including dialogues and so on.  The gaps can be as large or as limited as you like but the more words that have to be inserted, the more variable will be the possible solutions.
Gap-fill tasks also work well for while-listening tasks at all levels if you want your learners to notice certain items in the text.  You can also use gap-fill tasks in dictations for the same purpose.
There is a guide to noticing on this site (linked below) in the in-service section but it is somewhat technical.

During what sorts of activities would you insert a gap-fill task and for what reason?
Click here when you have a response to that.

marry me

Role play

Role play tasks come in a variety of flavours and are extremely versatile.

  1. Free role-play tasks
    In these, it is up to the learners to take the dialogue where it will go and only the sketchiest of instructions need be given.  For example:
        You're on a train and have just met a college-friend you haven't seen for five years.  OK?  Go.
  2. Assigned role-play tasks
    In these, learners do not react as themselves but in a role or as a character that you give them.  For example:
        Student A is a very unhappy customer because the expensive camera he bought burst into flames in his car.
        Student B is the manager of the shop and has had a very bad day.
        His patience is thin and he thinks this customer is not telling the truth.
  3. Controlled role-play tasks
    In these, the roles and the language to use may both be specified.  For example, such a task might require learners to use particular tense forms and take on particular characters.  Ask-and-answer scenarios are popular such as enquiring about future plans, advising a fellow student, encounters between strangers and locals etc.
  4. Mixed role-play tasks
    In these, there are possibilities:
    • The roles may be assigned but not the language.
    • The language may be prescribed but students act as themselves.

In what kinds of activity phases are role-play tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.



Skeleton tasks are allied in some ways to gap-fill tasks but the gaps are not explicitly signposted.  Usually, these tasks focus on structure, often tense forms, and are used to consolidate language learning and encourage noticing.
As the name and the graphic imply, the learner is presented with a skeleton of the text and is asked to expand it by inserting words and, sometimes, changing words.
They can be quite finely focused.
Here are two examples:

Expansion only:
Learners can work alone or in small groups on tasks like these to come up with
    Yesterday I was watching TV when my neighbour arrived to complain about the noise of/from my washing machine
and so on.
Expansion and alteration:
Here the learners have to do a lot more work to end up with sentences such as
    I left her in a shop and went for a coffee before doing my own shopping.
This is a much harder exercise.

In what kinds of activity phases are skeleton tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.


Listing and prioritising tasks

Listing tasks are simple and effective.  For example:
    Make a list of three things you are not going to do this evening.
    List four sports you have never done.
    List 5 things about your hometown that you like / don't like.
    Make a list of all the words you know connected with zoos / cars / kitchens / pets etc.
    List four verbs / nouns / adjectives etc. you expect to find in a newspaper report of a road accident.
Prioritising tasks require a bit more thought.  For example,
    List 5 things you like about your own country in order of importance.
    Make a list of six things you must not forget when you travel abroad in order of importance.
    List five prepositional phrases you expect to find in an article reviewing a holiday resort and put them in the order you think they will come.

In what kinds of activity phases are listing and prioritising tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.


Discussion and debate tasks

Discussion tasks can be simple or complex and formalized.

Simple exchange of views
Tasks such as:
    Talk to your partner / in your group about what you find difficult to learn in English.
    Tell your partner about your favourite food and how to make it.
    Explain to your partner why you are learning English.

More complex discussion tasks
These can be formal debates with a motion and speakers on both sides at their most elaborate.  They usually come in the conventional form of This house believes ....
They can also be tasks such as:
    Work in a group to decide on the three best ways to cut pollution in cities.
    When you have done that, join with another group to discuss how far you agree and differ.
    Persuade the other group that you have the best ideas.

In what kinds of activity phases are discussion tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.


Transformation and transfer tasks

Transformation tasks
These are generally severely form based and require learners to change one form into another.  At their dullest and least useful they ask people to change all tenses from, say, present to past, or make all first conditionals into second conditional forms.
Exercises like this are poor because speakers use forms to match communicative aims, not the other way around so if someone says, e.g.,
    The door was opened very quietly
instead of
    She opened the door very quietly
there is a reason for the choice (to do with marking the theme, in fact).
Simply transforming one structure into another is rarely a productive thing to do.
There are times when it is a useful focusing and form-practice task, however.  Here are two examples:
Direct to indirect speech:
    Listen to the interview between the reporter and the police officers and then write the newspaper report.
This actually does practise a real-life skill because we often report what someone has said to us directly into indirect speech along the lines of
    John told me that ...
Doing it in writing allows the learners to focus on form before they have to use it in spoken exchanges.
Style shifting:
Transforming a text from an informal email to a formal one or vice versa is often a good way for learners to be made aware of and focus on the lexis and structure which is characteristic of the style.  For example:
    We made up our minds to put the do off
might become
    It was decided to postpone the celebration
Transfer tasks
Given, for example, a graphical representation of data, learners need to transfer the information to another medium such as prose or a spoken presentation.  For example, given this:
learners might be required to summarise the data in speech or in writing.
This is a skill demanded in some examinations such as IELTS and is also useful for those studying English for Academic Purposes.
Picture stories, too, fall into this category because they are frequently used to provide a stimulus for speaking through the use of a set of images.  (A search engine request for 'picture stories' or using images from the web will find plenty of material, incidentally.)

In what kinds of activity phases are discussion tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.


Information-based tasks

There are two sorts of these:

Information-gathering tasks
Learners can gather information in a number of ways:
From other learners: either in the same class or institution-wide, learners can be set tasks which require them to question, interview or interrogate others to gather data for later work.  Simple mingling tasks in which learners find someone who ... fall into this category.
From other people: in some teaching environments, it is possible to ask learners to leave the classroom (or work outside class hours) to gather information from members of the public, retail outlets, advice bureaus and so on.
From reference sources: learners can be set tasks that require them to research from text or internet-based resources and gather data for later treatment.
Information-gap tasks
These tasks work by giving students part of the whole and requiring them to work with others to complete the picture.  Here's an example.
Learner A gets the map on the left, Learner B, the one on the right.
Without showing each other their maps, the learners have to fill in the missing data by asking and answering questions about location and relative location.
info gap 1 info gap 2
Tasks like these do not have to be pictorial, of course.  They can take the form of missing passages in a story, partial instructions in a recipe and many other forms.  They can also be based around listening and/or video material.

In what kinds of activity phases are information-based tasks effective?
Click here when you have an answer.


Task difficulty

Tasks come with instructions and one simple way to judge how hard a task is is to look at the instructions you intend people to follow when doing the task.
For example, if the task simply involves remembering something quite easy, such as being able to make a list of all the nouns in a sentence, the instruction may just be something like:

Please underline all the nouns in this paragraph.

On the other hand, if a task requires an instruction such as:

Organise your list into mass nouns and countable nouns and look at the articles we use with them.

then it is clear that you are demanding a good deal more of your learners.

At the most demanding level, a task may have an instruction such as:

Write the procedure for a guest concerning how to use the heating controls in your house and what to do with the burglar alarm when they go out and come in.

then you are being very demanding indeed and you cannot expect learners to be able to do that without a good deal of careful preparation.

Here's a checklist of instructional language organised, from left to right in terms of how demanding the task is likely to be.  The further to the right you go, the more you are challenging your learners and the more you need to consider how much preparation is required.

remember understand apply analyse evaluate create
Talk about

If you would like to learn more about levels of challenge, try the guide to Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, linked in the list at the end.


Test–Teach–Test and
Task-based Learning

What tasks do depends to some extent on the lesson structure you use (and there's a guide to structuring lessons on this site, linked below).

In Test – Teach – Test lessons, skill using will often come before skill getting and then skill using will again be the focus.
Awareness raising still usually comes first and what is described above as a skill-using task will often, in fact, be used as an awareness-raising task which alerts the learners to their need to acquire the language or skill they must have to do the task.

In Task-based Learning lessons, awareness raising has to come early but then the focus is on entwined skill using and skill getting.  The theory is that skill using stimulates skill getting.

So there's no single right way to order the activities.  We do, however, need to make sensible judgements about what sorts of tasks we need and into which kinds of activities they are embedded or lessons can become incoherent and procedures will not match aims.

Related guides
classroom organisation for the guide to the overall arrangement of the classroom
activity types for a guide to the three essential forms of activities and what they do
structuring lessons for a guide to how you can see the overall structure of a lesson and insert appropriate activities into it
task-based learning for the in-service guide to task-based learning and teaching
noticing for the guide in the in-service section
Bloom's taxonomy this is a way of classifying the cognitive demands that tasks place on learners