Textbook Alchemy: Transforming Dud Activities into Communicative Gold
Imagine you just finished an inspiring conference/workshop/article which finally convinced you to transition from traditional, grammar-focused instruction to a more communicative, proficiency-based classroom. But, like a rejuvenated vacationer coming home to a burst pipe in the basement, your newfound excitement is immediately doused by the realities of your institution: how can you adopt modern methods while shackled to a textbook written in the Dark Ages?
Yet, you don’t have to choose between outdated exercises and inventing lesson plans from scratch; in today’s post, I’ll unpack some strategies for modifying humdrum textbook activities to make them more communicative.
What makes a good communicative activity?
First things first, how do we identify a good (and bad!) communicative activity? My heuristic is whether the activity is…
Meaningful. Students should use language to communicate something about themselves, not just for the sake of practicing forms. "Tell your partner the word for hamburger, soup, and milk" is not a meaningful activity. "Tell your partner what food your favorite restaurant serves" is.
Purposeful. Why should students pay any attention to what they hear? This criterion naturally prompts negotiation of meaning ("What did you say?"). "Tell your partner your plans for the week" has no purpose. "Fill out this schedule with your partner's plans and find a time you’re both free to meet" does.
Combining both criteria creates an information gap which is key to real language use: if you know something I don't, and I want to know that thing, then we have a reason to communicate. "Make a dialogue with your partner pretending to give directions" has no information gap; "Ask your partner directions from your favorite place in town to theirs" does.
Adding in whichever of these criteria is missing is an easy way to make traditional exercises more communicative!
Typical Textbook Activities and How to Fix Them
Pointless description and questions
You’re likely familiar with the following activity formats:
1. “Look at the photo and take turns describing where each object is located.
2. “With a partner, talk about your morning routine.”
Let’s assess these according to our two criteria:
Activity 1 is neither meaningful nor purposeful—why waste time describing a picture you and I can both already see?
Activity 2 is meaningful as it involves answers unique to both my partner and me, but there is no purpose: what do I do with the information beyond smiling and nodding my head?
So how can we fix these?
Graphic organizers. The simplest way to give an activity purpose is to have students write down what they learn in a way that requires comprehension. For example, some additional instructions which would improve Activity 2:
“Create a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting your answers.”
“Poll your classmates to compile which activities are most frequently done first vs. last.”
“Record 4 classmates’ answers in a table and then decide which pairs would make the best roommates.”
Information gap. Thirty seconds in MS Paint could turn the photo from Activity 1 into two separate ones missing half the information. Real communication occurs as students find the missing elements in their photo (“Where’s the pencil?” “On the desk.” “Wait, which desk?”).
Scaffolding. Being told to “talk about” something a la Activity 2 typically goes nowhere fast, but a few extra steps help tremendously: students could first individually create a list of activities, order that list chronologically, then come up with 3-5 questions about whether others follow the same routine. Only then do they talk with their classmates, using those questions as a guide and collating that information into something useful as described above.
Equally common are activities such as:
3. “Present a description of your favorite celebrity to the class.”
4. “Act out a skit where you haggle over a piece of clothing.”
Again, these activities fall short of our criteria: Activity 3 is meaningful, but not purposeful, with no reason to pay attention to the presentation. Activity 4 is debatably meaningful, but memorizing a scripted dialogue doesn’t require any understanding, and the only purpose of the performance inevitably ends up being “chew up class time” and maybe “be funny.”
Gamify! Activity 3 presents several opportunities:
Taboo, with groups of students putting the names of celebrities into a cup, then competing to see who can describe/guess the most.
A “secret identity” dating game, where one student is the “Bachelor(ette),” while 3-4 others adopt the personae of different celebrities, describing themselves and answering questions. The Bachelor(ette) could either guess the identity of each or choose a partner before the identities are revealed.
Let the skit inspire genuine roleplay. Rather than faking a scenario, why not create it? For Activity 4, giving the students prop money and clothes could turn your classroom into a marketplace, with buyers/sellers competing to collect the most clothing/money. Both groups have a legitimate reason to buy low/sell high, and haggling will naturally ensue!
Gamification does not always result in communicative activities:
5. “Roll the dice and the fastest person to conjugate the verb according to the result wins.”
6. “Each team races to write the 1st / 2nd / 3rd person form of a verb on the board.”
Both technically have a purpose (“winning”), but they certainly aren’t meaningful. Solutions:
Let the task elicit the conjugations. A “positive gossip” activity could ask students to write compliments about their classmates (“John is smart. He and Mary are funny”), share those answers with the relevant people (“You (all) are smart/funny”), and then tabulate what people said about them (“I’m smart, Mary and I are funny”). Trying to hit every conjugation, however, can quickly lose sight of the “purposeful” criterion. Therefore, be willing to…
Dial down your completionism. Instead of micromanaging every single verb form, consider just letting language naturally arise through self-expression. A broad prompt (“Your summer plans”) might result in just one form (“I’ll work. I’ll relax. I’ll ski.”), or a variety (“My parents will visit. They’ll drive from Oregon. We’ll vacation together.”). The more students see language as an opportunity to express meaning vs. a hoop to jump through, the more successful they’ll be!
Textbooks aren’t perfect, but they’re better than nothing. Once you have a clear image of what criteria make a good activity (“meaningful” and “purposeful” in my case), you’ll start to see bad exercises as a free foundation rather than a limitation.
For further reading, I highly recommend the new book “Common Ground,” which is chock full of practical advice on applying modern pedagogical principles to your classroom.
And finally, a shameless plug for my Teachers Pay Teachers page, Communicative Spanish Tasks, which is full of fun, communicative activities (including the marketplace activity described above). Even if you teach a different language, if you liked the above suggestions, chances are you’ll find something for inspiration!
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll be able to put some of these ideas to use 😊.