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Types of tasks Young Learners engage in

What tasks do YLs engage in? In this article, we will discuss common tasks used in the foreign language classroom.

What tasks do Young Learners engage in and what skills does each task help develop?

Language plays a role in a number of activities that children engage in on a daily basis. So, a number of activities (also referred to as learning tasks) can be used in the second language class to expose children to the meaning of words and phrases, or to allow them to comprehend or communicate ideas in the second language.

Humans use language to receive messages from their environment (using receptive skills) or produce messages aimed at others (using productive skills). The value of the learning tasks resides in the skill (or type of skills) they help develop. Traditionally, language teachers have discriminated between the receptive skills of listening and reading on the one hand, and the productive skills of speaking and writing, on the other hand. For example, learning tasks in which five-year-old learners listen to a command and respond through movement helps them develop the receptive skill of listening comprehension. An activity in which nine-year-old learners write down a list of objects they see in an image helps develop the productive skill of writing.

However, it is not always easy to isolate one skill from the others because in real language use speakers tend to integrate skills. Below, you will find a list of some of the activities that language teachers of young learners often use in their classes.

Activity Listening Reading Speaking Writing
Listening and responding through movement (e.g. TPR*) or through drawing      
Looking and writing down what you see      
Making a dialogue (e.g. survey, interview, information gap*, etc.)    
Reading and completing a chart or ordering actions/steps.    
Reading and answering questions (What?, Who?, Where?, etc.) orally.    
Writing a structured paragraph, letter, invitation, description, etc. guided by questions posed by the teacher on the board.   (✓)  
Sorting out images of objects into categories by writing the name of each object in the appropriate list.      
Acting out*    
Playing a game of “Simon Says”*   (✓)  
Singing a song      
Listening to a story and pointing at images as events / elements are mentioned in the story.      

As you have been able to see on the table above, a number of the activities used in the language classroom integrate more than one skill and in some cases – marked with parentheses- such integration depends on how the activity is conducted. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages seeks to capture such skill integration by referring to three modes of communication or ways in which the second language is generally used. The three modes are: Interpretive communication (i.e. receptive communication of written or oral texts), Interpersonal communication (i.e., direct oral or written communication), and Presentational communication (i.e., oral or written communication with a larger audience such as a speech).

  • TPR: Total Physical Response is the name of a language teaching method that involves the language and movement. In it, for example, the teacher gives a command for students to respond to by miming/representing the activity. In a lesson about household chores, a teacher may give commands such as “Mop the floor” and students respond by pretending to hold a mop and doing the action of mopping the floor.
  • Role-playing: It consists of an activity in which students are either assigned or they choose themselves roles that they want to assume (e.g., customer and shop assistant) in order to engage in some kind of language interaction.
  • Information gap: In this type of tasks learners are missing information that they need in order to be able to complete the task. The premise of the task is that learners would engage in conversation with classmates in order to fill the information gaps. For example, when learners work in pairs to complete a form about a famous person using incomplete information that each student has been given. Student A is told the age of the famous person, but Student B is not. Instead, Student B is told the national origin of the famous person, but Student A is missing this information.
  • Acting out: This activity consists of representing through drama some event, story, or situation known to the learners. For example, after listening to the teacher reading a story, young learners can be invited to act out the story or some part of it. Props such as hats and scarves can help children pretend to be a character in the story while acting out.
  • Simon Says: This is a game in which one person gives commands such as “stand up” to other players. However, the other players need to obey the command only if it is preceded by the phrase “Simon says…”. If the commend is not introduced by “Simon says…” then the other players need to stand still and not follow the command. Players are eliminated if they follow command when they shouldn’t.
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The Art of Teaching Foreign Languages to Young Learners

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