Tasks and the news: Learning about mixed-level students’ abilities in the first class

Nicholas Domjancic, Kyoto Sangyo University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: First class, current topics, task-based lesson, group work
  • Learner English level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 1 hour or less
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Four topics from recent news, lesson handout, dictionaries

About two years ago, I was asked to teach a content-based university class. I was told that the levels would be mixed and that the class would be composed of a mix of Japanese and exchange students. So, I thought of a simple task-based news lesson for the first class that would give me an idea of the students’ abilities, awareness, and speaking level.

Step 1: Select four current issues from the news for the activity; then, divide the class into small groups of three to four.
Step 2: Give students a handout with the activity steps (see Appendix) and a list of the four news topics.

Step 1: (10-15 minutes) Have students do a simple ranking exercise using four topics from the news. The activity tells students to take a few minutes to look at the topics. They must decide which topics they are most familiar with and which they are least familiar with. Students then make a list with reasons for their ranking. Provide students with phrases like I don’t know about _____ because… or This is unfamiliar … After completing their lists, students report them to the class.
Step 2: Each group of students now must say one thing about each topic: what they know or do not know about each topic. Introduce phrases like We know that_____ is happening… or We didn’t know about this topic since it happened in… The responses should give an accurate depiction of students’ speaking level and should take less than 15 minutes.
Step 3: Now have students make a list of five words connected to each topic. This part of the lesson takes about 10 to 15 minutes. When students have finished compiling their lists of words they associate with each topic, each group has to write their words on the blackboard, making it easy for the class to see what others have thought of. This is also a good way to explain new words that some students are not familiar with.
Step 4: Instruct groups to predict the future developments of the events listed above. I encourage the class to be imaginative when predicting the future of these events, and students seem to enjoy thinking of the possible futures. This also gives the teacher a picture of how well discussion-based lessons will work out in subsequent classes.
Step 5: Finally, have individual students expand upon Step 4 of the activity by having them give a short spoken presentation (under 2 minutes) in the following class. The topic of this presentation is predictions for the outcome of a news event from the activity. For an additional challenge, students should incorporate at least five of the vocabulary items from Step 3 of the activity in their presentation.

Although this lesson best suits intermediate- to high-level content-based classes, it is a useful way to get to know and challenge any class. Also, this lesson gives the teacher a good picture of how well students can speak and discuss complex issues in class. Finally, it is a good way to see how well students will interact with others in a task-based setting.

The Appendix is available below.