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Using Information Gap Activities

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    Using Information Gap Activities


    Look at the following quote from Scott Thornbury discussing Information Gap activities:

    The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task
    ... where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order
    to achieve the designated outcome
    Describe and
    , Spot the Difference and Find Someone Who...
    are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined

                                   Scott Thornbury I is for Information Gap (no longer available on the web)

    This article discusses the following questions:

    a.  What are the principles that
    underlie the type of information gap activity described above?

    b.  What criticisms can be made of this type of activity?

    c.  What other types of
    communicative activities can be used in the classroom which    avoid
    these criticisms?


    a.  What are the principles that underlie the type of information gap activity described above?  

    1. Student talking time should be maximised in the classroom. Second language learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in interaction and meaningful communication as cognitive processing of the language is deeper. Information gap activities, being PW or GW based, achieve these aims.

    2.    Communicative activities should be message focused. Learner attention should be on conveying meaning, not on the language. Focus on form and concern for formal accuracy should be temporarily “parked” in favour of fluency. This does not mean however that accuracy is unimportant, as lack of correction can lead to fossilisation of error. However, the T. can take notes of errors overheard, as well as other emergent language and correct them at the end of the activity.

    3.    Communication activities should have a purpose – a pre-decided and recognisable outcome. Achievement of this goal will constitute communicative success. In information gap activities the information is generally not just swapped, but used to achieve an outcome – eg identifying all the differences, or drawing the picture.  Achieving the task can be highly motivating for learners , whilst difficulties in doing so can draw their attention to the fact that they may be using the language inaccurately and need to reformulate their utterances comprehensibly. Swain (The Output Hypothesis) suggests that this realisation/reformulation promotes acquisition.

    4.    Classroom activities should reflect the conditions of “real” communication, where we do not know what the other person is going to say but must listen, process the language and information, and respond in real time. It is only by practising this in the C/R that learners will be able to do it outside.  In the audiolingual period, when L. output was strictly controlled to prevent error, learners often found themselves having studied for several years but, if they went to the target country, unable to communicate fluently.

    5.    When doing information gap activities, learners will have equal rights in the discourse. In freer info gaps activities such as those mentioned in the question, this will mean they need to negotiate topic, negotiate turns etc. This opportunity is essential as T- controlled discourse will tend towards an Initiation- response – feedback structure where learners are restricted to the response act (Sinclair and Coulthard).

    6.    Negotiation of meaning is important for language acquisition. Information gap activities, which allow for the use of clarification strategies, circumlocution etc provide this possibility.  I find, however, that these strategies are not used automatically but need to be taught explicitly. For example, circumlocution strategies can be practised by first teaching phrases such as “it’s the thing which you use to…” and then providing an activity where eg Ls have six pictures of items in front of them learner A says “it’s the thing which you use to plant flowers” and B points to the picture of a trowel. They then swap roles

    b. What criticisms can be made of this type of activity?

    1.    The task types are not authentic, in that they don’t always reflect a communicative task that we might perform outside the classroom (eg Spot the Difference).  They might therefore be resisted by eg learners with a pragmatist learning style (Honey and Mumford) who would want all activities to be closely tied to external needs.

    2.    With the exception of Find someone who… Information gap activities often don’t allow for much personalisation – Ss are swapping the information that they have been “given”.This may mean that the language being used is processed with little cognitive depth, resulting in it being less memorable.

    3.    Similarly, information gap activities, being based on the transmission of given information, often don’t allow for much creativity or imagination. Ss are not coming up with “meanings” or “messages” of their own, but are simply putting into words what is on their handout. This may be an issue in eg an educational setting where the development of creativity is an aim…

    4.    …and, together with the lack of cognitive engagement (see (b) above), may also make them less interesting, for the Ls.  This negative affect might have a detrimental effect on learning (Maslow, Stevick, Krashen and many others have emphasised the importance of positive affect in promoting learning)

    5.    Most information gap activities focus on speaking and listening rather than reading and writing, while the listening involves Ss listening to other Ls – and in a monolingual classroom all ss will have the same accents. Information gap activities do not therefore prepare ss adequately for other skills.  This would be true of all the activities named in the quotation from Thornbury and many others of the same type – eg Describe and Arrange.

    6.    Interaction in information gap activities is generally organised around short turns. They do not therefore give students the opportunity to develop the skills needed in order to take longer turns. This might be essential for eg Business English learners who need to give presentations as part of their work.

    c. What other types of communicative activities can be used in the classroom which avoid these criticisms?

    1.    Simulations : these could be designed to reflect the communicative situations in which the learners might find themselves and would therefore resolve the objection in (a) above. Eg. Business English learners can be asked to simulate a negotiation or other meeting that they will actually take part in.

    2.    Anecdote telling sequences (where learners plan and tell a story of a personal experience) can be used to personalise the TL (see b above).  Eg : tell your partner about a time you were caught in bad weather, to personalise weather lexis and past verb forms

    3.    Drama activities can also be used to add an element of creativity to the activity  – eg improvisation of a situation based on the learners' interpretation of an ambiguous photo. (see (c) above).

    4.    Drama activities can be used to add fun to the activity (see (d) above) – eg Maley and Duff’s Hotel Receptionist game. St. A is a hotel guest who has lost her voice. She has to mime a problem given to her on a card, while the Hotel Receptionist has to guess what the problem is : You want a plastic duck for your bath?? Oh you mean there’s a real duck in your bath!

    5.    Presentations, debates and games like Just a minute can be used to help learners develop the subskills needed to take longer turns effectively. (See (f) above).  Learners such as Business English learners who need to give presentations for their work, can focus on the typical language used in the various stages of a presentation and then, instead of being given an artificial presentation to work on, can be asked to apply the language studied to a presentation that they have actually given or will need to give in their work

    6.    Jigsaw reading and listening activities are a specific type of information gap activity which can be used to give practice in other skills than just speaking, and to integrate skills use, thus meeting objection (e). In jigsaw activities Ls in the group each read or listen to different information which they must then communicate to the others in order to complete a task. Eg : Ss A, B and C want to go on holiday together. each read a brochure describing a different hotel. They then discuss which hotel best meets their needs and wants.

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