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Supporting language development

Teaching and supporting students’ language development is like coaching a sport. The students are the ones running around with the ball – reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and presenting – "doing" language. The teacher, as "language coach", has the job of analysing and assessing what the students can do right now, establishing what they need to be able to do, and finding strategies for teaching them those skills. Students need plenty of practice with each skill, and they need to be able to put the skills together into a whole game – that of language use and interaction in relation to curriculum learning.

Teaching and learning language involves moving in a cyclical progression through language that uses increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and increasingly complex text features and structures. Teachers need to ensure that their students notice these aspects of language and how they are used, and they need to provide feedback on students’ efforts to use the new language they are coming to grips with.

All curriculum learning is expressed through language, and language learning is easily integrated with curriculum learning. Just as teachers develop ICT skills through all curriculum areas, they can plan to support language development throughout the school day. Planning in this way caters for the diversity of bilingual Pasifika students’ language achievements and needs. 


For teachers of bilingual Pasifika students, key overall teaching goals are:

  • to ensure that bilingual students are learning the same curriculum concepts as their year group classmates who speak English as their L1
  • to ensure that bilingual students make use of and develop both their languages as far as possible. 

Language learning can be planned across the entire curriculum. And just as teachers can build on learners’ prior knowledge of language and concepts, they can help learners extend their existing language-learning strategies.

It will take 7 or more years for bilingual Pasifika students who start school mainly speaking a Pasifika language to catch up with their cohort in terms of learning academic language. Throughout this time, bilingual Pasifika students’ English-language development will need careful monitoring and attention. It’s important to specify language-learning goals clearly, and to consult with the students and their families to jointly decide on each student’s priorities. It’s also important to ensure that ongoing assessment records students’ progress and clearly identifies the goals they have achieved.

Specifying the language-learning outcomes

Specifying the language-learning outcomes

In the level 3 science exemplar Gears, one of the students’ intended outcomes is to explain, scientifically, how their model works. The word "explain" implies that students do this through the use of language – but how, exactly? If teachers are to make the language outcomes implied by curriculum objectives clear for students, they need to elaborate on words like "explain".

On page 132 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 (Ministry of Education, 2004), the main purposes for academic writing are listed as: identify, describe, explain, discuss, argue, justify, apply, analyse, and evaluate. Beside each of these purposes is a definition of the processes involved in it. For example, "explain" is defined as: “Write a detailed account of how and why – procedures or methods; how things happen or work; reasons for action or event.”

The conventions of an explanation, then, include giving details about how something happens or works and/or the reasons why it happens or works in that way. This means that an explanation is likely to include some language features that indicate the sequence in which something happens, and others that indicate cause and effect. It is useful to give EAL (and all) students explicit teaching about these conventions.

Even though real texts are usually a mix of genres, students need to be able to recognise the conventions or patterns that will help them identify and analyse the genres in the mix. Knowing the conventions of a specific text type gives the students a peg on which to hang things as they gradually learn to organise the texts they hear, read, say, and write.

Exploring your practice

Curriculum outcomes and language outcomes

Consider the language-learning requirements of a curriculum text or task that your students need to engage with. (You may like to consult with an ESOL-trained colleague to do this.) Write language-learning outcomes for each curriculum outcome, share both kinds of outcomes with your students, and agree on success criteria for each.

Plan more than one way of teaching your students the language they need for this curriculum learning. For example, introduce the key language that relates to the new concept using word maps and then engage the students in purposeful discussions that involve using the language in appropriate oral text types and defining key terms, perhaps in both their languages. In the next lesson, begin with a brainstorm that revisits the key language and then model for the students how they are expected to use that language to meet a curriculum-based learning outcome.

At the end of the unit of work, review the students’ learning in relation to both kinds of outcomes and, as a class or with individual students, identify what worked best for them and plan ways to build on this learning.

Language for learning

Good language-learning activities develop students’ speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills as tools for curriculum learning.

Effective teachers ensure that all their students learn the full range of language they need for:

  • full participation in the learning community
  • successful and continued learning.

The language component of your programme should cover the language modes of speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing, and presenting. Within each of these ways of using language, you will also focus on words (vocabulary), phrases, sentences, and whole texts. 

Written language

Different types of writing are recycled through the year, giving students many opportunities to achieve success in each of them. The reading programme links with the writing programme, enabling students to develop skills in reading different kinds of material on each subject. Teachers use their professional expertise to decide which texts their students can read or write independently and which they need guidance with, as a class, in pairs, or in groups.

Oral language

Teachers of students in the early years of schooling are generally familiar with developing oral language. However, oral language remains important for learning throughout a student’s schooling, and beyond. Many experts consider that conceptual thought and all knowledge emerge from and develop through language processes that are rooted in the spoken dialogue between people. 

How do students learn?

Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, and Tedesco (1996) identify the following ways that effective language learners apply their learning strategies:

  • They have an active approach (for example, they imitate, practise, identify, and deal with problems).
  • They work with language as a system (for example, they analyse, infer, guess, translate, compare, and build up systematic knowledge).
  • They work with language as a means of communication and interaction (for example, they seek out opportunities to use it, develop fluency, and develop awareness of social and cultural meanings).
  • They take responsibility for managing their own learning and meeting personal challenges.
  • They monitor their language performance (for example, they check, correct, look for new information and examples, and ask for feedback).

In learning their two languages, bilingual Pasifika students will have developed specific strategies for learning an additional language as well as the literacy-learning and more general learning strategies that all students develop. To a greater or lesser extent, Pasifika students will be able to apply these learning strategies in two different language and cultural contexts: a Pasifika language context and an English-speaking context. Effective teachers help all their students to continue extending their learning strategies. Teachers need to be aware that they can also help their bilingual Pasifika students to use their existing language-learning strategies in curriculum learning.

Exploring your practice

Extending students’ existing learning strategies

Part 1 – Learning strategies

Observe two or three of your bilingual Pasifika students for a week to find out about the learning strategies they use.

For the students you are observing, notice and record all examples of:

  • specific language-learning strategies, such as repeating words and phrases, using dictionaries, or asking for feedback on their language usage
  • more general learning strategies, such as identifying new learning, clarifying goals, or making connections with previous learning.
  1. Notice and record any other learning strategies you observe your students using.
  2. Ask them to explain what they are using each strategy for.
  3. Evaluate their strategies with the students, and plan together to improve and extend their use of the most effective strategies.
Language-learning strategies What the students did General learning strategies What the students did
Repeating words or phrases   Relating new learning to previous learning  
Asking for explanations   Identifying new learning  
Trying out new words   Clarifying goals  
Asking for feedback on language usage   Setting personal goals and monitoring their own progress  
Using dictionaries      
Using familiar language in new contexts      

Part 2 – Bilingual strategies

Your bilingual students may use some bilingual strategies, for example when they speak in two or more languages while working cooperatively in groups. The bilingual skills they draw on may include translation, comparison, code switching, and using different languages for different purposes. 

  • Did you observe your students using bilingual strategies?
  • Look at the observations you recorded and consider whether there are any patterns in how the students used their strategies individually or in groups.
  • Work with a colleague to find ways to help students make the best use of these strategies for classroom work. 

Students discuss how they use bilingual and group strategies in the video Being bilingual

Reciprocal teaching of reading is one approach that can be used very effectively with groups of Pasifika bilingual speakers.

Exploring your practice

How can language learning be promoted?

Write a set of outcomes for oral language for your class or one of your classes, covering all or part of one unit of work. If possible, work with a colleague so that you can discuss priorities and contribute to different aspects of the planning. You could follow these guidelines:

  • If you are a primary school teacher, link your programme to one or more curriculum areas (for example, mathematics, science, social sciences, or the arts). If you are a secondary teacher, use your own main subject area.
  • Cover a range of speaking and listening contexts (for example, interactions with one or more peers, the teacher, or with other adults, and addresses to a small or a large group).
  • Cover a range of listening and speaking situations (for example, with preparation time or impromptu, with or without support materials, working with new or well-known material, speaking for a short or a longer time).
  • Cover a range of purposes (for example, understanding or expressing a feeling or opinion, getting or giving information, debating ideas or facts, appreciating imaginative language, or using language imaginatively).
  • If possible, include some outcomes that relate to bilingual Pasifika students developing oral language skills in both languages and transferring the skills they learn between the two languages.

Work with colleagues to brainstorm ways of making sure that your Pasifika students get some feedback on how they use their Pasifika language. Then try out some of these ideas and ask the students to give feedback on how useful they find them.

As well as arranging for feedback from bilingual school staff and adults in their family and the wider community, students can reflect on their own first language development and give informal feedback to their L1 peers.

Assessment to support learning

Good assessment is one of the keys to achieving better teaching and learning for all students; it is one of the 10 characteristics of quality teaching for the diverse student groups identified in Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis (Ministry of Education, 2003a). 

This BES recommends that:

Assessment for learning should:

  • be part of effective planning of teaching and learning
  • focus on how students learn
  • be recognised as central to classroom practice
  • be regarded as a key professional skill for teachers
  • be sensitive and constructive (because any assessment has an emotional impact)
  • take account of the importance of learner motivation
  • promote commitment to learning goals and a shared understanding of the criteria for meeting the goals
  • provide learners with constructive guidance about how to improve
  • develop learners' capacity for self-assessment so that they can become reflective and self-managing
  • recognise the full range of achievements of all learners.

(Pages 51–52.)

Assessment for Pasifika bilingual students

To know their bilingual Pasifika students as learners, teachers and schools need to:

  • monitor and assess their curriculum learning in appropriate ways
  • monitor and assess their progress in English, referring to the ESOL Progress Assessment Guidelines (Ministry of Education, 2005) for tools and processes that are appropriate for English-language learners
  • encourage them to develop their Pasifika languages, and discuss their proficiency and progress with them.

Providing opportunities for students to work with a group of bilingual peers can also help you find out more about each student’s understanding of the curriculum and their ability to apply their understandings.

Assessing English using ESOL tools

If bilingual Pasifika children have entered the New Zealand schooling system with limited knowledge of English in comparison with their English L1 peers, they may need assessment of their English proficiency from an ESOL point of view for at least 7 years. ESOL assessments are an important component of schools’ usual English-language assessments because they help to pinpoint the specific gaps that distinguish learning English as a second language from learning it as a first or only language.

Mainstream teachers often need to participate in assessing ESOL students’ English in mainstream contexts for ESOL funding purposes. Your school may have a teacher who is responsible for ESOL funding applications and has particular expertise in helping mainstream teachers assess their EAL students’ English proficiency.

The ESOL Funding Assessment Guidelines provide examples of assessments and suggest processes and tasks to use when assessing students against the ESOL criteria for listening, speaking, viewing, and presenting. Although some bilingual Pasifika students will no longer be eligible for ESOL funding, you can still use these guidelines to help you assess if their proficiency does not yet reach the national norms for their age.

The Ministry of Education (2005) also provides The ESOL Progress Assessment Guidelines, which describe issues that affect the assessment of English-language learners and discuss a range of appropriate assessment tools and processes. The assessment tools and processes focus on aspects of language knowledge or proficiency and literacy skills, and not on specific content areas.

Exploring your practice

How do you assess bilingual EAL students?

See if some of your colleagues would like to work with you on this investigation.

  • List the different assessment tools and processes you use and describe their purposes.
  • Which assessment results do you keep records of, and what use is made of these records?
  • Evaluate your current assessment practice from the point of view of the needs of bilingual Pasifika students.
  • Brainstorm changes in assessment practices that would better support the long-term learning progress of your bilingual Pasifika students.
  • Plan and implement one change that is intended to meet an identified need of your Pasifika bilingual learners, and observe whether this change has the desired results.

Assessment online is a comprehensive resource on all aspects of assessment. 

The National Education Monitoring Project includes examples of assessment tasks in its published reports and also makes previous assessment tasks available in packs for teachers to use.

What do students learn from interaction?

  • Certain types of learning activities, especially group activities where students need to exchange information with each other, promote a lot of interaction and negotiation.
  • Effective interactive discussion and negotiation leads to noticing, hypothesis testing, and metatalk.
  • When students are noticing language, testing their hypotheses about language forms, and engaging in metatalk, their language learning is enhanced.

How to organise groups for best language-learning opportunities

Most teachers understand the value of collaborative work in classrooms and plan for their students to work in pairs and groups. Students come to understand and extend the concepts they need for their curriculum learning as they interact with each other and negotiate new learning. Different learning activities have different purposes – for example, activities in which students are asked to share different points of view or to reach a consensus help them come to grips with a range of perspectives on a particular topic or concept. Such activities can also support students’ language learning.

If you want your students to engage in negotiation and interaction that promotes language learning, there are particular ways that you can structure their learning tasks. In the context of language learning and teaching, the word "task" describes a learning activity in which learners use the language they are learning for real communication. 

In a learning languages context, a task is an activity that:

  • requires the learners to focus primarily on meaning
  • has some kind of gap that the learners can close by communicating
  • requires learners to construct their own productive language rather than to manipulate language that the teacher provides
  • has a clearly defined outcome (other than producing "correct" language).

Engaging learners in tasks that focus them on creating meaning for an authentic purpose enables them to acquire language. It also gives them opportunities to develop fluency and is intrinsically motivating.

The types of language-learning tasks that result in the most negotiation and interaction among students include tasks that:

  • require an exchange of information, in other words they require participation (one person gives information to another)
  • require a two-way exchange of information in which both or all participants must contribute and gain information 
  • have a closed outcome 
  • are new types of activity for the students
  • include detailed information and not much contextual support (for example, from pictures)
  • involve familiar topics and familiar partners.

Jigsaw activities offer one way of creating the conditions that lead to interactions that are helpful for language learning. Jigsaw activities can be short, discrete activities, or they can provide a way of structuring all the learning that is taking place around a particular topic or unit of work. Jigsaw Classroom describes ways jigsaw learning can be organised and some learning outcomes that can result from it.

Although it is possible to learn a certain amount from input only, languages cannot be fully learned without interaction as well. This is because learners receive feedback on their own errors during the process of interaction. This feedback is focused, it is at an appropriate level for the speaker, and it is timed just after the speaker’s error. In the process of negotiating meaning, participants in interactions seek clarification from the people they are speaking with, and check their own comprehension.

Exploring your practice

What do students learn from interaction?

Reconstructing a strip story is a language-learning task. This is how to set it up:

  • Select a short but complete text – for example, a short narrative or a description. Even a text as short as the following could be used with five group members.

"A compound of sulphur that is easily recognised by its unpleasant smell is hydrogen sulphide (H2S).

It is a gas that is found in thermal places such as Rotorua, in New Zealand.

This gas is poisonous.

Small quantities are enough to cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea."

  • Cut the text into strips and distribute them among members of the group or class. You need as many strips as there are participants (about 10 strips is the maximum number that works well for interaction). A strip should not be too long, as the students have to memorise the text on it. The strip does not need to be a whole sentence; the first of the sentences above would be a good one to split in two.
  • After you have given the students a few minutes to memorise their strips, take them back.
  • Now ask the students to reconstruct the text, without helping them or intervening in any way.
  • Observe and take notes on the types of interaction between participants.
  • Engage in some language analysis to find out why some sentences come before others (for example, why we talk about "a gas" before "this gas" or why we generally use the word "it" only after the noun that "it" refers back to. This helps the students become aware of language forms.

After this activity, you could build on it in the following ways.

  • Prepare a different type of text for a subsequent strip-story activity. Note, however, that the task will no longer be entirely unfamiliar to students and they will have worked out some processes to get it done more efficiently, although probably with less language-based interaction.
  • Vary the conditions of the task to reduce the students’ familiarity with the process when they do it again (for example, by changing the group size, or the length of text to be memorised, or by giving them parts of sentences rather than whole sentences).
  • Bilingual Pasifika students who share a language can easily reconstruct a strip story in their language. If they are in two groups, each group could make the activity strips for the other group.

Learning from talking and writing

  • When students produce language in speaking and writing, they engage in three processes that help them learn language: noticing, metatalk, and hypothesis testing.
  • Hypothesis testing – trying language out – leads to feedback on their language usage from others. This kind of specific feedback can be a powerful source of new learning.
  • Certain types of language-learning tasks, especially those where students need to exchange information with each other in order to complete the task, promote a lot of interaction and negotiation. Split information activities are one of these types.

Three ways of looking at language development

Listening and reading are not enough for full language development to take place. Students must also produce output through speaking and writing.

There are three specific functions of output that help learning: 

  1. One function is noticing. Learners notice something in the language they are learning because they need it to express what they want to say or write (their output).

    For example, Sione wants to talk about a picture, but he realises he does not know the language he needs to do this. He searches the page for a label, title, or description for the picture, and then he uses the words he finds to talk about the picture. Alternatively, he might listen carefully to other people talking about the picture and then use some of their words to say something himself.

    "… the activity of producing the target language may prompt second-language learners to recognise consciously some of their linguistic problems: It may bring to their attention something they need to discover about their second language (possibly directing their attention to relevant input). This may trigger cognitive processes that may generate linguistic knowledge that is new for the learner or consolidate the learner’s existing knowledge."

    Swain,1998, Page 67

  2. Another function of output is to provide a context in which learners can talk about language. This is called metatalk. Learners clarify when and where to use certain words or language structures, and how to use them. For example, a learner might ask, “Should I say 'Then he cooked the leaves,' or 'Then he has cooked the leaves'?”
  3. Hypothesis testing is the third function of output. Learners use output as a way of trying out new language forms to see if they are understood and accepted by other people, to see what does and doesn’t work. Learning through hypothesis testing depends on feedback on language usage from the teacher or peers.

    The language-related feedback can focus on the learner’s meaning. For example, a listener might say: “I don’t understand that. Do you mean that you can eat taro leaves and taro roots?”

    The feedback can also focus on the correctness of language forms. For example, “It’s not ‘leafs’, it’s ‘leaves’.”

From a teacher’s point of view, it’s important to remember that students don’t receive feedback on all the language they use, and they don’t take up everything they do get feedback on. This means that at any one time, they learn only a small proportion of all the possible things they might learn. Although research shows that focused teaching can help increase the amount of information taken up, there also seems to be a natural limit to the rate of language learning.

Exploring your practice

Learning from talking and writing

All of your students are learning new language. All of them are expanding their knowledge of English, and some of them are also expanding their use of a Pasifika or other language.

As your students work with you and with each other, look out for and record examples of what they are using their language output for, and of the kinds of language-related feedback described above. It’s more interesting (and easier to record) if you can collaborate with another teacher and each observe in the other’s class.

  Focusing on meaning Focusing on correct forms
Hypothesis testing    
Asking for feedback on 
language usage
Uptake of new language    

You can promote more use of these important learning functions of output by having your students work in pairs or groups where all students need to communicate information that other students don’t have.

The simplest kind of split-information activity, which a teacher can use at any time with a small group, involves these easy steps:

  1. Choose a text you want your students to work with.
  2. Make a copy of it.
  3. Cut the copy up with scissors so that each student has a piece of the text. (You may want to give specific bits to particular students.)
  4. Give the students a shared list of questions about the text to answer, or a task such as a problem to solve, based on the text. Make sure most of the questions cannot be answered from one piece of text held by an individual student. The students have to share their information (without showing the written text) and integrate it to answer these questions or complete the task.
  5. Give your students a specified short time for reading before they start sharing and answering questions.
  6. Give each student the role of "expert" on their own piece so that they feel a sense of responsibility for it.

It’s easy to arrange for students to do this kind of activity in Pasifika languages, based on Pasifika texts. You can ask a bilingual staff member to write the questions or set the tasks, or two groups of students can set them for each other using different texts. Students will learn just as much from setting the tasks as from completing them.

Split information: Primary maths

Split information activities are also called barrier or jigsaw activities. The important feature of these activities is that each student has only part of the information they need to complete their learning task. Because of this, they must cooperate and share their information by speaking or writing to each other. Each student is required to participate, and it isn’t possible for one student to take over the task from others.


This activity is based on Figure it Out – Gala: Mathematics Curriculum Support Levels 2–3. Most of the material in this book and in the rest of the Figure it Out series can be split to create a context in which each student is required to speak about the curriculum material, and is supported to do so.

In the two examples below, sharing the information is only the beginning. Students then have further tasks to do. For example:

  • they discuss and rank options
  • they give reasons for their rankings
  • they interpret and expand on graphed data.

Classroom organisation

  • Model the activity in front of the students when you first introduce it, so that they understand how to share their information, evaluate it, and discuss it.
  • Make sure all the students understand that talking through possibilities and giving reasons are essential parts of the activities.
  • Try to cultivate an open and interested classroom climate in which people are interested in exploring ideas, rather than being focused on giving and receiving the correct answers without reasons.
  • Have the students face each other so they cannot see the material their partner/s have.
  • Design the activities so that the students don’t write on them and they can be reused.

Example 1: Date dilemma, page 1

The students have to decide which is the best weekend in November for a school gala. They have to give their reasons. They have a calendar for November showing the days of the week and they have seven statements, such as:

  • Three teachers are going to a wedding on the second Saturday.
  • Rooms 6 and 7 are on camp from 14 to 18 November.

Splitting the information

To make the split information activity, divide the material for two, three, or four students. Let all of them see the calendar, but ensure that each person has only some of the statements of information. The students then:

  • record their information next to the relevant weekends
  • discuss and rank the possible weekends for the gala
  • provide reasons for their choices
  • explain their choices and reasons to you or to another group.

Example 2: Gala graphs, page 24

The two graphs show how many people were at the food stall at each half-hour during the day, and how much money was taken. There are questions and activities based on the graphs.

Splitting the information

  • Have the students work in groups of three.
  • Give the students the graphs to share – but without any data recorded on them.
  • Ask one student to record the figures on the graph as the other two tell her what they are. One student has the figures recorded in the morning, and the other has the afternoon’s figures.
  • Each student has one of the discussion questions. When they have completed the graphs, they discuss the questions together.

You can find more examples of these types of activities at English Online.

Split information: Secondary science

Split information activities are also called barrier or jigsaw activities. The important feature of these activities is that each student has only part of the information they need to complete their learning task. Because of this, they must cooperate and share their information by speaking or writing to each other. Each student is required to participate and it isn’t possible for one student to take over the task from others.

pH: Acid or alkaline

In this example, sharing the information is only the beginning. The students then have three further tasks:

  1. Decide whether their sentences are true or false, according to the written information they have.
  2. Rewrite the false sentences so they are correct.
  3. Describe the results of particular changes in pH.

Classroom organisation

  • Model the activity in front of the students when you first introduce it, so that they understand how to share and discuss their information.
  • Have the students face each other so they cannot see the material their partner has.
  • Design the activities so that the students don’t write on the sheets and they can be reused.

Split information activity: secondary science: pH – acid or alkaline by Dr Jane Gilbert

Here is the simple text this activity is based on:

Acid things have pH values between 1 and 7.

These things are acid:

  • lemon juice
  • hair
  • skin
  • apples
  • Coca-Cola®
  • vinegar
  • hydrochloric acid

Only a few kinds of bacteria like to live in acid places.

Most bacteria like to live in alkaline places.

Alkaline things have pH values between 7 and 14.

These things are alkaline:

  • toothpaste
  • soap
  • caustic soda
  • sodium bicarbonate
  • dishwasher powder

These are the true/false statements, based on the above text and previous class work. Only three are false; most are true.

  1. Your skin is slightly acid.
  2. It has a pH of about 10.
  3. Your skin is the habitat for some special kinds of bacteria, which like to live in acid conditions.
  4. But most other bacteria like to live in slightly alkaline conditions.
  5. Your skin is acid, so it is not a good place for most bacteria to live.
  6. Soap is alkaline.
  7. When you wash your skin with soap, your skin becomes acid.
  8. Then your skin is no longer a good place for its own special bacteria to live.
  9. While your skin is alkaline, other harmful bacteria could take over your skin.
  10. It is a good idea to keep your skin alkaline, so that the right kind of bacteria for your body can live there.
  11. After you wash with soap, you can return your skin to the right pH by rinsing your skin with vinegar (or ____________).

Splitting the information

To make the split information activity, divide the material so that each partner in a pair of students is given half the information. Each partner should have half of the original text, and half of each sentence. (Working in pairs gives each student the maximum possible amount of speaking time, but you could also divide the material into three or four for small groups of students.)

  1. First, the students join the sentence parts to make a whole sentence.
  2. Then they check against their parts of the text to decide whether the sentence is true or false.
  3. If it is false, they make the sentence correct.

Student materials

Student A

Acid things have pH values between 1 and 7.

These things are acid:

  • lemon juice
  • hair
  • skin
  • apples
  • Coca-Cola®
  • vinegar
  • hydrochloric acid

Only a few kinds of bacteria like to live in acid places.

Complete the sentences below. Your partner has the other half of each sentence.

Some sentences are not true. Correct them.

Work by talking. Do not look at your partner's paper.

The person with the X next to the number speaks first.

  1. X Your skin is ___________________
  2. _______________ about 10.
  3. X Your skin is the habitat for some special kinds of bacteria _______________________
  4. ______________________ live in slightly alkaline conditions.
  5. X Your skin is acid, so it is _____________________________
  6. _______________________alkaline.
  7. X When you wash your skin with soap, ______________________
  8. _______________________________ for its own special bacteria to live.
  9. X While your skin is alkaline, __________________________________
  10. ________________________________ so that the right kind of bacteria for your body can live there.
  11. X After you wash with soap, you can return your skin to the right pH


Explain to your partner why it is not good for your skin to have its pH changed.

Student materials

Student B

Most bacteria like to live in alkaline places.

Alkaline things have pH values between 7 and 14.

These things are alkaline:

  • toothpaste
  • soap
  • caustic soda
  • sodium bicarbonate
  • dishwasher powder

Complete the sentences below. Your partner has the other half of each sentence.

Some sentences are not true. Correct them.

Work by talking. Do not look at your partner's paper.

The person with the X next to the number speaks first.

  1. ___________ slightly acid.
  2. X It has a pH of ________________
  3. ___________________________________ which like to live in acid conditions.
  4. X But most other bacteria like to _________________________
  5. ____________________________not a good place for most bacteria to live.
  6. X Soap is ____________
  7. _______________________________________your skin becomes acid.
  8. X Then your skin is no longer a good place________________________
  9. __________________________other harmful bacteria could take over your skin.
  10. X It is a good idea to keep your skin alkaline_________________________
  11. _______________________________________by rinsing your skin with vinegar (or ____________).

Explain to your partner what happens to the pH of your skin when you wash your skin with soap and then rinse it with lemon juice.

In these examples, the students communicate and evaluate information in pairs or small groups. The activities involve writing as well as speaking. To use this idea again, follow these models to construct an activity using your own curriculum material.

How are students interacting?

Observe how, as they communicate their information to each other, the students engage in noticing, metatalk, hypothesis testing, requesting and offering feedback on language usage, and demonstrating uptake of new language.

Observe how the students use important vocabulary related to this curriculum topic.
Do they:

  1. use correct terms?
  2. use simpler or less exact words?
  3. manage (or not) to find words to express themselves adequately?

Learning from listening and reading

  • Most language is learned from listening and reading, and Pasifika students learn a great deal this way.
  • Pasifika students will not reach the level required for success at school without learning from speaking and writing, as well as from explicit teaching.
  • To make their learning from listening and reading as effective as possible, teachers need to find out whether students understand the learning materials well enough to learn new language from them.

Can students extend their language learning just by listening and reading?

Languages are different from other school curriculum areas in that they can be learned without any direct teaching. All children learn their first languages this way. In the global context, most second languages are probably learned as a result of participating in a speech community, through the process known as language acquisition.

The bilingual Pasifika learners in New Zealand schools are in a second-language environment for a large part of their time, and they will certainly learn English from hearing and reading it, especially as they have strong practical reasons to do so. In the same way, they will learn some, or a lot, of one or more Pasifika languages by hearing them. They may also learn from reading these languages, both within and outside of school.

The more opportunities schools can provide for their bilingual Pasifika students to listen and read in a Pasifika language, the more the students’ knowledge of their Pasifika languages will be extended. Parents are not in a position to do exactly the same things schools can do in this area, because they don’t have direct access to the high-quality curriculum-related materials in Pasifika languages that are produced for schools.

Student output and interaction are needed for them to reach the highest levels of language skill. However, most new language is learned from input – that is, understanding what we hear and read.

Understanding learning materials

The English Language Learning Progressions (2007) outlines the stages involved in learning to read English as an additional language, and some of the factors that affect comprehension.

One way you can judge whether the input of a particular text is likely to be understood by your students is by looking at the number of words in the text that they know the meaning of. Paul Nation (2001) notes that:

  • learners need to know between 95 and 98 per cent of the words they are reading in order to understand and read material easily
  • to read independently, without any difficulty, only two out of every 100 words can be words the readers do not understand well.

The easiest approach is to show your students a text and ask them to point out or underline all the words they are not sure they understand. If they are unsure of more than five words per 100, they will only be able to study from this text with support. They will not be able to read it independently, fluently, and easily, with enjoyment and good comprehension.

Difficult input does not always need to be discarded or simplified. It may be suitable for instructional material used in a scaffolded way in the class. In fact, there is evidence that students make better progress:

  • from texts that are elaborated rather than simplified
  • from working with material in ways that allow them to interact and process the meaning at deeper levels.

While students are working on a topic or task and using associated language to discuss it with others, they are going over and over the same language in many different ways. These processes of interconnecting and repetition are probably what result in language being learned permanently. 

When is an item permanently learned?

There has been a lot of research into how long it takes to learn a new word and its meaning. A small proportion of words are permanently learned the first time they are encountered (perhaps 4–5 per cent). The rest take up to 20 encounters before they are permanently learned.

Learners’ encounters with new words can be spaced in a particular way to be most effective. On the first day, there should be several encounters, not just one. There should be several more encounters spread over the week, then a few in each of the following two weeks, some during the next month, and then one or two in following months. This means that it’s likely to take half a year of regular encounters for all students to learn a particular set of words permanently. 

Because there’s a lot to learn for each language item, and because language items take many encounters to be permanently and fully learned, a great deal of recycling and repetition needs to be built into language learning.

Helping students to notice vocabulary and grammatical features

  • Students can learn more new language from what they listen to and read if their teacher uses techniques to help them notice and become aware of specific items.
  • Teachers can highlight or draw attention to specific items in various ways.
  • Students can use classroom routines of regularly checking for themselves whether language items and forms are familiar to them or need clarification.

Second-language research tells us that a number of critical conditions must exist for students to learn language effectively. Crucially, students need a great deal of exposure to language input. You may have had the experience of learning a language in a formal setting, such as a classroom, and then travelling to the country where the language is spoken. The difference between these two situations often seems immense. Many people say that when they are in a situation in which they hear and see the language all around them, they feel that they learn much more. 

Classrooms in which there are learners of English should, then, provide those students with a lot of exposure to English – that is, a lot of input. For the best learning to take place from spoken or written input, the input should be at the right level: not too hard and not too easy. Teachers usually become very skilled at judging how to pitch their language at the appropriate level.

How can teachers help students notice language items?

Teachers can make language learning both more successful and more efficient by helping their students to notice language items and language patterns in the language they hear and read. This is best done in a way that does not interrupt the students’ attention to meaning. Here are some examples.

  1. One simple way to help students notice vocabulary is for a teacher, while reading a story aloud, to select words for attention and write them on the whiteboard without interrupting the flow of the story. (Most junior class teachers do this regularly.)
  2. Another way is to set up classroom routines so that at the end of a section of a text, or at other specific times, students have opportunities to ask about words or phrases they don’t know or are unsure of. The practice may be for students to answer each other instead of the teacher – for example, using reciprocal teaching of reading procedures. The students could also discuss the strategies they used, or could have used, to independently identify the unfamiliar language items.
  3. A third way is for students or teachers to highlight features in a text. This can happen before, during, or after reading, depending on the reading ability of the students.
  4. When teachers are explaining or introducing new content, they can pause and repeat key words or phrases, drawing students’ attention to these items.

The Ministry of Education’s Selections series, for teachers of English-language learners in Years 7–13, includes teachers’ notes which unpack the features of texts suitable for older readers who are at earlier stages of learning to read in English. The notes suggest ways of teaching students to notice and learn to use these features.

Exploring your practice

Helping students to notice vocabulary and grammatical features

  • Choose a lesson or a unit of work in a curriculum area that you teach.
  • Choose a number of vocabulary items that you will use in the lesson(s).
  • Record the items on a card and draw the students’ attention to them by writing them on the whiteboard as you use them.
  • Before the next lesson or unit, use a simple quiz to check whether the students understand the words you selected for attention.

Another way in which teachers can draw students’ attention to aspects of language is through  enhanced input. This is when we take a text that students are reading and highlight a particular feature of grammar for attention.

From one hand-out or text that you will give your students, select and highlight a feature that your assessment data shows a particular student (or group of students) needs to learn. Discuss the highlighted features with that student or group, and ask them to identify further examples in their reading and to use the feature in their writing. 

The following examples show how one teacher highlighted particular features their students needed help with – regular verb endings, irregular verb endings, the use of the definite article "the", and different kinds of possessive structures in English.

"The shovel felt heavy in Stanley’s soft, fleshy hands. He tri ed to jam it into the earth, but the blade bang ed against the ground and bounc ed off without making a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley’s wrists, making his bones rattle."


"The shovel felt heavy in Stanley’s soft, fleshy hands. He tried to jam it into the earth, but the blade banged against the ground and bounced off without making a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley’s wrists, making his bones rattle."


"The shovel felt heavy in Stanley’s soft, fleshy hands. He tried to jam it into the earth, but the blade banged against the ground and bounced off without making a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley’s wrists, making his bones rattle."


"The shovel felt heavy in Stanley’s soft, fleshy hands. He tried to jam it into the earth, but the blade banged against the ground and bounced off without making a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley’s wrists, making his bones rattle."

(Excerpt taken from: Sachar, L, Holes, Chapter 7.)

Using feedback

  • Effective feedback has a very strong influence on student learning outcomes.
  • Teachers can deliberately use a range of types of implicit feedback and explicit feedback on language usage.
  • Teachers should check whether or not the students respond to their feedback by correcting their language-related errors.

Giving students feedback to help them notice grammatical features

The term "feedback" has specific connotations when used in the context of language learning. To achieve the best outcomes for bilingual Pasifika students who are learning English as an additional language, teachers need to give specific language-learning feedback by responding to the language the students use. This encourages the students to notice the language form they are using.

There are a number of ways teachers can provide such feedback on language use. Teachers can give students explicit feedback, using instructional strategies like telling, directing, and explaining by providing a correction (telling them what the correct language is and directing them to use it), or explaining the error.

Teachers can give implicit feedback, using instructional strategies like modelling, questioning, and prompting by providing a recast (modelling correct language) and asking for clarification (by questioning or prompting).

A "recast" is a reformulation of what the learner said, or of the part that contained an error. This reformulation serves as a model. Teachers (and others) frequently use recasts to give feedback. Examples of recasts focusing on grammar might be:

Student: *I very like nature. 

Teacher: Yes, I like nature very much, too.

Teacher: Did you see the pōhutukawa flowers today?

Student: *I no see flowers.

Teacher: You didn’t see the flowers?

Student: *Didn't see the flowers.

Teacher: They’re on the tree in the playground. You can see them out of the window.

Student: *Where School Journal, please?

Teacher: Where is the School Journal, Tina? It’s in the box on my table.

Student: *On table.

Hohepa, Hingaroa Smith, Tuhiwai Smith, and McNaughton give an example of recast use by the teacher during a Māori-medium lesson. This recast focuses on vocabulary, and the teacher gives two possible correct answers, using two different Māori words for church. 

Whaea (teacher): He aha teenei? [What is this?]

Child: Um, um, he church. [Um, um, a church.]

Whaea: He haahi teenei. He whare karakia. [ This is a church. A house of prayer.]

Child: Ae. He whare karakia … [Yes. A house of prayer.]

Oliver (2000) found that younger learners preferred recasts, while older learners preferred clarification requests and explicit feedback.


The use of the interactional techniques described above does not necessarily mean that a student will learn. A problem with recasts is that students may not always notice them. For learning to occur, the student has to notice and use the correct form. This is called uptake. You can see that uptake appears to have occurred in the second example of recast use above, because the student repeated the teacher’s recast correctly.

If the teacher stops speaking immediately after the recast, there is a greater likelihood that the student will repeat the last few words, correct their errors. However, even if they do correct the error at this time, they may make the same mistake again at another time. Learners need many experiences with new language before it becomes an easily accessible part of their language repertoire.

You need to use your judgment in deciding how direct to make your feedback on language usage. If a student already knows what the correct form is, then implicit feedback may be enough. If, however, a student doesn’t know the correct form, it may be necessary to use more explicit feedback.

It’s likely that the child in the second example of recast use already knew the correct form because they began speaking with ”Ae” (Yes) rather than the questioning tone that would be likely if the form was entirely new to them.


  1. An asterisk (*) indicates that the form is incorrect.
  2. Quoted in Ministry of Education, 2003b, page 76.
  3. Note that the conventions used for spelling te reo Māori in the quoted source differ from those used in most Ministry of Education texts.

Exploring your practice

Feedback can help students notice grammar

Try this investigation with a colleague.

  1. Ask your colleague to observe your class during a lesson. They should take notes about feedback related to EAL students’ language usage and uptake, as suggested in the box below.
  2. Record the lesson with a tape recorder or video in a fixed position.
  3. With your colleague, listen to the lesson, particularly to the interactions between you and individual EAL students. This will add to your colleague’s notes and allow you to hear exactly what took place.
  4. Discuss the different types of interactions that occurred and evaluate them together. Do you have a preference for a particular type of feedback related to EAL students’ language usage? Did you hear any examples of uptake from the students? Could you try using some new kinds of language-related feedback?
  5. Talk about the interactions to the students involved and ask them whether the kind of feedback you gave was helpful to them. Discuss with them the kinds of feedback described above, and ask which they think would be most helpful to them. Talk about ways they could learn to ask you and their peers for the most useful kinds of feedback, when they need it.


Note how many times the teacher interacted with individual students.

Note each interaction and describe what type of feedback on language usage the teacher gave:

  • They corrected the student’s error.
  • They explained the error.
  • They recast the student’s response.
  • They indicated that they had not understood what the student said by asking them to clarify or to repeat what they said.

Learning to use more complex sentences

  • As students progress through their schooling, they work with more complex ideas and interrelationships.
  • To express these adequately, students need to be able to write and say sentences of greater complexity.
  • Teachers can scaffold students in learning to use more complex sentences, by helping them join together several simpler phrases.
  • Three ways of scaffolding students in learning to use more complex sentences are: sentence combining; repeating and substituting word patterns; and building complex sentences in the context of information transfer activities.

Because of the relationship between output (speaking and writing) and the acquisition of new language, when students begin to produce (say and write) more complex sentences, they also begin to understand such sentences better in their reading. 

Activities to produce complex sentences

Some ways of scaffolding sentence complexity are: combining, substituting and repeating.

Sentence combining

Give your students sets of two or three simple sentences and ask them to combine each set into one sentence. (You may find it helpful to raise your own awareness of the structure of the language your students need, by rewriting some complex sentences into several simple sentences, and then putting them back together again.)

Sentence combining is an activity that has more of a focus on language form than on meaning. However, as the students work (preferably in pairs or groups) to combine the sentences, they do need to focus on meaning to make sure the combined sentence means the same as the separate sentences and that nothing has been left out. Because they have produced the combined sentence themselves from parts they understand, students also understand the longer, more complex sentence.

Combine these three sentences into one longer sentence. There are many possible sentences. Find as many as you can.

  1. This plant might be a fern.
  2. The young leaves can help you to decide.
  3. The young leaves have a special form.

Repetition and substitution

If you draw your students' attention to a useful sentence pattern that is quite complex for them, they can use the same pattern many times just by changing one or two words. In this way, they create important sentences that are a little more complex than they would say or write on their own.

It’s better to do this activity orally, because the repetition can be boring in writing but is a challenge when speaking. Two techniques for promoting fluency through repetition are described below.

The 4/3/2 activity

Students have a few seconds to prepare to speak about a topic (for example, fern leaves). Then they speak for about 60 seconds to the first partner. They move to another partner and give the same talk for 45 seconds, then move to a third partner and speak for 30 seconds. When students do this, what they say changes slightly each time and they speak more correctly and more fluently.

Rhythm and repetition

If you and your students are interested in rhythms and beats, you can use this interest to support their language development. In this activity, you choose a complex sentence that is useful for your students’ curriculum learning and make them comfortable with it by using repetition and rhythm. You set the beat and then the students have to try not to lose the beat when they say the sentences. You can start off with the whole class together, then choose individuals or pairs of students to speak, and then another student, and so on around the class or group. You can go on to make small changes in the sentence, keeping the same rhythm.


Ferns are usually very easy to identify from their leaves.

This is an academic sentence. Although it is written for students working up to level 4 in the curriculum, students are not likely to use such a sentence in everyday conversation. However, they do need to be able to say sentences like this in learning contexts, and to feel easy and confident in doing so.

Some students, whether English is their first language or not, will find it quite hard to say this sentence fluently. You should give them a chance to practise until they are quite confident with it. Then they can start changing some parts of the sentence.

To begin with, you can supply the words:

 grasses: Grasses are usually very easy to identify from their leaves. 
 flaxes: Flaxes are usually very easy to identify from their leaves. 

Next you can ask your students to change two items:

 flowers: Flowers are usually very easy to identify from their petals.
 conifers: Conifers are usually very easy to identify from their needles.
 trees: Trees are usually very easy to identify from their trunk and bark.

Finally, the students may be able to supply their own words for the slots in the sentence pattern without losing the beat:

 spiders: spiders are usually very easy to identify from their eight legs.

Activities like these can form part of an oral language programme.

Exploring your practice

Learning to use more complex sentences

Try these three ways of helping students produce more complex sentences for an authentic, curriculum-related speaking or writing purpose:

  • sentence combining
  • repeating and substituting word patterns
  • building complex sentences in the context of information transfer activities.

Observe your students and record some of the sentences they produce.

Compare these sentences with sentences for similar purposes that they have previously produced.

Develop an information-transfer activity based on a table or a diagram that helps your students to record and organise information, which they will then need to write or talk about using appropriately complex sentences.

Think about how you can encourage the students to write or say longer sentences, based on the information transfer activity, that are interesting to hear or read, and present an achievable challenge for them.

Scaffolding language

  • By scaffolding learning, teachers give guidance and support to students as they progressively develop independent use of the new knowledge or skill.
  • Scaffolding requires careful analysis of the learning focus.
  • Scaffolding also requires teachers to use a variety of instructional strategies to provide their students with support, guidance, and opportunities to practise working with the new learning.


The concept of scaffolding comes from the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978 and 1986) and his notion that learners learn most productively with support in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This zone is where learners cannot yet operate fully independently but can complete work if they have appropriate support. Vygotsky saw learning as an intrinsically social process, happening through the relationships between people. He observed that what people are able to do and learn with the support of others exceeds what they can do on their own.

In their early language development, children begin by taking part in limited communications, in specific contexts, with the adults or children they are close to. Their language develops only through social interaction. Gradually, they add to these limited communications, internalise them, and widen them into a whole language system of inner speech that they draw on to express a wide range of concepts to themselves and to others. 

Scaffolding of learning also occurs in familiar, non-academic contexts, such as when:

  • young children are being taught skills such as how to dress and feed themselves
  • people of all ages are being taught a physical skill such as how to play a sport or use new equipment
  • adults are being taught the processes and particular knowledge required in a new job.

How language-learning tasks can help language development

  • To make the best possible progress with language development, students must engage in activities that focus on language forms as well as on meaning.
  • In terms of second-language learning, a task is a learning activity that is structured to ensure students engage actively with meaning through working with input and processing meaning to produce output.
  • Most curriculum learning activities also involve input from the teacher, and students engaging with meaning and processing it to produce a planned outcome.
  • Curriculum and language objectives can therefore often be addressed together through the same learning tasks.

Exploring your practice

How we scaffold language

  1. Read one or more of the passages listed below under “Further reading” and, if possible, discuss them with colleagues who have also read them.
  2. Note down three ideas in the passage that could be used to scaffold bilingual Pasifika students’ English-language learning or other ideas that could enhance teaching of these students.
  3. Comment on what these ideas may imply for your teaching and discuss how they might be used with your bilingual Pasifika students.
  4. List up to three ways of scaffolding your bilingual Pasifika students’ development in English and any ideas for encouraging them to use their Pasifika languages in their learning.

Further reading

  • Chapter 4 of both Effective Literacy Practice books (Ministry of Education, 2003a and 2006) discuss a number of instructional strategies (such as modelling, prompting, and giving feedback) that teachers can use to scaffold learning. These are not restricted to Years 1–8, but are important strategies for teaching learners from early childhood to adulthood. (Reference copies of these books are available to secondary schools.)
  • Ministry of Education (2003b, pages 73–78) discusses the research evidence on scaffolding learning for diverse students.
  • Franken, May, and McComish (2005, Section 5.3.4, pages 65–66) discuss language scaffolding for Pasifika students.
  • Gibbons (2002) looks at how mainstream teachers with little or no specialised  ESL training can meet the challenge of teaching linguistically diverse students.

A framework for scaffolding language

Scaffolding in language learning has specific focuses. The table below provides a framework to help you decide what aspect of language learning you want to focus on during a particular learning activity. To move from defining the focus to scaffolding language development, you also have to think about the purpose of your focus (for example, do your students need to develop more complex language for a real communicative purpose?), the methods that can be used to support and scaffold the students’ learning, and the students’ goals and associated success criteria.

Language focus Components of language
Students need to learn to use: Sounds Words Sentences Texts
More complex language        
More fluent language   X    
More accurate or correct language   X    
  How language is used
Focus Speaking Listening Reading Writing
More complex language        
More fluent language X      
More accurate or correct language X      

Using the table

Focus: The four marks (X) in the table show that at a particular time, you have decided to focus on developing students’ skills in speaking sentences more accurately and fluently.

Purpose: The purpose could be for students to learn to produce fluent spoken sentences in accurate English when contributing to class discussions.

Method: You might scaffold this learning by modelling two or more sentences that comment on a specific subject, drawing students’ attention to their features. Then have students work in pairs to construct a similar sentence using their own comment, check the accuracy of the English they have used, and practise saying their sentences fluently to their partner before contributing them to a whole-class discussion.

Criteria for success: The content criteria could be that the students produce a relevant, meaningful sentence. The criteria for fluency could be appropriate phrasing with no hesitation or unplanned repetition. The criteria for accuracy could be that the students produce a sentence with correct and clearly spoken words in an English sentence structure that is appropriate for the informal discussion context.

  • Work with a colleague to write several examples like the one above, specifying the purpose, focus, method, and criteria for some language learning as part of your teaching in a particular curriculum area.
  • An important part of scaffolding language is making explicit to your students the things they need to learn. Express these goals in ways that engage your students’ interest.
  • Work out ways of providing support so that all students can meet the criteria for success.
  • Try out what you have planned with your students.
  • Observe and evaluate the students’ work.

The video Secondary curriculum and vocabulary shows teachers carefully scaffolding aspects of vocabulary learning.

Fluency, accuracy, and complexity in language

  • When we specify goals for students’ language production, we want them to use language correctly or accurately, and we also want them to develop fluency and increasing complexity in their language.
  • Different language-learning tasks have characteristics that are more likely to promote one or other of these objectives.
  • Language-learning tasks can be structured to promote particular aspects of language development.

Communicative uses: reading, writing, speaking, listening, oral interaction

Language analysis: sounds, words, sentences, texts

Language production: fluency, accuracy, complexity

  • Fluency: In productive language, this can be simply a measure of how many connected words a person can say or write in a given time. Fluency measures may also take into account the number of hesitations, self-corrections, repetitions, and space fillers like "um". A person may speak quite slowly but be very fluent because none of these "interruptions" occur.

     Fluency is often associated with speed, but speed in itself has no value. What is important is the ability to work with the rhythm, pace, and accuracy that is appropriate to the purpose for reading or writing. Being measured and deliberate may be right for one purpose, and reading or writing quickly, or expressively, may be best for another. Whatever the purpose, fluency should not be thought of as separate from comprehension.

     (Ministry of Education, 2006, page 24.) 

Accuracy: This relates to the number of mistakes a speaker (or writer) makes, and to whether they use the forms that are expected for the type of text being produced. For example, it would be inaccurate to use very formal language in a personal note to a friend, just as it is inaccurate to write *”he was falled down”.

Complexity: This relates to aspects such as the number of different words a person uses (which reflects the size of their vocabulary), the variety and complexity of grammatical structures they use, and the complexity of their sentences and their texts.


  1. When an asterisk is written before a linguistic form, as in *”he was falled down”, the asterisk shows that the form is incorrect.

Characteristics of language-learning tasks

The table below draws on the research findings to date to suggest how to devise tasks that promote fluency, accuracy, or complexity in your students’ language.

Characteristics of task Promotes fluency Promotes accuracy Promotes complexity
Contextual support (e.g. pictures, diagrams) There is contextual support The task has no contextual support The task has no contextual support
Number of elements There are only a few elements in the task input   The task has many elements
Topic The topic is familiar or the topic generates debate    
Shared versus split information     The information is shared
Task demands The task poses a single demand   The task poses a single demand
Opportunity for advance planning The task allows advance planning If the task allows advance planning this may promote accuracy  
Monitoring their own performance as they speak or write Tasks that involve monitoring while they are done impair fluency Tasks that involve monitoring while they are done promote accuracy  
Task outcomes      
Closed versus open outcome The task outcome is closed The task outcome is open The task is open and has divergent goals
Inherent structure of the outcome The task outcome has a clear inherent structure The task outcome has a clear inherent structure and there is opportunity for planning  
Discourse mode     Narrative tasks promote more complexity than argument tasks. Discussion tasks produce the least complexity of the three.

Example: Promoting fluency

Read down the columns to see the task features that are required to promote particular aspects of language. For example, if you wish to help your students develop fluency in using the language they already know, you will design a task that has the features listed in column 2. This means you will provide contextual support, there will not be a large number of elements to the input, and the topic will be familiar or one that leads to debate. The task will have a single demand and the students will be able to plan in advance. The language-learning outcome will be closed, with a clear structure.

Terms used to describe tasks

Contextual support

Contextual support refers to material, such as pictures and diagrams, that supports the language of a learning task by providing some of the meaning. These reduce the learner’s reliance on the language itself to communicate the meaning.

Shared and split information

If the information is shared, all the learners have access to the same information. If it is split, the learners have different items of information and are not allowed to share it. Split information tasks force all learners to participate, but shared information promotes more complexity in the learners’ language, possibly because they each have to deal with a larger amount and diversity of information.

Closed and open outcomes

The outcomes of a task can be closed or open. Closed outcomes to tasks are when there are only certain correct outcomes or solutions. Problem-solving tasks often have only one or two solutions and are tasks with closed outcomes. Role-play and interviews, on the other hand, are almost completely open.

Inherent structure of the outcome

The degree of a language-learning outcome’s openness varies according to its inherent structure; for example, explaining to someone how to get to the ATM has an inherent structure in the form of a (mental) map of the route. Although an interview has an open outcome in the form of the answers received, the outcome may have an inherent structure if the information gained is to be reported in a number of fixed categories. If the students report back in any way they choose, then there is no inherent structure. They will probably report back in relation to the questions they asked.

Task demands

Some tasks ask learners to do several things at the same time. A single-task demand has been found to promote both fluency and complexity. It is probably better, then, to break complex tasks down into several tasks. These single-demand tasks can then be completed one after the other. However, it will be important to make sure learners integrate what they learn from the separate tasks and do not treat them as isolated events.

The "Say it" activity – example

This example of a "Say it" activity is based on “My Dad's Raw Fish” by Mata Mataio (School Journal 2.4.02).

My Dad's Raw Fish

   A  B  C
 1 Pretend you are Dad. Tell your daughter all the ingredients you need to make raw fish. Tell her something about each ingredient. Pretend you are Mata. Tell your friend the names of all your brothers and sisters. Pretend you are Mum. Tell your children what to do to get ready to eat.
 2 Pretend you are David. Tell your children about the other dishes they will eat with their grandfather’s raw fish. Tell your classmates about your own favourite meal. Tell them the ingredients you need for it. Pretend you are Dad. Explain why you leave the bones in the fish.
 3 Pretend you are Mum. Tell your youngest child why you say grace before you start eating. Pretend you are Denise. Tell your friend all about catching fish yesterday with your Dad. Pretend you are the youngest brother and introduce yourself to the group. Tell them about preparing the fish. Tell them how you feel about your job.


  1. Each cell in the "Say it" table is a little role-play.
  2. Working in small groups of three or four, the students take turns to speak according to the instructions in a cell.
  3. The cells can be chosen at random, by dice or counters in a bag.
  4. To begin with, everyone should be given a cell and have a minute or two to prepare by checking with the story. If you think your students need extra support, ask them to do the preparation in pairs.
  5. Next, the students take turns to speak.
  6. The students assign cells again, and speak again.
  7. The group can do this several times so that each cell has been done more than once by different people.


  1. After a few turns, your students might get so confident with the story that they don’t need to prepare their role-plays but can do them straight away when they’re given a cell number.
  2. They might like to perform some of them for the whole class.
  3. Later, you might like to use some of the cells as a basis for writing, as well.
  4. When students are familiar with doing "Say it" activities, they might like to write their own for texts they have read.

A "Say it" can also be much simpler than this one, with only four cells and very simple instructions. For example: "You are Denise. Say who you are. Say what you did yesterday with your father."

A "Say It" can also be much more difficult, based on senior secondary curriculum material and objectives. For example:

  • "You are a geologist. Explain to the engineers planning a bridge what the rock types are in this area."
  • "You are a geologist. Explain to the engineers planning a bridge whether the rocks in this area present problems for bridge construction."

How "Say it" supports students

The "Say it" activity provides three types of support for student output.

1. Emotional support 
This is an important factor in language learning. 

  • Small audience: The students talk in small groups, not in front of the whole class and teacher.
  • Chance to practise: The students have several turns at speaking, so it doesn't matter if they don't speak very well the first time.
  • Familiar content: The students talk about material they have already become familiar with.

2. Cognitive support 

  • Known content: The students are working with material they understand because they’ve already explored it in class with their teacher.
  • Specific focus: Each speaking task limits the content to one perspective and covers only part of the material.
  • Shifting perspectives: Exploring the material from different perspectives, and having several students do each task, widens comprehension of the material.

3. Linguistic support and guidance 
This type of activity promotes noticing and hypothesis testing

Students notice new language items as they search for words and phrases they need in written material or in what other students say. They try out new language and test their hypotheses by observing whether the other students understand them or not. 

  • Written language items are provided: The students can refer to the written text to find the language they need for their mini role.
  • Spoken language items are provided: The students hear other members of the group, and can use some of the language items they hear them use.
  • Opportunity to reuse items: The students have several turns at speaking and can improve their fluency as they reuse words and phrases several times.
  • Opportunity for feedback: Other group members can ask questions or help out if they don't understand what was said by a student, or want to know more.

Exploring your practice

Fluency, accuracy, and complexity in language

Work with a colleague to analyse some of your bilingual Pasifika students’ language production, so that you get a picture of their relative strengths in accuracy, fluency, and complexity. If you have a bilingual colleague who can help, you may be able to get a picture of their relative strengths in accuracy, fluency, and complexity in two languages and compare these. You might ask, for example:

  • Is the student who is fluent in English also fluent in Sāmoan?
  • Does the student who uses complex language in Tongan also use complex language in English?

When you have collected your data, analyse the results and interpret them.

  • Do these students have strengths and needs in different areas?
  • Does your data suggest that you should target particular aspects for further development?

Improving learners’ fluency, accuracy, and complexity

Different input, conditions, and output requirements promote fluency, accuracy, or complexity in the language students produce as they carry out a language-learning task. If you want to help your students become more fluent in using the language they know, the task should:

  • have contextual support, such as a diagram, picture, or table
  • have limited input (only a few elements)
  • be based on familiar topics and/or generate debate or conflict
  • require only one thing to be done, rather than several
  • have only one correct answer or correct solution
  • require the use of a clear structure (for example, a list of items, steps in a process, or a table or simple diagram to be completed)
  • allow for planning time.

Characteristics of language-learning tasks has a table which shows the characteristics that best promote accuracy or complexity.

  1. Choose an aspect of English language – fluency, accuracy, or complexity – that you want one or more of your students to develop further.
  2. State the evidence that leads you to believe your student/s need to develop this aspect of their English.
  3. Use the information in the table Characteristics of language-learning tasks to devise a relevant, curriculum-related learning task that will promote that aspect of language.
  4. As the students complete the learning task (and again later, as they complete other similar learning tasks), monitor their progress in the target aspect of English and provide explicit teaching when appropriate.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you see an improvement in the students’ performance?
  • Can you attribute the change to the kinds of tasks they have completed?
  • Can you attribute the change to any particular characteristic of the tasks they have completed?