U s i n g   I n f o r m a t i o n   G a p   A c t i v i t i e s
i n   t h e   S e c o n d   L a n g u a g e   C l a s s r o o m

by Violet Raptou

     One of the challenges many second language teachers face is motivating their students to speak in the target language. Confident students always participate and students who are less confident are reluctant to speak. Even when students speak in the target language, they are usually answering a question and this approach greatly limits student output. Oral presentations provide opportunities for students to speak in the target language for an extended period of time and these activities are useful, but they should not be the only opportunities students have to speak at length. Because students prepare for these presentations by writing a script and then rehearsing it, they have difficulty speaking in the target language spontaneously because they are given little opportunity to do so. When students choose to learn a language, they are interested in learning to speak that language as fluently as possible. I teach Core French at the secondary level and students complain that when they go to a French-speaking part of the world, they cannot say what they wish to say in French, even though they have had years of French education. We, therefore, need to actively engage students in speaking activities that are enjoyable and that are based on a more communicative approach. One solution is using information gap activities.

     In an information gap activity, one person has certain information that must be shared with others in order to solve a problem, gather information or make decisions (Neu & Reeser, 1997). These types of activities are extremely effective in the L2 classroom. They give every student the opportunity to speak in the target language for an extended period of time and students naturally produce more speech than they would otherwise. In addition, speaking with peers is less intimidating than presenting in front of the entire class and being evaluated. Another advantage of information gap activities is that students are forced to negotiate meaning because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task (Neu & Reeser, 1997).

     Ur (1996) lists the characteristics of a successful speaking activity:

Learners talk a lot. As much as possible of the period of time allotted to the activity is in fact occupied by learner talk.

Participation is even. Classroom discussion is not dominated by a minority of talkative participants: all get a chance to speak, and contributions are fairly evenly distributed.
Motivation is high. Learners are eager to speak: because they are interested in the topic and have something new to say about it, or because they want to contribute to achieving a task objective.
Language is of an acceptable level. Learners express themselves in utterances that are relevant, easily comprehensible to each other, and of an acceptable level of language accuracy.

     Information gap activities satisfy all of the above criteria. The teacher simply explains the activity and reviews the vocabulary needed for the activity. Students are then on their own to complete the task. Each participant plays an important role and the task cannot be accomplished without everyone's participation. Many information gap activities are highly motivational because of the nature of the various tasks. Activities that require the solving of a problem or a mystery are especially effective. As teachers, we know whether an activity is of an acceptable level of difficulty for our students. If students are sufficiently prepared for the activity, the level of language accuracy will be acceptable.

     For the first time this year, I used information gap activities in my French classes and they were very successful. When I tried the first activity, I could not believe that my Core French students were speaking in French continuously for 15-20 minutes. Even though that was the result I desired, I was still amazed because it was the first time that I heard my students speaking in French for such an extended period of time. I did not evaluate students during this activity and not one student expected to receive a mark for participating in these activities. They were all happy to do the activity because it was fun and because they knew that it was helping them to increase their confidence in speaking French. As a result of using information gap activities, I realized that there were other unexpected benefits. For instance, these activities greatly increased their motivation for speaking in French more often. Even after the activities were complete, students made an effort to keep speaking in French not only to me, but to each other as well. After doing only two of these types of activities, students wanted to do them all the time and I was more than happy to include them more often in my lessons.

     Information gap activities can also reinforce vocabulary and a variety of grammatical structures taught in class. They allow students to use linguistic forms and functions in a communicative way. These activities bring the language to life for students. Grammar is no longer a concept they have difficulty applying to their speaking. Students have the opportunity to use the building blocks of language we teach them to speak in the target language.

     Creating a variety of information gap activities that will satisfy Ur's criteria listed above is not an easy task. I have created a few simple activities for my beginner French classes. There are, however, a variety of resources that provide suggestions for information gap activities that provide clear instructions and/or activities cards that are ready to be photocopied. I have listed a few below that I have found useful. If our goal as second language educators is to have our learners speak with confidence in the target language, then we must make an effort to provide our students with a greater variety of opportunities to speak in the target language. Information gap activities are an effective means for accomplishing this goal.

REFERENCES

Neu, H. & Reeser, T. W. (1997). Parle-moi un peu!: Information Gap Activities for Beginning French Classes. Boston : Heinle & Heinle.

Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge.

RESOURCES

Klippel, F. (1983). Keep Talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. New York: Cambridge.

Lee, J. F. & VanPatten, B. (1995). Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Neu, H. & Reeser, T. W. (1997). Parle-moi un peu!: Information Gap Activities for Beginning French Classes. Boston : Heinle & Heinle.

Pattison, P. (1987). Developing Communication Skills : A practical handbook for language teachers, with examples in English, French and German. New York: Cambridge.


Biographical note :

Violet Raptou teaches Core French at the secondary level and is currently Acting Department Head of Modern Languages at Birchmount Park Collegiate in Toronto, Ontario. She is a M.Ed. student at OISE/UT, specializing in Second Language Education. She also taught Modern Greek with the International Languages Program for six years. You can reach Violet at vraptou@oise.utoronto.ca.

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