Revisiting ELT Mantras #7: ‘Real-world’ activitities

Humans (like all intelligent hunters) seem innately disposed to notice things which move rather than things which stand still.

Cook, 2000


Don’t move a muscle.

by Chris Isherwood CC-BY-2.0

It is often argued that the English language class should try to emulate the ‘real world’ as much as possible. Tasks and activities should reflect what people do in real life, in order to give learners the tools that they’ll need to use English outside the classroom. While this is no doubt good advice, I believe there is also a valid and useful role for ‘unreal’ activities, too.

 It is unarguable that the most prevailing ideology among language teachers round the world is that of The Communicative Approach, which advocates the use of classroom activities with a real communicative purpose (as opposed to simply practising structures for accuracy). In its purest form, this takes the shape of Task Based Learning (TBL), which (in very simplified terms) advocates the use of ‘real life’ tasks with a communicative goal. A typical Task-Based cycle would see language input coming after the task has been carried out, when the teacher has a better idea of exactly what the learners need, and learners are assessed by achievement of the task as opposed to how well they used specific language structures. Tasks may include, for example, choosing the right candidate for a job, planning a holiday, giving a tour, etc. At first glance, and in certain contexts (Business English/ESP perhaps), this sounds like a genuinely useful approach. However, it has it’s problems. Firstly, how do we define a task? Much has been written on this and not everyone agrees on the finer points, but let’s take a look at some dictionary definitions:

 A piece of work which must be done as a duty or as part of a regular routine, and which may be difficult or unpleasant.

(Collins COBUILD)

A specific piece of work required to be done; an unpleasant or difficult job or duty.

(Collins concise)

A piece of work that must be done, especially one that is difficult or unpleasant or that must be done regularly.

(Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online)

 Most common collocates for ‘task’ include:

impossible, difficult, mammoth, daunting, endless (COBUILD online sampler)

Looking at TBL in this way, while perhaps useful for learners in certain situations, doesn’t paint a very pretty picture for the classroom. What these definitions suggest is that defining ‘real life’ language use in this way only reflects part of the way we use language outside the classroom – at work. This may, therefore, be very useful for learners who have to use English for very specific tasks at work (attending meetings, negotiating, giving presentations, etc.). But these aren’t the only reasons for learning a language.

In order to gain a fuller understanding of what we mean by ‘real world’ language use, it’s necessary to look beyond just how we use language at work, and a useful way to do this is by looking back at how we learnt our first language. A vast area of language input as children is through the understanding and mutual co-operation found in literature, fairy tales, rhymes, songs, games and rhythmic play. Walk into any primary school and you’ll find colourful books and rhymes which are used to help learn both language and social cooperation. But it doesn’t end there. As adults, we enjoy cinema, books, theatre, songs, etc. – another endless source of rich language.

Not only do we enjoy language in this way, but it is not limited to the confines of our day-to-day working lives. Puns, poetry, TV novellas, jokes, riddles, dueling and advertisements, to name but a few  – we are free to escape the jargon of the ‘here and now’, and escape into colourful, language-rich worlds. Surely, then, any analysis of ‘real-world’ language use should include this much larger bank of language: Imaginary worlds and language play.

Another reason for not limiting ourselves to ‘real-world’ contexts in our classrooms is the distinction between language skills and language itself. In pure communicative approaches, we are essentially language trainers, training our learners in the necessary skills they need to ‘survive’ in an English-speaking environment. With language play, we are true teachers, sharing our love of language with learners and providing the scaffolding they need to reach their full potential.

Finally, there is the indisputable fact that language and culture are inevitably intertwined. It is virtually impossible to learn a language without learning its culture. For example, as a learner of Brazilian Portuguese, I found myself learning entire cultural concepts when learning words such as café da manha, cellular, and ótimo (which would sound strange to speakers from Portugal). Indeed, if we look at a very culturally rich area, Brazilian music, there are a whole host of words which reflect Brazilian culture: Samba, Bossa Nova, Forró, etc. By bringing movies, stories, poetry, literature and other imaginary worlds into the classroom, we can exploit this cultural link to language and expose our learners to a rich source of colourful meanings and language. And the resources we can use are virtually limitless.

Once we embrace this wider definition of ‘real-world’ language use, we open up an entirely new world of potential within our classrooms, one that is filled with mystery, wonder and adventure. Stephen Fry (a British comedian) sums this up nicely with this analogy:

Only to a dullard is language a means of communication and nothing more. It would be like saying sex is a means of reproduction and no more and food a means of fuelling and no more. In life you have to explain wine. You have to explain cheese. You have to explain love. You can’t, but you have to try, or if not try you have, surely, to be aware of the astonishing fact of them. 



by Visit Finger Lakes CC-BY-2.0


Cook, G. 2000 Language Play, Language Learning OUP

Fry, S. 2008 Don’t Mind your Language viewed on 13/09/14)

Willis, J. 1996 A Framework for Task-Based Learning Longman 

An article I wrote for In-English Digital in 2012 has some practical Language Play activities you can use in the classroom. 

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

  • Philip Kerr
    Posted at 11:37h, 14 setembro Responder

    Thanks for this useful reminder, Damian.
    The belief that we should always use ‘real-world’ (i.e. ‘authentic’) tasks is closely related to the belief that we should always use ‘authentic’ texts. It’s an enduring belief, but it really doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Tasks or texts can only be considered authentic if they are used in an authentic context (as Henry Widdowson pointed out many years ago). Take them out of their original, authentic context, and they simply aren’t authentic any more.
    Extend this line of reasoning a little further and it becomes obvious that an English language classroom is a place to learn English, and very real-life, authentic tasks for such a context include language games, listening to explanations, drills and so on … rather than pretending, for example, to be in a tourist information bureau asking about the opening times of local attractions (which you’d check out online anyway!).

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 13:12h, 14 setembro Responder

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment Philip. Interesting what you say about texts being taken out of context. I think that’s the beauty of purposely stepping away from ‘real-world’ contextualisation in class. The contexts created by imaginary worlds, fiction, verse, songs, etc. can be much more engaging and generative, and therefore provide for much richer language use.

    I also like the idea of the language classroom being a context in itself!

  • Marcos Benevides
    Posted at 02:31h, 16 setembro Responder

    Damian, fair points about teachers sometimes fixating too much on authenticity, but I’m afraid I must take issue with your definition of “task”. It is unfair to define the term according to its standard English definition, rather than by its specific meaning within TBLT. In the latter case, a task is *decidedly not* simply “work which must be done”, because if it were, then anything we assigned our students to do in the classroom would be considered a task!

    It is true that the precise definition of a “TBLT-task” is sometimes open to argument, but all proponents of the approach will agree that it goes something like this: A task is an activity in which leaners use the target language to achieve a real world-like outcome (which is not necessarily in itself communicative), and do so by focusing primarily on meaning rather than on the accurate use of forms.

    Tasks do not necessarily have to do with work-related activities at all. Writing a song, telling a story, making paper airplanes, and yes, reserving an airplane ticket, can all be examples of tasks, depending how they are set up in the classroom. Granted, some tasks will feel more authentic than others depending on many things. One can argue, for instance, that the very act of simulating a task in a classroom environment necessarily means it’s never fully authentic. And yes, certain games and other activities aren’t “authentic” in any kind of meaningful, but can still be very useful.

    Your overall point is good, but please do lay off our poor, misunderstood, oft-misrepresented friend, the task! 🙂

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 10:52h, 17 setembro Responder

    Thanks for your comment, Marcos, and apologies if I offended with my wanton criticism of the lowly task. More just to prove a point than borne out of any real hatred though. 🙂

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