May 4

Task, activity, exercise?

4th May


Task. Activity. Exercise. Three words that we encounter every day as teacher, three words that we clearly understand, right? Whilst in solitude we use each in day to day practice, however placing the three in juxtaposition may raise issues of definition and use. In attempting to distinguish the each of the terms, difficulties were encountered; the distinctiveness of each being difficult to place as we admittedly use these interchangeably in practice. We opted rather to place these on a scale, all possessing similar traits but on varying levels. Whilst we believed that exercises were very controlled and structured, tasks were often less so and activities even less. Exercises resonate with a feeling of form and precision, their aim for ELT teachers seemingly to practice the correct production of the lesson target, whereas activities connotes less structure, placing a focus on fluency and communication instead. We also believed that exercises were predominantly written, whereas tasks could be written, spoken, kinesthetic, or a take a multitude of various forms, and activities are typically active and physical.

Jack Richards (ND) describes the three as follows:

  • An exercise is a controlled and guided practice of a particular language aspect such as a reading comprehension.
  • An activity describes any procedures in which learners work towards a goal such as play a game or engaging in a discussion.
  • Finally, a task is something undergone by students using pre-existing or scaffolded language resources.


In our initial understanding of the terms, I believe that we were accurate in some aspects such as the decline in control, however it’s apparent they cannot be placed neatly on such a continuum for all aspects. My basic understanding of task comes from that of task-based learning, a teaching procedure I have both researched and implemented in practice. The fundamental of such is that aspects of language or vocabulary are provided to or elicited from students in the pre-task stage which they then use during the task stage in which they are to complete a task with the end goal being non-language related. For instance, students will prepare a presentation or construct a model (Frost, 2015).


Richards (ND) lays out the following criteria for a task:

  • Students use existing language resources or those introduced pre-task
  • The outcome is not language orientated
  • Is relevant to learners’ needs
  • The focus is upon meaning
  • Affords chances to reflect on language use
  • Depends upon students’ communication and interaction skills


Ellis (2003) similarly proposed the following criteria:

  • A primary focus on meaning
  • There needs to be a ‘gap’
  • Learners use own resources
  • Clear outcome that is not language based


As with Richards, Ellis clearly identifies that the task must not be language focused but rather display a non-language outcome, have students use their own language resources in doing so, and thus be focused on meaning rather than form. Whilst Richards identifies that a task should be relevant to learners’ needs, Ellis claims that there should be a ‘gap’. Ellis’s gap is drawn from the work of Prabhu (1987) who outlines three types of tasks:

Information gap; a task in which information has to be shared in order to understand the ‘full picture’. That is to say that perhaps one student is given half the information and the other student, the other half, they must verbally convey the information to each other in order to synthesise such and create meaning.

Reasoning gap; using skills of reasoning, deduction, inference, or perception, learners will create new information using select existing information.

Opinion gap; tasks which are centred on students expressing feelings or opinions, such as in a debate or discussion.

A task is clearly distinguished from both an exercise and activity then by non-language orientated outcome and its focus upon meaning, as well as the clear interaction necessary in tasks.

One of the most common complaints I receive from students in my school is that they feel they aren’t learning. Now, my school has a set methodology being that of blended learning using a communicative task-based approach. In doing so students are guided to language production and doing such in context rather than focusing on form and accuracy. I believe that largely the complaints stem from this methodology in that students are actively engaged in language production, constantly constructing new meaning and language in English, however, due to the lack of emphasis on the language and aspects of form students do not realise so. In my observations of teachers, it has been noted that both in the course books and teacher delivery, the reflective stage after the task is often missing and hence no attention is drawn to the aspects of language that were highlighted in the lesson. In providing the reflective stage at the end of a task-based lesson, teachers will be able to highlight these aspects of language and reaffirm to students the language learning that has taken place within the lesson. I aim then, to provide a CPD session that focuses on the nature of a task and task-based learning with particular reference to this reflective stage in order to aid teachers with such.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford Applied Linguistics.

Frost, R. (2015). “A Task-based Approach”: British Council Teaching English.

Prabhu, N. (1987). Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: University Press.

Richards, J. (ND). Difference Between Task, Exercise, Activity.  Retrieved from

Posted 4th May 2017 by Ricky Dagnell in category Reflections

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