How to Use ‘Gaps’ in Communicative Activities
Without a ‘gap’, there’s no reason to communicate.
Students need to have a reason to communicate. Sure, they’ll talk if you tell them to (“discuss the topic with your partner!”), but it won’t be as engaging without a reason. It won’t be ‘genuine communication’.
You need a' gap' to make an activity resemble real life.
So what is a gap? A gap is missing information — something one person knows but the other doesn’t.
Prabhu describes three types of gaps in his book ‘Second Language Pedagogy’. They are: information, reasoning and opinion gaps. Although Prabhu’s work is associated with task-based learning, we can apply it to all communicative tasks.
Let’s look at each kind of gap, with example activities.
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Information gaps are when students have different information. They then ‘fill in the gap’ of each others’ knowledge by communicating.
Example 1: ‘giving directions’. Each student in a pair has a copy of a map. There’s a different route drawn (i.e. from the train station to ‘their’ home). Students don’t show each other the maps. Student A gives directions to Student B, who draws the ‘A’s’ route on his map. Then switch.
This activity also works with different pictures (i.e. ‘spot the difference’).
Example 2: Anything that some students know about that others don’t. Students that play an instrument, a sport or have a favourite restaurant can describe this to each other. This can be a more authentic way of getting the students to exchange information.
In reasoning gaps, students have to figure something out. It’s not a gap between students but a gap between current and future knowledge. Students then work together to reach the goal.
Example 1: students are planning a road trip and need to work out routes, refuelling stops, hotels, etc.
Example 2: students are planning an off-site conference and need to plan how to spend a budget.
An opinion gap is a difference of opinion between students. Students agree or disagree and give reasons why.
Example 1: Students tell each other who their favourite superhero is and why. They follow up by considering and then telling each other why their hero is better.
Example 2: A classic ‘debate’ on a societal issue, such as ‘should there be a death penalty?’ Students are given time to think, and confer with others of the same opinion before discussing in larger groups.
Another gap? I thought there were only three.
Well, I also think there’s an ‘experience’ gap, which is a combined information and opinion gap.
An experience gap is when students compare the different experiences they’ve had.
It’s different from an information gap, as experience almost inevitably comes attached to an opinion.
These work well with older learners, who all have different life experiences.
Example 1: students discuss the best holiday they’ve been on.
Example 2: students discuss the easiest or hardest parts of learning English.
More Reasons to Include Gaps
Any of these gaps will give students a reason to communicate, other than ‘the teacher told me to speak, so I guess I’ll have to’.
In real life, gaps are why we communicate. We talk to others because:
We’re excited about sharing a new podcast (experience gap).
We want to tell someone how we cooked a great chilli (information gap).
We can’t understand why they prefer one TV show to another (opinion).
We want to know how we can persuade management to give us all a pay rise (reasoning gap).
You can view gaps as fulfilling a social function, such as building rapport or doing favours. Some social-interaction theories suggest that it’s why we evolved to use language. Here’s a decent book on the subject if you’re interested.
Another great reason to use a gap is that there’ll be a solid context. It also avoids the problem of students speaking ‘because the teacher told them to’, without them knowing why.
Final Thoughts on Gaps
A few practical thoughts on teaching gaps that I’ve noticed:
Some gaps are more authentic than others. Sharing experience is genuine — being given a random picture to talk about isn’t.
The best opinion gaps are when students disagree while holding their genuine opinion. If the teacher needs to ‘assign’ an opinion, it doesn’t work as well.
In ‘opinion gap’ debates, ensure you understand the culture you’re working in, or you could be in for a surprise. Some cultures have set opinions around some subjects.
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