Looking for an alternative to worksheets? Trying to pair games and learning? Want to support learner autonomy by offering choice? Are your students eager to step up and be experts?
ESL teachers and students both have become so accustomed to worksheets that we rarely stop to ask if there are other ways to practice the material. Learn a topic, complete a worksheet, check for mastery of the skill. But, let’s face it – worksheets are boring. And they don’t always meet the needs of each student in the class.
Task cards have been trending in K-12 education in the U.S. for over 5 years. These are sets of hand-size, usually a quarter or an eighth of a page, cards that have one question or task apiece. Teachers love them because they’re reusable, often colorful, mobile for use anywhere in the classroom, adaptable to many games, perfect for differentiated learning, and less intimidating than a whole worksheet of problems.
Adult ESL has been slow to pick up on these, in part because adults have different learning needs than children. They generally don’t mind sitting quietly and doing a worksheet for several minutes, and many of them even prefer to perform passively in the classroom. Also, ESL teachers are not accountable for codified standards – we frequently adapt an activity every time we use it, to meet our student needs, and our level or class size changes much more often than K-12 teachers.
That said, breaking out of the 8.5×11” habit can enrich engagement and build a culture of learning in your classroom. By allowing them to choose which tasks, or what order of tasks, they want to complete, students are provided choice and assume responsibility for their own learning. Task Cards make fomative assessment easier, so that teachers know what to review or clarify in the future. They are also perfect for both quick-working students and those that fall behind. A student may not able to master a worksheet, but they can master a task and teach it to others. And one reason I love using them is that they get students out of their seat and moving around.
Before we get to the activities, it’s necessary to clarify two types of Task Cards. First, there are Question Cards, bite-size cards with one question apiece. These can be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, solve the problem, or open-ended tasks. Essentially, if you can put it on a worksheet or a test, it can be a Question Card. Obviously, content area teachers get a lot of use out of these because their classes have defined concepts to quiz students on. Examples for ESL cards, however, might be:
- What is the antonym of receive?
- Which word rhymes with coat?
- What tense is this sentence?
Question cards don’t need to be one specific size; cards printed two-to-a-page could include a full paragraph to read and a task like:
- Circle the sentence that best explains the main idea of the paragraph.
- Write three cause-effect words in this paragraph.
Similarly, Question Cards could simply have a verb or a prompt question if you plan to use them in a game with clear instructions.
One common technique is to number the cards within a set and keep an answer key for both students and yourself. For example, if you have 30 questions related to present perfect (even a mix of different question types), students can complete these cards in any order, recording their responses on a one-page answer sheet, almost like a standardized test but more fun. The instructor can grade these quickly and efficiently and compare multiple student papers at once to see where the class or specific students need more help.
Don’t know where to get started? Take questions from a worksheet that already use, use a spreadsheet or table to print these on cards, cut them up, and you’re ready to go!
The other type of Task Card is sometimes known as an Activity Card. These are designed to adapt to any word list, text, writing sample or other material that the class is using. Activity Cards are generally more time-intensive for both the student and the teacher. However, their flexibility makes them ideal for ESL teachers, who focus on mastering skills rather than content. You are probably already using these tasks in the classroom, but may not have a system for individualized practice. Example cards would be:
- Choose ten words from the word list and write a synonym for each.
- Summarize the author’s point of view in one tweet – 140 characters or less!
- Find a trailer on YouTube for a new movie that you want to see. Try to write every word that the main character says in the trailer.
You and your partner need to make plans to study on Wednesday Discuss a time that you are both available.
Both types of Task Cards are useful in the classroom. Some of the following activities favor one type over the other, but most of them can use either Question Cards or Activity Cards. Once you know that you are going to use a set often, you should make sure that it will stand up to multiple uses. Print on cardstock or laminate them, depending on what your department has access to.
Entrance and Exit Slips Ss answer a quick question as they enter or leave the classroom.
Sometimes called Seat Warmers or Exit Tickets, these mini-quizzes are one of the best ways to assess student progress. Some teachers simply ask each student to correctly answer a question before they’re allowed to enter or exit the room, while other teachers ask students to fill out a slip of paper while the teacher monitors other classroom management tasks. They can be graded or not, but should only comprise of one question, making them ideal for Task Cards. If you are using flipped or blended learning techniques, these are a must, to hold students accountable for preparing for class and gauge how well they have understood the material before launching into class activities.
The instructor can pass out cards as students enter or at the end of class, or even better, ask students to choose one as they enter or before they leave. Some students will always choose the fastest one to complete, but they can decide how much rigorousness they want or need.
Learning Stations Ss complete different tasks at multiple spots
Set up 3-5 stations around the room with a variety of related tasks. For example, if your class is past tense irregular, one station might ask students to complete sentences, another might be editing a paragraph, and a third might be to talk to another partner at the station about what they did last weekend. You can set up each learning station with a different Activity Card or leave several Question Cards at each station. The instructor can even decide whether to allow students to help each other with the answers.
Instead of printing multiple worksheets for each Learning Station, each student can receive one paper with space for the answers at each Station. For stations that do not have a written response, leave a stamp for students to mark how well they think they completed the task.
In addition to getting students moving and allowing choice, Learning Stations make it much easier for the teacher to give individual feedback and silently monitor student progress during the activity, without lurking by a low-performing student’s desk in a seated activity. Ideally, provide more stations than students need in the time allotted, so that advanced students can take on the challenge of completing each one.
Gallery Walks and Treasure Hunts Ss answer prompts or questions hung on the wall
You don’t need Task Cards to do a Gallery Walk – photocopy questions from a textbook or cut up any worksheet into one-question slips and hang them around the room. Students walk from spot to spot to answer all of the questions. How this differs from Learning Stations is that all of the questions are more consistent in form and generally, the class comes back to their seats and checks the answers together. The benefit of Task Cards is that they are prepared and ready to go, easy to hang, and easy to spot. If you have numbered the Task Cards, answer sheets are also easy to assess later, rather than peering into student workbooks.
Some teachers throw in an extra challenge by hiding the cards in difficult to find places, like behind doors and under tables, or hanging them all around the floor. If students only know how many they need to find and where the search parameters are, they can be given a set time to find as many as they can.
Treasure Hunts are good for short, easily-answered questions where you only need students to demonstrate proficiency, not necessarily completion. But Gallery Walks are also great for open-ended questions. Walking around and looking at prompts from an interesting angle gets those creative juices flowing.
Be a teacher Ss quiz and check each other
Whereas worksheets suggest a traditional classroom style, where the teacher is a storehouse for knowledge that is dribbled out to students, Task Cards allow a dynamic student-centered learning environment. To build student confidence, use Kagan model activities like Quiz-Quiz-Trade. Give each student a Task Card and make sure that either the answer is on the back (use expo markers on laminated cards or sticky notes on non-laminated), or that the student knows the correct answer well enough to teach another student. In pairs, students quiz each other on their card, correcting each other if necessary, and then trade cards. In new pairs, students repeat the task with their new Task Cards. This can be used for something as simple as Spelling drills or as complex as inferencing.
Another way to turn students into experts is to let them all choose a Task Card and give them time to complete it individually. Then, they quiz the class or explain their answer to the whole class. This is great for Word Walls, content vocabulary, or other word knowledge tasks because all students are exposed to a wide range of words, and the class has an expert that they can refer to instead of the teacher. Consumer…that was your word, Paula – can you explain it again?
Pair Work Ss answer one set of questions together
Give each pair a set of cards to share. You can ask them to work together to answer them or work individually and compare or share answers when they are done. This does not necessarily have to be done with Task Cards, but having something tactile between them promotes negotiation. Even better, pairs can then quiz or share answers with another pair when they are done, becoming the experts themselves. Cards are more efficient than assigning numbers to each pair and relieve the pressure of having to have the correct answer (i.e. copy from a classmate) for every question on a worksheet.
You can even have a set of cards designed for Pair Work, such as discussion and debate questions. Students can discuss the prompts for a set amount of time and then switch sets with other groups. Prepare more questions than you’ll need, but if a pair gets excited about a certain card and spends a long time on it, that’s fine, too.
Board Games Turn any game into a language learning tool
Even adults like to relax and get competitive once in a while. With any board game, you can add in a language element by requiring students to draw and complete a Task Card before taking a turn or completing a move. For example, games like Connect 4 or Checkers become intense if missing a question makes you lose a turn. Use the colors on CandyLand to indicate which kind of card to draw when players land on a square (print on colored card stock or attach colored dots on the backs). The numbers on Snakes and Ladders can correspond to numbers on open-ended prompts that students must answer with a minimum number of words to move forward. Any board game and any Task Card set can be merged. If you already have Task Cards prepared for other activities, then they’re ready to go.
Quiz Show Teams answer questions to get points.
Once you have sets of Task Cards ready for other activities, it’s easy to pull a few from each topic for Jeopardy, the Unfair Game, or other class review. If you have time, you can assign a point value to each one (Vocabulary for $500, please!) but if necessary, you can just pull one at random. The teacher can read the question, or give to the team to read out loud. Question Cards are good for review, but even Activity Cards can be easily adapted to the mix if a bag of vocabulary cards, texts, or other content is available to draw from. This is easier than editing your Game Show PowerPoint each time, I promise!
Flash Quiz Informal assessment of all students
When you need to see very quickly if students understand a skill before moving on the next part of a lesson, pull out a Task Card instead of trying to think of a question on the spot. If you have a document camera or a digital version of the card, it’s best to display it for all students to read. Students can indicate their answer by holding up fingers, writing their answers on mini whiteboards or notebook paper, showing thumbs up or down, or you can invest in a set of Plickers if you have a large class. I love Socrative and Kahoot for formative assessment as well, but I don’t always have the time to prepare and conduct a whole quiz.
Escape Room Ss work out an access key from the answers to several problems
To make an Escape Room both challenging and rewarding, use Question Cards that require a longer time to solve, such as reading texts, finding errors, manipulating grammar, or listening to audio. Because Escape Room puzzles depend on deducing the right answer, open-ended questions will not work well for this activity. Set up puzzles around the room, and for extra difficulty, make students work out a logic, math, or tactile puzzle in order to access the Task Card. In small groups, students move from puzzle to puzzle and track their answers, and when they think they have all the correct information, they try their “key” in the “lock.” If the questions were all multiple choice, the “key” might look like A-B-B-C-D-A. If there were sequencing or fill-in-the-blank tasks, the correct order or first letter of each word might spell out a Secret Message. Check out Teach Every Day for how to use Google Forms to make an Escape Room “breakout.”
Differentiated Learning Give low level Ss extra help or challenge high level Ss to do more
This new buzzword has spread through all corners of education; we know we should be doing it, but how? Differentiated learning looks different in each class, but it requires at least three steps.
- Target the struggling students and students who have already mastered the skill. As mentioned before, using one answer key for several Task Cards helps teachers see at a glance which students need help on which skills. It also helps them see which students don’t need to spend time on worksheets for skills they already know. Task Cards also help teachers move around and monitor students more discreetly. If students are working on different cards at a time, it’s also more difficult for them to copy off a classmate. And entrance and exit slips provide another form of informal assessment.
- Assign expectations. The teacher might dedicate time in class for all students to work on a skill that they’re weak in. In this case, you can ask them to each go to a specific Learning Station or give pairs or small groups specific cards to work on. This is particularly effective for pronunciation practice, because every ESL student wants to sound more native-like but they all have different needs. Alternatively, if a student finishes a class activity early, the teacher can offer Task Cards for advanced practice or a different skill. Likewise, if a student is struggling in one area, they can be given Task Cards targeted for that skill.
- Assist students in meeting their own goals. Once the teacher has given feedback, students decide how to meet the learning goals. Activity Cards allow students to decide what kind of tasks they prefer. For example, when I use Vocabulary Task Cards, some students are ready to sort by syllable or use words in a sentence, while some prefer to circle vowels or write three times. If a student can demonstrate with a few Question Cards that they have mastered a skill, there may be no need to complete a full worksheet. If students are trading cards or rotating between stations, the instructor can monitor a particularly difficult card or lurk near a prompt that is causing specific difficulties rather than visit each student’s desk. If an instructor does need to intervene with a struggling student, this is easier if the rest of the class is informally working on “tasks” rather than completing a page in the book. Once students know how to use them, the Task Cards become a kind of resource bucket that they can access whenever they want to or need to in the room.
Keeping this in mind, prepare Task Cards that cover a wide range of options for production and cover all tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Last, K-12 teachers sometimes use Task Cards as homework for extra practice for struggling students. Whether an adult ESL teacher does this or not depends on the needs and structure of their class, but it can be given as an option. The teacher is not assigning homework, but students can choose to check out cards for more practice. Just make sure that you have a system for getting them back if you have spent resources on them.
The most difficult part of Task Cards is building a library of them, but you don’t need much to get started. Start small and keep adding and your time and effort will pay off in the end.