For some strange reason, some ESL instructors think they can improve any activity by making it as some kind of competition between students or between groups. Unfortunately, doing this can be counterproductive and actually discourage the most serious students.
To illustrate, consider an information-gap activity like the one from a previous posting Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart . In this, pairs of students fill in missing information in a schedule by talking, asking questions, and using clarification strategies.
Imagine the teacher tells the students that he will give a prize to the pair who finishes the schedule first. This is what will happen and how students will miss out on the skills that the activity is meant to develop.
Situation: Student A’s chart doesn’t show what time Science class is, so Student A asks B. Student B answers but A doesn’t understand.
- In a non-competitive condition Student A will ask a clarification question, e.g., “Did you say 1:30 or 1:40?” “Could repeat that?” These are the valuable strategies that this type of activity is designed to give students practice with.
- In a competitive condition, in order to get through the chart faster than others, Student B will just show his chart with the time on it. Or if they will speak the same native language, Student B will tell the time in their language. Thus, they miss the chance to develop and practice this clarification strategy.
An additional problem with competition is the pressure on the teacher. The “winning” pair finishes while the others are only half way through because they “cheated” while the others tried to do it seriously, speaking only in English and asking clarification questions. What does the teacher do? Tell everyone to stop as soon as there is a winner? Tell the winners to just sit there while the others complete the activity?
From my experience, the most serious students tend to take the longest to finish these kinds of tasks because they try to practice applying a variety of strategies while engaging with their partners. They are the models for the other students. Turning activities like this into competition sends the wrong signal to the students about the purpose of doing them.