Penny Ur - Discussions that Work

Penny Ur's Discussions that Work

This book was one of the first to promote task-based language learning.  Urr provides language teachers with a framework for using authentic and effective discussions in the classroom.

Urr divides her book into 2 main sections:

  1. General Principles
  2. Practical Examples

General Principles

In her opening section, Urr investigates the principle of disucssion, fluency, and language learning.  She provides a definition of an effective discussion: "a discussion that works is primarily one in which as many students as possible say as much as possible" (3).

This leads her to a promotion of group work as she shows how it gives learners more chance to engage in authentic dialogues.  She shows the advantages of group work and role-play in its ability to create these authentic discussions. 

Another important point she makes in the opening section is about motivation.  Urr believes "students need a reason to speak more than they need something to speak about" (7).  She uses this idea to show how inauthentic discussions decrease student motivation.  In order to create this motivation and to give discussion a purpose, Urr believes creating tasks is the solution.

Urr believes creating tasks gives discussions purpose and creates motivation.  Her second section of the book outlines a variety of task types and shows how to implement them in the language learning classroom.

Brainstorming Activities
In this section, Urr provides a list of tasks centered around group barinstorming activities.  She groups these tasks into 3 categories:

  • Guessing
  • Finding Connections
  • Ideas from a Central Theme

These tasks provide simple situations for students to use language to show opinion and solve problems.

Organizing Activities

  • Comparing
  • Detecting Differences
  • Putting in Order
  • Priorities
  • Choosing Candidates
  • Layout Problems

Many of these task types have become the most commonly associated tasks with task-based learning.

Detecting Differences tasks are simple, but are very much associated with task-based learning   They can be as simple as the spot the differences between the two photos activity she has on page 56.  Like an activity you could find in the fun section of the newspaper  this task asks students to find differences between two very similar photos.

In the Putting in Order and Priorities sections, Urr shows how simple ranking activities can create the most mauthentic and meaningful discussions.  Ranking and ordering is now one of the most common task types used by teachers who follow task-based teaching.  These tasks allows tsudents to show their opinion and use language to support it.  The critical thinking aspect is also effective in stimulating leanring.  Urr provides a list of quick and easily-adaptable criteria for ranking tasks.

An extension of ranking is her Choosing Candidates section. Like ranking, these tasks have students evaluating and comparing items.  However, in this case they choose only the best instead of placing the list in some type of order.  She gives an excellent example on page 74 with her task on choosing a proze winner.  She lists 5 people with their respective qualities.  Students are asked to choose the best candidate for a law scholarship.

Urr completes the section with Layout Problems, which ontune the ide ao negotiating based on criteria.  The Zoo layout found on page 81 is an example of a layout problem. In this task, students must use a set of crietria to discuss and negotiate the best layout for the zoo.  As an example, the giraffes don't like the noise, so students should consider moving them away from the noisy entrance.  Urr gives other tasks such as arranging couples at a dinner party.  These layout tasks are perhaps the best partof the book.  even if you do not use the specific ideas, the concepts are very valuable.

Compund Activities

In her final section, Urr provides tasks that are mor traditional. She breaks them into groups:

  • Composing Letters
  • Debates
  • Publicity Campaigns
  • Surveys
  • Planning Projects

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