Month: January 2019

Should We Bother With Communicative Pair Activities?

An activity,  recommended by textbooks, ACTFL and methods teachers etc, and known as the “Communicative Pair Activity,” or CPA, is where students exchange info with each other in the target language. These activities are also known as “information gap activities.”

Today’s question: are CPAs worth bothering with?

Answer: not really, but sometimes you have to.

There a bunch of reasons why CPAs are not worth doing.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1) The fake & boring  factor. Using a second language to ask questions a. to which one probably already knows the answer, and b. which would be much more easily asked and answered in L1, feels fake and contrived. And the level of questions in a typical language class– do you like skateboarding? do you prefer red dresses or pink ones? — is waaay below the cognitive level of most students. Kids want to feed, not starve, their heads. As an adult, I haaaate those stupid “find somebody who…” mixers at social or profesisonal functions.

Here’s an even better example. Linguist Karen Lichtman’s daughter Phoebe is in preschool. She was given the following task. She hacked it. When kids use L1 to get through dumb predictable L2 “activities,” they are being smart 😂😂

2) The policing factor. Because CPAs feel fake, kids find them silly, and won’t do them, which turns the teacher into a cop who patrols for English usage.  Ugh. The smarter kids will use the TL only when the teacher swings by, to keep the teacher off their backs.

3) The linguistic junk food factor. Kids– even the ones who actually want to do CPAs– are learners.  And learners, despite their best intentions, make mistakes.  And Partner A’s mistakes become poor input for Partner B. And vice-versa. Since we learn by processing linguistic input, there is no point in providing poor input to our students. I used to see stuff like the following all the time when I was a skill-builder:

¿Te gusta ver la tele?
— Sí, te gusta ver la tele.  ¿Te gusta ver la tele?
Sí, te gusta.

Is there meaning being exchanged?  Yes.  Is the language quality?  No.

Terry Waltz succinctly sums this up: “communicative pair activities are the McDonalds of language teaching.”  And Bill VanPatten writes that “to the extent that output activities ask learners to produce what they are trying to acquire, they put the cart before the horse.”

4) The inefficiency factor. When we include off-task time (a lot), poor input (frequent), and a lot of time setting up, policing and then debriefing CPAs, there is not actually a whole lot of communication going on per unit of classroom time.

I rough-calculated this.  Years ago, when I used the ¡Juntos! program, there would be a CPA such as ask your partner and have them ask you if they like the following sports, and kids would have to ask eight questions: do you like basketball? Do you like hockey? etc.

For a 10-question Q&A, I would give kids 5 minutes. In 5 minutes– if they were actually focused on the activity– they would hear do you like ___? and I like ____ sixteen times.

How many repetitions of I like…do you like…? can I get using a basic C.I. technique such as asking an actor questions and having them ask me (a parallel character in the story) questions? I timed myself asking a student these, and in thirty seconds I got 8 repetitions of do you like…? I like… In one minute, I would get 16 repetitions, and in five minutes, I would get eighty.  Now, obviously, I’m not spending five minutes asking the actor the same question, but the point stands: focused, teacher-provided input is massively more efficient than communicative pair work.

I can also ensure the output is accurate, and that the class is listening (and getting TL input, and not English).  The teacher, especially in a TPRS or other story classroom, can get students to focus by ensuring that the exchange is memorable: instead of asking tedious obvious questions such as do you like hamburgers?, the teacher can ask the actor do you like fighting dragons or knights? or do you like dancing with Ryan Gosling or with Post Malone? Finally, the teacher can ensure that the language used is actually understood– comprehended, as Terry Waltz puts it.

As one person recently posted in CI FIGHT CLUB, “CPAs as a student always made me feel like language class was insulting my intelligence.”

Finally, remember this:  people do not need to speak a language in order to learn to speak it. You do not need to “make kids talk” to teach them to talk.  If they hear enough comprehensible input, and it’s repeated enough, they will first understand, and then later, be able to speak.

So go ahead: model dialogue, interrogate your actors (or your students during PQA, or persona especial), talk about yourself, whatever…pretty much anything is going to provide more, better and more interesting input than communicative pair activities.


There are occasionally reasons to do CPAs. As Mike Peto reminds us, if you have ten minutes to spare, reading is a much better use of time than a CPA, but but but…

a. you may have to do CPAs (ie your Defartment Headz might be in a position to dictate what you do in your class, and your job might ride on giving Headz what they want).

b. your Adminz might believe talking is how people acquire languagezzz. If you are getting observed, a CPA or two– after which you call on your two biggest egg-heads to eg. “model successful completion of learning objective”– will satisfy people with boxes to tick.