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6 Chapter 6: Designing Engaging Tasks

Key Issues

  1. Tasks are designed to help students meet objectives.
  2. Tasks must be engaging in order for students to learn.
  3. Engaging tasks make pedagogical connections between students’ backgrounds and needs in relation to the objectives.
  4. Tasks should incorporate culture and be culturally responsive.
  5. Students can help design and carry out tasks.

As you read the scenario below, think about issues that the principal needs to address with Mr. Carhart.

Dr. Johnson, the principal of Franklin Middle School, was conducting the mandatory annual review of his teachers. Mr. Carhart, a ninth-grade social studies teacher, had turned in a lesson plan in the district’s required format, including language objectives and connections to students’ backgrounds. During the required observation of this lesson in Mr. Carhart’s social studies class, Dr. Johnson listened to groups of students present very similar speeches about the causes of the Civil War. Dr. Johnson noticed that there seemed to be a lot of down time in the class during which students in the audience were off task and not paying attention. In addition, the English language learners (ELLs) in the class were sitting in a group together and did not seem to be actively listening at all. Dr. Johnson was interested in hearing Mr. Carhart’s purpose for this task and what he thought about the behavior of his students during it.


Having students present to the class is a technique that is commonly used in schools. In the chapter-opening scenario, however, the principal, Dr. Johnson, has some justifiable concerns. If students were not spending time on task, and the ELLs were not engaged at all, chances are that they were not learning as much as they could.

The amount of time that students spend on task is clearly related to the amount of engagement that they feel (Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2013). Creating language objectives to help students access and understand goals and making connections in the lesson’s introduction to help initiate engagement are important steps in helping students engage. However, the design of learning tasks must also emphasize access and engagement.


Before reading the rest of Chapter 6, think about how you might change the task that Mr. Carhart’s students are involved in so that students are more engaged in the content and language and can meet lesson objectives.

Understanding Engagement and Tasks


An engaging task does not necessarily mean one that is fun but rather one that is worth doing because it is inherently interesting or meaningful to students in some other way. Decades of studies in learning, brain research, psychology, motivation, and second language acquisition clearly show that engaged students achieve more (Bender, 2017; Bruner, 1961; Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2013; Egbert & Borysenko, 2019; Meltzer & Hamman, 2004). This is particularly true for ELLs and other diverse students because engagement in tasks can mediate the effects of factors outside school that may otherwise interfere with achievement (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Guthrie, Shafer, & Huang, 2001). As Egbert (2007) notes;
Engagement includes student involvement and ownership. . .. An engaging task means that students spend more time on task and have deeper focus, leading to greater success. In order to engage students, teachers should understand their needs, wants, and interests as relevant to their [learning]; in other words, to comprehend their learning goals. (n.p.)

Meltzer and Hamman (2004) refer to engagement as “persistence in and absorption with reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking even when there are other choices available” (p.10). They propose three strategies, supported throughout the literature on engagement, for engaging students in tasks that integrate content and language:

  1. Making connections to students’ lives by creating opportunities for authentic interactions with people, objects, and experiences that initiate student interest. In other words, tasks should be authentic and relevant for learners.
  2. Having students interact with each other and with language. Tasks should be cooperative and/or collaborative in both focusing on language and using language for authentic purposes.
  3. Creating responsive classrooms, or considering students’ needs, wants, abilities, and interests.

In other words, tasks should be differentiated, challenging, and scaffolded (Egbert, 2007). Clearly, understanding students’ backgrounds and interests, as suggested in Chapter 3, is central to student engagement.

Elements of Tasks

An understanding of tasks is also crucial to creating engaging ones. Tasks can be divided into two overlapping components, process and product. Task process is what the students do and how they do it during the task. Process can include whether students work in groups, what kind of language they use, and what tools they employ in doing a task. Task product can be seen as the outcome of this process or the end result of the task. Products can include written essays, plays, art pieces, dioramas, and many other (usually concrete and graded) artifacts. In the past, more emphasis was typically placed on task products, but the process is equally important because engagement and learning depend on what happens during it.


Before reading further, list the elements of task process and product that you know (in other words, think about what is involved in designing tasks).

Elements of task process and product that teachers can consider intentionally in their task design are listed in Figure 6.1.

Elements of Task Process Elements of Task Product
Instructional groupings
Task structure
Time and pacing
Teacher/student roles
Procedural tools

Figure 6.1 Elements of task process and product.\

Elements o Task Process

Regardless of the content of the task, the elements of the process that require thought and careful design are the same. Each of these elements will be described next.

  • Instructional grouping. Grouping includes how many students work together and also with whom they work. In different tasks or different parts of one task, students can work individually, in dyads or trios, in large groups, or as a whole class. In addition, students can work in either homogeneous or hetergeneous groups that should be determined by aspects such as ability level, first language, interest, and/or skill.
    Which of these groupings is part of the design of a specific task depends on what the task is meant to accomplish. It also depends on how students connect to the groupings. For example, students who come from educational backgrounds where group work was prevalent may prefer collaboration and may need help working individually, and students who are used to working individually may prefer that approach and also need to learn skills for working in groups. Students in diverse classrooms benefit from teachers balancing the use of many participation structures (Peregoy & Boyle, 2016): from teacher-directed activities to small cooperative groups, to solo work. Students also profit from frequent opportunities to interact with each other and with the teacher during instructional activities.
  • Modes. In addition to the basic modes[1] of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, teachers and students can use graphics, video, art, music, storytelling and other modes that incorporate student backgrounds and help students access the content and language of the lesson. Students learn by interacting in all of these modes. Completing written worksheets, while useful for remediation and practice, should not be the main task of a lesson.
  • Task structure. Tasks can be open, partially structured, or highly structured. The task structure can determine how students get information and how they express themselves during the task. For example, in a structured task, the teacher may ask students to complete individually a predetermined set of task steps using specific materials, or in a more open task, students may choose which materials they use and how they arrive at the product. Whether the structure is cooperative or competitive, open or structured, or some combination, teachers can make sure that students understand how to participate via explicit modeling or instruction of group processes and language.
  • Time and pacing. Because they are such a diverse group, students do not get the same work done in the same amount of time. Some students work faster, some slower; some have language or content barriers; others complete the overall requirements but do not get deep into the topic. In designing a task, teachers need to consider how much time different students need while also considering how to provide enough scaffolding that students can complete their tasks. Having a set of task extensions or additional tasks that students are expected to tackle when they complete the required task sooner than expected can help them spend classroom time to the best advantage.
  • Scaffolding. Teachers can scaffold[2] student learning with such strategies as modeling, eliciting, probing, restating, clarifying, questioning, and praising, as appropriate. This can be done in a carefully planned way and when the teacher sees that students need help during a task. Students can be scaffolded in both content and language, particularly in the informal, intercultural, instructional, and academic language to which they have not previously been exposed. These kinds of scaffolds can also be provided by other students and paraprofessionals, class guests, carefully constructed computer programs, and the use of dictionaries and other reference works. If students are given too much scaffolding, however, they may not feel challenged and may become bored; if too little scaffolding is available, the task may seem too difficult and some students may flounder. The idea is to plan scaffolding so that there is just enough challenge to keep students engaged, regardless of their level. Understanding students’ backgrounds helps in designing lessons that have the appropriate amount of scaffolding.


Think about the ways that you scaffold instruction or have had instruction scaffolded for you. Make a list of scaffolds that may work for different groups of students.

  • Resources/texts. Lesson texts and other content and language resources must be at appropriate levels. Text sets, consisting of texts with similar content but a variety of language levels, can be assembled from different sources. Other resources should be used if they help students meet the objectives and can engage students in doing so.[foonote]National Geographic Explorer magazine comes in Pioneer and Pathfinder editions, both with the same cover and illustrations so that elementary school students do not know who has the easier text. The focus of both is on content and language. Newsela (newsela.com) has 6 language levels of the same news articles.[/footnote]


Search the Internet for a text set centered around a specific content topic. Find at least one reading that can be used with each of the following three student groups: improving, grade level, and above grade level in language ability and knowledge.

  • Teacher/student roles. Who is the expert? Who gives help? Who asks questions? Who talks? Research shows that when the answer to most of these questions is the student, the more likely it is that students will be engaged and achieve (Meltzer & Hamman, 2004). Tasks should be developed with the intention that students will be active and engaged in learning rather than recipients of it. For example, instead of lecture, teachers can ask essential questions like What?, How?, and Why? (Prensky, 2007) that lead students to create, with the teacher, a process for answering them
  • Procedural tools. Tools that can support ELLs’ processes include everything from books to pencils, to visitors, to blogging software. Teachers need to determine which tool(s) has the best fit for the task. If computers are not really necessary, they probably should not be used. Likewise, if a book cannot give the best idea of the content or language, a different tool should be chosen. This tool–task fit is important because it takes the focus off the tool and keeps it on the content and language of the lesson. In other words, tools should not get in the way of learning.

One, some, or all of the elements of the task process can be designed to be engaging based on a teacher’s understanding of her students and the curriculum. In addition, by allowing students to make some of the design choices, teachers can differentiate[3] both task process and product. Differentiation, in turn, promotes greater access and engagement.[4]

Elements of Task Product

The elements of task process are clearly instrumental in engaging students and supporting achievement. Several aspects of the task product are also important and will be discussed next.

  • Audience. Students are typically more engaged in their products when they will be viewed by an audience other than the teacher. A letter written to a scientist or politician, a book to be read to students in other classes or be placed in the library, or a model to be entered in a competition are more likely to engage students than worksheets or writing assignments that the teacher grades and then students “file” in the nearest trash can.
  • Mode. How can students complete their products? As in the task process, modes have an important role. Speaking, writing, drawing, acting, singing, constructing, and creating are among the many choices teachers can make. While designing what the students will produce, teachers can review the lesson objective verbs (see Figure 4.1) and create the products broadly enough that students have a chance to express themselves in ways that they can be understood. Students can also be given choices about how to represent their learning.

Assessment of both the process and the product should help students see relationships among objectives, connections, and the task, including both the process and the product. Assessment is discussed further in Chapter 7.

Pedagogical Connections

Engagement comes when task elements—of both process and product—are designed to work for students. To design effective tasks, teachers can make pedagogical connections; in other words, they should think about the educational backgrounds and interests of their students while designing tasks. Making and explaining such connections can help lead to student success. For example, Oh (2005) notes that successful learning tasks in her classroom were those in which her students were encouraged to produce products using their creativity and experiences, including creating short stories, poems, raps, mobiles, video clips, quilts, puppet shows, and PowerPoint presentations. Murray (1999) likewise describes projects in which students chose the topic or procedure for their learning and recorded in some way how the course content connected to their daily lives. When making the connection, the teacher can tell the students, “We are working in groups today because I know that you learn best that way,” or “We will be working individually on this project so that you each get to present your own ideas, which I know you like to do.” These ideas, and the general techniques described below, are based on the teacher’s understanding of the diversity of learners within the classroom.

Techniques for Making Pedagogical Connections

In 1998, The Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence recommended the pedagogical strategies in Figure 6.2, which teachers can still employ to make instructional connections to student backgrounds. Another principle is to use culturally relevant resources such as minority or first language literature, film, and artifacts.

Key Issues

  1. Listen to students talk about familiar topics, such as home and community.
  2. Respond to students’ talk and questions, making on-the-spot changes that relate directly to their comments.
  3. Interact with students in ways that respect their speaking styles, which may be different from the teacher’s, such as paying attention to wait-time, eye contact, turn taking, and spotlighting.
  4. Connect student language with literacy and content-area knowledge through speaking, listening, reading, and writing activities.
  5. Encourage students to use content vocabulary to express their understanding.
  6. Encourage students to use their first and second languages in instructional activities (p. 2).

Figure 6.2 Principles for connecting instruction to students’ lives.

Teachers can also promote cultural awareness, engage students, and enrich the presentation of content by integrating facts from a variety of cultures where they naturally fit into the lesson. Figure 6.3 presents examples of tasks into which teachers have integrated cultural facts.

Topic Example
Rocket inquiry During construction of a paper rocket and study of gravity and force, teacher integrates facts about space programs in different countries and the international space station.
What’s going on in the sky? In a lesson about weather, with a focus on rain, the teacher notes folk beliefs about rain, including the South African rain-maker queen and other cultures’ rain dances.
Rosa Parks During the lesson, the teacher mentions other nonviolent protesters, including Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and others, and their contributions to the world.
Persuasion The teacher integrates different cultural views of persuasion, demonstrating with television commercials and other forms of advertisements.
Plants The teacher and students discuss contributions from researchers and agrarians around the world to the work of changing and improving plants.

Figure 6.3 Integrating cultural facts.

Pedagogical connections, or the design of tasks that support achievement for all learners, work with personal and academic connections to provide students with both access and reasons to engage.


What topics do you know enough about to include cross-cultural facts? Which do you need to learn more about?

Guidelines or Task Design

In addition to the suggestions above, two additional guidelines can help teachers create effective tasks.

Guideline 1: Give students a reason to listen.
In the chapter-opening scenario, students were listening to practically the same presentation over and over. From their reactions, it is clear that they had little incentive to listen, even though the teacher has asked them to. To make this task more engaging for students, Mr. Carhart has many options. For example, he could ask the students to take notes for an upcoming test, or to list differences in the information that the groups found. Even better, he could design a jigsaw activity, asking each student group to present on a different aspect of the war, providing information to their peers that they would need to synthesize in order to complete their final product. Whether students are required to fill out a graphic organizer or ask two questions of the presenters, students always need a reason to listen to ensure that they do.

Guideline 2: Do not do what students can do.
The more students have invested in a task or lesson, the more engaged they tend to be. Teachers who give students choices and allow them more autonomy in making instructional decisions will find the students more involved in their learning. By understanding students’ backgrounds, teachers can design specific roles for students in tasks and lessons that they would not have previously considered.[5] The list below presents some tasks that students can do and that teachers typically take responsibility for:

  • Write test questions.
  • Help their peers review.
  • Lead a brainstorming session.
  • Explain tasks.
  • Form effective groups.
  • Decorate the classroom.
  • Provide feedback.
  • Search for resources.
  • Find cultural facts.
  • Create choices for products.


With a partner, list other tasks that students can do that teachers often do not allow them to do.

Providing students with reasons to listen and letting them participate in instructional planning can facilitate student engagement and thereby their success. Figure 6.4 summarizes these guidelines. Additional guidelines are presented throughout this book.

Guideline Example
Give students a reason to listen. Do not assume that students will listen because they are supposed to. Give students a task that they cannot complete unless they have listened.
Do not do what students can do. Students are more likely to engage in tasks in which they have an important role. Think about what students can do through each step in the lesson design process.

Chapter 6.4 Guidelines for designing engaging tasks.


After reading the chapter, what advice would you give to the principal and teacher in the chapter-opening scenario?


The careful design of task processes and products can result in student engagement, particularly when the backgrounds and needs of all students are considered. Instructional connections, the integration of cultural knowledge, and a focus on student autonomy contribute to achievement for all students. The measurement of lessons and student process and outcomes is the subject of Chapter 7.


For Reflection

  1. Task process. Think about times that you have given students worksheets or been given worksheets by a teacher. How might students be involved in the information they must learn in a more active way?
  2. Task product. What’s the most interesting product you have created? What made it engaging to you?

For Action

  1. Organizing task design. Use the elements chart in Figure 6.1 to make a checklist of elements you want to remember to include in your lessons.
  2. Standards and culture. Look at the standards for your content area and/or grade level. Find cultural facts that you could integrate into lessons on the topics that the standards require.


Bender, W. (2017). 20 strategies for increasing student engagement. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Christenson, S., Reschly, A., & Wylie, C. (2013) (Eds). Handbook of research on student engagement. New York: Springer.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Literacy and intrinsic motivation. Daedalus, 119, 115–140.

Egbert, J. (2007). Asking useful questions: Goals, engagement, and differentiation in technology-enhanced language learning.  Teaching English with Technology, 7(1), n.p. Available at http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_article27.htm

Egbert, J., & Borysenko, N. (2019, October). Standards, engagement, and Minecraft: Optimizing experiences in language teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 85, 115-124.

Guthrie, J. T., Schafer, W. D., & Huang, C. (2001). Benefits of opportunity to read and balanced reading instruction for reading achievement and engagement: A policy analysis of state NAEP in Maryland. Journal of Educational Research, 94(3), 145–162.

Meltzer, J., & Hamann, E. (2004). Meeting the literacy development needs of adolescent English language learners through content area learning. Part one: Focus on motivation and engagement. Providence, RI: The Brown University Education Alliance/Northeast and Islands Regional Education Laboratory.

Oh, J. (2005). Connecting learning with students’ interests and daily lives with project assignment: “It is my project.” Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition. Available at www.aaee.com.au/conferences/papers/2005/Paper/Paper253.pdf

Peregoy, S., & Boyle, O. (2016). Reading, writing and learning in ESL: A resource book for K12 teachers (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Prensky, M. (2007). New issues, new answers: Changing paradigms. Educational Technology, 47(4), 64.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Boston: MIT Press.

  1. Language modes include listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and representing. Multiple modes should be integrated in all tasks, unless the task is specifically designed to focus on one mode.
  2. Scaffolding means providing support of the appropriate type and level of difficulty.
  3. Differentiation of instruction means designing instruction based on student abilities, interests, and backgrounds. The purpose is to help all students reach the same goal but to do so in a way that works for each student.
  4. See these useful texts and websites:  Differentiated Instruction by T. Hall, 2002 (http://www.cast.org/publications/ncac/ncac_diffinstruc.html); How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed.), by C. Tomlinson, 2001, Alexandria, VA: ASCD; and many other useful resources from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) (www.ascd.org).
  5. Learner autonomy refers to the amount of responsibility that learners take or are given for their own learning, including the extent to which they make choices about task process and product.


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Chapter 6: Designing Engaging Tasks by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Joy Egbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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