There was recently a discussion about other things on a mailing list, and a teacher gave some examples of types of assessment being used. One thing stuck out in my mind: a task that required students to make a “phone call” (to an online service) and inquire about renting an apartment in a city in the target culture.

Sounds great, right? Very authentic, something someone would actually need to do in the target language in real life. Probably something most language teachers have actually done themselves, if they’ve lived in the target culture for any length of time.

Except that if you’re teaching K-12, many, if not most, students of this age have never rented an apartment on their own, or even made this sort of phone call. In their native language, let alone the target language.

Don’t get me wrong — the task is great. But it’s also important to avoid making assumptions as to the competence of students in their own language, before any challenges of the target language get added in. If you asked me to call up and inquire about day care, for example, I wouldn’t be able to ask nearly as many questions, or as good questions, as someone who actually has children, or who has dealt with daycare themselves in the past. As an adult with a lot of life experience, having watched lots of movies and read lots of books and heard lots of gossip, I can probably make something up enough to pass a test. But what if I were a 14 year old who doesn’t have this imagination and stock of stories to fall back on? What questions would I ask? Would I ask questions, or would I fall into an uncomfortable silence, not because I couldn’t formulate the questions in the target language, but because I just didn’t know what to say?

The same caution goes for assignments where kids are asked to write stories, especially time-limited ones. Timed writes are really, really useful — they provide a “brain dump” that you can’t get any other way from so many students in so little time. But the problem is always that one student who just can’t think of anything to write. He might have the language, but it won’t show unless he can think of something to use it on.

So, despite the “horror” of using (not abusing) the native language, it’s very much preferable to provide the “authentic task” some guidance in English, maybe in the form of bullet points telling the student what INFORMATION needs to be obtained (location; rent; deposit; pets ok?; etc.) or, in the case of a story, in the form of a drawing. Even stick figures are fine — just so the student can fall back on that as a guide to help him show off what he can do with the language, instead of struggling with “L2 writer’s block”.