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World Languages Learning Activity Types 1,2

The activity types for world languages presented below aim to provide a systematic, pedagogically meaningful scaffold that guides teachers’ instructional thinking, decision-making, and technology integration while promoting the development of students’ communicative competence. These activities draw from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Standards for Foreign Language Learning, which state that communication in the target language is understood as a process that involves three modes: (a) interpersonal, (b) interpretive, and (c) presentational.

The interpersonal mode involves two-way written or oral communication with active negotiation of meaning. Because of this feature, speaking, listening, reading, and writing can be involved. The interpretive mode focuses on the appropriate interpretation of meanings (e.g., listening to a broadcast, reading a text, or viewing a movie). Because the author of the news, text, or movie is absent, there are no opportunities for active negotiation of meaning. This mode involves listening, reading, and viewing abilities. The presentational mode is a one-way communication mode therefore, no opportunities for negotiation of meaning between presenters and audience are provided. This mode involves speaking and writing abilities.

Because these communication modes require students to work on different skills as they develop their communicative competence, we have conceptualized and organized these activities into five genres that address different abilities: (a) listening, (b) speaking, (c) reading, (d) writing, and (e) viewing. In each of the genre tables, learning activity types are listed along with descriptions.  A third column in each table is comprised of possible technologies to use that are keyed to each of the activity types.  The software titles and specific Web sites included are meant to be illustrative.  The taxonomy authors do not necessarily endorse any of these technologies.

These activities—used in combination or alone—are designed to promote communication in the target language (L2) as well as to provide opportunities to explore the connections between the target language and its underlying culture(s).

Listening Activity Types

Listening skills may seem more passive or less demanding than other language skills. However, when students are engaged in listening activities, they employ different competencies. For instance, when trying to comprehend and interpret a message, they need to know morphology, syntax, vocabulary (grammatical competence), the social and cultural expectations of native speakers in the language studied (sociolinguistic competence), how to use pronouns and conjunctions in a cohesive and coherent manner (discursive competence), and how to make educated guesses to compensate for gaps in their knowledge (strategic competence). In sum, listening activities require the interplay of different types of knowledge that go beyond “getting what it was said.”

Table 1
: Listening Activity Types

Activity Type

Brief Description

Possible Technologies

Listen to a conversation

Students listen to a conversation in L2, either live or recorded (e.g., from a textbook supplement, radio broadcast, skit, guest speakers).

CD, Web audio site, audioconferencing

Listen to a teacher’s prompt(s)

Students listen to teachers’ prompts in L2 (e.g., assignment directions, game prompts, questions).

Podcast, recorded audio

Listen to a broadcast

Students listen to a broadcast in L2 (e.g., radio, television, news, performance).

Web radio, podcast

Listen to a poem/song

Students listen to a poem recited or song sung in L2, live or recorded.

CD. Web (e.g., TeacherTube), podcast

Listen to an audio recording

Students listen to a recording in L2 (teacher- or student-made, professionally produced).

Podcast, Web audio site

Listen to a presentation

Students listen to a live or recorded presentation in L2 (e.g., guest presentation, student-created oral report, teacher-created lecture).

Presentation software, video/audio conference

Listen to a story

Students listen to a story written and read aloud in L2.

CD, audiobook, Web (e.g., TeacherTube), podcast


Speaking Activity Types

When learning a foreign language, speaking skills are crucial to students’ engagement and sustained language development. After all, what is the purpose of learning a language if you cannot speak it? The activity types proposed below are appropriate for students with different levels of language proficiency within the continuum described in the ACTFL Guidelines.

Table 2
: Speaking Activity Types

Activity Type

Brief Description

Possible Technologies

Have a conversation with a partner/small group

Students converse with a limited number of others in L2 (improvised or with prompts).

Audio/Video conference, telephone

Have a conversation with a large group

Students converse with a large group in L2 (e.g. question-and-answer with a guest speaker, improvisational performance, class discussion).

Audio/Video conference

Perform role plays

Students speak in L2 in character in a simulated situation (e.g., ordering dinner in a restaurant, checking in at the airport, skit, play, impersonation, puppet show).

Video camera, audio recorder

Engage in an oral question-and-answer activity

Students ask and/or answer questions from others in L2 (e.g., exchange personal information, request directions, interact with guest speaker).

Audio/Video conference


Students repeat what someone else says in L2 (e.g., tongue-twister games, “Whisper Down the Lane”/”Telefono Descompuesto,” oral exercises).

Podcast, audio recorder

Have an informal debate

Students debate an issue in L2.

Audio/Video conference, audio recorder

Deliver a presentation

Students deliver an (in)formal presentation (e.g., advertise a product, present a report, perform a commercial for a tourist destination).

Presentation software, video recorder

Create an audio/video recording

Students create a recording (e.g., a commercial for an invented or real product, “how to do it” demonstrations, a song or rap).

Audio recorder/ video recorder, podcast

Tell a story

Students tell a lengthy or short story in L2.

Audio recorder/ video recorder


Students sing a song in L2.

Audio recorder/ video recorder

Define terms orally

Students provide L2 definitions for L2 words.

Audio recorder

Describe something

Students describe an object, person, place, or idea in L2.

Audio recorder


Students recite a rehearsed piece in L2 (e.g., poem, quotation, common phrase).

Audio recorder


Writing Activity Types (both expository & creative)

Writing in L2 focuses on both the process and the product. When working with writing skills, students can engage in all three modes of communication— interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational. In addition, writing abilities involve the same four competencies mentioned above (grammatical, sociolinguistic, discursive, and strategic) that enable learners to convey meanings with accuracy across cultures. The activities proposed below address both expository and creative writing skills.

Table 3: Writing Activity Types

Activity Type

Brief Description

Possible Technologies

Engage in a written question-and-answer activity

Students ask and answer questions about different topics (e.g., daily routines, personal traits, target culture, likes and dislikes).

Word processing software, chat, Email, online discussion

Write a paper

Students compose a written response (e.g., position paper, essay, report) to a prompt (e.g. art critique, passage from textbook, newspaper article).

Word processing software, blog, wiki

Label objects

Students prepare labels to match to objects in the class, at their homes, and/or at school.

Word processing software, drawing software, concept mapping software

Define terms in written form

Students use new and old vocabulary to compose a glossary of terms (e.g., glossary of terms for textbook chapter, literary piece read in class or as a homework)

Word processing software, concept mapping software, wiki

Write a sentence/paragraph

Students write a sentence or paragraph to describe an object, situation, and/or place.

Word processing software, concept mapping software

Create a comic

Students create a comic strip to apply functions, culture, grammar, and/or vocabulary related to a given topic.

Comic creation software, word processing software, drawing software

Write a script

Students write a script for a soap opera episode, a comedy skit, or a play.

Word processing software, wiki

Write a poem

Students write a poem (e.g., haiku, cinquain, diamond, concrete poetry).

Word processing software, wiki

Write a letter

Students write a letter in response to a prompt (e.g., penpal/keypal communication, letter to a family member, letter to the Editor, a complaint).

Word processing software, Email

Create a game

Students create a game to practice vocabulary, grammar, language functions, culture (e.g., flash cards, Bingo, Jeopardy).

Word processing software, game creation software, presentation software

Write a story

Students write a story inspired by personal experience, a cultural topic, or a literary work read as part of course assignments.

Word processing software, blog, wiki

Write journal entries

Students write journal entries using targeted grammar structures and vocabulary (e.g., diary, blog, dialogue journal).

Blog, word processing software, wiki, Email list, online discussion forum

Create a book

Students create a book (e.g., biography, cookbook, poem collection, picture book).

Word processing software, drawing software, presentation software, Web authoring software

Participate in an online discussion

Students engage in online discussions and take a stand on assigned topics (e.g., global warming, bilingual education, international policy).

Online discussion forum, chat room, text messaging

Create a test

Students create a topic or chapter test alone or with a peer (e.g., multiple choice, cloze, true or false, matching pairs).

Word processing software, test creation software, Web authoring software

Create an illustration accompanied by text

Students create a map, a concept map, word pictures, a mural, or a storyboard to illustrate historical events or cultural topics related to a textbook unit.

Drawing software, concept mapping software, presentation software

Create a newspaper/newsletter/ news magazine/ brochure

Students synthesize information from textbooks, encyclopedias, and/or websites and develop a print-based or electronic periodical.

Word processing software, desktop publishing software, Web authoring software, wiki

Create a chart/table

Students compile and synthesize information from different sources and organize it in charts and/or tables.

Word processing software, spreadsheet

List word families

Students develop word clusters (e.g. “Familias de Palabras”).

Concept mapping software, word processing software


Students assist each other with their writing projects (e.g., peer editing).

Word processing software, wiki

Take notes

Students record relevant information on course topics (e.g., presentations, field trips, videos).

Word processing software, concept mapping software, wiki (for collaborative note-taking)


Reading Activity Types

The cognitive processes involved in reading in a foreign language are similar to those described for the listening skills. Students bring into play grammatical, discursive, sociolinguistic, and strategic competences when attempting to comprehend and interpret a written message. The following activity types may be performed either silent or aloud.

Table 4: Reading Activity Types

Activity Type

Brief Description

Possible Technologies

Read a story

Students read and analyze stories by relevant authors from their target language to get acquainted with different literary styles (e.g., J. Borges, A. Matute, H. Quiroga).

Web, ebook reader

Read a poem

Students read and analyze poems by authors from different nationalities and literary traditions (e.g., P. Neruda, J. Hérnandez, G. Mistral, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).


Read a newspaper/magazine

Students read and extract information from newspapers and magazines from different countries where their target language is spoken.


Read a book/novel

Students read and analyze books and novels from different literary traditions and authors (e.g., G. Garcia Marquez, J. Cortazar, E. Zola, L. Esquivel).


Web, ebook reader

Read a letter

Students read letters from newspapers or magazines, family archives, legal documents (e.g., from and to editors, from one family member to another one, legal notifications).

Email, Web

Read a textbook

Students read and extract information from textbooks (e.g., cultural notes, grammar, vocabulary lists).

Web, ebook reader, CD

Read a comic (e.g. for children, political cartoon)

Students read a comic and relate it to the cultural and/or political reality/realities represented (e.g., “Mafalda,” “Maitena,” “Asterix,” “Ramón”).


Read a chart/table

Students read chart(s)/table(s) to extract information and to connect it to course topics (e.g., weather service, census data by languages, health issues by countries).


Read an article (e.g. encyclopedia entry, Web page)

Students read article/s to further their knowledge about course topics (e.g. encyclopedia entry, Web page, electronic journals and magazines).

Web, CD

Read a diary/journal

Students read entries from peers’ diaries/journals posted online.

Web, blog


Viewing Activity Types

Viewing abilities are critical for “zooming into” the target language culture. Through viewing activities, students can observe authentic interactions among native speakers, learn about differences among dialects, accents, registers, and body language without leaving the boundaries of their classroom. As with reading and listening, students learning an L2 bring into play the same four competencies to comprehend and interpret a message. The viewing activity types below vary in the degree of challenge offered to students in terms of comprehension and interpretation of meanings.

Table 5: Viewing Activity Types

Activity Type

Brief Description

Possible Technologies

Watch a performance

Students attend a live performance or watch a recorded event (e.g., DVD of Ballet Folklórico de México, concert, play).

UStream, Web (e.g., TeacherTube), DVD

Watch a video

Students watch contemporary or classic movies, video clips, commercials, documentaries, to enhance comprehension of course topics.

Web (e.g., TeacherTube, Hulu), DVD

Observe a live interaction

Students attend or watch interactions in the target language to get acquainted with different communication styles (academic and non-academic) in different settings (e.g., sporting event, at the airport, a job interview, at the doctor’s office).

Web, videoconferencing, UStream

View an exhibit

Students take physical or virtual field trips (e.g., to an art museum, cultural sites, other students’ works, school exhibition).

Web, Web-based virtual fieldtrip, videoconference

View image(s)

Students use images to elicit information about course topics (e.g. pictogram, photographs, drawings).

Web, CD



National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (2006). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century. Yonkers, NY: Author.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (1998).   ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K-12 Learners.  Yonkers, NY:  Author.


van Olphen, M., Hofer, M., & Harris, J. (2011, February). World languages learning activity types. Retrieved from College of William and Mary, School of Education, Learning Activity Types: http://activitytypes.wm.edu/WorldLanguages.html

   “World Languages Learning Activity Types” by Marcela van Olphen, Mark Hofer and Judi Harris is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License
. Based on a work at http://activitytypes.wm.edu.