Is off-task behaviour in the language classroom bad?


Guest contributor: Jihoon Kim

Jihoon is a master’s student in Second Language Education through McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education. Jihoon’s research interests include peer interaction in the language classroom.

In North America, communicative approaches to language teaching prevail in most second language instructional settings. Go and check a second language textbook made for North American language learners; you will find that it is filled with communicative activities such as information-gap activities, interviews, consensus-building activities, and role-plays. Usually these activities are designed to be carried out in either pairs or small groups, but teachers often complain that pair or group work yields too much off-task behaviour. Thus, we feel that time spent on pair or group work is not productive, and sometimes we are tempted to skip it. However, recent studies in second language acquisition (SLA) shed new light on some off-task behaviours that commonly occur during pair/group work and make the case that they are not always harmful to language learning. In this post, I will discuss three of them.

1. Silent Learners

SLA research informed by cognitive psychology have characterized silent learners as ‘shy,’ ‘unmotivated,’ ‘disengaged,’ or ‘uninterested.’ Some socially-informed scholars (such as Norton, 2001) argue that learners’ silence is not an indicator of personality or interest level but is rather a sign that displays how learners’ participation is socially constructed and sanctioned. For example, immigrant children in the host country’s school system often experience a sense of exclusion from their peers, which deprives them of opportunities to practice the L2 in a meaningful social context. Although socially-informed and cognitivist scholars characterize silent learners differently, both still maintain the position that active participation helps language learning. In other words, the majority of SLA researchers agree that remaining silent does not contribute to language learning.

However, Dobao’s recent study (2016) reveals that although silent learners do not display visible participating behaviour during small group work, some of them are actually paying close attention to what other group members are saying and learning new grammar and vocabulary by listening. Dobao claims that silent learners spend their limited attentional resources on closely listening to others instead of expending those resources on active participation. Thus, we should be cautious of labeling silence as off-task behaviour, since some of our silent students are engaged and actively listening.

2. Jokers

Teachers all know learners who love to make amusing remarks during lessons. Sometimes these learners lighten up the classroom mood and make a lesson more dynamic. Generally, however, they are regarded as disruptive and destabilizing (i.e., side-tracking the lesson), and their behaviour is interpreted as a sign of boredom or resistance. Nevertheless, some SLA researchers argue that some of the amusing remarks, specifically language play (spontaneous playful use of some aspect of language, such as puns), are a sign of learners’ language awareness, which is linked to metalinguistic knowledge.

Ahn (2016) investigated a group of young Korean learners of English at a summer immersion camp in Korea and observed learners making amusing remarks drawn from the phonological similarity between Korean and English and from altering the meaning of English words. She argues that their undirected word play is a sign that they are engaged with language learning and showcases their language awareness. As Ahn points out, however, when an episode of language play occurs, teachers either are unaware of the connections learners are making or simply ignore it as side-talk. Thus, most episodes of language play are not used as a pedagogical tool, when in fact, we could draw attention to them and use them to raise learners’ metalinguistic awareness, for example, by highlighting similarities and differences between languages.

3. Socializers

This is probably the most common off-task behaviour a teacher can observe during group work. As soon as the teacher puts learners into groups, they often begin to talk about a range of topics that are not related to the task at hand, such as things they read on the Internet, gossip, and their past experiences. Even though socializing is highly natural for human beings, off-task socializing is frowned upon by teachers as a waste of time.

However, a recent study (Martin-Beltran et al., 2016) paints a slightly different picture of learners’ socializing behaviour. In this study, Martin-Beltran and her collaborators investigated an English-Spanish two-way language learning situation where learners of different proficiency levels were reciprocally learning languages. The researchers observed that those small groups that frequently exchanged relationship-building remarks (questions about other group members’ experiences; acknowledgement of shared experiences or feelings; words of encouragement) also engaged more in language related talk, such as questioning grammar usage or word meaning. This meta-talk (collaborative verbal construction of metalinguistic knowledge), helps learners grasp new language items or consolidate existing knowledge. Thus, the authors conclude that when a learning task calls for collaboration among members, it is natural for learners to socialize, but since groups that socialized also engaged in more productive discussion of language, ignoring the social aspect of language learning may end up depriving students of opportunities for learning.

The above-mentioned examples show that not all off-task behaviour is undesirable for learning. However, it is difficult for teachers to discern truly off-task behaviours from those are not, since interpreting learners’ behaviour is highly context dependent. Thus, it is up to individual teachers to identify the nature of behaviours and discern whether they may actually help productivity.

Does knowing the potential pedagogical value of silence, jokes involving language play, and socializing influence your attitude toward these behaviours? What are some signals that you would look for to discern between truly off-task behaviours and behaviours that actually have positive effects on learning?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.


Ahn, S.-Y. (2015). Exploring language awareness through students’ engagement in language play. Language Awareness, 25(1–2), 40–54.

Dobao, A. F. (2016). Peer interaction and learning: A focus on the silent learner. In M. Sato & S. Ballinger (Eds.), Peer interaction and second language learning. Pedagogical potential and research agenda, (pp. 33–62). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Martin-Beltran, M., Chen, P.-J., Guzman, N., & Merrills, K. (2016). How adolescents use social discourse to open space for language learning during peer interactions. In M. Sato & S. Ballinger (Eds.), Peer interaction and second language learning. Pedagogical potential and research agenda, (pp. 319-348). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Norton, B. (2001). Non-participation, imagined communities, and the language classroom. In M. Breen (Ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research, (pp. 159-171). Harlow, England: Pearson Education.


n.d. Scholarships and awards for international students. The University of British Columbia. Retrieved September 7, 2017, from


5 thoughts on “Is off-task behaviour in the language classroom bad?

  1. Excellent insight. It is certainly a balancing act figuring out what is appropriate and helpful and what is simply leading a group off track. I think this difficulty is compounded when the teacher doesn’t know the students native language and can pick up on word play.

    For me, some signals that the behaviour is problematic would be any kind of interpersonal drama being brought up, when there is a time element and the task needs to be completed and presented in a certain time, and if any of the wordplay is disrespectful.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. El Gaucho

    I think the idea of having students focused on task without diverging from it is a highly idealized one…or one that would suit more a fascist-kind of classroom.

    A class is, first an foremost, a social event and as such we cannot stop students from diverging from the task.

    Im my opinion, the important thing is that the task is completed.

    In my classes, I am very explicit about this. I tell my students to finsih the task, then call me so that I can hear what they have found or done…and while i’m checking out other groups’ work, they can talk, use their phones….as long as it doesn’t become too noisy.

    My technique works…but I must say that I’m working wiht college-level students. I don’t know whether and how effective my approach would be in primary- and secondary-level classes

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jihoon

      I agree that completing the given task is important, and I believe that it demonstrates that learners are paying attention to what they are doing, and the above-mentioned studies commonly point out that paying attention is the first step towards language awareness and language awareness, in turn, may help learners acquire new second language knowledge or consolidate existing second language knowledge.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “A class is, first an foremost, a social event” – couldn’t agree more with El Gaucho. After all, language is the result of humans’ drive to socialize. And, as you say Jihoon, yes, completing the task is the ultimate goal.
        Students need not only to learn the new language in an orderly manner but they need to play with it, to be creative with it. Therefore, a bit of off-task behaviour is not only natural but sometimes even desired. For some students, it may fuel their motivation into learning a second language.
        As for the types described in the post, I used to get anxious about my silent students. I was always wondering if they were bored or if it was my teaching method the main issue. I finally got to see, in most cases, that they turn out to be top grade students, just preferring to ponder on other students’ interactions or carefully analysing their own production before actually saying anything.
        Finally, in order to avoid too much off-task behaviour, I encourage students to work in pairs or in groups with different students, preferably with different mother tongues.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: What role does groupwork actually play in language learning? – Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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