Using Information Gap Activities


Look at the following quote from Scott Thornbury discussing Information Gap activities:

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task ... where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome 
Describe and Draw, Spot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

                               Scott Thornbury I is for Information Gap (no longer available on the web)

This article discusses the following questions:

a.  What are the principles that underlie the type of information gap activity described above and what are their uses and advantages? 

b. What criticisms can be made of this type of activity?

c.  What other types of communicative activities can be used in the classroom which    avoid these criticisms?


a.  What are the principles that underlie the type of information gap activity described above, and what are their uses and advantages?   

1. Principle/Advantage: Student talking time should be maximised in the classroom. Second language learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in interaction and meaningful communication as cognitive processing of the language is deeper. Information gap activities, being PW or GW based, achieve these aims.

2. Principle:  Communicative activities should be message focused. Learner attention should be on conveying meaning, not on the language. Focus on form and concern for formal accuracy should be temporarily “parked” in favour of fluency. This does not mean however that accuracy is unimportant, as lack of correction can lead to fossilisation of error. However, the T. can take notes of errors overheard, as well as other emergent language and correct them at the end of the activity.

3. Principle:  Communication activities should have a purpose – a pre-decided and recognisable outcome. Achievement of this goal will constitute communicative success. In information gap activities the information is generally not just swapped, but used to achieve an outcome – eg identifying all the differences, or drawing the picture.  Advantages: Achieving the task can be highly motivating for learners , whilst difficulties in doing so can draw their attention to the fact that they may be using the language inaccurately and need to reformulate their utterances comprehensibly. Swain (The Output Hypothesis) suggests that this realisation/reformulation promotes acquisition.

4. Principle:  Classroom activities should reflect the conditions of “real” communication, where we do not know what the other person is going to say but must listen, process the language and information, and respond in real time. It is only by practising this in the C/R that learners will be able to do it outside.  In the audiolingual period, when L. output was strictly controlled to prevent error, learners often found themselves having studied for several years but, if they went to the target country, unable to communicate fluently.

5.  Principle:   When doing information gap activities, learners will have equal rights in the discourse. Advantage: In freer info gaps activities such as those mentioned in the question, this will mean they need to negotiate topic, negotiate turns etc. This opportunity is essential as T- controlled discourse will tend towards an Initiation- response – feedback structure where learners are restricted to the response act (Sinclair and Coulthard).

6.  Principle:  Negotiation of meaning is important for language acquisition. Information gap activities, which allow for the use of clarification strategies, circumlocution etc provide this possibility.  I find, however, that these strategies are not used automatically but need to be taught explicitly. For example, circumlocution strategies can be practised by first teaching phrases such as “it’s the thing which you use to…” and then providing an activity where eg Ls have six pictures of items in front of them learner A says “it’s the thing which you use to plant flowers” and B points to the picture of a trowel. They then swap roles

7. Use: to ensure the participation of all learners. As some of the information is known to one learner only, this learner has to participate and can't be a silent observer. Advantage: This "pushes" weaker or shyer learners into communicating, but also ensures that stronger or more dominant participants don't "take over" the discourse, leaving no room for the others.

8. Use: to allow for differentiation between weaker/lower level learners and the others. For example, jigsaw activities start with a stage where learners read or listen to a text from which they must extract the necessary information for the task. The difficulty and/or length given to the different groups can be geared to their needs- eg stronger learners receive a more complex text than weaker ones. Advantages: a) This allows all learners to work at their own level, maximising learning and creating a feeling of "success" for all; b) It ensures that this stage will take the same amount of time for all learners - stronger learners won't have to wait for weaker ones to come to terms with a text which is too difficult for them.

9. Use: to develop higher order thinking skills. For example, a jigsaw activity where different groups hear or read the accounts of different witnesses to a crime and have to work out "who dunnit" leads to the need to hypothesise and draw logical conclusions (eg The cleaner might have seen where the keys to the safe were kept while she was cleaning the bedroom.) Advantage: In eg a state school situation, the teacher must arguably be not "just" a language teacher, but also an educator.skills is therefore an important objective. 

10. Use: To provide a reason for communicating in cultures where it is not usual to share personal information. Eg Chinese learners may be unwilling to talk about personal achievements and experiences, or even daily routines. In information gap activities the information usually has no personal element (Find Someone Who... is an exception here). Advantage: This allows learners to feel "comfortable" while participating in the activity. (However, see also

11. Use: to increase engagement. Information Gap activities often have a game-type format which can be fun for the learners - eg Spot the Difference, Describe and Arrange etc. When learners enjoy this type of activity it will lead to greater engagement, which in turn leads to greater depth of processing of the language and ultimately greater retention. (However, see also point 12).

12. Use: To develop text mediation skills. Some Ls need to convey the content of a text (in either L1 or L2) to others – eg EAP Ls need to be able to summarise ideas found in their reading and cite the sources conventionally, both in writing and in speech during tutorials etc. Jigsaw reading activities can be used here: each L in a group reads a different article on the same topic (possibly in English but also in their L1). They then discuss the articles to find out what each said – whether they had the same or different information/opinions etc. Finally, they write a short essay discussing the topic and combining the information. Advantage: the learners can see how the task relates to their needs outside the classroom, which increases motivation.

c. What criticisms can be made of this type of activity?

13.    With the exception of the task type described in point 12 above, the task types are not authentic, in that they don’t always reflect a communicative task that we might perform outside the classroom (eg Spot the Difference).  They might therefore be resisted by eg learners with a pragmatist learning style (Honey and Mumford) who would want all activities to be closely tied to external needs.

14.   As mentioned above, with the exception of Find someone who… information gap activities often don’t allow for much personalisation – Ss are swapping the information that they have been “given”. The advantage of this was examined in point 10. However, for other learners it may mean that the language being used is processed with little cognitive depth, resulting in it being less memorable.

15.   Similarly, information gap activities, being based on the transmission of given information, often don’t allow for much creativity or imagination. Ss are not coming up with “meanings” or “messages” of their own, but are simply putting into words what is on their handout. This may be an issue in eg an educational setting where the development of creativity is an aim…

16.    …and, together with the lack of cognitive engagement (see point 13 above), may also make them less interesting, for the Ls.  This negative affect might have a detrimental effect on learning (Maslow, Stevick, Krashen and many others have emphasised the importance of positive affect in promoting learning)

17.    Most information gap activities focus on speaking and listening rather than reading and writing, while the listening involves Ss listening to other Ls – and in a monolingual classroom all ss will have the same accents. Information gap activities do not therefore prepare ss adequately for other skills.  This would be true of all the activities named in the quotation from Thornbury and many others of the same type – eg Describe and Arrange.

18.    Interaction in information gap activities is generally organised around short turns. They do not therefore give students the opportunity to develop the skills needed in order to take longer turns. This might be essential for eg Business English learners who need to give presentations as part of their work.

c. What other types of communicative activities can be used in the classroom which avoid these criticisms?

19.    Simulations : these could be designed to reflect the communicative situations in which the learners might find themselves and would therefore resolve the objection in point 13 above. Eg. Business English learners can be asked to simulate a negotiation or other meeting that they will actually take part in.

20.    Anecdote telling sequences (where learners plan and tell a story of a personal experience) can be used to personalise the TL (see point 14 above).  Eg : tell your partner about a time you were caught in bad weather, to personalise weather lexis and past verb forms. These also help resolve the problem of needing to provide practice in long turns (point 18).

21.    Drama activities can also be used to add an element of creativity to the activity  – eg improvisation of a situation based on the learners' interpretation of an ambiguous photo (see point 15 above).

22.    Drama activities can be used to add fun to the activity (see point 16 above) – eg Maley and Duff’s Hotel Receptionist game. St. A is a hotel guest who has lost her voice. She has to mime a problem given to her on a card, while st. B (the Hotel Receptionist) has to guess what the problem is : You want a plastic duck for your bath?? Oh you mean there’s a real duck in your bath!

22.    Presentations, debates and games like Just a minute can be used to help learners develop the subskills needed to take longer turns effectively. (See point 18 above).  Learners such as Business English learners who need to give presentations for their work, can focus on the typical language used in the various stages of a presentation and then, instead of being given an artificial presentation to work on, can be asked to apply the language studied to a presentation that they have actually given or will need to give in their work

23.    Jigsaw reading and listening activities are a specific type of information gap activity which can be used to give practice in other skills than just speaking, and to integrate skills use, thus meeting the objection in point 17. In jigsaw activities Ls in the group each read or listen to different information which they must then communicate to the others in order to complete a task. Eg : Ss A, B and C want to go on holiday together. each read a brochure describing a different hotel. They then discuss which hotel best meets their needs and wants.