Any form of education depends on a fundamental element: the gap between what students already know and what they are learning (which by definition, they do not know). This necessary zone between the known and the unknown is the broad definition of an ‘information gap’.
If this gap is not defined, students may not feel that they are learning anything, as their learning may not clearly relate to their existing knowledge. For this reason, it is often effective to start any class by establishing this gap through questions which focus on the topic or content of the lesson. Establishing an information gap can be a sensitive activity - it can be uncomfortable for students to admit that they don’t know something. However, admitting that a gap in knowledge exists is the first step to learning, so it is important that teachers facilitate this in a sensitive and constructive way.
Define what is known and work from there
Rather than starting a class with a big, teacher-focused, lecture-style presentation, start with open questions to find out what students already know about the topic you will teach. This gives you the information that you need about students’ prior knowledge, informs you of an appropriate starting point for the lesson content, and highlights any areas which may need to be addressed more specifically later in the lesson.
Elicitation is a good way of establishing an information gap. A simple question which gets students telling you what they already know about a topic (from a general picture, a paragraph or movie clip) can give you all of this information, if you are listening carefully, and can show you issues with understanding of concept, pronunciation problems or grammar difficulties that students may already have. These in themselves are smaller gaps in knowledge which you can focus on in the lesson. In this way, students are demonstrating where their gaps lie, and showing themselves ready for some input (or teaching) to upgrade their awareness in target areas.
Harnessing student-student information gaps
Another kind of knowledge gap is one which can be packaged for students through information gap activities. Here, the knowledge gap is not related to the new information that you are teaching, but to the information which is given differently to different members of a pair or group to work with.
A classic information-gap activity requires two worksheets, images or listening scripts, which are similar, but include (or exclude, depending on the task) different details. Each student cannot get the whole picture, story or idea without communicating with another student and finding out what they know. This leads to more authentic interaction and a real desire to communicate and find out the information that is needed.
Teaching ideas for information gap exercises
A simple example of this is a ‘spot the difference’ task, where pairs of students work together to find out what is different in each of the pictures which they can see (but their partner cannot - it is important that students do not show each other their pictures). Without looking at their partner’s worksheet, they have to use their language to find out the specific details which are different in the two versions.
The same basic task can be set through a reading text which has details changed in two different versions. Students read their version of the story, and think about the types of detail that could differ in the two stories - names, dates, numbers, and other important details are candidates for this - and each student prepares questions to find out the differences between the stories.
A more sophisticated information gap task is possible if larger numbers of students are given the smaller details which add up to a bigger story. Imagine a murder mystery or crime story, where a team of policemen (a group of students) each have the diaries of different suspects of the crime. They have to get together and solve the crime by reporting each of their suspects’ movements on the night of the murder. This takes some careful preparation, but with the right clues placed at the right times, an engaging story can be built, and students will feel the pieces of the mystery come together as they ask the right questions.
Information gap tasks are a great way of making reading tasks more communicative, and forcing students to interact to get the full story and reveal the answer in the end. Just make sure that the information gap is well defined through clear instructions, and the task is set up to make the students want to find the other half of the information, to ensure high engagement and participation levels.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.