REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
This article will also be available on the NNETESOL board blog at http://www.nnetesol.org/blog/.
By Sarah Forbes
After a four day training for responsive classroom, thanks to our school’s supportive administrators, I feel confident that the philosophies embedded in this approach are significant for all students, including ELLs, and the corresponding activities have great adaptive value for practicing language and content. Responsive Classroom aims to answer the question of how we can teach the whole child, and recognizes that a learner's basic needs, including belonging, significance and fun, need to be met in order for academic learning to be at its best. It also argues that academic choice, which considers the various learning styles and developmental stages of students in a classroom, results in greater student engagement and “buy-in.”
It is exciting that our current administration is supporting this shift towards a more complete Responsive Classroom, as community, interaction, student choice and fun have always been central to my own teaching philosophy. When I worked with high school and college age EFL students in Japan, I had a lot of freedom in the content I taught and how I taught it. I tried to infuse all of my lessons with interactive and energetic activities, creative practice with meaningful content, and student choice. Even reluctant students, those who struggled to see why they were required to learn English, couldn’t help but be drawn in by the enticing, student-centered quality of collaborative projects, games, and story creation.
New England's chapter of the TESOL organization hosted their annual conference this past weekend at the University of New Hampshire and my colleague Courtney Bryan and I went to present on the thematic units we co-create and co-teach in kindergarten math.
This one day conference is a great way to network with other teachers and professionals of English language education in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and to get some fresh ideas to take back to our classrooms.
The conference kicked of with a keynote address by Dr. Danling Fu of University of Florida. Her presentation, titled "From a Monolingual to Translanguaging Pedagogy Model," discussed her experience as a bilingual individual and those of her students. She emphasized a definition of bilingual that acknowledges that languages do not operate in separate, parallel ways, but in one interconnected mind that may be stronger in certain aspects of one language than another, but combines languages and literacy into a unique identity. She urged educators to look at "translanguaging from a pedagogical perspective of systematically structuring classrooms with multilingualism in mind," capitalizing on students home language literacy and recognizing their rich linguistic identity.
I realized the power of attending such a conference with someone I teach closely with in the next presentation by Anne Wright Shank on using iMovie with students. Anne shared a great resource her and her colleague had made, the website "Lights-Camera-Action", where they've posted a tutorial for teachers/students on how to get started with iMovie. There are also tips on how to move forward as well as examples of student movies and trailers linked from the site. While watching these movies, Courtney and I took notes, and as often happens with us, our ideas kept flowing as we bounced them off of each other. Anne shared some great ways to use video with students, such as:
Beth Evans, ELL teacher in the Burlington School District and board member of NNETESOL since 2006, put on a stellar workshop on combining dance and movement with language instruction. This was incredibly valuable to us. Through her work at the Integrated Arts Academy, a magnet school in the north end of Burlington, Beth partnered with The Flynn Center of the Performing Arts and Lida Winfield to help newcomers learn English via an integrated arts approach. Lida, a pioneer in arts and content integration, visited Beth and her colleague Suzy King every Friday to work with students on building community and language, through movement, joy, and student risk-taking. Beth's workshop led us through a plethora of example dance and movement activities and games that had us all laughing and leaving inspired. The video above shows some of the short energizers Lida did with Beth's class that Beth also demonstrated with us at the conference. Beth has shared the journey with Lida on this blog. We left feeling ready to put some of these ideas to work in our own classroom and today we tried out a partner counting dance that was a great success.
Finally, Courtney and I presented ourselves, on "Making Math Meaningful for Young ELLs Through Thematic Units". We didn't have quite as many participants as we'd hoped, but all who came were eager to share in the discussion and celebration of the math atmosphere we have created at JFK. For math in kindergarten, I pull our newcomer students from other kindergarten classrooms and then we push-in to Courtney's classroom. Together, Courtney and I plan and teach lessons to target our school's math curriculum plan, which combines Common Core Math Standards with previous work done through Investigations. Last year, we had a high percentage of ELLs in the classroom, and we also struggled to get kids interested in math in the beginning of the year. We decided to reframe our math units around themes that were both familiar from other subjects in their day and interesting to them. We started with a unit on measurement and counting with the theme of Jack and the Beanstalk, with letters written from the Giant posing challenges and questions to the students, where they were counting beans, measuring the giant's footprints, and ordering number leaves. We'd piqued their interest. From then on, we've always strived to tie units together with a theme that helps students access math through familiar vocabulary and themes as well as concrete counting and problem solving tools. By the end of last year, we were able to bridge students to more abstract ways of thinking about and solving problems.
Math can be a real challenge for ELL teachers who are called upon to teach it, but are not trained in math content in their teacher training programs. Courtney has always been open to working with me, to both share her knowledge of content, and build on my ideas for infusing the language instruction students need to be successful at math. Our respect for each other and willingness to co-plan and co-teach is a large part of why our math units feel so fun and successful. We get to know our students and their needs well, and having two of us in the classroom allows us to be flexible and adapt materials and instruction to reach each student where they are.
This week began our fourth week of school and our second week of PEP classes. PEP stands for Parents as Educational Partners, which is a program that started at The Center, in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The Center offers trainings and a curriculum for schools interested in teaching a parent English class which builds parents communication and literacy skills through content that fosters their confidence in joining the school community and supporting their children's education. My colleagues at Winooski School District, under the urging of Nancy Devost (my mentor teacher from years ago) and grant money began this program two years ago. At the end of the first year, several of the moms who had attended the PEP class provided unanimous feedback that they wanted to learn how to read. In response, the teachers created a PEP II. A class specifically for those who have completed the first PEP class and want to continue building their literacy skills.
My colleague Kristin Van Fossen and I decided to teach this section of PEP this year, and we recruited two classroom teachers, Lisa Bushey, kindergarten, and Jaime Willoughby, first grade, to join us as well. We will co-teach the course, English teacher and classroom teacher, on alternate weeks. In our first two weeks, we decided to all facilitate, so that students could meet us all and we could carry out entry assessments. We've been using an assessment adapted from the USA series by Cengage Learning (National Geographic).
We also decided on a daily class routine which takes elements of responsive classroom (a community meeting) including an interactive written greeting, a team building activity, and some calendar work before we will either do whole group literacy work (community reads, spelling work, projects) or level-targeted reading and writing activities. We will follow this with a closing activity where students can share something they learned or did each class. This week, for our community meeting, I borrowed an activity I found through watching some of the teacher training videos on the New American Horizon's Website (great resource!) for our community meeting activity. For this activity, we had the students write the letters of their names on individual index cards, and then we shuffled all of the letter cards and spread them in a big circle all around us. We took turns saying our names and spelling them while everyone else in the group had to find and order the letters to spell the names. This is an activity we can later use to target key lesson vocabulary and spelling. The students really enjoyed it and it gave us an opportunity to see how they did with quick letter recognition.
I think by now we've met all of the moms who will come to our class, though with their hectic work and family schedules we will need to be flexible about when people come. I'm very excited to work with these inspiring women who in addition to raising families and working full time are making time to improve their lives through study. I was able to watch them write in their native alphabets, in Karen, Somali, and Swahili. Their smiles and perseverance are a great gift and addition to my teaching experience.
In the school day, as I work with some of their children, I used letter cards in another way this week. We're working on learning our color words in first grade and I placed the letters for each color word into ziploc bags. In pairs or groups of three, students worked to unscramble all the letters in their bag, spell it out loud, and race to another bag to focus on word order, initial and ending sounds, and using resources like a labeled poster to help them puzzle out their words.
It has been a long time since I've updated my blog. But, it's not without good reason. It was a busy summer leading into by second exciting year at John F. Kennedy Elementary (JFK).
As summer approached, I started to wonder what I would do with my now longer vacation (2 months compared to 1.25 in Japan). I signed up for a week of newcomer (students recently arrived to the U.S.) summer school at JFK and was enrolled in a week-long math best practices training, and on my radar was the possibility of teaching at my graduate school, Saint Michael's College, in the TESOL Diploma program. I started to think maybe I wouldn't have much free summer to worry about afterall. Just a few weeks before the end of the school year I got the okay for the Diploma program and realized I had a summer of hard work cut out for me.
Math Best Practices Training
I began a post at the conclusion of my math training course. It was an intensive five-day course in nearby Shelburne where I gathered with other Vermont educators to explore math from an invigorated Common Core perspective. Here's what I wrote:
This past week I've revisited math I never thought I would use again, and I revisited it first with panic ("Oh no! I don't remember how to do this"), then with relief ("This isn't so bad, I'm starting to remember why math was fun"), and then with a productive struggle that pushed my math thinking to a whole new level ("Wow, I actually am beginning to understand what's going on with these numbers, not just the 'trick' to solve the problem).
That's as far as I got and with the wealth of information I received, read, and reflected on during that week I didn't have much post-processing time before I was teaching two different summer programs. However, it's worth revisiting as I enter the new school year, calmer, less anxiety-ridden about whether I have what it takes to be a math teacher. Math instruction was not part of my teacher training at Saint Michael's, but in many situations ELL teachers are asked to do math push-in at their schools and while our focus is on helping students access the language of math, we inevitably teach math. I've been fortunate to work in classrooms with teachers who really know their stuff, and who are willing to go the extra mile to help me understand the "core math ideas," the effective mathematical "Habits of Mind" and "Habits of Interaction." These are the identified behaviors and ways of thinking that professional mathematicians demonstrate. Despite this, last year had its challenges. While kindergarten and first grade math are arguably much less challenging than math in the later grades, what current standards and assessments ask of children is very language-based and multilayered, which is challenging for our English learners. Those who come with math skills in their own native languages have something to bring to the task, that background knowledge that is so essential, and tend to do well. However, those who don't have that background, and who are simultaneously learning English and working on building basic number sense while the rest of their classmates are learning to represent mathematical operations (equations, pictures, etc.), use numbers flexibly (make 10, add and subtract, etc.), and explain and justify their thinking, it is difficult to decide where to focus my attention. After the math best practices training, I feel more confident to address these issues, knowing the progression of math through the grade levels, and how building students' ability to attend to difficult tasks, see the value in making mistakes, and being willing to listen and learn from others are key elements to growing their mathematical selves. For myself, when faced with higher grade level math tasks in the training, getting over my panic meant that I really worked with others to see strategies that worked for them and listened to their justifications to get a better handle on what was happening when solving a problem. The most powerful learning was when we worked with geometry and had to build equations to determine the area of different shapes. This is where I could see how the work in kindergarten and first grade would later pay off for learners when they began to encounter algebra and geometry. I find it odd now when I think back on my own mathematics education that algebra and geometry seemed so separate. I look forward to another year of math learning, for myself and my students.
JFK Newcomer Summer School
One of the highlights of my summer was co-teaching in the experience-based newcomer English summer program at my school. We had 11 friends from around the world: Nepal, Somalia, Iraq and the Congo, brave and kind little souls who we got to spend the week with. Our theme for the week was "force and motion" and it began at school, reading non-fiction and doing some simple experiments to explore speed, friction and force. Everyday of the rest of the week was spent exploring Vermont through that lens. We went bowling, we took them biking on the bike path, a challenge since quite a few of them weren't comfortable on bikes yet, swimming near the lake, and to Sugarbush resort where they rode the chairlift, flew through the air on a zipline, and bounced around in the bouncy castle and suspended above trampolines. It was unforgettable for all of us.
I led Introduction to TESOL and Grammar in the Saint Michael's College (SMC) TESOL Diploma Program. In this month-long intensive course, participants gain background in the theories and methods of TESOL, a crash course in TESOL content, grammar, and contexts, as well as practical classroom experience in the SMC Intensive English Program (IEP) with international students from around the world. Veteran Diploma teacher Tracy Magel was incredibly helpful as I embarked on this journey, where I was able to reflect on my own teaching experiences, expand my own professional education, share what has worked for me over the years, and learn with a passionate, diverse group of adult students. Out of this came great discussion, debate and exploration, and a wealth of resources for new teachers including practical teaching activities, professional development videos and articles, and learning websites. In addition, I developed a deeper understanding of my own personal teaching philosophy, which focuses on the whole learner, student-centered, and active, task/project/problem-based learning.
Interested in teaching English in the U.S. or abroad? You should check out the Saint Michael's TESOL Diploma Program. There is an optional capstone project that awards participants 6 credits toward the MATESOL program. Please check out the resource section of my website for useful links related to TESOL.
This past March 26th and 27th, I attended my first TESOL convention, and felt invigorated as I roamed the halls and classrooms of the impressive Metro Toronto Convention Center over two days of busy learning and connecting. I was astounded at the amount of coincidental meetings with new and familiar faces, inspired by the work being done by passionate educators and researchers in the field of English language teaching (ELT), and honored to be counted among the presenters.
On the morning of my presentation, I grabbed a coffee and muffin and sat down with a stranger, Kirti, from Delhi, India. As I chatted with her, I learned that she was a colleague and friend of a welcoming woman I had met two years ago at the Asia TEFL conference in Delhi, Jayshri Kannon. Jayshri had invited me for an authentic Indian experience when I was attending the conference, a generous and unforgettable gesture of kindness for someone she’d just met. We’ve since remained friends on Facebook. I enjoyed chatting with Kirti and marveled at the way global organizations such as TESOL are able to bring people from around the world, from all walks of life, together in the name of improving teaching and learning. As I continued on to prepare for my presentation in my allotted session space, in walked Mark from Japan, an acquaintance from the Task-Based Learning Special Interest Group (TBL-SIG) of the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT), an organization which I was a member of while in Japan. In fact, it was at the TBL conference in Osaka, Japan in 2012 where I gave my first poster presentation on project-based learning (PBL), encouraged forward in my work by the supportive community of the TBL-SIG. Oana strolled in after, another familiar face from the TBL-SIG, and suddenly, the task ahead wasn’t so daunting anymore. Two other colleagues and friends from Japan also came to support me. As I shook hands, gave hugs, and welcomed those who were there to learn from me, I was reminded that I am part of an extraordinary local and global community of people who are dedicated to helping their students be successful learners, and I couldn’t wait for my own learning to start.
I wasn’t disappointed by the fantastic line-up of sessions I attended over the two days I spent at the convention. Here are some of the high-lights:
Building Bridges between Rigorous Standards and ELLs
I've been at John F. Kennedy (JFK) Elementary now for almost 6 months. The time has elapsed quickly, as everyday is filled with teaching and learning, and there is never a dull moment. Do I occasionally find myself missing the generous preparation time allotted to teachers in my last teaching position? Yes. Do I sometimes find myself plugging away at pulling curriculum together or reorganizing the piles of paper that have stacked up on my desk through the week late on a Friday evening? Yes. Is it all worth it? Yes!
Our elementary English language learning (ELL) department has one of the highest teacher-student ratios in the state and I'm currently providing services in language and math for 35 students in grades K - 1. My day is spent doing a combination of pull-out literacy and academic language support and development and push-in math. I work closely with both the kindergarten and first grade teaching teams. My day begins with a rapid fire teacher meeting from 7:30 - 8:00, and a planning time from 8:00 - 8:45 in a small room full of boisterous fifth graders that I share with two other ELL teachers, I am eternally grateful for the fact that I have so many great teachers around me, a suggested curriculum timeline from the last teacher in my position, and YouTube. YouTube has a wealth of free resources that are easily adapted for classroom use and eagerly received by students.
I will admit that since I have been at JFK, I have spent many a weekend singing along to songs that we've played over and over again in the classroom, much to the chagrin or amusement of my family and friends. There are songs and raps that integrate challenging academic concepts and vocabulary, like "metamorphosis", in catchy tunes that students can't help but remember. I was so inspired by these amazing YouTube video creators that I myself wrote an "Apple Rap" for my students when we were studying the life cycle of apples. When students came to making their own books about the life cycle, I heard, "I can't spell apple!" and reminded them to sing the apple rap. To their own amazement as they sounded out the chorus "Apples, apples, a.p.p.l.e!" they realized they had just spelled the word apple. This apple rap also provided written material that students could use to high-light site words and read along to when we sang. We followed this by great songs on YouTube about the life cycle of pumpkins, butterflies and frogs. For the frog rap, I created a simple cloze activity where students had to listen and look for specific words in the song and on the screen and I saw a heightened level of engagement in the students as they read the text trying to identify missing words. These songs are so catchy and memorable that students still sing songs we learned in the first week of school.
In math, songs and videos on YouTube provide tons of fun and interactive practice with counting and other math concepts. This one here is a favorite in the kindergarten classes.
In first grade, math concepts make a big leap. With the Common Core as a guide, students are being challenged to be flexible in how they solve problems and use numbers. These often complex math concepts are accompanied by an array of math terminology that adds a layer of complication for many students, including our English language learners. Realizing the unique power of song I wrote a math rap for my students that also helped them get some of the vocabulary of math straight. In the future, I hope to take these lyrics and have students learn them, recite them and record them, so we too can add to the wealth of learning materials on YouTube.
And, it's not just songs. When the frigid winter provides no opportunities for real life observations of life cycles, videos on YouTube provide time lapses of these metamorphoses. Other videos, such as this one on the story of Austin's butterfly, can model for children language and processes of critique and feedback.
Students can also watch animated versions of their favorite books, which often provide dramatic voice changes and soundtracks that make the stories come alive for learners.
Thank you YouTube for these endless resources and for the hassle free way you've (plural including all people involved) allowed us to enrich classrooms and engage students!
For my growing list of early learning videos please check out this playlist.
My teaching life has changed dramatically, from EFL in a private monolingual Japanese engineering high school/college, to ELL instruction in Vermont's Winooski school district for kindergarten and first grade students from a diverse mix of language and cultural backgrounds. The experience is challenging, invigorating and loads of fun! In my new position, I am privileged to work closely with eight talented classroom teachers, as well as fellow ELL teachers and support staff, to provide support for up to 54 English language learners (ELLs). This past week, my services extended to accompanying and chaperoning kindergarten classes to Shelburne Farms, a fantastic local farm that provides educational programs to local school children. The power of experiential learning was evident in the enthusiasm of these young learners. From the moment we stepped on the bus, students were besides themselves with excitement. Some of these children had never been on a bus, and their eyes roamed the landscape, their bodies bouncing up and down in their bus seats, unable to contain their curiosity.
At the farm, we were greeted by experienced educational leaders who outlined the days activities. Students were split into small groups of 8 to 10 and went off to participate in engaging learning opportunities and games. We began by learning about tomato plants, as one student was dressed in a costume to teach the parts of tomato. This visual was incredibly helpful for the ELL students, and Christie Nold, the Educational Program Coordinator at Shelburne Farms, did a fantastic job of supporting new English speakers with vocabulary repetition, songs and verbal cues.
The students learned the five things tomato plants need to survive: sun, water, air, space and soil. They went on a treasure hunt to find each of these five items to complete a beaded bracelet. As they did so, they also learned how to work as a team with attention grabbers such as "magnetic toes" (all students in a circle with toes touching) and "make a circle make it round, make it round, make it round, make a circle, make it round, make a circle" to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down". Learners who had barely spoken a word since their first day of school less than two weeks before were verbally identifying things in their surroundings: cars, tractors, birds, animals, plants, flowers, etc, and raising their hand to answers Christie's questions. It was a great opportunity for me to connect with my students and see what they are capable of.
In the garden, we picked strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, carrots, green beans and corn. All of which students gobbled up. We met and pet cows, goats, chickens, sheep, pigs, donkeys and turkeys. We sang a song to shake a jar of buttermilk and turn it into butter, then ate the butter we'd made on crackers. Children were adventurous. I saw many of them look skeptically at food or animals at first and then find the courage to give something new a try. On the second day, students even had the chance to milk a cow and feed baby goats. We ran, ran, and ran some more, up and down hills and through the forest. Smiles were abundant. It was an exhausting blast! It's no surprise that quite a few children fell asleep on the bus ride back to school.
This field trip was organized by the kindergarten teachers at JFK to spark students' interest and curiosity in gardens, because they will be participating in a year-long project called "The Kinder Gardens" as part of a school-wide initiation to incorporate project-based learning into classroom curriculum. I think that all of the kindergarten teachers would agree that this trip was a huge success in that regard.
I plan to use the pictures I took to make a book that I can use with the ELLs to review what they saw and help them build vocabulary and language to access other aspects of the project through-out the year. I look forward to more fun times with my new friends!
I haven't had time to write about the big career and location change I have recently made and that has brought me back to my home state, Vermont.
First, a little background.
I decided I wanted to pursue my professional teaching qualifications while working with a fantastic group of preschoolers at an international kindergarten in Osaka, Japan, Kinder Kids in 2005. During this time, I could see how quickly my hard-work and creativity in curriculum planning turned into fun and learning for my students. Three and four year olds are full of energy, curiosity, and imagination and I found myself wanting to know more about development and education in their presence.
In 2008, when I was working towards my Masters and K-12 teaching license, I did my student teaching at John F. Kennedy Elementary in Winooski, VT, the town neighboring Burlington. Here I worked with a very diverse group of students who were mostly part of the refugee community. Burlington is a refugee-friendly city, and accepts people from all over the world annually who come to rural Vermont from war-torn countries or refugee camps in Africa, Thailand, India, and elsewhere where they have often lived for years, forced from their homelands by political and violent turmoil. Working with this community gave me a profound respect for the struggles of this refugee population and also the volunteers and teachers who help them to transition and thrive in their new home.
It is in Burlington where I met my husband, began to build my professional network, and fell in love with the more "urban" Vermont landscape along the breathtaking Lake Champlain.
After graduation, I was lucky to find a job as the After School Coordinator of Barnes Elementary School, now the Sustainability Academy of Burlington, VT. It was an exciting and challenging year, but I ultimately missed being in classrooms with children. The lack of English language learner (ELL) teaching jobs in the area encouraged me to look elsewhere for work. It is this chain of events that brought me back to Japan and over four exciting years of life abroad, travel around Asia, and the chance meet and work with many wonderful learners and teachers in the process.
In June, a friend of mine who works at JFK Elementary sent me an email informing me of an opening for a kindergarten and first grade ELL teacher. My initial reaction was that it was impossible. I felt nervous about the lack of time to pack up our lives in Japan and move, and also about the extreme shift for me as a teacher, from high-school and college-level EFL to early elementary ELL instruction. However, as I talked it through with my husband, I found myself remembering those Japanese preschoolers, the supportive group of teachers at JFK Elementary, and the diverse communities of Burlington and Winooski. As I went through the interview process, I got more and more excited. Winooski is working on some innovative, school-wide initiatives that have teachers pumped and students paying attention. Answering questions about my work with young children made me thrilled at the possibility of working with them again. In an interview with the Superintendent, I got to hear about the project-based learning movement at the school. If you have followed my blog or looked through my website, you know that this is one of my passions.
I write this from my new apartment in Burlington, VT, a short ten minute drive from my new school. While it was incredibly hard to say good-bye to Japan, to my students, colleagues and friends, I feel confident I've made the right decision. Two weeks ago I had my first orientation days and an inspiring WIDA training, and this week I've had in-service trainings focused around collaborative project-based learning team planning and mindfulness (a huge part of managing stress for both teachers and students). The teachers I've worked with are all passionate team players who want the best for their students and I'm looking forward to supporting them, and to meeting all of my new learners. I will have about fifty learners between kindergarten and first grade to provide with pull-out (of mainstream classrooms) and push-in instruction. This is the typical structure of ELL services in U.S. schools. The WIDA ACCESS test monitors their language progress, with particular attention to their CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) development. Immersed in English in their American school and community, these learners often pick up social and communicative language much faster than the more challenging language of academics that will help them be successful in U.S. schools.
It is my hope that I can help new learners gain those foundation skills through working closely with classroom teachers to build vocabulary, phonics, numeracy and critical thinking skills needed to help them access mainstream content, and to establish a love of learning. I also aim to connect with families to forge strong school-home relationships and educate parents as to how they can help students by building strong background in their home languages.
I have a challenging road ahead, and I will do my best to keep this site up to date with new resources, stories and ideas for working with young ELLs.
Using video is a great way to encourage students to amp up their efforts on output by establishing meaningful goals and culminating classwork in a tangible product. Through planning, rehearsal and presentation, students get lots of repetitive practice with language, take risks, and have fun doing so! This past few weeks in three different classes we completed projects that incorporated video.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the fantastic Task-Based Learning & Teaching (TBLT) in Asia Conference at Kinki University in Osaka. The JALT special interest group (SIG) TBLT team lined up a fantastic group of plenary speakers and all around informative presentations. Kinki University’s Osaka campus was a gorgeous spot for the conference. On both Saturday and Sunday I caught a number of insightful presentations, and took away some practical tools to try in my classrooms as well as some theoretical concepts to mull over.
William Littlewood was the first plenary of the weekend. Littlewood, author of Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction (1981) and Teaching Oral Communication: A Methodological Framework (1992), spoke on “Task-based or task-supported language teaching? - A View from the Bridge” (2014). He used this fitting title to describe the perspective language teachers take when examining all the various “methods” or approaches to language teaching. In this particular talk, he discussed task-based versus task-supported methodology and gave a clear and refreshing overview of this pertinent topic.
He began with some history. When Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) emerged, there were primarily two versions of the approach. There was the “strong” view supported by Krashen and Moskowitz that purported that language is learned naturally through authentic exposure to language and communication. In this view, language should emerge without any particular focus on form. In contrast, the “weak” view of communicative language teaching held that language is learned by “doing things with words.” Supported by Halliday’s theory of language learning, this highlights the communicative functions of language. Scott Thornbury has argued that this “weak form” of communicative language teaching is really nothing more than a renewed version of PPP (present, practice, production) with a focus on grammar where there should be a focus on meaning (1996). Littlewood noted that perhaps one reason why the “weak” form of CLT became so prevalent was because of its commercial viability. He went on to explain that tasks are a category of CLT with “special design theories.” Both strong forms of CLT and of task-based language teaching (TBLT) raise some challenges in Asian contexts, where teacher-centered classrooms and grammar-focused syllabus are the norm. In these environments, teachers may fear a loss of control in the classroom, lack confidence in using the target language, or be uncertain of the shifting role of the teacher. Both CLT and TBLT require the teacher to act as a facilitator and guide as students try to convey meaning and discover new language in the communicative tasks.
Littlewood outlined the “strong” and “weak” versions in TBLT as extensions of CLT. In the strong version of TBLT, students are given tasks where the goal is to “communicate by any means necessary,” and then from these events teachers could choose to focus on some specific form students needed or lacked during the exercise. However, the weak form of TBLT could be considered to be a task-based version of a traditional present, practice, produce (PPP) method. For example, the teacher may pre-teach a grammar point and then have students do an information gap or classmate interview that specifically asks students to practice that grammar. Indeed, this approach might call for more communication and interaction among students, but, it may limit students’ ability to focus on meaning or generative language opportunities.
In his “view from the bridge,” Littlewood made some solid points about this interplay between strong and weak versions of what he prefers to call “communicative tasks”. First, tasks fall not on a dichotomous scale of “strong” and “weak,” but perhaps more somewhere on a “communicative continuum” where at one end you have experiential tasks that mimic authentic communication in their focus on meaning, and at the other you have more analytic tasks that allow for a focus on form. It should be noted that a focus on form is not altogether dismissed, but rather balanced with tasks that are more meaning-focused. Along this continuum he placed “structured communication” closer to the “strong” side and “pre-communicative language practice” closer to the “weak” side, with “communicative language practice” in the middle. As I listened, I thought of my own classroom and reflected that even when we are working on the “weak” side of the spectrum, in a meaning-focused classroom, one where students’ understanding and engagement is central, there are opportunities for “strong,” authentic communication. I see this all the time. In this regard, I feel that one of the most prominent differences between TBLT and other approaches is in the nature of how we view teaching and learning, which includes both the role of the teacher as facilitator and the role of teaching materials as a tool to encourage students' authentic communication.
What was more salient for me then, was Littlewood’s “Communication Engagement Matrix.” On the horizontal axis at one end lies message-oriented instruction/tasks, and on the other “form-oriented” instruction/tasks. This intersects with the vertical axis where at the top we have “high engagement” and at the bottom we have “low engagement. The quadrants created by these intersecting axes could contain any number of classroom tasks. With TBLT and CLT there is a push to reach high-engagement in the top two quadrants.
What better presentation to follow this than Laura Markslag’s passionate presentation about an online international and cultural exchange she did with her students’ at Kinki University and a group of students in Dubai. She outlined simple steps to establishing such an exchange with the free and readily available tools of Ning (online private social networking site) and Skype/Google Chat. Over several weeks, she had her students create online profiles, write introductions, do live introductions with students in Dubai, and then plan for and do an online video cultural “show and tell.” The pictures she shared showed how engaged and focused her students were, and it looked like a lot of fun! I have been thinking about doing something like this for a long time, and I think this presentation was just what I needed to get the ball rolling. I feel these kind of activities are essential for helping our students see the value and purpose in learning English, especially in foreign language learning environments.
After Laura’s session, I had my own short presentation on “Gaming the Classroom: Task-Planning for Real Rewards.” Many people attended, and I am hopeful that I was able to convey my meaning clearly and share some valuable resources. The prsentat my efforts at using “gamification” in my second year high school classes and how follow-up reflection has helped me solidify aspects of my teaching philosophy. As James Paul Gee states, “Good video games incorporate good learning principles,” and it is good learning principles that I strive to incorporate in my classrooms (2005). At this conference, I felt strongly that I was with like-minded individuals all seeking to define good learning principles for themselves and for others in our profession.
“Engagement” was certainly one of the “buzz words” and Robert Stroud of Kwansei Gakuin University did well to try and define what this meant in his workshop “Improving learner engagement in tasks” (2014). Referencing Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, he touched on the multidimensional aspect of engagement as it involves behavioral, emotional, and cognitive processes (2004). Engaged students may display some outward behavioral signs, such as eye contact or alert posture, but internal signs of engagement, how the student is reacting emotionally to a learning situation and what cognitive effort they are investing, are more elusive and hard to define. Stroud shared three approaches to improving student engagement. First, he outlined some ways to empower students. For example, teachers may alter the physical learning environment by moving chairs to have students face on another (one of my favorite things to do), take time to clearly demonstrate roles, or even use their bodies to indicate the teacher’s role as equal or subordinate to students. My partner in discussion and I had both tried a similar technique of asking students to read out the greeting and daily plan at the beginning of class and found students’ reacted very well to this empowering position as student “teacher.” Second, Stroud summarize the ARCS model of task design (Keller. 1987, 1992, 2000). “A” stands for attention, and represents how the teacher grabs and holds the students’ attention. “R” stands for relevance and the teacher’s efforts to connect the task/content to the lives of the students. “S” stands for satisfaction, or the level of purpose and value the students see in the task. “C” stands for confidence, which every language learner needs to feel good about their progress and capabilities and fully participate in a learning event. The final approach Stroud suggested was the use of classroom technology. He mentioned student response systems (SRS) and oral recording devices. On Sunday, Peter Skehan, the third plenary, also made a strong case for the use of oral recording devices.
The second plenary of the weekend Yuko Goto-Butler, had my full attention as she described her research “with” children on electronic (computer) games and learning (2014). Her anecdotal infusions of students’ ideas as they designed storyboards for potential English vocabulary learning games complemented the data displayed in her charts. Students had discussed and listed various elements for both how they had learned new vocabulary items and what aspects of their favorite games made them come back for more. They were then tasked with applying these elements in their own game designs. One group of students, she told us, had created an avatar in their game whose hair would fall out if the game wasn’t played daily. Their rationale for such an extreme avatar punishment was that for learning to stick it must be practiced and reviewed regularly. Isn’t this the premise for successful spaced repetition learning software? Seems to me we should be researching “with” children and students a lot more!
On day two of the conference, we were lucky to receive another stellar talk on TBLT practices, this time by Peter Skehan. Skehan is a prominent voice in TBLT, and author or co-author of several books and numerous scholarly articles in the field of language learning. His talk, “Task-based Performance and Task-based Instruction: Research Contributions” began with a joke about the value of a talking frog vs. the value of an applied linguist. This was a good opening joke, and was unfortunately missed by William Littlewood, who had struggled to find a witty joke to kick off his talk the previous day. As Littlewood had hinted at in his talk, Skehan reiterated that CLT had in a sense morphed into TBLT. He credited this to the psycholinguistic aspects of TBLT that make it more suitable for research. He also noted some issues with the “strong” form of TBLT that were rightly raised by participants throughout the conference. With the highly authentic and meaning-focused version of TBLT, where does new language come from? There is the danger that in this quest for authenticity form may be forgotten, and yet, form undoubtedly plays a role in both meaning making and language acquisition. To address these issues, Skehan suggests we focus our attention on tasks as student-centered, putting the “power” of learning into the hands of the learners, but not necessarily stripping language classrooms of necessary grammatical analysis.
Despite the possible flaws, research in TBLT tends to focus on four main points of learner language indicators, which Skehan called “the golden standard of evaluation" (2014) These are structural complexity, lexis, accuracy, and fluency. In addition, researchess mainly look at the pre-task, during task, and post-task stages for possible overall task effects on student outcomes. The goal being to “engage learners as much as you can by balancing their abilities with challenge.” So, as Stroud aptly noted then, engagement seems to be the aim and a direction for further research.
Skehan has found through his own research on task performance that “good macro-structure [in tasks] releases some pressure and allows all areas of complexity, accuracy and fluency improvement” (Skehan & Foster, 1999). Some common practices with pre-task planning that lead to increased fluency, complexity, and sometimes accuracy are background building and modeling. He further proposed that some training of students on how to plan for tasks might be beneficial. Good planning should:
Finally, Skehan noted that perhaps a better way to view TBLT is to turn the “PPP” around. While the term “flipped classroom” is used to describe a completely different educational movement (doing homework in class and having students watch lecture at home), it springs to mind as I recall Skehan’s plea for “production, then practice and presentation”. With learners recording their on-task production, just think how teacher could use this to shape future lessons and activities. It encourages a pattern of concept (meaning) before language, creating clear purpose, rather than language before concept, which can be abstract and alienating for students.
I finished up my time at this conference with a couple of talks by some more international visitors. Muhammed Ali of Pontiaak State Polytechnic in Indonesia discussed a small scale, but worthwhile study on the effects of a TBLT approach on Indonesian non-English majors Willingness to Communicate (WTC). He found the experiment successful. Last was “Coming up with a New Framework to Characterize Planned Task-Performance” delivered by Shahabaddin Behtary of Iran. He and his colleagues propose an alternative model for describing task planning that contrasts with Ellis’ earlier model. In their model pre- and within-task planning stages are comprised of three interacting constraints: configurational (physical time or task length), linguistic (existing linguistic structures) and bridging (self-scaffolding, note-taking, etc).
Outside of these structured learning experiences, I also had some valuable informal discussions with other conference participants in all different teaching contexts that brought strength and value to the conversation about task-based language teaching, research and continued education. Thanks to all who made my weekend exciting and memorable!
I'm Sarah Forbes. I'm the