REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
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!