EDITORS: Thomas, Michael; Reinders, Hayo
TITLE: Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching with Technology
Zöe Handley, Department of Education, University of Oxford, UK
Technology offers many possibilities to create innovative tasks for use in
language learning and, as ''Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching with
Technology'', edited by Michael Thomas and Hayo Reinders demonstrates, many such
possibilities have already been explored in the field of Computer-Assisted
Language Learning (CALL). However, as the editors explain in the first chapter
of this edited volume, little reference has been made to CALL in the growing
body of research on Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) and vice-versa. The
present volume is an attempt to bridge the gap between these two fields of
applied linguistics and to advance our understanding of technology-mediated
tasks and advance task theory and research more generally.
This volume is divided into two parts. Having defined TBLT and drawn out the
similarities between TBLT and CALL in the first chapter, Part I, 'Research on
Tasks in CALL', presents reviews of the state of the art from three different
perspectives: (1) sociocultural theory, (2) psycholinguistics and the
interactionist model of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and (3) Intelligent
CALL (ICALL), along with a number of original empirical studies. Part II,
'Applying Technology-Mediated Tasks', looks at the processes involved in
designing computer-mediated tasks.
Chapter 1, ''Deconstructing Tasks and Technology,'' by the editors, Michael Thomas
and Hayo Reinders, sets the scene for the rest of the volume. In it, Thomas and
Reinders define the scope of the book, motivate the focus on tasks in CALL and
set out the aims of the volume. In terms of the scope of the book, Ellis'
definition of tasks is adopted:
''A task is a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically
in order to achieve an outcome that can be evaluated in terms of whether the
correct or appropriate propositional content has been conveyed. To this end, it
requires them to give primary attention to meaning and to make use of their own
linguistic resources, although the design of the task may predispose them to
choose particular forms. A task is intended to result in language use that bears
a resemblance, direct or indirect, to the way language is used in the real
world. Like other language activities, a task can engage productive or
receptive, and oral or written skills, and also various cognitive processes''
(Ellis, 2003: 16).
Like Ellis, the authors also adopt a weak version of TBLT in which tasks are one
aspect of the curriculum which support language teaching rather than ''the basis
for the entire curriculum'' (Ellis, 2003: 30). Adoption of the strong version of
TBLT, according to Thomas and Reinders, may explain the omission of CALL in much
TBLT literature; CALL, in contrast with much of the literature on TBLT, has
tended to focus on the design of individual isolated tasks.
The focus on tasks in CALL is motivated by the authors' observation that CALL
and TBLT have much in common: TBLT and more recent approaches to CALL, namely
integrative CALL (Warschauer, 1996), share an interest in presenting learners
with meaningful tasks; CALL has explored a number of issues which have been of
interest to TBLT, including complexity of student output, the Interactionist
Hypothesis, implicit corrective feedback, learner anxiety, and cross-cultural
communication; and both have moved towards sociocultural theories of language
learning. The volume is further motivated by increasing pressure on teachers to
integrate technology into their teaching.
Chapter 2, ''Research on the Use of Technology in Task-Based Language Teaching'',
by Müller-Hartmann and Schocker-v. Ditfurth employs Activity Theory (Engeström
et al., 1999) to review CALL research on tasks through the lens of Vygotsky's
socio-cultural theory (Lantolf and Thorne, 2006). It finds that despite the fact
that few studies have examined CALL from the perspective of sociocultural
theory, taken as a whole, research on CALL tasks has made a number of
contributions to our understanding of the role that computer-mediated tasks play
in the culture of the classroom. Many of the findings of the studies reviewed
could equally apply to non-computer-mediated tasks, such as the effect of
assigning roles to learners and group leadership on collaboration and the
quantity of language produced. The most interesting insights of the review, in
my opinion, relate to the use of computer-mediated tasks in inter-cultural
contexts, such as tandem e-mail exchanges, which have become much more feasible
as a result of developments in CMC. The review finds that more time needs to be
dedicated to developing social cohesion in inter-cultural exchanges, and that
learners from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds may have different
levels of motivation for tasks and different types of goal orientation. The
findings imply that teachers need to be sufficiently culturally aware in order
to facilitate the completion of computer-mediated tasks in inter-cultural contexts.
In contrast with Chapter 2, Chapter 3, ''Task-Based Language Teaching in
Network-Based CALL: An Analysis of Research on Learner Interaction in
Synchronous CMC'', by Mark Peterson examines the use of computer-mediated tasks
in language learning from primarily an interactionist perspective (Gass, 2000).
Having discussed the affordances, both positive and negative, of
computer-mediated tasks from this perspective, Peterson reviews nine studies
representative of the main types of CMC. Taken together these studies show that
students do engage in negotiation of meaning in tasks presented in synchronous
CMC environments (Kelm, 1992; Chun, 1994), and that, as observed in the wider
TBLT literature (Pica et al., 1993), the amount of negotiation of meaning varies
according to task type (e.g. jigsaw versus decision-making, Blake, 2000; Smith,
2003). Furthermore, the focus of negotiation of meaning tends to be vocabulary
and not grammar (Blake, 2000; Lee, 2001, 2002). It should, however, be noted
that while Blake's findings confirmed those of Pica et al., (1993), Smith found
the opposite, namely that decision-making tasks led to greater negotiation of
meaning than jigsaw tasks. Other findings specific to the medium of CMC include
the use of explicit statements of misunderstanding (Fernández-García and
Martínez-Arbelaiz, 2002; Smith, 2003) and lack of focus on form and attention to
errors (Lee, 2001, 2002). The former is attributed to the absence of
non-linguistic cues in CMC environments and the latter to the time pressure that
CMC imposes. The conclusion of this review is that CMC promotes fluency to the
detriment of accuracy, a problem which Hampel (2006) suggests can be overcome
through the examination of transcripts as a post-task activity.
Chapter 4, ''Taking Intelligent CALL to Task'', by Mathias Schulze examines the
relationship between Intelligent CALL (ICALL) and TBLT. ICALL, as Schulze
explains, refers to the use of a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
techniques in language learning, including natural language processing, user
modeling and expert systems. Those familiar with ICALL, the major applications
of which are grammar tutors and simulations, might be surprised at the
suggestion that ICALL has a role to play in TBLT. The activities proposed in
popular grammar tutors are not tasks if we adopt Ellis' (2003) definition (see
above) and neither permit interaction between pairs or groups of learners.
However, Schulze argues that simulations are consistent with Ellis' (2003)
definition of task and that grammar tutors do have a place in TBLT as pre-task
In Chapter 5, ''Effects of Multimodality in Computer-Mediated Communication
Tasks'', Glenn Stockwell observes that most CMC research to date has focused on
just one mode of communication, while many CMC technologies permit multimodal
communication -- for example, Skype permits communication through both speech
and text. In response to this, Stockwell provides an overview of research on
multimodal communication more broadly and presents a study which compares the
quality of the language produced by advanced learners of English in discussion
tasks in text-based chat and bulletin-board style discussion forums. Stockwell's
findings are consistent with Kress's (2003) observation that different
modalities bring with them both semiotic gains and semiotic losses. Using
measures commonly used in research on TBLT more broadly, namely complexity and
accuracy, Stockwell found that the language produced by the students in the
discussion forums was more complex in terms of both syntax and vocabulary than
that produced in the chat condition and that the language produced in the chat
condition was more accurate than the language produced in the discussion forums.
Stockwell attributes these differences to time pressure, which is greater in
synchronous than in asynchronous discussion forums. In order to allow students
to practice different aspects of the language, Stockwell concludes that teachers
should present tasks in a variety of modes across the curriculum.
Chapter 6, ''Measuring Complexity in Task-Based Synchronous Computer-Mediated
Communication'', by Karina Collentine, follows up Chapter 7 with an investigation
of the lexico-grammatical complexity of the language produced by advanced and
intermediate level students of Spanish in synchronous chat activities. Having
provided a useful overview of the different measures of complexity which have
been used in research on TBLT, Collentine presents a study which compares the
lexico-grammatical complexity of the language produced in an interrupted-task
chatting activity and a post-task chatting activity. In the interrupted-task
chatting activity, the students took on the role of detectives trying to solve a
murder. They solved the murder by exploring a simulation of the murder scene in
which they could interview the suspects. At intervals during their exploration
of the simulation, students were asked to stop and discuss what they had
discovered in a synchronous chat environment. In the post-task chatting
activity, the students took on the role of the residents of an apartment block
who were trying to find a lost deposit-box. The students' task was to solve the
problem by exploring a simulation of the apartment block in which they could
interview the residents. At the end of their exploration of the simulation,
students discussed what they had discovered in a synchronous chat environment.
Collentine's analysis, which focused on the presence of nominal and lexical
features in the language produced by students, found that the intermediate
students produced more nominal features and the advanced students produced more
nominal clusters, i.e. more complex language, in the post-task chatting activity
than in the interrupted-task chatting activity. As in Stockwell's study, and in
non-computer-mediated TBLT (e.g. Foster and Skehan, 1999), the difference in the
complexity of the language produced in the chat activities is attributed to
differences in time pressure, with the post-task chatting activity putting less
time pressure on students than the interrupted-task chatting activity.
Moving on to the second part of the book, Chapter 7, ''Task Design for a Virtual
Learning Environment in a Distance Language Course'', by Regine Hampel presents a
model for the development of computer-mediated tasks (Hampel, 2006) through the
case of the development of a task-based blended language course presented in the
Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Moodle. The model of task development
adopted by the author is based on Richards and Rogers (1986/2001), an approach
to non-computer-mediated curriculum design which has been adopted by other
researchers in the field of CALL (Hubbard, 1992; Levy, 1999). According to this
model, designing a course involves defining (1) the approach, that is, the
theory of language and language learning upon which the course is based, (2) the
design, that is, the syllabus or curriculum goals and the roles of the teacher
and students, and (3) the procedure, that is, how those goals will be achieved
using the software in the classroom. Having presented the approach adopted,
namely one combining principles of cognitive and sociocultural theories of
second language acquisition, Hampel goes on to present the results of a number
of pilot studies that were conducted over the course of the development of the
language course. The major findings of these pilot studies were that providing
students with a collaborative environment does not guarantee collaboration;
participation can be very unequal; and, the support of the tutor in terms of
scaffolding tasks and providing students with feedback is crucial. Taking these
findings into consideration and an analysis of the appropriateness of different
tools within the VLE for different tasks, the design of the final system is
elaborated with reference to Ellis' (2003) task framework.
Chapter 8, ''Teacher Development, TBLT and Technology'', by Thomas Raith and
Volker Hegelheimer, investigates the use of e-portfolios to develop trainee
teachers' competencies in TBLT. Having considered the benefits of using
e-portfolios to promote reflective practice, the authors put forward a set of
can-do statements which can be used to assess teachers. This set of can-do
statements, which comprises three main areas of competency -- (1) motivating
students, (2) providing interactive support and (3) evaluating students and
providing feedback -- is then used to analyse the e-portfolios of a group of
trainee teachers. This analysis found a need for professional development
focused on TBLT; while most of the trainee teachers reflected on the use of the
target language and some reflected on negotiation of meaning, they failed to
reflect on the task process and demonstrated little knowledge of task theory. In
response to this, the authors present a workplan which can be used to scaffold
trainee teachers' reflections on their TBLT practice.
Chapter 9, ''Edubba: Real-World Writing Tasks in a Virtual World'', by Kenneth
Reeder returns to the topic of ICALL. It presents the design of a piece of
software which attempts to simulate the work of a professional journalist and
asks whether the writing activities proposed are tasks according to Ellis'
definition of a language learning task (see above). The software incorporates a
virtual world, specifically a simulation of the city Edubba, a database of
content distributed across characters in the simulation, and a natural language
processing engine. Students complete their assignments by exploring the virtual
world and interviewing the characters that they meet using natural language. The
latter is made possible by the natural language processing engine.
Chapter 10, ''The Enactment of Task Design in Telecollaboration 2.0'', by Mirjam
Hauck illustrates the decision processes involved in the design of
computer-mediated tasks through a case study. The case study focuses on the
design of tasks to raise students' awareness of the affordances of different
modes of communication. The pilot study found that the capacity for the tasks to
raise students' awareness of the affordances of multimodal technologies was
undermined by a number of factors related to the enactment of the tasks
including students questioning the usefulness of such intercultural exchanges
and misunderstanding regarding the goals of the tasks.
In Chapter 11, ''Afterword: Future Directions for Technology-Mediated Tasks'',
Gary Motteram and Michael Thomas conclude the volume with the presentation of
two additional approaches to task design which have been employed in CALL
projects and a discussion of the criticisms which have been waged against TBLT.
In relation to the claim that TBLT is restrictive and limits creativity,
Motteram and Thomas argue that this criticism is warranted given the
transformations in pedagogy required to meet the needs of 'digital native'
students. On the claim that TBLT is an Anglo-American methodology, Motteram and
Thomas acknowledge the potential incompatibility of TBLT with different cultures
and the difficulties which non-native teachers may have in implementing it, but
at the same time highlight the potential that technology offers to overcome
these problems by making inter-cultural exchanges possible. Regarding the
question of whether TBLT promotes the development of communicative competence,
Motteram and Thomas argue that the contributions to this edited volume, and in
particular Chapters 5, 6 and 9, demonstrate that CMC can be used to provide
students with access to increasingly authentic opportunities to communicate in
the target language. Motteram and Thomas conclude that with more and more
countries adopting TBLT, TBLT is becoming an important area of research.
However, as with technology, we need to take into consideration where the drive
for TBLT is coming from. For example, is it coming from policy makers or is it
grounded in the findings of research?
'Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching with Technology' makes a number of
useful contributions to the literature on tasks in CALL and TBLT. The reviews in
Chapters 2 and 3 provide a nice introduction for those new to computer-mediated
TBLT. Chapter 2, in particular, demonstrates the utility of analyzing
computer-mediated tasks through the lens of activity theory and brings a new
perspective to a field which has been dominated by psycholinguistic and
interactionist views of language acquisition. Chapter 3 is a particularly
interesting contribution which clarified my own understanding of what
constitutes a task in language learning and broadened my perspective of the
potential contributions of technology to TBLT.
I do not, however, feel that the volume delivered on its aim to bridge the gap
between CALL and TBLT and advance our understanding of TBLT and
computer-mediated tasks. The links to task theory and TBLT were sparse in the
majority of contributions to this volume. It is reasonable to believe that some
of the findings of the reviews presented in Chapters 2 and 3, such as the effect
of assigning roles to students, would equally apply to non-computer-mediated
tasks and it would have been interesting to know whether these variables have
been investigated in TBLT more broadly and whether the results are consistent.
Further, where findings of a trade-off between accuracy and complexity are
observed, there is no reference to the fact that this finding has been
replicated in a number of studies in TBLT more broadly.
Chapters 5 and 6, on the other hand, made more effort to draw on the TBLT
literature. Chapter 6 was particularly interesting for its critical analysis of
the different measures of complexity that have been used in TBLT.
Chapter 5, in contrast, did not live up to its promises on a different count.
While the title and introduction appeared to promise an investigation of the
effects of the use of multiple modes of communication, e.g. speech and text,
during computer-mediated tasks, the study actually investigated two modes of
communication separately. Those interested in multimodal communication in CALL
might be interested to read Sauro (2009) and Cunningham et al. (2010), among
other references appearing on the topic.
Chapter 8, while it provides a useful analysis of the skills teachers need to
engage in TBLT, in my opinion, would benefit from an in-depth reflection on the
demands of computer-mediated TBLT compared with those of non-computer-mediated
All things considered, the volume provides a useful starting point for raising
the TBLT community's awareness of CALL and vice versa and paves the way for the
development of a common research agenda.
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