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EDITOR: Peter Robinson TITLE: Task-Based Language Learning SERIES TITLE: The Best of Language Learning Series PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2011
Ayman A. Mohamed, Second Language Studies, Michigan State University
This edited volume presents empirical work on task-based research selected from articles that were recently published in the journal entitled ''Language Learning''. The volume is an attempt to link the theoretical underpinnings of task-based learning to the pedagogical practices in task-based teaching. The introductory review of the book focuses on the acquisition processes that take place within task-based learning environments and the theoretical stances that guide research in this area. Effects of task features and designs on interaction, attention to input, and quality of speech production are highlighted through the five empirical studies presented in the book, which mainly study performance as influenced by task design, individual differences, teacher and learner discourse, and the context of instruction.
In the first study, ‘Task design and second language performance: the effect of narrative type and learner output’, Paravaneh Tavakoli and Pauline Foster investigate how narrative task design affects oral performance of learners in second and foreign language contexts. Narrative complexity and inherent narrative structure are posited as variables that potentially affect accuracy, complexity and fluency of learners’ oral narrative performance. Participants in Tehran (a foreign language setting) and in London (a second language setting) produced two of four narratives from cartoon picture prompts. Analyses of transcripts show that the design features of narrative tasks affect performance in a predictable way. A tight narrative structure supports accuracy while syntactic complexity is supported by the variable of having two storylines in the task prompt. The setting of learning does not show an effect on accuracy or fluency but there is a noticeable advantage in the London group regarding syntactic complexity and lexical diversity. The authors maintain that their study cannot provide an account for language learning and development, as they only investigated language performance.
‘Creativity and narrative task performance: An exploratory study’, by Agnes Albert and Judit Kormos, addresses individual differences in task performance by looking at the effect of creativity on aspects of performance in an oral narrative task. Hungarian learners of English performed a story telling task in pairs using pictures. Their performance was transcribed and analyzed in terms of quantity of talk, complexity, accuracy, lexical variety, and narrative structure. In general, the correlations between components of creativity and task performance is not very high. The study suggests that creativity is a multifaceted trait, as students with higher scores on certain creativity components perform the same task differently. The quantity of talk, lexical variety, and narrative structure are affected by components of creativity, while this correlation is not significant for complexity and accuracy of output. The authors present this research as an initial attempt to relate creativity as an individual trait to learners’ task performance. Implications are given for future research on investigating creativity as a factor in language development as well.
‘The role of task-induced involvement and learner proficiency in L2 vocabulary acquisition’, by YouJin Kim, is the only study in this volume that addresses vocabulary learning. The study relies on the Involvement Load Hypothesis, recently proposed by Laufer and Hulstijn (2001), as a motivational and cognitive construct that accounts for the variable effects of different vocabulary focused tasks. In this study, ESL learners are found to benefit the most from sentence writing tasks in retaining word meanings, and while gap-fill task are less effective, the least effective is a reading comprehension task. Results of this study conform to predictions of the hypothesis in that the most demanding tasks with higher involvement loads yield higher scores in vocabulary acquisition and retention. The hypothesis in its current formulation sheds light on the cognitive processes involved in incidental learning of new vocabulary while learners’ primary attention is focused on meaning in task performance. Although this hypothesis was not recognized in literature under the task-based approach, its inclusion in this volume draws attention to a potential gap in research that needs to be addressed for further synthesis of findings and implications.
‘Teacher-and Learner-led discourse in task-based grammar instruction: providing procedural assistance for morphosyntactic development’, by Paul D. Toth, is concerned with the pedagogical outcomes of different ways of implementing grammar-focused tasks in the classroom. The study argues against the strong pedagogical belief that learner-led (LLD) discourse in task performance facilitates second language development more than whole class teacher-led discourse (TLD). English speaking learners of Spanish attended seven lessons targeting the presentation and practice of the anticausative ‘se’ in Spanish. Lesson plans included information gap and picture description tasks done in pairs and recorded for discourse analysis. Quantitative and qualitative analysis results reveal advantages and disadvantages for both approaches in task performance. However, following measures of grammaticality judgment tests and production posttests, a stronger performance is shown in the TLD group. The author suggests that the teacher’s discourse supports L2 development through directing students’ attention to target structures and providing what he calls ‘procedural assistance’ to learners while they produce their output. Implications of the study point to the possibility of achieving an ideal contribution for task-based pedagogy through a principled combination of TLD and LLD.
The last study in this volume is entitled ‘Task-based interactions in classroom and laboratory settings’, by Susan Gass, Alison Mackey, and Lauren Ross-Feldman. The goal of the study is to investigate variations, if any, within patterns of task-based interactions depending on the setting of the treatment, i.e., classroom studies versus lab-controlled studies. Learners of Spanish as a foreign language performed a map task, consensus task, and a picture differences task in the lab or in the classroom. Analyses of discourse focus on the occurrence of incidents of learning related episodes, recasts, and negotiation of meaning within task-based interactions. Results show no considerable differences in interaction patterns based on the setting of the experiment. Rather, variations seem to be mainly task-dependent, meaning that discourse varied in each context from task to task, not because they were performed in labs or classrooms.
This book is a valuable resource for researchers looking for a thorough account of the recent theoretical trends in task-based learning, as it sheds light on the current focus of empirical work in this specific area and the major findings that can guide further research. The introductory review presented by the editor perfectly prepares the reader for the upcoming arguments in the articles by reviewing the theoretical background that supports most of the findings shown by the studies in the volume. The book as a whole is well prepared to be easily digested by novice practitioners interested in getting a full picture of current issues in task-based learning that directly have a bearing on their pedagogical beliefs and practices.
There are obviously common themes among the selected studies in that four of them target oral tasks and specifically focus on the structure of language output and L2 development. Only Kim’s study presents written tasks and target vocabulary learning. It would have been more consistent if this specific study were not included in the volume, but it seems that the goal is to provide an integrated account of task-based learning, with vocabulary being a crucial component of language. All the studies are more concerned with oral performance and language output in terms of complexity, accuracy and fluency rather than learning or acquiring some language component. The only exceptions are Toth’s study, which minimally touched upon the development of a grammatical structure in Spanish, and Kim’s study, which evidently targets vocabulary acquisition. In this sense, one may argue that coherence of the volume is minimally affected due to the selection of the studies included. Another argument concerning the content is that the title of the volume could have been more revealing if it included a reference to task performance and L2 development, since most of the studies investigate performance and language output rather than learning as a general concept.
Since the common thread throughout the book is tasks as pedagogical tools, the reader would have benefited from an additional attempt to consolidate the definition of ‘tasks’ in a way that applies to the pool of selected studies. Ellis (2003, 2005) presents extended discussions on what constitutes a real task and what can instead be considered a language drill. Obviously, each of the included studies has a specific view on task characteristics and designs but discrepancies in how they approach them are not clearly addressed in the review or within the articles themselves. For example, the Involvement Load Hypothesis that informs Kim’s study is only introduced in literature within the scope of incidental vocabulary acquisition, but not specifically under task-based tradition. In this sense, the use of ‘task’ as a cover term for all the studies included would need to be more operationalized in a way that justifies findings and implications. It would greatly contribute to the coherence of the volume if all selected studies were situated under a unified construct in terms of how they approach and characterize tasks in the learning context. It would also be helpful to present a synthesis of all the task types being implemented and their differential features and potential outcomes.
Regardless of the minor comments above, the volume has brilliantly integrated theory and practice in task-based instruction and set the scene for further empirical endeavors by pointing out actual gaps in the area, especially in investigating the effectiveness of task performance in the acquisition of grammar or vocabulary. This gap has been clearly shown in Ellis (2003, 2005). Another interesting perspective that has been inspired by this volume is the apparent disconnect between vocabulary learning studies and task-based tradition. A promising project in this concern would be an attempt to situate vocabulary learning hypotheses and assumptions within the scope of task-based research and reinterpret findings from a different viewpoint. Several important variables are investigated in the book, including task design features, individual differences, teacher and learner discourse, and learning context. However, a commonly investigated variable in task-based research is the type and time of ‘planning’ involved before or within task performance. This variable is out of the scope of this volume. It is understood that a single volume cannot accommodate all the pressing issues in a given research area but later volumes are strongly encouraged to pursue more in-depth inquiries into evolving issues and practical implications. Overall, this book is a unique effort that is well prepared and worthy of reading for students, researchers and practitioners in the field of second language acquisition and pedagogy.
Ellis, R. (2003). Task based language teaching and learning. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. (2005). Planning and task performance in a second language. John Benjamin Publishing Company.
Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a Second Language: The Construct of Task-Induced Involvement. Applied Linguistics, 22(1), 1-26.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ayman Mohamed is pursuing his PhD in Second Language Studies at Michigan
State University. His research work focuses on incidental vocabulary
acquisition in offline and online settings, developmental processes in
language learning, and psychometric variables in language acquisition.
Currently teaching Arabic as a foreign language, he became more interested
in applying SLA research directions to Arabic as a less commonly taught
language and investigating other language specific variables and contexts.
In his recent projects, he is working on developing materials and research
instruments relevant to task-based teaching and assessment in Arabic as a