Date: Fri, 26 Aug 2005 19:54:49 +0900
From: Kevin Landry
Subject: Teachers Exploring Tasks in English Language Teaching
EDITORS: Edwards, Corony; Willis, Jane
TITLE: Teachers Exploring Tasks in English Language Teaching
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
Kevin Laurence Landry, Department of Liberal Arts, Hongik University,
MA Linguistics (TESOL) University of Surrey
This book brings together 19 papers by different authors investigating
tasks and task based teaching in the classroom. It connects many distance
education projects mostly done towards master programs from the University
of Birmingham or Aston University. It is divided into four main sections:
describing using tasks in lessons, interaction within tasks, language used
in tasks, and variables in task. It is well introduced and organized with
information about the individual contributors, abbreviations, aims, an
overview, and summary of each project.
Jane Willis gives advice in an introduction for doing action and classroom
research and explains what is meant by task. In a task the principle
focus is on exchanging and understanding meanings for some kind of purpose
such as: writing a list of differences, completing a route, reporting a
solution, etc. She describes that the contributors are teaching English
as a Foreign Language and that task-based learning is an approach that
centers on meaning. Ali Shehadeh explains the background of task based
learning and teaching. She contrasts it with presentation, practice and
Production (PPP) approach to second language teaching. She gives a
rationale for task based teaching, defines task, identifies types, and
offers perspectives for task-based learning. She overviews the work to
come and states that grammar -based instruction fails to produce effective
Chapter 2 is an article by Lamprini Loumpourdi telling of her adaptation
of a teacher centered grammar class into one that learners contributed
more. Patricia Pullin Stark reports in Chapter 3, how designing a
syllabus for business students incorporated projects. Concordances
replace grammar books in Raymond Sheehan's Chapter 4. Patrick Kiernan in
Chapter 5 investigates recorded story telling to raise confidence and
fluency. Chapter 6 is written by Theron Muller about incorporating tasks
into units from a textbook. Jason Moser used action research to focus
students' attention on form with a lesson journal in Chapter 7.
Chapters 8 - 11 explore interaction. Maria Leedham in Chapter 8
transcribes native speakers to increase turn taking in learners. Chapter
9 by Seung-Min Lee attempted to solve communication problems among
students by teaching meaning negotiation skills. Chapter 10 is a study on
repeating tasks with young learners by Annamaria Pinter. David Coulson
develops team talking in Chapter 11 so his learners can work together in a
conversation with international students.
Chapters 12 - 14 explore lexical phrases and patterns of the language used
in tasks. James Hobbs in Chapter 12 recorded native speakers doing tasks
for a basic of an interactive syllabus. Chapter 13 by Maggie Baigent
compared her learners and native speakers use of multi-word chunks. In
Chapter 14 David Cox tested the prediction of the language needed to
perform 5 different tasks.
Task conditions and task types are investigated in Chapters 15 - 19. The
quality of language in a report stage of a lesson is compared to the
language used during a task in Chapter 15 by Craig Johnston. William
Essig hypotheses in Chapter 16 how retelling a story under different
circumstances affects its improvement. Chapter 17 has Antigone Djapoura
testing the benefits of pre-task planning and instruction. Greg Birch in
chapter 18 recorded students to see if certain tasks direct attention to
accuracy, fluency or complexity of language. Types of interaction to show
language acquisition in process are studied in Chapter 19 by Glen Poupore.
This book is very inspirational for a new student considering or starting
a Masters degree in teaching English as a foreign language. The articles
are all about using task based teaching in a classroom and encouraging
others to do similar research and share it with the teaching community.
Each article is focused on task and has many different interpretations of
what a task is. It gives plenty of ideas for teachers to try in their own
classroom like recording learners, public reports, and designing your own
tasks. However with a large number of inexperienced researchers the work
in some papers does seem amateurish. The ideas are fresh and although the
book is organized in distinct sections the studies overlap and are not
connected in a completely systematic way. The term task has been used to
refer to almost any type of exercise or activity done by learners. It is
a great way to teach but at times some authors take great pains to
criticize other methods.
Although task based methods are designed to let the learner find a gap
between what he can do with language and what he needs to do with language
many of the activities are contrived and learners trying to complete the
activity find ways around improving their language. The design of task-
based learning seems helpful for fostering communication between students
and many of the articles spoke of learners enjoying their classes.
Personal experience though would make us wonder how enjoyable gap
activities of any kind end up being in some classes and how frustrated
learners probably become without improvements on standard tests. Tasks
succeed in giving learners something to use the language they know on but
fail to convince critics of their value. As long as language tests
continue to test Grammar with multiple choice questions and companies hire
according to those results some learners will be unwilling to participate
fully in class no matter how exciting an activity may have sounded in a
report. The positive results and reactions make teaching sound easy but
in practice any kind of approach has more to do with a teacher
establishing productive rapport with the learners.
The language used in many articles is British English and should be easy
to understand by Americans as well. However some examples and grammar may
seem awkward to those accustomed to American style English. The tenets of
tasks seems to be anti-grammar but things like "Conditionals" and "If"
and "using "Would" were explored in the second chapter. The lines of
grammar teaching and task teaching do seem somewhat blurred. The authors
do though explain exactly what they did in their class and make it some
easy for other teachers to emulate.
In Chapter 3 the author includes criticism from one of her students that
preparation time seemed to long for improving a short speech. If students
cannot see the benefits of certain procedures it causes friction in the
class and Student evaluations of teachers are often based on their
perception of the teacher's popularity rather than any measured
improvements. In Chapter 4 the data driven learning is much like
traditional lessons in other subjects where learners have to follow the
rules teachers explain. The researcher admits that a few students would
have rather had the teacher just gave them the answer than having to work
Learners in Chapter 5 seemed passive and unresponsive when listening to
others tell their story. It seems that task based activities are no
guarantee to a great class but must be refined and fine-tuned for
different situations. It still sounds worthwhile though and experimenting
in language teaching adds motivation to classroom exercises.
Speaking tests are addressed in Chapter 5 sound like an interesting
alternative to paper tests. The task of telling a story though easily
falls into many pitfalls such as the ability of your partner, similar
personal interests, or in fact having a good story to even tell. It
certainly isn't easy to judge a person's speech and task-based approaches
offer little in terms of guidelines for good speech.
Adapting PPP style textbooks led the researcher in Chapter 6 to omit
suggested phrases from handouts. It seems though the learners who are
able to do the task then already have the language necessary to complete
it so language teaching becomes learners practicing what they already know
beforehand. In some instances practicing what you know could be
beneficial but it is difficult to sell in a syllabus. In a way though it
does allow learners to approach a situation with level appropriate
language and elicits material for a teacher to evaluate.
In Chapter 7 the researcher had partners switch to escape boredom when
talking about the same topic a second or third time. In my experience,
learners tire of saying the same thing even to different people if used
too often. The researcher offers different topics so may not have had
this problem or have noticed. Some articles are more formal than others
and his informal use of "I" and 'you" sets him apart from other
researchers. The summary of certain articles are also somewhat less
formal than what someone might expect in a journal but the hands on
approach the foreign language field creates seems to make it acceptable.
Chapter 8 identifies long turns students take and the researcher attempted
to use native speakers recorded as examples. The researcher sounds
British and reports that students felt the task was useful but doesn't go
into specifics. Seeing actual native speakers (NS) doing a language-
learning task do open our eyes to the language the book expects learners
to use and contrasts with sample dialogues usually given. This
researchers suggestions or using NS and students doing dialogues or even
high level learners is intriguing and he is right on when criticizing
almost any textbook dialogue.
Chapter 9 reads much differently than the previous two. The writer's
native language seems to be Korean and his style of writing seems affected
by how things would be said in his first language. It is interesting to
note that as teachers we measure or at least compare how language is used
to our own way of speaking or writing. The researcher used a recording of
native teachers doing a task as an example for his pupils to follow.
The researcher in Chapter 10 teaches her learners expressions that also
sound foreign to me. She has them saying such things as, "Have you got a
frog on the second floor" and "No. I have got one dog". Rather than
use "Have you got" a more familiar expression for me would be "Do you
have". I thought while reading this Chapter how obvious and interesting
it was that all over the world there are teachers with different notions
as to what English is right. In my case I often attribute any unfamiliar
expressions to them being British English. However I could be mistaken.
This researcher did not have her learners change partners so it just
showing that tasks can be used different ways. Her learners give back
positive feed back but it begs the question, "How far can student self-
evaluation be trusted". Were they happy with the activity and would not
have enjoyed another type? Could their prediction of being able to
duplicate the task outside of the classroom in a real situation succeed?
In Chapter 11 the researcher explains in Japanese culture it is considered
rude to interrupt the speaker. It makes me think that our evaluation of
fluent English is more cultural than we assume; see Eye movements (2005).
The "Team talking" strategy put forward by the researcher is very
innovative and sounds like a wonderful way for learners to work together
to get control of a conversation. However in Japan International students
may feel obligated to talk based on their previous experience speaking
with other Japanese. His students were preparing for an English Day so
having a definite goal really seemed to help motivate his class.
Using recordings of native speakers to improve student performance in pair
interviews gave them examples to imitate. The researcher in Chapter 12
noticed learners resorting to using their first language to clarify and
comment on answers during a task. The tasks though often seem designed to
have students use English to perform correctly. Blaming this oversight on
dialogues in language books that no one is interrupted or misunderstood
seems logical. A breakdown in communication in fact is a common enough
occurrence to warrant a study on its effect in a conversation.
Students like teachers experiment with what works in class. Native
speaker speech is not perfect and mentioning that it is acceptable to use
vague language like 'you know' seems appropriate. While reading the
different projects so many related concepts came to mind. Although
speaking, writing, listening, and reading are closely related dialogue is
not the same when written. Many of the transcripts throughout the book
emphasize the value of recording learners' speech and give us an idea of
what affect the task had on them during class.
Multi-word chunks were divided and sorted according to the researcher in
Chapter 13. Facts about native speakers using twice as many chunks as
intermediate learners and other information is given in each introduction
making each experiment an extension of earlier work. The innovative ways
that evaluating language used while doing a task give us insight into what
each researcher is interested in. Their recommendations are useful for
other researchers and for classroom activities. The difference between
what forms are expected or taught and natural language in Chapter 14
raises the question of how real language in any classroom can possibly be.
Between each section of the book is an explanation of the part
forthcoming. These explanations introduce the next theme but attempt to
not give away the results of each piece of research. Phrases like "Read
and see", however tend to take away from academic credibility of the field
and combined with Summaries that are weak abstracts it is no wonder that
language teaching articles are considered soft research compared to true
science. Even so, the opportunity for professional development as a
teacher by applying tasks in your own classroom are staggering.
Chapter 15 focuses on the report stage of a task cycle and is a rather
short addition to the book analyzing the task work and report of three
students. One didn't have time to improve her solution so although the
experiment did not work very well the researcher still shares the task
they used and is worthwhile for spreading another style of text analysis.
The hypothesis in Chapter 16 continues along the same track using public
and private post task comparisons. However one wonders how much fun a
learner has telling the same story to the same person over again.
Pre-planning time in Chapter 17 leads to another point of view. The
conversations of motivated students were compared and planning time shown
to be beneficial. Not allowing students to look at their notes does stop
them from reading a prepared script but it may be had to enforce and
monitor with a large group and especially if they do not understand why
and would rather cheat to finish the task. The point of course is to
prepare them for real life communication but language in the classroom is
real in a sense.
Chapter 18 attempts to investigate task characteristics and does so very
professionally. Tables from other works are compiled and such information
as one-minute preparation time being enough are very helpful for classroom
application. The appendixes present the handouts used for the tasks and
also sample transcripts. Chapter 19 addresses how difficult it is to focus
on form while interacting. Problem-solving tasks produced more quality
interaction. Even so, the researcher points out that Jigsaw style tasks
encourage self-correction and natural self initiated repairs. Some
students do object to jigsaw tasks though and complained that the puzzle
was not the kind of game they liked.
At the end of the book is an Epilogue written by Corony Edwards. He
evaluates the research by surveying the contributors. He compiles and
examines their concept of classroom research, advises to start small and
gives tips for others to move from being a language teacher to a
researcher. Time was the main problem identified but rewards of
excitement satisfaction and confidence seemed to lead researchers to avoid
stagnation as a teacher. Justifying teaching inspired some and other
impetuses are discussed. Enthusiasm and flexibility are offered as
personality traits desirable for successful classroom research. Appendix
1 contains criteria for exploratory practice, Appendix 2; Methods and
techniques for classroom research, Appendix 3; other research carried out
Teaching English in the context of a foreign language varies from country
to country and institution to institution. Tasks are definitely a helpful
addition to any classroom even if it is not the only method used in a
classroom. The advice acts as a "rescue action" in English Language
teaching much like Dogma in Thornbury (2000, no date) suggests learners
must be engaged in relevant interaction. This book is a great example of
using small-scale projects to investigate certain aspects of the class you
are teaching and demonstrates how the teachers in the trenches can give
back to the academic community. I would recommend reading it to any
teacher of English as a foreign language starting out or looking for a
cure to feeling burnt out.
Eye movements may betray your culture, Aug. 22, 2005, Courtesy Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences and World Science staff.
Thornbury, S. 2000. A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues,153, 2
Thornbury, S. no date. Dogme: Dancing in the dark?