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Review of  Task-Based Language Learning


Reviewer: Ayman A Mohamed
Book Title: Task-Based Language Learning
Book Author: Peter Robinson
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 23.2839

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Review:
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

SUMMARY

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.

EVALUATION

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.

REFERENCES

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 Foreign Language.

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