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Review of  Task-Based Language Teaching in Foreign Language Contexts


Reviewer: Achilleas I. Kostoulas
Book Title: Task-Based Language Teaching in Foreign Language Contexts
Book Author: Ali Shehadeh Christine A. Coombe
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 24.1720

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Review:
SUMMARY

This volume contains a range of papers on task-based language teaching (TBLT), as practiced in the periphery (Phillipson, 1992) of the English-speaking world. With the exception of the introductory and concluding chapters, which respectively contextualize the book’s topic and summarise its themes, the book is divided in two sections. Section I (Chapters 2-6) contains five studies on how different variables impact interaction and performance in TBLT. Section II (Chapters 7-14) comprises eight chapters reporting on the implementation of TBLT in authentic classroom contexts across the world.

Chapter 1: Broadening the perspective of task-based language teaching scholarship. The contribution of research in foreign language contexts (Ali Shehadeh). Τhe first half of Chapter 1 provides a comprehensive overview of recent literature on TBLT, which serves to contextualize the volume. Shehadeh points out that much published scholarship on TBLT tends to report on English as a Second Language (ESL) contexts, where English is natively spoken and taught to learners from diverse linguistic backgrounds. By contrast, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) contexts, where English is taught in the public education system for purposes such as communication with visiting foreigners, tend to be underrepresented. The author then describes the salient features of EFL settings which set them apart from ESL ones, and discusses the factors which might impede the implementation of TBLT. The latter half of the chapter presents an overview of the individual contributions that make up the volume.

Chapter 2: Effects of task complexity and pre-task planning on Japanese ELF learners’ oral production (Shoko Sasayama & Shinichi Izumi). This chapter reports on an empirical investigation into the effects of task design on oral production. Sasayama and Izumi report on an experiment involving 23 Japanese high school students which tested the effects of task complexity and planning time on the syntactic complexity, accuracy and fluency of the participants’ output. In doing so, they test the predictions made by Skehan’s (1998) Trade-off Hypothesis against Robinson’s (2001) multiple-resource model of attention (the Cognition Hypothesis). In brief, the former holds that attentional resources are finite, and that increased quality in one aspect of output will be offset by decreased quality in the others. Focusing more on task design, the latter posits that increased task complexity can, under certain circumstances, lead to interlanguage development. The authors’ findings suggest that the differences between the two positions might not be irreconcilable, and that what is required is an understanding of “exactly how their seemingly contradictory claims can be reconciled” (p. 40).

Chapter 3: Measuring task complexity: Does EFL proficiency matter? (Aleksandra Malicka & Mayya Levkina). The discussion of the relative merits of Skehan’s (1998) and Robinson’s (2001) psycholinguistic models is carried forward in Chapter 3. Malicka and Levkina look into the mediating effects of linguistic proficiency on perceptions of task complexity and oral output. In their study, 37 undergraduates in Spanish tertiary institutions were assigned to high and low proficiency groups and asked to complete tasks with differing levels of cognitive demands. Following that, their perceptions of task difficulty, and the accuracy, fluency and complexity of their output were compared. For the high-proficiency group, the findings seem more consistent with the Cognition Hypothesis, whereas the data regarding the low-proficiency group are more in line with the Trade-off Hypothesis. These findings suggest a shift in the psycholinguistic processes that operate at different stages of language learning.

Chapter 4: Effects of strategic planning on the accuracy of oral and written tasks in the performance of Turkish EFL learners (Zubeyde Sinem Genc). Genc takes a more focused perspective by looking into how the accuracy of learners’ oral and written output is influenced by the provision for strategic planning in the task design. A total of 60 learners in a university in Turkey were divided into four groups with reference to two criteria: the opportunity to engage in pre-task planning (or lack thereof), and task modality (i.e. whether they engaged in an oral or a written task), and the accuracy of their output was compared. Genc’s findings suggest that increased time for strategic planning is associated with lower accuracy, both in the written and the oral modality (the difference between modalities not being significant).

Chapter 5: Effects of task instructions on text processing and learning in a Japanese EFL college nursing setting (Yukie Horiba & Keiko Fukaya). Horiba and Fukaya discuss how vocabulary acquisition and the retention of information from texts in a foreign language are impacted by the language in which tasks are implemented. Their study, which involved 70 young adults in Japan, suggests that the cognitive strategies employed during reading comprehension tasks are influenced by the language in which they are expected to produce output. Learners who were instructed to read a text in a foreign language and repeat its propositional content in their native language tended to use strategies conducive to reading comprehension and content retention; by contrast, learners asked to conduct the task entirely in the foreign language seemed to use strategies that facilitate incidental vocabulary acquisition.

Chapter 6: Task structure and patterns of interaction: what can we learn from observing native speakers performing tasks? (James Hobbs). The last chapter of Section I differs from the ones that precede it, in that it takes a qualitative perspective in order to analyse the output of Native Speakers (NS) performing language learning tasks. Using Discourse Analysis methods, Hobbs teases out salient aspects of task performance which are claimed to differentiate the output of NS from that generally produced by language learners. The view underpinning this study appears to be that “NS norms are to be the basis of what is taught in class” (p. 111). This, of course, has become a controversial issue in recent years, and Hobbs positions himself carefully to avoid too literal an interpretation of ‘native-ness’. A particular strength of the chapter, from the perspective of educators, is an extended discussion of practical implications and classroom applications informed by the study.

Chapter 7: Patterns of corrective feedback in a task-based adult classroom EFL classroom setting in China (Noriko Iwashita & Huifang Li). Iwashita and Li report on a case study of a typical Chinese adult EFL class where task-supported learning methods were being implemented. The chapter contains a rich and highly informative description of the research setting (provincial China), and of the factors which appear to hinder the implementation of task-based pedagogy. By analysing the patterns of corrective feedback that were provided by the teacher during instruction time, the authors determine that students actively participated in the learning process, and make the claim that resistance to task-based teaching methodology is not quite as strong as might be expected.

Chapter 8: Incidental learner-generated focus on form in a task-based EFL classroom (Paul J. Moore). In Chapter 8, discussion shifts to interaction between learners. Moore reports on a longitudinal study into Language Related Episodes: instances of meta-discourse during task implementation, which were generated by four pairs of Japanese undergraduates. Using quantitative and qualitative methods, the study finds that there is a paucity of incidental focus-on-form in the learners’ output, and that individual performance is impacted by learner-learner interaction.

Chapter 9: Qualitative differences in novice teachers’ enactment of task-based language teaching in Hong Kong primary classrooms (Sui Ping (Shirley) Chan). Drawing data from four primary classrooms in Hong Kong (not, strictly speaking, an EFL context), Chen’s study offers insights into the ways in which novice teachers manage the linguistic, cognitive and interactional demands of tasks. Her findings suggest that the implementation of TBLT differs with respect to six dimensions: (1) visual support, (2) contextualization, (3) simultaneous attention to task demands and progression in complexity, (4) scaffolding through sequencing and adjustment of variables, (5) creating conditions for noticing, and (6) enabling restructuring. Taken together, the findings constitute a useful framework for the analysis of TBLT and critical reflection on the teachers’ beliefs.

Chapter 10: Implementing computer-assisted task-based language teaching in the Korean secondary EFL context (Moonyoung Park). Park reports on a study that investigated the effects of Computer-Assisted TBLT. Over a period of eight lessons, a group of 31 Korean middle-school students engaged in a series of communicative tasks which involved the use of Information Technology and online resources in order to develop their writing skills. Their performance was measured pre- and post-test, and compared against a control group of similar size. Additionally, the teacher’s and students’ attitudes towards Computer-Assisted TBLT were elicited through a retrospective written survey. The findings, which include significantly higher performance by the experimental group and positive attitudes towards the intervention, are suggestive of the pedagogical value of Computer-Assisted TBLT.

Chapter 11: Task-based language teaching through film-oriented activities in a teacher education program in Venezuela (Carmen Teresa Chacón). This chapter continues on the theme of technology-enhanced applications of TBLT, by looking into film-oriented tasks. Chacón reports on a ten-week study during which trainee teachers in Venezuela engaged in collaborative task-based projects which used films as input. Multiple methods (focus groups, reflective journals and audio-recordings) were used in order to elicit the participants’ views, and frequency counts of key terms were carried out. Overall, positive views were recorded regarding TBLT and collaborative learning activities. In addition, participants were reportedly empowered to implement TBLT in their future careers.

Chapter 12: Task-based language teacher education in an undergraduate programme in Japan (Daniel O. Jackson). Chapter 12 describes a semester-long classroom study in which 15 teacher trainees engaged in a task-based seminar on language teaching methodology. Using retrospective comments, classroom discourse and a questionnaire survey, Jackson concludes that there are significant practical knowledge outcomes associated with task-based pedagogy in teacher education, including classroom teaching techniques, the opportunity to learn from members of their student cohort, and enhanced experience in making, adapting and using plans. Although the attitudes of this group did not appear to differ significantly from those of other students in the same context, positive attitudes towards TBLT were recorded overall.

Chapter 13: Incorporating a formative assessment cycle into task-based language teaching in a university setting in Japan (Christopher Weaver). Walker’s contribution brings into focus the topic of Task Based Language Assessment, with particular reference to formative assessment. The chapter begins with the description of an evidence-centred formative assessment cycle, which is then illustrated with empirical data from its implementation in a Business English class in Japan, comprising 41 undergraduate students. A combination of quantitative (Many-Facet Rasch analysis) and qualitative (Discourse Analysis) methods were used to analyse the data, and the argument is put forward that the implementation of these, or similar, methods can provide useful feedback for learners and task designers.

Chapter 14: Language teachers’ perceptions of a task-based learning programme in a French university (Julie McAllister, Marie-Françoise Narcy-Combes & Rebecca Starkey-Perret). The penultimate chapter of the collection reports on the way TBLT was used in a ‘blended’ language learning programme delivered to Business English undergraduates in a French university. The blended programme involved the concurrent use of onsite and online learning activities and therefore involved a re-conceptualisation of the teachers’ roles. This study looks into the perceptions and attitudes of 14 teachers, which were investigated through qualitative analysis of a corpus of interview data. The findings indicate that despite some variance as to the teachers’ beliefs regarding Second Language Acquisition, there is broad acceptance of the pedagogical principles that informed the blended learning programme. The findings also hint at the impact of institutional and cultural factors in the implementation of TBLT.

Chapter 15: What is next for task-based language teaching? (David Carless). The collection concludes with a contribution in which the main themes of the preceding chapters are brought together, and possible future directions for TBLT are traced. The chapter describes the methodological aspects of the various contributions, by drawing attention to their mutually reinforcing orientations and possible limitations. The author then discusses the ways in which contextual factors impact the implementation of TBLT, with particular reference to the People’s Republic of China and Hong Kong. Next, implications of TBLT for assessment and teacher education are brought up. Turning to the future, Carless discusses the potential of empirical investigations into student perceptions of tasks, the affordances of new digital media, and the relative effectiveness of TBLT and traditional forms of pedagogy.

EVALUATION

This collection forms a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on TBLT (e.g. Edwards & Willis, 2005; Ellis, 2003; Van den Branden, 2006; Van den Branden, Van Gorp, & Verhelst, 2007; Willis & Willis, 2007). The contributions that make up this volume usefully complement existing scholarship, which has predominantly focused on the way TBLT is implemented in settings where English is used as a native language. Despite a somewhat uneven geographical coverage, the volume contains a wealth of valuable insights and background information on diverse educational settings, along with first-hand accounts of how EFL practice is shaped by local contextual influences. In addition, the collection achieves a good balance between studies with a theoretical and applied perspective, and between research with qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods outlooks. The extensive discussion of methods and the methodological rigour of the papers will likely prove useful as a resource for researchers and post-graduate students in Education and Applied Linguistics.

The commendable strengths of the volume notwithstanding, one cannot help raising a number of critical remarks. Most importantly, the dichotomous distinction between ESL and EFL that underpins the book is being increasingly challenged by the global spread and hegemonic status of English. The inclusion in the collection of a study from Hong Kong, which could easily be described as an ESL setting, is indicative of how awkward this distinction has become, and the editors seem to be aware of the problem, as evidenced in a footnote on page 5. This remark is not meant to challenge the editors’ claim that settings where English is not natively spoken were under-represented in the literature, or to detract from the value of the present contributions. However, it seems that the distinction could have been more usefully framed by reference to theoretical models that more accurately reflect the global and globalising role of English (e.g. Kachru, 1985; Phillipson, 1992).

A second theoretical concern I have with some of the chapters in this collection is that TBLT appears to be conceptualized as an a priori appropriate model of instruction for all settings. Carless (Chapter 15) delivers a persuasive argument regarding the need for contextual adaptations of TBLT, but the underlying question of whether this mode of instruction is contextually appropriate in the first place remains largely unaddressed across the collection. Similarly, in many papers, local influences tend to be conceptualized as constraints or difficulties to be overcome. This ‘deficit’ perspective seems discordant with thinking in the critical tradition (Holliday, 2005; Kumaravadivelu, 2001), and whether such an outlook is pragmatically or politically useful is something that readers of this review are invited to judge on their own.

In terms of overall coherence, the editors have done a commendable job in selecting papers that complement each other thematically, and -- from a reader’s perspective -- the flow from chapter to chapter seems seamless. Further improvements might have been possible by reducing occasional overlap between chapters (most notably the literature reviews in Chapters 2 and 3, which cover very similar information), or by enhancing the terminological consistency between contributions: for example, Skehan’s (1998) hypothesis is referred to as the ‘limited cognition’ hypothesis in Chapter 2 and the ‘trade-off’ hypothesis in Chapter 3. Similarly, a more consistent formatting of figures (e.g. on p. 36 and p. 54) would have been desirable. These minor issues aside, the good thematic coherence of the book sets it apart from many edited collections.

Overall, it is my belief that this volume addresses a significant gap in the literature on language education by bringing to the forefront the under-represented realities of the periphery of the English-speaking world. The dual focus of the book bridges the gap between research and practice, and the papers in the volume make a case for the feasibility of applying task-based pedagogy in a variety of settings. In doing so, the collection makes a valuable contribution to the on-going debate regarding the role of TBLT in English Language Teaching.

REFERENCES

Edwards, C., & Willis, J. R. (2005). Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kachru, B. B. (1985). Standards, codification and socio-linguistic realism: the English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk & H. G. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: teaching and learning the language and literatures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001). Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 537-560.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, P. (2001). Task complexity, task difficulty, and task production: exploring interactions in a componential framework. Applied Linguistics, 22(1), 27-57. doi: 10.1093/applin/22.1.27

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van den Branden, K. (2006). Task-based language education : from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van den Branden, K., Van Gorp, K., & Verhelst, M. (2007). Tasks in action : task-based language education from a classroom-based perspective. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.

Willis, D., & Willis, J. R. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Achilleas Kostoulas, MA TESOL (Manchester), BA English Studies (Athens), is a postgraduate doctoral researcher at The University of Manchester (UK). His doctoral research focuses on the way English Language Teaching is practiced in Greece, and draws on complexity theory to describe how it is eclectically shaped by the interplay of global and local influences. Previous employment included designing and delivering courses in English as a Foreign Language and Language Teacher Education at the Epirus Institute of Technology in Greece.