LINGUIST List 23.2839

Tue Jun 26 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition: Robinson (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 26-Jun-2012
From: Ayman Mohamed <>
Subject: Task-Based Language Learning
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EDITOR: Peter RobinsonTITLE: Task-Based Language LearningSERIES TITLE: The Best of Language Learning SeriesPUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2011

Ayman A. Mohamed, Second Language Studies, Michigan State University


This edited volume presents empirical work on task-based research selected fromarticles that were recently published in the journal entitled ''LanguageLearning''. The volume is an attempt to link the theoretical underpinnings oftask-based learning to the pedagogical practices in task-based teaching. Theintroductory review of the book focuses on the acquisition processes that takeplace within task-based learning environments and the theoretical stances thatguide research in this area. Effects of task features and designs oninteraction, attention to input, and quality of speech production arehighlighted through the five empirical studies presented in the book, whichmainly 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 ofnarrative type and learner output’, Paravaneh Tavakoli and Pauline Fosterinvestigate how narrative task design affects oral performance of learners insecond and foreign language contexts. Narrative complexity and inherentnarrative structure are posited as variables that potentially affect accuracy,complexity and fluency of learners’ oral narrative performance. Participants inTehran (a foreign language setting) and in London (a second language setting)produced two of four narratives from cartoon picture prompts. Analyses oftranscripts show that the design features of narrative tasks affect performancein a predictable way. A tight narrative structure supports accuracy whilesyntactic complexity is supported by the variable of having two storylines inthe task prompt. The setting of learning does not show an effect on accuracy orfluency but there is a noticeable advantage in the London group regardingsyntactic complexity and lexical diversity. The authors maintain that theirstudy cannot provide an account for language learning and development, as theyonly investigated language performance.

‘Creativity and narrative task performance: An exploratory study’, by AgnesAlbert and Judit Kormos, addresses individual differences in task performance bylooking at the effect of creativity on aspects of performance in an oralnarrative task. Hungarian learners of English performed a story telling task inpairs using pictures. Their performance was transcribed and analyzed in terms ofquantity of talk, complexity, accuracy, lexical variety, and narrativestructure. In general, the correlations between components of creativity andtask performance is not very high. The study suggests that creativity is amultifaceted trait, as students with higher scores on certain creativitycomponents perform the same task differently. The quantity of talk, lexicalvariety, and narrative structure are affected by components of creativity, whilethis correlation is not significant for complexity and accuracy of output. Theauthors present this research as an initial attempt to relate creativity as anindividual trait to learners’ task performance. Implications are given forfuture research on investigating creativity as a factor in language developmentas well.

‘The role of task-induced involvement and learner proficiency in L2 vocabularyacquisition’, by YouJin Kim, is the only study in this volume that addressesvocabulary learning. The study relies on the Involvement Load Hypothesis,recently proposed by Laufer and Hulstijn (2001), as a motivational and cognitiveconstruct that accounts for the variable effects of different vocabulary focusedtasks. In this study, ESL learners are found to benefit the most from sentencewriting tasks in retaining word meanings, and while gap-fill task are lesseffective, the least effective is a reading comprehension task. Results of thisstudy conform to predictions of the hypothesis in that the most demanding taskswith higher involvement loads yield higher scores in vocabulary acquisition andretention. The hypothesis in its current formulation sheds light on thecognitive processes involved in incidental learning of new vocabulary whilelearners’ primary attention is focused on meaning in task performance. Althoughthis hypothesis was not recognized in literature under the task-based approach,its inclusion in this volume draws attention to a potential gap in research thatneeds to be addressed for further synthesis of findings and implications.

‘Teacher-and Learner-led discourse in task-based grammar instruction: providingprocedural assistance for morphosyntactic development’, by Paul D. Toth, isconcerned with the pedagogical outcomes of different ways of implementinggrammar-focused tasks in the classroom. The study argues against the strongpedagogical belief that learner-led (LLD) discourse in task performancefacilitates second language development more than whole class teacher-leddiscourse (TLD). English speaking learners of Spanish attended seven lessonstargeting the presentation and practice of the anticausative ‘se’ in Spanish.Lesson plans included information gap and picture description tasks done inpairs and recorded for discourse analysis. Quantitative and qualitative analysisresults reveal advantages and disadvantages for both approaches in taskperformance. However, following measures of grammaticality judgment tests andproduction posttests, a stronger performance is shown in the TLD group. Theauthor suggests that the teacher’s discourse supports L2 development throughdirecting 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 idealcontribution for task-based pedagogy through a principled combination of TLD andLLD.

The last study in this volume is entitled ‘Task-based interactions in classroomand laboratory settings’, by Susan Gass, Alison Mackey, and Lauren Ross-Feldman.The goal of the study is to investigate variations, if any, within patterns oftask-based interactions depending on the setting of the treatment, i.e.,classroom studies versus lab-controlled studies. Learners of Spanish as aforeign language performed a map task, consensus task, and a picture differencestask in the lab or in the classroom. Analyses of discourse focus on theoccurrence of incidents of learning related episodes, recasts, and negotiationof meaning within task-based interactions. Results show no considerabledifferences in interaction patterns based on the setting of the experiment.Rather, variations seem to be mainly task-dependent, meaning that discoursevaried in each context from task to task, not because they were performed inlabs or classrooms.


This book is a valuable resource for researchers looking for a thorough accountof the recent theoretical trends in task-based learning, as it sheds light onthe current focus of empirical work in this specific area and the major findingsthat can guide further research. The introductory review presented by the editorperfectly prepares the reader for the upcoming arguments in the articles byreviewing the theoretical background that supports most of the findings shown bythe studies in the volume. The book as a whole is well prepared to be easilydigested by novice practitioners interested in getting a full picture of currentissues in task-based learning that directly have a bearing on their pedagogicalbeliefs and practices.

There are obviously common themes among the selected studies in that four ofthem target oral tasks and specifically focus on the structure of languageoutput and L2 development. Only Kim’s study presents written tasks and targetvocabulary learning. It would have been more consistent if this specific studywere not included in the volume, but it seems that the goal is to provide anintegrated account of task-based learning, with vocabulary being a crucialcomponent of language. All the studies are more concerned with oral performanceand language output in terms of complexity, accuracy and fluency rather thanlearning or acquiring some language component. The only exceptions are Toth’sstudy, which minimally touched upon the development of a grammatical structurein Spanish, and Kim’s study, which evidently targets vocabulary acquisition. Inthis sense, one may argue that coherence of the volume is minimally affected dueto the selection of the studies included. Another argument concerning thecontent is that the title of the volume could have been more revealing if itincluded a reference to task performance and L2 development, since most of thestudies investigate performance and language output rather than learning as ageneral concept.

Since the common thread throughout the book is tasks as pedagogical tools, thereader would have benefited from an additional attempt to consolidate thedefinition of ‘tasks’ in a way that applies to the pool of selected studies.Ellis (2003, 2005) presents extended discussions on what constitutes a real taskand what can instead be considered a language drill. Obviously, each of theincluded studies has a specific view on task characteristics and designs butdiscrepancies in how they approach them are not clearly addressed in the reviewor within the articles themselves. For example, the Involvement Load Hypothesisthat informs Kim’s study is only introduced in literature within the scope ofincidental vocabulary acquisition, but not specifically under task-basedtradition. In this sense, the use of ‘task’ as a cover term for all the studiesincluded would need to be more operationalized in a way that justifies findingsand implications. It would greatly contribute to the coherence of the volume ifall selected studies were situated under a unified construct in terms of howthey approach and characterize tasks in the learning context. It would also behelpful to present a synthesis of all the task types being implemented and theirdifferential features and potential outcomes.

Regardless of the minor comments above, the volume has brilliantly integratedtheory and practice in task-based instruction and set the scene for furtherempirical endeavors by pointing out actual gaps in the area, especially ininvestigating the effectiveness of task performance in the acquisition ofgrammar or vocabulary. This gap has been clearly shown in Ellis (2003, 2005).Another interesting perspective that has been inspired by this volume is theapparent disconnect between vocabulary learning studies and task-basedtradition. A promising project in this concern would be an attempt to situatevocabulary learning hypotheses and assumptions within the scope of task-basedresearch and reinterpret findings from a different viewpoint. Several importantvariables 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 andtime of ‘planning’ involved before or within task performance. This variable isout of the scope of this volume. It is understood that a single volume cannotaccommodate all the pressing issues in a given research area but later volumesare strongly encouraged to pursue more in-depth inquiries into evolving issuesand practical implications. Overall, this book is a unique effort that is wellprepared and worthy of reading for students, researchers and practitioners inthe field of second language acquisition and pedagogy.


Ellis, R. (2003). Task based language teaching and learning. Oxford. OxfordUniversity Press.

Ellis, R. (2005). Planning and task performance in a second language. JohnBenjamin Publishing Company.

Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a SecondLanguage: The Construct of Task-Induced Involvement. Applied Linguistics, 22(1),1-26.


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.

Page Updated: 26-Jun-2012