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Review of  Task-based grammar teaching of English


Reviewer: Luciana Forti
Book Title: Task-based grammar teaching of English
Book Author: Susanne Niemeier
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.4860

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Review:
SUMMARY

Task-based grammar teaching of English, by Susanne, Niemeier, provides a theoretical and practical account of how cognitive grammar can be integrated into task-based language teaching.

Part I, “Didactic and linguistic theory” (pp. 13-72), describes the context which the book has grown from, namely that of EFL teaching in Germany. It starts off by outlining the approach that is most widely used within this context, the so-called “PPP” (presentation, practice, production), and indicates how this inevitably influences the opportunity of integrating task-based grammar teaching into EFL syllabi in Germany.

It then covers the main theoretical principles governing task-based language teaching, defining it as learner-centred and meaning-oriented (p. 23) and supports this by citing R. Ellis (2003: 177): “Acquisition occurs in, rather than as a result of, interaction. From this perspective, then, L2 acquisition is not a purely individual-based process but shared between the individual and other persons”. The author of the volume, Susanne Niemeier, cites Ellis once more in order to provide a definition of what a task is as opposed to an exercise, stating that in the context of a task learners act mainly as language users, while in the context of an exercise learners act mainly as language learners.

By making reference to the relevant literature, the author distinguishes between task-based and task-supported language learning. In the first case, we are in the presence of a fully structured syllabus based on specific tasks, while in the second case, tasks are used alongside other modes of instruction. Because of how entrenched the PPP system is in the German language learning and teaching context, the author indicates the second approach (i.e. the task-supported one) as the approach that she has adopted in her own teaching practice, and which informs the present volume.

This section of Part I then goes on to describe the origins of the approach, which is reported to have been first implemented in India by N.S. Prabhu, who devised a syllabus based on a series of activities within tasks that were used as a vehicle for the production of meaningful language, rather than on a progression of language items. Some of the activities used by Prabhu and reported by the author are information gap activities, involving “a transfer of given information from one person to another – or from one form to another, or from one place to another – generally calling for the encoding or decoding of information from or into a language” (Prabhu 1987: 46, cited in Neimeier 2017: 27); reasoning gap activities, based on “deriving some new information from given information through processes of interference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns” (Prabhu 1987: 46, cited in Neimeier 2017: 27); or finally, opinion gap activities that involve “identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation” (Prabhu 1987: 47, cited in Neimeier 2017: 27). In differentiating among the different kinds of tasks, Prabhu adopts a cognitive typology. Other authors prefer a psycholinguistic typology (Pica et al. 1993, cited in Neimeier 2017: 27) and differentiate between jigsaw tasks, information gap tasks, problem-solving tasks, decision making tasks, and opinion exchange tasks. In other authors still, we may find a pedagogical typology (Willis 1996, cited in Neimeier 2017: 28), where tasks are categorized into listing, ordering, comparing, problem-solving, sharing personal experiences and creative tasks. As a result, Susanne Neimeier highlights how there is no single view in literature as to how tasks can be classified.

In the process of designing a task, Niemeier adopts the so-called “task-cycle”, which can cover a single lesson or a series of lessons. In this volume, the approach of the author is based on single-lesson tasks.

The first phase of the task cycle is formed by the pre-task phase, which has a dual aim: re-activating previously presented vocabulary that can be useful for the lesson, as well as introducing the communicative topic of the lesson. The following phase is the during-task phase, based on the learners carrying out of the task, and then planning the report on the task’s outcome, and finally sharing the reports themselves. The third and final phase is the post-task phase, where the teacher draws the learners’ attention to the language that was encountered while carrying out the task. This final phase is based on both the analysis and the practice of the target language for the lesson. The author provides an example to clarify how the task cycle can be applied.

The following paragraph covers the main principles of cognitive grammar and how its development contrasted with generative grammar. Niemeier provides a brief historical overview, indicating the three main approaches in cognitive linguistics, represented by Lakoff/Johnson, Talmy, and Langacker, and then discusses the foundational concepts it is based on: embodiment, the lexis-grammar continuum, how categorization changes among cultures, the usage-based perspective, the perspective on language acquisition, based on learners or acquirers extracting information from the input they are exposed to. Finally, it presents the advantages of applied cognitive grammar, with special reference to its contextualized nature.

After describing task-based language teaching and cognitive grammar separately, the final pages of this chapter show how the two approaches can be combined. The basic concept consists in the opportunity of reaching two aims: the communicative task on the one hand, and the form and meaning of the grammatical structures required to perform the communicative task in question on the other.

Niemeier provides a number of arguments to support the choice, highlighting the points that the two approaches share. First of all, they both consider meaning as the central component upon which a lesson should focus on. However, while task-based language learning literature usually sees meaning as opposed to form, cognitive grammar sees form as meaningful as well. This leads to seeing the combination of the two approaches as particularly fruitful. Secondly, both approaches share the perspective of usage-based linguistics. They both rely on situated learning within the framework of real-like contextualized experiences, such as those that learners would find themselves having outside of the classroom. Another area of commonality is quoted from Robinson & Ellis (2008: 494, cited in Niemeier 2017, 74-75), and identifies the aim of task-based teaching in the use of techniques to draw “learner awareness to form-meaning mappings in the L2, and the communicative functions these can help serve”. The other argument that supports the idea of bridging the gap between task-based language teaching and cognitive grammar consists in the fact that they both foster double-coding, as they both invite visualizations, real objects and actions being performed. Furthermore, cognitive grammar offers the teacher a number of additional resources that can be useful in formulating explanations of grammar points that can either constitute the explicit content of the explanation given from the teacher to the students, or it can be the aim the teacher strives for in guiding the students towards an autonomous discovery of the explanation of a grammatical structure.

In conclusion, Niemeier admits that the major challenge in adopting an approach combining task-based language learning and cognitive grammar lies in the learners’ and the teachers’ assumed theories about grammar and grammar teaching. At this point, the author cites Meunier (2008: 103; cited in Niemeier, 2017: 75), according to whom the majority of learners today “still express a need for short and easy-to-understand explanations and rules of grammar”, and this frequently ties in with methods they have become accustomed to in previous experiences of second/foreign language learning. However, the author underlines how changing these views is normally a matter of time, and that “rethinking grammar is a quite a challenge, but it is definitely worth the effort” (p. 75).

Part II, “Case studies” (pp. 77-261), forms the larger part of volume and is devoted to showing how the principles behind the integration of cognitive grammar with task-based language teaching can actually be applied with respect to specific case study scenarios. The author focuses her attention on ten different case studies and describes each of them from the point of view of form, meaning and how this two-level analysis can be integrated into the design of a task-based activity on the basis of the task cycle structure outlined previously.

The cognitive grammar analysis constitutes the basis upon which the teacher/researcher plans the task-based learning, in terms of language learning items related to the grammar and communicatively oriented learning goals of the lesson. The cognitively oriented identification of the clusters of meanings, pertaining to the linguistic component of the lesson planning, arises in the language focus phase at the end of the task-based activity in the form of cognitively enhanced explanations.

The ten case studies are: tense, aspect, modality, conditionals, the passive voice, prepositions, phrasal verbs, verb complementation, pronouns, and articles.

A brief conclusion to the book summarises its goals and how the author went on to reach them.

EVALUATION

Susanne Niemeier has produced an extremely valuable book from a number of perspectives.
First, it is the result of her long experience in the field, as attested by several publications which she has authored and edited throughout the years (Niemeier 1999, 2003, 2013; Niemeier & Achard 2000; Achard & Niemeier 2004; Martin et al. 2001). This contributes to the solidity of the argumentation which characterizes the book all the way through.
Second, its value stems from the fact that it is highly practical: not only does it bridge a gap between cognitive grammar and task-based language teaching, but it also, if not more importantly, does so between linguistic theory and pedagogical practice.

Each of the case study chapters contains full lessons plans disguised as paragraphs: teachers and teacher trainers may be accustomed to seeing lesson plans edited very schematically, in the form of tables and bullets points, perhaps. The idea is to make them readily available for the ever so busy teacher, allowing him/her to look at the lesson plan and have an immediate perception of whether the lesson can fit into his or her needs for a specific teaching and learning context. It is not the case of this book, conceived more organically as a series of proposed task-based language learning activities supported by a theoretical framework, a linguistic analysis pertaining to each specific learning aim being considered. This might have the downside of pushing away potential readers like teachers, who would have probably benefited from a more schematic presentation of the “cognitive meets task-based grammar lesson plans” which fill the book.

Another merit of the book is that it emerges from the concrete experience of the author, based in the German teaching context. Between the lines, the reader understands that it is impossible to think about changing the teaching approach being used within a certain context, without thinking about whether it would be a viable thing to do within that context. The preference for task-supported rather than task-based activities is a clear example of how the author is able to use the literature on the topic to find the most suitable key for adapting the approach to the context she finds herself in.

Niemeier writes very clearly and convincingly: the pages flow very easily one after the other and her argumentation is compelling. Summarizing paragraphs are found at regular intervals, which ease the reader’s job even more.

The bibliographical references are authoritative and reflect the key trends in the relevant literature. The book does not assume a previous in-depth knowledge of cognitive linguistics, and it is for this reason that the author provides some basic, introductory pointers to the reader who is only beginning to learn about this field. At the same, the volume provides a solid foundation for reflection upon the intersection between cognitive linguistics and task-based language teaching.

However, one absence is that of corpora: when discussing the usage-based perspective, the author fails to mention the role that corpora play in both the analysis of learner language and in the classroom. Even when speaking about the role of frequency, the empirical basis of this measure, which would typically correspond to corpora, isn’t mentioned. This omission is however understandable if we consider that, at least partly, it probably falls out of the scope of the volume.

The book can be stimulating for a wide range of research professionals, including those working within different pedagogical frameworks. Those who for example work on the integration of corpora in the classroom can easily see how corpora can be integrated in the task cycle of one of the lessons outlined in the book.

The ideal readership of the book is likely to be formed by applied linguists with a strong interest in pedagogical practices linked to cognitive grammar and task-based language teaching, and by teacher trainers interested in the new research developments. The curious language teacher with a bit of time on the side will certainly appreciate the lessons plans hidden in the paragraphs, and will undoubtedly be able to take full advantage of them in his/her everyday teaching practice.

REFERENCES

Achard, M. & Niemeier, S. (eds.). 2004. Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Foreign Language Teaching. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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

Pütz, M., Niemeier, S., Dirven, R. (eds.). 2001, Applied Cognitive Linguistics. 2 Vols. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Meunier, F. 2008. Corpora, cognition and pedagogical grammars. In: De Knop, S., De Rycker, T. (eds.), Cognitive approaches to pedagogical grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 91-120.

Niemeier, S. 1999. A cognitive view on bilingualism and bilingual teaching and learning, Journal of English Studies 2(99), 165-185.

Niemeier, S. (2003). The concept of metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics and its didactic potential. In: Dagmar Abendroth-Timmer/Britta Viebrock/Michael Wendt (eds.), Text, Kontext und Fremdsprachenunterricht. Frankfurt: Lang, 263-271.

Niemeier, S. (2013). A cognitive grammar perspective on tense and aspect. In: Salaberry, R., Comajoan, L. (eds.), Research design and methodology in studies on L2 tense and aspect. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 11-56.

Niemeier, S. & Achard, M. (eds.). 2000, Cognitive Linguistics and First Language Acquisition. Special Issue of ''Cognitive Linguistics'' 11 –1/2.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Luciana Forti is a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at the University for Foreigners of Perugia, Italy. Her doctoral project deals with Data-driven learning and the uses of corpora in the context of Italian as a second language learning and teaching, with a focus on verb + noun collocations. She is interested in bridging the gap between Applied Linguistics research and second language teaching practices. She is also a CELTA qualified EFL teacher.