Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching

As my two regular readers know, I am rather given toward task-based language teaching (TBLT). Quite often it has a good reputation (such as it being aligned with what we know about how languages are learned). However, it can get criticised as being rather utilitarian (see, for example, Richards & Rogers, 2001). In my opinion, and experience, it does not have to be this way.

Why does it get this reputation?

In the literature that covers TBLT we mainly see the following settings:

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4 Ways to Teach Like a Holistic Detective

The past couple of days have seen me on a total geeky binge of the Netflix show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I got totally sucked in by the surrealism, stayed for the action, and who doesn’t love fantastic costume design? Anyway, this is not a review, it’s a post that asks what can oddball television shows remind you about teaching English.

Be Holistic

Dirk gets where he wants to be by being holistic. “Everything’s connected” he would say. So, while you might have a plan for a lesson, don’t be afraid to go off piste. Remember that you don’t teach lessons, you teach people. You need to react to the situation, not keep going toward something you’d planned upon even if it isn’t the right time. You’ll get there if you need to.

Be Kind

The people we teach probably look at their second language skills as a measure of their worth. This might lead them to look at themselves as not good enough. Dirk would make them feel better. He might make them feel like life is chaos (and it is when you’re operating in a second language), but that doesn’t mean that they of feel like an arsehole. Far from it. Be kind. Be a friend.

Don’t Ignore the Evidence

While Dirk says he isn’t the kind of detective who looks for clues, he doesn’t blindly ignore it either. Follow hunches, but assess them, too. If other people know about things consult them. If there are written records, read them. Inform your hunches.

Get the Fear Sucked Out of You

Teaching can be fraught with anxiety. Learners don’t always agree with us, which can lead us teachers into states of panic where we dwell on ‘people hating us’ and that ‘this lesson is going to be shit’. Sometimes, what you need is some terrifying punks to feed on your panic and help you out. Sometimes your most antagonistic colleagues might be the ones you need most. I know when I was still only about five years in to my career, there was a colleague who seemed very aloof. I thought he didn’t really like me, too be honest. But after a ‘bad lesson’ he was the one who called me out. “You’re not shit, you just had a lesson that felt like shit. There’s a difference. Shit teachers don’t care and don’t know they’re shit; good teachers have shit lessons sometimes and that’s OK. You live and learn.”

Any other reflections on language teaching linked to sci-fi/fantasy in the comments are much appreciated.

More Utopian Thinking

An air freshener called Sanity

Today has been a thinking day. First Achilleas Kostoulas posted about some nonsense, then Michael Griffin asked ‘Are we there yet?’ (regarding his imminent keynote-plenary thing at KOTESOL Gwangju) to which I replied ‘We haven’t even met the scarecrow yet.’ Mura Nava then asked ‘Why are we (teachers) not in driving position? Who’s driving?’ Which I replied to saying that we lack sufficient scholarly leadership. I think what I meant is somebody who can spread a message with credibility but who doesn’t dumb down. Somebody who makes people feel clever and worthwhile.

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This is a Journey into Sound: Part 1

Yes, it’s a comic.

Further reading

Best C. T. (1995) A direct realist view of cross-language speech perception, in Strange, W. (ed.) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience. York Press. 171-206. Retrieved April 25th 2017 from http://www.haskins.yale.edu/Reprints/HL0996.pdf

Best, C.T. & Tyler, M. D. (2007) Nonnative and second-language speech perception. Bohn, O., & Munro, M. J. (Eds.). (2007). Language experience in second language speech learning : in honor of James Emil Flege. John Benjamins.

Flege, J. (1995) Second-language Speech Learning: Theory, Findings, and Problems. In Strange, W. (Ed) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience: Issues in Cross-language research. Timonium, MD: York Press, pp. 229-273.

Flege, J. (2007) Language contact in bilingualism: Phonetic system interactions. In Cole, J. & Hualde, J. I. (Eds.), Laboratory Phonology Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 353-380.

Kuhl P. K., Williams, K.A., Lacerda, F, Stevens, K. N. , Lindblom, B. (1992) Linguistic experience altersphonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Science. 1992 Jan 31;255(5044) pp.606-8.

How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide

You get your schedule for the new teaching year. You have a new course to teach. Oh no! How much work?! Yes, it is a lot. Hopefully I can help streamline out the panic. Learn from my mistakes instead of your own.

Getting Started

What kind of course is it? Is it discrete skills, a mish-mash of skills, content, or merely an idea crafted by nymphs from a gossamer of buzzwords? This is going to dictate a lot about how you approach it.

If it’s all four skills, what can’t the learners do yet that you want them to do? If you aren’t sure, ask or have a good think. What kinds of people are your learners? Pope-Ruark (2018) advocates creating stakeholder profiles for your course. Put yourself in these different people’s shoes. Make them as realistic as possible. ‘Talk’ to them in your head. Ask questions to them and let them answer your questions and it makes this process easier. Yes, I know this sounds like the ravings of a man possessed but trust me here, or give it a try and if you don’t like it, try it your way.

Continue reading “How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide”

2018: A Review

20171011_1616522143287734.jpgI’m writing this in snatched time while I’m walking to the supermarket. To be honest this year hasn’t been one of the best years for me, particularly my mental health. However, I managed to find the Holy Grail of a full-time job to start in 2019 though it has made me a lot more aware of the precarious nature of English language teaching more of which later.

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Demystifying Task-Based Language Teaching

One of the hundreds of things that annoys me about language teaching1 is the use of jargon to the exclusion of all else when explaining how something works in a relatively simple way. Sometimes it’s not all that simple, but what could happen if we take the approach of keeping things simple and explaining everything as we go? Perhaps people will stop saying that the alternatives to the status quo in language teaching in general and English language teaching in particular are unworkable.

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Image: Night of the Living Dead, Public Domain.

With this in mind, I decided to write a book about Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) to demystify it and make it accessible to ordinary teachers who would like to try it but got put off it by the complexity and the density of the research literature. Then I put it off because my colleague in SLB Co-op, Neil McMillan, told me about his and Geoffrey Jordan’s plan for an online course to make TBLT a bit more viable. He then asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I jumped at the chance.

I’ve wanted to make TBLT less of a messy learning process since I had a messy learning process with it myself during my DipTESOL. It is with hindsight that I realised it really should not have been that way. If I had a mentor to guide me through the contradictory information regarding different task-based models (and there are some different ones, which I’ll look at below), and talk about how to sequence lessons and what the prerequisite work is before you even start teaching, I am sure that my stress levels would have been lower and my students might have had a couple of more straightforward lessons.

Generally speaking there are three main ‘task-based’ approaches.

1. The Nunan (2004) model, which uses tasks but really is just a Present-Practice-Produce lesson done as Produce-Practice-Present because the teacher has preset plans for focus on language items.

1a. The Willis & Willis (2007) model, which does pretty much the same as the Nunan model (in my opinion) but uses a task cycle and greater reflection but still with the focus on language items but advocating more focus on lexis.

2. The Ellis (2003) model, which mixes ‘real-world’ tasks with tasks that exist solely for pedagogy, using what Skehan (1998) calls “structure-oriented tasks” (Skehan, 1998. p. 122-123). Essentially, there will be tasks that are only there to induce use of certain grammar, vocabulary or functions. However, there is more room for Focus on Form (looking at language that learners have shown they need, rather than what the teacher presumes they need).

3. The Long (2014) model. The syllabus is created by needs analysis, and the typical language used to do it is sourced by an “analysis of discourse” (Long, 2014. p.??) Put simply, find out what learners need to do with the language and how it would normally be done. There is no looking at language just to shoehorn a language point into the lesson. Instead, there is only Focus on Form, again focusing on language learners have displayed a need for in their output (bits of speaking or writing that are not quite what would be considered an appropriate way to communicate within the group of people one intends to communicate with) or displayed a lack of understanding of in their input (i.e. bits of reading or listening that have not been understood).

SLB Co-op prefer the Long model, but acknowledge that it can be somewhat difficult for teachers without a university department full of applied linguists supporting them. This is why we are going to look at how we make TBLT workable in the real world.

The course, created by Neil McMillan, Geoffrey Jordan and I with guest contributions from Mike Long and Roger Gilabert, starts next year. To be a part of it you can find out more here.

1. Actually there probably are hundreds but there are thousands of things that I love – but anyway, I digress

References

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Long, M. (2014). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Nunan, D. (2004) Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007) Doing Task-Based Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Some games made in class (and for homework)

Regular readers, or people who read the last but one post on here know that my students were making and playtesting board games as a project. The point of the games were that they should need to be played by communicating in English. All the playtest information was provided in English, too.

The students are too shy to share their games as print and play games but they did give me permission to share their games on my blog.

Travel Game

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This game has a similar mechanic to Japanese favourite Game of Life (which, incidentally I was playing with my son on Sunday, the Japanese Timeslip version). You collect money and country cards. You take country cards to collect but you can’t actually possess them until you land on or pass the country card code.

It was, unlike Game of Life, very quick to play and not at all complicated.

Nutrition Game

This game was an epic. It took 70-odd minutes of a 90-minute lesson to play. You gain calories by eating food on one board. After completion you lose calories by doing activities on the other board. The winner is the one closest to zero. There are other little twists like giving other players missed turns after collecting condiments and such. Long, but it didn’t feel like it!

Game Party

This one was so entertaining. You move from the start to the finish, collecting coins to buy cards to muck around with board positions and such. You can collect coins but more importantly win them by playing the games within the game, like ‘staring game’ (see who can stare their opponent out), arm wrestling, word association, snap and career poker which is still somewhat unclear to me. Gosh, the staring games were amazing, and the word association game with the theme of school items being won (by majority consensus) with ‘door’ was controversial enough to make the game exciting.

Next, I just have to get the evaluation sheets in.

Development Interrupted? Precarity, stress and effects on my CPD

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I am following and retweeting more and more UK and Australia based accounts that tweet about (anti)precarity and (anti)casualisation in academia. Why? Well, I work in multiple universities on renewable one year contracts with the number of hours I can work for each university usually capped. I am relatively comfortable in the knowledge that I can renew for a generally unlimited number of times but one frequently hears of colleagues whose contracts do not get renewed and then need to take any work that comes up last minute. Continue reading “Development Interrupted? Precarity, stress and effects on my CPD”

Some Games Played in Class: Oddville and Diceplomacy

As part of one of my courses I have an assessed project where students produce a game to be played in English and that requires spoken communication. However, you can’t really produce a game if you haven’t played many. So, in addition to Saboteur and Deep Sea Adventure earlier in the course, students played Oddville and an adapted form of Diceplomacy (itself an adaptation of Diplomacy).

Oddville was pretty tough in places because it is pretty tough for some first language speakers of English to understand the rules due to about five different game mechanics joined together. However, my students basically got it.

It’s a resource management game, a strategy game and a bit of a bluffing game at times, rolled into one. You build a town, but you need to gather materials and then choose your building and assemble your workers to be there and you also need money. I said it was tough at times and it is because there’s so much to keep in memory. It was pretty communicative because of this. Basically every turn, students needed to check whether they were playing by the rules or not. Mostly everything was fine but the odd few turns with a bit of unorthodox building attempts needed to be kept in check. Still, it was generally simpler than Saboteur.

Diceplomacy was a good bit easier. We played using three teams, who had to declare alliances, war or neutrality. The first team to three wins won in our game and all strategy had to be talked through in English. In addition, if you won a round you could increase your dice value from a six-sided dice (1-6) to a ten-sided dice (0-9), but if you lost a round you decreased your dice to a four sided (1-4) dice. This also kept the game a lot more interesting.

Next up, my students are finalising designs and prototyping games so I should be able to see how they have evaluated the games soon.