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.

New pre-print on corpus-informed teaching

I put up a new pre-print on SocArxiv:

Creating a small corpus to inform materials design in an ongoing English for Specialist Purposes (ESP) course for Orthodontists and Orthodontic Assistants

In my work as a language teacher to a group of orthodontists and orthodontic treatment assistants, I wanted an analysis of orthodontic practitioner-to-patient discourse. Because access to authentic spoken discourse was too difficult to attain due to ethical considerations, a small corpus was constructed in order to facilitate better informed form-focused instruction. Details of the typical forms found in the corpus are given, as is an overview of the corpus construction.

New working paper on teaching listening

I put up a working paper on SocArxiv about teaching listening.

Jones, M. (2018) Exploring Difficulties Faced in Teaching Elective English Listening Courses at Japanese Universities (working paper). https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/sa2kw

In this paper, an exploration of the problems encountered in teaching two elective English listening courses at Japanese universities in 2017 and 2018. Intended as a working paper with an intended audience of teaching professionals and those who support them, problems in working memory, motivation and general listening pedagogy are detailed.

Does it Matter if You’re Casual?

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Still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Casual Disadvantage

I had two interviews this month. I prepared loads for them and didn’t get either position. I want full-time university work and promotion prospects. I also want my teaching to be better.

What difference does it make whether you are part time or full time? Quite a lot, actually. As Ema Ushioda put it in the latest TEFLology podcast (2018):

“Because  teachers working with a group of students, they know their students and they get to know their students better over the course of study. I think what would be important would be as a teacher – certainly as a teacher I always want to do this – is to get to know my students individually, try to understand where they are coming from and try to understand what motivates them and what doesn’t motivate them.”

TEFLology (2018) 30:55 min on.

So, if you work every hour teaching in a part-time, precarious position, do you get to know your students and understand their needs as much as someone with more time to meet with students freely in office hours rather than someone rushing between classes with little time for pastoral issues or consultation than the transition time between classes which is often not enough time for much to happen. There’s also a lot less time to reflect on the needs of students in our classes if we are working in precarious positions due to the need to keep up with other classes due to a larger teaching load, as well as keeping up with general CPD and also, possibly more importantly, the constant search for newer, better paid, more stable work.

So, what can we do?

In my context, there’s not a lot being done by unions, because not many people are in unions because I imagine that a lot of us are reluctant to declare to supervisors or deans of admin that we are unionised because it could mark us as trouble. There’s not a lot being done at all, formally, other than the whispers in the teachers’ room that university X pays badly, Y has poor conditions or seeks its pound of flesh for the money they pay, and Z only takes people on for two lectures a day so it’s hard to make up the work (and therefore money) elsewhere. This can be tiring, and also tiresome because there should be an end in sight to it but all too often there isn’t.

However, just imagine greater stability, not needing to carryquite so much information around in our heads due to a lower teaching load and with time to get things done. Imagine the greater contentedness in teachers’ rooms. More importantly, imagine the greater contentedness in classrooms from not only the teachers but also students feeling appreciated and listened to because their teachers are not harried, hurried and hustling to get by.

References

TEFLology (2018) TEFL Interviews 45: Ema Ushioda on Motivation. Retrieved September 28th 2018 from https://teflology-podcast.com/2018/09/26/tefl-interviews-45-ema-ushioda-on-motivation/

The Possible Weaknesses of Conferences in ELT

Today loads of stuff has been in my Twitter feed about conferences. My fellow socio at Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics, Tom Flaherty was asking why ResearchED Scotland can be so reasonably priced when other educational conferences (and I’m reading between the lines here but I reckon he means English Language Teaching conferences) are so expensive. One of my favourite JALTers, Louise Ohashi was sending out a survey about conferences. And then as part of my prep for a research degree, I was reading posts on The Research Whisperer, when I read this one about the negative aspects of academic conferences.

I have posted about the negatives of conferences (or the, why not post your research), before. Instead of retreading old ground when there are hyperlinks in the last sentence, let’s have a real think about the ELT conference.

Working Papers?

I look at loads of ELT conference lineups both in Japan and abroad, because I like to download the slides if they’re up and/or follow the Twitter hashtags. I’m going to make a bold claim here, and I’d love to be wrong, but it seems that there is a complete absence of working papers shared at conference. This is a bad thing, I think, because it means that there is only completed research being presented which means, to all intents and purposes, the presenter has made up their mind. This means that there is no dialogue, just the illusion of dialogue. People pay money for other people to pay someone else’s money to talk at them. There has to be some better way to facilitate professional development and/or vocational learning.

Sharing is caring?

Ah, but Marc, what of the shared practices? I think it could be good, but are you getting enough information to be able to replicate the good bits and also avoid the potential pitfalls. Hopefully yes, but perhaps not because nobody wants to look like a failure in front of strangers and acquaintances a lot of presenters might be giving the most optimistic look at their stated classroom practices (which might be very different to what actually happens).

Labcoat envy

I think the heart of the matter is that ELT wants to be a science, so that it is a serious academic discipline (and I want this, too). Unfortunately, I do not see that half of ELT is fond of the science that supposedly informs it, be that SLA, psychology/cognitive neuroscience, or even applied linguistics. This is down to the schism, (or “schizophrenia” as Paul characterises it but it’s not a term I’m fond of) between professional ELT (where I would like to think I work)  and industrial ELT (or selling coursebooks to anybody, whether suited to them or not). But because it wants to be a serious discipline, it needs conferences. Unfortunately, professional ELT has no money to spare, really, so it’s left to industrial ELT to foot the bill. Industrial ELT doesn’t want to unless there’s some kind of return on investment so you have big commercial conferences to enable publishers to flog books and organisations to flog courses and study abroad options and whatnot.

To have and have not

I’ve been to small conferences. I’ve helped a little bit with the logistics of ExcitELT, too. However, most of the English teachers I know in my small corner of Tokyo have never been to a conference nor have even dreamt of it. There’s the cost, for one; the needing time off for another, seeing as most conferences happen on weekends and most English teachers outside school and university contexts work weekends. Add to this, relationships with partners, family and friends as well as just the need to wash clothes and have a clean home. Add to this the fact that a lot of teachers just do not get paid to plan lessons or do admin that we are promised is quick but actually mounts up and you have a mass of teachers with too much on already to even think about conferences on their days off.

Alternatives

I do think it’s high time that we looked, as a profession, at alternatives to this. What could it be? As much as I hate Silicon Valley’s hegemonic grip on culture at the moment, a hackathon – a concerted effort to create something worthwhile – would be a useful idea. Imagine actually creating useful listening materials together with a peer group, then going away and refining them. A round table, where people really share their ideas and experiences would be helpful because that information can then be synthesised and mediated through our own ideas and experiences, and honestly, with an exchange of knowledge I think people would be more amenable to sharing what hasn’t worked as well as what has. These are only two ideas late at night but I know that there could also be a larger number of workshops (with actual work being done and gathered and distributed) and discussions. I think these could be better returns on teacher investment than conferences, which considering ticket prices and travel, work out less economical than an academic book for a lot of us.

Performative Teaching

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I’ve spent time agonizing over my own teaching. What went wrong, what went OK, what went disastrously? I’ve mulled over a concept in my head that I call performative teaching, and I am  going to use it in this post.

One important thing to note is that I mean something entirely different to the definition in Naidu (2017), where it is described as:

“[Teacher and student] could co-enact in in quasi-theatrical fashion, any question or answer that might arise in class… Such a method invited the participation of students beyond merely listening and taking down notes. It also notionally and visibly shrank the class.” (Naidu, 2017: p. 462)

Instead I see it as a performance of teaching without the consideration of learning taking place. It may happen in classes where the teacher has planned activities for learners but a significant proportion of the learners do not engage with it. This lack of engagement may be due to amotivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017), an absence of motivation because of a lack of perceived ability to take part in or succeed at the activity or else a failure to see utility in the activity. Obviously this is far from ideal, but what is a teacher to do?

One option is to panic and teach anything, and this is what I mean by performative teaching. It is the teacher performing the art of teaching, but the art of teaching is much like the art of live music or theatre; the ‘audience’ or community of learners may be engaged in alternative activities at the same time, such as texting, having side conversations among others. Yet the show goes on. However, without students paying attention to what is being taught can the teacher even begin to imagine that anything is being learnt?

Of course the other option is to stop the ‘performance’. If the planned activity is not appropriate, or felt to be as such, if it is forced then not much is going to happen except for a bit of resentment and perhaps even some foreign language classroom anxiety (Horwitz et al, 1986). “Because complex and non-spontaneous mental operations are required in order to communicate at all, any performance in the L2 is likely to challenge an individual’s self-concept as a competent communicator and lead to reticence, self-consciousness, fear, or even panic.” (Horwitz et al, 1986: p. 128) Therefore, it would probably be best to not have the whole class and the teacher in a state of anxiety or panic. A brief acknowledgement that things are not quite going according to plan is fine because we are all human, after all. Think about what could be done.

If your classroom culture is one where there is an expectation of student-teacher exchange of opinions, you might even get students co-creating an activity with (or without) you. You don’t even need to ditch the plan that didn’t work because maybe it’s something that would work better on another day. If not, perhaps you have a particular activity that you use as an assessment task that you could instead use for formative assessment (see where students are at and what they should work toward next). It might also help you to see what students might not have felt ready for in the ditched activity.

However, as a devil’s advocate here, let’s imagine that you’ve kept going along in your state of panic with an activity that nobody is into. If you’re like me and you have a task followed by (or in tandem with) a focus on form (Long, 2014) you have either not much to focus on or way too much to focus on due to limited output. If you teach forms – grammar, vocabulary, functional language – first (and I know some people are mandated to) and that’s gone OK but the following activity has gone awry, you could pay lip service to it and think of a different situation with the same language use, or even a few sensible questions with the language point and turn it back on the learners. Maybe this works better, maybe it doesn’t. Can you try to see why and how this happened, though. Sometimes people go into a classroom unprepared for learning and it isn’t the end of the world and isn’t always the teacher’s fault. As a teacher, maybe it’s worth learning from the experience, because if you have to be dripping in nervous sweat and having a painful pit of anxiety in your stomach, you should get some benefit from it.

 

References

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. & Cope, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x

Long, M. H. (2014) Second Language Acquisition & Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

Naidu, M. (2014). Engaged Pedagogy and Performative Teaching: Examples from Teaching Practice. International Journal of Educational Sciences, 6(3), 459–468. doi:10.1080/09751122.2014.118901

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.