Structuring Task Stages for Students – Resource

These sheets are both two-page PDFs that I have used to help students structure task-based lesson stages, especially the courses detailed in my series of posts on my role-playing game-structured courses. I also used transcription as homework as per York’s (2019) Kotoba Rollers framework.

Basically, there is planning, doing, and reflecting. The sheet shouldn’t be used in the doing stage. After the reflection, the review sheet can be used a few weeks later (I used three reviews in a 14 or 15 week course).

References

York, J. (2019). “Kotoba Rollers” walkthrough: Board games, TBLT, and player progression in a university EFL classroom

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:

Continue reading “Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching”

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.

night-of-the-living-dead-group
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.

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.

Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons – Redux

You are in a classroom. There is a dais with a desk, behind which there is a blackboard. In front of you there are eight novices awaiting instruction.
I choose to engage the novices.
Go ahead.
Today, I have a plan. However, I am interested to know if you have a different plan. My plan can be for another day. Please imagine different situations that you and Rob or Vanessa (our regular Non-Player Characters) might be in. Use last week’s lesson as a planning guide. If you need help, please ask me.
Roll D10>3 and D4<4 for successful engagement and +1 courage.
D10=7,
D4 falls off desk… =1.
It went really well, actually. The students planned in two groups of 4. One group decided on explaining a road relay (and did very well indeed), and the other planned to teach how to make miso soup, which they underestimated the complexity of, but I see this as a good learning experience. I also think that by giving my students a metaphorical look behind the curtain that they can understand the success criteria for the tasks I create a bit better. I would still like a bit more linguistic complexity in their output, but today I am going to take this as a success.
XP +D6
D6=4.
Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Dogme & TBLT – What do you do in the classroom?

This is a response to a post by Andrew Walkley of Lexical Lab on his about how teachers can use coursebooks in a principled way.
I am not actually getting into the back and forth about how evil/good they are as I have done so several times before.
Andrew has a couple of questions that seem genuine as opposed to discursive window dressing.

It seems to me, for example, that in choosing a task, TBLT practitioners must have some ideas of level and potential language in mind before the class.

Yes. Very much planned. There is a ton of planning, or at least gathering background information. There’s a needs analysis (NA) and a discourse analysis (DA) in the kind I do, based on Long (2014). I don’t have an applied linguist do my DA for me, though. I try to make a small corpus or at least gather some authentic texts (including videos or audio) to check how the tasks in the needs analysis would normally be done in the real world.
If I can’t access real-world examples then it comes down to reliance upon intuition. I dislike this but I feel that this gives me the chance to say that I have an idea about tasks ought to be performed but they should be co-constructed with learners’ knowledge of it. I certainly feel that writers rely on instincts at times, too.
The tasks to complete should be comparable to real-world tasks. Such tasks in my classroom may be (and I know that I diverge from orthodoxy from time to time) to engage in small talk in reception prior to a meeting in order to build rapport with a customer/client all the way to negotiating timescales with builders for renovation work so you can move into your house. It’s often (but not always) appropriate for learners to plan and repeat tasks. Focus on Form comes in as required. I know some people use Murphy (2012) for this. I don’t but that’s my preference. I use the board or have learners search for examples in SkELL and report findings or even just clean up a bit of lexis and grammar. It could be worksheets printed on the fly in higher tech classrooms. I like learners’ transcription of and reflection on parts of their own recorded tasks and reflection after focus on form and/or feedback in the lesson as a bit of homework.
Andrew also asks:

my questioning of TBLT/Dogme centres on how lessons actually work. I understand that a material-free classroom can work in principle, but I think we need to question the practice. What exactly are the tasks? How are those tasks chosen?

As for Dogme, I doubt I’m canonical here but knowing as much about the learners first helps the teacher pick tasks/topics that will pique interest as part of a negotiated syllabus. Then the syllabus gets negotiated and remains a work in progress. Tasks may even be chosen by learners seeing as they have an idea what they know/don’t know. It’s not an negation of the teacher’s role but information to support it. You negotiate a syllabus, rather than blindly accept “We want to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary Russian state” with A2 learners. But who’s to say that talking about Russia or philosophy aren’t nice prerequisite steps towards this?
My Dogme lessons tend to start with a gathering of collective knowledge about the topic or reacting to a story or artefact. This output is then used to synthesise something else (even if it is merely a more crystallised opinion), taking the conversation to wherever it heads, focusing on form as and when needed. This requires neither coursebook pages nor the aforementioned Murphy (2012). Again, boardwork, negotiation of meaning in greater detail and work on nuance pay dividends. Grammar work could even involve a sentence jigsaw made from index cards or Post Its.
I hope this demystifies TBLT or Dogme classroom practices. Any questions, hit me up in the comments. Any comments, er, in the comments.

References

Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. New York. Wiley.
Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar In Use (4th Ed.). Cambridge. CUP.

"This is gold!"


I’ve been using Saboteur with an adapted Kotoba Rollers framework by James York with my university classes. I want talking with authentic tasks, which games provide. There is also transcription of language used. It isn’t all fun and games though.
In the game, players are either good, hardworking miners or saboteurs. None of the players know the roles of the others but they hardworking miners need to work together to get the gold. The saboteurs need to ensure the pack of cards is exhausted before the treasure cards are reached. There are also action cards such as breaking tools, fixing tools, causing rock falls and checking maps for gold, which may lead to cooperation or subterfuge.
The published rules are a bit tricky to understand. I had set the reading for homework, figuring that if there were a lot of difficulties the students would use dictionaries or Google Translate. This means my students skim read them superficially and did not bother to understand the rules fully before game play. Dictionaries and Google barely got looked at.
However, the rules needed a bit of clarification. This led to some good negotiation of meaning (Long, 1983). There are cards used to destroy the mine path above or break other players’ tools but they weren’t always easily understood.
The transcription is the main part I changed. I ask students to write three parts.

What did your partner say? Did they say it differently to how you would say it? How would you say it?

This has been done pretty well and is usually the best part of my RPG-based classes’ sheets, too.

What communication problems did you have? Why?

This sometimes ends up being a wishy-washy “I need to speak more fluently” but a lot of my students have gone a bit deeper.

If you spoke Japanese, what did you say? How can you say it in English?

This has an obvious function but students do sometimes half-arse it and just use Google Translate one way without checking the translation in a (monolingual) dictionary or Skell.
Still the work got done and there was another game of Saboteur in the following lesson to review. I was satisfied with this little Kotoba Rollers cycle, and so were my students, though I needed to buy 4 lots of the game for my big class.

References

Long, M. (1983) Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input1. Applied Linguistics, 4 (2) pp. 126–141.

Rod Ellis: Moving task-based language teaching forward

Regular readers know that I am a big advocate of Task-Based Language Teaching. In this video Dr. Rod Ellis discusses some of the problems/issues/misconceptions in TBLT. One of my favourite parts is task complexity, another is teacher education, though the latter is rushed through much more than it ought to be.
If you like this video, or just don’t have an hour to spend on it (which is a shame), you can have a look at my previous post on how to actually do task-based teaching, which is a rough and dirty guide.

Learner Autonomy ought to be Awesome not Anomie

Ooh, Marc. Your classes always look like you give your students loads of freedom. 
Yes, it does look that way but sometimes I still feel like I’m spoonfeeding. So today, I ditched my plan and tried an experiment. 
To prepare for a discussion on health. I set stations that the learners would practice at.

  • Vocabulary brainstorming at the board.
  • I suspected that the learners would just pick out single words. I later elicited collocations. 

  • Discussion planning.
  • Or functional language planning. What can you say to open a discussion, control a discussion, agree, disagree politely, change the subject and end the discussion. Not amazing. 

  • Fluency practice.
  • Teacher led choral, response drills, function drills. Popular with the learners but not my bag. Useful to an extent. 

  • Reading.
  • Read the handout then discuss it. Response task on the back. Reading has a gloss and few if any ‘hard’ words. 

  • Mini-discussion practice.
  • Set a task (actually part of the exit task). The post-task was to report to me three best balances of nutrition and taste for the discussion. 

How did it go?

 
Well, I’d be lying if I said everything was amazing. The vocabulary was very successful with my morning classes, and OK with the afternoon class. The reading was basically spot on and the mini discussions went well. The discussion planning kind of sucked a bit. Some learners took over and derailed the activity and it took a while to get back on track. 
All in all, not bad, though. I’ll probably try something similar again but I definitely want to tweak the language planning, perhaps with a handout. But that takes the autonomy away. 

Travel Problems – a Dogme-ish lesson

 
In this post I’ll go over a bit of a Dogme-ish (and I say Dogme-ish because it’s kind of Task Based due to the syllabus that I knocked up based on the absolute lack of any definite needs for my university students other than ‘learn some English’). With that, I designed a bit of a travel-based task cycle, of which every lesson stands alone or links. This is the final one in the cycle and perhaps my favourite. This is a role-play lesson with a bit of a difference.

  1. Give out slips of paper. Tell students to each write one different foreign travel problem on the slips. They don’t need to worry about spelling very much because it’s not the point of the lesson. Take all slips in.
  2. Put students into groups of 4 or 5 (I’d say groups of 3 might be too much work for one person – you’ll be assigning rotating roles to the students). The rotating roles are speakers who role play each travel problem and two or three listeners who listen to all or some of the following:
    • Grammatical accuracy;
    • Lexical appropriacy;
    • Pragmatic competence;
    • Pronunciation;
    • Communication strategies;
    • Fluency;
    • What they would do the same or do differently.
  3. Give the slips out, ensuring groups have as few duplicates as possible. Set the students to plan one role play (not script writing – focus on speech acts and reactivity) as a group for students 1 & 2 in the group to perform for 6 minutes. Then have students 1 & 2 perform the role play while 3 & 4 listen and then give feedback. Teacher monitors and takes notes.
  4. Focus on Form. Probably a good idea to cover things you noticed but the student listeners didn’t.
  5. All students planning again – 4 minutes this time.  Students 2 & 3 perform, 1 & 4 listen then give feedback.
  6. Focus on Form.
  7. As previous planning and roleplaying but with 2 minutes planning. 3 & 4 perform, 1 & 2 listen.
  8. Focus on Form again.
  9. No planning. 1 & 4 perform, 2 & 3 listen and give feedback.
  10. Student groups pick the most successful role play. Teacher randomly  (or not) selects pairs from each group to perform, gives feedback.