It’s time to talk about TBLT

I came home from work today and I cleaned up the kitchen. Why did I do it? I wanted to, the mess from my dinner party last night, still left in the washing-up basin, quite frankly, I found quite repulsive. I guess my housemate would have done it when he came home, but I did it of my own accord. What I just described was, according to Long (1985:), what is summerised as a task:

“a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes… in other words, by ‘task’ is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play and in between”

However much one might like to dream, nobody gets their Intermediate evening class to do the washing up – I hope not anyway. Ellis (2003: 16) jumps in with a more specific definition of what a pedagogical task is:

“A task is a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically in order to achieve an outcome that cane be evaluated in terms of whether the correct of appropriate propositional content has been conveyed. To this end, it requires them to give primary attention to the meaing and to make use of their own linguistic resources, although the design of the task may predispose them to choose particular forms. A task is intended to result in language use that bears a resemblance  direct or indirect, to the way language is used in the real world. Like other activities, a task can engage productive or receptive, and oral or written skills and also various cognitive processes.”

In a recent seminar on TBLT, I asked participants to make a top-five list of their favourite restaurants in Berlin. The next task I gave them was to make a call to another participant and invite him or her to one of those restaurants, give a summary of the menu, make arrangements and give directions.

Would they do that in real life?
Was there a goal or outcome of the task?
Was their primary outcome the language they wanted to use or the aim of the task?
What were the main forms used to complete the task?

Funnily enough, in the first task lots of language was thrown up in the discussion relevant to the next task: “it’s a bit pricey, anything up to €20 a head”, “It’s closed on Mondays but you can go any other day of the week”, “It’s a kind of Thai-Vietnamese fusion”, “kofte, kebab, that kind of thing”, “you know that bridge near Kottbusser Tor, it’s near there, just down the road and on the left, next to the supermarket”. In the second task, participants reused the same forms again, with the small addition that they had to negotiate when was a good time to go out to dinner.

They were, I have to admit, all native speakers – so let’s face it, choosing the right linguistic forms wasn’t much of a challenge. Had they been learners, the negotiation of meaning would have occurred in the during task phase, as Lightbown and Spada Lightbown & Spada (2006: 150) write:

“When learners are given the opportunity to engage in interaction, they are compelled to ‘negotiate for meaning’… the negotiation leads learners to acquire the language forms – the words and the grammatical structures – that carry the meaning they are attending to”

But – and this is a pretty big but – even if you think you’re running a really tight ship, leaks can still occur and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that a well-designed task alone will smooth over all gaps in meaning; while learner are attending to meaning, breakdowns in understanding can occur.

The tasks were appropriate according to their aim: the first was intended to prime participants for the language forms to come by performing a similar task with the aim of brainstorming places to go for dinner and the second provided the outcome of making arrangements for dinner. I picked two boxes from the task cycle I drew up below:
Task-Based Teaching outline copyWhile reading around, I found that there were many different types of task cycle proposed by Nunan, Jane Willis and Ellis so I took elements of all of them and fused them together in attempt to try and make a more comprehensive map. I feel it’s important to note that TBLT works best when it exploits the right blend of component parts of the task cycle appropriate to the task, the level of the class, the materials (if) used external requirements on the course.

Of the parts in the task cycle, arguably the most important in terms of learners’ linguistic development is a Focus on Form. This idea differs from the Form-focused instruction found in PPP methodology in as much as it focuses on the salient forms that emerge from the task, i.e., those immediate to the learners’ communicative purpose. The advantage that this proposes is that by achieving a task that has a meaningful communicative purpose, while receiving (overt) support from their teacher in doing so, learners will retain language better. 

It’s quite right to say on the hand that if not correctly implemented, TBLT will swerve away from the well-intentioned rationale stated and veer dangerously towards pedagogical nothingness – an important consideration to bear in mind when designing a lesson. What this means is a TBLT lesson requires a lot of thought about the right tasks tailored to the learners’ communicative needs and a teacher equipped with the right tools to second-guess relevant forms and be prepared to clarify emergent language.

Doughty, C.,  & Williams J., Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition, Cambridge Applied linguistics, 1998

Ellis, R.,  (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N., How Languages are learned, Oxford University Press, 1996

Challenging Higher-Level Learners

It can be daunting to have a group of near proficient speakers in front of you; they’ve dedicated years to studying and perfecting their language. What’s more, you might find yourself faced with an advanced grammar-driven syllabus that your class would eat for breakfast. How do you make sure that they don’t finish the course feeling slightly short-changed? I’ve put together  in this post a few tips I’ve amassed over the past few years teaching advanced classes:

1. Get their hands on their own language

I bring my MP3 player to most lessons in case I’ve planned a discussion or a moment arises that’s suitable for recording the class. Of course, get their consent before recording – the first time can be a bit daunting. With the recording, you can play it back and correct as a class, transcribe it for a delayed error correction session or send it to your learners after class with a follow up activity. Either way, it gives your learners a great opportunity to get their hands on ‘their language’. At higher levels especially, motivation can be lower and there’s the temptation to become a bit complacent with their language. This added extra opens up a whole new dimension to working with what students provide you with.

You can also use this information for individual goal setting with learners or to give individual feedback on common errors or over-reliance on certain vocabulary/structures.

2. Take control of their own learning

I usually introduce my advanced classes to http://www.wordandphrase.info. I teach them about collocation and colligation and set them tasks to research new vocabulary and find alternatives across formalities, examples (with their grammatical patterns, e.g. I’m coming down with a cold – preference for the continuous). You can dedicate time at the start of class to sharing the results of the research.

3. Explore new contexts and functions for their language

Maybe they’ve done the same simulations a hundred times before. Change the paradigms a little by playing the angry client, the pushy boss, the colleague with emotional problems – these will put their linguistic skills to the test as they try and negotiate their way through new and challenging contexts.

4. Practice with longer turns

The safe zone – a collection of short turns negotiated between two or more participants in a conversation – that’s what I call it. C1 and C2 levels can comfortably remain here for a long time without pushing themselves to the limit. On the other hand, how are they at taking a longer turn? Describing a process, talking someone through the challenges of their jobs, filling someone in on the events of the previous week? Your learners will have to dig deep to find the right discourse features, vocabulary and grammar to successfully complete longer-turn tasks and feedback on this will be all the more immediate.

5. Listening

Your class can converse like pros, but can they follow a longer conversations, news programmes or a presentation and give feedback? These tasks are much more cognitively cumbersome and will add an edge to classes. You can even link it in to the recordings of previous discussions or longer turns and make comparisons between their language a more proficient models.

What are your tricks to make sure lessons leave your learners feeling challenged and satisfied with the content of your lessons?

Correction and Timing

After a discussion in the comments section of Chiew’s Dogme Diaries, I felt that my thoughts on correction in second language learning were too many to post in another comment, so I am making a first video post as part of my previously-shelved return to blogging. The task is enormous and far too much to speak about in 9 short minutes of video. For every error there seems to be a theory and a whole load of procedural knowledge to add to it, so this is very much the tip of the iceberg!

After a little thought today I have decided to add a reflection template for teachers to use during lessons to use to identify, categorise and prioritise language learners produce. I use the four boxes to note down bits of language I hear or notes on areas of difficulty. In this stage, I decide whether to provide immediate feedback or to wait and exploit the language point in later feedback; if, on the other hand, there’s no immediate need to focus on it – third person ‘s’ or misplaced stress on appreciate for example – I have a record of these still on paper for the future.