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William Littlewood on Communicative and Task-Based Teaching in Asia: article review

Article Title: Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms

Journal: Language Teacher 40 (3), July, 2007.

Doi: 10.1017/S0261444807004363

William Littlewood.

William Littlewood.

Author: This article was penned by William Littlewood, who wears many hats including language scholar, professor, curriculum developer, textbook writer, and teacher trainer. Littlewood began his teaching career in Germany working for the well-known Berlitz language school, then returned to teach in his native U.K. In 1991, he traveled to Hong Kong on a research grant and has been based there since, currently lecturing at Hong Kong Baptist University. In addition to training EFL/ESL practitioners, he is a prolific writer of both journal articles and books. His TESOL textbook entitled Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction has been translated into Basque, Japanese, Malaysian, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Greek.  He has a lovely smile.

Type of article: A revised transcription of a plenary speech given by Littlewood at the 2006 International Conference of the Korean Association for Teachers of English.

Purpose:  To discern why East Asian educators have trouble implementing communicative teaching techniques in the classroom, and to reflect on how teachers adapt to the challenges they face.  Littlewood attempts to re-frame the concepts of both CLT and TBT to make them more relevant and practical for East Asian classrooms.

What Littlewood has to say: After establishing the widespread use of Task Based Language Teaching in East Asia (under the umbrella of Communicative Language Teaching), Littlewood discusses concerns that have been voiced by teachers struggling to successfully implement tasks. He explores the problem areas of classroom management (“The students have too much freedom and I can’t restore order!”), avoidance of English (“They’re really into the task, but no-one’s using the target language!”), minimal demands on language competence (“Students spent forty minutes and used only a few easy phrases!”), incompatibility with public assessment demands (“We don’t have time for this–the national exams are coming up in a month!”), and conflict with educational values and traditions (“We’re used to accumulating bodies of knowledge in this country!”).

Based on studies by various scholars based in East Asia, Littlewood paints a sympathetic picture of teachers caught between the ideal portrayed by their national policy and the reality of their classroom situtation. Educators described in the article respond, in some cases, by simply ignoring policy and continuing to teach in a way that’s familiar and effective for them, complying on paper with the national guidelines for Comunicative Language Teaching.  Other teachers in China and Japan have re-interpreted CLT and tasks in general, adjusting the framework to better fit their students’ needs. This watered-down type of Task Based Learning is often more about practicing discrete language items rather than negotiation for meaning, it seems, with the addition of “context” providing the communciative aspect. One enterprising teacher in Mainland China was managing to double up, focusing on traditional exam-based English grammar and drills while also encouraging student interaction in the L2, and creative language use. Bravo, Mr. Yang! 

Littlewood, however, points out that many Asian teachers are unclear on the fundamental concepts of CLT and TBLT, assuming that such approaches mean focus on speaking and communication, with no place for grammar. “Not teaching grammar” and “teaching only speaking” were the two most common misconceptions uncovered in the study, along with the fact that many Asian teachers have only a “fuzzy notion” of what a task actually is. Most recognize that it is not a drill, but what about “exercises”? Can they be considered tasks if one adds a communicative element? Some teachers have created a middle ground called “exercise-tasks”; Littlewood suggests that this might not be a bad idea, and could in fact be taken further, to create a continuum of task types.

On the form-focused end of this continuum would be Non-Communicative Learning, including grammar exercises and drills: next would be Pre-Communicative Learning, such as controlled (rather than free) question-and-answer practice. Communicative Language Practice is third on Littlewood’s continuum, defined by information exchange based on recently-taught predictible language. Fourth would be Structured Communication, where finally the focus moves to meaning and includes more complex information-exchange activites. Still, this stage is stuctured and teacher-directed. Lastly, the most meaning-oriented activities would be deemed Authentic Communication, in which language forms are unpredictible and creative, and problem-solving, content-based tasks, and true discussion can be implemented.

Finally, Littlewood concludes that in the current post-methods era, “…no single method or set of procedures will fit all teachers and learners in all contexts”.  In other words, there are no ready-made recipes, so teachers had better start experimenting in the kitchen until they get it right. Good luck to us!

What Ruthie has to say: Hooray for the continuum–best idea I’ve seen yet! One size does most certainly NOT fit all, and the idea of a communicative continuum takes away the pressure many EFL teachers in Asia face on a daily basis. Specifically, it helps us see “failed tasks” in a different perspective: rather than a “task-gone-wrong”, the day’s lesson can be viewed as “closer to the form-focused end of the spectrum”. And hopefully, as students progress in their interlanguage and gain confidence, lessons will come to more closely resemble the “meaning end of the spectrum”. Some might disagree, but I believe Littlewood’s article should be required reading alongside Willis and Willis, who present the ideal model. It’s an important bridge that encourages educators to reflect more closely on their own situation and to better adapt their methods and teaching style to the needs of their students.

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