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Archive for the tag “task-based teaching”

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.

Intrinsic Motivation and Thoughtful Corrections (Class Ten)

Last night’s listening and speaking class with Dr. Jim was lively, in spite of the fact that Chunmei had not slept a wink, Hiroko had walked over 20,000 steps across Tokyo during the day, and Paul and I had spent an exhausting weekend attending a two-day vocabulary acquisition seminar with Batia Laufer. There were three presenters, and the topic was a continuation of the Task-Based Learning theme, with a twist. I’d like to talk about two of the articles presented, one of which I had engaged with since reading the title, and another which looked to be uninspiring, but proved to be surprisingly useful and enlightening.

Steven Sadow

Steven Sadow

I’ll begin with the article we all thought sounded appealing: “Concoctions”, by Stephen Sadow, a professor of romance languages and literature at Northeastern University. It’s not often that we get to read an article written by someone outside of the field, and I viewed it as a treat rather than an assignment from the first. Happily, the article–found in Foreign Language Annuals 27(2) did not disappoint.

By Sadow’s own definition, “concoctions” are tasks that students find absorbing because they stimulate intrinsic motivation. But ho-hum, that definition is yawn-inducing, so let me go a bit further. Psychologist Teresa Amabile, whom Sadow quotes, defines intrinsic motivation as, 1) having love for and even an obsession with the task at hand, 2) having a sense of dedication to the work over time, 3) having a view of the project as combining work and play (are you waking up yet?) and 4) marked by a concentration on the activity itself.  Dr. Jim’s study sheet for the article had asked us to recall an intrinsically motivating projectand I knew the answer: this blog, of course. It’s a requirement, but it’s also an obsession, and these blog posts get written before reading or writing assignments for other courses. I am one of those women who do not hesitate to indulge in dessert before a meal. 

So more about concoctions. They are tasks which are performed not just for the sake of the outcome (which had been my impression so far from reading Willis and Skehan), but for the sake of the process itself. These are tasks involving ambiguity, open-endedness, and instability. They make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. They involve unexpected, unusual, or even startling associations, and curiosity is the key. If students are not intensely curious–if they are not driven to think in new and different ways–Sadow would not consider the task a proper concoction. He also goes so far as to speculate that, “…the ability to grab and hold student attention may be more important than the practice of specific language points.” In designing a concoction, Sadow suggests: Avoid problems that have already been solved and design new problems. Let students brainstorm for solutions and re-arrange their existing schema (he calls this “breaking frames”).

In discussing the Dada and Surrealist influences on Sadow’s thinking, Chunmei showed us a clip of a Luis Bunuel film involving the juxtaposition of an eyeball and a razor as an example of a “frame-breaking” experience. Having been through three laser surgery operations on my eyes (and lasers and razors are one and the same in Japanese), I could not watch, but I did lift my head up in time to enjoy Chunmei’s final slide, entitled “Stairway to Heaven” by Jim Warren. “It’s Surreal, but it’s also romantic, and I just like it,” she pronounced, and we were able to forget the eyeball clip and end the presentation on a positive note.

Well. After Chunmei’s presentation, there were a few awkward minutes where we tried to picture ourselves as creators and implementors of such ambiguous and appealing tasks, with our intrinsically motivated students begging for more class time to finish the project, please! Some of us ventured to say that this was all very exciting, but not realistic or practical for our teaching situations. And I’m sure that many of us felt, at that point, about as interesting as dishrags. What bearing could this article by a crazy Harvard-educated literature scholar possibly have on our daily working lives as teachers of shy Asian EFL students?

Then Doug, who teaches classes for Japanese businessmen, spoke up. “You’d think that guys in suits are really serious,” he said, “but we do some crazy things in our lessons. I’m basically mocking the textbook dialogues a lot of the time, and those businessmen love it. If I tried to teach everything straight from the book, we’d all die of boredom and no-one would learn anything.” Aha. Then I remembered, “Yeah, I do something similar with my kids’ classes. I have to teach endless chunks of language and phrases using these cute little Kumon cards showing boring well-behaved children. So I always re-arrange the order of the cards to purposely put the boring, predictable children in interesting or unexpected predicaments.” And from there, most of us could think of ways that we tweaked tasks or drills to give them unexpected or humorous outcomes. And Dr. Jim wrapped things up by reminding us that challenging learners to “think differently” can be as simple as changing the perspective. Trees, eyeglasses, shoes–even objects can have a perspective or a voice (said the professor whose doctoral dissertation involved puppets) and students can willingly suspend their disbelief to imagine the world seen through different eyes. Ha! As I wrote that, an image flashed through my head of shoes with eyes, alert to impediments or obstacles that their near-sighted owner might not have noticed. “Look out for the snail!” “Whooooa, that’s dog poop!”  Maybe an idea for a concoction-influenced task? I believe I will file it away for future reference.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the last presentation, on an article entitled Teaching Speaking: Suggestions for the Classroom (found in The Language Teacher 21-1) by Robert S. Brown and Paul Nation. This was the article I wasn’t overly excited about; it had a mundane title that did not sound like an alcoholic beverage, and I was in the mood to talk more about concoctions. The presenter was Robert, who began, as many of us have thus far, with an apology: “I’m really sorry, but my presentation’s going to be straightforward and boring. I’m just not good at this stuff.” …….and then he went on to speak confidently, smoothly, engagingly and enthusiastically, as most of us do. After all, we’re teachers, and performing is part of our job on a daily basis. Perhaps the tendency to apologise before beginning our presentations reflects our comfortableness in speaking in front of peers; in front of our own students, any little anxieties are instantly repressed, and bright smiles belie none of the worries that make us human. Whatever the reason, Robert’s modesty was soon tossed aside as he launched into the heart of the presentation and became teacherly in the best sense.

Paul Nation

Paul Nation

The first half of the article covered speaking: how to encourage students to do more and how to improve their fluency and accuracy. Okay–pretty good stuff, and Robert was interesting. Then my ears really perked up near the end when the subject of error correction was introduced. We’ve discussed the subject often, in different classes and different contexts, but there are always new angles to consider. I thought that Brown and Nation (as represented by Robert) did an excellent and thoughtful job of analysing why L2 learners make errors and how we as teachers can respond both effectively and sensitively. For those of you who are familiar with these principles, it’s probably worthwhile to read them again, and for those of you who haven’t yet encountered them, here they are:

If your learner makes an error because they have not yet come into contact with the correct language form.…….don’t correct. Show them the correct form and give them chances to practice.

If your learner errs because they have not observed the form correctly………correct by showing the difference.

If your learner errs because of nervousness…….do NOT correct. Lighten the mood, relieve the tension!

If your learner is suffering from cognitive overload due to task difficulty, do not correct. Make the task easier, or give more chances to practice.

If your learner is confused due to task difficulty (tongue-twisters are the example given), do not correct. Again, tweak the task to make it easier.

If your learner’s error is based on the transfer of a pattern from their first language, do correct, or learners may continue to make the same error, leading to what some linguists call “fossilization”. If the learner’s error has not yet become a habit, it’s time for “consciousness-raising” to help make them aware of correct patterns.

If your learner has copied an incorrect model (which can happen when L2 learners use their interlanguage together without a L1 interlocutor), do point out the correct model.

In short, EFL and ESL teachers should be wary of rushing in to correct learner errors. In some cases, correction can do more harm than good, and often it would simply be a waste of time. On the other hand, it’s also a waste to let a potential consciousness-raising opportunity slip by, so when the circumstances are right, we need to find a way to make learners aware of the much-discussed gap between the target phrase and their developing interlanguage.

“And don’t forget,” said Dr. Jim at the close of the class, “that error correction often works over time. While you may think a simple re-cast of the learner’s error goes unnoticed, that might not be the case And sometimes, learners do the re-cast themselves….. Ruthie! Ask me a question!” Startled, I opened my mouth and said what was uppermost in my mind: “Don’t you think it’s time for a little haircut, Dr. Jim?”

Dr, Jim

Dr, Jim

The good Dr. looked a bit startled, his hand flew to his head, and Hiroko sitting next to me scolded, “Ruthie!! That’s not a QUESTION! That’s a hidden request!” Hahaha—never mind that mentioning the state of your professor’s hair is not an appropriate topic, Hiroko was remembering the article by Zoltan Dornyei, urging teachers to train their students to recognize all manner of complex “questions”. She immediately substituted, “What did you do last weekend?”, while both Dr. Jim and I recovered our composure (to be honest, I had startled myself by saying what I was thinking). And then Dr. J. showed us what he meant. “What did you do last weekend?” he repeated in a small voice to himself thoughtfully. “See?” he said. “The learner is repeating the phrase, thinking about it and re-casting it for himself. That happens!” We all said, “aaaaah! yes!” then put away our pens and notebooks, unplugged our iPhone chargers, and called it a night. Another Listening and Speaking class checked off the syllabus, and–as always–some good things to ponder before next Monday when we meet again.

Rickety Roller-Coasters and Task-Based Teaching (Class nine)

Tonight I’d like to talk about tasks. Those of you familiar with TESOL terminology will know exactly what I’m talking about, but what about the rest of the world? What words does the average Joe associate with the word “task”? I don’t consider my husband to be in any way average, but his academic field is very different than mine, so I took a shot in the dark and asked him: “What do you think of when you hear the word task?”

“Mmmmm….” he said reluctantly, eyeing his yet-untouched hamburg steak and knowing that I would persist until he produced an acceptable answer. Within 30 seconds, he came up with: “Difficult”. “Arduous”. “Thankless”. “Heavy”. “Taxing”… Just as I suspected, all negative words.

My hypothesis was correct, and I was pleased. Heavy and taxing are words that would not necessary be chosen as collocates by native speakers (his first language is Japanese), but they definitely carry negative implications; the rest of his choices were spot on, so I let him dig into his dinner. I myself had never had a positive reaction to the word task, most often associating it with words like….. Monotonous. Repetitious. Unpleasant. Onerous. Laborious. Impossible. Remember Rumplestiltskin? If you’re familiar with the Grimm brothers’ grim fairy tales, you know that the lovely maiden of the story was given a task: “Spin this straw into gold by morning. If you do, you shall marry the King.” And children instinctively know the flip side: “If you cannot…. Death.” Then there’s the oppressive image of a Taskmaster, one who drives workers to the point of exhaustion, probably carrying a whip, sneering an evil sneer and using language my grandmother would not approve of. As conscientious adults, we feel we really should make a task list and check things off, but that’s an unpleasant task in itself, isn’t it?

Now push all those negative images aside and imagine a positive task, in the context of classroom learning. Rather than giving a definition, I will tell a story from this Monday’s Task-Based Teaching lesson in Dr. Jim’s class. One of our study questions was to recall and reflect on a task-based learning experience we ourselves had participated in, and my seat partner Cynthia had the best story. Here it is:

“When I was in high school, we did an extended project with my English teacher that went on for weeks–and the focus of the project was a single word. It had to be a ‘concept word’, and we had to have an attachment to it or a reason for choosing it. Then each week, we explored a different aspect of the word; one week we had to search for a poem including the word, and another week we had to find the word mentioned in a work by Shakespeare. The next week, we had to research the word’s history, and so on. Every week we had to find an example of the word used in a different context in a different medium, and in the end, we wrote a research paper—all about a single word. It was really motivating and made a huge impression on me.”

Cynthia’s enthusiasm as she recounted her memory made an impression on me as well, and we agreed that her high school teacher was the best kind of taskmaster. On my part, I recalled a particularly memorable culture festival at my son’s high school, featuring a terrifying but workable roller-coaster, constructed by students and supervised by the homeroom teacher. This brave and intrepid soul had organized students into groups, overseen the planning and construction, and let them go at it, offering advice and monitoring the process up until its successful completion, just minutes before the festival’s scheduled opening time. On that day, I held my breath as my very tiny twelve year old daughter–I swear she weighed next to nothing–hopped fearlessly into the makeshift contraption (she was first in line to test it out) and was pushed up and over a mountain of chairs held together with duct tape, coming careening down into a sea of sofa cushions. There were cheers from the sweaty high school boys and big sighs of relief from myself and the homeroom teacher.

“WOW,” said Cynthia when I finished my story. “That would SO not happen in the U.S. ! Lawsuits! Injuries! Damages!” But we also agreed that it was pretty cool.

So here’s what Cynthia’s word project and the brakeless plywood roller coaster have in common: they were motivating tasks. They were engaging. They had meaning for the learners. They involved positive, tangible outcomes. The teachers monitored and supported learners, rather than directing and leading. In Cynthia’s case, many of the tasks were assigned at school and completed at home, and the work was not collaborative. In my son’s case, most of the tasks were completed at school in the classroom and the entire project depended on co-operation and collaboration. Although both are good examples of task-based learning, the roller coaster example is probably closer to the way TBL functions in a language classroom…..let me talk about this in a little more detail, and you will see why.

Task basked learning is an approach to English language learning that encourages students to learn language by using it in order to achieve an outcomeIt’s not about accuracy, it’s about the task itself, which must be a task in the good sense: something that students want to achieve and something that means something to them. In Cynthia’s case, students worked on their tasks individually, but in the EFL classroom, tasks are usually done in small groups.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Here’s a photo of Jane and Dave Willis, whose book on task-based teaching is chock full of ideas and practical advice on how to transform a traditional teacher-centered classroom into a lively convention center, with students clustered in small groups using their interlanguage to collaborate on creating a list, doing a ranking exercise, sorting or classifying word items or phrases, or attempting to solve a hypothetical dilemma. Have you got the picture in your mind? Then, as the task phase finishes, the teacher-monitor takes the opportunity to wrap things up, reviewing and clarifying the language learners have been using. Helping to smooth out the rough patches. So students work with language and use their interlanguage in the process, but not for its own sake--the end result is the motivating factor, and the sense of accomplishment when the task cycle has finished naturally leads to increased confidence, which is almost never a bad thing.

On the other hand, as my very thoughtful classmate David remarked, task-based teaching doesn’t always conform to that ideal scenario. “I wish there was a troubleshooting manual for this stuff!” was how he put it. In my own experience, a task-gone-wrong can be discouraging, but that’s still vastly preferable to the opposite scenario: me standing by the chalkboard (how I’d love to have a “magic board”) with my pointer, calling on junior high school age students individually (most would rather die than volunteer) and waiting patiently (awkwardly) for the answer that may or may not be forthcoming. Give me the swarming hub of action any day! And, as Jane Willis, the lovely Task-Mistress, says, this kind of teaching is flexible. Textbooks can be adapted by teachers to be more task-like by adding supplemental “mini-tasks” and designing outcomes. There is a standard task framework for those practitioners who want or need the scaffolding, but it is the spirit of task-based teaching and learning that’s important, so I’ll close with the same words that I used to introduce this approach in its TESOL context: motivation, meaning, engagement, and outcome. These are the all-important factors that give L2 learners the impetus to continue, to push forward, to move toward rather than away from the language they are attempting to acquire.

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