Six things all language teachers should know about tasks

Another guest post here at Six Things, this time from none other than Marcos Benevides. Marcos is a fellow author and blogger based in Japan. He is the man behind Whodunit, the world’s first free-to-share ELT reader textbook as well as Widgets, a task based course from Longman. He is also one of the guys behind a blog called Task-Based Language Teaching. Are you detecting a pattern here? Can you guess what his list will be about? Please welcome him, and pay good attention! 🙂

Hello class, my name is Mr. Benevides, and I’ll be substituting for Mr. Clandfield today. It seems he is recovering from a nasty champagne-on-a-concorde bug that seems to be going around.

For today’s lesson, I’d like you to close your textbooks. We are learning Six things all language teachers should know about tasks:

1. Tasks must be authentic

All right. Now, everyone please repeat after me, “Not everything you do in the classroom is a task. Not everything you do in the classroom is a task. Not everything you do in the classroom is a task.” Okay, good.

Any questions? Yes, you in the back there.

Ah, yes—the word task does literally mean “an assigned piece of work”. Good point. But in ELT, it means a specific kind of activity which, among other criteria, is somehow connected with, or analogous to, or modeled on something that people actually do in the real world. This gives the task a more intrinsically motivating communicative aspect beyond simply the practicing of a language form for the sake of learning it.

So, let’s say, Filling in a job application is a task. Filling in the blanks on a cloze worksheet from a textbook reading is not. Got it?

Pardon me?

Hm, another good point—yes, any classroom task will always be somewhat inauthentic (or even contrived if you prefer) by the simple virtue of it being performed in a classroom context. But look, there are degrees of authenticity, and perhaps we can agree that the more authentic, the better. It’s true, asking your students to imagine that they are castaways on a desert island who must Look at the map and discuss the best location to build a shelter may not seem especially realistic, but it does have a connection with the kinds of things we can easily imagine happening in the real world.

On the other hand, when was the last time your boss came into your office and said, “Brian! This paragraph has been cut into ten sentences! I’m going to tape each sentence up around your office, and then you must collect them and put them in order for me before the big meeting. Got it? I’m counting on you, Brian!”

So I think it’s fair to say that some classroom activities are always going to be more contrived than others because they lack any reasonable real world application.

But please mind one caveat: Inauthentic does not necessarily equal ineffective; putting together jumbled sentences may indeed be a very useful activity to do in the classroom. It just isn’t especially, well, tasky, that’s all.

Okay, next point.

2. Tasks must be goal-oriented

Right, goals. Everything has a goal.

But the task must have an end goal which is not simply linguistic, or not primarily pedagogical, in nature. If you are asking students to Tell a story about how you and your best friend first met, the important outcome is not for the student to use the simple past tense or logical connectors, although it’s clear that they might; it is for them to Tell a story about how they and their best friend first met. It is for a story to be told, and for the audience to feel reasonably satisfied that a story has been told. That’s it.

Everybody following? I see some blank looks.

Look, of course there are linguistic considerations, but these are secondary. If you have selected appropriate tasks, then you can be pretty confident that there will be a natural focus on certain forms when the student attempts them. Indeed, it might be impossible to perform the tasks without using those forms. In that case, if the student does manage to perform a task appropriately, we can confidently assume that they are proficient in the use of those forms. Even if we focus only on the end goal.

Okay. For example, to order a pizza by telephone, one needs to be able to relate one’s address in an acceptable format. One needs to anticipate and answer questions such as “Would you like ~ with that?” One needs to know certain vocabulary items. One even needs to be aware of social and pragmatics conventions so as not to inadvertently sound rude and get disconnected. So, if after the student performs the task successfully—if we can image that the pizza would arrive, with all the correct toppings—we can then also safely assume that the student is proficient enough in using those specific language forms. Because she couldn’t have ordered a pizza otherwise.

Good? Okay, let’s move on.

3. Tasks must be meaningful

At this point you should be noticing that these items are all closely related. The more authentic the task, the easier it is to connect it to a clear, non-pedagogical end goal, and the more likely that it will be meaningful.

No, I’m not repeating myself. You can see me after class, young man. Renshaw, is it? You’ve got troublemaker written all over you.

Right, where were we?

Ah yes. It bears emphasizing that tasks must prioritize the negotiation of meaning over the practice of language forms. It is commonplace to think of forms and meaning as two opposite directions from which to approach instruction, either of which can lead to some secondary focus on the other. So teaching a grammar point can lead up to a speaking activity that uses that grammar point, just like starting with a meaningful task can lead up to focusing on the language that emerges from it.

There is one crucial problem with this parallel, however: Meaning is always clearly dependent on some kind of grammar, whereas grammar is not often dependent on meaning. A case in point is Chomsky’s famously grammatical but meaningless sentence, Colorless green ideas dream furiously. To my mind, there is a fundamental problem with starting with grammar and attempting to move ‘up’ towards meaning in coursebooks or in the classroom; it is never going to work as elegantly as going the other way: starting with meaning and then attempting to draw out relevant grammar forms.

After all, one doesn’t often enter into a communicative situation by thinking, “Okay, I need to use the past tense correctly now…” but rather by thinking of the meaning one wants to get across. By imagining how we might construct meaning, we may wander into grammar territory; by practicing grammar, on the other hand, we seldom wander into engaging, meaningful content. In fact, in a classroom context, students tend to get stuck exclusively on grammar forms, especially when it’s clear that it’s their accurate use that’s going to be assessed.

That’s also exactly what happens when students are presented forms before attempting a task. So, in order to better simulate real world (-like) conditions, the student needs to attempt the task first, at which point they might realize their need for a particular form in order to achieve the task; then they can be presented relevant forms by the teacher, either during or immediately following the task phase.

Ideally, they would then go on to perform a related task next, implicitly and organically reinforcing the language form, even as the student is once again focused on a non-linguistic goal.

Everyone with me?

4. Tasks must be assessed in a valid manner

Right, now this is the biggie, and the one that often gets forgotten by teachers in the day-to-day of the classroom. Students must be assessed first according to how well they achieved the goal of the task. If the task was to give a five minute slideshow presentation about their family, then by God that’s what we should be judging them on!

Would a reasonable audience member have understood what they said? Would an audience have been satisfied by the depth and/or breadth of the information? The length of the presentation? The mode of delivery? The demeanor and attitude of the presenter?

Yes? Then it’s a pass. No? Then it’s a fail.

Everything else, including language accuracy, is secondary. Upon first deciding pass or fail, then the teacher can then target other items. Was it a borderline pass because pronunciation difficulties made parts of the presentation hard to understand? Or maybe it was a lack of appropriate vocabulary? Or a critical, recurring grammar issue? Okay, then target those in the feedback to students. But decide pass or fail based on achievement of the goal—and above all, make it clear to students that that is where the bar is set.

One useful way to correlate task types with leveling criteria for assessment is by reference to a language descriptor system such as the Common European Framework of Reference or the Canadian Language Benchmarks. I personally find the latter to be more useful because it includes more specific can-do items, but some teachers actually find it more subjective for the same reason. Either way, both provide a good path toward valid task-based assessment. (And excellent face validity for students and parents too, I might add.) However, please bear in mind that the CEFR or the CLB are not assessment tools themselves—they are simply suggestive of how assessment ought to work.

So to recap—yes, please write this down—assess them first on whether they completed the task appropriately. Yes or no? Then consider how high of a pass or how low of a fail based on other, including linguistic, criteria.

5. Tasks must be adaptive

Okay, we’re almost there, I promise.

Teachers sometimes talk about whether tasks are focused or unfocused (on language forms). Clearly, certain tasks suggest specific language forms better than others, and some tasks, especially at higher proficiency levels, can be achieved by using a wide variety of language forms. But as a general rule, the task-based syllabus must be adaptive to emergent language, and not be overly language-prescriptive. Telling a story about What did you do last weekend? clearly suggests—focuses on—the simple past tense. And it would be perfectly fine for the teacher to expect to teach the simple past in that lesson.

However, because real meaning-making is a messy, chaotic, unpredictable affair, the teacher should also be prepared to target other forms that may arise in the course of students attempting to tell their own individual stories. Actually, this is why it is so difficult to design a ‘strong’ task-based coursebook, and why a grammar-driven or functions-driven syllabus almost always becomes the default fallback position: How can a textbook written a thousand miles and several years away, for a wide range of student types, possibly provide an authentic, meaningful task while also predicting the full range of language forms that Student X might want to employ right now? It can’t, that’s how. It can only try to restrict the forms that can be selected and pretend that it’s preseting them as meaningfully as can be expected under the circumstances. For task-based practitioners, that’s not enough.

TBLT tries to simulate a real world operating environment wherein people are not restricted to using a particular language form, but must employ a variety of strategies and draw upon background knowledge to get things done. When a learner decides to use a certain language form, or even better, realizes that she doesn’t quite know how to frame what she wants to say and asks the teacher for help, then that language can be said to be emerging from the task. It is at this point that the teacher—who unlike the textbook writer happens to be there in the room!—can target the language form and instruct the learner most effectively. By contrast, the dominant pattern of instruction would see the teacher targeting, say, relative pronouns today simply because it’s Relative Pronoun Day on the syllabus, and creating a contrived need to use relative pronouns through a ‘communicative’ activity.

So no, not even a balanced PPP approach using otherwise authentic, meaningful tasks can be completely adaptive to emergent language.

A question? Yes, you can write that down too. Mr. Clandfield would be glad to elaborate on that next week.

6. Tasks must be themed

Okay, okay, no need to look at me funny. You’re right, this isn’t actually a crucial requirement. But I think it’s important.

By a theme, I mean something that connects a set of units according to a recurring topic or subject. A course on Love and Dating, for example, where students read a romance graded reader, watch a movie like Bridget Jones’ Diary, write an anonymous advice column for a school paper, and present on dating customs in different cultures. Or a course with the end-of-semester goal of putting together a website about the city in which the students live. Or a reading course in which students focus on one specific genre, for instance detective stories. Themes have a variety of language learning benefits I won’t go into here, but perhaps most importantly, they tie tasks together in a coherent progression. So for instance, within a Workplace related theme, students might Fill out a job application, then Participate in a hiring interview, then Meet co-workers, then Listen to instructions on how to serve a customer, then Call in sick, and so on.

When tasks are connected thematically then there are a variety of benefits that feed back on the five requirements I list above: heightened authenticity; facilitated selection of tasks; contextualized meaning-making; improved face validity of assessment; and a better organized sequence of instruction that does not lapse into language form prescriptivism.

Okay, that’s it. Any questions? Anything at all? Yes, the gentleman taking furious notes in the front row there. How does TBLT relate to dog- what? dog-ma?

Um, class dismissed.

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Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm  Comments (15)  
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Six communist textbooks to learn English

I’m excited about this post, it’s a little side project I’ve been doing while traveling. Inspired by Scott Thornbury‘s old collection of English language textbooks I wanted to collect a series of covers of old English textbooks from former communist countries. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many countries of the former Soviet Block and have lots of contacts who were kind enough to help me in my search. Here they are. six little pieces of history.

1. Starkov English Textbooks and Readers (Russia, 1980s)

This from my colleague at the British Council in Moscow, Olga Barnashova. She told me that when someone brought these in the other day everyone got really excited as they recognise their childhood. Check out the exercise too.

2. English 7 ( Georgia 1984)

This one courtesy of Scott Thornbury’s collection. A striking design, and another course that just goes by numbers (like Starkov above). I don’t know how high these courses go actually. Line from a dialogue in English 7 Hello Gia. I’ve got a fine picture of Lenin which, as Scott remarked dryly, makes a nice change from I’ve got a pen.

3. My English Book (Poland)

I quite like the retro image of the children on this book, as well as how the yellow ribbon in the girl’s hair is echoed in the yellow cover.

4 We learn English (Poland)

Great collectivist title. And such a minimalist cover design too. I would love to do a new version of this, but keep the same artist. This and My English Book both come courtesy of my Polish friend and fantatstic teacher trainer Grzegorz Spiewak.

5. English for the Small (Hungary)

My absolute FAVOURITE title for a child’s book to learn English. My good friend Tamas Lorincz sent me the cover and pages from this book. The insdie cover says “English for the small. Rhymes and games, for them all.” Priceless! It also has a great picture of Lenin on the inside page too. In fact this was all so good I’m including a few pages here.  Click on the image to see a bigger version of the scan – it’s worth it.

6 Armed Forces English Broadcast (Republic of China 1965)

This one is a little different from the others, but what a treat. Published by Republic of China Military Foreign Language school, I came across this one online. It was found by a travel blogger called Roy Berman outside the Taiwan National History Museum (Roy’s blog is called Mutantfrog Travelogue, a very original title for a blog!). I was especially fascinated by the table of contents. Unit 2… Cabbage Soup? Is that some kind of military term for food in the barracks? Curiouser and curiouser…

So, have any of my readers studied with one of these books? Does anyone have any other gems of old English textbooks they could share? And the big question… are contemporary books really that much better?

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 9:52 am  Comments (20)  
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Six things to know about an e-workbook

Well everyone it’s that time again on Six Things when I give a little commercial for Global. OK, actually a big commercial for Global. I’ve been quiet about it for six months (on this blog at least). But I had promised (threatened?) to tell you about the digital component of the course in a little more detail and now I can. Here are six features of the much talked-about e-workbook, the latest in self-study from my course Global.

1 It’s not a simple CDROM.

The e-workbook comes on a disc, it’s true. But it is unlike the recent CDROMs in a few different ways. First of all, it isn’t stuck in some little plastic envelope and glued to the back of the student’s book. We’ve found that many students don’t even touch those CDROMs, or they end up on the floor. Teachers don’t bother to show students how they work. So a little improvement has been to give the e-workbook an A4 pamphlet of its own complete with screen shots and explanations of how to use it. Like a technical manual. Also, you install the e-workbook on a computer and activate it (with an activation code). You don’t need the disc any more after that.

2 It allows different ways of working.

The e-workbook contains of course lots of interactive exercises for grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, pronunciation the lot. But we realised that not everybody wants to work on the computer all the time. So all the language practice activities are also available as downloadable pdfs, with corresponding audio files. Which means you can print and work. These pdfs aren’t screenshots, they are in fact a complete printed workbook with artwork and proper layout etc. There are more than 100 interactive activities and 80 pages of printable worksheets.

3 It has lots of extra audio, JUST audio

When I was learning German, I desperately wanted to be able to JUST LISTEN to things in German. Basically hear the words, the phrases and perhaps short little conversations. “Doing” listening exercises was helpful, but I didn’t want to do that all the time when I studied. So in the e-workbook we’ve put both. There are plenty of listening exercises (true/false, matching etc) but there are also a whole bunch of files of “just listening”. These include: word lists by category, useful phrases by function, mini conversations (to put words and phrases into context) and extracts from the literature in the book read aloud in an audiobook format. All of these have a feature that allows you to read the text on screen, with the words being highlighted as you read and listen.

4 It has an impressive video offering

We wanted to include video on the e-workbook as well. Lots of ELT video is… how to say… a bit crap. The settings look unreal, the production cost is not so high and it shows. So we decided to save on that budget and instead get great actors and a great writer to do very simple, almost improv theatre-like videos. Here’s an example of one below:

The video material for these was written by the extremely talented Robert Campbell, known for his great magazine iT’s for Teachers (check it out!). But that’s only HALF of the video material. The other half is the authentic material. For this it was like a dream come true: we managed to get the full backlist video archive of the BBC documentaries to choose from. So there is some incredibly good material on there. I’d include one here but we aren’t allowed to display them on the internet!

So in total there are 20 videos on the e-workbook. They are all short clips. Each video comes with a worksheet with comprehension and language activities for the student to do if he/she wants to. An additional bonus is that the teacher has the same 20 videos he/she can use in class, along with an extra 10 clips from the BBC (that follow on from the original documentary clips)

5 It supports mobile learning

Here’s the best part. All the video and audio can be downloaded and put onto any portable music or video playing device: an MP4 player, an ipod/pad/phone or any phone which supports audio and video files. So students can practice their English anywhere, at any time.

6 It has testing and reference tools

If all that wasn’t enough, there is a self-test machine that generates grammar and vocabulary mini tests (the student can choose a number of questions, or take a timed test). The questions will be different each time. And (running out of breath here) there is a reference section too with wordlists and definitions, grammar help, writing tips and a link to the dictionary. Oh, and for those schools big on Common European Framework there are all the language passport and dossier documents as well as self-assessment checklists too for students to build their own portfolio.

The e-workbook also keeps track of all the work done on it. You can create a pdf of your markbook, showing EXACTLY what you have done so far in any given session. This means that the teacher can ask students to email or print off a record of their work.

FINALLY… if your school is using a moodle or other virtual learning platform then the content of the e-workbook can be licensed directly from Macmillan and put onto your site (it’s SCORM compliant, which means it can work in a moodle).

Phew! Well, that’s it. And yes I KNOW this was a commercial plug but it IS my baby after all. So consider this like looking at a bunch of baby photos and making nice noises like “ooohhh” and “how beautiful”… 😉

Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 9:32 am  Comments (9)  
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Six activities new teachers should have up their sleeve

This week I’m joined by Emma Foers. Emma got in touch with me about doing a post for new teachers. I took a look through the past posts I had done and found that actually I had very little by way of “tried and true” activities for newcomers. So I was happy to accommodate her here.

There are many things that can go wrong in a TEFL class – too few students turn up, equipment doesn’t work, students aren’t in the mood, or some students finish activities before others and start to disrupt everyone else, to name just a few of the possible problems!  So it’s always good to have some back-up activities, especially if you’re just starting out. Here are a few I’ve used in my time…

1)     Vocabulary revision games If some students have finished an exercise before the others, you can challenge them to write down 10 items of vocabulary from a previous session (colours, days of the week, household objects).  If the class finishes early, you can ask a student to come and stand with their back to the board.  Write a previously taught word or phrase on the board and the class has to describe it to the student, who must guess the word/phrase!  There are many vocabulary revision games out there and many to make up!  One of my friends devised the ‘cup of knowledge’ – she made a cup and put vocabulary inside it from previous classes.  At the beginning/end of class she would ask students to pick a word from the cup and describe it to the rest of the class – the person to get the word first would win a point for their team!

2)      Picture Flashcards Great again to revise past vocabulary in games!  One of my favourite games (especially for kids) is Kapunk! You need different coloured card with numbers from 10 to 1,000,000 on them and some cards with Kapunk! written on them.  Put your students into teams and one student has to come to the board and compete against the others to win the chance to select a points card.  If all teams draw/complete the task they can select a card.  If they are unlucky enough to select a Kapunk! card they lose all of their points!  Tasks can range from anything from writing a correct sentence using the picture you have selected to spelling tasks using flashcards.  You may want to let two students come to the board at a time to make the game more communicative and to build confidence for weaker/shyer students.  Also you might want to develop rules such as teams not using English will be deducted 100 points. It’s also worth giving groups one chance to spot mistakes and help their team members (this keeps them interested in what their team members are doing!).

3)   Crossword Puzzles Always come in handy for when you finish early and students love them! You can either find ones online or make your own.

4)   Spot the mistakes Write up sentences on the board with things students have been taught but with common mistakes in them.  Put students into groups to find the mistakes.  Could be ‘Are you have photos?’, ‘I have much apples’ etc.

5)    Add a word The aim of this activity is for students to build a full, correct sentence one word at a time. With children you could do this asking them to sit in a line on the floor (with a pen and paper), or with adults you could do this orally.  The first student has to write/say a word, then the next student has to add a word and so on.

6)      Ball game Having a ball in the class entails endless games!  Students can ask/answer questions when they throw/catch the ball to each other.  The teacher can throw the ball and do a quick quiz.  You can give a topic and students throw to each other and say related vocabulary to the topic when they catch the ball.  Also, another game is when the word must start with a letter which is the same as the last letter of the previous word. For example, if the first word is “dog,” then the next word could be ‘golf’.

How about you guys? What’s your favourite back-up activity?

Emma Foers has actually written a whole book of activities for new teachers, called Kick-Start Your TEFL Career: 20 Classroom Activities for Elementary Learners. You can see sample pages and more activities here.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 9:37 am  Comments (5)  
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