Six people Darren Elliott would like to meet (and the questions he’d ask them)

Well, I have to admit I have been a bit naughty recently and not updated this blog, and with so little time left! Anyway, as promised I do have some more guest posts. This is a really nice one from Darren Elliott, a teacher based in Japan and owner of the Lives of Teachers blog. Darren has had the chance to get a great many people in ELT in front of his video recorder and asking them questions (his latest great interview was with none other than Michael Swan). But not everyone! Here are six more people he’d like to meet. Darren, over to you…

This is not a guest list for a dinner party, and I have stretched the definition of ELT people to its outer boundries. But I think each of these people would have something to contribute to our knowledge of the profession. I’ve already been lucky enough to talk to some wonderful ELTers, in person or via skype, for my website / podcast at Some of these might be a little trickier to get hold of, but you never know….

1. Rod Ellis

I don’t know what they are doing down there in New Zealand, but for such a small country it seems to produce a disproportionate number of gifted applied linguists. Like notable compatriots Paul Nation and Scott Thornbury, Professor Ellis has the ability and drive to communicate research to teachers at the chalkface. Just to throw the cat amongst the pigeons, I would like to ask him if all this SLA research has anything at all to do with what goes on in the classroom, and if he could tell me once and for all what I am supoosed to do in the classroom…..

2. Nozomu Sahashi

Mr. Sahashi was the founder and owner of NOVA, at one time the largest English conversation school (Eikaiwa) in Japan. Between the company’s formation in 1990, and bankruptcy and partial buyout in 2007, it employed thousands of teachers from North America, Australasia and Europe, many with limited experience or qualifications. Nova also had dealings with the unions over its drug-testing, health insurance, and non-fraternization policies. To be fair, many teachers in Japan got their starts with NOVA, and I have met many with fond memories of their time with the company. And although the firm finally faltered due to shaky student contract practices, hundreds of thousands of satisfied students passed through NOVA’s classrooms over the years. Sahashi-san is currently appealing against a three and a half year prison term handed down for embezzlement.

I would like to ask him how NOVA got so big, and how he sees the future for this model of national chain school. GEOS, another major chain, collapsed this year, and enrolments are down across the industry. Is this due to the return of Japanese insularity (last year there were only five Japanese at Harvard, compared to thirty-nine South Koreans)? Are students getting more savvy, more discerning, or using technology instead? Or is it just another symptom of the economic times we live in?

3.Lev Vygotsky

In the last couple of years, I think I have attended about five conference presentations in which Vygotsky and / or his Zone of Proximal Development haven’t been mentioned. That’s not to say his ideas are not valid, but it’s curious that he was the third most cited author in abstracts submitted for the 2008 Japan Association of Language Teachers National Conference*. Why such interest in a Russian psychologist, seventy years after his passing? Actually, a little more cross-pollination from other disciplines would be healthy for ELT in general. I’d like to ask him how he feels about his current popularity in English Language Teaching, along with other authors who have been imported from other disciplines and extensively referenced by ELTers, (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for example).

4. Jean-Paul Nerriere

English is no longer something handed down by colonials to the locals, and as ever increasing numbers of non-native speakers use the language to ‘get things done’ as a lingua franca, the way it is taught has to change. M. Nerriere is not a linguist, nor a teacher, but a businessman, and he sees the world in those terms. It may not stand up to scrutiny, but his dialect ‘Globish’, based on an English lexicon of just 1500 words, is an intriguing concept. He represents all the language learners and users who have no interest in drama, dogme or dictation (the kind of stuff we teachers love) but just want to be understood as soon as possible. I would ask him what he thought I could do to help him and his peers achieve those aims.

5. Penny Ur

When I first started teaching, I thought her book ‘Grammar Practice Activities’ was the most incredible work of genius ever printed and bound. My teaching style and circumstances have changed somewhat over the years, but I still have this book, and I still look at it. I have a lot of questions for her, but most of all I’d like to say ‘Thank You!’

6. Ragsana Mammadova

I very much doubt I will ever visit Azerbaijan, and I am not too proud to say I know next to nothing about the country beyond it’s capital city and it’s approximate location on a world map. Ragsana Mammadova is the Executive Director of AzETA, IATEFL’s associate organisation in Azerbaijan, and I don’t have any particular questions for her – I’d just like to hear what she has to say about English teaching in her country. A look through the associates list in the back of the ‘Voices’ newsletter sparks my curiousity now in much the same way a world atlas did when I was a boy, and I am amazed at quite how huge and diverse our professional community is.

I could have thought of sixty or more…. so over to you, who have I missed?

* Stapleton, P. (2008) PAC7 at JALT2008: Untangling the submission process. The Language Teacher, p28 – 30, 32/09

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 7:35 pm  Comments (7)  
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Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door

This week I’m joined by a repeat offender here on Six Things. The wonderful English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw, has been experimenting with ideas on unplugged teaching and coursebooks. You can see much more of this work in progress at his blog. Here though he asked me if he could share six general tips for people wanting to unplug their teaching bit by bit. Over to you Jason!

Okay, so you work in a school where coursebooks rule. Welcome to a rather large club, to put it mildly! Whether or not you like using coursebooks or think they encompass the best overall approach for your learners, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder about the potential of having a bit more “unplugged” time in the classroom. As a teacher or program manager, I would encourage you to experiment with unplugged teaching, but also remember that it can be hard to get the coursebook to shift its bulky influence over your program. Here are what I consider to be six essential rules for facilitating unplugged teaching in a context where coursebooks have – up until now, at least – tended to dominate the program from head to foot.

1. Think about how you pitch “unplugged”
If you walk into the staffroom or school owner’s office and announce you want to do “Dogme” or even “unplugged teaching” or (heaven forbid!) “learner-centred and generated dialogic learning”, in many cases you should prepare for a lukewarm or baffled reception at best, and a reaction of complete incredulity at worst.
Consider using terms like “free speaking”, “conversation class”, or “integrated speaking and writing” – terms that management and other staff are more likely to recognise and be able to relate to (but still potentially facilitate something along the lines of unplugged teaching). These are also terms/concepts that are usually only very vaguely catered to in existing coursebooks, so you could well be proposing something that helps to fill a gap your school and teachers are already aware of.

Also, try not to make this look or sound like a personal quest to overthrow a coursebook regime (even if that is your underlying motivation!). Try to show you understand and respect the current way of doing things, and just want to expand and improve it.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to show some evidence before you propose major change. Record some unplugged lessons or sequences of lessons, and copy and present some evidence from learners’ notebooks. Don’t go in with an idea or notion. Go in with something you can show, explain, and rationalise (see also rule number 6 below).

2. The schedule: Double or nothing

First work out how many lessons are required to adequately cover the existing core coursebook content, then take that number and double it. At a basic level, this creates a syllabus and schedule where there is potentially as much time for unplugged teaching as there is coursebook teaching. If this results in an overly-long or impractical schedule overall, it might be worth seeing if some coursebook units can be skipped, done in “fast forward” mode, or allocated as homework.
Other options, of course, could be to make sure the coursebook is a slim(mer) one to start with, or to abolish things like extra workbooks.
The chances of your school accepting such proposals could have a lot to do with how well you pitched unplugged teaching as per rule 1 above, but also how well you present and follow through with the other rules below.

3. Create options, not specifications
Make sure the system and schedule allow for teachers to choose between unplugged and supplementary options.
If you have doubled the available schedule as per rule 1 above, essentially what you want is a situation where a teacher can choose to go with some unplugged teaching, or use pre-provided (or teacher made) supplementary materials more specifically aimed at the coursebook content, or – probably the most attractive and feasible option – use a combination of both.

Many coursebook series now have a wealth of extra materials and supplements for their units. If a teacher doesn’t want to pursue unplugged teaching in the extra lesson time available, they might like to use these supplementary materials instead. And it is very important that they are not made to feel inferior or somehow deficient by choosing to do so.
Like any major change in teaching approach, it is more likely to appeal and spread when shown gently and by example, and without being forced. If you want teachers to respect your right to teach unplugged outside the compulsory core of the coursebook curriculum, you’ll also have to respect their right to stick to that core curriculum.

4. Provide training
Teaching unplugged is not an easy endeavour for a lot of teachers. Make sure you provide good training that is rich in practical tips and demonstrated through actual examples. Let curious teachers observe your classes or look at the videos and materials that have been generated in your unplugged lessons. Request for your school to get a book like Thornbury and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged, which presents unplugged teaching in both a practical way and through demonstrable theories about learning. Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons.

But again: don’t force this training or exposure onto the teachers. Let them come to unplugged teaching as a result of curiosity and their own choice, and also accept that they may never want to come to it – and if so be careful not to hold (or look like you are holding) that against them.

5. Match unplugged learning to specific learning goals

Document or create some broad learning objectives that unplugged sessions can end up targeting. Official tests are a great one to use – especially the speaking and writing sections of such tests (as I demonstrated for business English classes preparing for TOEIC here). It’s actually really feasible to manoeuvre unplugged lessons toward a variety of test task formats – and not just for speaking and writing. They’re mostly like building plans, really, and it could just be a matter of finding ways to let students decorate and furnish them according to their own tastes and interests towards the end of an unplugged lesson sequence.
Things like the CEFR specifications (and others like it – for example the framework I have to address for migrants and refugees here in Australia) are even easier to lop onto the end of unplugged lessons in a coherent way. I have generally found that doing this goes beyond making unplugged teaching acceptable in a learning context: it can actually help rationalise it and make it feel very relevant to learners and school. Dare I say it… it can even help to make unplugged teaching very popular!
6. Ensure there is evidence of learning (and teaching)
Evidence is really important in ELT in so many of the contexts in which it takes place, and it would have to be one of the most powerful rationales for using coursebooks.

All of the major changes I have achieved within school systems (and learners’, teachers’ and managements’ minds) have come about through careful attention to providing practical and accessible evidence. Even when unplugged sessions go well and appear to be enjoyable and worthwhile at the time, I have seen the approach become unravelled because there is inadequate follow up.

It is a good idea to make sure there is something organised and on (web)paper to show for any unplugged teaching. Notes should be appearing in learners’ notebooks, and we should be showing interest in them and helping the learners make their notes coherent and useful.

Given the relative lack of lesson planning notes associated with an unplugged approach, we should be providing good post-lesson reports that document what was learned and why. Creating a blog (or series of printed handouts) for students, summarizing activities, emergent language work, etc. can be a great way to rationalise and extend what you are doing in your unplugged lessons.

And of course, once your learners hit a certain level and familiarity with unplugged teaching, they could be generating most all of this evidence themselves. Just bear in mind that many contexts still want to see indications that a teacher is ‘working’ and ‘doing’ things, so you should be willing to provide the relevant follow ups that demonstrate this.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:18 am  Comments (7)  
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Adam Simpson’s Six pitfalls in making your own worksheets


You may want to think of a more effective storage system...


Yes, it’s that time again… bring on the guest posts! This time I am joined by Adam Simpson, the man behind the friendly and interesting blog One Year in the life of an English Teacher. He wanted to share some of the things he’s done WRONGLY in making worksheets. And I thought a bit of reflection is always a good thing. I’ve certainly made some of these mistakes in my early days too. So pay attention, and don’t do what he has done!

I like making my own worksheets to accompany course book materials, I always have done and always will. For whatever reason, I never fully trust the coursebook to do the job of getting the teaching objective across as much as I trust myself. Plus, I like making stuff. I’ve always been meticulous in my preparation of something I intend my students to not only use in class, but also to reflect back on at a later date. Nevertheless, I’ve made so many mistakes over the years that it’s almost funny. Here is a somewhat carefully, well thought out list of things for you to think about if you also like preparing your own teaching materials.

1) Purpose What’s the point? Why are you bothering? There just might be something stuck away at the back of the teacher’s book that does exactly what you’re trying to do; stranger things have occasionally happened. Alternatively, maybe someone at school has already cobbled together something that meets the objectives you’re trying to achieve. If neither of these apply… make sure you start with a clear purpose and work towards appearance, not the other way round. Here’s an example of how I went wrong at the start of my teaching career: I still remember the weekend after my first week of teaching. I decided to wow my students with a crossword for the start of our second week. After an hour of labour I’d produced something that looked great, but actually led to about five minutes of class activity. What I’d made was a triumph of style over substance that didn’t really do anything that the book already covered adequately. I learned pretty quickly form this experience.

2) Language I’m not talking about the language of the particular teaching point, I’m thinking of the language I use to make sure that the learners know what they are supposed to do. No matter how careful I am in writing prompts – and I am very careful – sometimes I just have to reflect on the fact that what I gave to the students wasn’t clear enough. So… Ask clear and understandable questions. Match your questions to the level of the learner. Use bullet points for clarity. There probably are worse things than having handed out an absolutely killer piece of material only to be met with blank expressions and total malaise, but it’s still really depressing. Trust me: make your instructions clear.

3) Design The design of your worksheet should enhance the content rather than obscuring it. To be honest, it took me years to truly get my head round this. Indeed, I’m still a stickler for making my worksheets look as professional and attractive as possible, but like I said, this shouldn’t be to the detriment of the content. What steps do I now take to avoid this? Limit the range of fonts you use I have literally thousands of additional fonts added to my Microsoft word, but I rarely use more than two or three in my worksheets. Funky fonts that look good but are difficult to read will only serve to frustrate your learners. Limit the visual aids I still look to put my objectives and instructions into a fancy speech bubble, but that’s it. Don’t overdo it with pictures and borders and other fancy stuff, or the learners won’t be able to see the wood of the learning objective(s) for the trees of the design feature(s).

4) Product What do you want to have created in the end? Is the message clear? How can you make sure that it will appeal to as many of your learners as possible? Keep a collection of all the handouts you produce and reflect on them periodically. Here are a couple of reasons why I think this is a good thing to do. You keep making the same kind of resource again and again Try to include a range of tasks that will appeal to different types of learner (perhaps consider different learner styles if you believe in such a thing). Even the best of us do this. I remember one of my DELTA tutors driving me to despair with constant jigsaw reading tasks. She had no idea of how often she was using this kind of task until I pointed out that that was all she ever gave us. Keep a record of what you make or you’ll find you repeat yourself more often than you might imagine. You make the same kind of resource, regardless of the purpose What is it for? This will affect what kind of questions you can ask the learner. Homework / individual / group tasks will all require tailored questions. Don’t do what I once did and ask the learner to discuss a set of homework questions in groups. I found out the following day that they had spent all night phoning one another to come to a consensus over their answers.

5) Trial It isn’t going to be perfect first time. Treat your worksheet as a draft to be improved. This means trialing it in class to see what queries / confusion it raises. Take a revisable version of it into class with you to make instant notes of necessary changes. Also, make sure you follow up your revisions on the computer, or whatever method you have of maintaining the original.

6) Storage This is still my biggest fault. I can’t stress enough the importance of storing paper copies methodically for easy retrieval. Consider how you want to do this carefully, be it a filing cabinet (I hear these still exist), in-tray system, or ring binder with plastic pockets. My advice is to mark a master copy using a particular system so that you don’t lose it (I have a teachers copy with ‘Adam’s’ emblazoned across the top with a blank copy of the original stapled to it in a plastic folder separate from all other materials). Try to do the same with computer files; be as specific as you can when naming them! Go on, admit it; how many files do you gave on your computer labeled ‘grammar exercise’? Do yourself a favour and give your file a very specific name. The last file I created was called ‘L3 U1 I3 exercise to follow up on writing definitions about education’. OK, it took me ten seconds to name the file, but I’ve a pretty good idea of where to find it from the name next time I need to do a follow up exercise on writing definitions about education for the third input of Unit 1 of the Level 3 course book. I’d love to hear what other ideas you have, problems you’ve encountered and how you resolved these issues.

Published in: on October 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Comments (5)  
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Nicky Hockly’s six favourite teaching online activities

Back to school with another guest post! I’m starting up the guest sixes here with half a dozen of the best activities for teaching online. These come from none other than one of my great mentors, Nicky Hockly. Nicky co-founded The Consultants-E, an online consultancy specialising in education and trained me as an emoderator over seven years ago. I now do the occasional course for them as a trainer, and can really say they are a great bunch to work with. Enough background already though, I’ll hand over to Nicky…

To celebrate the launch of our new book, Teaching Online (from Delta Publishing), Lindsay Clandfield and I decided to write a guest post on each other’s blogs. Our posts each describe six of our favourite teaching online activities. This way you get 12 cool online teaching ideas – 6 from me here, and 6 from Lindsay on my blog!

Here are my six favourite activities (Lindsay forced me to write six!). They are aimed at language learners, but with a bit of tweaking they can be easily made to fit other contexts, such as teacher training.

1 Sounds of me

This activity can be used at the beginning of an online course. It helps learners to get to know each other a bit. Choose four or five songs which are significant to you in some way, and add them to and online play list (Grooveshark is a good one). Provide a link to your playlist (e.g. in a forum in your online course, or in a blog). Include why you chose each of the songs, and why they are significant to you. Your learners can listen to your playlist, and then respond to your posting with comments or questions. Learners then create their own online playlists, and post a link and explanation each. They listen to and comment on each others’ choice of music. Instead of using audio, you and learners could create online video playlists e.g. in a site like You Tube. People often have strong emotional ties to certain pieces of music, so this can be quite a powerful sharing activity. I especially like the way this activity brings in other media (audio or video) – one danger in online courses is that they become too relentlessly text-based.

2 My precious…

This is another great activity to help learners in an online course get to know each other better. Get learners to take a digital photo of an important/significant object that they own. This could be a piece of jewellery, a souvenir, a talisman or good luck charm, a drawing or painting, a CD, a piece of furniture that has been in the family for generations … (If your learners don’t own digital cameras, they could find an image of a similar object on the Internet, and use that). Learners prepare a 100-word text explaining what the object is, and why it is significant. They post their photo and text to a forum in your online course, or to a blog. They then read about and comment on each other’s objects. Like ‘Sounds of me’ above, this activity enables learners to share meaningful personal information with each other, and can really help the group to ‘gel’. It also brings in another form of media – digital images – which helps add variety to course content.

3 Podcast dictations

I find that many language learners love dictations. So how about building up a bank of dictations as a series of podcasts over time, which learners can regularly listen to and transcribe? Use a free podcasting site (such as Voice Thread, or Podomatic) to record yourself dictating a short text. You could also provide a transcript as a separate text document, so that learners can check their dictations afterwards. Add one dictation a week to your podcasting page, based on course work. This is a great way to review course content, and to also give your learners plenty of practice in listening skills, and grammar. You could even get your learners to record dictations for each other!

4 Your message to the world

This activity is good for speaking practice. It gets learners to record a short speech, based on a model you provide. Record yourself speaking for a minute or two on one of the following topics:

  • What is your vision of a perfect world?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be, and why?
  • What is the most annoying thing in the world?

  • What is the best thing in the world?

  • If you could say one thing to the world, what would it be?

Upload your recording to your online course site, and get learners to listen and post comment or questions in reply. Give them the list of topics above, and ask them to record their own one or two minute speeches (e.g. using Sound Recorder on their PCs, or Simple Sound if they have a Mac). Learners then share their own recordings in a forum, and listen to and comment on each other’s. You could set a summarising task in the same forum, by asking questions such as’Who talks about world peace? Who is worried about climate change? etc, based on the recordings. Of course it’s important to remember that recording their own speech can be immensely challenging for learners, especially at lower levels. Make it clear that they don’t need to speak for a long time, and that they can rehearse and use notes to help them.

5 Web tours

This is a synchronous activity, which means you and the learners are online at the same time, in a video chat room. Your chat room needs to have shared web browsing, so that you can show each other websites in real time. We use Elluminate for our online course video chats, but there are also free platforms such as Dimdim, or WizIQ you could use. Take your learners on a tour of your favourite website in the chat room, showing a few pages, and telling them what you especially like. One of my favourites is this site of paintings of redheads in art :-). Get each learner to then show the group their favourite website — preferably a non-language learning site! (They will need to have chosen this site before the chat, and have the URL ready to browse to). Make sure each learner doesn’t speak for more than two or three minutes. At the end of each web tour, the other learners in the group need to come up with one question about that website for the learner. To summarise the activity, provide a list of the website names and URLs for learners to take away.

6 Am I saying this correctly?

This is a listening/viewing activity that gets learners to spot the deliberate mistakes in video subtitles. Find a short video clip (e.g. a film trailer) in your learners’ native language. Using a subtitle creator site (such as Overstream), subtitle the clip and include three or four deliberate mistakes where your English translation does not match the meaning of what is being said in the learners’ native language. Upload the video to your course site, then get learners to watch it and to note down the mistakes they spot. Create a second subtitled version of the video clip with the correct subtitles, and let learners watch that. Did they spot all the mistakes?

We find that learners tend to enjoy this sort of intensive listening activity, especially when they can compare English with their native language. For lower-level learners, you can include deliberate mistakes on obvious items such as vocabulary. For higher levels, the mistakes can focus on more subtle differences in meaning.

These are just six of my favourite activities – there are plenty more in our book! If you try out any of these activities (or the six activities Lindsay has posted on my blog), let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. And if you have any favourite online teaching activities yourself, we’d love to hear about them.

Free Teaching Online Webinar 22 September

You can experience some of our teaching online activities by coming along to our free Teaching Online webinar on Wednesday 22 September 16.30h – 17.30h CET (Central European Time). Check the time in your country , and if you can make it, sign up online with your name and email. We will email you a link to the webinar room half an hour before the webinar is due to start. We will hold a raffle during the webinar to give away free copies of the book! 🙂

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm  Comments (9)  
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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.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm  Comments (15)  
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