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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