June 2011
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TASK-BASED L2 PEDAGOGY FROM THE TEACHER'S POINT OF VIEW
Nick Andon, King's College London, London, England, nick.andon@kcl.ac.uk

Much research has been done on the ways in which carrying out tasks in the classroom contributes to L2 acquisition, but there are far fewer studies on the implementation of task-based language teaching (TBLT). In this paper I examine the extent to which TBLT has “filtered down” from the research literature into everyday pedagogy. The approach taken in this research is not normative: No claims are made that teachers should be using TBLT in ways prescribed in the literature. Instead, the investigation focused on which aspects of TBLT could be identified in teachers’ practices and teachers’ rationales for adopting, adapting, or rejecting TBLT.

DEFINING TASK AND TASK-BASED LANGUAGE TEACHING

Although there are several definitions of task, Ellis (2000) argued that Skehan’s criteria represented a consensus on what distinguishes tasks from exercises: “a task is an activity in which: meaning is primary; there is some sort of communication problem to solve; there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities; task completion has some priority; assessment of the task is in terms of outcome” (Skehan, 1998, p. 95).

Defining TBLT is more complicated: Simply using tasks does not equate to a task-based approach. TBLT relates to the role tasks play within the curriculum, the rationale for their use, and how they are implemented. It is a language teaching approach in which tasks play a prominent role, not just providing practice and consolidation of language already taught, but also creating conditions that allow learners to acquire what they are ready to notice, understand, and integrate into their interlanguage. Tasks lead learners to negotiate meaning, elicit comprehensible input and produce output, and thus acquire new language.

The research described below examined the extent to which teachers’ understanding and use of tasks matched these concepts of task and TBLT, focusing on three themes:

  1. Teachers’ use of tasks as meaning-focused and goal-oriented communication. Ellis pointed out that “[a] task has a clearly defined communicative outcome” (2003, p. 10) and the presentation of the outcome back to the class for evaluation and discussion is seen as an important stage in implementing TBLT (Skehan, 1998; Willis, 1996).
  2. Authenticity in tasks. Skehan’s task definition included “some sort of relationship to comparative real-world activities” (1998, p. 95) and this can be related to situational and interactional or personal authenticity (Andon & Eckerth, 2009). Personal authenticity relates to the students having freedom to express their own meanings using whatever language they are able to.
  3. Tasks as knowledge-creating devices, a central concern of SLA research into TBLT, and one focused on by critics of TBLT (e.g., Bruton, 2002; Swan, 2005). Ellis noted a “general perception among language teachers and educators that task-based instruction is mainly directed at improving students’ abilities to use the target language rather than at enabling them to acquire new linguistic skills” (Ellis, 2000, p. 212).

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

Participants

Case studies were conducted on four experienced, highly qualified EFL teachers at private language schools in London. David and Helen (pseudonyms) were both teacher trainers as well as classroom teachers while William and Graham (pseudonyms) were considered senior teachers in their schools. All four were near completion of a masters in TESOL and three of them had an intermediate qualification. Their students were highly motivated adults studying 15 hours a week in small, multilingual classes, with ample exposure to English outside the classroom. This context was considered well-suited to TBLT. The research focused on the teachers’ understanding of TBLT, their attitudes toward it, and the extent to which it was reflected in their practices.

Data Collection

The following data were collected:

  • An initial semi-structured interview to gather background data on each teacher.
  • Nonparticipant observation of one of each teacher’s lessons (1 to 3 hours in length).
  • A second semi-structured interview including stimulated recall protocols consisting of verbally walking the teacher through a description of the lesson to elicit comments on key issues.
  • A further cycle of observation and stimulated recall interview focusing on issues identified earlier.

Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed, and lesson observations were recorded in fieldnotes.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was performed on coded transcriptions of interviews, written lesson descriptions, memos discussing the themes identified, and a written description of each teacher’s key practices and principles, focusing on the use of tasks and other communicative activities. Analysis was a recursive process and a number of steps were taken to safeguard the trustworthiness of the analysis, including triangulation, independent coding checks, participant checks, and constant comparison within and between case studies, checking for confirming and disconfirming evidence.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Tasks As Meaning-Focused and Goal-Oriented Communication

In the four teachers’ lessons, students were actively engaged in interaction, communicating personal meanings and exchanging opinions in groups. Most of the lesson was spent on language-using activities rather than teacher explanation and form-focused practice. This provided ample opportunities for input, output, and negotiation. The informal chat, which took up a considerable proportion of lesson time, was often manipulated to build in communicative outcomes and both David and Graham highlighted the importance of this. Graham did not consider role plays to be tasks unless they incorporated an outcome; for example, a role-play job interview in which a choice had to be made was treated as a task. Helen’s classes also built in discussion and decision-making tasks in which pairs reported to the class. In William’s lessons, tasks were more language-focused, but work done, and decisions reached, were often reported to the class for discussion and evaluation. Personal information or opinion exchange activities provided opportunities for outcomes to be presented and evaluated. However, most of the time David and Graham stopped the activities after a few minutes and the lesson moved on, with no presentation of what had been discussed. Opportunities for feedback on outcomes were omitted, or done cursorily, and almost all of their post-task feedback to the students focused on the language, not content of discussions and decisions from task performance.

Authenticity in Tasks

All four teachers took steps to establish connections between language use within the classroom and in the world outside. Graham stressed the importance of students seeing tasks as relevant to their jobs, while David saw preparation for language use outside the class as the main rationale for using tasks. William saw the classroom as having its own authenticity involving different patterns of language use from the world outside. It seemed that all four teachers valued situational authenticity more than interactional authenticity. As for personal authenticity, students were encouraged to express their own ideas and use whatever language they wanted to in carrying out tasks, although both Graham and David intervened to suggest alternative forms for expressing what students were trying to communicate.

Tasks As Knowledge Creating

Graham and William felt learners could acquire new language from tasks and Graham also argued that, as not every student in the class was going to learn the same things from a task, the teacher should not decide in advance the language to be practiced or learned. However, this was not reflected in the way he, David, or Helen used tasks. They selected tasks to practice recently taught language, or pretaught language they felt students needed to do the task effectively. This method resembles PPP (presentation, practice, production) or task-supported learning. However, all the teachers also built on other language points and errors that emerged from task performance. They also combined tasks with other approaches, in particular PPP, indicating doubt that learners can acquire new language from tasks. This uncertainty is also found in the literature and in language teaching materials.

CONCLUSION

The ways in which the teachers in this study used tasks differed from the task-based literature in a number of striking ways. Most important, these teachers did not accept that new language could be learned from task performance. As a result, new language was presented outside of the task. Also, few opportunities were provided for task outcomes to be presented and evaluated, potentially devaluing the communicative goals of tasks in the eyes of learners. If TBLT is to achieve more widespread use in ESL, it is argued the following need to happen:

1. More research is needed on the effects and outcomes of using tasks in the way that teachers are currently using them.

2. Teachers need to take greater ownership of TBLT and research its use in their own classrooms, such as by documenting learner language output during task performance over time.

3. Teacher educators should do a better job of communicating the principles and practices of TBLT to teachers.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This article was based on a presentation at the 2010 TESOL Convention in Boston.

REFERENCES

Andon, N., & J. Eckerth (2009). Chacun à son gout? Task-based L2 pedagogy from the teacher’s point of view. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19, 286-310.

Bruton, A. (2002). From tasking purposes to purposing tasks. ELT Journal, 56, 280-288.

Ellis, R. (2000). Task-based research and language pedagogy. Language Teaching Research, 4, 193-220.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language teaching and learning. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by hypothesis: The case of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26, 376-401.

Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Harlow, Essex, England: Addison Wesley Longman.


Nick Andon has been involved in EFL and ESP teaching, materials development, and teacher education projects worldwide since 1981. His research interests include teacher knowledge, beliefs, and expertise; teacher education; language teaching materials; and TBLT. He is currently director of the MA in ELT and Applied Linguistics Program at King’s College London.

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