August 2017
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DEVELOPING PRAGMATIC COMPETENCE THROUGH TASK-SUPPORTED LANGUAGE TEACHING
Caroline Payant, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal, Canada & Derek Reagan. Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil


Caroline Payant


Derek Reagan

Introduction

For second language acquisition researchers, the imperative of creating opportunities for meaningful language output is undisputed. One approach for engaging learners in meaning-oriented output lies with the use of pedagogical tasks. From a task-supported language teaching approach, tasks are included within a curriculum and are centered around a nonlinguistic problem. Learners use their linguistic resources as tools to complete the target task. Teachers, as facilitators, provide corrective feedback on erroneous forms and promote modified output. A majority of task-related research has examined the benefits of said tasks on emerging lexical and grammatical knowledge with second language (L2) learners. Becoming competent users of a new language, however, requires knowledge of the functions of language across contexts, not limited to grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. The goal of this article is to discuss the development and implementation of a story completion task that targeted the development of pragmatic competence that could support current form-based activities.

Interlanguage Pragmatics

Successful language users have internalized the relationship between pragmatics and social norms as well as between pragmatics and linguistic forms. The latter, known as pragmalinguistic knowledge, is especially challenging for L2 learners. Learners must become aware of the appropriate forms to realize speech acts such as apologies, compliments, and requests. Until recently, research on the optimal instruction of pragmalinguistic knowledge compared the impact of explicit and implicit instruction (Taguchi, 2015; Takahashi, 2010). Because task-supported instruction has become one of the leading pedagogical approaches in L2 instruction, researchers are now exploring the synergies between pragmatics and task-supported instruction (Taguchi & Kim, 2016).

What Is a Pedagogical Task?

Pedagogical tasks are classroom activities that create a space for communication that mirrors real-world linguistic demands while achieving nonlinguistic outcomes (Bygate, 2016). Common pedagogical tasks include decision-making, ranking, or story completion tasks. For these tasks, each learner within a group has some unique information and successful task completion necessitates information exchanges. In a decision-making task, the nonlinguistic outcome is arriving at a collaborative consensus. For instance, secondary school learners are organizing an end-of-the-semester classroom party event and are allocated a US$150 budget. If working in dyads, one learner could have information pertaining to food items and the other to entertainment choices. A necessary first step would require an exchange of information followed by a negotiation stage to determine which items to purchase given their allocated budget. Though learners would focus primarily on conveying meaning, they would explore new vocabulary and stretch their grammatical knowledge through task performance. To encourage your exploration of using tasks for L2 pragmatic development, we introduce a sample story completion task, with potential variations, that could be used with learners across various grade levels.

A Story Completion Task

Pedagogical tasks that include images can be very powerful, especially with lower proficiency learners, as these can activate ideas and linguistic forms to support communication. Here, we describe a story completion task, an image-based jigsaw task.

Goal

The goal of this story completion task is to use six images to create a written story that includes narration and dialogues. The characters, for these dialogues, will make requests and refusals (target speech acts).

Materials

Six cards with images on one side with vocabulary and target speech acts on the other. In our activity, one image included two young children learning about landfills. On the back of this card, there was a choice between two speech acts: a request to start a recycling program or, choosing to ignore the problem, a request to play instead.

Procedure

Step 1: In pairs, each learner randomly takes three of the six image cards. After a few minutes of planning time, each learner takes their turn to describe their images to their partner.

Variation: For more advanced learners, learners should keep their images hidden while describing their pictures. This will encourage negotiation of meaning that promotes L2 development (e.g., clarification requests).

Step 2: Learners work collaboratively to sequence their pictures to create a meaningful storyline. This sequence should be agreed upon by both contributors.

Variation 1: To increase task complexity, use images that lead to a single “correct” sequence. Variation 2: To promote negotiation, learners should not reveal their images while sequencing the story.

Step 3: Learners write a collaborative story using narration and dialogue. The dialogue should include the target speech acts (listed on the back of the cards). For example, in Figure 1, the two main characters are bringing garbage to the dump. There, the young boy is thinking about playing video games, while his classmate is thinking about starting a recycling program. On the back of that image, sample target requests included 1) “Stop producing waste,” a request initiated by the girl and 2) “Play video games,” a request initiated by the boy. After creating the narrative context for the characters, learners write the script, including the characters’ requests and responses.

Step 4: A lot of work goes into the creation of a story. Learners should have the opportunity to share their stories. One approach is to form groups of three dyads and have each group read their story for their peers. Another approach is to do a poster carousel in which each story is glued to a wall and learners circulate and independently read the stories.

In sum, by virtue of creating a story on an authentic topic, learners are using the language for meaningful purposes. In addition, as stipulated by the instructions, the learners are having to embed various requests in the dialogue, thus targeting pragmatic competence. The additional sharing of their stories serves to reinforce their understanding of requests and refusals in the target language.

Manipulating the Modality

There is strong evidence that oral and written modes of production have unique influences on the cognitive processes underlying L2 development (Gilabert, Manchón, & Vasylets, 2016). Unlike language produced in the written modality, oral output is rapid and nonpermanent, limiting the amount of planning and editing. This modality, however, pushes learners to produce more fluent output. Thus, to expand their L2 knowledge, rather than producing a written script in Step 3, learners could benefit from working in the oral modality alone.

First, learners should be prompted to create their oral narrative and dialogues for each card, rehearsing their output for each card before moving on to the next. Once they have developed the narration and dialogue for each card, they can produce a coherent rehearsal and, when ready, record a final version. Ample time for the rehearsals is critical so that learners feel comfortable with the details of their story and feel confident about the dialogue between the characters. Rather than working in dyads, the oral story could be conceived as a triad with one learner assuming the role of narrator and the other two learners the roles of the main characters.

Task Cycle: Pre- and Posttasks

Providing a scaffold and creating a space to foment knowledge development can be facilitated by embedding pedagogical tasks within a cycle of learning. For this target task, a useful pretask activity includes a short explicit lesson on making requests and refusals. Additional ideas for a pretask include modeling target requests and refusals in meaningful language exchanges (implicit attention to form), collaborative reading of a story using similar ideas and speech acts to activate vocabulary and target structures, or text reconstruction (sequence a previously written story) that includes similar topics and structures. In the literature, there is strong agreement that a posttask should always be included as it helps draw the learners’ attention to the target genre and language. Step 4 in the Story Completion Task is a potential posttask. Additional ideas include repeating the same task with a new classmate and a consciousness-raising task in which learners discuss how English requests and refusals differ or compare to requests and refusals in their native languages.

Conclusion

Our experience with this task is that it generates a lot of dialogue and targets the development of pragmatic competence, regardless of the modality. The biggest challenge, from a material development perspective, lies in finding appropriate images that are in line with your curricular objectives. One recommendation is to search through library books and use previously published images. Another recommendation is to share your materials with fellow teachers because images can be reappropriated for different stories, provided that you create a new context or learning objective. In sum, tasks are a vehicle for L2 development, and creative manipulation of modality and repetition can ensure that your learners use language for communicative purposes.

References

Bygate, M. (2016). Sources, developments and directions of task-based language teachingLanguage Learning Journal44(4), 381–400. doi: 10.1080/09571736.2015.1039566

Gilabert, R., Manchón, R., & Vasylets, O. (2016). Mode in theoretical and empirical TBLT research: Advancing research agendas. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36, 117–135. doi: 10.1017/S0267190515000112

Taguchi, N. (2015). Instructed pragmatics at a glance: Where instructional studies were, are, and should be going. State-of-the-art article. Language Teaching, 48, 1–50. doi: 10.1017/S0261444814000263

Taguchi, N., & Kim, Y. (2016). Collaborative dialogue in learning pragmatics: Pragmatics-related episodes as an opportunity for learning request-making. Applied Linguistics, 37, 416–437. doi: 10.1093/applin/amu039

Takahashi, S. (2010). Assessing learnability in second language pragmatics. In A. Trosborg (Ed.), Pragmatics across languages and cultures (pp. 391–421). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.


Dr. Caroline Payant is an assistant professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her research in task-based language teaching focuses on the development and implementation of pedagogical tasks and second language development.

Derek Reagan is currently a Fulbright English teaching assistant at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Natal, Brazil, where he is engaged with the language learning process as a Portuguese learner and English teacher.

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