Task-Based Language Teaching, Term Paper Example
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Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is an approach to learning a second language designed on the ways in which learners actually learn their first, native language. Instead of learning long lexical lists or focusing on grammatical rules, students learn their second language in a more conversational format. This facilitates greater ease in actually learning the language, and generally makes for much greater facility in using it. Of course, the role of the teacher is very important in designing curricula for such approaches, though it differs substantially from the role of the teacher in more conventional approaches. The role of the teacher is to serve as a facilitator and guide in acquiring conversational fluency in the new language.
Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is an innovative approach to learning a new language, one that focuses on the setting of tasks (Plews & Kangxian, 2010, p. 42). Following the TBLT approach, the role of the teacher is to set tasks for the learner that the learner will find to be meaningful and purposive in some way: in essence, the tasks will be comparable to real-world uses of language (p. 42). Task completion may be followed with the learner presenting a summary report on how they performed the task (p. 42). The teacher can also guide focus on more difficult aspects of the grammar that might have emerged in the course of the lesson (p. 42). Thus, the teacher clearly has a very important role to play in developing and implementing the curriculum: the teacher is enabling the learner to learn the language realistically.
As Willis (2004) explains, TBLT is a part of a larger movement that essentially arose as a revolt against the behaviorist paradigm, which enshrined a very different role for the teacher (p. 4). The essential problem with these methods was that they did not produce fluent speakers, capable of conversing in the foreign language they were supposed to be learning (p. 4). The core assumption of this now-discredited paradigm was that habit formation and automatization, led by the teacher, were the key to learning a foreign language: that the brain, in essence, works by rote and repetition, such that practice really does make perfect (p. 4). The role of the teacher in this paradigm is that of drillmaster, leading the pupil in repetitious practice of grammar and word lists. This stilted, restrictive curricula of the behaviorist approach left learners ill-equipped to pick up on conversation. It would appear that conversation in living languages bears little resemblance to words learnt in drills and grammar patterns learnt out of a text (p. 4).
TBLT replaces the behaviorist approach and its stilted curricula with the teacher leading the student in learning a language in a conversational format (Willis, 2004, pp. 4-5). This is in accord with findings that actual language learning bears little resemblance to much of instruction, particularly what goes on in a behaviorist classroom (p. 5). While teacher-led instruction is still important, it does seem clear that learners have to acquire new languages in much more ‘organic’ ways than the old behaviorist approaches really allowed for or recognized., which means the teacher must engage them in actual conversation. As Willis explains, “it is unlikely that learners will acquire a new pattern unless they are developmentally ready for it, no matter how many times they practice it” (p. 5).
Long and Norris (2000) concurred, lending attestation to the many inadequacies of the behaviorist and other, similar, approaches, with their focus on form over content and use (p. 598). The task-based approach outperforms many of its predecessors and rivals in its ability to take account of learners’ needs and analyze them accordingly (p. 598). It is also much less conducive to producing stilted language models, which reduces learners’ boredom and generally makes for a more engaging atmosphere (p. 598). This in turn makes for much better acquisition of a second language (p. 598). In fact, as these authors explain, the most serious failing of the older, ‘synthetic’ approaches is that they assume a model of language learning “which is controverted by everything known about how people learn first or second languages” (p. 598). Acquiring a second language is a non-linear process, one that involves a gradual assimilation of the norms of the target language (p. 598).
The first step in developing a task-based language teaching (TBLT) program curriculum is a task-based needs analysis. By this means the teacher identifies the current or future needs of learners with regards to communicative use of the target language (Long & Norris, 2000, p. 599). The teacher uses target tasks, which describe actual, real-world processes: “registering at a university, attending a lecture, reading an academic journal article,” etc. (p. 599). The second step is to classify the target tasks into target task-types: what types of tasks can be identified and classed together? After all, there are a number of tasks associated with going to school, or shopping for food, etc., and these tasks can be grouped together for greater efficacy (p. 599).
The next step for the teacher entails taking the target task-types, and turning them into pedagogic tasks (Long & Norris, 2000, p. 600). These are at first quite simple approximations of what a given task actually entails in real life, but over time they become more complex, facilitating greater mastery of the language (p. 600). Next, the tasks are turned into a task syllabus, which entails classifying them according to non-linguistic criteria: the number of steps that each contains, for example (p. 600). The task syllabus can then be implemented by means of appropriate methodology and pedagogy (p. 600). Finally, the whole program can be evaluated “by gathering formative, summative, process and product data” (p. 600). In all of this the role of the teacher is manifestly that of facilitator, helping the pupil along by enabling them to engage with the language in a way that meets their needs as a learner.
Green (2005) highlighted some of the important ways in which the task-based approach is superior to more conventional extensive reading schemes (p. 309). With the task-based approach, the focus is on purpose: all activities must have a very clear purpose that the learner can attain (p. 309). By contrast, extensive reading schemes often are remiss in that they do not provide a clear and explicit purpose for the learning (p. 309). Extensive reading can, to be sure, be incorporated into task-based approaches, with great success: it provides the learner with a means of gaining much new information about the language they are learning, information which can enhance the learning process (p. 309).
Another problem with extensive reading schemes is that they do not necessarily take sufficient account of language systems (Green, 2005, p. 309). Learners’ target language systems are important: it is necessary to help learners to acquire a mastery of the language system as well as the language itself, since languages are, above all else, communicative (p. 309). The extensive reading approach simply takes many of these features of the target language at face value, rather than helping the learner to understand the deeper principles involved, and how to increase their command of the language by comprehending them accordingly (p. 309). In a task-based curriculum, students often choose their own texts, and the emphasis is very much on critical reading and discussion for the purposes of enhancing knowledge (p. 309).
The TBLT approach accords well, indeed, with the way in which people actually use languages (Lorenzo, 2007, p. 505). Information delivery and meaning transfer occupy much more of people’s attention when speaking; considerations of language forms are usually quite secondary (p. 505). This is such a basic aspect of how every living language ever studied is spoken that one does indeed have to wonder why L2 classrooms are ever structured differently (p. 505). And another advantage is that L2 learning can progress at a much more customized pace, because it is focused on the needs of each learner and designed to try to meet them. Because of this, it is very possible for learners to build on their knowledge over time, drawing on what they have already learned to accommodate new learning with greater facility and comprehension than if they were to follow some other approach (p. 505). Over time, they can learn the formal aspects of the language. This is a good methodology, one that has produced innumerable successes (pp. 505-506).
But before the task can be implemented, the teacher must give the students some information about it. The needful thing here is for the teacher to conduct a certain amount of linguistic sheltering (Lorenzo, 2007, pp. 507-508). This is necessary so that they can fit the new things they will learn with what they already know: they must accommodate the new learning to an established base of knowledge, and this requires a certain amount of preparation before the task (p. 508). Accordingly in this stage, the teacher imparts information to the students that will provide them with a foundation on which to proceed, so that they can complete the task successfully (p. 508).
Next comes the matter of the task itself. Tasks can cover a wide number of activities, ranging from the management of information, to the practice of critical thinking, to participation in hands-on activities, to text analysis and construction, and more besides (Lorenzo, 2007, p. 509). Of course, the teacher must ensure the students use the learning that they have just gained from the pre-task preparation: thus, it is a chance to practice (p. 510). Afterwards comes the post-task stage, an opportunity for critical thinking and evaluation (p. 510). This stage is important for advancing learning by encouraging students to think about what they have just been practicing: in other words, it encourages internalization of the material (p. 510).
One approach to designing task-based curricula is that of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), so famously proposed by Vygotsky. The idea is elegantly simple in concept: the ZPD describes what the learner is capable of learning with help from others, such as the teacher (East, 2012, p. 33). Below the ZPD, the learner is able to learn things on their own; however, this is not as much of a challenge. Beyond the ZPD, the learner is unable to learn things in any meaningful way: they must, in essence, be done for the learner. The ZPD describes that area wherein the learner can gain a great deal of benefit from the tutelage of one who is more learned—i.e. the teacher; it is, essentially, the zone that best supports educational progress (p. 33). With TBLT, the imperative for the teacher is to design tasks that will fall into the student’s ZPD: meaningful tasks based on real-world language use (p. 33).
Some useful clues for how the teacher should design such tasks come from Reeder (2010). The first idea is that a task is a workplan: it is something that is designed to constitute a specific exercise towards the end of learning a language (p. 185). Secondly, “a task involves a primary focus on meaning”: in other words, the task is oriented towards meaning of some kind (p. 185). Thirdly, a task must involve “real-world processes of language use”: this is necessary if the learner is to actually learn how the language is used by native speakers (p. 185). A task can also involve any of a variety of language skills: it does not have to be confined to only one skill, such as pronunciation or grammar (p. 185). A task must also engage cognitive processes, so that learners gain practice in building a cognitive map of the world through the new language they are learning (p. 185). Finally, a task should have “a clearly defined communicative outcome”, so that learners know what it is that they are supposed to be learning to do, and why (p. 185).
Lee (2008) explains that while there is no overarching agreement about what, exactly, constitutes a “task”, nonetheless certain features may be delineated (p. 2). In essence, for the purposes of what the teacher does, a “task” is “’any activity that learners engage in to further the process of learning a language’” (Williams & Burdern, 1997, qtd. in Lee, 2008, p. 2). A “task” might also be defined as an activity that is meaning-focused, having as its goal helping learners to acquire a meaningful understanding of the language (p. 2). Tasks also have context, effectively tying them in with the real world of language use (p. 3). This in turn means that tasks must have real-world features involving the use of that language, so that students can learn how native speakers actually use it. And, as seen, this necessitates that tasks engage cognitive processes, so that learners are able to engage with their reason and practice critical thinking about what they are learning (p. 3).
As the teacher designs tasks, a consideration of perspective is essential: the teacher must remember to consider the task not only from their own perspective, but also that of their learners (Ellis, 2003, p. 5). For example, a teacher might design a task with the goal of encouraging learners to focus on meaning, in accordance with the cardinal imperative of TBLT, but if not correctly designed, this task may actually encourage display as opposed to communicative language use (p. 5). Instructions, accordingly, are everything: they will communicate to the learners the purpose of the task, and how it is to be completed (pp. 5-6). A key point here is that from the perspectives enjoined by TBLT, language is a communication tool, not simply a set of words and grammar rules to be memorized (Nunan, 2004, p. 7). This means focusing on the processes by which language is actually learned (p. 6). Indeed, as Ellis (2009) explains, there is an important dimension to consider here: focus. An unfocused task is designed to give learners the chance to communicate using the language generally; a focused task is designed to explore some specific feature (p. 223). And here, a key advantage of TBLT is the way in which it allows cultural perspectives and knowledge to be incorporated into the classroom, thereby facilitating sociocultural learning as well (Toth, 2011, p. 143).
In a study of TBLT in English as a second language (ESL) classrooms in Hong Kong, Chan (2012) studied the effects of significant changes that have accrued since the Target-Oriented Curriculum (TOC) was introduced in 1995 (p. 188). There is a new focus on task-based language teaching in Hong Kong, precisely because the TOC recommended it. This task-based approach focuses on the communicative uses of language, rather than grammar and structure (p. 188). It’s a brilliant idea: focus on actually learning the language by learning it in ways that constitute usage of it, using tasks that are actually meaningful to learners (p. 188).
Chan (2012) found that visual aids were one common teaching tool, utilized by the teachers to facilitate a wide variety of task demands (p. 196). Visual aids ranged from real objects to pictures to word cards; one key way in which these were used was as visual supports, notably for semantic networks (p. 196). For example, pictures of different types of clothing constituted a semantic network, allowing students to not only learn the names, but also the associations (p. 196). Visual aids were also used to increase the linguistic demands on students: thus, a picture of snow might be presented to elicit not only the word ‘snowing’, but also words like ‘winter’ and ‘cold’ (p. 196).
Towell and Tomlinson (1999) described a model of task-based language teaching focused on tasks which are described in terms of topic, purpose, and audience (pp. 7-8). The idea is that as the teacher designs the tasks for the curriculum, they should always take into account the topic of each task, the purpose of the communication in which the student will be engaged, and the projected audience (p. 8). One example given by the authors entails the drafting of a speech in French “for a British Euro MP who has been asked to give a 15-minute talk to an all-party audience of French politicians” (p. 8). In the exercise, the purpose of this talk is to compare the political systems of the United Kingdom and France, and provide any necessary background information (p. 8). This requires the learner to know a fair amount already: they need to know British and French politics well enough to discern which features of these respective political systems to focus on (p. 8). They must also know how to effectively use the fifteen minutes of time available, and how to express the information appropriately in French (p. 8). Finally, they must also know how to use both content and form to give the speech effectively and correctly, in a manner that will be comprehensible to the audience (p. 9).
Clearly and plainly, the teacher’s role is quite important in all of this. Further attestation of this is made manifest by Towell and Tomlinson (1999). The teacher must provide the information base, in this case the information about the British and French political systems, and the linguistic base for the student to express themselves (p. 9). The teacher must also help the student proactively, so that the student can successfully complete each necessary stage in the task, and assess task completion (p. 9). This means that the teacher has a very important role in ongoing curriculum development.
Byrnes (2002) studied the implementation of task-based curricula in the Georgetown University German Department. The curricular planners—the teachers—were challenged to focus on how to use the content of the curricula to facilitate language learning, which meant shaping the texts in ways that were appropriate for how adults learn a second language (p. 422). Faculty developed “assessment use specifications for each of the sequenced instructional levels of the entire integrated curriculum,” facilitating thereby the creation of standards to guide the assessment processes for a task-based curriculum (pp. 423-424).
The teachers selected task-based writing assessments, for a number of reasons (Byrnes, 2002, p. 427). The first reason to focus on this was the understanding that teaching a language in a communicative fashion is certainly not limited to spoken language, encompassing as it does literacy concerns as well (p. 427). Another reason: the curriculum already had a decided focus on literacy and the advanced learner (p. 427). The efficacy of this approach was apparent, as the curriculum successfully linked the completion of each writing task to clearly-defined benchmarks (p. 428). This approach helped the faculty to realize the many ways in which they could improve the curriculum, with more creativity going into the selection of texts, making for a much greater variety (p. 429).
Clearly, following everything that has been presented so far, the cardinal imperative with writing tasks is for teachers to design tasks that are communicative and grounded in realistic uses of the language. Way, Joiner, and Seaman (2000) studied French L2 learners’ performance on writing tasks, and their findings were quite illuminating. For example, the students performed best on descriptive writing, and worst on expository writing (p. 174). In fact, the expository writing task was much the hardest for all of the students studied (p. 175). However, a vocabulary prompt elicited better performance on an expository writing task than a bare prompt did (p. 175). Descriptive writing samples yielded the longest word counts, with about ten more words, on average, than narrative writing samples, and about twenty more words, on average, than the expository writing samples (p. 175). Clearly, it is important to identify which areas of a language are generally easiest for new learners who are native speakers of some other language.
Teacher involvement in task based on-going curriculum development is essential. Teachers play an essential role, though it is very different from the role that they play in different types of curricula. With the TBLT approach, the teacher’s main task is to serve as a designer and facilitator of tasks, which enable learners to acquire new conversational skills. This requires a certain amount of pre-task preparation, wherein the learners are imparted with new information. This is followed by the task, which is a chance for them to practice what they have learned. Finally, after the completion of the task, they can reflect upon what they have learned and how they can improve their skills. All in all, TBLT offers a much more natural and vastly superior approach to the learning of a second language, one that should be followed in all classrooms.
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