Reflections on Task-Based Language Teaching
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Reflections on Task-Based Language Teaching

Rod Ellis

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eBook - ePub

Reflections on Task-Based Language Teaching

Rod Ellis

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About This Book

Task-based language teaching is now a well-established pedagogic approach but problematic issues remain, such as whether it is appropriate for all learners and in all instructional contexts. This book draws on the author's experience of working with teachers, together with his knowledge of relevant research and theory, to examine the key issues. It proposes flexible ways in which tasks can be designed and implemented in the language classroom to address the problems that teachers often face with task-based language teaching. It will appeal to researchers and teachers who are interested in task-based language teaching and the practical and theoretical issues involved. It will also be of interest to students and researchers working in the areas of applied linguistics, TESOL and second language acquisition.

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Part 1
The two chapters in this part of the book are intended to provide a foundation for the subsequent parts.
Chapter 1 is written for this book. In it I provide a brief historical sketch of how task-based language teaching (TBLT) has developed, tracing its origins in a strong version of communicative language teaching and in early second language acquisition research that pointed to the existence of natural orders and sequences of acquisition that are to a large extent impermeable to the influence of direct language instruction. I then consider how the early version of TBLT evolved over time, as it drew increasingly on general educational principles as well as second language acquisition (SLA). I emphasize that TBLT is not to be seen as monolithic but as quite varied, reflecting differences in how its advocates view the design of syllabuses and the ways in which tasks can be most effectively implemented to facilitate acquisition. Underlying these differences, however, is the common assumption that instruction should aim at facilitating rather than controlling and directing acquisition, which can be best achieved by using tasks.
Chapter 2 was first published in 2000. It introduces the theoretical underpinnings of TBLT. It contrasts two theoretical inputs. Cognitive theories point to the need to design and implement tasks in ways that connect with the cognitive processes involved in L2 production and acquisition. Sociocultural theory points to the need to acknowledge the difference between task-as-workplan and task-as-process and that how learners perform a task (i.e. the task-as-process) will always be – to some extent at least – unpredictable. Although these theoretical perspectives are often seen as oppositional and incommensurate, I argue that they are in fact complementary with research based on cognitive theory especially helpful for the planning of task-based courses and lessons and sociocultural theory serving as a valuable source for addressing the methodology of task-based teaching (i.e. how tasks can be constructively performed). Over time, however, I have become more sanguine regarding the value of research in helping to grade and sequence tasks for purposes of planning task-based courses. My doubts are explained in Chapter 9.
1A Brief History of Task-based Language Teaching
The first edition of Richards and Rogers Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching was published in 1986. It included ‘Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)’ but not ‘Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT)’ in the list of methods/approaches it considered. However, in the second edition, published in 2001, ‘Task-based Language Teaching’ was now listed under the general heading ‘Current Communicative Approaches’.1 Between 1986 and 2001, TBLT emerged as a sufficiently well-defined approach to warrant separate treatment by Richards and Rogers.
In this chapter, I will first consider the major influences on the emergence of TBLT followed by an account of the proposals for a task-based approach that appeared in the 1980s. I then examine how TBLT subsequently developed, focusing on key issues relating to the design of a task-based syllabus and the methodology for implementing tasks. I will also briefly consider how TBLT has been adapted to computer-mediated environments and take a look at task-based assessment. The chapter concludes with an account of what evaluations of task-based programmes have shown about the effectiveness of TBLT.
Background to the Emergence of TBLT
The importance of including tasks in a language curriculum was affirmed in the CLT movement of the 1970s and 1980s. TBLT grew out of this movement with further inputs from early research in second language acquisition (SLA).
Communicative language teaching
CLT drew on theories of language that viewed language not just as a set of formal structures but as a means of communication. Hymes (1971) outlined a theory of communicative competence that accounted for both what is formally possible in a language (i.e. grammatical) and what is feasible and acceptable in terms of performance. Halliday’s (1973) model of language took as its starting point the functions that language served rather than the formal properties of a language. He distinguished three broad functions (the ideational, interpersonal and textual), each of which was elaborated into a series of semantic networks which were then related to their linguistic exponents. Hymes and Halliday’s theories fed directly into the recognition that ‘there is more to the business of communicating than the ability to produce grammatically correct utterances’ (Johnson, 1982) and to proposals for teaching language as communication.
Wilkins (1976), drawing on Halliday’s theory of language, proposed replacing the traditional structural syllabus with a notional syllabus consisting of an inventory of language functions (e.g. expressing agreement or disagreement), semantico-grammatical categories (e.g. expressing time, quantity and space) and modal-meaning categories (e.g. expressing certainty and commitment). He argued that a notional syllabus provided a basis for an ‘analytic’ way of learning. That is, learners pass through a series of approximations to the target language, gradually accumulating the linguistic resources required to perform the various notions. In this respect it differed radically from the traditional ‘synthetic’ approach where linguistic items are taught and mastered incrementally and not synthesized until the final stages. A notional approach was seen as having high ‘surrender value’ as it helped learners to communicate from the start. It also afforded an ideal means for defining learners’ communicative needs and therefore appealed to course designers concerned with specific purpose teaching (e.g. Swales, 1987). Wilkin’s ideas informed the work of the Council of Europe’s unit/credit system for teaching foreign languages at different levels of proficiency (e.g. the Threshold Level and Waystage Level), where each level was specified in terms of notions and the linguistic exponents for expressing them. This led ultimately into the Common European Framework (Council of Europe, 2011) in which different levels of proficiency are described in functional (i.e. ‘can do’) rather than linguistic terms.
First attempts at developing teaching materials based on a notional syllabus (e.g. Abbs & Freebairn, 1982) utilized the existing techniques and procedures of structural courses. That is, the linguistic forms for expressing each notion were presented in situations and then practised in mainly controlled exercises. Thus, although the organizational framework of a language course had changed, the methodology had not. It was still what White (1988) called ‘Type A’ – it was ‘other directed’. There was, however, a growing recognition of the need for a communicative methodology reflecting White’s ‘Type B’ approach, where the emphasis is on the process of communicating and on ‘doing things with or for the learner’. Johnson (1982), for example, advocated what he called the deep-end strategy, where ‘the student is placed in a situation where he may need to use language not yet taught’ so as to activate ‘the ability to search for circumlocutions when the appropriate language item is not known’ (1982: 193).
Publications began to appear with ideas for communicative tasks (e.g. Klippel, 1984). Describe and Draw, for example, involved students working in pairs with Student A attempting to draw a picture or diagram described by Student B. These tasks were to be judged not in terms of whether learners used language correctly but in terms of whether the communicative outcome was achieved (i.e. whether Student A succeeded in drawing the picture/diagram accurately). Tasks had arrived as a major tool for language teachers.
At this time, it was common to distinguish two types of language work depending on whether the focus was on ‘accuracy’ or ‘fluency’, with both seen as important (Brumfit, 1984). Providing opportunities for students to use their linguistic resources freely by performing communicative tasks in small group work catered to ‘fluency’, which Brumfit defined as ‘the maximally effective operation of the language system acquired by the student so far’ (1984: 57). However, Brumfit also stressed the importance of accuracy work involving more traditional types of instruction. The question that then arose was how to combine fluency and accuracy work in a language curriculum. Johnson (1982) suggested the answer lay in a ‘communicative procedure’ consisting of three stages. In Stage 1 the students perform a communicative task using whatever resources they have available (i.e. the deep-end strategy). In Stage 2, the teacher presents those linguistic items which the students’ performance of the task showed they had not yet mastered. In Stage 3, these items are drilled if necessary. Brumfit went a step further by proposing an integrated language curriculum consisting of separate accuracy and fluency components, with accuracy dominant initially and fluency gradually taking over. Brumfit’s ideas about an integrated curriculum are considered further in Chapter 10.
CLT was an ‘approach’ rather than a well-defined ‘method’. Howatt (1984) distinguished a weak and strong version. In the weak version teaching content was defined in terms of the linguistic realizations of notions and functions but the methodology remained essentially the same as in the traditional structural approach – a Type A approach. In the strong version, the content of a language programme was specified in terms of communicative tasks and the methodological focus was on fluency – a Type B approach. There were also proposals for combining the two approaches as in Johnson’s ‘communicative procedure’ and Brumfit’s modular curriculum. As we will see, this attempt to encourage fluency while not neglecting accuracy figures too in TBLT.
CLT has had a major impact throughout the world. Nunan (2003), for example, reported that the educational policies of seven countries in the Asian region mandated the use of CLT. Its influence in Europe has been even greater with the European Common Language framework providing the basis for the teaching and assessment of languages throughout the region. Just about every course book emanating from major publishers today lays claim to being ‘communicative’. As its influence has spread, however, CLT has become increasingly less well defined. Littlewood (2014) noted its vagueness, commenting ‘the most common understanding has been that it means teachers including communicative activities in their repertoire’ (2014: 350). Today even approaches based on a structural syllabus and a presentation–practice–production (PPP) methodology lay claim to being ‘communicative’ on the grounds they include a communicative task in the final production stage. Clearly, such an interpretation represents an even weaker version of CLT than Howatt’s ‘weak version’, creating the space for TBLT to take over the reins of the ‘strong version’....

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