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This unit has several aims:
To help you prepare for the lecture and readings on task-based approaches to language learning and teaching
To help you develop your own view of the role of tasks in language teaching, and their suitability as units of analysis for syllabus design.
To further develop your skills in analysing ideas.
To practise writing a critical response to theoretical arguments presented in academic papers.
To continue to guide and support your contributions to the WebCT discussion board.
Research in second language acquisition has led many researchers, teachers and teacher trainers to question the usefulness of a synthetic syllabus based on language structures. These doubts have been raised by findings that suggest learners do not acquire language structures in a clear sequence. Instead, they go through a process of approximating the target language more closely over time, constantly restructuring their 'interlanguage'. In other words, learners do not necessarily immediately learn what they have been taught; they may not be ready to learn it at all, or they may learn it inaccurately, or they may be able to understand it but not produce it. A structural syllabus, on the other hand, assumes a more-or-less one-to-one relationship between what is taught and what is learnt, and therefore also assumes that items will be learnt in the order in which they are taught. A combination of the findings of SLA research and the rise of communicative language teaching has led to a greater focus on the use of tasks in language classrooms, and to the development of syllabuses in which tasks rather than language structures are the main units of analysis.
What is meant by a 'task'? Though there isn't complete agreement on this, a definition that reflects much of the literature is expressed by Skehan (1996) who states that a task is:
'an activity in which: meaning is primary; there is some sort of relationship to the real world; task completion has some priority; and the assessment of task performance is in terms of task outcome'.
A broader definition is given in a more recent publication (Bygate, Skehan and Swain 2001):
'A task is an activity which requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain an objective'.
Both definitions emphasise meaningfulness and the achievement of a result as essential characteristics. It is also implied, though perhaps not clearly stated, that tasks involve interaction with other learners; typically, they involve pairwork and groupwork.
In this Unit, you will be asked to read a series of three linked articles presenting two different views of the idea of tasks as a basis for syllabus design, to analyse the arguments, and to respond with an evaluation of the relative strengths of the two positions.
Consider briefly your responses to the following questions:
What kinds of activities in your own classroom might fit the definitions of 'tasks' given above?
For what kinds of reasons do you use them?
Where do they fit into the lesson plan or learning cycle?
What factors in your context might prevent you from using tasks?
Discussion board writing task
Write a short paragraph (about 200 words) setting out your response to some or all of the questions above.
Upload your paragraph to the WebCT discussion board.
Read the paragraphs written by your colleagues and respond to at least one of them (e.g. ask a question, point out anything you have in common, comment on anything you find interesting, etc.).
This task is based on the following articles which can be accessed online via the King's website:
Bruton, A. 2002. 'From tasking purposes to purposing tasks'. ELT Journal 56/3 : 280-288
Skehan, P. 2002. 'A non-marginal role for tasks'. ELT Journal 56/3 : 289-295
Bruton, A. 2002. 'When and how the language development in TBI?'. ELT Journal 56/3 : 296-7
There is a link to the articles from the critical reading and writing skills section of WebCT, or you can use these URLs:
Either the A to Z index of ejournals: http://sfx.kcl.ac.uk/kings/az
Or link directly to the index for this issue of the journal:
Or use these individual URLs for each article
Before you read the articles, read the questions below. Rather than ask separate questions on each paper, we have asked you to review the arguments as a whole:
What is the key argument of each paper?
Compile a list from the three papers of the arguments for and against task-based approaches.
What evidence does each author cite to support their position, and how does the other one deal with that evidence?
Pick out some of the lexical choices made by each author that convey a negative attitude towards the arguments or pedagogic practices of the other side.
Though the articles appear scholarly, there is also a discreet trading of insults. What accusations does each side make about the other?
Now read the article and answer the questions. Then compare your answers with ours.
Don't turn the page until you have completed this task.
Q1. Bruton (2002a) argues against the use of tasks as core activities for syllabus planning; he suggests instead that the starting point should be pedagogical purposes based on the proficiency level of the learners and the educational context, and only when they have been determined can appropriate classroom procedures be selected.
Skehan (2002) responds by pointing out that the assumptions behind a language-focused approach to syllabus design do not fit well with the research evidence on the nature of second language acquisition.
In the third paper, Bruton (2002b) repeats his view that tasks do not provide an appropriate framework for syllabus design, arguing that the lack of planned input means that they fail to offer any means for learners to restructure their interlanguage.
Q2. Arguments against:
the difficulty of defining what a task is makes it unsuitable for use as a unit of specification for language use
tasks can only be used once students have reached a sufficient level of oral proficiency; they therefore cannot be used in the early stages of language learning
the language used by learners undertaking tasks is unpredictable so there can be no pre-planning of what is to be learned.
there is no evidence that learners acquire new or more correct language forms from each other
some learners make minimal contributions to tasks
direct intervention by the teacher is marginalised
tasks provide greater oral interaction than in teacher-fronted activities
tasks promote collaboration between learners
tasks allow learners to develop their language at their own pace and in their own sequence, unlike conventional language-focused approaches which force them to work in lock-step
the language focus arises out of identified needs during the performance of the task
tasks provide opportunities for naturalistic language use
language users naturally focus on meaning rather than form; tasks support this focus on meaning but, selected appropriately, can support a focus on form as well
Q3. Bruton refers to (amongst others) Fotos (1998) who found that learners given teacher-fronted instruction in grammar points did better than those who worked on the points in groups; Sheen (1992) who found both types achieved the same level of understanding while the conventionally-taught group performed better orally; Kowal and Swain (1994) whose dictogloss task produced a good deal of collaboration and negotiation but no evidence of the restructuring of linguistic knowledge.
Skehan responds by accusing Bruton of selecting only the research evidence that supports his argument, and ignoring those studies that demonstrate positive outcomes from the use of tasks. He refers to the work of Michael Long, to Samuda (2001), and to two sources of detailed discussion of the research in this area, Ellis (1994) and Skehan (1998) in support of his view that certain types of task can promote a constructive focus on form.
Q4. There are a number of words and phrases with negative connotations scattered through all three articles which, in all cases, refer to some aspect of the opposing view. We don't guarantee to have found them all, but here's a selection:
p280: 'uncritical acceptance'
p286: 'he sidesteps learners' needs'; 'a preoccupation with correctness'
p287: 'there is little evidence that'; 'the only fairly concrete result'; 'a major omission'
p288: 'to lobby'
p289: 'one might think that'; 'misrepresents'; 'does them a disservice'; 'the promotion of a profitable status quo'; 'conventional'
p290: 'confined'; 'limited'
p294: 'outmoded'; 'not believable'; 'only a limited and selective review'
p295: 'selective evidence'; 'implicitly serves the interests of …'; 'conventional'; 'disservice' (x 2)
p296: 'use as their foil'; 'in their zeal'; 'deadly boring'
p297: 'marginalizes'; 'accused of'
Q5. In the final sentence of his first paper, Bruton suggests that the proponents of task-based instruction do not debate in a rational, informed manner, but are mainly concerned with promoting their own academic interests; the reference to 'academic' interests suggests he is attacking task researchers (such as Skehan) rather than classroom teachers who support a task-based approach. Skehan responds by arguing that a language-focused approach is useful to those who support conventional approaches to language teaching, and to coursebook publishers, whose interests Bruton is promoting. In the last sentence of his second paragraph, Skehan accuses Bruton of 'the promotion of a profitable status quo'.
Back to the discussion board!
Discussion board writing task
Write about 200 words in response to some or all of the following questions:
Briefly summarise the main points of the two arguments and evaluate the strength of the evidence used to support each.
Which do you find more convincing?
How do you yourself respond to the Bruton/Skehan debate? What relevance does it have to you and your own teaching context?
Upload your text to the WebCT discussion board and, as before, respond to one or two of your colleagues' contributions.
Summary and evaluation
In this unit we have considered some of the arguments in the debate about the role of tasks in language learning and teaching, and the extent to which tasks but function as units of analysis in the specification of a language syllabus. We have read, analysed and discussed a series of three journal articles representing opposing viewpoints in this debate. We have encouraged you to respond by posting short pieces of writing on the WebCT discussion board and by writing brief comments in response to your colleagues' reflections.
Please re-read the statement of aims at the beginning of the unit and then answer the following questions:
How far do you think this unit has achieved each of its stated aims?
How easy/difficult did you find the article?
Did the questions help or hinder your reading and understanding of the article?
Was the commentary on the questions useful or not?
Did you do all or most of the tasks?
If not, why not?
If yes, did they help or hinder the develop of your understanding/ideas about the topic?