The impact of language theory and the type of teaching method is very significant to the learner of language. It is from the method of teaching, and everything that is associated with it, that the student is able to grasp concepts of a language.
Research into learning theories and teaching models has been ongoing for many years to establish some sort of data that helps towards second language acquisition. Task-based learning (TBL), it is claimed, is one such model that can aid a learner to establish second language acquisition.
Willis (1996), who is a supporter of TBL, argues that a number of conditions need to be implemented for successful language learning to take place. This paper will highlight and expand upon the issues connected to Willis’ conditions.
Firstly the essay will give a general overview of TBL; secondly will highlight some advantages and disadvantages of TBL; thirdly define and characterise the word task; fourthly examine Willis’ four conditions; and finally explain how TBL and Willis’ conditions relate to my teaching experience.
Task based learning (TBL)
Willis’ three essential conditions and one desirable condition all stem from a framework known as task based learning (TBL). TBL is also referred to as; task based language learning (TBLL), task based instruction (TBI) and task based language teaching (TBLT). All these terminologies carry the same connotation that activities and tasks can help the language learner towards communicating the target language effectively. TBL is not a new concept; it has evolved from a model known as communicative language teaching (CLT). The idea that grammar alone is not enough to equip the learner with the necessary skills CLT was established to make the learner more proficient in the language that is used in real life situations. Brown (1994: 83) says “Task based learning is not a new method. Rather, it simply puts tasks at the center of one’s methodological focus. It views the learning process as a set of communicative tasks that are directly linked to the curricular goals they serve, and the purposes of which extend beyond the practice of language for its own sake”. Hedge (2000: 71) also says that CLT involves the learners in tasks that are meaningful and have some kind of context that represents and reflects true authentic language as it is applied and used in the real world surroundings. This authentic language is different and outside of the language that is commonly used in the classrooms. This view is also supported by Brinton (1991) who expresses the opinion that, the use of authentic materials establishes a connection with the outside world.
Some advantages of TBL
Although there are many apparent advantages, I will just highlight a few.
Students tend to be active and participate with great motivation towards tasks and activities in a TBL environment. It offers a platform for students to display their skills through their efforts and develops them further.
Language learners work and co-operate with each other in groups which builds bonds between them. When working in groups they are able to display and produce meaningful interaction on a given topic. Also the class work together and assess the whole outcome of the lesson.
Rather than concentrating on one aspect of a certain language feature, in all three stages of a TBL lesson students rely on previous language, knowledge and experience. This process enables the students to explore previous and new features of language.
Nunan (2004) states that TBL emphasises on learners to communicate through interaction in the target language, introduces authentic texts into the classroom, learners focus not only on language but the learning process itself and TBL makes the learners’ own personal experiences important contributing factors to the classroom.
Some disadvantages of TBL
Again I will only mention a few disadvantages, although there are numerous critics that disapprove components of the TBL teaching method and framework. As with any model there will always arise negative elements within it that do not hold strong with its opponents.
Seedhouse (1999) implies that it could be argued that TBL emphasises too much on tasks and communicating meaning and this could have an impact on how to use the language with the correct form. In addition to this it is important to realise that there is a lot more to communication than performing tasks.
Skehan (1996) expressed that TBL could have some dangers if it is not executed correctly and could result in affecting the growth and change of the language learners’ interlanguage. So from this view we can see that some sort of fossilization may occur within the students and cause barriers for the learners to progress. TBL is still not convincing, that it is a superior teaching method; it remains an opinion rather than reality and certainty Richards and Rodgers (2001).
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Swan (2005: 376) says ” TBI is frequently promoted as an effective teaching approach, superior to ‘traditional’ methods and soundly based in theory and research. The approach is often justified by the claim that linguistic regularities are acquired through ‘noticing’ during communicative activity, and therefore be addressed primarily by incidental ‘focus on form’ during task performance. However, this claim is based on unproved hypotheses, and there is no compelling empirical evidence for the validity of the model”.
In this particular section of the paper I have touched on some key words such as ‘interlanguage’, ‘fossilization’ and ‘noticing’. These key terms will be expanded upon later and what impact they have, how they relate to learners of language and how they are perceived when associated with TBL.
What is a task?
What is actually meant by the word “task” in TBL and how do we really understand this key important word? In various materials the word “task” has been described as role plays, grammar exercises and other activities. However in relation to TBL the word “task” takes on a different meaning and understanding from the mainstream definition. Willis (1996: 23) states that tasks are “activities where the target language is used by the learner for the communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome”. Stern (1992: 195) defines a task as “realistic language use…..focuses on a learners’ attention on a task, problem, activity, and topic and not on a particular language point”. Foster and Skehan (1996: 300) explain tasks as “activities that are meaning-focused and outcome-evaluated and have some real world relationship”. Nunan (1989) clarifies that a task is “A piece of work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target language while their attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form”. Evidently there are many varieties and opinions of what a task actually is, but overall, what is apparent is the fact that a task is an important component towards the establishment of learning a language especially related to TBL.
Overall there are numerous theories regarding second language acquisition (SLA) and TBL represents a framework that enables students to be busy with aids and materials in order to achieve some kind of task or goal. TBL helps, improves and nurtures the learners’ second language by interacting with tasks and then to use the target language to complete the tasks. This framework also involves the learners much more productively and makes them depend on prior world knowledge. As the learners share knowledge with each other, they will have to rely on their existing knowledge and language skills to solve the tasks. This process will also exhibit new language and give language learners a variety of approaches to improve their overall language skills. Generally, TBL can establish ideal conditions for effective language learning to take place.
Types of tasks
The types of task that a language learner can take part in are numerous and differ from each other in terms of what each task requires the learner to do. Willis (1996) states that there are six types of task that learners can engage in which promotes successful language learning.
The first task type is listing which involves brainstorming and fact finding. These activities could help to complete some kind of list or draft a mind map.
The second task type is ordering and sorting meaning that the learners will be sequencing, categorising, ranking and classifying. All these activities could help to sort and order information according to specified criteria.
The third task type is comparing meaning that learners have to search for similarities, differences and match information accordingly. The outcome of such tasks could be items appropriately matched or assembled, or the identification of similarities and differences.
The fourth task type is problem solving which could involve analysing real situations, analysing hypothetical scenarios, reasoning and decision making. The result from such activities could give solutions to such problems which could then be evaluated.
The fifth task type is sharing personal experiences meaning that the learners narrate, explore, describe and explain attitudes, reactions and opinions. Social and cultural differences are made apparent through this activity also it builds a bond between the learners due to their insight into the different cultures and experiences.
The sixth and last task type is creative tasks and includes such activities as fact finding, brainstorming, comparing, sorting, ordering and problem solving.
Furthermore what is evident is that TBL makes the learner focus on meaning rather than form. Students take part in communicative tasks which help them work on a grammar feature. The learners work on their own expressing themselves in their writing and speaking skills. Willis (1996: 101) states “tasks and texts combine to give students a rich exposure to language and also opportunities to use it themselves”.
In order for students to really appreciate and benefit from such tasks, it is very important that the teacher chooses material that will develop and challenge the different types of students. Willis (1996: 23) says the teacher should prepare tasks with “a suitable degree of intellectual and linguistic challenge and promote learners’ language development as efficiently as possible”.
So what is apparent from above is that tasks, related to TBL, are shown to be significant and control a large part of the lesson. It is at this stage that the students are able to work in a group or individually in order to practice the target language using the various activities. Tasks are central for the learners of language, and it is believed that if the students focus on the task rather than the language then they may learn more effectively. Additionally all tasks, in essence, have the same characteristics meaning that they open up parts of language that need to be utilised.
Willis’ three staged task based lesson
Exposure, use and motivation, which are the three essential conditions and instruction, which is the desirable condition, could, in some ways, help the language learner in relation to second language acquisition. Willis’ four conditions are manifested and met through a task based lesson consisting of three stages.
The first stage, the pre-task stage, learners are exposed to the target language. At this critical stage the topic is introduced and the learners are made aware of the tasks that they will interact with. The teacher helps the learners to realise and accustom them to key words and phrases. This stage helps the learners to understand important aspects and instructions that are related to the task.
The second stage, the task cycle, learners work in groups and interact with each other. The teacher is at a distance and overlooks the whole activity that the class is involved in. Here it is important to note that, for the learners, it is not important to concentrate and study grammar rules, rather the focus of attention should be fluency and accuracy and practicing the target language. Due to this focus of attention, the teacher does not interfere with correcting language mistakes made by the students. On completion of the task the students start to plan and prepare their findings. After completing the task and planning on how to present their work, the students report back to the class and introduce their findings. Also at this stage students listen and compare findings. Finally there is an optional post task listening stage that may take place. This stage involves the students to listen to native speakers taking part in the same task which allows them to compare their results and to hear and visualise the correct application of the language.
The third and final stage, the language focus stage, analysis is undertaken of the students work. Mistakes are corrected and the learners get to practice language form more extensively and ask questions about the features of language. At this stage the students are made more aware of the true overall outcome of how the target language is to be applied and perceived. The practice of new vocabulary and correcting errors assists the language learner to comprehend and appreciate the role of the task and how to correctly apply whatever is extracted from the task.
It is obvious to assume that if there is no exposure to valuable and rich input, then this will not lead to SLA. I agree that exposure can help learners of language achieve positive results. Students need a rich and varying source of exposure to aspects and features of the English language in order for the learners to display favourable output. Learners can only achieve this goal if they are driven by confidence which arises from exposure that they can associate with. Krashen (1982) illustrated that language learners need appropriate exposure, when learning a new language system, to the different and various types of language that the students will require and encounter in order for them to fully comprehend and grasp what is materialising in the learning arena. Language learners need exposure to input which is comprehensible, meaningful, interesting and relevant Krashen (1985).
Clearly Willis’ view, that exposure leads to successful language learning, is true to some extent. Teachers have to expose the students to correct materials so that some sort of positive relationship can be established, meaning the students have to posses some sort of ability to contribute and react effectively. For example, if students are learning how to give advice, then accordingly they need to be exposed to types of material that demonstrate how to advise. This is further elaborated by Swan (2005), who is replying to Willis (1996: 18), stating “if students do not know the linguistic conventions for opening and closing conversations, interrupting and challenging, etc, how are they supposed to learn them without input from the ‘dominating’ teacher? One cannot teach by eliciting what is not there”. This is a very important point because it shows to some degree that exposure should be constant throughout. Input from the teacher is exposure to instruction, which is vital for the learner to comprehend all aspects of what is being taught. If learners lack certain qualities and skills then they will not have the ability to interact with the varying forms of exposure. If the student is able to process the input from the exposure then it is effective.
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The most important factor is that if the exposure is rich, effective and establishes a relationship between the learner and what is exposed, then this will initiate a schema in the minds of the students. “Schema is a mental representation of a typical instance” Cook (1997). This means that language learners will be able to call on previous knowledge, images, text, thoughts and world experience to aid their learning and accomplish tasks and activities to some success.
Willis’ second essential condition of use refers to the students possessing the ability to effectively use the target language and tasks. Obviously to use the language inside and outside the classroom arena carries many benefits and it is one of the goals of a lesson. The learners can apply themselves and use the target language by writing, reading, skimming and scanning texts and speaking. It is very essential for the language learners to have the competency and skill to use the language in different ways, and this practice would illustrate their knowledge of the target language and how it should be applied. The benefits of such actions would be development of vocabulary, establishment of speaking skills and provide a more realistic environment for students to convey themselves. By realistic environment I mean an arena where native like English is spoken and heard. Harmer (2001: 205) states that it is important for language learners to be familiarised with native language because this is what they will eventually confront. Swain (1985) also pointed to the fact that if learners practiced the target language then this would lead to speaking like the natives.
Another aspect, in relation to using the language, is the word automatizing or automaticity. This is an idea based on such work of psychologists such as Shiffrin and Schneider (1977). They claim the way we process information can either be controlled or automatic and that learning has a transition from controlled to automatic processing. Simply it refers to how information is processed in our memory and the more we access and retrieve this information automatization is then established. “Once a learner can achieve regular and consistent responses in conversation to a certain type of input, then it can be said that the language involved has been automatized” Hedge (2000: 149). Automaticity of the native like target language can be manifested by the students if they constantly repeat, learn and produce it.
The constant use of the language would prevent fossilization. “This term is used to describe a persistent lack of change in interlanguage patterns, even after extended exposure to or instruction in the target language” Lightbown and Spada (2006). Interlanguage refers to characteristics of a learners’ first language. If learners do not progress and practice their second language on a regular basis then fossilization could be apparent in them and hinder progress in achieving native like fluency.
Using tasks in the classroom, especially pedagogic tasks, to some degree can be beneficial and enable students to emulate some sort of fluency in the outside world. Nunan (1989) also states that tasks do carry benefits in relation to helping the learners’ application of the language.
A term that is used with tasks is ‘noticing’. Schmidt (1990) proposed the ‘noticing hypothesis’, suggesting that nothing is learned unless it has been noticed. However this does not mean that this results in acquisition, rather it is the starting point.
The basic concept is, that learners notice and pay attention to specific features of a language. The language feature has to be noticeable in order for the learners to notice. For this reason certain criteria have to be met in order for the student to have the ability to notice. According to Hedge (2000) the criteria are; it occurs frequently, it relates to the learner’s common sense about basic functions of language, and its functions are those to which a learner would be likely to pay attention. Again this refers to choosing, planning and implementing appropriate tasks so that a relationship can build between the task and student.
Overall, to some extent, I do agree with Thornbury (1997) stating “More over, by the manipulation of task design or the choice of text, they can be harnessed to the needs of an essentially grammar-driven programme. Alternatively, they can form a sub-set of task types within a meaning-driven task based syllabus”. If tasks are designed and applied well, then they can be just one of many components needed in helping towards second language acquisition.
“Motivation is generally considered to be one of the primary causes of success and failure in second language learning” Richards and Schmidt (2002).
Motivation is very important for students to adopt in relation to second language acquisition. Maintaining a suitable level of motivation during class time supports the whole process of language learning and makes it more productive. Motivation and a positive attitude have been linked with second language acquisition Lightbown and Spada (1999).
Crookes and Schmidt (1991) state motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. The former is motivation that is inside oneself, while the latter refers to worldly motivating aspects. Another view of the types of motivation is that of Gardner and Lambert (1972) who coined the terms integrative and instrumental. Integrative motivation is to learn a language so one can integrate into a society. Instrumental motivation is to learn a language to accomplish some sort of aspiration.
A survey, carried out on twenty Japanese students by Hedge (2000), lists the following reasons why students are motivated to learn English; to be able to communicate, have the ability to read, better chance of employment, to find out about the people, to participate with people and parent pressure. What is apparent from this survey is that these reasons fall under integrative and instrumental types of motivation.
As teachers we have to think all the time how we can keep motivation alive in the students. Linking motivation to TBL, then the most obvious case would be to take great care and preparation in creating rich exposure which would improve motivation. Teachers do have some control in this matter of motivation because if we are able to offer rich and exciting tasks then this could generate great interest from the students. This view is also supported by Ellis (1993). Lessons that implement a constant change of activities, tasks and materials can install motivation within students Crookes and Schmidt (1991). Boredom, lack of interest and not paying attention are some of the characteristics that stem from students who take part in lessons that are unvaried. Sometimes teachers may just take the easy option of preparing a lesson that is easy for them and not take into account the needs of the students. These kinds of behaviours and actions will only add to the problem of trying to bring about motivation in students. Having tasks that students are able to accomplish and complete gives them confidence. For this reason the teacher has to take into account the different levels of each student, their interests, their culture and their religion so they are able to accomplish tasks with some success. Brehm and Self (1989) state that motivation is achieved within students if the tasks are of moderate difficulty.
The role of the teacher to initiate motivation is important and this is because “motivation is the feeling nurtured primarily by the teacher in the learning situation” Ellis (1994).
The subject of motivation is vast and helps towards second language acquisition. The desire for students to learn and have some self satisfaction can only be achieved if they are motivated within a TBL classroom that has rich exposure, such as T.V, books, DVD’s, computers, etc and they are able to use that exposure comfortably to their advantage.
Instruction is “any systematic attempt to enable or facilitate language learning by manipulating the mechanics of learning and/or the conditions under which these occur” Housen and Pierrard (2005: 2). To have the ability to instruct in a manner which can trigger positive stimulus and generate interpretation is vital for language learners. For this and many other reasons, it is a great challenge for researchers to find out which instructional method is better. Should teachers use this method or that? No single study has proven which method is the best for students to succeed in language learning. What I do agree with is that “instruction plays a major role in both foreign and second language learning. While it may not be necessary to achieve competence in the second language it undoubtedly helps. Nor should instructed language learning be seen as a poor alternative to naturalistic learning for there is plenty evidence to show that it is as, if not more, effective. The crucial question is therefore, not whether instruction works but rather what kind of instruction works best” Ellis (2005: 725).
Willis (1996) argues that instruction is a desirable condition for successful learning. Should it be a desirable condition or should it be classed as essential? Some may say, due to the TBL model, that instruction is not essential because “tasks remove teacher domination” Willis (1996: 18); and therefore the need for lengthy instruction is not needed. Others may argue that instruction is, to some extent, crucial and must play a significant role in the classroom. Teacher instruction, implicit or explicit does exist in a classroom and it is important to find the right balance for effective second language acquisition to take place. Obviously if the need arises to focus on form and grammar then explicit instructions are needed. Implicit instructions may be needed to just give a general overview of the task that the students will engage in.
Ellis (2008) highlights, successful instruction needs to ensure that learners; develop formulaic expressions and a rule based competence, focus on form and meaning, have opportunities for output, and are taken into account of their individual differences in learning.
Instruction in TBI concentrates on meaning rather than form. Too much concentration on form at the start of a TBL lesson would take away the students’ own interaction, language and method of extracting information from the task. For this reason form is practiced at the language focus stage. This process ensures that the students use their own communication skills in solving the task and improve fluency and form nearer the end of a TBL lesson.
Just how much instruction is needed for successful language acquisition is very significant. It may be the case that students are over instructed and could cause a lack of enthusiasm on their part. On the other hand applying insufficient instruction could have an impact on the students’ understanding. Catering for the needs of the students and exposing them to instructed input is a platform for them to succeed. Batstone (1996) said “as teachers we want to help learners make the most of this language known as input, so that it enters their working systems and feeds into the learning process”.
Another interesting point of view is that of krashen (1985). His input hypothesis suggests that learners need “comprehensible input”. Comprehensible input refers to “that bit of language that is heard or read and that is slightly ahead of a learner’s current state of grammatical knowledge” Gass and Selinker (2001). Input from a teacher could also be translated as the instruction for preparing and helping the students towards the comprehensible input. Krashen believed that language learners improve when they receive input that is slightly ahead of their present thinking so they are able to go one step beyond of their existing innate knowledge. This one step beyond their current state is expressed (i+1). He also believes that this process is necessary for learners to progress.
Input is a key word because not only does it refer to knowledge, it also points to instruction from the teacher. Teacher input is instruction to students’ reading, listening, speaking and writing, and has an impact on the whole learning process. Therefore “the teacher’s main role is to ensure that students receive comprehensible input” Gass and Selinker (2001).
Overall there are a lot of factors to consider when instruction is applied in a classroom arena. The needs of the children, the classroom environment and the actual teaching method and model, all play an enormous role in terms of how best to use instruction so that the maximum benefit is achieved.
My teaching arena
I teach key stage three and four English literacy in Birmingham U.K. My students are aged between twelve and fifteen. The main focus of attention is to teach English according to the national schools curriculum. This type of teaching, and the content that is taught, varies greatly from teaching English as a second language. A majority of the students are progressing on a constant basis and apply themselves very well to most aspects of the language. There are times when grammatical accuracy is not the problem, it is the complication of how can these students be more skillful in using the language.
I do agree strongly that tasks are a vital tool to any school or teaching organisation. They help towards the learners’ goal of language acquisition. The students in my class benefit from tasks all the time. Comprehension, role-plays, reading, writing, listening, viewing documentaries, using the internet and computer software, exploring scenarios and situations and using authentic materials are some tasks that my students interact with on a daily basis. Students’ involvement with the tasks gives them the ability to withdraw parts of language that are needed to comprehend the overall objective of the lesson.
There may be times that my lessons have some similarity with TBL. For example, I may get students to research a persuasive piece of text, and ask them to find terms, phrases and rhetorical devices that make it persuasive. When the task is completed, if needed, elaboration on persuasive techniques and language can be expanded upon. Another example could be watching a documentary for the purpose writing a review. After finishing the review, it can be read and further help and support may be given for improvements to be made.
I would agree that exposure, use and motivation are essential conditions for successful language learning. Exposure to rich authentic materials that display the current thinking, attitudes, lifestyles, interactions, behaviour and every day life of language and its people is necessary so that language learners can start to build a relationship. Having the ability to use and complete tasks is essential for the learners, so that they are challenged and become more advanced with the language. Keeping the students motivated every lesson is a challenge. As teachers it is crucial to keep motivation alive within students all the time. As Harmer (2001: 8) states “whatever kind of motivation students have, it is clear that highly motivated students do better than ones without any motivation at all”.
However I consider instruction to be essential, contrary to Willis’ (1996) view that instruction should be a desirable condition. Instruction is needed to guide, explain, improve and correct students throughout their learning life. This is not to say that instruction should be constant, rather the issue of instruction is importance rather than desirable. Of course the amount and use of instruction depends on the teaching method, style or model, such as form-focused instruction and TBI, and will be used accordingly. Additionally “the instruction needs to be compatible with the processes involved in second language acquisition” Ellis (2005: 721). However, and whenever, it is used it is important for the students to have a link with instruction so that they have knowledge and direction towards the objective of the lesson.
Willis’ conditions are crucial for successful language learning to take place, not only in TBL, but in all learning arenas. In any classroom, exposure, use, motivation and instruction are vital ingredients and play a major part towards second la
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