Eighteen years ago I studied English as a Foreign Language at school. Since I finished school many ESL teaching approaches have appeared. One approach that appeals to me is Task Based Language Approach. I found it particularly interesting because it has many elements or principles that contrast with my ESL education. Therefore, In this essay I will compare and evaluate the pros and cons of applying the TBLT approach in the context that I studied in.
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I studied English for 13 years at a Chilean school; this is to say, when I started as a kindergartener (5 years old) until I graduated at 18. English was one out of ten subject matters. It was given once a day for 45 minutes. I studied in a girl-only school. We were 37 girls in the class. Spanish, my mother tongue, was not allowed during the English class, unknown words must be explained in English. The class had 37 desks with chairs, no rug or space to practice with physical methodologies. The teachers followed British graded coursebooks for teaching EFL, each book had a targeted performance level. The textbooks included readings, grammar, vocabulary, questions and exercises of grammar and vocabulary. It was a grammar-based method. We also had a workbook to practice grammar and vocabulary. The teacher had a central role; she directed what happened in the class. A common lesson will look as: students sitting with their book opened answering teacher’s questions that were written in the book. The teacher had a notebook to track each student’s performance. She will put a check next to the name of the student for every correct response. If a student was not paying attention at the moment she was asked a question, she received three out of seven bad checks. Students were well behaved, however because of the methodology in place many of them did not pay attention and frequently chat in a whisper-like voice.
Task based language teaching (TBLT) “refers to an approach based on the use of tasks as the core units of planning and instruction in language teaching” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 223) The communicative approach promotes students’ interaction with the aim of negotiating meaning. In the TBLT approach the teacher provides students with a variety of tasks they can select from and in which they have to achieve a specific language goal and subsequently show it to a specific public.
Task- based approach pulls many principles from the Communicative Approach such as: “activities that involve real communication, activities in which language is used to carry out meaningful tasks promote learning, language that is meaningful to the learner supports the learning process” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 223)
This approach goes counter to the focus on grammar or form when teaching language learners, it rather gives central attention to the task that learners have to do where they, negotiate meaning, communicate and interact in order to solve a problem. “Engaging learners on task work provides a better context for the activation of learning processes than form-focused activities, and hence ultimately provides better opportunities for language learning to take place” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 223) Therefore, the attention is focused on conveying meaning with fluency throughout meaningful conversations.
Advocates of this approach state that the use of task provide students with the motivation needed for learning a language. Task is defined as ” an activity or a goal that is carried out using language, such as finding a solution to a puzzle, reading a map and giving directions, making a telephone call, writing a letter etc” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 224)
Due to the fact that in my educational context the teacher followed a British corsebook that included activities that were designed by British English teachers, most of the time students find the classroom activities boring and unattractive. There was a critical need of meaningful activities that could match the interests of the students. Ellis (2003) explains that TBLT tasks must have the characteristic of being authentic. “authenticity is referred to a task that correspond to some real world activity, i. e. achieve situational authenticity” (p.6 ) Similarly, Brown (2007) states that the current approach to teaching conversation “recommends the learner inductive involvement in meaningful tasks as well as consciousness-raising elements of focus on form” (P. 333). The author express that meaningful tasks refer to an activity where the teacher plans a lesson that “appeal to student’s ultimate goals and interests, to their need for knowledge, for status, for achieving competence and autonomy “and for being all that they can be” (Brown, 2007. P. 331) Selection of task, according to Long and Crookes (1993) should be based on a careful analysis of the real- world needs of the learners.
Student interaction was rare in my context, most of the instructionally interaction was teacher to student and vice versa. Based on readings, TBLT ‘s tasks require to use authentic language and are highly motivating “they typically include physical activity, involve partnership and collaboration, they may call on the learner’s past experience, and they tolerate and encourage a variety of communication styles” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 235). Collaborative learning may have its difficulties but Nunan (1992) states that research has proven that collaboration encouraged learners to: learn about learning, increase awareness about language, develop metacognitive and communicative skills, resolve conflicts both in social and procedural terms etc. (Paraphrased from p.3) My educational context could have benefited from group activities emphasizing communication and interaction. This would have given me not only tools to perform in real communication environments but also to manage social relationship within an heterogeneous group of people being this one of the most difficult aspect of the adult working context.
Another characteristic of TBLT is the role that vocabulary plays in it:”lexical units are central in language use and language learning” (Richard and Rodgers, p. 227). Since TBLT’s focuses on developing fluency, the use of lexical items and prefabricated sentences support the production of output due to the fact that provide “ready to use” language chunks to create language in real time. “Vocabulary is here used to include the considerations of lexical phrases, sentence stems, prefabricated routines, and collocations, and not only words as significant units of linguistic lexical analysis and language pedagogy. (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 227). Linguistics and psychologist have suggested that native speech processing ” is based on the production and reception of whole phrases units larger than the word” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 227). In my educational context vocabulary was important, however, unknown words were withdrawn from the reading context and explained one by one by the teacher. The idea of using lexical chunks was not in the mind of the teacher and not even on the creator of the syllabus we used. After having lived four years in the US where I had to learn ESL for communicative purposes I realized how prefabricated sentences and lexical chunks work aiding fluency.
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Brown states that Jack Richards (1983) “in his seminal article on teaching listening skills provided a comprehensive taxonomy of aural skills”. In his article, Richards explains that in oral communication and listening comprehension there are two types of cognitive processes involved. These processes are known as micro and macro skills. Microskills are used when learner focuses on sentences, meaning words, grammar, sounds, etc. They are also called “form”. Macroskills refer to comprehending the whole meaning of a conversation; these skills occur at a discourse level and are often named “meaning”. TBLT has many positive features that enhance the learning process and motivate ESL’s to learn and collaborate with each other. Yet, the fact that grammar is overlook goes counter the inner conception of this approach that is communication. One of the principles of TBLT states “Engaging learners on task work provides a better context for the activation of learning processes than form-focused activities, and hence ultimately provides better opportunities for language learning to take place” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 223). If TBLT focuses on the learner and its target is to convey meaning, it is wondered why grammar is not thought as a way of acquiring the structure for accurate communication. Consequently, one may visualize a group of ESLs inaccurately communicating to each other, by only producing and understanding verbs in present perfect. Fluency and accuracy must go together since they are means to convey meaning. My educational context lacked from many ” Communicative” characteristics but I have a good grammar foundation. Based on what current research suggests and my own experience I can conclude that without a solid grammar base my listening and speaking ESL skills will lack of structure and accuracy.
Similarly, my context provided a syllabus that taught contents systematically. Even though the role of the teacher was to provide input based on the text, it was given in a systematic way. Step by step moving from basic to complex knowledge of grammar. ” In grammar based courses matters of sequencing and gradation are generally determined according to the difficulty of items or their frequency. In communicate or functionally oriented courses sequency may be according to the learner’ communicative needs”. (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 225) One of the most often heard criticisms of the TBLT approach is “It is the dependence of task as the primary source of pedagogical input in teaching and the absence of a systematical grammatical or other type of syllabus that characterizes current versions of TBLT, and that distinguishes it from the use of other approaches”. (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 241)
In my teaching context teachers will give formative assessment every two weeks. This meant that as a student I had to study and went over the contents of the lessons again independently. Revisiting contents alone allowed me to deepen and reflect upon language. It also helped me to store the contents in my long-term memory. TBLT stresses that communication has to be in a collaborative environment where learners must go through a task. Most tasks are done in pairs or small groups. “Speaking and trying to communicate with others through spoken language [â€¦] is considered the basis for second language acquisition in TBI; hence the majority of the tasks that are proposed within TBLT involve conversation. (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 228). While I agree that language has to be taught in communicative environments, I think that students need time for reflecting alone paying attention to language, in this way the brain has more possibilities to focus on form and to store the learned knowledge.
TBLT advocates do not mention much about assessment. When describing a post task it is stated “Students report to the whole class so everyone can compare findings. Sometimes only one or two groups report in full others comments and add extra points. The class may take notes” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 237). It seems that this task is regarded as an evidence of learning. Yet, students do not show their knowledge by individually taken a test. Nor did they take assignments home. “Many aspects of TBLT have yet to be justified, such as proposed schemes for task types, task sequencing, and evaluation of task performance” (Richards & Rodgers, 2011 p. 241). Formative assessments are needed since they hold students accountable of their own learning and at the same time it’s a concrete proof of how much they are learning.
To conclude TBLT is an innovative approach that offers language students the possibility to learn a language through collaboratively doing a communicative task. In the educational context that I had studied the introduction of some of the principles of this approach such as the use of lexical chunks, collaborative learning, meaningful and contextualized activities would have been an asset and could have made a major impact on me as an ESL learner. Nevertheless, focus on grammar and individual formal assessment cannot be left aside if the target is to form learners that could accurately communicate during all their lifes.
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