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A Few Thoughts on Task-Based Instruction

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I appreciate Belgar and Hunt's (2002) attempts to integrate a task-based syllabus into the English as a Foreign Language curriculum of the Japanese university where they worked. No doubt, as the researchers pointed out, the students involved benefited from this alternative form of English instruction. The fact that the task required students to frequently negotiate meaning while using language for real-life (or near to real-life) communicative purposes probably served as a very useful complement to the more traditional instruction the students received in the other component of their program. Moreover, the students' largely positive responses to the project undoubtedly contributed to their gains in English proficiency, given that such an enthusiastic reception to the tasks increased their levels of motivation and lowered their affective filters.

Nevertheless, despite the positive aspects of this instructional model and the tangible benefits the Japanese students obtained from it, I question whether this and other "non-interventionist" approaches (or completely analytic syllabi more generally) have a sizeable place in my current English language curriculum. This is not to say that task-based and project-based teaching play absolutely no roles in our programs. In fact, they do, although the tasks (e.g., problem-solving activities, debates, scavenger hunts, etc.) tend to have both pedagogical and practical elements to them and involve more teacher involvement than the model contemplated by Belgar and Hunt, in which the instructor is more observer or facilitator than pedagogue. As a means of adding flexibility to the curriculum and increasing active student participation in the lesson, task-based teaching is quite welcome in our instructional model and fits nicely into our synthetic functional-notional syllabus, in which students are encouraged to interact only in the target language and grammatical structures are imbedded within the language functions and notions around which the curriculum is organized. Thus, task-based and project-based work can certainly be used in measured doses to enhance and supplement our traditional ESL/EFL curriculum.

On the other hand, I do not believe that task and project-based instruction should replace the traditional curriculum, as has been suggested as one possible approach. For one, if the purpose of a program for English language learners is to completely recreate a naturalistic language learning environment, then unless the program is situated in a purely EFL context where students have no access to a community of native English speakers, learners may be better off spending the same amount of time (and presumably, much less money) simply acquiring the language naturalistically. In other words, why should we be charging students tuition and fees to experience a simulated version (viz., quasi-naturalistic task-based interaction) of the real thing, which they can get for free? In addition, the minimal focus on form typical of purely task-based and project-based teaching may lead to serious unintended consequences, such as the provoked fossilization Skehan warns of. Thus, one matter of concern in implementing task-based and project-based teaching in my current instructional context is ensuring that it does not supplant other critical curricular components. As we are already pinched for time (in the language classrooms I have stepped into, time seems to pass faster than the laws of physics should allow), I fear that an overreliance on one single instructional approach, regardless of how well students take to it, may do more harm than good. Furthermore, I have serious reservations about charging students to participate in programs that adopt a completely analytic syllabus, at least in most ESL contexts, as explained above. Validly and reliably measuring student achievement in a program built around a strictly analytic syllabus is another potential difficulty. So it seems that striking the right balance when combining task-based and project-based teaching with traditional language instruction while preserving the synthetic syllabus at the core of the program in which I work would be a serious challenge.

Focus on Grammar

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Although the field of language education has seen many advances during the last two decades, especially when it comes to acknowledging the roles social interaction and cultural identity play in the language teaching and learning process, I fear the same cannot be said for teaching grammar. There seem to be just as many question marks now as there were when I was in college twenty years ago. In fact, the situation may be grimmer now than it was when I first studied these issues because at least back then, there was a fair degree of certainty over what "grammar" was (those were the heydays of generative grammar), whereas today, theoretical linguists cannot even agree on whether grammar rules exist at all (at least not in any psychologically real way). This is one of the reasons I am so hesitant to teach grammar explicitly in the classroom--no matter what I tell my students, chances are that much of what I tell them would be factually inaccurate. Consequently, to the extent that I approach grammar in a direct way, I carefully avoid mention of "rules" and instead focus on helping students recognize patterns and tendencies and assigning meaning to those patterns.

Perhaps the greatest challenge when teaching grammar in any instructional context is that so much of the language acquisition process still takes place in an impenetrable black box, that it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the "right" way to teach grammar is. Debates that began in earnest in the 1970s are still largely unresolved today. Which approach is more effective--inductive, deductive, or a mixture of both? Is there a difference between language learning and language acquisition? How much interface, if any, is there between implicit and explicit language knowledge? Should language input or learner output be emphasized in the classroom? Do grammar rules even exist? I could go on and on. For most of these and related questions, for every published article in favor of one position there is another arguing for the opposite. And of course, the fact that I experienced naturalistic foreign language learning and found it to be far more effective than any classroom instruction I ever encountered will constitute an enduring bias against explicit grammatical instruction that I will likely never be able to erase. So it would seem then that my greatest challenge when teaching grammar is that I am conflicted over whether I should be teaching it at all, mostly because the field itself is conflicted and has no definitive answers to my questions.

Luckily for me, the curriculum used in my current teaching context adopts a strictly inductive approach to language instruction, allowing me to minimize the impact of this intellectual conflict on my instruction (it still deals an occasional glancing blow, but one parried by a methodological framework that permits evasion of grammatical explanation). According to the tenets of our method, grammatical principles should be exemplified but not explained (unless absolutely necessary for learners to understand a target structure or form), which for the most part vitiates the question of how we should teach grammar since in the strict sense our method militates against teaching grammar in the first place. According to the details of this method, as long as students notice a grammatical structure, they should be able to acquire it provided the input is comprehensible and their output is reacted to appropriately, sans mention of grammar. This is not to say that we do not provide students feedback about whether their output is grammatical, only that we do not actually say "your output is not grammatical." We negotiate form, not grammatical rules.

I strongly believe in a meaning-based approach to language instruction, for we communicate to express meaning. Form is but a means to an end, not an end in itself. Form without meaning is of almost no value (as revealed by the Corandic Activity), whereas meaning with imperfect form is often of great communicative value. Whether planned focus on form is necessary at all is debatable, in my opinion, since authentic interactions will often produce more than enough incidental focus on form to go around. As pointed out by Ellis et al. (2001), incidental focus on form, especially when initiated by the learner, appears to be more effective than planned focus on form in generating uptake, and it may be more useful to the learner since it is directly relevant to the communicative needs of the moment. The strongest argument for planned focus on form is that complete reliance on incidental focus on form may not adequately address structures or vocabulary that students intentionally avoid, and so for this reason (and for this reason alone) I can begrudgingly concede that some planned focus on form may be required depending on the circumstances. However, throughout the long course of human history people have been learning second and foreign languages naturalistically and with great success, and in such authentic learning contexts (which must numerically dwarf all combined classroom language instruction ever carried out) most if not all focus on form is of the incidental type. Yes, I admit that it is at least within the realm of possibility that at least once or twice, some Greek struggling to speak Latin in ancient Rome walked up to a native Latin speaker and asked him to explain the ablative absolute, just like a native Spanish speaker asked me last week to clarify the difference between "hassle" and "hazard," but such interactions in naturalistic language learning settings are decidedly rare. My point is that since we seem to get so much more mileage out of incidental focus on form, why take valuable class time away from meaning-centered instruction by planning a focus on form that is of questionable value to start with?

Focus on Pronunciation and Fluency

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When I studied phonetics and phonology for the first time in the early 1990s, the academic focus was almost entirely on the segmental aspects of the language's sound system. We reviewed the articulatory and acoustic traits of each consonant and vowel phoneme in the language in detail. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was taught to us with urgency, and hours of class time were devoted to detailed phonetic transcription. Of course, we also learned about suprasegmental features (which at the time were often referred to as "prosody"), mostly at the phrase and sentence levels, but only as a short course module following our detailed segmental studies. Suprasegmentals were more of an afterthought than anything else. However, now that the pedagogical focus in the field has shifted away from an almost exclusive emphasis on individual sounds to a broad recognition that suprasegmental features such as stress, intonation, rhythm and linking play a more important role than segmental features in the language comprehension and pronunciation of English language learners, it is critical for teachers to thoroughly address suprasegmentals when teaching English pronunciation.

Goodwin (2002) argues that we should set four important realistic goals for our students when teaching pronunciation. Citing Morley (1999), Goodwin elaborates that our pronunciation instruction should help students achieve functional intelligibility (the ability to pronounce English with an accent that, while non-native, does not distract the listener), functional communicability (the ability of the speaker to achieve successful communication in the specific settings and contexts in which she or he must interact in "real life"), increased self-confidence and the ability to monitor his or her speech for errors (that is, to attend to phonetic form while not neglecting meaning). A key underlying premise behind the goals Goodwin advocates is that "perfect" or "near-native" pronunciation is not achievable for the vast majority of learners. As a result, we should not set our students up for failure by setting such an unrealistic goal. Moreover, it is important for us to conceptualize and carry out pronunciation instruction in a way that is respectful of the learner's cultural identity. This requires us to help our students acquire a new (comprehensible and non-distracting yet noticeably non-native) accent to add to their linguistic repertoire without demanding the eradication of their natural accent as a precondition for doing so.

My personal teaching philosophy holds that second language instruction should focus primarily on the development of communicative competence and that fluency and lexical command are far more important than grammatical (especially morphological) accuracy in most real-life interactive contexts. Consequently, my main goal when teaching pronunciation is to help my students produce comprehensible if imperfect English. In my current teaching context, my greatest challenge is convincing students of the soundness of this approach. I have encountered a number of students who initially insist on being corrected after every single mistake and have even had students who complained that I was not correcting enough of their pronunciation errors. While I understand that students may become comfortable with this type of instruction based on the expectations they have developed over many years of (mostly unsuccessful) language instruction using the audio-lingual method and the intuitive-imitative approach to teaching pronunciation, I fully understand that perpetuating this type of mostly ineffective pedagogy just to placate my students is not in their best interests. Yet convincing my students that perpetual correction will not help them achieve their language learning goals while at the same time respecting their beliefs is an ongoing challenge that I will continue to struggle with in my teaching practice.

Turning to the instructional activities for developing fluency through listening and speaking provided by Nation and Newton (2009), I found many of the suggestions useful and appropriate to my instructional context, especially since the language school where I work has a teaching methodology that focuses on oral communication with only a minor emphasis on reading and writing. Two of the activities that would fit quite well into our curriculum are listening to questions and rehearsed talks. Despite the frequent use of questions as a presentation and modeling technique at our school, I have found that many students still struggle to consistently and correctly identify questions. I often find myself explicitating the interrogative nature of questions by either holding up a piece of paper with a large question mark or even stating directly, "that was a question." Turning question recognition into a game, as Nation and Newton recommend, can help remove the tedium from this important but often frustrating task. Given the importance of question recognition and formation to successful communication (just think about what percentage of our real-world interactions involve either asking or answering a question), no stone should be left unturned to help our students master this essential communicative skill. Rehearsed talks would be particularly helpful for our lower and intermediate level students. I believe that one of the most effective strategies for helping learners at this range of proficiency improve their fluency is to help them add short (single phrase) and medium-length (two or three short phrases) high frequency language chunks to their lexical repertoire, which they can then internalize and use to build more fluent speech. Although I am not in favor of rote memorization à la the old audio-lingual method, I do think that lower-level learners should acquire meaningful language chunks (and not just single terms), with lots of opportunities for repetition. The rehearsed talks using pyramiding as suggested in the article would be an appropriate way to achieve that pedagogical aim.

Analyzing the Process of Course Development

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Barbara Fujiwara went through a very contemplative, deliberate and introspective process to develop her advanced listening course for second-year EFL students in Japan. Her approach to developing the course began with an analysis of her students' needs (to become, as she put it, "independent listening learners") and the institutional limitations imposed by the Japanese educational system (limited contact hours). Next, she made the decision to use a content-based curriculum to provide as deep and meaningful a learning context as possible, including a substantial cultural component, while fashioning a course that would be structurally different from the students' first-year course in the same area. Her third major consideration was student retention, since the course was an elective and students would be free to drop the course without harming their academic status. In her attempt to prevent a high level of student attrition from the course, she decided to give students a choice of materials to be used, which she hoped would lead to higher levels of student involvement. Although she initially feared that this strategy might not work (she stated that she reached the idea in desperation), it turned out well as most students selected culturally-meaningful materials.

This teacher spent as much time researching appropriate teaching methodologies and course materials as possible, given the time constraints imposed on her (she had a relatively short amount of time to research and develop the course due to a last-minute change in faculty assignments). She determined and wrote the course content mainly drawing upon her prior teaching and educational experiences, especially the research she conducted for her master's degree thesis, which was directly relevant to the course content. She also sought input from colleagues, who stressed the need for a variety of curricular content for this type of course, which ultimately led her to select one of the main sets of materials (a British television series). During and at the end of the course, her students reported enjoying these authentic materials much more than the course textbook, and the teacher took these opinions into account when she revised the course (she decided to drop the textbook since most students thought it was too boring).

The teacher stated that her approach to course design emphasized process more than content; this reflection appears to be consistent with her description of the course, as it focused on group project-based learning and learner responsibility. Her beliefs and values, including the need for a "rich and deep context for learning" and an emphasis on "inference and discovery" over spoon-feeding information to her students, also played an important role in how she developed and structured the course.

Lesson Planning

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"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable."

--Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States


This famous quotation by President Eisenhower neatly sums up my personal philosophy about lesson plans and lesson planning. I strongly believe in the importance of planning, and I never go into battle (for teaching is often a battle--a battle with time, a battle of ideas, a battle to balance an emphasis on meaning with an emphasis on form, a battle to get struggling students engaged...) without a mental roadmap of where I am and where I hope to lead my students. However, I have found lesson plans to be far less helpful than lesson planning (I hope that there is some room in the field for what may be this less-than-orthodox view). My personal teaching style is a meandering one that takes many turns, tangents and detours; I encourage my students to explore and this exploration often necessitates deviation from the original plan. Based on this style, one might argue that I need well drawn up plans more than most, yet I still find myself wondering how to best balance lesson planning, which I take to essentially be a mental journey, and lesson plans, which are the physical (or these days, electronic) manifestations of the aforementioned mental process.

I think a "good" lesson plan is one that actually works in the real (not the idealized) world. Given the reality of my teaching context, in which teachers are always pressed for time and most teachers have to manage a variety of course types and formats on any given day (typically intensive group classes in the mornings and/or evenings, with private tutorials and small corporate groups in the afternoons, sandwiched in between the intensive international students), a good lesson plan is a concise and flexible roadmap with clear, succinct directions, realistic objectives and suggested tasks. However, it is not a long narrative filled with rhetorical questions or interesting theoretical points to ponder, nor is it a detailed schedule with every single minute of class time accounted for. I have noted among some of the lesson plan templates I have seen that their developers included a detailed schedule (sometimes down to the minute) for each lesson segment and activity. Although I trust that this type of lesson plan is effective for the teachers who developed them, I must admit that they leave me somewhat puzzled. In the language teaching contexts I have experienced, things never seem to work out so neatly and precisely "off paper." So as to the value of this type of precise temporal planning, I am skeptical.

In creating and adapting lesson plans for my teaching context, I prefer to focus more on conceptualizing instead of detailing the lesson content, considering possible patterns of classroom interaction rather than prescribed or expected ones. I do not try to time the lesson down to the minute, but instead outline (not narrate) the most likely courses the class will take and how I might best adapt the instruction to the evolving situation in real time. In short, I believe in turning lesson plans into flexible roadmaps rather than tightly-scripted series of events.

How Curriculum Shapes Language Learning

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As someone who has studied Spanish since the age of thirteen and has lived in a predominantly Spanish-speaking city for many years now, I have quite a bit to stay about language textbooks, Spanish language textbooks in particular. Most of the Spanish language textbooks I have encountered (and I have run into a lot of them, believe you me) teach an artificial type of Spanish that really only exists in Spanish textbooks themselves. When I moved to Mexico City at the age of sixteen and spoke what I would characterize as a fluent but "synthetic" Spanish, my speech was greeted by a fair share of giggles, although they were probably caused by surprise more than anything else. When I returned to my small-town Virginia high school a year later, my Spanish teacher (a lovely lady and a truly caring teacher from Illinois who was drafted into the job because she minored in Spanish in college) could barely understand me at times.

Although commercial textbooks do have their benefits (in most of my junior high and high school Spanish classes, the textbook was the course syllabus and some of the teachers would have been completely lost without them), they pale in comparison to authentic materials because only authentic materials can teach students the real language, with its unanticipated twists and turns, its less-than-literary but extremely useful constructions, and the type of language that would come in handy should learners ever have to use the language to communicate with native speakers. I remember once in eighth grade Spanish (I had the great fortune of having a passionate and phenomenal teacher that year, as I was living in the western suburbs of Pittsburgh which have some very high quality public schools) that we spent several classes watching commercial advertisements from Latin American television networks that the teacher had videotaped during her visits to South America, and I was amazed at the difference between the language I heard in those commercials and what we had been studying from the textbook. It was almost as if the two were entirely separate languages.

I also remember some of the utterly useless language that was presented in our Spanish textbooks. One of the first Spanish words I learned was pupitre (those individual desks about two feet from the floor that are used in grade schools), which unless you happen to work in an elementary school or a furniture factory is a word that you might use five times in your adult life, if that. Then there was the whole lesson on cuyo (a rather formal way of saying "whose"), which I have only seen in legal documents and is rarely used in spoken Spanish. Conversely, in all my years of formally studying Spanish, I amazingly never saw a single lesson in any textbook on the use of the reflexive pronoun se as used to form medio-passives or the so-called middle voice (unlike English, which just has two voices--the active and passive--Spanish has three voices: active, middle and passive), as in Aquí se habla español ("Spanish is spoken here") and is extremely common in both spoken and written Spanish, so common in fact that one cannot really speak Spanish fluently without being able to use the construction effectively. So, to sum things up, I would say that language textbooks are useful and even necessary in certain circumstances, especially in instructional contexts with weak or marginally-competent instructors, but that they are absolutely no replacement for authentic materials, which are crucial for learners to acquire real (or as I like to put it, "non-synthetic") language.

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