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Tasks in the Language Classroom

Tasks in the Language Classroom

Tasks in the Language Classroom

By Eric Herman

Many thanks to Eric Herman for sharing this informative post on task-based language teaching. If you are serious about understanding tasks, both from BVP’s perspective and from the perspective of facilitating acquisition  you’ll need to settle in for a cup a coffee and set your mind to read, or pop some popcorn and watch Eric’s videos on the same topic! If you are a real die-hard, we invite you to do both!

 

The following post is an abridged version of Issue 15 of the Acquisition Classroom Memo. The memo reviews foundational, second language acquisition research and what it means for classroom teaching.

Task-based language teaching (TBLT) has a long history in general education, second language education, and second language acquisition. The strongest motivators of tasks are communicative language teaching, the general education principle of experiential learning (learn by doing), and SLA research on developmental patterns. There are as many different definitions and proposed uses for tasks as there are researchers! Some researchers and teacher educators would have tasks supplement a grammatical syllabus, while others have criticized these to be structure-trapping tasks and oil-and-water combinations.

Teacher educator, N.S. Prabhu, was the first to implement task-based teaching. He is a hero for his innovative efforts with children ages 8-13 in a developing country. There were 30-60 students in every classroom! Prabhu led the Communicational Teaching Project from 1979 to 1984 in Southern India to explore a way of teaching that fit his principles. He wanted a syllabus that was not grammatically based. Prabhu’s principles are very Krashenesque and his method very similar to the Natural Approach. Prabhu and Krashen share the idea that acquisition is a subconscious process of acquiring a subconscious knowledge of complex and abstract rules. But Prabhu only became aware of Krashen’s model 2 years into the project.

Tasks gradually emerged. Prabhu’s version of tasks was one in which students were given information, then by thinking and teacher support would arrive at a non-linguistic outcome. This led to a 2-step procedure of a teacher-guided task followed by an independently completed task, progressing from the oral to written channel, and preferring reasoning-gap tasks, which required students to infer, decide, and construct something based on given info. For example, given descriptions of families, infer who is younger. Given a map, decide on the best route from one place to another. Given travel needs, construct an itinerary. Tasks were all they did in Prabhu’s project. Compared to structure-based classes, the task-based classes did better on proficiency-based and task-based tests and did develop grammatical competence from a purely meaning-focused approach, while also showing that communication can happen without form-focused instruction.


Prabhu and Krashen share the idea that acquisition is a subconscious process of acquiring a subconscious knowledge of complex and abstract rules. Prabhu’s task-based classes did better on proficiency-based and task-based tests They also demonstrated that communication can happen without form-focused instruction.


SLA researcher, Michael Long published a paper in 1985 that gets credited as the first to propose task-based language teaching (TBLT) as the central unit for determining learner needs, syllabus content and sequencing, focusing on form amidst communication, and assessment. Long uses tasks, in the non-technical sense, to refer to the things people do in everyday life.

Bill VanPatten (hereafter BVP) uses Tasks with a capital “T” to refer to communication that has a cognitive-informational purpose. In 1995, he used to call these “information-based tasks” or “information-exchange tasks.” In the prototypical, input-oriented BVP Task, students are trying to figure out how active their weekends were compared to the rest of the class. Students choose which activities they did on the weekend from a list, are provided with questions to ask a partner, rate themselves and the partner on a scale of 1 (very sedentary) to 5 (very active), and then share the results with the class and calculate the class average. Later, comparisons may be made to the teacher, other classes, and other age groups. The final purpose is often to make comparisons or make decisions. Therefore, BVP Tasks have at least 2 steps: exchange info and use info.

While BVP conceptualizes Tasks as a way to give language use a purpose, I like to think of them in terms of experiential learning. In other words, you do-and-learn followed by another cycle of do-and-learn. Experiential learning is considered best practice for learning information in any subject matter. I think it should be used in the communicative classroom, because the goal is to learn some informational content, rather than practice language or learn about language. Therefore, I would frame Tasks as what students learn about the world. In fact, this perspective is more aligned with a communicative approach, because it gets away from thinking about language teaching.


BVP  uses Tasks with a capital “T” to refer to communication that has a cognitive-informational purpose. It’s not the act of exchanging information that is the Task purpose. The purpose is to do something with that new information in order to learn something about the world or students in the class.  While BVP conceptualizes Tasks as a way to give language use a purpose, I [Eric] like to think of them in terms of experiential learning. 


Teachers who adopt a comprehension-based approach would use input-oriented Tasks as acquisition opportunities and/or as assessments. Students may start an input-oriented Task by rating agreement with statements that the teacher has read aloud or that they read in a text. Students can still engage in group work and get information from other students, if the questions are provided. The student asking the question is not producing output, since he is not creating his own meaning. The last step involves some type of non-linguistic outcome, e.g. rating, ranking, grouping, comparing, etc.

BVP favors a syllabus made up of more difficult, macro-Tasks, which serve as the “anchors” upon which daily, end-class Activities and mini-Tasks are determined. One misconception is that all BVP advocates for in a class are Tasks, when in fact much of class time is not spent on Tasks. Rather, time is spent on other activities to provide students with the comprehensible input and interaction necessary to enable completion of the end-class Activity or mini-Task.

What all forms of tasks have in common is that they require meaning be interpreted or expressed f0r some non-linguistic outcome. This is enough for many people to think of them as communicative. Some activities commonly referred to as tasks, for example, spot-the-differences, jigsaw, and dictogloss, would not count as BVP Tasks, since the information learned during the interaction is not then used to learn anything about the world. That does not mean they are not useful. Successful completion requires meaning to be interpreted, so there is opportunity for acquisition. Not everything done in the classroom has to be in service of a larger Task.


BVP favors a syllabus made up of more difficult, macro-Tasks, which serve as the “anchors” upon which daily, end-class Activities and mini-Tasks are determined. What all forms of tasks have in common is that they require meaning be interpreted or expressed f0r some non-linguistic outcome. Some activities commonly referred to as tasks, for example, spot-the-differences, jigsaw, and dictogloss, would not count as BVP Tasks, since the information learned during the interaction is not then used to learn anything about the world. 


TBLT can be evaluated based on 4 main criteria. . .

  1. What do tasks do for skill development?

Obviously, output-oriented tasks are primarily about skill development, not acquisition. There is a risk of using output-oriented Tasks for assessment purposes, because then teachers may confuse the ends with the means. Teachers take shortcuts and lose sight of the nature of acquisition. They may have students rehearse similar output-oriented Tasks as practice and the students could then do well on the Task. Really, you have a short-term behavior which won’t transfer well to different Tasks and have provided minimal amounts of input. The macro-Task also becomes a restraint on what can be communicated about in a classroom.

It is possible that the class be fully communicative, but not acquisition-rich. If you use Tasks as acquisition opportunities, then they should still be input-oriented, regardless of the proficiency level of the students. How we acquire does not change with proficiency. In a K-12 program, do students ever get to the proficiency level by which the focus should shift from acquiring to practicing what they’ve acquired?

  1. What do tasks do for acquisition, i.e. Is the input optimal?

The input in an input-oriented Task can be limited. The peer input during group work is likely to amount to less total input and be more linguistically restrained than when compared to pre-modified teacher input and the interactionally modified input that can result from a teacher who interacts constantly with the class. After all, if the content is interesting, the modified input resulting from teacher interaction with one student serves as comprehensible input likely to be interpreted by the rest of the class.

The input is not a problem if the input-oriented Tasks are used as end-class or end-week goals, as BVP advocates, rather than the means of reaching those goals. Used as assessments, input-oriented Tasks can promote positive washback and if you adopt a comprehension-based approach, then you have a way of aligning how you teach with how you test.

  1. Is the purpose of the task interesting?

I think interest is too often overlooked as a quality of optimal input. Rather, I see it as the essential starting point. No matter how good a teacher is at making his input comprehensible, it will matter little if students aren’t interested enough to comprehend what he is saying. Therefore, Tasks ought to be chosen because they contain the information students would want to get and learn. Tasks chosen because they prepare students to interact in situations were they to go abroad end up looking like tourist/survival courses. Realistically speaking, these are not the immediate interests of most of the students in foreign language contexts.

  1. Is it student-centered?

Student-centered means that classroom procedures are level-appropriate, correspond to a learner’s interests and needs, and are best for learning, all of which can be met by a curriculum that uses Tasks as mini- and macro-goals. The motivation for experiential learning in general education is because the more a student is doing, the better information is learned. This concept has to be modified in a second language classroom, since students are not doing something with language to learn something about language. Rather, “doing” should be equated with “interpreting.” In a student-centered, acquisition-rich classroom, students are actively engaged in interpreting input.

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