It has been a long, long time since I posted about teaching — though with good reason. I’ve been on vacation for the past two and a half months! But now the long winter is coming to an end, and I’m planning my classes for next Monday. Determined to promote communicative English better than I was able to last semester, I pulled out my old textbook and am currently reminding myself of the correct methodology.
All tips following in this post are extracted from Rod Ellis’s book, “Task-based Language Learning and Teaching,” which I highly recommend to all aspiring language teachers.
CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) and TBLT (Task-based Language Teaching) have both been around for a while and seem to have a semi-decent foothold in the west, but unfortunately don’t exist in most Asian classrooms. Here, the focus is on Grammar-translation and rote memorization — methods useful for learning isolated vocabulary and grammatical theory, but not much else.
Well, except for scoring high on those standardized tests that are apparently more important than life itself.
The main idea behind CLT is that students learn through interaction with other people, rather than lists and flash cards. This means real language, with context.
TBLT takes this a step further with the theory that new grammar and vocabulary should be integrated within tasks that mimic real life. This way, the student can navigate real-world situations in the target language. TBLT also makes it easier for students to notice the gaps in their knowledge, recognize the usefulness of the target grammar, and be motivated to acquire what they need to fill in those gaps.
TBLT’s Three Phases
Pre-Task Phase: The preparation phase. This can consist of many different activities, including explanation or demonstration of the task, planning time, class dictionary searches, topic discussion, brainstorming, vocabulary worksheets, etc. Grammar does not necessarily need to be addressed here, as it can be explained in the Post-Task or left out altogether.
During-Task Phase: The meat of the lesson. This is an assignment, whether oral or written, that requires students to perform a task they are likely to encounter in the real world. The assignment should result in an achievement (Outcome) of some kind, including physical Outcomes (completed worksheets/writings/maps/food/art projects), new non-linguistic skills (learning something via English instructions), or solving a puzzle (murder mysteries, Taboo). Successful navigation of a scenario (a doctor’s visit or job interview) can also be considered a valid task Outcome.
It is important that students believe the goal of the activity to be the Outcome, even though it’s actually to produce relevant language at the appropriate level. As long as students believe this, they will complete the task successfully. But if they believe the goal is to use language, “there is a danger that the learners will subvert the aim of the task by displaying rather than using language” (Ellis, 8).
Yes, I just threw bookquote at you. Because you want your students solving the problem, not showing off their awesome language skills. (“Let’s see, how can I work the word ‘logarithm’ into a scenario about asking directions to the cafe?”) TBLT is focus on meaning — the point is not flawless grammar and nuanced vocabulary, at least not at this stage…
Post-Task Phase: This is the present/review/reflect/clarify phase. Students should be made to repeat the task (present their answers or reenact their discourse) before the rest of the class. Language production is usually more accurate the second time, as they no longer need to strive for meaning and can now focus on form. Teacher feedback is very important here, as it is the optimal point for either oral or written encouragement and suggestion. You can choose to address common errors or points of confusion from the During-Task Phase, or explain the rules of the lesson’s target grammar — which students should have already noticed patterns for while completing the task. But, as stated above, explicit grammar instruction is not a necessary component of the lesson. Students should also have the chance to reflect on their own performance of the task.
This is all just the very basic components of TBLT, and I’m sure a lot of it sounds confusing if you’ve never studied this methodology before. But once you’ve written a few lesson plans following this three-part structure, it really does become second nature and you start to notice the difference in your classroom.
One great thing about TBLT is the flexibility of it. Some teachers prefer to cut away everything but the task itself, never explicitly explaining form. Others merely supplement other methodologies with short task tie-ins, which is called Task-supported Language Teaching. It’s really up to you how you use it, but I highly recommend adding it to your classroom routine in some way.
For more information and sample lesson plans, check out this page.
For a personal essay on how a self-implemented communicative approach can help you become fluent in a foreign language, check out my friend’s awesome blog post here.
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