This book has recently been brought to my attention when I was struggling (I still am, but armed with more input) with trying to grasp why Generative Grammar and Cognitive Linguistics are so irreconcilable. I do understand the fundamental difference of focus on grammar as a system; seeing language as separate from other kinds of knowledge; and seeing it as innate on the one hand, as opposed to focussing on lexis/chunks/a continuum of grammar and lexis with grammar as ‘representations’ and not rules; seeing grammar as part of cognition of any kind; and as emergent over time with no innate disposition on the other hand.
In three different modules TBL has been, and still is, an issue over the past few weeks. So here are a few questions:
Does the “language focus” really have to be spontaneous, i.e. coming from the language the students have used while doing the task? I was relieved when the lecturer in the “Syllabus design” module said “If the teacher is experienced, the language focus may be truly emergent.” To me, that sounds like it’s ok for not-so-experienced teachers, and in reality even experienced teachers, to cheat and to either anticipate possible language foci for a task, or even to choose and design a task which is likely to yield certain language. (From a syllabus perspective, this latter option would of course be more on the synthetic side and therefore highly inappropriate for a task-based syllabus – which is not to prevent us from using the task-based model in a classroom within the framework of any syllabus, I should hope.)
If the language focus is truly emergent, can we do it the next day/next class? This is probably less than ideal because the language used by the students is not as fresh in their minds; but let’s not forget the cyclical nature of most language learning, and the need to then do something with the new, or newly focussed on, language after the clarification stage. Both would, I think, be valid reasons for deferring the language focus to a later point.
If we do the language focus immediately, or even if it is delayed, can we then have a quick test in the next lesson/on the next day, just to ensure that students take the “language focus” part of the cycle seriously?
Can we turn most activities into “tasks” by giving them a purpose, like rank order, pyramid discussion or the like?
If the language focus is purely student-centred, how do we ensure that “all” grammar is taught? This entails two further questions: What is “all” grammar”? And: Does it matter? If students use the language they use, is that all they need? Here comes some criticism from Cook (2008) into play: The tasks are not related to “real life”, and therefore I can’t imagine that whatever comes up during the tasks is sufficient.
Following on my “what is reading” post last week, here is an idea as to how to assess reading. We were instructed to design three “test items” for a given text to test “reading”, whatever we understood that to be. So I designed one multiple choice item and two others. The multiple choice item, in the instructor’s view, did not contain the “correct” answer as one of the options. Rather, apparently, I had misunderstood the sentence in the reading text “There did not seem to be a reason other than, perhaps, (…)” to mean “There was no obvious reason”. In my view I had translated the hedging “perhaps” into the hedging “obvious” and therefore I still allowed for the possibility that there was a reason.
So, reflecting on that difference, I came up with another way of testing reading comprehension, suitable, of course, only for classroom assessment: Learners are asked to design two or three multiple choice questions with one key and two distractors; they then “pilot” these on two or three fellow students. If these are able to answer the questions correctly, there is a good chance that both students have understood the reading text; if not, they will have to negotiate the meaning of the question/answers and possibly of the original text, and hopefully learning takes place. Of course, this tests more than one learner, and more than one construct. But it provides a basis for negotiating the meaning of a text, for trying together to extract details, with learner involvement.
One of my own items was “Write a title for the text, summarising the main point (no more than 10 words).” This also tests more than one construct, since it tests reading and writing, and depending on my scoring system, it also tests grammar/spelling. Is it valid to ask such an open question? Or would it be better to provide a few titles to have the students choose from? I think it depends on the context. If we really have to separate the constructs as clearly as possible, the “closed” version would be better. However, in most contexts, especially in classroom assessment, I think my question would be appropriate since it does not ask for a great deal of writing; there are no marks given for the writing being correct; and a choice of possible titles again tests a different construct (choosing) from what I intended (extracting the main point without external clues).