Attempting TBL in practice: Furniture

After a whole term of thinking about TBL, I have now started experimenting with it in practice. Here is an account of a lesson which I taught to adult German Elementary students.
Topic: flats and furniture.
Pre-task: Look at floorplan (with furniture already in) in coursebook to get language input; from a list of items, choose which room they should be in. (In the coursebook, this was pretty much “the task”.)
Language input: Some prepositions (and whether, and when, they take the Dative or Accusative case)
Task: in pairs/threes, take an empty floorplan (provided by teacher) and furnish yourselves a nice flat. Decide what furniture to put in, where to put it, which room has what use; negotiate the nature and placement of the furniture. Draw the furniture in.
Preparation stage: Decide how you present your flat to the class; what are you going to say, who says what, what language are you going to use etc.
Presentation stage: floorplans on visualizer so everyone could see them (one at a time) and the group walked us through their flat.
During the Presentation stage, I collected language errors but then couldn’t decide on the spot how I wanted to do a language focus. I thought about tearing the paper up so that each student could get a slip and correct the mistake on their slip, but didn’t have enough for it. I thanked the students and moved on. So there was no “language focus” at the end of the task cycle; instead, there had been language input before the task, which in a strict sense would disqualify this session as a “TBL task”.
During the Task and Preparation stages, students really asked me language-related questions, and they mostly used German throughout and corrected themselves and each other and looked up words and correct forms. They also learned new words they were interested in, and they learned things about themselves (or at least they discussed their assumptions and opinions with others: “Was? Die Pflanze ist auf dem Regal?… Now I feel in the minority!”)
The Presentation stage got dull after the third (of five) presentations, so next time I might only ask three groups to present.
In the next lesson, there was a delayed language focus. I had typed the errors and printed them twice and cut them up. Each pair of students got a couple, and they were required to correct the chunks of language they got. We then had the error versions on a slide (IWB) and the students corrected “their” sentences (not the errors they had made but the ones I gave them) with the help of the whole class, moderated by the teacher to ensure accuracy. This worked really well; there was recycling of the language, a meaningful focus on accuracy and the opportunity to work together in a pair and as a whole class, without anyone being put on the spot or any errors identified as made by an individual student.

Melinda Whong: Language Teaching

 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.

Melinda Whong’s book “Language Teaching: Linguistic Theory in Practice” has been tremendously helpful for me to understand those differences. So far, I have read about a third of it, and I find it highly accessible (though by no means simplistic), it is easy enough to read while still being “academic”, and for me it presents difficult concepts in exactly the right balance of overview and detail. 
The first chapter opens up the general questions of the book and presents different views of what language is and how it might be acquired. Key concepts like UG, CL, metalinguistic knowledge, interlanguage, error vs mistake are introduced within the narrative, and they are repeated in subsequent chapters in such a way that the reader is reminded of the concept in case he forgot, but not sounding like unnecessary repetition. The chapter ends with a preview of possible practical implications for the classroom, to be explored later in the book.
The second chapter, “Historical Overview – Language and Language Teaching”, was one that I initially wanted to skip, since in the past few weeks I had had several overviews of methods and their progression from one to the other – I don’t know why I didn’t skip it, probably because I couldn’t be bothered to find the beginning of the next chapter and just read on. I am glad I did! This overview describes the use of languages and foreign language learning within its time, be this pre-1500 England, post-1500 England and France, the 1800s or the first part of the 20th century. Each of these descriptions of language use is linked to how language was taught at the time and how this was influenced by views on what language is; parallel to this,the development of the discipline of linguistics is traced. This is done in less than 20 pages, so at no point does it feel like a dull “Historical Overview”. 
The third chapter begins with the development of different theories in Generative Grammar, from the various versions of Standard Theory to Principles and Parameters and then Minimalism. It then briefly touches how L1 acquisition is viewed within that framework, before devoting most of the chapter to discussing possible implications of “language as a biological property” (the title of the chapter) for second language development. I have yet to read that part but I am sure it will be illuminative. 
I would like to highlight again that reading this book helped me put loose ends together; it is a great overview of theoretical concepts that we have touched in the module “Second Language Acquisition: Perspectives for Teachers”, and I only wish that I had started reading it earlier in the course. 


This is a term from Cook (2008: 262), characterising TBL as a “form of teaching where the language content is invisible”. In a “Methodology” session, this has been picked out and labelled a “good term” to think about: How much do we, as teachers, make visible to our students? How much do we tell the students about the underlying methodology of what we are doing; about the aims of the lesson; about the grammar/language point that is being taught? In some contexts, e.g. strict TBL, there is not much scope for a language-related aim of the lesson that could be made visible at the outset; there would maybe be an anticipated goal if TBL was conducted in a CLIL framework. But Cook understates the language element of TBL; it is NOT invisible. It is student-centred. After the task, it is “unveiled”, and this order of events is guided by the very nature of the language focus of a given lesson emerging from the students’ language use.
“Invisibility” seems also to be connected to VanPatten’s Processing Instruction (Lee & VanPatten 2003), where the process of language processing is made explicit to the students – highly visible – or omitted, as seems to be possible according to studies that have compared “structured input plus processing instruction” groups with “structured input without processing instruction” groups (147). In the latter case, the process is “invisible” like the methodology/rationale behind the structured input activities. (Structured Input: “Grammar” practice where the focus is on meaning, on a non-linguistic outcome; the form of interest is provided and not produced; it is [crucially!] provided in such a way that the form in question needs to be decoded to understand the meaning, i.e. it is made salient by removing other cues that would make it redundant, as in “(Yesterday) I played with…”, where –ed needs to be decoded to understand the past reference only if there is no other cue, like “yesterday”.)
Cook, V.J. (2008): Second language learning and language teaching, 4th Ed. London: Edward Arnold.
Lee, J.F. and B. VanPatten (2003): “Processing Instruction and Structured Input”, in Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. London: McGraw Hill, 137-167.

Task-based learning – ideas for practice

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.

Assessing reading, or what?

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).

What is reading?

This is probably an issue for most modules, but here in the context of “Assessment” – what is reading?
Yesterday in class I was prompted to think generally about how we can assess reading, outside the framework of multiple choice, matching items etc., and I can’t really design a response format for that without first defining what I think reading is or what I want reading to be in the context I am testing. So I’ll have to find out what I want reading to be and then I can think of a way of testing it, and then I can write a test item for my specific text.
A few thoughts on what reading could be:

– understanding words- so we can test vocabulary
– understanding sentence relationships, e.g. Cause and effect – so we can test grammar
– understanding the general meaning of the text – that would be skim reading
– understanding details, maybe the meaning of individual passages – reading for detail.
I’m sure there’s more!