Introducing Task-Based Pedagogy to Young Language Learners

Georgia Dimitrakopoulou

Abstract

This paper aims at examining the notion of Task-Based Language Pedagogy (TBLT) in relation to young learners and more especially beginners aged between 5 and 10 years old, who constitute the basic target group in my own teaching context in Greece. In the first part, I will refer to the theoretical approaches that provided the basis for TBLT, such as the Input and Interaction Hypotheses and social constructivism, as well as the general structure of tasks within the ELT framework. The second part will focus on adapting tasks to cater for the needs of young learners and using alternative ways to assess their performance. Lastly, the final part will deal with the value and relevance of tasks in the Greek educational context.

Keywords: tasks, TBLT, young learners, Greece

 

Introduction

 In recent years, there has been a considerable shift in second or foreign language pedagogy from teacher-centered to learner-centered approaches, which prioritize learners’ dynamic goals and interests over the static objectives of the school curriculum (Shehadeh, 2012, p. 1). Long (2015, p. 13) defines learner-centeredness as a concept that “pays attention to language form, in harmony with the learners’ internal syllabus” and makes learners participate actively in the learning process by rendering them responsible for their own learning (Shehadeh, 2012, p. 1). According to Willis and Willis (2007, p. 1) one of the key ways to involve learners in the classroom is to ask them to use the language in real and meaningful contexts and carry out appropriate tasks for their age and level. In a similar fashion, Buriro and Hayat (2010, p. 123) maintain that Task-Based Learning is associated with “real life tasks” that promote negotiations between learners and teachers within a collaborative environment (Buriro & Hayat, 2010, p. 121).

A task consists of specific qualities and features that distinguish it from traditional types of exercises; namely it is “a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically in order to achieve an outcome…To this end, it requires them to give primary attention to meaning and to make use of their own linguistic resources” (Ellis, 2003, p. 16). By using pedagogical tasks, teachers aim at improving learners’ grammatical knowledge and fluency in the target language while students interact with each other, in order to express meaning (Nunan, 2004, p. 4). As such, tasks differ considerably from activities practiced within the presentation-practice-production (PPP) paradigm, considering that the latter relies on behaviourism and mechanical repetition through drills and form-focused activities (Willis, 1996, p. 135).

Tasks in SLA pedagogy

Task based research in ELT has mainly been triggered by the Input and Interaction Hypotheses, as researchers in the domain of TBLT are mainly interested in promoting conditions that could facilitate second/foreign language acquisition through the negotiation of meaning (Ellis,2003, p. 23). According to the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985), the input that learners receive should be comprehensible and slightly beyond their own level of competence, so that they are able to internalize it and evolve linguistically.

Although Long (1996) recognized the value of Krashen’s argument, he built on his Interaction Hypothesis by arguing that input leads to linguistic uptake when participants engage in negotiating meaning in order to resolve communication problems. With regard to young learners, a study conducted by Oliver (1998, pp. 378-379) shows that primary school children interact in a similar way with adults, and thus are “capable of modifying their interactions to develop mutual understanding” by using a range of different negotiation strategies, such as confirmation requests and repetition devices while completing one-way and two-way tasks (Oliver, 1998, p. 374).

Prior to the aforementioned hypotheses, Vygotsky (1978) developed his model of social constructivism, which views the acquisition of language as a process of co-construction between different users, as “the more able… provide the novice with the appropriate level of assistance” (Shehadeh, 2012, p. 3) through the process of “scaffolding” (Vygotsky, 1978) so that the latter can perform functions in ways that they might not have performed individually. Apart from scaffolding, another key concept in social constructivism is the difference between the learners’ actual and potential level of competence which is referred to as the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). Task-based researchers’ attempt is to design tasks that seem challenging for the level of learners and guide them to collaboratively construct their ZPDs through interactive processes. Drawing on my personal experience, by gradually reducing the amount of scaffolding, the teacher can make students autonomous and independent individuals, who are capable of being in charge of their own learning.

In task-based lessons, there is a widely used framework which typically consists of three inextricably linked phases, namely the pre-task, the task cycle and the post-task, that prepare learners for different stages in the lesson plan and provide a “natural progression from the holistic to the specific”(Willis, 1996, pp. 40-41).In the pre-task phase, the topic of the task is presented and the teacher uses specific techniques, such as brainstorming or mind maps in order to activate students’ background knowledge or promote vocabulary acquisition by focusing on key words and phrases (Ellis, 2003, pp. 245-246). An important aspect of the pre-task relates to providing task instructions and demonstrating the task, it is hoped to raise learners’ awareness and allow them preparation time to familiarize themselves with the objectives of the task (Willis, 1996, pp. 45-46).

In the task-cycle, learners work either in pairs or groups, while the teacher monitors and facilitates their performance by encouraging them to focus on meaning rather than form (Willis, 1996, p. 54). After completing the task, students engage in the planning stage that is often followed by the report stage, in which they have to upgrade and improve their vocabulary skills and present their work either in oral or written form in class so that they receive feedback both from their classmates and the teacher concerning the outcomes of their performance (Willis, 1996, pp. 55-58). Finally, in the post-task phase, the learners’ attention is directed towards the analysis and practice of linguistic and grammatical elements through consciousness-raising activities that allow them to review their errors and evaluate their performance during the task cycle (Ellis, 2003, pp. 258-260). Despite the explicit focus on form and accuracy, students are given the chance to test their own hypotheses and make discoveries with regard to grammatical structures through examining contextualized features of language that lead to a “deeper understanding of their meanings and uses” (Willis, 1996, p. 102).

 

Using tasks with young learners

It is believed that learners do not seem to acquire language in the linear manner that traditional PPP textbooks and syllabi are structured. On the contrary, Foster (1999, p. 1) reports that “language is a developmental process” that is part of each learner’s internal syllabus and evolves in a unique way. TBLT methodology aims at capturing and materializing the former naturalistic view of language learning by providing pupils with interactive tasks that promote the “comprehensibility of language and the development of interlanguage forms” instead of focusing their attention on decontextualized linguistic items (Foster, 1999, p. 1).

Since most learners come to the classroom with specific views and expectations about the nature of language and language learning, the introduction of TBLT could be seen as a challenge to and lack of regard for these beliefs. This may result in further learner disorientation and demotivation.Thus, teachers need to present the aforementioned framework by following certain procedures that would facilitate young learners’ smooth adaptation. For instance, preparing an oral presentation and a written handout in their native language that would explain the rationale behind the TBLT method and the way people learn languages, not only to children but also to their parents, could be a first step towards that direction (Willis, 1996, p. 138). Other techniques that Willis (1996, pp. 138-140) mentions involve finding out about the learners’ needs and interests and introducing simple tasks within “an initial experimental period” in order to show pupils that tasks can fit in their current textbook or syllabus and  cater for their individual needs (Willis, 1996, p. 140).

Taking into account that real beginners have no previous contact with the target language, the TBLT framework needs to be adapted in order to create a relaxing environment for learners, where they will receive comprehensible and beneficial exposure without being forced to produce language (Willis, 1996, p. 118). Willis (1996, p. 119) proposes placing more emphasis on input by extending the pre-task phase and shortening the task cycle. More specifically, she argues that in the pre-task, several choral reproduction activities could be employed so that students feel more confident to deal with the linguistic demands of the main task.

Considering students’ short attention span, the task cycle should include a range of short and less cognitively demanding tasks rather than an extended one that would demotivate students (Willis, 1996, p. 119). The planning and report stage could also be omitted, as young learners are more vulnerable to public exposure and may feel threatened or intimidated (Willis, 1996, p. 118). Finally, in the last stage the focus can be on drawing learners’ attention to single words or phrases and gradually moving on to more complex phenomena with the view of developing their metacognitive skills (Willis, 1996, p. 124).

Another important aspect of introducing the TBLT approach to young learners involves repeating the task performance in order to consolidate learning. While Harmer (1983, pp. 38-39) claims that “classes which continually have the same activities are not likely to sustain interest”, several studies have focused on the value of task repetition for the early stages of the second/foreign language learning process (Pinter, 2004; Pinter, 2007; Shintani, 2012). To begin with, Pinter (2004, p. 114) observed ten pairs of ten-year old students in a primary school in Hungary, who were asked to perform two interactive tasks three times, within a period of three weeks. This study is of high relevance within the Greek EFL context, as in most European countries translation and drilling constitute popular teaching techniques and lessons are planned on the basis of “textbook-based teaching” (Pinter, 2004, p.114). The results of the study indicate the benefits of task repetition of productive tasks for learners of low linguistic competence, whose pace and accuracy increased considerably during their performance, resulting in less hesitation and pauses (Pinter, 2004, pp. 116-120).

Drawing on Pinter’s study, Shintani (2012, p. 40) points out that the effect of task repetition has been tested by observing “post-beginners” perform production-based tasks, rather than real beginners with no prior contact with the English language. Her research attempts to fill the gap of the previous research, through the continuous repetition of the same listening task over nine times within five weeks, with a Japanese group of complete beginners aged six. The considerable increase in learners’ motivation throughout the task (Shintani, 2012, p. 49), seems to come into contradiction with Harmer’s claim (1983) about the monotonous nature of task repetition in EFL contexts and shows that students’ “repeated exposure to the same input, helped them imitate the words” and facilitated their comprehension of the target language (Shintani, 2012, pp. 49-50).

Apart from redefining the TBLT approach by embracing the unique characteristics of young learners, using tasks in an EFL context involves assessing students’ performance in terms of the outcomes they produce in order to determine the degree of success involved in task completion. Nonetheless, Long (2015, p. 33) asserts that a “holistic assessment of a student’s linguistic performance will be more appropriate than measurement at the micro-level of accuracy with forms”, as meaning is prioritized and the emphasis is on the development of linguistic skills. In a similar vein with Long’s argument, Nunan and Wong (2003) present portfolios as an alternative method of assessment, which can provide evidence of  a learner’s linguistic growth through the careful selection of spoken and written samples. Portfolios can assess a variety of skills and provide learners with the opportunity to create their own personal collection of work (Nunan & Wong, 2003). In that way, students develop their self-awareness and independent-learning skills, as they engage in a process of reflecting on their own progress throughout the course and set new learning goals on the basis of their evaluation (Kemp & Toperoff, 1998, as cited in Nunan, 2004).

Apart from portfolio-based assessment, Ellis (2003, p. 313) proposes self-assessment as another valuable source of information about the students’ ability to evaluate their performance and display their metacognitive skills. Although young learners may experience difficulty in making informed judgements about their linguistic level and skills, self-assessment promotes their gradual autonomy and reflective thinking, by involving them in the learning process itself (Nunan, 2004, p. 149). Students are provided with checklists or questionnaires that contain can-do statements or questions, which can be adapted to their level and discussed either in pairs or groups to help them achieve better understanding of their overall functional and affective performance in a specific task (Cram, 1995, p. 291).

 

Purpose and usefulness of tasks in the Greek EFL context

As has been briefly mentioned in the previous section of this paper, Greek EFL teachers seem to be highly dependent on designing lessons based on textbook materials, due to the fact that they “minimize preparation time” and provide a sense of security (Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 201). Using TBLT in such a context involves integrating tasks into textbooks, in a way that they create opportunities for meaningful practice for learners without disrupting the order of the syllabus. A first step towards textbook adaptation requires re-ordering the activities that are associated with the PPP model, by starting with the last stage, that is, the production stage, and turning it into a task (Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 209). After completing the task, the teacher may give feedback to students and ask them to refer to their textbooks, in order to complete some form-focused activities that are related to the task and lead to consolidation of their knowledge (Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 209).  The TBLT approach can also supplement locally produced textbooks, by adding a real purpose for communication in the already existing speaking and writing activities. In this way, it allows teachers to use listening and reading texts for text-based tasks (Willis, 1996, p. 146).

With regard to the types of tasks that should be used in the EFL language classroom, Littlewood (2004, pp. 320-321) mentions that they “range along a continuum to the extent of their communicative purpose”. Although the two ends of the continuum are represented by form-focused tasks and meaning-focused tasks correspondingly, their differentiation does not constitute a dichotomy, since different tasks focus on different levels of form or meaning (Littlewood, 2004, p. 321).

In exam-oriented settings, as in the case of the Greek educational system, parents often express their concerns about the effects of the TBLT approach on their children’s progress. Nonetheless, a balanced use between form-focused and meaning-focused tasks can provide students with sufficient exposure to the language and promote the acquisition of all the necessary qualities that are required for their exams. Willis (1996, p. 143) argues that students can develop their fluency and communicative skills in the task cycle, as they are both considered as essential skills for the oral and written components of standardized examinations correspondingly. The post-task phase on the other hand, increases their awareness of different structures, promotes accuracy and enables learners to deal effectively with grammar or vocabulary-based questions in traditional exams that appear in multiple choice, gap filling or sentence completion form (Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 131).

As far as the “participatory structure” is concerned, Ellis (2003, p. 263) distinguishes between individual and social contribution to the task performance, depending on the learners’ personalities and preferences.  With respect to the former type, students are given the opportunity to work individually in the task and test their own limits, thus becoming autonomous and self-dependent on the learning strategies they use. According to Vickers and Ele (2006, p. 110), “encouraging learner autonomy is increasingly recognized as a beneficial practice to promote language learning. Therefore, it is necessary to explore language learning tasks that encourage learner autonomy and lead to gains in accuracy”.

In their study, Vickers and Ele (2006, pp. 113-114) examined the effect of self-correction tasks with thirteen advanced ESL learners. Although the participants were already experienced and motivated, the results can be generalized and applied to all levels, considering that the study draws on implicit learning and the ability of students to acquire knowledge of rules incidentally rather than explicitly (Long, 2015, p. 43).

Comparing their written texts with similar ones produced by native speakers allows students to test their hypotheses and correct their errors without the teacher’s intervention (Vickers & Ele, 2006, p.  15). The development of self-correction strategies is particularly relevant in the Greek context, since the explicit correction of students on the part of the teacher has led to the dominance of teacher-centered methods that restrain learners’ freedom to explore the linguistic structures themselves.

Taking into account the low level of young learners’ competence, it would be beneficial to combine individual task completion with the social dimension of task organization, in order to allow learners to interact with each other and cater for the needs of students who “lack the strategic competence to perform successfully on their own” (Ellis, 2003, p. 266). Jacobs (1998) lists the advantages of pair and group work by attempting a parallel comparison with the characteristics of teacher-centered methods. As he mentions, “in teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time” (Jacobs, as cited in Ellis, 2003, p. 267), whereas in collaborative contexts the quality and variety of students’ speech is considerably increased, due to a number of positive factors deriving from group work, such as motivation and lack of anxiety. It should be stressed that this approach of participatory structure could prove ideal for the multicultural Greek educational setting, as it would increase the sense of students’ social belonging, especially those that come from minority contexts and face racist attitudes about their origin.

 

Conclusion

Although TBLT constitutes a popular approach in a wide range of contexts, its implementation is usually associated with the problems that teachers face in the initial stages that discourage them from adopting it. Willis and Willis (2007, p. 200) present the most common challenges that have been reported over the years through teachers’ testimonies and include among others, the overuse of  the first language (L1) and the possibility of classroom management issues, which may be caused by lack of motivation and experience on the part of young learners.

In my paper, I chose not to focus on the aforementioned challenges but rather opted for a proactive perspective and emphasized appropriate ways to introduce tasks to students, by adapting the approach to their level and needs. In addition, I made connections with my own teaching context and attempted to present the effect of TBLT within its sociocultural parameters. However, we should bear in mind  that there is no best way to learn or teach a language. The idea of the “best” methodology is a relative concept that is determined by the context, characteristics and needs of our learners. As Long (2015, pp. 370-374) correctly puts it:

TBLT is a work in progress…It is certainly no panacea…It implies a basic grasp of how people learn languages, an openness to genuinely student-centered learning, and a willingness to teach in harmony with learners’ internal psycholinguistic processes…There are problems-some we know of, and assuredly, others yet to be discovered…[It] means a journey along a road as yet unbuilt…roughly, “We build the road as we travel” – and for those of us in the trenches today, that is what it is like with TBLT.

 

References

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Georgia Dimitrakopoulou entered the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2010. She graduated from the Faculty of English Language and Literature by obtaining her BA degree with distinction and since then she has worked in private language schools in Greece teaching English as a Foreign Language. She is currently studying as a postgraduate ELT student in the University of Warwick. More specifically, she specializes in teaching English to Young Learners and intends to pursue a career as a materials developer and teacher trainer.

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