March 31, 2015 by Willy Cardoso
Continuing more or less from where I left it, here’s the second instalment of my IATEFL warm up. I’ll present this one in six fragments.
One of my favourite methodology books is A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis. [though I see many problems with the task types suggested]
When I first read it, a long time ago, the part which really stayed with me was the one Willis talks about conditions for language learning, which are:
- Exposure – to comprehensible input
- Use – of the language to do things
- Motivation – to get the above done
These are considered as essential conditions. There is a fourth condition which is not really essential, but desirable. That is, if you don’t have it you can still learn the language, but if you do have it, then you can learn faster. This condition is:
- Instruction – which focuses on form
Willis says, “instruction which focuses on language form can both speed up the rate of language development and raise the ultimate level of the learners’ attainment” (p. 15).
It sounds probable; though I’m not sure ‘focus on form’ via instruction can be largely responsible for speeding up learning.
But what if we take the desirable element of instruction and use it to amplify the essential conditions? That would mean instruction that aims at giving learners meaningful exposure and purposeful opportunities to use the language.
But what happens with focus on form then?
It’s still there, but not preselected, done at the point of need, not seen as THE most important thing without which no one can learn or do anything. A.k.a the opposite of a course book approach.
Not that I’m against focus on form, no, I quite like it. But I see most of my students throughout the years already had the so-called grammar input. They might even have had too much of it.
Teacher writes on board “I never saw this one” and “I had never seen this one” and asks students “What does the second one mean?”
Students: Past perfect.
Teacher: Not what I asked. What does it mean? Like, what’s the meaning? What do you understand when I say this?
Students: Not past perfect???
Teacher: Yes, it is past perfect, but that’s not what I’m asking. What’s the function here? Of saying this and not the other.
Students: Past participle??
let’s take the above, which you might find is nothing groundbreaking, and take it to the context of initial teacher training / pre-service training.
From speaking to teacher trainers of initial training courses, it seems that by and large strong-form TBL and Dogme/Unplugged teaching, mostly only gets ‘mentioned’ in a couple of input sessions, and unplugged ‘moments’ are ‘encouraged’ in teaching practice. Now… all the words in inverted commas I’ve just used can indicate I don’t think this is enough.
There are of course those who do not see ‘unplugging’ as an additional thing to cover in a course, but as the backbone of the course. As Anthony Gaughan suggests,
“… it is rare to hear of Dogme ELT being treated as a topic on courses at this level, and even more rare to hear of courses whose design and delivery are informed by and accord with unplugged principles and practice.”
“Dogme is still, after 15 years, not a feature of initial teacher training on the whole in the same way that TBL or the lexical approach might be said to be.”
But is TBL a feature of most initial training? And if it is, which TBL are we talking about?
TBL is one of the main features of the courses I teach. But it’s not the Cutting Edge coursebook series TBL – definitely not. To begin with I don’t think that is TBL at all.
When something is an xyz-based approach (task, project, inquiry, etc) this is not something you add at the end of the unit (!), the whole unit is ‘based’ on it – I shouldn’t need to explain this…
I’d like to think there must be those trainers who don’t even mention P-P-P (present-practice-produce) and believe you can learn how to teach using a TBL approach first. Who are you? I’d like to meet you.
[look, I’m not saying you don’t do it, but I’m asking how much you do it and how much of what you do is because you think it’s good and how much it is because it’s mandated from the curriculum]
Why am I putting Unplugged and Task-based approaches in the same basket?
“It’s always been my claim that Dogme shares many core principles with TBLT, but without the more elaborate ‘architecture’ usually associated with the latter. As Luke and I say, in Teaching Unplugged, “where a Dogme approach parts company with a task-based approach is not in the philosophy but in the methodology” (p. 17). Hence, a lot of the research that underpins TBLT, especially with reference to the basic claim that ‘you learn a language by using it’, has more than passing relevance to Dogme.”
While there isn’t much research for Dogme/Unplugged, if you use this name only, there is a lot for Task-based learning; its parent field let’s say. But how much research is there for continuing to use the PPP? (‘people expect it’ and ‘this is what we’ve always done’ are not good enough)
Should initial teacher training take into account what research says?
A major concern for allowing trainees and entry-career teachers to dive head-first in strong-form TBL or Unplugged teaching is the lack of a clear path, a structure, the step-by-step how to teach, the gigantic safety net of narrow teaching points… that they ‘need’ when starting out.
But do they really need that?
Perhaps, people who come to be trained up as teachers are wrongly believed to know nothing about teaching and to be desperate for an easy-to-use survival kit.
I think desperation might come more easily from having to write a detailed lesson plan with all the unexamined assumptions about how languages are taught. From trying to predict next day’s teaching with the belief that it will cause a highly unpredictable phenomenon: language learning. Then to be dumbfounded when the plan doesn’t work.
In any case, we need to provide people learning to teach with some solid structures (a method in this case).
But we need to see them as enabling constraints, to appreciate structures for the spaces they form and what can be done within these spaces; their affordances – and how each person, while not able to change the structure, can use the space within in a very unique way. This is the learning space.
I often find myself thinking why Willis’s TBL Framework – structure – didn’t make it really mainstream and took over the throne of the chronic P-P-P (Present-Practice-Produce) method in pre-service training. The PPP which focuses just so much on instruction.
I ask myself, why that, when instruction is desirable but not essential? Then why focus so much on instruction when what so many learners are really waiting for are lessons with meaningful exposure and purposeful use that can in turn increase their motivation. (the holy trinity of language learning?)
Why would my training course (over)emphasise and get new teachers to overdo something ‘desirable’ while we could instead spend more time practicing the essential?
(but who am I to say what is essential? – well, to start off I didn’t. It was Jane Willis who did it, fortunately)
I also think a lot about James Pengelley’s argument that in ELT we are sending our novice teachers on a trajectory we no longer expect (or find) them to be on once they become experienced.
Why do we do that?
But what have I really done about this?
Well, for starters, I give my pre-service trainees a copy of Willis’s framework on their first day. And I tell them, most of your lessons will have a reactive focus on form, which you’ll harvest from the tasks, which in turn should be closely linked to students lives and designed to create opportunities for emergent language.
I don’t ‘encourage’ them to do this – it’s a course requirement!
And with a lot of guidance, practice, reflections, etc, they do it – basically.
Do they do it extremely well? Of course not.
Are there any problems with this approach? Many!
But more on it later.
And at IATEFL Manchester if you happen to be there: