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Review of  Task-Based Language Teaching from the Teachers' Perspective


Reviewer: Elis Kakoulli Constantinou
Book Title: Task-Based Language Teaching from the Teachers' Perspective
Book Author: Martin East
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Documentation
Book Announcement: 23.3510

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Review:
AUTHOR: East, Martin
TITLE: Task-Based Language Teaching from the Teachers' Perspective
SUBTITLE: Insights from New Zealand
SERIES: Task-Based Language Teaching 3
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

Elis Kakoulli Constantinou, Language Centre, Cyprus University of Technology

SUMMARY

This book concentrates on teachers’ interpretation of Task Based Language
Teaching (TBLT) in New Zealand, and aims to make readers think of how TBLT can
be applied in their own contexts.

In the first chapter of the book the author introduces the reader to the setting
of the study by establishing the theoretical foundations on which the study was
built and by explaining the reasons which led to the investigation of teachers’
perspectives about TBLT in New Zealand. Specifically, the author cites
Littlewood’s (2004) questions about what constitutes a ‘task’, which suggest
that TBLT is not easy to understand. Furthermore, the author distinguishes
between what theorists and researchers describe as TBLT and what teachers or
classroom practitioners perceive as the task-based approach. East says that a
revised curriculum was introduced to New Zealand’s schools in 2009 (it was
published in 2007 and fully implemented in 2010) with a component dedicated to
languages other than English which automatically makes the case of the specific
country attractive to research. In this context the author investigates
teachers’ perspectives on the TBLT innovation which the new curriculum has
brought. He suggests that several factors influence teachers’ perspectives
(Borg, 2006; Pajares, 1993; Phipps & Borg, 2007), and then focuses on studies
which involve a task-based approach (Van den Branden, 2006; Carless, 2007; Andon
& Eckerth, 2009) which demonstrate that teachers’ beliefs have an impact on
classroom practices. Towards the end of the first chapter, the author provides
the reader with details regarding the study concerning the participants (19
secondary school teachers of French, German, Japanese and Spanish and eight
teacher advisors who had the responsibility to support teachers across the
curriculum and ensure “best practice”; p. 15 ) and the tools that were employed
(interviews).

The second chapter of the book concentrates on curriculum renewal in New
Zealand, which emerged through a more general shift in language pedagogy from
Communicative Language Teaching (CTL) to TBLT. According to the author, CTL had
two manifestations, the ‘weak’ CTL through which the focus remained on form and
the ‘strong’ CTL through which the form was completely neglected and the focus
was purely on meaning. TBLT managed to direct attention to both accuracy and
fluency. In this context of change, the author stresses that the New Zealand’s
1993 Curriculum Framework needed renewal. Despite the fact that it was based on
the communicative approach, in reality there were no rules for the teachers to
follow concerning methodology, only guidelines that the author characterises as
“problematic” (p. 26), and the assessment followed the grammar-translation
method rather than the communicative approach. In addition, student enrolments
in language courses were disappointing, especially in the last years, due to the
belief that English was the most important language as well as to other factors;
e.g. the idea that studying a language becomes more difficult as the study
progresses. Therefore, New Zealand’s 2007 curriculum was composed, which had a
new component ‘Learning Languages’, and it was governed by language-centredness,
experiential learning and co-construction of knowledge (p. 32). The new
curriculum was aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for
Languages (CEFR). These changes, according to the author, led to the adoption of
TBLT.

The third chapter is a description of the underlying philosophies of the new
curriculum, the ‘Learning Languages’ component and the means provided to the
teachers for support in its implementation. The author explains how ‘Learning
Languages’ was founded on 10 principles expressed by Ellis (2005), and how TBLT
was embedded in and promoted by the new curriculum even though it was not stated
in the curriculum that TBLT was the required approach to Foreign Language (FL)
teaching. Different opportunities were offered to teachers for support, such as
online access to materials, a series of Curriculum Support Days, the Teacher
Professional Development Languages (TPDL) programme, etc. The author also
outlines the reactions of teachers and advisors to the implementation of the
first of Ellis’ principles, the development of a repertoire of formulaic
expressions and a rule-based competence. The findings illustrate that although
students seemed to communicate fluently, it was clear that sometimes formulaic
expressions limit the creative use of language and that teachers interpreted the
first principle in different ways. On the other hand, it is obvious that the
teachers were willing to adopt the changes that the 10 principles would launch.

In chapters 4, 5 and 6 the author presents the advisors’ and the teachers’
understandings of the three aspects of the ‘Learning Languages’ component of the
new curriculum, namely communication, language knowledge and cultural knowledge.
He also illustrates the participants’ views about TBLT in relation to these
three aspects. Starting with chapter 4, the author puts emphasis on the “core
communication strand”, as he characterises it (p. 77). The new curriculum was
established on the idea that the aim of learning a foreign language is
communication; thus, meaning was central, learning should enhance the ability to
communicate, and in order to communicate learners should understand input and be
able to produce output as well. This would possibly create some
misunderstandings concerning the nature of tasks which the author discusses.
These misunderstandings concern the beliefs that tasks must necessarily
represent real-life scenarios, they must primarily involve speaking, they must
also involve other people as interlocutors and finally they should focus on use
rather than learning. He then proposes ways to address these
misunderstandings. In the same chapter the author presents the advisors’ and the
teachers’ perspectives on using tasks in language teaching in order to cater to
the core communicative strand of the curriculum. The interviews showed that the
advisors viewed TBLT as the way to meet the requirements of the communicative
aspect of the new curriculum since it promoted meaningful and authentic use of
language, the co-construction of knowledge, and it also allowed for individual
differences. Being influenced by the transition from CLT, some of the teachers
interpreted the communicative strand in a more traditional way, employing
communicative activities with limited use of language in their teaching instead
of tasks. Nevertheless, others had a more developed conceptualisation of tasks.
The chapter includes teachers’ stories about how they used different types of
tasks to enhance meaningful communication in their classroom both at a beginner
and a senior level.

Chapter 5 focuses on the aspect of language knowledge which involves learners’
grammatical or formal competence. According to the literature as well as the
participants in the study, focus on form is essential for fluent and accurate
communication. The author discusses how focus on form can be integrated in TBLT
by addressing several questions that arise. Finally, he reaches the conclusion
that meaning is central in TBLT, hence focus on form comes after the learners’
completion of the task, and that targeted focus on form follows only when
learners notice it in the input following inductive procedures. As in chapter
4, the author moves on with the analysis of the advisors’ and teachers’
understandings of how language knowledge could be treated in the new curriculum.
The interviews showed that the advisors believed that language knowledge is
essential; however, it should come after students had the opportunity to use the
language for meaningful communication. The author characterises the teachers as
“eclectic” (p. 121) when it comes to their teaching. He claims that several
factors guide their choices, such as their experiences of the present and past,
the dilemma of whether to use inductive or deductive approaches when dealing
with language knowledge, the issue of using English when explaining the rules,
and finally the question whether to use different approaches with junior and
senior year students. Towards the end of the chapter, Sophie’s (a teacher’s)
case is presented, which is indicative of the challenges teachers had to
confront because of the changes in the curriculum.

In chapter 6 the author analyses the third strand on which ‘Learning Languages’
is based, that is cultural knowledge. He cites Brown (1994) and Liddicoat (2008)
to support the view that language and culture are interconnected and that for
learners to be communicatively competent in a foreign language they must have,
apart from language knowledge, cultural knowledge as well. Furthermore, the
author describes a more traditional view of how cultural knowledge could be
acquired by learners, which involved teaching of customs and traditions or
‘facts’ (p. 138), and which he considers ineffective since cultural knowledge
involves much more than customs and language appropriateness. He characterises
intercultural competence as a theoretical construct, and he explains Byram’s
(1997) perception of what is required to acquire intercultural competence; that
is the development of certain ‘savoirs’ (knowledges), and Kramsch’s (1999) model
of the ‘three places’. These models are similar and both claim that learners
need to understand their own culture as well as the culture of the target
language, and should try to relate the two. Further on, the chapter elaborates
on how TBLT may enhance cultural knowledge by referring to Liddicoat’s (2005)
approach of four stages, awareness-raising, skills development, production and
finally feedback, and also by emphasising the role of visits to the target
country, “global simulations” (p. 144), online interaction etc. Eventually, the
author once more focuses on practitioner perspectives, and therefore he presents
their struggle to integrate cultural knowledge into the language learning
experience, emphasising the fact that teachers were used to handling the issue
of culture in isolation, that is separately from language learning. This fact
was also acknowledged by the advisors and was considered to be an Achilles' heel
which needed treatment. According to the author, advisors even go a step further
and claim that intercultural knowledge must be integrated into the language
learning experience instead of mere knowledge of the target culture. Finally,
before concluding, the author provides comments expressed by advisors, which
portray different types of tasks that enhance intercultural knowledge, taking
the reader back to see some of the tasks presented in chapter 4, which could be
exploited for such purposes (e.g. creation of a class magazine, a visit to a
Chinese restaurant by learners of Chinese). An invaluable tool for setting up
tasks that raise intercultural knowledge according to the author is also
information and communications technology (ICT). The author concludes by
stressing the significance of the integration of the three dimensions of the New
Zealand curriculum: language knowledge, cultural knowledge, and communication.

Chapter 7 is dedicated to the relationship between TBLT and assessment. It
mainly concentrates on the challenge of what constitutes ‘good’ (p. 163)
assessment practices in the context of adopting TBLT, taking into consideration
that the role of assessment is to inform different bodies (i.e. students,
teachers, parents, school, future employers, gate keepers and government) about
the success of the educational procedures. To set the context, the author starts
by elaborating on the two assessment paradigms that exist in the literature:
assessment for learning and assessment of learning. The first reflects a
process-oriented approach and mainly involves formative assessment that gives
information to the learners and teachers on where they stand and how they should
move on; hence, it involves the provision of corrective feedback that will
facilitate the learning process. The latter mirrors a product-oriented approach
that focuses mainly on summative assessment procedures for identifying the
levels of learners with no corrective feedback. According to the author,
assessment could be seen as a “continuum” (p. 165) that incorporates both
summative and formative processes and would cater to the demands of all
individuals, learners, teachers and stakeholders. In the New Zealand curriculum
however, the primary consideration of assessment is to improve the learning
process, thus tasks are seen as “assessment opportunities” (p. 165) that give
information for this purpose. Elicitation of such information could be done
through various sources, according to the new curriculum, including tests that
are more compatible to an assessment-of-learning approach. Nevertheless, the
author highlights that the most suitable performance-based assessment is the one
connected to the real world, in other words, the one that contains authentic
tasks which measure learners’ language proficiency. The author cites Bachman and
Palmer (1996), who claim that such tasks also “promote a positive affective
response” (p. 170) to the test taker. Furthermore, the author describes how New
Zealand’s high-stakes assessment system was reviewed by New Zealand’s Ministry
of Education and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority because it conflicted
with Task Based Language Assessment (TBLA) so that it promoted positive washback
effect. In the second part of the chapter, the author illustrates the
practitioner perspectives concerning TBLA, which were compatible with the new
curriculum view that assessment is primarily for learning. In the case of
assessment of learning, according to the practitioners, it must be seen as an
opportunity for learners to receive feedback and feedforward that does not
demotivate them, it must be clearly connected to learning, and it must also
concentrate on what they know instead of what they do not know so that it is
fair. The interviews with the practitioners provide ideas for various assessment
practices as well.

In the last chapter of the book the author proceeds to an evaluation of the
findings of the study which he characterises as “encouraging” (p. 191). It
appears that the teachers have illustrated sincere willingness to adopt TBLT and
that advisors are capable of supporting the implementation of the new approach.
Nevertheless, previous research cited in the book as well as the interviews in
this study have shown certain challenges in the implementation of TBLT. These
challenges are categorised by the author into three areas, namely lack of
knowledge and understanding of TBLT among practitioners, concerns about
effective FL learning, and concerns about meeting the demands of high-stakes
assessments; in other words the negative washback effect. The author refers to
existing literature and to comments made by the participants in the study to
claim that the implementation of TBLT becomes even more complicated due to the
fact that there are no clear guidelines in the new curriculum concerning which
approach teachers must follow. Nevertheless, lack of guidance means that
teachers are free to interpret TBLT to meet their own classroom context needs.
Undoubtedly, teachers need both theoretical and practical education. At this
point, the discussion concentrates on the TPDL programme that the author
introduced in chapter 3, which is a one-year programme that presents to the
teachers the principles of TBLT and ways of implementing them. In the discussion
both strengths and weaknesses of the programme are identified after formal
evaluation conducted by the Ministry of Education. Towards the end of the
chapter the author generalises the findings of his study so that they apply in
any FL teaching or learning context where there is a wish to implement TBLT. He
explains that the main challenges that can be generalised are the need for
educating teachers, the provision of support as concerns planning and
implementation that will reduce teacher anxiety, and the assessment processes
that should support TBLT. Finally, he offers some recommendations to address the
aforementioned challenges. The chapter closes with some of the limitations of
the study and by providing suggestions for future research.

EVALUATION

The book, even though reporting on the findings of a study conducted in New
Zealand, is an important contribution to literature on task-based language
pedagogy world-wide. It is most appropriate for language teachers as well as
students of language teaching, curriculum developers, teacher trainers,
researchers in the field of language teaching and learning and generally all
those who are interested in TBLT.

The author does not follow a traditional way of presenting the study by clearly
posing the research questions, presenting in detail the tools utilised to gather
data and elaborating on the analysis procedure; however, this should not be
considered as a weakness, since he provides all this conventional information
concerning the study in Appendix 1. There he makes clear that what he describes
in the book does not fall under the umbrella of objective research. The beauty
of the book lies in the fact that the author himself admits that his study is
subjective since it is purely qualitative, and that he considers himself ‘a
journalist’ who reports the truth as presented by the participants instead of a
“real researcher” (p. 241). The presentation of stories narrated by teachers as
well as thoughts and comments expressed by teachers and advisors in their own
words makes it easier for the reader to identify with them, especially if the
reader is a language teacher. It also makes the book more exciting and
interesting to read. Through the unfolding of the stories many ideas of tasks
appear for teachers to adopt in their teaching as well as many challenges that
teachers or stakeholders need to be aware of. Another positive element that
makes reading easier is the fact that participants were given pseudonyms by the
researcher following a smart encoding system not only to protect anonymity but
also to help the reader identify the status of each participant (whether they
were teachers or advisors) and the principal language each teacher taught
throughout the book. This is indicative of how structured and well-thought out
his work is.

The limitations of this study are identified by the researcher himself in the
last part of the book. Perhaps the selection of a larger number of participants
would have helped more in drawing better conclusions on various issues, despite
the fact that the process of selection is very well-explained and justified by
the researcher. Nevertheless, since the author’s intention is to merely state
the participants’ stories, the number of participants cannot be considered as a
flaw.

The suggestions for future research made by the author in the end could lead to
very interesting findings. Definitely, research in the specific context should
continue in order to provide valuable insight to all parameters relating to TBLT
in FL pedagogy not just in New Zealand but all over the world.

REFERENCES

Andon, N. & Eckerth, J. 2009. Chacun à son goût? Task-based L2 pedagogy from the
teacher’s point of view. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 19(3).
286-310.

Bachman, L. F. & Palmer, A. 1996. Language testing in practice: Designing and
developing useful language tests. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Borg, S. 2006. Teacher cognition and language education: Research and practice.
New York / London: Continuum.

Brown, H. D. 1994. Principles of language learning and teaching (3rd ed.).
Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall Regents.

Byram, M. 1997. Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence.
Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Carless, D. 2007. The suitability of task-based approaches for secondary
schools: Perspectives from Hong Kong. System 35(4). 595-608.

Ellis, R. 2005. Instructed second language acquisition: A literature review.
Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Kramsch, C. 1999. Thirdness: The intercultural stance. In T. Vastergaard (Ed.),
Language, culture and identity (pp. 41-58). Aalborg, Denmark: Aalborg University
Press.

Liddicoat, A. 2005. Teaching languages for intercultural communication. In D.
Cunningham & A. Hatoss (Eds.), An international perspective on language
policies, practices and proficiencies (pp. 201-214). Belgrave, Australia:
Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes (FIPLV).

Liddicoat, A. 2008. Pedagogical practice for integrating the intercultural in
language teaching and learning. Japanese Studies 28(3). 277-290.

Littlewood, W. 2004. The task-based approach: Some questions and suggestions.
ELT Journal 58(4). 319-326.

Pajares, F. 1993. Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a
messy construct. Review of Educational Research 62. 307-332.

Phipps, S. & Borg, S. 2007. Exploring the relationship between teachers’ beliefs
and their classroom practice. The Teacher Trainer 21(3). 17-19.

Van den Branden, K. 2006. Training teachers: Task-based as well? In K. Van den
Branden (Ed.), Task-based language education: From theory to practice (pp.
217-248). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Elis Kakoulli Constantinou is an English Language Instructor at the Cyprus University of Technology. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature and an MA in Applied Linguistics. She teaches Academic English, and English for Specific Purposes. Her research focuses on English Language Curriculum Development, and she is also interested in the latest developments in Language Teaching Methods including the Integration of New Technologies in Language Teaching.