Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis

(Book Review)

Started: April 3, 2018
Finished: May 9, 2018

Why I Read This Book / General Overview
I read this book as part of the bookclub for professional development that a few of us have got going at work.

We try to stick to the Cambridge recommended reading list for Delta Module 1, (list here).  This book was on the list, and moreover some of the other members thought it would be useful to read.

Personally  I thought it sounded pretty boring.  "A Framework for Task-Based Learning"! How boring could you get?
But boring didn't really matter.  This is a bookclub for professional development not pleasure reading.  So I went along with it.

Once I got into it, I was pleasantly surprised at how readable the book was.  Despite a very boring sounding title, the book is actually very engaging.  Jane Willis has a lot of interesting ideas and thoughts on language learning.  And she is able to write these ideas in a very readable prose.
(Jane Willis , by the way, was the wife of the late Dave Willis, whose book Rules, Patterns and Words I read last year and also found very interesting.  Dave Willis and Michael Lewis were the pioneers of the lexical approach, and Jane Willis also seems to have a similar view--i.e. a distrust of grammar rules, and an emphasis on learning lexical chunks.)

In terms of readability, I found this book at its most interesting in the more theoretical chapters--when Jane Willis was talking about how languages are learned, and why task based learning is best suited to what we know about language learning.
The middle chapters get into the technicalities of lesson staging, and this is very useful, although less interesting.  (I had problems with my eyes glazing over, and occasionally had to force myself to re-read pages when I realized that I hadn't been paying attention to what I was reading.) But what can you do?  A book like this needs to get into the specifics if teachers are to implement it.  (And again, this is professional development reading, not pleasure reading).

Summary of the Arguments
I was skeptical when I started this book.  In part just because the name "Task-Based Learning" sounds overly scholastic and boring to me.  And in part because I've not been impressed with the Task-Based Learning curriculums I've encountered in the past.
In the past I've encountered task-based learning and project-based learning (similar to task-based learning) curriculums in which the tasks didn't engage the students, and getting through the lesson involved the teacher frog-marching the students through a task that they didn't really want to do.
This made me cynical about TBL and PBL.

But, I've got to say... Jane Willis really won me over.  She makes a really good case for Task-Based Learning.
That's not to say that I don't have a lot of reservations.  I have a few of reservations about this, and I'll get to those down below.

But first, let me talk about what I liked about this framework.
In the opening chapter, Jane Willis lays out the language classroom conundrum very clearly--lots of people learn a foreign language fluently with no classroom instruction, whereas many students spend years in a foreign language classroom and leave unable to speak the language.  (Japan was a perfect example of this.)

Jane Willis goes on to say that in order to successfully learn a language, everyone agrees that the student must have lots of input, lots of motivation, and lots of practice using it.
Willis presents this as fairly uncontroversial--and I think by and large it is.
(Although notably Krashen would disagree about the "use" part.   In Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Krashen presents examples of shy students who simply listened quietly in the classroom, and still acquired language competency similar to their more talkative classmates.  It's an interesting argument, and one that lingered in the back of my head while I read Jane Willis.  But I think Krashen is slightly outside the mainstream--most people would agree that some sort of use practice is essential for language acquisition.)
Instruction from a teacher is not actually an essential part of language learning--as Jane Willis has already pointed out, plenty of people learn languages without a teacher.
But, all other factors being equal, good instruction can help someone learn a language faster.  So Exposure, Use and Motivation are essential, and Instruction is desirable.

Traditionally language school classrooms have had a hard time satisfying the three essential elements of Exposure, Use and Motivation.
But Task-Based Learning can meet these requirements.
The students get plenty of practicing using the language as they work on the task together.
Motivation is a bit more difficult for the teacher to control.  But even if the student's motivation to learn the language in general is low, task-based learning can at least give the students motivation to complete the task, and so give them temporary motivation to use the language.

The Input or Exposure part wasn't obvious to me at first.  (Surely Task-Based Learning would be all about production, and not about input, right?)  But Jane Willis actually has some really clever ideas for how to get input into Task-Based Learning.
In some cases the input could be the reading or listening text if the task revolves around working with a text.
But in other cases, Jane Willis has the interesting idea of recording proficient speakers doing the task, and then playing that recording for the students.

So, for example, if you have a "spot the differences between two pictures" task, you could find two colleagues in the staffroom, and record them doing the task.
Then, all the authentic language that proficient speakers use to complete the task themselves could be the input for the students.
Students could also be given the transcript of the recording, and with the teacher look to identify useful language from the transcript.
For closed tasks (tasks in which there is a limited number of correct answers--e.g. "spot the differences") the recording could be played after the task.  For open tasks (e.g. "tell a story about...") the recording could be played before the task.

The instruction part of the task comes at the end.  The teacher highlights useful language for the students.  This could come from the task-recording between the two proficient speakers.  Or it could be highlighting good language that the students are using.  Or it could be feedback on errors the students are making.

(Hopefully that makes sense. I'm trying to just capture the main ideas of the book without re-writing everything. If you read the actual book, Jane Willis goes in to a lot more detail about what a Task-Based Learning lesson would look like, and she also has a lot more ideas on types of tasks that could be used in the classroom.)

What I Liked About Task-Based Learning
So, as I mentioned above, I was initially skeptical of TBL.
But Jane Willis makes some really good points.
Assuming students need speaking practice to acquire a language (and, putting aside Krashen, they probably do), then it's much better to give students a task that will give them a reason to speak.

I mentioned in the past I had had some bad experiences with Task-Based Learning curriculums--namely tasks that the students found boring.
But, everything has to be evaluated against its alternatives.  Even though some teenagers may groan at the idea of being forced to do a comparison task, they will at least find it slightly more motivating than a speaking practice that has no goals or outcomes.
In other words, if the alternative is just to hand students a list of questions and tell them to discuss with their partner (something that, I admit, I've often been guilty of), then Task-Based Learning is the lesser of two evils.

As every teacher knows (and as Jane Willis herself admits on p.70) it is hard to consistently find topics and activities that always engage every student in the class.  Probably there is going to be some hits and misses with student engagement of tasks when attempting to implement this.  But Task-Based Learning at least has the potential to engage students a lot more than simply telling them to speak about a topic, or do a role-play.

In fact, in the last couple weeks since I've read this book, I've been playing around with activities that have more clearly defined outcomes.  I've been experimenting with a new type of movie worksheet that that is inspired by Task-Based Learning (still a work in progress at this point, but can be found HERE), and I've found that this has increased student engagement.  In my adult classes, for a recent speaking activity, instead of giving them the usual discussion questions, I gave them agree or disagree statements, and they had to decide as a group whether they agreed or disagreed.  And I found that it noticeably increased their enthusiasm and level of energy for the speaking activity.  (That worksheet HERE).

Another thing I really liked about Task-Based Learning was Jane Willis's idea of recording a model of proficient speakers doing the same task, and playing that for the student.
As Jane Willis points out, in traditional classrooms the students either listen to Teacher Talking Time, or they listen to highly scripted conversations from the ESL textbook.
Very rarely do students get the necessary input to have a real conversation in English--the art of negotiating turn taking, of holding a turn or ending a turn, of interrupting politely, or just the general chaos of real conversation (false starts, hesitations, backtracking, talking over people, etc.)
If the students can be provided with authentic input of proficient speakers doing the same task, they get access to input containing all of these features.
In the language analysis section of the Task-Based Learning lesson framework, the teacher can further draw their attention to these some of these language features.

(Note: Jane Willis makes the point that the model doesn't always need to be a native-speaker--a proficient non-native speaker will work just as well.  So I'm following her lead on this by using the term "proficient speaker").

...or at the very least, I like this idea in theory a lot.  I do have some practical concerns about how feasible it is to prepare all these recordings in advance.  Which I'll get to in my next section.

My Concerns About This Framework

Despite liking a lot about this idea, I have a couple of concerns.

1) Dogmatism
I found Task-Based Learning very appealing, but I would have liked this book better if Jane Willis had introduced it as yet another tool in the teacher's toolbox--something you could use sometimes, but didn't have to use all of the time.
But the last two chapters (8&9)got a little bit pushy about selling TBL.
At this point, the book became less informative and more polemical.
I wrote in the margins of page 137 (chapter 9), "Why are you trying so hard to sell me on this?"

Jane Willis appears to believe that Task-Based Learning is the best method of language learning, and that the classroom lessons should always follow the Task-Based Learning framework.

In our bookclub, this was especially jarring, because we had just got done reading Jack Richard's essay "Beyond Methods" for our previous bookclub book .  In that essay, Jack Richard argued that in the past the field was obsessed with the search for the perfect method, but now people recognized that there is a perfect method.
In fact, I think it's quite common nowadays to talk about how we are in the post-methods stage of TESOL.  So in that respect, the strict adherence to one particular method seemed like a step backwards.
(Although someone made the point at our bookclub that we will probably never truly be in a post-methods era.  There is a certain personality type that wants to have a perfect method to follow, and so we'll probably never get rid of the search for the perfect method.  In 100 years, people will still be coming up with new perfect methods to use.)

I don't dislike anything about the TBL framework.  I just think that other methods and techniques could also be valuable.
For example, I'm a big fan of using stories in the classroom--often without a task--simply just listening to the stories for enjoyment.
(Jane Willis acknowledges that extensive reading for pleasure is one of the best ways to learn a language.  But she argues that it's best done outside the classroom.  But in my experience, few students actually do much reading outside the classroom, so I think it's good to devote some classtime to it.)
I also think that some sort of structured grammar curriculum isn't a bad idea.  (Jane Willis makes a bit deal of pointing out that teaching pre-selected grammar points won't work, because the students are only ready to produce grammar points that are at their level of acquisition.  But Rod Ellis, in his book, points out that students can still be taught grammar for comprehension even if they aren't ready to produce it.  And I think it's valuable to have some sort of structured curriculum for the most common grammar points, even if its only for receptive purposes.)
Plus Michael Lewis points out that students can benefit from studying decontextualized vocabulary lists.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  There are many other techniques and approaches which would be beneficial in addition to TBL.

To summarize, I'd be quite happy doing TBL lessons frequently, but not all the time.  But Jane Willis seems to be arguing that this framework should be used with every lesson.

2) Practicality
So, I really love the idea of having recordings of proficient speakers doing the same task that can be used as input.
And Jane Willis devotes pretty much a whole chapter (chapter 6) to explaining how to make, organize, and store these recordings.
But, I know very few ESL teachers who have time to do all this.  (Many ESL teachers I know are working 2 jobs.)

...that being said, while I was reading this book, I got this crazy idea that I'd like to make some of my own recordings.  I want to go through some of my speaking exercises, and record either myself or my colleagues doing the same task.
If I do ever get organized enough to start doing that, (and I might or might not) I'll post the videos on my youtube channel.

Book Club Posts
In the past, I've tried to keep an active discussion on the book club Facebook page to encourage people to keep up with the book.
But this time around, I really dropped the ball.  I kept up regular posts for 5 days, and then didn't do them until the end of the month.
At the end of the month, I posted one final post, summarizing all of my nitpicks with the book.
It's not much, but for whatever it's worth, I'll post it below.

Post 1
Anyone with long memories may remember the first book we did for this book club was "Rules, Patterns and Words" by Dave Willis.

Well, here's a random connection for you--Jane Willis is the wife of Dave Willis.
I don't know if that means anything to you or not, but I'd just thought I'd through it out there.
Their website is here:

Dave Willis unfortunately died in 2013, so now it's only Jane running the website.

Post 2
p. vi Acknowledgements
Jane Willis starts out her book by writing:
"Initial inspiration and support for task-based learning came from Prabhu in Bangalore..."

Actually, as luck would have it, TEFLology just released an episode talking about Prabhu and the Bangalore project.

XXXX introduced me to the TEFLology podcast a couple years ago, and I've found it very informative. I pick up all sorts of tidbits from these guys.

Post 3
Jane Willis writes:
"Most of us know or know of people who have learnt to speak a foreign language quite fluently without any teaching at all: people who travel and work abroad a lot; people who stay in their own country but who mix with speakers of another language. Even quite young children, who drop out of school, often classed as 'unteachable', become unofficial tourist guides and end up managing to communicate in several foreign languages. They are not always totally accurate, but they achieve a level of language ability that is entirely adequate for their needs."

When I taught in Cambodia, I noticed this.
I taught at a school similar to our schoolwhich targeted the upper middle class families. Parents paid a lot of money for their children to study there. But many of these children of the upper-middle class made very poor progress.

But, if you went to the beaches of Sihanoukville, the poor street children there spoke English flawlessly. Many of them had even picked up native-sounding accents. Simply from interacting with tourists day in and day out.

I always thought it was ironic that the poor children acquired for free the education that the rich paid so much for in private schools.

Post 4
On page 5, Jane Willis talks about some of Stephen Krashen's theories. We read one of Krashen's books previously a few months back.
Actually, if you follow Willis's endnotes on Krashen to the end of the chapter, it looks like she's getting her information on Krashen from Lightbown and Spada's book "How Languages are Learned". Which was another previous bookclub book. So this is a twofer.

But this quote did have me scratching my head a bit:
Willis writes: "Few people now accept Krashen's claim that formally learnt language will never become part of a learner's deployable language." (p.5)

But Krashen never claimed that, did he? When we read Krashen's book a few months back, I thought that Krashen was arguing that it was useful to formally learn some language for situations when you have the time to monitor your output.
Krashen also believed that these formally learnt rules could still be acquired later through input.
I think what Willis should have said is "Krashen's claim that formally learnt language will only become part of a learner's deployable language if it is reinforced by input"

I'm not sure if this is just bad phrasing, or a misunderstanding of what Krashen really believes. (It's notable that she's referencing Lightbown and Spada on Krashen, and not Krashen himself.) What do you guys think?

Post 5
From p.5 again

"... instead of aiming at the unachievable goal of perfection and falling short, might it not be more realistic and useful to spend less time on practising isolated patterns and more time on helping learners to increase their vocabulary (words and phrases being generally far easier to learn) and deploy the language they have?"

This is pretty much what Michael Lewis advocates in "The Lexical Approach".
Flipping to the back, sure enough, "The Lexical Approach" by Michael Lewis is indeed listed as one of the references.

...But then, Michael Lewis is occasionally accused of ripping of Dave Willis (see the TEFLology podcast), so maybe it's more likely that this sentiment comes more directly from Dave Willis (who is the Jane Willis's husband).

Final Post (from the End of the Month)
Sorry. In the past I've usually tried to keep this Facebook page active during the reading of the book, but I dropped the ball this time around.

But now that I'm done with the book, I do have a few notes that I jotted down in my margins about things I was confused or concerned about. Which may or may not make a useful starting point for tomorrow's discussion.

I'll jot them down here and let me know if anyone has any thoughts.

* I liked a lot about the Task Based Learning Framework, but I was a little bit put off on the last couple chapters by how hard she was selling it.
In the last chapter, she seemed to be saying, "This is the new super-method, and if your students want to study a different method, here's some tips for convincing them that they're wrong and TBL is the new way forward."
Did anyone else get that impression?
It's especially notable after we just got done reading "Beyond Methods" by Jack Richards, in which he argues that there is no "right" method.

* On PPP:
I think she's right that it's ridiculous to expect students to do free production with a new grammar point at the end of the P-P-P method.
So I agree with her here.
But I'm not sure that means that it's useless to teach a grammar syllabus altogether.
Rod Ellis points out that students can still be taught grammar receptively even if they're not yet ready to use it in free production. (e.g. they can still be taught to understand the passive voice even if they aren't ready to use it.) This will help aid students' reading and listening skills. And also help them on the grammar test.
For this reason, I wouldn't be opposed to using at grammar syllabus as a supplement to a TBL syllabus. But Jane Willis seems to be only in favor of all TBL all the time.

* Also on PPP:
I've encountered two different versions of PPP over the years. Some people think that in the free production stage, the target grammar must be used. But other people think that in the free production stage, the teacher sets up an activity where the students could use the target grammar, but don't have to.
The first scenario is the one that Jane Willis is attacking. And I agree with her. But in the second scenario, I actually think PPP is okay. All the students can learn the grammar point receptively in the presentation and practice phase. In the free production phase, those students who are ready to use it can attempt it, and those students who are not ready to use it can work on whatever other language they are developing.
What is your understanding of the proper version of PPP? What do you think about Jane Willis's criticisms?

* Okay, one last thing on PPP.
On page 135, Jane Willis writes, "The PPP cycle derives from the behaviourist view of learning, which rests on the principle that repetition helps to 'automate' responses, and that practice makes perfect."
Michael Lewis made the same claim--that the PPP method comes from the behaviorist view of learning.
But there was an article published last year in the ELT journal which refuted this accusation.

(This article was discussed on the TEFLology podcast-- )

In the article, they say that PPP came out of the communicative approach, not the behaviorist approach.
I suppose it's open to debate whether the PPP is more behaviourist in outlook or more communicative in outlook.
What do you guys think?
On the one hand, the PPP method does operate under the assumption that correcting learner's errors today will lead to better accuracy tomorrow.
But on the other hand, while the PPP approach does do error correction, it's usually delayed error correction. Learners are allowed a lot of freedom to experiment with the language during the free production stage. Is this behaviourist or not?

* Nitpick. Page 118. Jane Willis writes: "As we mentioned in chapter 1, if we are visiting a foreign country where we don't speak the language, we take a dictionary or a phrase-book rather than a grammar."
I don't remember that in chapter 1. Did I miss that?
It does, however, remind me of one of Krashen's quotes: "When students travel, they don't carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries"

* Another nitpick--was it just me, or was anyone else confused by the description of the Bingo game on page 122. "Learners can draw their own bingo cards of, say, nine squares. They black out four squares, leaving five blank."
Why do they black out four squares?

* Another concern I have about the TBL framework is that I'm not sure it's giving learners enough exposure to language. I would have no problem using it in class as a supplement to an extensive reading and listening curriculum, but I'm a little bit worried that all TBL all the time (which is what Jane Willis seems to be arguing) will not give learners enough exposure.
Willis seems to recognize this, because on page 139 she writes: "Encourage learners to learn outside class. To increase their exposure and extend their vocabulary, they could borrow readers or magazines or listen to target language radio programmes or cassettes while travelling to school or work."
While... they definitely *could*. But will they? How many of our Young Learners are going to be doing this outside of school?

* I've noticed in the computer lab during PBL lessons that some teachers are really hands on and helping the students a lot, and some teachers stand back and help as little as possible.
Personally I like to stand back. Although that's more of a personality thing than an ideological thing.
But I found it was interesting that Jane Willis was also endorsing this:
p.54 "Resist the temptation to go round and help (or should we say interfere?), for example by correcting pronunciation or suggesting better ways of doing the task.... Try not to stand too close to groups. If you do, they will tend to ask you for words they don't know rather than trying to think of another way of expressing their meaning for themselves."
What do you guys normally do in your PBL lessons?

* Like Michael Lewis and Krashen, Jane Willis also thinks that Teacher Talking Time is useful for the students, and shouldn't be discouraged.
On page 87-88, Jane Willis writes: "The pre-task phase... gives learners exposure to topic-related talk, probably mainly from the teacher. Contrary to prejudices about 'teacher talking time', this can be very useful. Most learners want to know what the lesson will be about, so should be trying fairly hard to understand what the teacher is discussing with them. As we saw in 1.3.1, it is this grappling with meaning that helps input become intake."

* Another old debate--the use of Mother Tongue in the classroom. I was just in a discussion with a teacher yesterday who believed strongly that Vietnamese should be banned from the classroom because the students needed to start learning to think in English.
But Jane Willis writes on page 49:
"Banning mother-tongue use altogether might not be advisable. A study carried out recently in Turkish secondary school classes with 12-year-olds revealed that in circumstances where the mother tongue was totally banned in group talk, the resulting interaction tended to be shorter, more stilted and less natural. Many weaker students gave up after a very short time."
My own anecdotal experience, however, is that when I started enforcing English only in my classrooms, the weaker students initially got quieter. But after a few weeks, they started to benefit from hearing all the English their classmates were using, and then they started picking up these phrases themselves.


Handout for Book Club
I usually try to make a handout for discussion questions for bookclub.  This month, because I was feeling lazy, I just recycled the same questions from my Facebook post above, and put them on a handout.  It's on Google drive: docs, pub.

Video Review
Video Review HERE and embedded below:

(I also had mentioned this book on the  vlog--The Books I'm Currently Reading)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Workers’ Self-management and Anarchist Strategies

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