ELTABB Journal Volume 1 - Page 9

About ten years ago, I taught for just such an organisation. Following a change in local management, out went the textbooks and in came a huge amount of work for the teachers, who were asked to develop task-based syllabuses for every single course. Understandably, there was a lot of resistance to the wholesale upheaval of a system which seemed to have been working well for the preceding 70 years or so but within a few months, the new, task-based approach had to be put into practice. The overhaul went so far that even preparation courses for external exams had to tow the task-based line so, instead of working through a coursebook and following the well-known ‘PPP’ (presentation → practice → production) approach, exam students were involved in activities such as firstly telling each other anecdotes, afterwards reflecting on their performance and receiving feedback from peers before having a second attempt, this time recorded and assessed. As a teacher of a number of exam courses, I had my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach for helping students obtain the certificates and grades they needed (for all ‘four skills’ plus grammar and vocabulary). The school management were also clearly worried that if passrates for external exams went down, the reputation of the language centre would be damaged and, as a consequence, student numbers would significantly decrease. Nevertheless, the task-based experiment was allowed to continue and, in fact, there was no decrease in the pass-rate at all – quite the opposite, as it happens. I was impressed by this result, but also somewhat mystified as to the success of lessons which appeared to me to be somewhat unstructured, haphazard, out of my control and in which students had simply chatted a lot together. In addition, the courses had even been more fun to teach – surely this was just a blip! However, exam pass-rates continued to be high, indicating that the task-based approach seemed to be working. Why Should TBLT Work Any Better Than Other Approaches? The Theory... Some years later, I had the opportunity to investigate the question of why a task-based approach should be successful, as part of an MA in TESOL. Finally, my questions would be answered! Now teaching at a university, I decided to analyse a series of lessons in which fifteen C1-level students research and discuss a controversial issue, much as in the context of an academic seminar. In terms of the structure of the lessons, I opted for a more ‘deep end’ TBLT approach, with students first researching a topic (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), formally discussing it together as a class, before listening to C2-level (in this case, native) speakers perform the same task and noting down any useful language that occurred. Following this, one week later, students repeated the same discussion, without notes and having received absolutely no language input from me at all. To measure if there had been any improvement in students’ performances, both whole-class discussions were recorded and the content analysed using software, to determine how much of the native speakers’ language the students had taken on board and re-used. The results were interesting, showing that students had re-used approximately 16% of the new phrases and part-phrases (four- to eleven-word chunks which students had not used in the first discussion) used by the native speakers. In other words, without any explicit language instruction and using a purely task-based approach, students had acquired and used a significant amount of useful language, appropriately and correctly in almost all cases. So, why did this extremely “hands off” approach work? To answer this question, it is worth taking a look at the theories that underpin TBLT. First, there is Krashen’s (1982) ‘input hypothesis’, which states that learners acquire language better when it occurs at a level just above their own (i+1), as in the example above. Second, Schmidt’s (1990) ‘noticing hypothesis’ maintains that if learners identify the language they need themselves, then they are more likely to acquire it, as they clearly did in the aforementioned research. 9