A quiet but noisy revolution in the language classroom

October 2015


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DR ROSEMARY ERLAM discusses the shift in teaching languages to the internationally recognised, task-based language teaching approach and how New Zealand language teachers can use this approach effectively.


revolutionHow did you learn another language when you were at school? I was recently out for dinner with a friend of mine. She explained how her 12-year-old son was learning French at the new school he had moved to and described, with an element of mistrust, how different the modern methods of teaching seem to be. Different, that is, from her experience of learning back in the 70s. She spoke with some enthusiasm of the series of books she had back then: one for grammar, one for vocabulary, another for reading and so on.

There has indeed been a quiet revolution in the language classroom. Or rather, a very noisy one! Quiet, because it probably has escaped the attention of many, but noisy in terms of what many language classrooms now tend to look like: the benchmark of a successful lesson seems to be one where the students are given freedom to interact with each other and use the language they are learning.


New task-based approach

The change can be largely attributed to a new way of approaching language teaching that was first documented in language classrooms in India in the 1980s by Professor N S Prabhu. It is known as task-based language teaching and it is an approach that is internationally recognised as one that, evidence suggests, best supports effective language learning. The idea is to make sure that learners have opportunities to complete language tasksin the classroom.

As described by researchers such as Ellis and Skehan, we need to use a number of criteria to define what a language task looks like. We will identify four of these.

  1. In a traditional classroom students who have been learning the vocabulary and language to talk about clothes might describe either what they are wearing or pictures they are given. In a task-based classroom, however, students might have a fashion parade at the end of their unit on clothing. In describing what their classmates are wearing as they walk down the runway, their communication will be more meaningful and more related to the way language is used in the real world.
  2. Many language learners will identify with the type of activity that requires them to write a dialogue to fit underneath a picture. It requires a simple innovation to this activity to make it a language task. For example, the teacher puts a series of pictures on the wall and students choose one they wish to write about. The rest of the class listens as the dialogues are read out and chooses the right picture. Now there is an information gap, because students have to listen and decide which picture best corresponds to the language they have heard.
  3. Teachers typically have controlled the language that learners are exposed to and used in the classroom. I know of one student who gave up language learning because she said that in the language classroom she was never able to talk about the things she wanted to. In a task-based language classroom learners are given much more autonomy to use their own language. They are, therefore, given the tools to ask for words they might need to know. In French, this might be ‘comment dire… ?’ or in Samoan, ‘o le a le upu mo… ?’ (in English, ‘how do you say…?’).
  4. Students who have been learning numbers and months in a language classroom might be told to ask their classmates when their birthdays are. In a task-based classroom this would be extended further and the class could be told that they were going to conduct a survey to find out what is the most popular month for birthdays. Now there is an outcome and a real purpose for students to ask their peers about their birthdays.


A crucial distinction

It should be obvious by now that when they work at language tasks students have the opportunity to interact and use the language collaboratively (both as listeners and speakers) and that the teacher becomes more of a guide. Students, crucially, become more like language users and less like language learners.

Of course, considerable skill is required on the part of the teacher to design and implement tasks successfully so that effective learning does take place in the classroom. In my own research with teachers designing language tasks in the New Zealand classroom, I have found that the biggest challenge for teachers is to make sure that students have the language skills they need to be able to complete language tasks. Beginner learners, in particular, need lots of exposure to language before they can be expected to use it meaningfully and independently. What New Zealand language teachers do particularly well, the research shows, is to plan for an outcome in a language task.

The outcome might be winning a game, completing a survey or drawing a picture according to a partner’s instructions. As Dornyei points out, the outcome is not so much an end in itself as a means to motivate learners to complete the task. I posit that New Zealand teachers are so good at planning for motivating outcomes in their lesson designs because in New Zealand, sadly, many students are not required to learn a language and choose it only as an option. As a result, language teachers have had to learn to be very good at making their lessons enjoyable and engaging.

One word of caution: the new emphasis on using tasks in the classroom does not mean that there is no room for the type of exercises and activities that are prevalent in the more traditional classroom and that my friend identified with successful learning. They still have their place. Students also need to learn the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and so on, of the language they are studying. The task-based classroom accommodates this. What is important for effective language learning is that teachers also create opportunities for learners to complete language tasks and to function as users of the language and not just learners.


Teaching the teachers

So what do I suggest for teachers who would like to learn more about task-based language teaching and about recent understanding of what makes for effective classroom learning?

I would recommend the Teacher Professional Development Languages (TPDL) programme. This is a year-long programme catering for teachers of French, Japanese, Mandarin, German, Spanish, Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands Māori, Tokelauan and Nuiean at all levels. It has three components.

The first of these is language study and allows for some teachers to upskill in the language they teach and for others to learn an additional language.
The second component is anintroduction to second language pedagogy, offered as a Stage 3 course at The University of Auckland and delivered intensively at different locations.

In this course teachers are introduced to Professor Rod Ellis’s ‘Principles of Effective Instructed Language Learning’ and to task-based language teaching. The assessment component of this Stage 3 course requires teachers to design, teach and evaluate a language task in their classroom.

The third, and arguably the most crucial, component of the TPDL programme are the four ‘in-school’ visits that teachers receive over the year. During these visits they are given evidence-based feedback that helps them reflect on and evaluate their classroom practice.


One teacher’s journey

In a recent research project I followed one teacher’s journey over the year of her involvement with the TPDL programme and observed in her classroom alongside the in-school support facilitator during her four scheduled visits. I evaluated this teacher’s progress against three key components of the programme.

Firstly, there was a dramatic increase in her use of the target language in the classroom. By the third visit she was using the target language 97 per cent of the time – a big improvement on the 24 per cent of the first visit. Interestingly, she said that it had always been her intention to use the target language in the classroom as much as possible, but that she had learnt that the things she previously thought needed to be said in English could, in fact, be said in the target language.

Because the students were exposed to so much more of the language, the data I collected showed that they had made gains over the time in their use of the language in the classroom. This was all the more impressive because these students received only one 50-minute lesson a week.

The third component looked at the provision of opportunities for students to interact in the target language in the classroom. The teacher created more opportunities for interaction over the course of the visits, and identified that a key goal moving forward would be to be less teacher-centred and allow the students more control in their use of the target language in the classroom.

In this article I have presented just some of the major changes that the language classroom has seen in recent years. I hope it has been enough to give some readers a glimpse of how much more dynamic and exciting a place the language classroom can become. I would like to encourage more teachers to join the ‘noisy’ revolution!

Dr Rosemary Erlam is academic director for the Teacher Professional Development Languages (TPDL) programme.

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