Referential Communication Tasks
George Yule (1997)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. ix + 125
ISBN 0-8058-2003-5 (paper); 0-8058-2004-3 (cloth)
U.S. $17.50; $36.00
In this book, Yule examines how tasks involving referential communication can be used to study language acquisition. He defines referential communication as those "communicative acts, generally spoken, in which some kind of information is exchanged between two speakers" (p. 1). This would include exercises such as giving directions, describing differences between pictures, and telling stories based on a series of pictures.Referential Communication Tasks is part of a series of books that discuss different kinds of research methodology for second language acquisition. Each text looks at a different means of collecting data, describing its underlying assumptions, history, uses, and problems. Of particular importance is the discussion of what it is that research items such as referential communication tasks can actually tell us about development, and what they cannot tell us (p. vii). This series hopefully will help bring together scholars from all the different fields studying language acquisition, allowing fields as diverse as psychology and ethnography to share the same understandings of research.
The audience for this book is broader than simply researchers interested in constructing experimental designs. It can be a useful text for teacher training and for instructors who want to develop more effective materials to teach referential communication skills. For example, chapter 5, "Analytic Frameworks," includes a discussion of different communicative strategies and outcomes commonly found in referential communication tasks. Knowing what is supposed to be learned in such activities can help teachers analyze their own materials better.
The book is divided into five chapters: "Overview," "The Development of (L1) Referential Communication," "Principles and Distinctions," "Materials and Procedures," and "Analytic Frameworks." Each of these has subheadings dealing with different areas. The chapter entitled "Overview," for example, includes information about the historical background of referential communication tasks, from Piaget through Asher; the importance of context and role in communication; how reference operates; and two basic kinds of communication, interactional and transactional. Included at the end of each chapter is a helpful selection of references for future reading. [-1-]
Chapters 3 and 4, "Principles and Distinctions" and "Materials and Procedures," are most likely to be of interest to the average language teacher. The principles discussed in chapter 3 are those involved in developing effective test tasks; they also apply to issues teachers should consider when constructing classroom activities. Yule discusses what a task should try to elicit, and the distinctions between the control of information flow in different task formats and the power inherent in different participant roles. Chapter 4, "Materials and Procedures," provides descriptions of a variety of activities (e.g., giving instructions and describing abstract shape) that can be effectively adapted for classroom use and are commonly found in teaching materials.
Yule strongly emphasizes the social nature of communication throughout this book, saying that what is considered "effective," for example, "may, in fact, reflect a strong cultural bias not shared by many participants in the research" (p. 8). By extension, students in a classroom exercise may not share the teacher's expectations of effective communication. This must be considered in designing tasks. The value of Referential Communication Tasks lies in reminders like this, helping researchers and instructors alike to reexamine basic points in their work with language acquisition.
Camden County College, New Jersey
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