Task-based Language Learning and Teaching

December 2003 — Volume 7, Number 3

Task-based Language Learning and Teaching

Rod Ellis (2003)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. x + 387
ISBN 0-19-442159-7 (paper)
£19.25

If anyone was asked to come up with a list of ELT writers who have definitely influenced today’s state of the art in Language learning and teaching, there is little wonder that Rod Ellis would have a preferential position. That is why many may speculate as to the reasons Ellis takes an old issue such as Task-based Language Learning. It is almost 15 years since Yalden (1987) stated the need and option to work with single work units and defined them (although Ellis dates “task” in language learning back in the sixties) as “tasks” or 7 years since Jane Willis outlined a framework for TBLL. Then, why now? A quick literature review shows that TBLL has become an important approach in the last years. To give an example, the ERIC database shows over 50 articles on this issue since the beginning of this third millennium. Ellis explains his writing due to his devotion to this form of teaching which promotes communication (p. ix) and social interaction. Additionally, this book is an attractive and well documented tool for those working in the field of language learning and teaching. As in other books by Ellis, he uses an exhaustive approach which includes different perspectives and an in-depth literature review. Ellis’s main goal is to interrelate research and teaching, and show their mutual importance and influence in a topic such as this.

The book is divided into ten chapters that cover the various aspects of the writer’s approach to task, for example the unit for language learning. Its topics run from the relation of task and second language acquisition to teaching methodology or the evaluation process.

Chapter 1 establishes the interrelation between task (mostly speaking tasks) and L2 acquisition emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between “focused” and “unfocused” tasks. The second part of this chapter is more practical and addresses extensively the relation between Second Language Acquisition and language pedagogy.

Chapter 2 pays special attention to the listening tasks as a valuable parameter to verify if the second language process occurs successfully or if changes are necessary (for instance, input) to improve SLA. One of the most important features of this chapter is the outline of “an interactive model of listening comprehension” (p. 45). It also emphasizes the need to develop certain schemata and learning strategies (such as note taking), and states clear differences between listening for comprehension and listening for learning. Pedagogically speaking, Ellis shows how listening tasks are valid both for comprehension and for introducing new materials.

Chapter 3 is related to the more social aspects of TBLL as it is mostly about the social interaction established between learners as a source of input and means of acquisition especially by the Interaction Hypothesis. This chapter also studies three aspects of task and language: the negotiation of meaning, communicative strategies, and communicative effectiveness. Ellis provides evidence that there are a number of design and implementation features that have a great influence on interaction. He also suggests that context and familiarity with the task are also significant factors in learning. [-1-]

Chapter 4 represents the move to productive activities and skills. Although previous chapters had touched production as a natural part of interaction, this chapter addresses quantity and quality, fluency, accuracy and complexity of output. This chapter is “concerned with the production that results from unfocused tasks.” (p. 103) Besides, to cope with the learner’s wish of a fluent, accurate, unfragmented speech, Ellis addresses issues as linguistic knowledge representation, process of knowledge in production, and how the linguistic knowledge contributes to language acquisition. From this chapter the reader will learn that the variables affecting task design also have large influence on complexity. Ellis also states the conditions to elicit progressive complexity (p. 126-7). As in previous studies by Krashen (1978), Ellis asserts that giving time to the L2 speaker promotes accuracy, while “opportunity for strategic planning affects fluency and complexity.” However, although Ellis believes that rehearsal does not have a long term effect on production, he also recognizes that further study is necessary in the future. To conclude the chapter, Ellis seems to recommend achieving certain degree of commitment between accuracy and fluency as stressing any one may jeopardize the other.

Chapter 5 pays special attention to focused tasks (as opposed to unfocused from

Chapter 4 ). In the introduction of this clarifying chapter, the author states that there is a difference between focused activity and grammar drill. While the first aims to the content or message in certain ways, the second just aims to the form in itself being the message of secondary importance. Consequently, the difference between them is not their design but the way they are performed. The chapter also provides evidence that supports that explicit knowledge through focused activities leads to language acquisition by activating the language and fluency, constructing knowledge (by providing opportunities to develop the kind of language instructors may be interested on developing), and developing explicit linguistic knowledge. Nevertheless, the problem with this type of activity is in its design due to the need to balance focus on form and meaning.

Chapter 6 is probably the most attractive for further research, but it can also be quite thick at times for the common reader. Ellis recognizes these two facts and also the novelty of approaching tasks from the sociocultural theory. In any case, if any reader found the issue hard to understand, p. 199 presents an excellent summary of findings up-to-now, and the following pages describe Ellis’s own work. Overall, the chapter addresses the differences produced by contextual and cultural differences, which, no question, modify and affect the results of each task (for instance, may the reader consider any task-based international book and its operativeness in Japan or Chile or Germany). One significant thought can be found on page 202 where the author writes: “research in the sociocultural tradition can make teachers aware that the activity that arises from a task may not be exactly what was planned and that is not a consequence of poor planning or bad teaching but of the participants adapting the task to their own purposes.” [-2-]

While the first six chapters are more oriented towards theory than practice, chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10 intend to approach the practical utility of TBLL. It also addresses the second part of the title and seeks to facilitate teaching practice. The writer’s purpose though is not so much to give guidelines for direct teaching but to bring up key matters for orientation and further thought. In this sense, chapter 7 studies the rationale behind TBLL in relation to course design, types of tasks, thematic content, sequencing, focus on form, and teachers’ procedures for implementing this approach. The researcher says in the conclusion of this chapter that “these are all complex issues [ . . . ] and non-controversial answers [ . . . ] are not available.” (p. 240) Chapter 8 considers the ways of doing in TBLL by explaining his own vision of the various methodological aspects underlying professional practice. The two most important sections are lesson design and participatory structures. This chapter conclusion is one of the most crystalline sections in this book. If regular teachers might have some problems due to Ellis’s usual depth, they will sure learn very much from these few pages. The principles stated here suggest a construct from which teachers will be able to perform their task. It is also notable that this construct seems to support and also go beyond preceding works by Willis (1996) and Skehan (1998). The teaching principles referred hereby are the following: level of task difficulty, goals, performance orientation, students’ active role, taking risks, focus on meaning, opportunities to focus on form, need of students’ self-evaluation of progress and performance. Assessment is the central topic in chapter 9. Ellis makes a point by supporting tasks as the real means to perform assessment. The chapter reviews different issues related to assessment such as authenticity, validity, reliability and also procedures to perform task-based evaluation. One of the foundations in task-based assessment is that tasks have to be meaningful and should reflect what has been taught while in teaching this is just desirable. Tasks also need to show what and how the learning is. The positive aspect of task-based assessment is that it has to be used to measure long term learning and also that is advisable to use it combination with other types of assessment. The last chapter observes and criticizes the fact that although many courses claim to be task-based, they are not so, Ellis says that in the best cases they are task-supported (in which tasks are “chunks” of work rather than leading processes). This chapter explains some of the current skepticism towards task-based learning among applied linguists due to cultural and implementation reasons. Ellis does not take a definite general support of TBLL but makes clear that most difficulties as expressed somewhere can be overcome. Additionally, the excellent current annotated bibliography and, especially, the glossary at the end of the book facilitate the reading and make it very accessible to any reader.

Overall, the reader will understand that, in opposition to Willis and Skehan, TBLL is not an easy issue. In fact, the book presents important difficulties for TBLL implementation but also provides some light and facilitating ideas to implement this methodology. Ellis does not avoid, by any means, showing some important weaknesses but due to the way some of these problems can be solved, one may start to believe that “it is possible”. Ellis is also honest and states the need to do more research. In this sense, task learning and teaching has turned back to be studied broadly in 2002 and 2003 from different perspectives: assessment (Bonk and Ockey, 2003), in computers (González – Lloret, 2003), writing (Taylor, 2003), oral performance (Mannim, 2003) or oral group activities (Tin, 2003). Thus, as a response to the initial question on current validity, Ellis’s work brings up a number of questions that needed to be addressed and some fresh compilation of theories and studies (undoubtedly, what most people love the best of Ellis is his outstanding capacity to summarize and provide the reader with the latest studies as well as an amazing analytical capacity). [-3-]

As the book is directed at researchers and language teachers, the latter may become overwhelmed by information at times, and this is the book’s main drawback. Nevertheless, the author uses continuous summaries both through and at the end of each chapter. One of the best characteristics of this book is precisely Ellis’s capacity to summarize and make the more sophisticated and difficult research much simpler to any reader. This is precisely what makes this book accessible, interesting, up-to-date and helpful to researchers, teachers or anyone interested in improving learning, school performance or enhancing knowledge in Task-based Language Learning.

References

Bonk, W. J. & Ockey, G. J. (2003). A Many-Facet Rasch Analysis of the Second Language Group Oral Discussion Task. Language Testing 20.1.89-110.

Gonzalez-Lloret, M. (2003). Designing Task-Based CALL To Promote Interaction: En busca de Esmeraldas. Language Learning & Technology 7.1.86-104.

Krashen, S. D. (1987). Principles and practices in second language acquisition.New York: Prentice-Hall.

Mennim, P. (2003). Rehearsed Oral L2 Output and Reactive Focus on Form. ELT Journal 57.2.130-38.

Skehan, P. (1998). Task- based Instruction. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 18. 268 – 86.

Taylor, M. E. (2003). Using Collateral Material to Improve Writing Performance. ELT Journal 57.2.149-57.

Tin, T. B. (2003). Does Talking with Peers Help Learning? The Role of Expertise and Talk in Convergent Group Discussion Tasks. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 2.1. 53-66.

Walker, R. (2003). Task-based Learning and Teaching (Book review). Tesol-Spain Newsletter 27.3 (Fall).21-22.

Willis, J. (1996). A Framework for Tasked-Based Learning.London: Longman.

Yalden, J. (1987). Principles of Course Design for Language Teaching. New Directions in Language Teaching.East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED356627)

Jesus Garcia Laborda
Universidad Politecnica de Valencia
<jgarcialupvnet.upv.es>

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