#BridgeingtheGapChallenge: The role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction

Guest post by Don Watson

Based on 

de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from: http://www.lrc.cornell.edu/events/past/2006-2007/fuentes.pdf

I assume anyone reading this blog has at least heard of Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT). But as with any approach/method etc. the thing we all, as teachers, want to know is: Does it work and how do I use it best? The study Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction attempts to answer this question when using TBLT to teach vocabulary.

Interestingly, this study also addresses another age old ELT question of (when) is it ok to talk about the language. It’s pretty well agreed that classroom interaction should be predominantly communicative in nature i.e. we use the language we are trying to teach in order to communicate, but when is it ok to explicitly discuss things like grammar or vocab. The study calls this a “focus on form” and cites Swain to argue that if learners notice certain aspects of the language they are exposed to and then compare this with their own language production, then language acquisition is more likely.

Ok, great. Let’s focus on form. But, as always, there is a but. This being a journal article, however, there is actually a however (see Lockman & Swales, 2010). And here it is: “Skehan (1998), however, remarks that it is not advisable to intervene during tasks.” He suggests that it is preferable to “intervene” after the task is complete as then it is more likely that “form–meaning relationships and pattern identification are not transitory… but are still available for attention and so more likely to be integrated into a growing interlanguage system”.

So now we have an idea of what to do and when to do it, so how does this study help? The authors describe the study as a “classroom-based, quasi-experimental study,” focusing on, second language “oral productive vocabulary acquisition of word meanings and forms”. As it’s an experiment there is a control and experimental group. In this case the “control group” is a traditional PPP (that’s Presentation, Practice and Production just in case you don’t know) lesson. So I guess in this case the PPP stands for PPPlacebo. No, that’s mean; let’s stick with “control”. So they compare a traditional PPP lesson with two versions of a Task based lesson. The first task was “a one-way, role-play, information-gap task with a planned focus on form and meaning. The task required students to use the target lexical forms while keeping attention to meaning, in order to achieve the goal of ordering food from a restaurant’s menu”. The second Task based lesson had the same first two stages as the first task based lesson, however, instead of a task repetition, “a teacher generated, explicit focus-on-forms stage was incorporated”. The “focus-on-forms” stage was designed “to explicitly clarify morphological, phonological and spelling issues.”

The study then tested the students’ ability to “retrieve” the target vocabulary immediately after the lesson and again one week after the lesson. No statistically significant difference was found for the immediate retrieval of words (although the Task based lessons were better, just not better enough) however after one week, the Task based lessons did produce significantly better results. The authors suggest that this is “due to the fewer opportunities for targeted output production and retrieval that PPP lessons offer, and to its inability to effectively focus students’ attention on targeted forms”.

And as we know, learning vocabulary is much more than simply learning the definition of a word. And this is where the real advantage of this Task+Focus-on-Form idea is because it results in “not only acquisition of the words’ basic meaning, but also of important formal/morphological aspects of words.”

So the take away from all this is: If you’re doing tasks, and I guess most of us are, don’t interrupt the task and be sure to explicitly clarify the target language after the task is complete.

References

de la Fuente, M. J. (2006). Classroom L2 vocabulary acquisition: investigating the role of pedagogical tasks and form-focused instruction. Language Teaching Research 10, 3. pp. 263–295. Retrieved from: http://www.lrc.cornell.edu/events/past/2006-2007/fuentes.pdf

Lockman & Swales (2010). Sentence Connector Frequencies in Academic Writing (and Academic Speech).  Retrieved from: http://www.readbag.com/micusp-elicorpora-files-0000-0253-sentence-connector-kibbitzer-1

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford University Press.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C., editors, Input in second language acquisition. Newbury House, 235–53.

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