5 Hacks for “Taskifying” the Coursebook

After a bit of a longer COVID chaos-enforced hiatus than I would have liked, this guest post is from Neil Anderson. It is a little longer than most posts here – but we will excuse that given the the wealth of knowledge and useful insights into incorporating more of a task-based approach into our lessons. In all honesty, his blog (co-written with Neil McCutcheon) has saved me hours in lesson planning and is one of the few that offers lessons that I don’t feel the need to tweak!

Is there a case against coursebooks?

You could be forgiven for feeling that discussion of coursebooks – their pros and in particular their cons – has been done to death in recent years. It’s not, though, a topic that will disappear so long as we continue to use them as the basis of our language courses, whether in private language schools or primary / secondary education. The SLB podcast hosted by Neil McMillan recently covered the topic (https://www.slb.coop/the-slb-podcast/). On the one side, Nick White and Matthew Ellman offered a robust defence of coursebooks, how they are used and the extent to which they matter; on the other, Geoff Jordan reiterated the persuasive arguments against them that he has deployed elsewhere (e.g. https://applingtesol.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/coursebooks-a-recap/).

There was in the end broad agreement that coursebooks are not monolithic, that some are more effective than others, and that in general they serve a need for teachers. What was not really addressed in this particular episode – hopefully it will feature in a follow-up – was Jordan’s central objection to coursebooks being based on a synthetic syllabus.

Synthetic Syllabuses

A synthetic syllabus is organised around the language to be taught; this is divided up into convenient elements (discrete grammatical and lexical items) and these are sequenced in some way (often by perceived difficulty – simpler structures first, more complex ones later); the learner is expected to master them one by one, “synthesising” the knowledge into a communicative whole. Many coursebooks follow a mixed syllabus (with topics and skills as playing a part in organising units) but the approach to language is synthetic – lessons are arranged around gradual mastery of a language point, from analysis to use. PPP (present, practice, produce) is the mainstay of a synthetic syllabus: a language item is studied, practised in more restricted ways and then produced through some form of (hopefully) communicative task.

This is familiar, well-established and comfortable for teachers and learners. So, what is the problem with it? You can argue against it from various perspectives:

  • it presupposes that language items are mastered one at a time, in a linear fashion, and this is not borne out by much SLA (second language acquisition) research; the process is more complicated and does not seem to follow the order dictated by explicit instruction (see Long, 2015, pp.21-25 for a detailed summary);
  • assuming you consider yourself to be a communicative language teacher, authentic production should be a significant lesson event and yet with PPP this is largely relegated to the end of the class: it takes a backseat. Pressures of time and pacing may even mean it does not occur in the lesson (especially in contexts where lessons are only 45 minutes long e.g. secondary schools);
  • it can be input-impoverished: much classroom time is focused on a single structure at the expense of a wider range of grammatical and lexical items;
  • as much time may be spent discussing the language as using the language.

Analytic Syllabuses and TBL/TBLT

An alternative is an analytic syllabus, which is organised according to the communicative purposes for using language rather than individual language items. Learners engage in holistic input and output-oriented tasks and analyse the samples of language they are exposed to.

An example would be a task-based syllabus in which the primary focus of given a lesson is the completion of some form of communicative task – for instance, learners share experiences, or compare opinions, or work together to solve a problem, perhaps using different sources of information (e.g. some form of jigsaw). They do so to achieve an outcome rather than display (temporary) mastery of a single language item. And in doing so, there are opportunities for learners to notice language, to enquire about the language they need and to receive reactive focus on form from the teacher.  

We can argue that task-based learning, or task-based language teaching (TBL / TBLT) potentially confers the following advantages:

  • there is, in theory, motivation to process and use language as there is a goal or outcome for the main task;
  • learners are exposed at different points to a range of samples of language;
  • communicative use of language is the central focal point of the lesson;
  • there is still a focus on form, one that is largely reactive and therefore responds to learners at the point of need.

Following Willis (1996), a task-based sequence is broadly made up of:  

  • a pre-task to ready the students for the task (e.g. set the context, establish and prepare for the task);
  • the task cycle itself (students complete the task, report back on their findings);
  • post-task language focus (e.g. students examine related texts for language, teacher gives feedback on learner output).

With its prioritisation of the task and delayed language focus, it resembles, as Willis notes, PPP “upside down”, albeit with the potential for a much richer focus on language as it does not prioritise a single language point. It is inaccurate to say there is no focus on accuracy; it is just that meaning and fluency comes first, and the language focus emerges from this.

A Third Way? “Taskifying” the coursebook.

There are, though, significant issues with implementing a task-based approach. Even if we want to, most teachers of general English are not free to do so, because we have to use coursebooks. Nor do we have the freedom or resources to carry out extensive needs analysis, as Long (2015) proposes, to identify the target tasks that are useful for our learners.

I think the key question is not whether or not we should use a coursebook, but how we can use it well. My colleague Neil McCutcheon and I have an abiding interest in task-based learning. Over the years as both teachers and teacher educators, we have adopted (and adapted) a few strategies that help more closely align a coursebook – particularly the language focus part of a unit – with some of the principles of task-based learning. These five practical tips or “hacks” are as follows:

  1. Turn the unit on its head:  ignore the grammar / lexical set, and instead look for the “language production” stage, usually at the end of the particular section. Use this as the starting point (after generating interest and establishing the context): create a central task. Sometimes there is no decent language production stage in the book; in this case, devise one that creates a need for the upcoming language input. For instance, if the lesson is focusing on be going to for holiday plans, students can start the lesson by sharing their plans.  
  2. Give this task a goal or outcome: check if the production in the book is communicative i.e. it encourages the learners to both speak and listen to each other. If it is not, build in a reason for learners to interact e.g. find commonalities or differences in opinion / experience, try to reach agreement, evaluate / react to their partner’s position. For example, if students are discussing holiday plans, they can listen to their partner and decide if this is a holiday they would enjoy; or (even richer from the perspective of negotiating meaning), they can plan and report on a joint holiday.
  3. Cast your net wide: although you may have a particular language point in mind (that which is in the coursebook e.g. be going to), don’t limit yourself to this or you fall into the trap of input-impoverished PPP. It is highly likely that while students are preparing for, doing or reflecting on the task, there will be plenty of emergent opportunities for learning, with the students needing certain language items to help them complete the task (or post-task, when they may be curious about salient language they could have used). This language can be captured and added to the learning via e.g Quizlet, meaning the syllabus now has an emergent dimension.
  4. Mine texts: if you follow the Willis framework outlined above, the post-task language focus can centre around the texts / tapescripts present in the unit of the coursebook. Set simple tasks that encourage learners to mine the texts for relevant language e.g. find 3 positive adjectives used to describe the holiday; find 4 collocations to describe holiday activities. Note that there is no guarantee that these texts will provide rich, authentic samples of language (though I believe most coursebooks are increasingly good at this); an alternative where possible is to devise your own “live listening” to provide learners with comprehensible input.
  5. Repeat the task: have the students repeat the central task, but with variables in place to keep it fresh and interesting e.g. a new goal, new partners, tweaked content (e.g. plan a holiday in a different place / different time of year) or with different demands (e.g. a written rather than spoken itinerary). A number of researchers have reported improvements to task performance in terms of complexity, accuracy and fluency based on task repetition (Ahmadian, 2012).  

The coursebook is going nowhere soon – and nor should it, unless useful alternatives that work effectively for underpaid and overworked teachers emerge. I do think though, given the significance of the coursebook to many ELT courses, it is useful for teachers to reflect on how to use it effectively with their learners, while keeping in mind some key findings of SLA. Teacher educators also have a responsibility to facilitate this process.

Reference List

Ahmadian, M.J., 2012. Task Repetition in ELT. English Language Teaching Journal. 66(3). [online] Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/66/3/380/439513> [Accessed 20th July 2020]

Long, M. 2015. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Willis, J. 1996. A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

The Importance of Project Work in Language Learning

This guest post is from Shannon Amaadar (Kings English). I first came across Shannon via some excellent videos she had created to help teachers foster more engagement and motivation with learners in the classroom. I am thrilled she has agreed to contribute this post on how to use project based learning to build enthusiasm and autonomy for learning.

My classes used to start with students sitting in desks with their books out waiting for instruction. They weren’t excited, I wasn’t excited. That is, until I realised that there’s a better way to learn.

Language is something that’s experienced and used. It’s a tool to express your ideas and a means to tell stories and pass knowledge. Why are we relegating it vocabulary lists and grammar rules?

Using the language is so important for acquisition. Giving it practicality and usefulness makes learning easier and more enjoyable. We can do this by making a project the main focus of classroom activity.

Problem solving and discovery are two of the best ways we learn anything. This type of learning encourages our brains to be at alert. It thinks the information is important and hangs on to it, rather than putting it in short term memory then dumping it later on. Project based learning (PBL) is a great way to get students thinking about language in a different way.

Getting started

Setting up a class project can not only help students acquire language, it strengthens other skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. All while accomplishing a task. It makes classes interesting again and students open up to learning.

According to John McCarthy at TeachThought.com students who have a direct interest in the subject they’re studying, engage more and achieve better results. By making the lesson relevant to the students, they’ll work harder towards their goal. PBL is a great way to practice this.

The best way to begin with project work is to come up with a subject that everyone can get behind. Maybe you introduce students to the effects of pollution or solving a community problem such as turning a vacant plot of land into a garden or helping feed the homeless. Whatever your topic, make sure it’s something students can get passionate about.

Once you’ve established a goal, work as a class to come up with solutions. If we take the example of plastic pollution, perhaps students could design a tote bag to replace plastic shopping bags. Materials and designs could all be discussed in English, and the final product could use English designs elements like phrases. Finally the finished tote bags can be used to fundraise to donate to a local cause.

By making the language something that is useful, something that has meaning, students are more likely to retain the vocabulary and grammar rules, than if they simply wrote them down and tried to memorise.

Learning English has now become a fun activity and something that students can look forward to doing each class. This is so important, because students, who are bored, don’t learn.

Assessment

One of the great things about project work is how easy it is to assess understanding. You can see how well each student is doing by looking at factors such as participation, and how well they follow direction.

It’s a great idea to take some time at the end of the class to have a quick discussion. It’s ok to ask students how well they understand what was talked about in the lesson. Encourage students to give you honest answers and provide extra help in understanding where necessary.

When students aren’t afraid to make mistakes and speak up, language acquisition happens quickly. It’s important for students to understand that making mistakes is a part of discovery. When something doesn’t work or is wrong we learn from it better than if it worked or was right. Project work is all about discovery and making mistakes.

Having “check points” throughout the project work can help you gauge student understanding as well. At various stages of the work students can answer a short questionnaire, discuss where they are in the project development, or self assess with a rubric distributed by the teacher.

Making sure that all students are up to speed is essential for the success of the whole class. If students are falling behind, catching it quickly and offering extra help or guidance to those who need it will help everyone be successful.

Structure

Centering lessons on group project work might sound to some like teachers have given up. Allow the students to do as they will, and hope for the best. This is the farthest from the truth.

When using project based Learning, the teacher’s role is to set the parameters and guide students along the way, without interfering and allowing for mistakes.

It’s common for students to be unsure, always asking for guidance and assistance. It’s important that, as the teacher, you stay back a little and encourage discovery. Asking questions like: “what would happen if…?” and “why don’t we try this and see what happens?” Encouraging students to explore will make them feel more comfortable to do just that.

According to Dr. Ping Li in an interview with Francois Grosjean Ph.D. for Psychology today, there are 5 parts of a language that our brains must process. Lexicon, phonology, orthography, syntax, and pragmatics, therefore it would make sense to engage our brains in activities that encourage use in all of these areas.

PBL may be the best way for learners to experience, make use of, and retain language. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun and fosters friendships and cooperation at the same time.

Try using this method in your classroom and see what results you get out of it. You might find your students are achieving well beyond your expectations.

It’s your turn: Board games in the foreign language classroom

This post, from James York, explains the how he uses board games with his students. If you think that playing games is just all about having fun, then you will be interested in his surprisingly sound methodological validation of this approach

“It’s your turn”

This phrase is multifaceted. It suggests that someone is not paying attention and needs to be reminded to take their turn during a game. But what game? Who is this “you?” Could it be the third-person “you” as in “all of you?” In this article, I think it does. I’d like to frame the expression as me speaking to my students, letting them know that the progression of the class and their learning is now up to them. It is their turn to take control. But it also applies to you, the reader. If you are interested in the practical application of games in your (language) teaching context, this article is a good place to start. I’d like to talk about how I have been engaging students with the use of board games as part of a constructivist approach to education. 

Modern Board Games

First, it is worth clarifying the types of game that I am using in class. Monopoly? No. The Game of Life? No. The modern board game movement, which dispenses with randomness and embraces player interaction and strategy, has seen a huge volume of new games, and game genres appear (for an overview see Nicholson, 2008). Modern board games require complex language use (not just “I passed go, $200 please”), provide links into English culture (how can learners play a card with Nyan Cat on it without learning about the reference, or at least inspired to learn more about this bizarre symbol of English culture?). Amongst those genres are two in particular that provide positive benefits for language learning. These are the hidden-role and cooperative game genres. These two genres were chosen based on how they are played. 

What are hidden role games?

Hidden-role games are conversation driven and require students to exchange information with each other much like a typical “jigsaw task” in Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) wherein learners are only given part of the information needed to complete a task and must work together, sharing information for successful completion. 

What are cooperative games?

Cooperative games differ from competitive games in that they do not put players in direct competition with each other, instead, all players work as a team against the game itself, thus promoting conversation regarding how to progress the game state. 

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Forbidden Desert (a cooperative game)

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Burgle Bros. (another cooperative game)

On a macro scale student agency is promoted by putting students in charge of choosing the game they play. 

On a micro scale, students are in charge of learning the game rules, considering the language they need to play, progressing the game state, and analysing their performance post-play.

Methodology overview

The methodology I have created was originally conceptualised as a way to improve my students’ communicative competence through the use of board games. The project has since evolved to focus on all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing). In this post I’ll focus on what the methodology is, how it is carried out, and what students think of learning this way (for more detail, see York & deHaan, 2018; York, 2019).

The methodology is comprised of four main phases, each of which is a full 90-minute lesson. They are Learn, Play, Analyse and Report. The Play and Analyze phases are repeated once (or more if the need exists) so the minimum time it takes to go through one full cycle of the method is six weeks. I will explain each of these phases in more detail below.

The methodology may be considered as a game-based approach to conducting Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT). The following list highlights some of the major similarities:

  • both focus on meaning-making rather than discrete linguistic elements, 
  • language use is purposeful and goal-oriented
  • games and task-based curricula have incremental progression models (read: levelling systems), 
  • game restarts can be considered task repetition
  • both provide students with a safe space to experiment with the language without fear of failure or losing face.

Next, the model in action!

The methodology: real-life examples

Upon choosing a game, students are in charge of learning the rules of the game. This is the Learn phase, which is heavily multimodal. They can use multiple resources to learn the rules including the rulebook, youtube videos, their peers, and presentations that I have made. Preparing for play in this way is thus similar to the preliminary “pre-task” phase of TBLT. 

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Students getting ready to play Dead of Winter

The second class is the Play phase where learners play and record the audio as they play. There is a specific reason for having students record their games. When playing a game, we often get so enthralled in it that we do not have time to reflect on what is happening in real time. Put another way, the cognitive demands of the game do not allow for real-time language focus. This point can be summarised as: activities require careful reflection (debriefing) for learning to occur. In my case, language analysis is done after playing, but what about other contexts? What post-play activities would you do with students?

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A group of students playing Resistance: Avalon

During the Analyze phase students look for English mistakes and Japanese usage in their previous performance. This is done by first transcribing their recordings and looking for common mistakes or common Japanese phrases that they used. Students are therefore active in filling in their lack of knowledge regarding a topic. Again, in my case: augmenting their interlanguage with grammar exercises found on the internet or their electronic dictionaries (It’s their turn to be in charge, remember!). 

Although students are acting autonomously, the teacher’s role is still crucial. In my situation, I am constantly on the lookout to uncover possible errors, point out grammar that they may want to investigate further, and question their understanding of constructs, but the onus is on them working together as a social group to further their own language development. The final part of the class is for students to present their findings to other groups, as a way to reflect on what they discovered about their language use. This “debriefing of the debriefing” session thus opening group findings up to others.

The fourth class is a replay session, which is again recorded for subsequent transcription and analysis. 

The fifth class is another Analyze session which has the goal of getting students to compare their performance between the two play sessions. 

Finally, students complete a survey as part of the Report phase which is designed to debrief the gameplay experience from a number of perspectives. The survey is completed as a group, which evokes deeper reflection and more detailed answers than completing the survey individually. As with the “Analysis” phase, students also present their group reflections to the rest of the class. This has benefits to me, gaining insights on how to improve the framework and the students compare their experiences with others.

I provide a number of responses from the survey here as an example (all verbatim). They are made after playing the deduction game “Two Rooms and a Boom” (Gerding & McCoy, 2013).

Why did you like this game?

“I make new friends and enjoy speaking English”

“I’m happy when win using English. But one part of classmates don’t have morale, I feel so bad.”

“The game use brain! So, very hard, but very interesting!!”

“I enjoyed because I communication in English and I’m special roles which is President and Romeo.”

I think these responses are a good representation of the general attitude towards playing games in English in my classroom. Gameplay is seen as a positive learning experience in terms of English language development, as well as the social aspect of being able to talk to other classmates, the cognitive challenge, and by providing the opportunity to role-play. The comment regarding morale is rather profound, and I endeavour to inquire further with this group!

Discussion

I have found the decision to abandon generic textbooks a liberating experience for both me and my students, and a positive step towards my research goal of designing a pedagogy for language learning around games. Although I am only providing informal observations here, I can attest to the power of letting students be in charge of their own learning. There is not a mobile phone in sight during class, and if there is, it is being used to either record gameplay audio or to search the internet for resources. Students are engaged and active, working in groups with other students in a social, safe, and fun environment. The response to the class from students has been very positive. In a qualitative study I undertook last year, students seemed to think this was an authentic way to use English in class. Gaming thus provided them with their first experience of using English practically. 

Promoting students to “take their turn” as language learners instead of passive consumers of grammar rules has changed the dynamic of my classroom. Instead of systematically spoon feeding knowledge, by providing them with the support materials to learn what they are ready for, deem appropriate, and use as part of the class is healthy for both students and teachers.

In conclusion, I have shown how I created a framework around games to promote student engagement. Giving students a choice in what they do within the framework promotes learning that is not just a one-way transmission of information, but an exploratory, student-led endeavour. The teacher’s role in the classroom does require further consideration though. Putting students in charge of their learning does not mean that we can be totally removed from what they do. In fact, it calls for more expertise and reflection. In my case, giving rule explanations, promoting noticing of grammar issues as they occur, and leading discussions on game strategy and feedback are just some of the activities that I deal with daily.  

So, why not reroll your own context to put students in charge? Now it’s your turn.

References

Gerding, A. & McCoy, S. (2013) Two Rooms and a Boom. Tuesday Knight Games.

Nicholson, S. (2008). Modern board games: It’s not a Monopoly any more. Library Technology Reports, 44(3), 8-10. 

York, J. (2019) Kotoba Rollers Walkthrough: Board games, TBLT and player progression in an EFL university classroom. Ludic Language Pedagogy 1 (58-115).

York, J., & DeHaan, J. (2018). A constructivist approach to game-based language learning: Student perceptions in a beginner-level EFL context. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 8(1), 19–40. http://doi.org/10.4018/IJGBL.2018010102

Ed Tech – The Journey or the Destination?

I recently read a post which was, basically, a teacher evangelising about using technology in the classroom. She said ‘I am passionate about my mission to get all of our teachers to embrace technology’ (or words to that effect). In the same week I read a post that was entitled ‘How to Ace Your Next Observation Lesson’, the first idea was to include ‘some sort of’ tech. apparently lesson observers just go nuts for that sort of thing. But why?

Are these people suggesting that all tech is good? That having tech in your lesson somewhere automatically elevates a mediocre lesson to a great lesson? It would seem so. I remember being told by the supposedly expert teaching team at the FE college I was working in a few years ago, that I should ‘use Face Book’ with my learners between classes. It is worth bearing in mind both that the learners in question were adult pre A1 level and that I had never used Face Book. There was no explanation as to HOW I should (or even could) use it, nor WHY it was apparently such an amazing idea to supplement their learning this way. It seemed that they just thought that tech was good, tech was modern, tech was the sign of a progressive learning environment, tech made everything better (and don’t get me started on the lesson observations that were marked down because I didn’t use the interactive features of the whiteboard…).

Using technology in and between lessons has to be done to improve the overall experience for our learners. Using tech for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. We may see an interesting idea while tumbling down the internet rabbit hole and think ‘hmm, that looks fun I’ll use it my class’ – but first we should ask ourselves – WHY should we use it? HOW will it help our learners? WHERE does it fit with our lesson? and ARE our learners able to use it?

The SAMR model (Puentedura) takes these questions one step further and gets us to evaluate the tech by its application and purpose.

To better familiarise yourself with the whole SAMR approach there is an excellent video here. The basic idea is to reflect on why the tech is being used, is it merely as an adjunct? (such as replacing pen and paper with a screen and keyboard) or does it allow us to achieve something that would previously have been inconceivable? (like collaborating on a podcast with students from a school in a different country). The SAMR model also ensures that we consider the use of the tech in question, is it just for fun (which is not necessarily a bad thing – ‘brain breaks’ can aid learning) or is there a pedagogical purpose?

We need to be picky when it comes to tech, we need to evaluate what it is and why we are using it. There are loads of fantastic apps, programmes and software available out there – but we have to be sure that we are adding value to the learning experience with them, not just ‘teching’ for the sake of it.

References

Ruben R. Puentedura. Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006)