Published in newspaper ELT News in December 2001.
So here I am comfortably sitting on my sofa waiting for the Big Brother ‘show‘, wondering whether our everyday heroes have managed to succeed in their weekly mission. Just let me get a nice cuppa and then I can satisfy my nosiness, a secret intruder in their TBL. Now, wait a minute, did I just say TBL? Has BB got an educational value after all?!
So I thought about it for a moment and the answer is that the programme per se probably not, but it certainly can spring ideas to all inquiring language teachers. I have two words for you: motivation and authenticity. Now, I’m thinking of buzzing classes, student-to-student interaction patterns, co-operation… ‘So where does BB fit in?‘ you’ll ask quite rightly. Well, the show’s participants lead a TBL (Task-Based Life) that we can adapt for our students in TBL (Task-Based Learning). Get it?
The serious stuff
According to Canale, Communicative Competence consists of four interrelated components, namely:
i. Grammatical competence,
ii. Sociolinguistic competence,
iii. Discourse competence, and finally,
iv. Strategic competence
(Canale 1983: 6-14).
I won’t discuss grammatical and discourse competence since most of tend to focus on these in our classes. Sociolinguistic and strategic competence, on the other hand, refer to the functional side of language which is often overlooked, and admittedly the most difficult to actually teach. The former considers the ‘appropriateness’ of an utterance according to the context, and it is clearly related to the social and cultural context of the TL community. Strategic competence is a rather more complicated term, defining not only compensatory communication strategies but also ‘choices’ made by the speaker for effective language use. For a brief discussion on the different views about strategic competence the reader is directed to Brown (1993: 228-9).
“A communicative approach is one in which the main goal is to prepare and encourage learners to exploit in an optimal way their limited communicative competence in the second language in order to participate in actual communication situations” (Canale, 1983: 14-19).
Reading this one cannot help but wonder in how many classrooms this does actually take place. The norm most EFL contexts, is still largely a teacher-centred class where learner to learner interaction is limited at best, and where the teacher is acting as a lecturer really, while the interaction with students is a controlled question-response one. This will no doubt fail to prepare learners to be able to interact in authentic situations.
What is lacking in most Greek EFL classrooms, and no doubt in similar situations around the world, is the opportunity for ‘authentic’ use of the language by the learners themselves. The issue of authenticity in the language classroom is a much-debated one. What is meant by authenticity? It is surely not only to provide learners with examples of authentic language, whether spoken or written, although this is important in a language programme. One can also talk about authenticity in tasks, that is tasks providing the learners with opportunities to use the language in an authentic enough context. Questions initiated in language classrooms are mostly display questions, examples, of course, of inauthentic interaction. One cannot but wonder as to the likeliness of the classroom language taking being encountered in real life out of context, and indeed a context for most of many of the classroom utterances is difficult to be found. Sadly, practices like that fail to involve the processes by which interaction takes place. The information –gap, “the existence of doubt” is what these ‘processes’ depend on (Johnson, 1979: 201).
I think you’ll agree with me in saying that the language classroom needs more meaningful communication to take place among its members in order for the learners themselves to become effective speakers of the target language. Meaningful context thus, would mean making sure learners have opportunities to use the language as they would in natural, ‘authentic’ conversations. This is indeed difficult to be done regarding the physical and psychological constraints of the classroom environment, but quasi-authentic situations that would focus on fluency and appropriacy rather than on isolated utterances, is possible. What is important is that the learner is making choices on what aspects of language to use and how to use it appropriately in a given situation. What is more, there should be a purpose for communication.
The need for learners to experience ‘real’ communicative situations is even more important in EFL contexts where the target language is not spoken extensively outside the classroom. It is the responsibility of the teacher in this case to design tasks that would provide learners with a genuine purpose for interaction (whether teacher to student or between students in group work). Meaningful activities that would involve the learners themselves will not only seem more interesting to them but also help them stretch their linguistic abilities by fostering flexibility in the foreign language. So here is where TBL (learning that is) comes into the picture.
The Task- Based approach is well known so I won’t tire you with details; the tasks themselves construct the syllabus the primary focus of which is meaning. Briefly, language learning is seen as developing through doing and it is by primarily engaging in meaning that the learner’s system is encouraged to develop. Achievement is assessed in terms of successful completion of the tasks.
Skehan (1998) defines ‘a task’ as an activity in which:
i. meaning is primary;
ii. there is some communication problem to solve;
iii. there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities;
iv. task completion has some priority;
v. the assessment of the task is in terms of outcome
(Skehan, 1998: 95).
The pedagogic value of the implementation of tasks in the language classroom, is that they foster a more “balanced language development,” catering for fluency, accuracy and complexity (ibid. 98). Space does not permit for a detailed account of task- based instruction. A review of the most important research and an evaluation, as well as suggestions for implementation can be found in Skehan (1998).
Where does BB fit in? Implications in the classroom
So, now that we have rushed through the academic background, let us think of how all this theory can be practically applied.
What is lacking from our language classrooms is spontaneous communication in ‘real time’ that would provide the authenticity in language learning. Our syllabuses, however, are mainly exam-oriented and even the most communicative of us lack the time to develop students’ strategic competence through meaningful tasks. So, here’s where T-B Life of the BB participants comes in.
As most of you probably know, the participants are asked to co-operate with each other towards a common goal. The assessment of their ‘mission‘ is in terms of its outcome; the task itself provides true motivation to keep them going; it has a ‘reason’ i.e. on its success depends their ‘weekly budget‘; meaningful communication is vital for its completion. Looking back at the model provided by researchers on the importance of authenticity and motivation in language classroom, it is obvious that we can surely adapt the BB situation in our classroom. Before rushing to the stores for cameras and double-sided mirrors, let us think of how the BB’s tasks can be adapted for our classrooms.
Let us take a couple of tasks. The composition of a poem could be organised as a group activity. The students, given a theme, alongside some keywords, can co-operate in the writing. The production of a play or even the use of drama in the form of short role-plays and simulation activities will increase the motivation in the classroom, will have the students co-operating, using all their language resources and strategies to produce meaningful utterances.
Of course the organisation of this requires time. The tasks need careful grading as not to have the opposite results, that is the intimidation of students. A class that has been taught in a traditional teacher-centred environment might face difficulties when encountered with freer activities. However, most students will start feeling more comfortable with a freer approach as far as they can see a point in it. So what is the role of the teacher? Well, that of Big Brother of course. Like cameras you will be monitoring your students and be their ‘resource bank‘. You will give them the task’s layout, provide them with help whenever needed, and carefully monitor their language development, their strengths and weaknesses, the interaction patterns. You are not supposed to interfere unless asked, and you are certainly not supposed to interrupt in order to correct. Big Brother never does! As mentioned above it is the process towards the completion of the task that is important. If, however, we find ourselves eager to impart some of our linguistic knowledge to the students, then we try to focus on patterns that come up during the session and spend five minutes of the feedback time at the end of the session/task.
Time management is a headache for teachers, and I’m sure most of you are thinking that all these could only happen in the ideal class. Time is understandably the biggest issue, but if everything is given a lot of thought and is planned well ahead I cannot see how it could not fit into the class’ programme, at the last minutes of the class over a period of time. An extra hour during which students, perhaps from different groups, could work together on a task could also be the solution. A competition between groups has always proven motivating. However, as the orchestra needs a competent maestro to bring the sounds of the instruments together in harmony, the role of the Big Brother (yes, that’s you!) as a coordinator and facilitator is very important. The language focus points and possibilities to develop and adapt the same task for different levels and age groups are numerous. One has to keep in mind, though that however attractive a Task-Based approach might seem it needs careful organization lest these numerous possibilities and the freedom it offers learners, becomes uncontrollable.
Now, if you excuse me, Big Brother’s on the house!
[You had the rules, next time I’ll come back with the game! BB Lesson plans coming up!]
* Patritsia Andrioti: ELT materials’ Editor for Macmillan ELT. She holds a B.A from the University of London, and a M.Ed specialising in T.E.F.L from the University of Bristol. Her research involved an empirical study of role-play and drama activities in the Greek EFL context and is interested in the issues that involve the implementation of communicative, interactive activities in the private language schools. One of her main academic interests was also CALL and the implementation of the Internet in the classroom.
- Brown, H. D. (1993) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, (3rd ed.), NJ: Prentice Hall
- Canale, M. (1983) “From communicative competence to communicative pedagogy,’ in Richards, J. C. and Schmidt, R. N. (eds) Language and Communication, London: Longman
- Johnson, K. (1979) “Communicative approaches and communicative processes” in Brumfit, C. J. and Johnson, K. (eds) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP
- Skehan, P. (1996) “Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction,” in Willis, J. and Willis, D. (eds) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Oxford: Heinemann ELT
- Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning, Oxford: OUP