It’s one in the afternoon and I enter the classroom armed with language books, handouts and a number of other paraphernalia to make this another “greatest lesson ever.” I arrange my things, write the date and the topic on the board and turn to face a room full of what I expected to be eager faces. Instead of bright eyes and curious expressions, I see blank stares and even a few grimaces. “Buenas tardes,” I try. The class gives a collective groan. My enthusiasm fizzles.
Every language teacher at some point or the other, usually very early in their career, has faced this situation. It’s when you are meeting a group of students for the first time but they’re old enough to not be impressed by onomatopoeic name tags. Your cheery disposition has no effect on “Happy Harry” or “Joyful Jessica.”
Foreign language teaching has gone through a number of methodologies and approaches; each purporting to be better than the other. According to Richards and Rodgers (2014), “efforts to improve the effectiveness of language teaching have often focused on changes in teaching methods… such changes have reflected changes in the goals of language teaching, such as a move toward oral proficiency rather than reading comprehension as the goal of language study; they have also reflected changes in theories of the nature of language and of language learning” (p.3). Furthermore, “common to each method is the belief that the teaching practices it supports provide a more effective and theoretically sound basis for teaching than the methods that preceded it” (Richards & Rodgers, 2014).
Despite the pedagogical strides, unfortunately for the majority of classrooms, the grammar translation method or rote learning maintains supremacy as the means of teaching. This approach came out of the methods used to teach classical languages such as Greek and Latin and focused on the repetition of grammatical forms, imitating the speaker and involved translating sentences from the target language to the native language (Celce-Murcia, 2001).
How many of us can recall the endless lists of verb tables and vocabulary? In fact, any oral language practice was simple repetition of sentences, which according to Richards and Rodgers (2014), “were designed to illustrate the grammatical system of the language and consequently bore no relation to the language of real communication.” Hence, came the search for method of language teaching that emphasized the use of language for its main purpose: communication, while abstractedly, or intentionally teaching grammar.
The most recent approach to language teaching takes this view of using language as a means of communication. The Communicative Approach, as it is called, focuses on teaching contextual functions and notions. Reading, speaking and listening skills are emphasized in activities since they occur together in the real world and the rules of grammar become an outgrowth of what students learn (Richards & Rodgers, 2014). There is no set way of using the Communicative Approach. It largely depends on whether the teacher wishes to emphasize fluency or accuracy. There are also different versions of the approach, which have become methods in themselves. One such method is Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).
Nunan (2004) describes this approach as “learning by doing”. He proposed that “intellectual growth occurs when learners engage in and reflect on sequences of tasks” (p. 12). These tasks should be activities that students would naturally engage in on a day-to-day basis: real world tasks. As such, a sequence of classroom tasks may include reading a job advertisement and writing a resume in the target language, calling to make a doctor’s appointment or even a hotel reservation. The tasks are designed for students to engage in language use to make transactions, to socialize and even for enjoyment, which are all a part of everyday interactions.
Nunan (2004) makes a distinction between what he calls “target tasks” and “pedagogical tasks.” Target tasks, he wrote, “refers to uses of language in the world beyond the classroom” while “pedagogical tasks are those that occur in the classroom” (p.1). He further explained that, “a pedagogical task is a piece of classroom work that involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on mobilizing their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to manipulate form” (p. 4).
Ideally, in the communicative language classroom, both types of tasks should be used. Pedagogical tasks help to practice the grammar and vocabulary specific to a particular topic and may even have real world connections. One such task may be for students to plan a birthday party while constructing sentences which describe what each person will do. The sentences will include the future tense and vocabulary related to parties such as decorations, specific foods and gifts. A target task from this exercise would be to ask students to create and exchange invitations for the same party.
The Communicative Approach and by extension, Task Based Language Teaching involves collaboration. Students must work together on tasks either in pairs or in groups in order for the communicative objective to be met. After all, language is designed to be exchanged. Task Based Language Teaching does offer a lot of potential in the classroom for changing how students learn as well as their overall attitude to languages.
Importantly, the role of the teacher has changed. He/she no longer transmits knowledge to the learner but encourages the learner to use the knowledge that they have and through tasks to build that knowledge. The role of the learner changes too. Nunan (2004) wrote that “by using ‘task’ as a basic unit of learning, and by incorporating a focus on strategies, we open to students the possibility of planning and monitoring their own learning…” (p. 15). That is to say, students become self-directed. They determine how to approach the task and may even understand the subject matter in different ways.
That said, the students’ reaction to my greeting when I entered the classroom betrays their attitude to learning a foreign language. Their reticence came about as a response to the teaching styles that they have encountered with the result being that the new language isn’t any clearer to them now than it was when they first began learning.
As I explain my goals for the lesson and the tasks that they will be doing, I have to keep all of that in mind and determine that my approach must make language learning more meaningful. When we begin, I can see the expressions changing, and their questions about how to do the task shows that the creative gears are again turning.
And the “greatest lesson ever” begins.
Celce-Murcia, M. (2001). Language teaching approaches: An overview. In Teaching English as a second or foreign language (Vol. 2, pp. 3-10). Retrieved from http://files.sabrikoc.webnode.com/200000087-a23cda4300/Language_Teaching_Approaches_Celce-Murcia1991.pdf
Nunan, D. (2004). Task Based Language Learning . Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
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