The 4 approach challenge (or an attempt to rethink in place of complain)

I’m a believer in what might be considered the eclectic grumbling approach to language teaching.  You see, I love to read theory and I’m aways geeked when I can find something which changes the way I view my own teaching or looks like it will make my classes (and hence my students experience in class) a bit better.  But in finding that one good idea for a lesson, or a theory that tilts my perspective a degree or so, I more often than not find myself focusing on all the things I can’t use.  In short, I’m a complainer, a kvetch as my mother used to say, and I will worry over a minor point of theory the way my grandfather basked in the pain of his always aching back teeth.  But lately I’m starting to wonder if all this negativity isn’t getting in the way of what I have to offer my students.  And who am I anyway, to pass judgment on people who put in enough thought and work to actually make an approach to language teaching?  I’ve made some pretty groovy flash cards, but an approach?  So, in an effort to improve myself, I decided to engage in a little thought experiment.  I’ll take 4 approaches, in the form which I find most troubling, and make a lesson plan or series of lessons for each.  To give the experiment a little continuity, I will try and develop lessons which might cover similar material.  These lessons will be neither time limited nor bounded by material or monetary constraints.  They will, in short, be my attempt to provide the fullest and richest possible environment in which to explore the merits of each approach. 
So let’s start things off with…
TBL (Task Based Learning), and none of that weak form for me please. I’m talking pure TLB as posited by Skehan (1996), in which, “a strong form would argue that tasks should be the unit of language teaching.” And in keeping with the spirit of strong form TLB, their will be no predetermined linguistic forms and no tasks which overtly focus on form.  
To take a hypothetical lesson, I need a hypothetical group of students.  I’m gonna have to just completely randomly go with lower intermediate high school students in Japan on this one.  So students are in place, in their chairs, and ready to learn.  Now I need a “unit of language teaching,” AKA task/series of tasks.  How about: (Getting to know your classmates) Picking the perfect classroom language partner for your co-learners.  The Perfect Language Partner (PLP) Network!
Task 1 (Pre-Task?): Watch a video of a PLP member introducing themselves.  Encourage students to pay attention to the content of the PLP member’s self introduction, and decide if they would want to be language partners with the PLP him.
The video would be about a minute long and the script might go something like this:
“Hi, my name is Tobi.  I’m 17 years old.  I’m a pretty relaxed guy.  But sometimes I get frustrated.  I often study, but it takes me a long time to learn something new.  I like to watch TV.  I usually watch detective shows, but occasionally I’ll watch a basketball game.  I love animals and have 3 dogs and 2 cats.  I almost never go on vacation, because I have to take care of my pets.  But I hardly every feel like I’m missing out, becase my pets are the best friends in the world. Oh, I almost forgot.  I really like music.  I often go to concerts and have even met some famous musicians.  If you become my language partner, I’ll tell you all about it.”    
Task 2: Listen to the video again and have students make a list of the things that would make Tobi a good or a bad language partner for them.
Task 3: Students for small groups and work together to create a “Personal Introduction Brochure,” For the PLP Network.  The brochure must contain a pie chart on how students spend their free time, a time line showing the student’s typical day, and a short paragraph to describe the student’s personality.  Although working in groups, each student is responsible for having their own completed Personal Introduction Brochure ready for the next task.
Task 4: In groups of three, students play the role of the PLP-Network interview team.  Using the brochures produced in Task 3,  each group creates a list of interview questions for perspective PLP members (that would be the other students in class) and conducts a pre-determined number of video interviews.  And seeing as how planning time leads to richer and longer discourse (Willis, D. & Willis, J, 2001), groups will have as much time as necessary to produce the interview questions and to make a plan for how the interview will be conducted.  Of course, there will be one video camera available for each group as well as a laptop computer onto which to easily and quickly dump the video once it is taken (ah…thought experiments).
Task 5: Making a match.  A booklet of all Personal Introduction Brochures from Task 3 is produced and one copy given to all students.  Students watch the videos of all the PLP-Network member introductions.  After having watched all the videos, class members fill out a Preliminary Language Partner Pairs Form on which they match up their classmates.  While watching the videos for a second time, they should write the reasons for their pairings.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher collects the Preliminary Language Partner Pairs Form and announces the language partner results in the next class.  Students work with their selected language partner for the rest of the week. 
Follow Up/Public Report:  At the end of the weeks, pairs present on how well they felt they suited each other as language partners, how and why (or how not and why not) the PLP Network was successful, and anything else they would like to share with the class about the PLP Network experience.
And here ends the thought experiment for a TBL approach.  So what did I get out of it?  Well, my main quibble with TBL has always been my belief that language should drive a language course.  I’m not big on tasks in my classes in general and the idea of making tasks the unit of language learning just seemed kind of…well crazy to me.  If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you known that I’m much more of a text–especially written text–kind of guy.  But I can see now that I had somehow convinced myself that task was not text, which is just plain wrong.  Because even in TBL (or my dream version of it here), there is clearly an oral text which will be built over the course of the unit and all parts of each task are very clearly driven by language.  And I can especially appreciate how a series of tasks like this might provide learners with an opportunity to move from, “reproductive language use…to creative language use.” (Nunan, 2004, p. 20)  If I had the time, money and video cameras, I might even try this series of lessons out on my students.  So my rethink of TBL has given me one less thing to kvetch about.  And yet, somehow, that doesn’t exactly make me happy.  But I don’t think that’s TBL’s fault.
Next up:  The Lexical Approach or The Inigo Montoya Effect in action 
(Woops, this morning I woke up and remembered one of the best pure TBL examples I’ve ever read is right over on Kevin Giddens fantastic Do Nothing Teaching blog.  So if you want to read about how something like the above might play out in real life, and not just in my head, definitely check out the “Teddy Bears, Bookmaking and CEOS” post.  And not suprisingly, Michael Griffin had a hand in it as well.)


Nunan, D. (2004) Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skehan, P. (1996) A Framework for the Implementation of Task-based Instruction. Applied Linguistics 17 (1), 38-62.
Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2001) In R. Carter and D. Nunan (Eds) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

8 thoughts on “The 4 approach challenge (or an attempt to rethink in place of complain)

  1. wow this looks lke it's going to be an interesting series! a few noob questions: what is the hypothetical time frame of each task? how do you mitigate possible task fatigue?tamura


  2. Hi Mura,You know, those are great questions which I can only reply to with noob answers:The hypothetical time frame of each task: hadn't given it much thought as I was floating around in the perfect class world in my head where there are no chimes to signal the end of class. I would imagine that Tasks 1 and 2 would be covered in the first class and planning time for task 3 would take place at the end of that same first 1 hour class. The rest of of the tasks would probably take 2 classes each including planning time.Task Fatigue: here I think you raise one of the crucial points of why a strong or pure approach is so difficult to implement. You end up with less room to vary what you do in the class. That being said, after this series of tasks is finished, the next set of task based activities could involve working with a written text. This might go some way to helping keep the students from burning out from COS (creativity overuse syndrome).Kevin


  3. Hello Unknown,Thanks for the comment and mentioning Widgets. Anyone who is interested in running a fully supported TBL course should definitely check out the Widget's material: didn't write much about emergent language in my post, but the teacher isn't just a facilitator during the process. When needed, they will have to help students with emergent language. And I would imagine that in a perfect world, there would be pre-task activities to ensure that students have the study skills and learning strategies necessary to best capture the language which does emerge over the course of a task. Still, I think one of the things that makes TBL difficult is knowing the difference between emerging language and language the teacher just wants or hopes the student will use. Thanks again for the comment and pointing out a under-addressed issue in my hypothetical lesson.Kevin


  4. Hello Anonymous,TBL definitely seems to fit well with an emergentist perspective of language acquisition. And the fact that the language can be recycled through a well planned series of tasks is also one of the attractions of a TBL approach. Still, avoidance is also a communicative strategy, so in a really strong form of TBL, I would imagine that regardless how carefully you plan a cycle of tasks to ensure recycling, it really comes down to the students and if they decided to use recycle the language or not. Thanks for the comment.Kevin


  5. Hi Sophia,Glad to know the series has your interest. I wish I had enough time to really work through each of these methodologies/approaches in class, but my schools on a tight schedule. Still, I wanted to give them a rethink and see if I wasn't ignore some valuabe aspects of each. I'm not 100% sure, but I'm pretty sure that Inigo Montoya co-wrote some of the less influential pieces on the Lexical Approach with the father of the Lexical Approcah, Michael Lewis. Or maybe I'm just making stuff up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s