Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach – Week 4

If you’d like to read the previous weeks’ posts, check them out here:

Whereas the previous weeks have been focused on TBLT and reading in general, we got a little more specific this week – we focused on language in the reading classroom. That is, how we can integrate the teaching of lexis, grammar, etc. in task sequences. This post is a lot longer than I intended it to be, but I think I wouldn’t be doing the course or you any favours by shortening it!

Focus on Form vs. Focus on FormS

Before we get into the nitty gritty, we need to define a number of things:

Focus on Form (FonF): ‘A brief allocation of attention to linguistic form as the need for this arises incidentally, in the context of communication’ (Richards and Schmidt, 2010, p.223). In essence, drawing learners’ attention to form while keeping the primary focus on meaning.

Focus on FormS (FonFs): ‘Focus on one form (or rule) at a time that one finds in a language course where there is a “structure of the day”, usually pre-specified by the teacher or the textbook’ (Richards and Schmidt, 2010, p.223). This is the standard discrete grammar rule teaching most of us have engaged in at one time or another.

Why define these? Well, as we move through this post I will mention these, but also the distinctions between the two are very important from a TBLT perspective. FonF assumes that there is some similarities between L1 and L2 acquisition, i.e. language is acquired through exposure; however, there are a number of recognised differences between L1 and L2 acquisition and as such FonF assumes that attention needs to be drawn to grammatical forms as exposure is not enough for a number of reasons (e.g. attention, noticing, etc.). In terms of TBLT, this means that FonF is reactive, in a sense, to learners needs and allows for attention to be drawn to grammatical, lexical, phonological or discoursal features of language when it is being used. In this way we can think of this type of language learning as incidental.

What about FonFs? Well, there are those in TBLT, like hardliner Michael Long, who believe that there should be no FonFs. Then there are those ‘milder’ TBLT proponents, like Rod Ellis, that believe FonFs, with explicit instruction, has its place in TBLT. The one thing that all these ‘milder’ TBLT proponents have in common, however, is that FonFs should generally be done after the task so as not to put in jeopardy the task integrity, i.e. turn learners’ attention to focusing solely on one pre-determined feature of language.

I am currently reading Task-based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice (2020) by Ellis, Skehan, Li, Shintani and Lambert, alongside this course (will write a review once I am finished!). It is a thick book and it will take me a while to get through, but the point I want to raise is that there is plenty of research out there that indicates that a focus on language in some way is very important. As teachers, we need to look at said research, our own teaching context AND principles and make judicious decisions on what to implement – FonF, FonFs or both. My personal opinion is that both are important, but at different stages in the task cycle. However, I firmly believe that FonF/incidental learning of language is more beneficial to learners, but FonFs can be beneficial as long as is it is socially mediated (one could say that I am taking the sociocultural perspective instead of the cognitive-interactionist). I imagine there will be much debate out there, so feel free to let me know your thoughts!

For a more detailed, although not super detailed, account of the differences, have a look at Sheen’s (2002) article titled, ‘Focus on form’ and ‘focus on forms’.

Pre-task activities

The pre-task phase lends itself very well to language work, especially regarding the introduction of potentially difficult lexis and the recycling of language from previous lessons and task cycles. One interesting point that was raised this week was that pre-teaching vocabulary may actually have a negative effect on reading comprehension. Some research indicates that the pre-teaching of lexis encouraged learners to focus on that language more and this in term decreased their comprehension of the text. They also presented a quote from Ellis which I think presents an important point in the argument surrounding pre-teaching language:

‘There is always the danger that pre-teaching vocabulary will result in learners treating the task as an opportunity to practise pre-selected words.’

Ellis, 2003, p.247

Other research indicated positive effects on both the understanding of vocabulary as well as comprehension of the text. So, the jury is still out and we do not have one specific answer. One of the conclusions that can be drawn, however, is that pre-teaching of vocabulary can be effective if instruction is rich and focuses on high-frequency items.

Rich instruction

Rich instruction – what is it? Well, before we get into that I want you to think about how you teach vocabulary, and not just in a reading lesson. What do you get your learners to focus on? Take a moment to think and then scroll down.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are many ways to teach vocabulary, but from a rich instruction perspective there are a number of things to consider. In Nation’s (2001) book, Learning vocabulary in another language, he writes that rich instruction is when we go further than simply the meaning of the word:

The best time to provide rich instruction is when learners have already met the word several times and may be ready to make it part of their usable vocabulary. The aim of rich instruction is to establish the word as an accessible vocabulary item. Rich instruction involves (1) spending time on the word; (2) explicitly exploring several aspects of what is involved in knowing a word; and (3) involving learners in thoughtfully and actively processing the word. Rich instruction can be a teacher-led activity, it can be student led particularly when students report on words they have met and explored, it can be done as group work, or it can be done in individualised exercises.

Nation, 2001, p. 117

In essence, learners need to do a combination of the following:

  • Identify the possible contexts in which the item would be appropriate
  • Identify possible concordances and collocations
  • Connect items to functions through semantic mapping (a fancy word for mind mapping)
  • Analyse the item in terms of form and meaning, including identifying word classes, spelling, grammatical and lexical information
  • Identify possible L2 synonyms and L1 translations
  • Identify the item as part of a lexical set – learners can keep track of these in a vocabulary folder

Nation also writes that rich instruction should include vocabulary already learned – recycling of vocabulary, basically. These spaced encounters will, much like learning vocabulary in our L1, help the learner to build up much of the word knowledge that is needed to be able to use this word.

One thing should be said, however, and that is that while Nation says that this kind of rich instruction is important, we need to remember that long, in-depth explanations of vocabulary are actually not that important and may be detrimental. Ellis (1995) conducted a study on vocabulary acquisition in which vocabulary was pre-modified, i.e. definitions and explanations were built into the text, or interactionally modified, i.e. learners asked for assistance and help was provided. He found that for interactionally modified input, the shorter the definition and the fewer the characteristics mentioned regarding the word, the more likely acquisition is to occur. This was put down to limits on capacity of learners’ short-term memory. Ellis also mentions that providing too much information makes it difficult for the learner to identify what is critical to the meaning of the item.

What does this mean? From my mind, it means that if we are pre-teaching vocabulary, then we need to present vocabulary in context and in a way that is accessible to learners. However, we should ensure that when something comes up and we decide to engage in FonF, we provide only the critical information in the explanation. What about you? What conclusions could you draw from these pieces of information?

During-task/reading

We often think of focus on language for reading as something that occurs in the pre- and post-task phases, but not necessarily so. Of course, we may engage in FonF work if learners seek assistance, but there are other more implicit ways of helping learners with difficult language. Let me introduce you to glossing and textual enhancement.

Glossing is the process of including relevant information about certain pieces of vocabulary alongside the text. Take for example:

Glossing can be done by including a definition, translation, synonyms, images, or even a combination of all of them! And there are some benefits to having this kind of unobtrusive focus on lexis, namely that it can aid in comprehension by facilitating bottom-up processes as well as increasing the chances on incidental vocabulary learning while the focus still remains on the task.

Textual enhancement, on the other hand, is the process of making certain pieces of the text more salient either through making bold certain words, underling or putting words in italics. Take for example:

Textual enhancement of -ed morpheme for regular past tense verbs

This technique allows learners to focus on the task and learn vocabulary implicitly. What is interesting though is that this can be done not only for vocabulary, but also for grammatical elements. It needs to be said, though, that much of the research presented indicated that textual enhancement is really only effective for ‘simple-ish’ features of language. They gave the example of reported speech perhaps being too complex and there are a lot of factors involved. Other tips for textual enhancement include:

  • If the text is difficult, keep the feature to be enhanced simple
  • Do not provide metalinguistic explanations
  • Textual enhancement is likely to be more effective if learners have prior knowledge of the feature

Post-task activities

This phase in the task cycle is a great place to focus on language, both FonF and FonFs. Why? Well, if we are carrying out FonFs (e.g. delayed correction and going deeper) or FonFs (going deeper over pre-selected features), we are building on the knowledge gained from the text once the task has actually been completed. Another way to think of it is that if we save our focus on form/s till this phase, we are not putting in jeopardy the integrity of the task.

I suppose we should emphasise here that the post-task phase in the task cycle is not solely for focus on form – there are many other types of activities that could be done! For example, Willis and Willis (2007, p. 168) present a list of possible post-task activities. Here are some of them:

  • Re-reading the text
  • Summarising the text
  • Retelling text from a different perspective
  • Rewriting the text from memory
  • Reporting findings
  • Evaluation
  • Reflection

A model and a hypothesis walk into a bar…

Alright, so there is no joke here but it got your attention! Many of the points brought up so far relate heavily to a model and hypothesis mentioned in the course. First we have the depth of processing model, and then we have the involvement load hypothesis.

The depth of processing model

This model, developed by Craik and Lockhart (1972) focuses on memory – more specifically how to get something from working memory to long-term memory. The model basically says that the greater the processing of certain information during the learning of this information, the greater the chances are of this information moving from working memory to long-term memory. What we can take away from this is that we need the teaching of vocabulary (or other language features for that matter) to be at depth. What does this mean? Craik has this to say about depth:

‘The meaningfulness extracted from the stimulus rather than in terms of the number of analyses performed upon it.’

Craik, 1972, p.48

There are a number of levels to this model (and more have been added over the years), but the ‘essential’ levels to understand are:

  • Structural: What a word looks like.
  • Phonemic: What it sounds like.
  • Semantic: Understanding the meaning and all the extra stuff that is important!

In short, the model tells us to get learners to interact with new language at the semantic, or deep, level of processing.

The involvement load hypothesis

Hulstijn & Laufer (2001) put forward the involvement load hypothesis which states that the more involvement tasks induce, the more likely it is that learners will remember new vocabulary. More specifically, they say that the more need, search and evaluation involved in the task, the more involvement and thus more likelihood of acquisition of vocabulary (and language features). Let’s define those now:

  • Need: The learner has a need to find a word and use it in order to complete a task.
  • Search: The learner attempts to find critical information (e.g. looking up the meaning of a word in a dictionary)
  • Evaluation: Comparing information/word with other information/words and identifying if it is the best choice.

Conclusions?

Looking at the depth of processing model and the involvement load hypothesis, it seems clear to me that a focus on form is certainly important but if we really want it to be effect it needs to be connected to context, learners need to go deeper than surface level, and they need to have a communicative need to use the feature. I feel that TBLT aims to satisfy all of these, especially that of communicative need (e.g. when we engage in FonF during the task). What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Assignment

This week we had to, you guessed it, design a pre- or post-task language-focused activity. I had already done this last week, so it didn’t require too much work. I changed a few things, though; I made the find someone who questions gapped, so learners had to complete the questions first with the correct form of the missing words. Why did I choose to do this? I wanted to give learners time to really process the questions and I figured if the words were removed there would be more chance of learners engaging in language-related episodes (LREs) which are times when learners engage in the discussion of the language they are using. Basically, I wanted to avoid asking what does ‘rivalry’ mean and have learners discuss it together more naturally in conversation.

An observation

So I did this lesson last week and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it went. Here are a list of positives:

  • Learners found the texts really enjoyably and were very eager to engage in reading about football.
  • Learners did not find the text difficult
  • Learners were able to complete the task successfully
  • All learners were engaged
  • The tasks really pushed learners to communicate and there were a few errors that I was able to focus on during the task and post-task.

Some things to improve for next time:

  • My thoughts surrounding more LREs with the words removed from the pre-task were not really correct. Learners kind of new what they meant and were able to guess fairly easily. If anything, they asked me for assistance more than their peers in this phase.
  • I made a mistake when creating the task – I forgot to ensure all of the information was in the text, but I had left out one bit of information regarding Ronaldo’s position.

A good lesson overall, but I think I still need to do some tweaking!

Final thoughts

This week was really interesting, and perhaps one of the most insightful so far. I must admit, however, that I am finding reading Task-based language teaching alongside this course is making things very clear but also showing me how much more to learn there is. I suppose the good thing about the course it that it really puts into perspective the very important aspects that teachers, not linguists, need to think about. Looking forward to next week!

References

Craik, F., & Lockhart, R. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Ellis, N. C. (1995). Vocabulary acquisition: Psychological perspectives and pedagogical implications. The Language Teacher, 19, 2, 12–16.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hulstijn, J.H., & Laufer, B. (2001). Some empirical evidence for the involvement load hypothesis in vocabulary acquisition. Language Learning, 51, 539-558.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007) Doing Task-Based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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