Review: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching – Mike Long

For my birthday, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Mike Long’s (2015) seminal work, Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching (Thank you Patrick, Carlota, Sara and Cesar!). It is a beast of a book and my copy as of now has many notes, post-its, etc. all over it because it is just jam packed with so much good stuff. In this review, I’ll do my best to go over what the book contains, what I like about it, and a few negative points.

Three-sentence summary

Mike Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching is a 439-page account of TBLT theory, research and practical ideas for TBLT practitioners. The reader is taken on a very detailed journey, starting from the rationale for TBLT all the way to assessing TBLT programmes (and all the problems that come along with this). After reading this book, teachers will have a much clearer understanding of what TBLT actually is (and what it is not), as well as a very clear grasp of the findings that support the methodological principles that underpin this approach to language teaching.

Three take-aways

Three is such a small number, so as usual I’m going to cheat and have three major take-aways, with the inclusion of ‘sub-take-aways’ (did I just invent a new word?).

“Despite its youth and whatever its limitations, TBLT is the closest thing to a researched language pedagogy that exists”.

Long, 2015, p.343
  • TBLT is backed by some pretty solid evidence: Long presents some amazing evidence that adds to the psycholinguistic validity of TBLT (something which I have heard some linguists say TBLT is lacking). But more than the psycholinguistic evidence underpinning the theory, there are plenty of both ‘laboratory’ and classroom studies that have shown that TBLT is indeed a very effective approach to language teaching. I’ve included some of my favourite insights from research that the book presents here:
    • Adults and children ‘learn languages’ differently: Long highlights the importance of recognising the difference in processes around acquisition for children and adults. One of the most interesting (for me, at least) points presented is that of vocabulary learning. Both children and adults can ‘learn’ vocabulary incidentally through pedagogic tasks and extensive reading, but the ‘yield’ is different. That is, incidental learning for children is, to put it simply, much easier than it is for adults. Why? Well, Long (2015) writes that critical periods are indeed real, and these critical periods (as there are many) affect learning processes such as the ability to rely on incidental learning.
    • There is a need for both incidental and explicit learning: Long (2015) makes clear that while some syntactic knowledge can be developed incidentally, this knowledge is limited and there really is a need some explicit focus on this, especially for non-salient features of language. This being said, collocations and chunks of language seems to be able to be acquired quite well through incidental learning. So, as teachers what does this tell us? Well, I suppose the clearest implication for me is that we need to ensure that we are working with what learners have (internal syllabus – more on this soon) and ensure to react to their needs as they arise through working through tasks. Also, as Long (2015, p. 313) writes, “whenever possible, add an extensive reading and listening program to the main classroom or distance learning course” (italics and bold in original).
    • Focus-on-Form is not an option – it’s a requirement if we want classroom learning to be as effective as possible: This is something that is not mentioned just once throughout the book; rather, it’s mentioned pretty much in every chapter a number of times – and with accompanying research to justify why. Every learner is ‘different’ in that they have their own internal syllabus, something Selinker (1974) called interlanguage. Each learner’s development stage is going to be different because no-one learns at exactly the same pace because of individual differences, exposure, age of beginning to learn a second language (for some really, really cool stuff, check out Petitto et al.’s Perceptual Wedge Hypothesis), etc. This means that in a class of say eight learners, you are going to have eight different interlanguages to work with. Why is this important to know? Well, language features (e.g. morphology, syntax, etc.) are acquired in a certain order, and so if learners are not ready for the language form being presented, then it is, in essence, going to go over their heads – Long refers multiple times to Pienemann’s (1984) Teachability Hypothesis, which says that “instruction can only promote language acquisition if the interlanguage is close to the point when the structure to be taught is acquired in the natural setting” (Pienemann, 1989, p.60); that is, learnability determines teachability. If we choose to teach grammar willy-nilly (e.g. today let’s cover the present perfect), then we don’t take our learners’ interlanguages into account and the reality of the situation is that since learners are not ready for this structure (if this is the case), then they may show evidence of learning, but their interlanguage will self-correct and go back to to their original development stage. FonF, then, is the way around this (in conjunction with tasks). With FonF, we react to learners’ needs, making judgements about their levels and providing feedback on what is most relevant with their levels in mind. We do this because learners are psycholinguistically ‘primed’ for corrective feedback.
    • Elaborated input is king: This was perhaps the biggest ah-huh moment for me throughout the book. Long draws the reader’s attention to the fact that authentic texts are often out of our learners’ current developmental stage (i.e. they are too difficult syntactically, lexically, etc.). In much of language teaching, these texts are then ‘simplified’ – this is wrong, according to Long. Why? Well, by simplifying input, we remove from the “input the very linguistic material to which learners need to be exposed if they are to progress” (Long, 2015, p.251). In Chapter 9, Task-Based Materials, we learn about the Paco sentences which are basically a number of sentences used in a study that focused on comprehensibility of sentences. This study showed that elaborating input (i.e. providing extra information – information that would be redundant to proficient speakers of the language) resulting in nearly the same level of ‘comprehension’ as simplified sentences whilst maintaining a high level of grammatical and lexical complexity (not to mention length). I think this has massive implications for language teaching, not just TBLT. Firstly, when creating materials my initial thought is to simplify texts that I find on the internet – I seem to have been doing my learners a disservice. Furthermore, in teacher talk, elaboration rather than simplification, is going to be more beneficial in terms of ‘input’. This also ties in with making input comprehensible. Krashen is mentioned throughout the book (somewhat positively at times and then at others negatively), but I think this idea of elaborated input makes the whole i+1 more easily conceptualised and ‘actionable’.

Simplification, that is, improves comprehensibility (of texts learners will never encounter again) at the expense of language learning, which is the real goal. An alternative approach to modification is needed, and one exists: input elaboration.

Long, 2015, p.251 – Italics in original
  • There is more to TBLT than just the ‘task’: So, Long makes it pretty darn clear that there is a difference between TBLT and tblt, the latter referring to the use of “counterfeit “tasks” […]to practice structures, functions or sub-skills in traditional grammatical, notional-functional, or skills-based [syllabi]” (Long, 2015, p.6). In Long’s mind, uppercase TBLT is very much its own animal. Here are the major components of Long’s TBLT:
    • Everything starts with a needs and means analysis: The starting point for TBLT courses is an in-depth needs analysis (NA) of the learners. This is usually done alongside a means analysis, i.e. an analysis of the “factors falling outside the domain of needs” (Long, 2015, p.112). The NA in essence looks to determine the groups target tasks, i.e. tasks that they will need to do in the future (e.g. if a course is run for a group of hotel staff, then tasks might include organising bags to be taken to rooms, calling for a taxi, etc.). The means analysis, on the other hand, looks at the social, political, financial, etc. factors that may influence the course (others might call these ‘macro factors’). Long writes that the needs analysis is essential, posing the question, if we don’t do a needs analysis, how can we possibly expect the course to deliver results?
    • Once target tasks are identified, pedagogic tasks and materials need to be created: After the course’s target tasks have been identified, these are then categorised into target task types (i.e. putting similar ‘tasks’ into the same category of ‘task’ to make the sheer number of potential tasks easier to deal with), and from here pedagogic tasks, i.e. the tasks used throughout the course, are created.
    • Tasks need to be graded in terms of complexity: One task may take on varying degrees of difficulty depending on the various task conditions available to task designers. This is perhaps one of the most complex parts of the whole syllabus design process.
    • Assessment: Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of TBLT courses is assessment (in my eyes, at least). From the start, target tasks and target task type influence the final assessment. That is, the course is generally geared so that learners can complete target or near-target tasks and be assessed using a criteria (this is a very important point – everything needs to be criterion-referenced), with learners usually being given a pass or fail.
    • Teaching: Of course, the course needs to be taught. This involves moving through the tasks, but also taking note of how the learners are progressing and making adjustments as needed.
  • TBLT has philosophical underpinnings and its own set of methodological principles (MPs): In chapter 4, Philosophical Underpinnings: L’Education Integrale, Long takes the reader on a journey into philosophy that TBLT is based on. It is very in-depth, and touches on the following: Individual freedom, Rationality, Emancipation, Learner-Centeredness, Egalitarian Teacher-Student Relationships, Participatory Democracy, and Mutual aid and Cooperation. Further along in the book in Chapter 10, we learn about the MPs (and all the research behind them) of TBLT (see below). I highly recommend Geoff Jordan’s blog post – here is goes over each of them in detail. When reading these chapters, I kept wondering why these are not more well-known. Long writes that many of these MPs overlap with other approaches to language teaching, so in a sense they are – but I wish that this list was more ‘available’ to teachers (very much like Kumaravadivelu’s Teaching Strategies). Below I have included a quote from the book on Long’s thoughts surrounding the acceptance of these MPs.
    • MP 1: Use task, not text, as the unit of analysis
    • MP 2: Promote learning by doing
    • MP 3: Elaborate input (do not simplify)
    • MP 4: Provide rich (not impoverished) input
    • MP 5: Encourage inductive (“chunk”) learning
    • MP 6: Focus on form
    • MP 7: Provide negative feedback
    • MP 8: Respect learner syllabi
    • MP 9: Promote cooperative/collaborative learning
    • Mp 10: Individualise instruction (psycholinguistically and according to communicative needs).

“It is recognised that some readers will assuredly not accept some of the principles, and that, accepted or not, some require additional research support. Once again, however, it is hoped that their nomination for consideration will help focus the debate as to just what do constitute relevant methodological principles in TBLT and for [language teaching] in general.”

Long, 2015, p.305

What I liked

  • The academic enterprise: If I had to describe Mike Long’s work in one word, I probably couldn’t go wrong with thorough. This book takes into account the last 40 years of SLA research and Long takes pains to show the reader this (it is not uncommon to see four or five references, simply for one point). To put this into perspective, the book has 439 pages – 55 pages of these are ‘references’ – that’s more than 10%. Furthermore, within chapters the reader will find footnotes (not just a word or two – sometimes half a page) and recommended readings. I like this because it means that I can go and take a look at the research and draw my own conclusions (in the cases that I can actually understand what was written). The recommended readings are also really useful as they provide more depth on certain areas.
  • Mike Long is a bull and he’s taking on ELT: Many of us that have been teaching for a while (not to mention training) have probably come to realise that there is a lot that happens in ELT that perhaps shouldn’t (e.g. an over-reliance on course books). Whilst I don’t always agree with everything Long says, I love how honest he is – and how he brings research into his arguments. In this book, he shreds apart synthetic syllabi and puts a few dents in the purely analytic syllabi’s suit of armour also. And not to mention his criticisms of generalised course books.
  • Long acknowledges many things: Many have called Long an absolutist (and in some things I feel that he is), but throughout the book he makes clear that TBTL is certainly what he is preaching, but that there are other options out there that do work. He makes clear, however, that if efficiency is our goal then TBLT does well in classrooms. That is, while other methods and approaches may produce results, TBLT is likely to produce those results faster as TBLT is very much learner-centred and needs-based. He also brings into light the difference between SLA and ISLA (something I think that we as teachers need to be aware of) and uses ISLA as a place to start when regarding efficiency and efficacy of methods and approaches.

“As will become clear, TBLT meets all the above criteria. This does not mean that it is the best approach to [language teaching], or even a good one. That is a judgement call, based on the plausibility of its theoretical underpinnings and on the research to back it up, including evaluations of its effectiveness.”

Long, 2015, p14
  • There are examples of task-based materials: Long presents a number of real TBLT materials. I remember reading about them and thinking they seem really ‘easy’ to use or adapt. I think this section will really help readers conceptualise how they can create their own materials for TBLT.
  • Long makes clear the reason for research: Many of us have come to realise that what pedagogues and methodologists ‘prescribe’ often fails in the classroom (see Kumaravadivelu for more on this). Long writes, however, that while teachers’ classroom experience is valuable and should most certainly be taken into account, there are some problems: “(i) what works is often unknown (otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion), and (ii) teaching experiences and teachers’ opinions about “what works” differ, are usually largely impressionistic, and cannot possibly all be right” (Long, 2015, p.345). With this in mind, rather than say that we should only rely on the research, we should take a two-pronged approach encompassing both these perspectives.
  • Long distinguishes MPs and Pedagogical Procedures (PPs): Whilst MPs say what should be done, PPs “suggest how it can be done” (Long, 2015, p.301). He recognises that these are very much localised and are going to be different for every teacher. I think this ties in very nicely with my previous point (these PPs need to be informed by research as well as the micro- and macro-factors of the teaching context). I particularly love the following quote:

“In this light, it would be silly for anyone to prescribe “error correction” in all cases, much less the same form of “error correction”. Good pedagogic decisions require local knowledge, and the person with the most knowledge and expertise concerning a particular group of students is the classroom teacher, not a textbook writer or methodologist or the author of a book like this who has never met his/her students (and in the case of all too many textbook writers and supposed experts on pedagogy, has not taught much at all). “

Long, 2015, p.326

What I didn’t like

The second part of the needs analysis, having identified the target tasks, you collect examples of language use which surrounds successful completion of the target task. That generally means observing how native speakers of the L2 do them. You can do it with non-native speakers, you can observe Americans doing tasks in Japanese, but why bother? Why do that? Because you risk have a slightly deviant version. Now of course some of these characters get to such a high level that who’s going to notice? But all other things being equal, you’ll generally use native speaker models. Some people say, well, that’s native speakerism – you’re being prejudiced against non-native speakers. Well, if that’s the case then I am native speakerist because I do think there is a rationale for using native speaker version unless there is some reason not to.

Long, 2019 [YouTube Video] TBLT Speaker Series: Design, Implementation and Evaluation
  • The native speaker model: So before I get into this, I want to make clear to everyone that I am very aware of what much of the literature says about what constitutes a “native speaker” (and that there are different perspectives). I am also aware of the various ‘critical periods’, age of onset, and how these affect second language learning. With this in mind, let’s take a look at my biggest criticism of this book. Long is very much a native speakerist (he says so in this video – watch 18 – 18 mins or read the quote above) in that he sees the native speaker as the only really acceptable model for language, mainly because deviant language is an apparent nonissue. However, I personally feel that this doesn’t reflect the actual state of language teaching of English as a Lingua Franca (with the majority of English teachers being non-native) and perhaps adds more fuel to the “native vs. non-native” debate than is necessary. Below I have included a few quotes from the book that I thought highlight why I feel this way about the book, but there are many more instances. Of course, there needs to be some way to classify people’s language abilities, and I am not trying to take away the native/non-native terms from psycholinguistics – I just feel that within ELT, the terms cause more harm than good now and saying that non-natives are bad language models probable isn’t the best thing to do. I also feel that non-native teachers can provide perfectly fine models of language! Marek Kiczkowiak puts forward his thoughts on the matter here also, as well as draws attention to very important questions (I highly recommend reading this as well as the comments section – some very interesting words from some very interesting people!). I also recommend reading Geoff Jordan’s ‘rebuttal’, which presents some very important points also. There are always two sides to the coin, and so before coming to your own conclusions, I suggest reading and and making your own conclusions based on what you read, not what others are saying.

“As these “crutches” are gradually removed, students will be dealing with increasingly complex versions of the full target lectures. The focus throughout will be on their ability to understand information in a lecture that subject-matter specialist (ideally, the original lecturer), not the language teacher, indicates to be what he or she would expect a good [native speaker] student to take away.”

Long, 2015, p.295.

“First, whenever possible, add an extensive reading and listening program to the main classroom or distance learning course. Rather than simply have students read high interest materials silently (useful though that is), have them read while listening to lively recordings of the texts made especially for language learning by a native speaker with excellent diction and articulation.

Long, 2015, p.314
  • Lack of school-age material examples: Whilst Long mentions that preparing TBLT courses for young children is a “course designer’s dream” (see below), there are no real examples of Young Learner materials in the book. Yes, there is the survival English tasks, but it would have been nice to see how TBLT programmes could be created for Young Learner AND Teen groups – both of which present difficulties with predicting relevant tasks (in my mind). This being said, he does make mention of Shintani’s work, especially her book Input-based Tasks in Foreign Language Instruction for Young Learners, which is on my reading list!

“In cases where no clear predictions are possible, and there certainly are some, especially where the students are young children, other aspects of TBLT, including materials and MPs, are still relevant and have been shown to be effective. Preparing for such courses is a TBLT course designer’s dream, in fact, as they are free to choose high-interest, age-appropriate pedagogic tasks without some of the usual constraints a NA typically brings, and to deliver them using TBLT methodology and pedagogy.”

Long, 2015, p.95

Applying to practice

So what can I take away from this book and apply to my practice? Can I write pretty everything? I guess not. Jokes aside, this book has so much practical information – and not just for TBLT junkies such as myself as there are so many really useful, evidence-based insights that all teachers will find useful. But, I do need to write something, so here is what I plan to do with what I’ve learnt:

  • Task supported courses from next year: I have ran task-supported courses in my own classes for the last two years, and both I and my learners have loved them. I also think that they have been an important factor in my learners’ overall success these past two years. My director and I both feel that this approach would be suitable for the academy, not just my classes. We are in the brainstorming phase at the moment, but we’ve come up with a few ideas. I’ll leave these here, and please do let me know your thoughts. I know Long is against lowercase tblt and task-supported syllabi, but, even as he mentions, they are a necessary step towards a fully TBLT syllabus (we need a little time not only to create tasks, but to train teachers, get learners on board and evaluate how we are going).
    • Each level within the academy to have a selection of tasks to choose from, with teachers needing to choose one task per term (this can be agreed on with learners, and teacher can include more tasks if they feel like it)
    • Each ‘task’ will be a collection of pedagogic tasks, starting in a less complex form and then gradually increasing in complexity. Each lesson will have a set of materials as well as teacher notes.
    • The term’s task will be included in our ‘assessment’ alongside the exam that learners are preparing for as well as their learning behaviour assessment
    • The induction week for next year will include a number of days focusing on TBLT so that we can ensure that teachers are on board, understand what is expected of them and have space to ask questions about the content.
    • Teachers will be encouraged to provide feedback on the materials and tasks, with the idea being that they help to create more materials based on what they have seen.
  • Business courses: We are looking to move into more in-company work now that we are, more or less, back to in-person teaching. I want these courses to be sold and run as TBLT courses, with in-depth NAs conducted as well as Task-based assessment integrated. I really think that this will be the best ground to taking what Long has written and putting it into practice.
  • Elaborated input: I really want to see how I work with material and check if I simplify or elaborate texts and teacher talk. I have a feeling, but I’ll need to record a few lessons first and then reflect. Elaborated input makes perfect sense and so I’ll aim to ensure that my input really is elaborated appropriately.

Who should read this book?

  • TBLT junkies: Obvious choice, I know. I really do this that this as well as Ellis et al.’s Task-Based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice should be on every TBLT teacher’s bookshelf. You might be thinking which of these books is better. I don’t think any of them are ‘better’, but I do think they are ‘different’. They do cover a lot of the same ground, but both also touch on different perspectives, which I liked.
  • Delta/DipTESOL candidates: So, there is plenty of useful information for Delta/DipTESOL candidates. I really think Chapter 8, Task-Based Syllabus Design should be on everyone’s reading list. Long’s description of the different types of syllabi is brilliant (especially with regard to looking at their faults).
  • Course designers: Even if you do not want to run a TBLT course per se, I highly recommend Chapter 5, Task-Based Needs and Means Analysis, to those who design courses. There is so much useful information in this chapter and Long really does lay out a very clear procedure for the NA (which could quite easily be adapted to other types of syllabi).
  • Grammar heads: For those teachers that are all grammar, grammar, grammar (and there are plenty out there), I would highly recommend they read Chapter 2, SLA and the Fundamental LT Divide, especially sections 2.2 – 2.5 in which Long talks about the differences between synthetic and analytic syllabi, their ‘problems’ and where TBLT fits along this interface spectrum.
  • Teacher Trainers: If you’re going to be covering TBLT in development programmes, this is one book you should read. One problem with TBLT currently is that many teachers are asked to ‘do it’ by management, but they are not properly ‘trained’ in TBLT and have very little knowledge regarding what TBLT is. With this in mind, as trainers we have a responsibility to know our stuff and for TBLT I don’t think you can go wrong with this book.
  • MA students: With the MA being much more theory-based than diploma-level courses, this book will provide you with plenty of insights into SLA/ISLA and TBLT methodology and pedagogy. If nothing else, having a read over Chapter 10, Methodological Principles and Pedagogic Procedures, will give you a much clearer understanding of what TBLT is as well as plenty of sources that you can follow up on for extra information.

Final Notes

Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching is an incredible book, even if it has some flaws (in my opinion). Even if you are not into TBLT, I do feel that many of the chapters are worthy of a read. To anyone that is thinking about picking it up, I do feel that it is a worthy investment and will provide you with plenty of ‘thinking material’ for years to come.

For those of you that don’t know, unfortunately Mike Long passed away in February this year. He will be missed within the fields of SLA and language teaching, but his work will live on. This book must surely be in the running for the title of Long’s Magnum Opus, it is that good. From what I know, at the time of his death he was co-writing a new book on TBLT with Geoff Jordan. They were almost finished, and now Geoff will be finishing it with Catherine Doughty – and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

But enough from me – what about you? Have you read Long’s masterpiece? What were your thoughts? What are you going to apply to your practice? I would love to hear it! Let me know in the comments 🙂

Book details

Book title: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

Author: Mike Long

Pages: 439

ISBN: 9780 4706 58949

References

Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley Blackwell

Long, M. (2019, May 22). TBLT Speaker Series: Design, Implementation and EvaluationI [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmgOc1hDDgI&t=4150s

Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6, 2, 186-214.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is Language Teachable? Psycholinguistic Experiments and Hypotheses. Applied Linguistics, 10, 1, 52-79.

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 3, 209-231.

2 Comments

  1. geoffjordan says:

    Excellent review – you manage to give a well-organised, succinct and accurate summary of a long, dense, detailed, at times challenging text, and your critical assessment is very well-considered.

    The native speaker issue is, I think, just a tad more complex when it comes to doing SLA research, but I agree with your general argument (so much better expressed than Kiczkowiak’s) and I must agree that Long’s “why bother” attitude was wrong.

    I hope LOTS of teachers will read this. .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Geoff. I hope many teachers read this as well (and hopefully, at a minimum, dip into Long’s book).

      Like

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