Review: Cambridge Elements – Task-Based Language Teaching – Daniel O. Jackson

Those of you that read my review of Farrell’s Cambridge Element will know that Cambridge have a relatively new series out called Cambridge Elements. These Elements are short (generall around 50 – 60 pages of reading content, with maybe 20+ pages of references), and aim to cover the basics of certain areas. The good thing is that when they are released, they are available to download for free for about two weeks (saving us all money 🙂 ). Not too long ago, Daniel O. Jackson’s Element Task-Based Language Teaching was released, and being a TBLT-advocate, I knew I had to give it a read. In this review, I’ll cover what I liked and didn’t like, tell you who I think should read it, and also complete some tasks that the Element contained.

Three-sentence summary

Daniel O. Jackson’s Element, titled Task-Based Language Teaching, gives the reader a somewhat detailed overview of the major components of TBLT. In it’s 56 pages of reading material, one can find information on the ‘What’ of TBLT, task-based curriculums, relevant research and some important things to consider. Whilst this is certainly not a practical guide, it does give those already experienced with TBLT some ideas on where to extend their knowledge; that is, it’s not a Element for teachers starting out with TBLT, but rather those that already have some understanding of how TBLT might work in practice (in my opinion).

Three takeaways

Being an Element, much of what is covered is done so in a very ‘light’ manner; that is, it gives you most of the goodies, without all the information behind the goodies. With this in mind, there are plenty of takeaways. I’ll aim to cover the main ones (from my perspective), although for those looking at taking their understanding of all the goodness behind the goodies further, I’d recommend checking out Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching or Ellis et al.’s Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice. Right, enough blabbering – let’s get into it:

“The original plan for the task, including its stated objective and procedures, unfolds according to the teacher’s implementation and learner responses. The potential of the task to shape learning emerges from psycholinguistic and social activity during this task-in-process.”

Jackson, 2022, p.4
  • Task-as-workplan and task-in-process: In the opening pages, it becomes quite clear that there are many ways of thinking about tasks, with many definitions and classifications. Interestingly, Jackson settles on using the typology put forward by Pica, Kanagy, and Falodun, and then goes into detail about each of the pedagogical task types (i.e., tasks used in the classroom that are derived from target task, or real-world tasks) – see the picture below the following list for a brief overview. Before this, though, he talks briefly about task-as-workplan and task-in-process, and goes on to talk about how even though we might plan a task to go a certain way, considering complexity, etc., as they task unfolds, it is most likely going to go into different directions. This task-in-process, however, is where the learning happens. Later in the Element, Jackson has a whole chapter on these two distinctions, and breaks them down into the following:
    • Task-as-workplan:
      • Design: Here we deal with how the task is designed, with complexity in mind. Jackson refers to Robinson’s Triadic Componential Framework, but I don’t feel this is teacher friendly, so we won’t go into it here. Just know that in design we are thinking about the cognitive factors that might be involved in the task, how learners are going to interacting, and learner factors that might make the task more or less difficult (e.g., language proficiency, familiarity of topic, etc.).
      • Mode: This refers “to whether communication is oral or written, and include hybrids modes having characteristics of both speech and writing” (Jackson, 2022, p.35). Interestingly, the mode is important to consider as from experience teachers think that TBLT is using oral task only – but that is far from the truth. Jackson writes that the research suggests that “learners should have opportunities to demonstrate their L2 abilities in different modes, at different times” (Jackson, 2022, p.38), but notes that we need to be ensure we remain faithful in terms of reflecting the real world mode in the pedagogic task; that is, if in the real world the task is done using the written mode, then the pedagogic task should also be done in the written mode.
    • Task-in-process:
      • Preparation: Here we think about the planning or preparation for the task. A lot of research has been done on pre-task planning, and Jackson writes strongly about the need/benefits of including certain pre-planning activities. These pre-planning activities might not necessarily be pre-planning time – they might even include detailed work plans of how the task might actually be done, or models.
      • Interaction: This refers to how learners interact with one another. Interestingly, there are many factors that influence this. For example, age and sex of learners in certain contexts, as well as proficiency levels. A very cool points (in my opinion) is that the research suggests that “mixed proficiency dyads can be effective when the lower proficiency partner is required to share information and the higher-proficiency partner must request it” (Jackson, 2022, p.45).
      • Repetition: This refers to doing the task again, although Jackson highlights an interesting points from Larsen-Freeman, who says “proposed replacing the term repetition with iteration, in order to better convey that the rationale for doing tasks again is, indeed, to promote change and L2 development, rather than to have learners reproduce their speech or writing verbatim” (Jackson, 2022, p.46). In effect, for tasks to really be effective, we need to be ‘repeating’ them again, with slight changes at times and with learners understanding the reason behind these ‘repetitions’.
Jackson, 2022, p.6

“Tasks are the building blocks for the development of task-based curricula. The components that define a curriculum and its development include needs analysis, objectives, testing, materials, and teaching, as well as the ongoing evaluation of each of these elements.”

Jackson, 2022, p.12
  • Needs analysis is central: It becomes quite clear in the section on the task-based curriculum that everything is very much determined by a needs analysis. At least within a strong version of TBLT; with a weaker version perhaps adopting a more general approach. No matter which TBLT you’re choosing, though, learner needs are very important in determining tasks and, ultimately, the success of the curriculum. Whilst not a lot information is given regarding the how of the needs analysis, Jackson does point the reader in the direction of others who have given plenty of information (e.g., Long, 2015). Some examples given, however, indicate the use of interviews, questionnaires and surveys to identify target tasks.

“Tasks, like any educational innovation, must be adapted to the local environment to be effective”.

Jackson, 2022, p.22
  • Context is important: One of the sections within the Element focuses on studies on TBLT in various contexts around the world. Some of these are quite interesting as they highlighted how TBLT, or tasks to be more specific, were implemented, and teacher and learner reactions. I won’t go into the specifics of each of the studies here, but this section is worth a read if you’re looking for real, not artificial or laboratory studies.

What I liked

  • Heavily researched: Ok, so the ‘reading’ component of the Element is about 56 pages, but the references section is 20 pages. That’s pretty big for an Element this size. Not only that, Jackson points you in the direction of relevant studies all the way through the Element.
  • Gives a good overview: I think that the first chapter on what TBLT is covers a lot of good ground, especially the section on task types. Whilst I don’t think this Element is great for new TBLT practitioners (see next section), I do feel that this summary of task types was particularly good, and even useful in terms of how the tasks were described.

“Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that research ont asks will always be understandable and meaningful to educators. Furthermore, for all the information is provides, in the classroom, a thriving literature is no substitute for teacher expertise, gained through personal encounters with target and pedagogical tasks.”

Jackson, 2022, p.50
  • Notes the importance of practitioner knowledge and teacher education: One problem that is ever persistent in the world of TBLT is getting the research down to teachers in a teacher-friendly manner. Jackson stresses this in his section titled Teachers and Tasks. From my own experience, the teacher education component of this is itself worthy of an Element, but Jackson does provide some ideas. Basically, we should provide teachers with experience in carrying out such tasks, and loop input is a great starting point (e.g., you might carry out an information gap activity in a language teachers are learning, but with content focusing on TBLT – have done this and it works great!).
  • Provides a list of questions to consider when educators, administrators, managers, etc. are considering whether/how to use TBLT in their programmes: Whilst the section is quite short, the list of questions is quite useful as a guide.
Jackson, 2022, p.55
  • Comes with tasks! So, if you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know I like reflection tasks. This Element comes with some tasks at the end, and I’ll aim to complete some of these at the end of this post!

What I didn’t like

  • Not practical for teachers: Ok, so this might be a bit controversial, but I don’t think this Element is that practical for teachers, especially those thinking about dipping their toes into the world of TBLT. Yes, there is a very useful section on task types, but in terms of advice and examples of tasks being used at classroom level, there is very little. This is not to say that teachers should not read this; rather, I’m saying that I feel that those who have a little experience with TBLT already should read this. Having said this, I wouldn’t recommend reading Long or Ellis either (as someone starting out with TBLT) – perhaps, something like Willis and Willis Doing Task-Based Language Teaching would be a better ‘intro’, although by no means the only thing they should read/engage with.
  • Superficial in some areas: Elements are supposed to be short, I get it. BUT… there were some areas where more information could have been given. For example, in terms of using tasks with Young Learners, there is relatively little said (apart from one note from Jackson and reference to Shintani’s 2016 study). I really do think that ‘personal encounters’ with tasks in the classroom would have really complemented the Element.
  • No Young Learner section: I mentioned how Young Learners were briefly mentioned in the previous point, but I want to add that I feel that there should have been a whole section on using tasks with Young Learners. I’ve found that many teachers feel that TBLT is very much irrelevant or, at worst, unusable with Young Learners – this is obviously something I disagree with. It is, however, one issue that the TBLT world needs to fight again, so perhaps a section on this would have been beneficial. Just my opinion!

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers with some experience using TBLT: As mentioned, I don’t think this is something I’d recommend to someone looking to start with TBLT. I do, however, think it would be beneficial to those teachers who have started using tasks and would like to strengthen their understanding of TBLT. This is because these teachers with some experience are likely to have some conceptual schemata already, and I think this will come in handy when interpreting much of the information within the Element.
  • TBLT enthusiasts: Ok, so if you’ve read Long or Ellis et al.’s book, then you won’t find too many surprises in the book, but I do think the overview of task-as-workplan and task-in-process is worth the read. Also, the section on tasks in practice was really interesting.
  • Curriculum developers: Those writing the curriculum might find this a clear introduction to TBLT that provides insight into how a curriculum might change to incorporate tasks. I’m not saying that this is the only thing that they should read, but the section on curriculum development was quite well written and provided some very useful information on the major components.
  • Teacher educators who are unfamiliar with TBLT: So, many of us teacher educators are very busy, and we don’t have a lot of time to read big books. This could be a good intro to TBLT if you are in a position of educating teachers and want to increase your understanding of the approach to language teaching that is on everyone’s lips.

Tasks from the book

At the back of the Element, Jackson provides us with some discssuon questions. Whilst I won’t go through them all (you should read the Element afterall 🙂 ), I will provide my answer to two of the seven tasks.

Which of the six curricular components discussed in Section 2 seems the most and least challenging to develop? Give reasons for your answers.

Before I give my final answer, I’m going to write out my thoughts on each of the components:

  • Needs analysis: The NA is not so difficult to conceptualise or implement, in my mind, and there are a number of reasons for this. Thankfully, there is a wealth of literature on NA in TBLT, with many studies providing the questionnaires, etc. that they used. Also, I think that the NA is one of the easier components to think about how to do it. This being said, I think that the difficulties arise with time. If one were to carry out the NA suggested in Long 2015, then this would mean shadowing people in their jobs, speaking to experts, etc. and all of these require a significant amount of time. And, if time is put into something, then prices need to rise. We are now offering off-site business courses that follow a TBLT curriculum, although we’ve have to increase the prices of these courses to ensure that we are making profit on these courses – and this ultimately means that our competitors who are offering non-TBLT, general courses at a much cheaper price are getting these businesses.
  • Task selection and sequencing: If the NA has been done correctly and adequate, then there should be plenty of information to provide the course planners with information on what target tasks are needed. The problems here arise when determining how to transform these target tasks into pedagogic tasks, and how then to sequence. So, a let’s say if we are dealing with a group of hotel receptionists who need to take a booking call – this target task could be broken down into many ‘simpler’ pedagogic version, but how simple to we go? And when we engage in task repetition, do we increase immediately to the full target task? Do we start to think about ‘red herrings’, i.e., the things that come up randomly in phone calls? All of these questions, plus many more, are difficult to answer. Also, we have to think about the who of TBLT. I want my teachers to incorporate tasks with learners, and as such we have provided tasks that they can use – we thus don’t have a TBLT curriculum. But if I were to try to think of a strong TBLT curriculum for a group of 10 year olds (or 15 years olds for that matter), I would struggle. Of course, there are ways around this such as identifying tasks that learners need to do at school or in education (e.g., writing an essay) and incorporating tasks that focus on these needs, but it is still difficult to conceptualise as a ‘whole’.
  • Materials development: Whilst I do think it can be difficult to find tasks that meet specific purposes, I also think that once training has been provided (and once experience has been had), teachers and curriculum designers can actually create their own materials fairly easily. For example, if we use the tasks types mentioned in the Element, it is fairly straightforward to think of other examples. This being said, finding and creating materials that meet the exact needs can be difficult, so for those courses in which there is not a lot (or none at all) of research or already-published materials, course designers may struggle (especially if course planning has to be done quickly!). There are a few places we can look for ideas though:
  • Teaching: Now, before I give my answer, I need preface it with the conditions in which teaching occurs. Let’s talk about my context, in which we have full control over what content goes into the syllabus, and how assessment is carried out. We also have a staff of teachers who are generally on-board with TBLT. So, in my context, I think that this would be quite easily adopted. That being said, I don’t think teachers can read the theory and then be a TBLT teacher – there is a need to constant trial and error, practice and reflection, and feedback from others with more experience. So, in my context, if we ever were to run all our courses as TBLT courses, I think there would be quite a difficult period of helping teachers come to grips with a complete TBLT syllabus. This being said, it is not impossible.
  • Assessment: For courses in which an NA has been carried out and for which there are clear target tasks identified, I feel that assessment is fairly straightforward. For example, if hotel staff need to be able to take a booking call, then one of the final assessments would ask learners to take a booking call. However, assessment is the one area where I feel that TBLT has to fight against the most. Why? Well, assessment, unbeknownst to many a teacher, is one of the major influences on the how and what of teaching – in fact, we use the term backwash (or washback) to refer to the influence that assessment has on teaching. In the Spanish context, most school-age learners are preparing for Cambridge exams, or their EVAU exams (university entrance exams done at the end of high school). So, if assessment is not task-based, then many learners may feel that task-based classes are not preparing them for the assessments (a very real concern). We are trying to get around this by having a mixture of both (again, as a private language academy, we have a lot of freedom with this). We use Cambridge Exams as well as a learning behavior assessment, and are looking to include a learner-chosen task-based assessment for each of term. So, in summary, I feel that with courses with easily-defined target tasks, and that are with adults or outside mainstream education, assessment seems fairly straightforward. The troubles lie with those courses in which learners are preparing for certain exams, and these exams don’t align with task-based principles. I want to add here, though, that this doesn’t mean task should not be used. On the contrary, we know that tasks are evidence-based and, if one of the end goals of instruction is acquisition, then they should make up a good part of the course!
  • Evaluation: Again, I think that if the course has easily identifiable target tasks, then evaluation of the course can be done quite easily. That is, baseline data can be collected (e.g., learners try to carry out the tasks) and then this data can be checked against final results. So, within strong TBLT courses, evaluation seems fairly straightforward – in weak tblt (or lowercase), evaluation might be more difficult as TBLT may not be the only approach being used.

So, looking at what I’ve written, I really haven’t answered the question – well, not directly at least. Here is my rough opinion regarding the cline of ‘challenge’ (1 = most challenging; 5 = least challenging):

  1. Assessment (depending on course goals)
  2. Task selection and sequencing (depending on clarity of Needs Analysis)
  3. Teaching (depending on disposition of staff)
  4. Materials development (depending on focus of course and availability of ready-made materials/access to someone who is confident in creating task-based materials)
  5. Evaluation (depending of learner goals)
  6. Needs analysis (depending on ‘type’ of learner)

I’ve re-read and re-written this list numerous times now. I’m am really undecided, so please don’t take this as my final opinion – the points in brackets I hope make this point clear 🙂 . The point of this task, however, I feel is not to come up with the final list; rather, the value is in the process of thinking about the difficulties with each of the aforementioned components.

In light of Section 5, what knowledge, skills and attitudes might help teachers put tasks into practice?

Hmm this is a really good question. Let’s get straight into it:

Knowledge

Knowledge can be broken up into various content domains (see Richards’ Beyond Training), but let’s speak in general terms. I feel that for teachers to be able to implement TBLT or use tasks effectively, there are few areas of knowledge that need to be developed:

  • Content knowledge: Teachers do need to have an understanding of the main principles or underpinnings of TBLT to be able implement tasks and TBLT effectively, in my opinion. However, this does not mean that they need to know the ins-and-outs of all the research; rather, I think they should have a clear understanding of the following areas:
    • How to carry out Focus-on-Form (and the rationale for doing so)
    • The importance of respecting learners’ individual syllabi/interlanguage, and how this can be done in practice (through Focus-on-Form)
    • Understanding what a task is and what a task is not
  • Pedagogical knowledge: Teachers need to have some experience with using tasks, either in workshops or in real classrooms. If someone starts from zero knowledge, that is fine. BUT, ideally teachers should gain some knowledge of what it’s like to carry out a task or participate in at task.
  • Contextual knowledge: If teachers are expected to use tasks in their context, then they should be aware (if they are not already) of how the current ‘system’ operates, and what difficulties may present themselves when implementing tasks (e.g., learners perceptions of relevance).
Skills

So I’m going to use Richard’s definition here: Skills are “discrete behaviours” (Richards, 1998, p.5) that we associate with teaching (e.g., selecting learning activities, using drills, checking instructions). I think man of the most-thought-of skills for teaching apply to TBLT as well – we are i a classroom after all. This being said, perhaps there are two or three skills that need to be honed in TBLT practitioners. Here are the three A’skills’ that I think teachers may need to be able to implement tasks and TBLT effectively:

  • Instructions and modelling: Providing clear instructions and carrying out models effectively are two things that are going to help learners a lot. Each of these could be broken down into further areas, but I’ll keep it general.
  • Ability to identify incorrect language forms and provide Focus-on-Form in an appropriate manner: One of the main principles of TBLT is Focus-on-Form, but it is rather difficult to ‘do’ at times. Corrective feedback is a marvelously deep research area, and there are often conflicting studies. This being said, there are some general corrective feedback ‘guidelines’ that teachers should follow (for those interested, Pawlak’s Error Correction in the Foreign Language Classroom is an excellent read). Getting good at providing Focus-on-Form is vital.
  • Implementing tasks effectively and understanding how they might get learners to interact: So, it’s all well and good to go and use a task, but understanding how the task may get learners to interact with one another, and the benefits/drawbacks of this I feel comes with experience. Yes, there is the ‘knowledge’ component, but I do think there is an intuitive part to this as well. This also ties in with the idea of task repetition (or iteration) – if we are going to get learners to repeat a task, how are we going to do, and with which learners is it going to carried out with? Again, this is a ‘skill’ that could be broken down into many areas, but I hope the idea is clear-ish.
Attitudes

There are quite a few, although I’ll list three that I feel are important.

  • A willingness to operate with the unknown: As mentioned, when we use a task, many things can happen, especially from a language perspective. This means that teachers often work with the unknown in TBLT (although this can be made less of an issues by predicting what might occur).
  • A desire to work in an evidence-based manner: SLA is not the only thing teachers should be thinking about – BUT… it is one thing that they definitely should be thinking about. I feel teachers that have a strong desire to work in an evidence-based manner will ultimately succeed at adopting TBLT and tasks into their classrooms.
  • A perspective that empowers the learner: TBLT is all about the learner – and as such teachers should really hold an attitude towards language teaching that empowers the learner.

Final notes

Jackson’s Element is a quick read, and it brings with it a lot of very useful information for TBLT practitioners. Whilst I don’t think it should be a recommendation for those just starting out with TBLT, I do think it is a good ‘next step’ for those looking to strengthen their understanding of TBLT (before jumping into something like Long). But enough about what I think – what about you? I’d love to know your thoughts as well, so get commenting 🙂

Book details

Book title: Cambridge Elements – Task-Based Language Teaching

Author: Daniel O. Jackson

Pages: 74

ISBN: 9781009068413

References

Jackson, D.O. (2022). Cambridge Elements – Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Richards, J.C. (1998). Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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