Tasks in FLE


Andrew Littlejohn, Institute of Education, University of London, UK

  1. Introduction
  2. Aspects of the language curriculum
  3. Analysing language learning tasks
  4. Learning from content and methodology
  5. Conclusion

1 Introduction

"Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time."
(Dewey, 1938)

I think it is fair to say that during most of its history, English language teaching has been mainly concerned with the ‘syllabus’, that is, with determining what areas of language need to be taught and learned. Whilst the ‘syllabus’ plays a very important role, my principal aim in this article is to suggest that one can also look beyond this to the language learning experience itself and identify other kinds of learning outcomes from classroom work. I will show how one can analyse language learning tasks so that the nature of potential ‘non-language-learning’ learning outcomes can be identified. Consideration of these learning outcomes, I will argue, is important in analysing how far classroom practice may actually reflect our long terms aims in language education, particularly in the context of school education.

2 Aspects of the language curriculum

We may begin with a simple but useful division of aspects of classroom work into two main areas: ‘content’ and ‘methodology’. Content refers to the ‘what’ of language teaching and learning. In this, one common subdivision is to speak of ‘learning content’ - the knowledge it is hoped the students will take away with them, and ‘carrier content’ - that which is used to present or ‘carry’ the learning content. Thus, for example, the learning content of ‘the past simple tense’ may be presented to students through a carrier content text about the life of a famous person. ‘Methodology’, the second major aspect, relates to ‘how’ the language is being learned - broadly, who does what, with whom in the classroom. Thus, methodology is concerned with how teachers and students interact with each other, and the kinds of mental and social processes in which they involved. Whether, for example, they are working alone or in pairs, whether they are required to work things out for themselves or to apply given rules, the extent of support they receive, and so on, all belong to the realm of methodology.

We can sum this up as follows:

Typically, language learning is seen principally in terms of the acquisition of language learning content and language skills, and methodology and carrier content are viewed as relevant only in so far as they facilitate the learning of the language. A wider, curriculum focus, however, views the total language learning experience as potentially contributing to the educational development of the student. Both content and methodology can therefore be seen as important in their own right, each potentially offering their own ‘learning opportunities’. Thus, for example, the experience of engaging in a grammar problem-solving exercise may involve a learning outcome in addition to knowledge of the grammar point upon which it focuses, or content which is intended simply as a ‘carrier’ may actually function as learning content for some students. It is in this light, then, that one can understand the quote from Dewey with which I opened this article. With this in mind, I would like now to turn to how we may begin to analyse the additional learning opportunities which may be offered by different types of tasks.

3 Analysing language learning tasks

The two main aspects of the language curriculum enable us to pose some key questions which we can use to analyse any language learning task. These relate directly to the areas of methodology and content as explained above.

1 What are the students required to do?
- what role are the students to take in classroom discourse?
- what mental operation are they to use?
2 With what content?
- what is the nature of the content: fiction, fact, language commentary?
- where does it come from? From the teacher, the students, or within the task itself?

Taken together, these questions form a means of investigating what may be available for learning from any particular task. Let me take two examples to show how this analysis works, one fairly commonly found in school language textbooks, and the other less commonly so.

3.1 Example A. ‘Listen and repeat’ exercises

‘Listen and repeat’ type exercises form a substantial part of most language teaching procedures, particularly with beginning level students. They are useful in getting students familiar with the sounds of the language and enabling them to begin to see themselves as speakers of the foreign language. They also, it is often argued, form a means of internalising the language. If we apply the questions listed above, however, we can see that there are many other things going on at the time. Let me take a concrete, and fairly typical, example suitable for elementary students of English.

Listen to the dialogue. Say each sentence after the tape

Shop assistant: Can I help you?
Man: Yes, I’d like two pounds of apples please.
Shop assistant: Certainly, sir. Two pounds of apples. Here you are.
Anything else?
Man: Yes, please. Can I have a pound of bananas?
Shop assistant: Of course. Anything else?
Man: No, thanks? How much is that?
Shop assistant: That’s one pound fifty, please.
Man: Here you are.
Shop assistant: Thanks. Good-bye.
Man: Bye!

What is the student required to do?
In this example we can see that the students are simply called upon to respond to the stimulus of the recording by repeating exactly what they hear. The language they are to produce is provided entirely by the task and they are not required to initiate any ‘new’ language themselves. The task provides, then, a kind of ‘script’ for what is to happen in the classroom. For as long as it takes to do the task, the actions of both the teacher and the students are largely predetermined. The roles proposed by the task are thus essentially passive ones - to manage the tape recorder and monitor student output on the part of the teacher and simply to respond by repeating on the part of the students. In terms of mental operation, i.e. what is required to happen inside the students’ head, we can see that the main requirement is for a ‘low level’ operation of holding something in short-term memory and then producing it almost immediately.

With what content?
In the particular example given above, we can see that the students are working with content which is entirely fictional in nature. They are not expected to interact with the text for the message it contains but simply for the forms and phrases it exemplifies. The context of a man in a shop, then, is simply a ‘carrier’ for the learning content of functional phrases for shopping. We can also see that all of the content with which the students are to work comes from the task itself. They themselves are not required to contribute anything, either from their imagination or from the repertoire of language which they have already acquired.

3.2 Example B: Combining knowledge

‘Combining knowledge’ types of exercises are exercises which require students to draw on knowledge that they already have and to relate it to something new. We can see one example of this in the following task. Apart from one or two vocabulary items, the task would also be suitable at an elementary level of English.

Where does the weather come from?

1.1 Why do we have rain? Why are there winds? Tell the class what you think.
1.2 Work in a group of four. Two of you choose text A and two of you choose text B. Put the pieces of information in the correct places. Then, in your language, tell the other pair what your text says.

The ground becomes warm. The water becomes vapour. The air rises. The warm cloud becomes water again. It rains!

Applying the curriculum questions to this task, a rather different picture emerges.

What is the student required to do?
We can see that in this type of exercise, more demands are placed on the student. In the first place, they are asked to draw on what they already know about how winds and rain happen, making use of what they have covered in other school subjects. This is proposed as a discussion type activity, so there is to be an interchange of ideas amongst members of the class They then have to work in small groups, with pairs within each group drawing on their knowledge of weather processes and their knowledge of English in order to complete the diagrams. Once they have done this, they then have to reformulate this in their own language in order to explain it to the other pair in the group. The task, then, requires three kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the topic (weather processes), knowledge of English, and knowledge of their own language. Predominantly, the task puts the students in a position where they are expected to initiate the use of language. This is clearly seen in the first step where they discuss what they already know, but it is also true in the later stages where they are asked to explain the diagram in their own words.

With what content?
In contrast to the frequent use of fiction, content in this task is factual and cross-curricular, drawing on a topic covered elsewhere in the school curriculum. More importantly, however, is the question of where this content has come from. Although the task sets the initial questions, the details of the answers come first entirely from the students themselves. They then approach the second part of the task with their own knowledge in mind in order to make sense of the diagram. There is thus an interaction between the content supplied by the task and the content supplied by the students themselves.

4 Learning from content and methodology

As the analysis above has made clear, each of the tasks is complex in its own way, each one suggesting certain types of classroom and mental processes. From the discussion earlier, we can see that these processes may each contribute to what the students learn. In both cases, students are interacting with and learning the foreign language. The question is, however, what other things may they be learning at the same time?

In Example A, the listen and repeat exercise, we saw how the students are placed in a predominantly ‘respond’ position where they were simply to repeat the dialogue on the tape. Potentially, this process will carry messages to students about how they are to behave in the classroom and what role they are to have in relation to learning. This message is underlined by the fact that the students themselves contribute nothing to the content of the task - everything is provided, such that one can expect more or less identical events to unfold in the classroom, regardless of who the students are (assuming, of course, that the task is completed as the instructions suggest). Additionally, we can see that the content of the task is largely to be viewed as ‘disposable’. Students are not expected to retain the details of the man’s shopping list, only the language he used.

Example B presents quite a different picture. Here the students have a much more active and interactive role in learning. They are to draw on what they already know and are required to provide some of the content for the task themselves. The message to students is thus a very different one. The students are viewed as essential ingredients in the successful completion of the task. We can thus expect varying classroom events to unfold, depending on the participants involved. The content of the task, also, is to be viewed differently. Although the main focus is on learning and using English, knowledge of weather processes is an important aim in the task. There is no ‘carrier content’, since the students are to learn both the language and about weather processes at the same time.

The essential point I am arguing here is that these experiences may potentially have their own learning outcomes. Tasks suggest particular classroom roles and these may have the effect of training students to see themselves in particular ways in relation to learning. They also draw upon varying mental processes and thus may (or may not) contribute to the general cognitive development of the students. They may (or may not) also offer content for learning in addition to the foreign language, and thus develop the students general educational background.

5 Conclusion

The suggestion that there is more learning going on in a language classroom than simply the learning of the foreign language, is a very important one. It places a very great responsibility on course designers and teachers to reflect on the kind of experiences they are offering students and to consider how these relate to the students’ general educational development. If particular kinds of classroom roles, mental processes and types of content are continually being offered to students then we may worry that we are not capitalising on the possibilities of language teaching and that we are unwittingly training students to behave and to view themselves in particular ways. You can gain a useful insight into this by simply listing what you think are three or four of the most common exercises which students do in your classroom, and then analyse each one in terms of the four questions listed earlier. If similar answers come from each type of exercise then you will gain a general impression of the kinds of learning opportunities which are being offered to students.

I have avoided in this brief article explicitly stating what types of exercises I favour. It should be fairly obvious to the reader, however, that my argument reveals a preference for more open-ended, interactive tasks which place students in a stronger ‘initiate’ role in using English, which draw on their own personal knowledge and which stimulate cognitive development. Tasks which draw on knowledge learnt in other school subjects, tasks which require imagination and problem-solving, ‘creative’ writing tasks and so on, all fall into this category. There is no doubt that there is a very important place for repetitive, ‘respond’ tasks in language learning, but, as I hope my argument has made clear, if these predominate then we run certain risks in terms of the overall educational development of the students.