A Task-Based Curriculum for Homestay Students

| July 5, 2007
    [private] Abstract:
    This paper outlines a task-based approach to curriculum design in a homestay program. In an L2 environment, a task-based approach offers the advantage of better approximating the way languages are actually learned, as well as the opportunity to tailor specific tasks to program goals and student needs. A number of program goals, based on observations regarding student needs in previous homestays, are described. Next, corresponding tasks, specifically designed to meet these student needs, are outlined. Finally, a number of improvisations to facilitate student performance on tasks and to improve the program as a whole are detailed.

    Key words: homestay program, task-based curriculum, student needs, task goals

    1. Introduction
    Homestay programs are popular among students of English and a fixture at many schools and universities. Students who take part find themselves in the unique situation where they, often for the first time, are exposed to a rich variety of naturally occurring English. They will also have a tremendous variety of authentic opportunities to put the English knowledge and skills they have acquired to use. In addition, the homestay program serves as an important motivational and socio-cultural experience. While homestay programs are a valuable educational experience it is not always clear that classes serve to maximize the learning that occurs. Blanche (2002) criticizes an unfocused, piecemeal approach to language teaching in homestay programs where students don t understand the rationale for what they are studying and doing in classes. Crealock, Derwing, and Gibson (1999) also noted student dissatisfaction with the organization of the homestay program, a lack pre-departure information, and an inadequate emotional and adjustment support system (p. 59). Perhaps part of the problem is the failure to recognize and incorporate the uniqueness of the homestay situation: a short, intensive exposure to an L2 environment and culture. Coordinators of homestay programs need to address the specific needs of students living abroad for a limited term, needs that are undoubtedly much different than those of students in long-term EFL programs in their home country. This paper outlines the ongoing assessment and clarification of the needs of Japanese students in a homestay program, as well as the development of program goals and classroom tasks specifically designed to meet those needs. This paper will also outline adjustments made to improve the efficacy of classroom tasks and better meet the needs of students.

    The rationale for a task-based curriculum for homestay students

    Nunan (2004) defines a pedagogical task as: … a piece of classroom work that involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on mobilizing their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to manipulate form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right with a beginning, a middle and an end. (p. 4) Willis definition is more succinct but with a very similar focus on communication: activities where the target language is used by the learner for a communicative purpose (1996, p. 53). Littlewood (2004) argued that such definitions are too constraining and suggested a return to a broader definition incorporating two dimensions: a form vs. meaning continuum and the degree of learner involvement that a task elicits (p. 321). For our purposes a task typically incorporates the focus on meaning and communication that encapsulate the definitions by Nunan and Willis. However, it is important to note that a task-based curriculum in no ways implies that tasks strictly adhering to the definitions above constitute one hundred percent of what goes on in classes. Such a dogmatic approach rarely survives the reality of classroom experience. Stripped down of terminology, we will be outlining a curriculum where teachers and coordinators spend time and energy assessing student needs, developing specific goals, and defining what we want to encourage students to do inside and outside of class to achieve those goals, all the while influenced and guided by practical principles of TBL.
    Proponents of a task-based curriculum have often argued that it is most in line with current SLA research (Robinson, 1997; Skehan, 1996). Indeed the most compelling aspect of TBL for a homestay program is the manner in which it intuitively corresponds to the way language students learn on a homestay abroad: by actively taking part in intense L2 experiences. While a great deal of attention has been spent on defining specifically what a pedagogical task is, correspondingly little attention has been paid to articulating how tasks might be coherently organized into a curriculum. Nunn (2004) has advocated a curriculum incorporating not simply a series of tasks but holistic task-based units. In this approach the holistic nature of tasks encourages educators to look outside the confines of EFL theory to broader educational theories which are humanistic in persuasion and allow us to view students and teachers as ‘whole people’ for whom language use is inseparable from their whole personal and cultural identity. It is apparent that a homestay experience is not simply a pedagogical experience, but also a psychological and socio-cultural one, and student needs will reflect that. For that reason the tasks we outline below often move beyond the boundaries of linguistic goals to fully reflect the complete homestay experience.

    3. Student needs
    The program, North American Study Tours (NAST), is a privately run program that has been sending students on one-month homestays to America and Canada for over 10 years, and this paper addresses innovations that have been carried out over three years in the Canadian program. The students who take part are primarily university students from the Nagoya area in Japan. Experience in previous programs has led to the clarification of a number of areas in which students could benefit from support and encouragement. These needs were identified on the basis of teacher and coordinator observations, regular conversations with students and homestay families, as well as both student and homestay family feedback on end of program surveys.

    3.1. Pre-departure orientations
    Need # 1
    There is often a mismatch between student expectations of their homestay family experience and the reality. This has led some students to express disappointment over experiences with homestay families that did not correspond to expectations such as a Caucasian, nuclear family, where the student is a one-month honoured guest. Kinoshita (2001) has also noted idealized expectations of the homestay experience that are often at odds with the reality. As Van Amelsvoort (1999) has noted, pre-departure orientations can be an important tool in addressing this issue.
    Need # 2
    Students often depart on the homestay program without fully preparing for the experience. In fact when queried, students are sometimes unable to provide even the most basic information such as: the name of the town they will be staying at, the names of the people in their host family (provided weeks before departure), as well as general information about the country (such as the name of the prime minister, the population, and the capital city). While intensive pre-departure study of the destination does not guarantee a rich homestay experience, some focused pre-departure tasks can help to orient the students from the outset of their stay.

    3.2. The homestay curriculum
    Need # 3
    An obviously crucial aspect of a homestay program is the opportunity to interact with native speakers (NSs). DuFon and Churchill (2006) note something intuitively evident to homestay coordinators and teachers: the literature on individual differences suggest that the quality of the interaction with NSs is of prime importance in the acquisition process. (p. 18). They also note that a critical component of a homestay experience is what learners do to enhance their opportunities for language use… (p. 18). It would follow that the primary goal of homestay programs should then be to maximize opportunities for quality interaction with NSs, and support students in the inevitable frustrations and difficulties that arise. Based on observations of student interactions with family, as well as feedback from both host families and students, it has become clear that students have often failed to take true advantage of the opportunities for interaction in English with their homestay families. Instead, students have sometimes confessed to feelings of being overwhelmed and were hesitant to initiate and pursue extended interactions. In addition, families have occasionally expressed frustration with students who they felt were overly reticent and reserved. Yashima (1999) noted that, to some extent, the depth of students interactions with the host family might depend on personality but his research also suggested that specific behaviours (Yashima and Tanaka, 1996; Yashima, 1999) such as initiating interaction and participation were important in facilitating interactions. This would suggest that the introduction of selected tasks designed to maximize student participation in the homestay experience, as well as some instruction and controlled practice on conversation facilitating behaviours, might serve to assist student interactions with the homestay family.
    Need # 4
    Despite the richness of the language environment, it became evident to teachers that students often failed to filter through and select relevant language to learn. Instead student vocabulary notebooks have often shown that the primary source of new language remained the relatively artificial classroom environment. This reliance on spoon fed vocabulary and language has serious implications not only for the overall benefit of the homestay program but also for long-term learning. In the end only a fraction of what successful language learners need to acquire is done so in the classroom.
    Need # 5
    An important factor in successful programs has been the extent to which they monitor families and students (Law, 2003). However, students have sometimes appeared to be reluctant to complain about problems that may be occurring with their homestay family, a problem Kinoshita (2001) also noted. This is particularly troubling when students have legitimate grievances that would warrant a transfer to a different host family. It is also an issue when the problems students are experiencing are simply a result of miscommunication or misguided expectations. In that event teachers, if made aware of the problem, can intervene to address these communication issues.
    Need # 6
    Since the students came from a number of different universities in the Nagoya area, there was always the danger that they would fail to move beyond the cliques in which they arrived. This is a legitimate concern as Hadfield (1992) notes: …research in Social Psychology confirms what teachers know instinctively: a cohesive group works more efficiently and productively (p. 10). In the homestay experience, the student group plays the additional and critical roles of a peer support group and L1 community in a sometimes overwhelming foreign culture.
    Need # 7
    The program included weekly out-trips such as: visits to senior s homes and middle schools; activities such as curling, skating, and tour of a local fire station; as well as sightseeing trips to various local areas and nearby cities such as Vancouver and Victoria. The full potential of out-trips was sometimes mitigated by a lack of targeted language preparation, as well as a lack of general knowledge of the itinerary and places the students were to visit.

    4. Pre-Departure and Classes: Goals and Tasks
    In pre-departure orientations and in classes during the homestay we then set ourselves the following goals with corresponding tasks:
    Goal # 1: Encourage students to examine their expectations regarding the homestay family and determine how realistic they are.
    Task: Prior to departure, in the first of two orientations, students are asked to share their expectations regarding their host family, including details on size, age, race, and gender. They are also asked to speculate on what differences there might be between homestay experiences with a Japanese family and those with a North American family, including details such as meals, bedtimes, how they spend their evenings etc. They are then presented with several models of actual families, who have very successfully hosted students in the past. These include a widowed and retired Polish-Canadian mother, with no children at home, who retires at 10 every night, as well as a Filipino-Canadian family with three children that eats dinner around nine and speaks Tagalog at larger family gatherings.
    Goal # 2.: Encourage students to research their destination and prepare for their homestay experience.
    Task: After the first of two pre-departure orientations students were asked to research some basic geographical and cultural information about North America, Canada, and the homestay city. In addition, students were asked to research and write about one prominent news story in recent Canadian media, primarily making use of internet newspapers. At the second orientation students were given some time to share what they had learned in small groups.
    Goal # 3: Facilitate student interactions with their host families and encourage students to learn more about Canada and Canadian society.
    Task: The primary goal of classes has evolved into giving students interactive tasks related to themes such as immigration, food, marriage and relationships, mass media, music, and other teacher-selected themes. These tasks are intended to facilitate quality interactions with the homestay family by asking students to probe a little deeper into family life and Canadian society, and present on their findings in class. An example is as follows:
    Theme: Television
    Task: Report to the class on your family s TV viewing habits. How much TV do they watch? When? What kind of programs do they watch?
    Talk to a member of your family about one TV program they watch regularly.
    What is the title of the program? Who are the main characters (names, ages, relationships, personality)? What has happened in recent episodes? Why does your family like this program?
    Sit down with your family and watch one program (be sure to negotiate a day and time!). Use commercial breaks if there are things you could not understand to ask some questions.
    Report to the class about the program you watched. How much could you understand? Did you like the program? Introduce the characters and the story (as much as you could understand) to your classmates. Is it much different than Japanese TV? How?
    A Canadian content component of the course is also incorporated, not by directly teaching students about topics such as history and geography, but by asking students to present on a specific component, such as a Canadian province. In class students are provided access to materials and handouts but, more importantly, they are asked to go home and solicit the input of the family and their resources in compiling information. When presenting on a Canadian province or territory students are encouraged to, as much as possible, select one that members of their family had lived in or visited (or was close to someone who did) and thus could give first-hand, more personal information.
    Goal # 4: Encourage and facilitate vocabulary and language acquisition.
    Task: Students are asked to keep a vocabulary notebook of language they were exposed to outside the classroom and enter at least one word or expression each day. Upon selecting a word or expression, they are asked to record it in a vocabulary notebook and include an example sentence, preferably directly related to the context in which they were first exposed to the target word(s). The students are encouraged to solicit the family s input by asking questions about new language and by having a member of the family help them check their example sentences. Some time is regularly allotted in class for students to teach each other the language they learned.
    Goal # 5: Encourage students to reflect on and share their homestay experiences.
    Task: Students are asked to keep a daily journal and regularly share their thoughts and experiences noted in the journal with other students and teachers in classes. Porter et al (1990) have outlined a number of advantages of learner diaries including the fact that the diaries serve as a median for students to articulate problems they are having. Students will sometimes write things in a journal which they might be more reluctant to communicate face-to-face with a teacher. It is also a chance for students to reflect upon their experiences and the progress they are making. This kind of self-monitoring also has the potential to facilitate effort and autonomous learning.
    Goal # 6: Encourage students to interact outside of cliques.
    Task: In all classes students are constantly encouraged to move around the classroom and interact with others. In addition, they are asked in the first class to record all student names in a notebook, spacing the names to about two people a page. Throughout the program students are encouraged to make notes of information they learned about each other, including information about students lives in Japan as well as experiences in Canada.
    Goal # 7: Prepare students for out-trips.
    Task: Each week the program includes half to full day out-trips, including visits to middle schools and seniors homes, activities such as skating, curling, and a tour of a fire station, as well as scenic tours of the surrounding area. The overall experience was facilitated by:

    Having students work together to plan the activities and practice the language they needed for the more interactive out-trips (i.e. middle school).
    Having students read and talk about the places they were going to visit.
    Having students read and demonstrate understanding of rules for sports such as curling as well as educational materials for events such as a tour of a museum or the fire station.
    5. Working towards successful tasks
    5.1. A focus on form
    One critical component of a successful task is a focus on form. The sheer volume of tasks we asked students to do, including regular in-class presentations, journal writing, and new vocabulary sentences, precluded comprehensive teacher input and corrections. However, effective use of class time allowed for regular and useful teacher input on form. While students read their journals to each other, the teacher was able to walk around the room and make note of some errors, offering structural input where appropriate and/or putting common errors on the board for the class to analyze and correct. Similarly, while students shared new vocabulary and example sentences, the teacher was able to offer some judicious corrections and put some of the better and more useful examples on the board. For the themed tasks on the students homestay families a public presentation served to encourage students themselves to focus on accuracy (Willis, 2000). Since these presentations are necessarily longer and involve more complex and in-depth language, there was little time for teacher input until after students had completed their presentations. At that time the teacher was once again able to highlight some common errors on the board for students to correct.

    5.2. Adjustments and improvements
    For each of the tasks there were adjustments made to improve student participation and performance, and respond better to demonstrated student needs.
    Task # 1 and 2
    The pre-departure tasks were helpful in encouraging students to adjust their expectations and do some preparation prior to departure. However it still seemed apparent that many students language development would have benefited from a clearer formulation of language learning goals. In addition, there still seems to be lingering misconceptions among some student regarding both the degree of effort required to make significant progress in English as well as the amount of improvement they could realistically expect. It would probably be beneficial to target these gaps and misconceptions at the pre-departure orientation. Students could be asked to write down some realistic goals as well as a specific course of action they plan to take to improve their English. Students would also be given the opportunity to share this with other students. This would not only be a chance to address goals and expectations that may not be realistic, it would also be a good way to get students to take responsibility for their learning from the outset.
    Task # 3
    It became immediately clear that classroom tasks did indeed facilitate more in-depth interactions with the families. Teachers were often impressed with the depth of information even some apparently reserved students, with relatively low English proficiency, were able to obtain from their family. Most students seemed to appreciate the opportunity to interact in more depth with their families and student comments such as the following suggest the tasks were indeed productive:
    I liked the homeworks that I worked with my host family. It helped me to get along with my host family.
    I don t speak English very well, so the homework I have to ask host family is very difficult. But I could talk with my host family a lot of time.
    In addition students were often engaged and attentive to presentations of classmates on what they had learned about their homestay family and Canada. Still, some minor issues were encountered, and a number of ways to facilitate the experience were developed over the duration of the program:

    To avoid misunderstandings with homestay families, a letter was sent home with all students at the beginning of the program outlining the kinds of tasks students would be asked to carry out and the rationale behind them. The importance of communicating with the host families became apparent when one Canadian family complained to their student that they thought the questions on immigration to be too invasive. A phone call revealed that the problem developed because of a lack of communication regarding the purpose of giving students interactive tasks with their family. The family interpreted the questions as probing into their relative suitability as a homestay family.
    In addition to the letter sent to all the homestay families, teachers and students went over in class how to introduce and explain the task they would be asked to carry out. In addition the teacher went over how to negotiate an appropriate time and place to sit down and talk with the family. Students then role-played this with other students. The necessity for this also became evident after a complaint from one family that, immediately upon walking in the door from work, the host father was simply handed a list of questions written on a piece of paper with no explanation.
    Many students benefited from review and practice of communications skills such as question making, follow-up questions, appropriately encouraging responses, and meaning-negotiation skills to overcome communication gaps.
    Students needed to be made aware that the tasks themselves were negotiable and depended on the family context. For example, a unit on TV was not entirely appropriate when a family with young children discouraged any kind of TV viewing. Instead their family s policy on TV could become the topic of a class presentation. Students could also adapt the task by, for example, bringing and talking about a children s story that was popular in their home.
    Task # 4
    Students did bring a wide selection of interesting, and sometimes humorous, vocabulary they learned from their families. Students also seemed to enjoy learning new language from each other in class. At the final Sayonara party (an event toward the end of the homestay where students express appreciation to their families by putting on a mini-Japanese culture festival), students wrote posters of the vocabulary they had learned with example sentences directly related to their experiences with their family. Once again a number of ways were developed to improve the effectiveness of the task:

    Students benefited from input on the occasions which provided opportunities for language acquisition. One occasion is when students are exposed to, and are able to isolate and ask about, an unfamiliar word or expression. The second kind of opportunity occurs when students find they lack the language to adequately express themselves, and have the ability to solicit help to overcome language gaps. In this sense, both receptive and productive communication breakdowns, instead of simply indicating a lack of competence in the English, represent an opportunity for language learning.
    Selecting words from an overwhelming barrage of language can prove to be a daunting task. In preparation, students were introduced to some patterns of spoken connected speech, specifically focusing on English as a stress-timed language (Venema, 2007). They were also introduced to the idea of a cognitive filter, or net, by which they isolate and extract language from a perhaps largely indecipherable whole.
    Students benefited from classroom drills which taught them how to identify, isolate, and ask about unfamiliar language. This was done with teacher-student conversations where the teacher deliberately used language the students were unlikely to know, such as curfew .
    Students need feedback on what makes a good example sentence. This includes being able to derive the meaning of the target word(s) from a grammatically correct and contextually appropriate sentence. Students were also encouraged to choose a sentence directly related to the context in which the students originally encountered the word or expression. The assumption was that this kind of contextualization, and resulting imagery, should facilitate retention. In addition, by anchoring the sentence in its original context, students would be more likely to incorporate natural English , particularly common collocations and grammatical patterns.
    It quickly became apparent that, for all new vocabulary students acquired, there was a corresponding story to outline the context and event in which the language learning occurred. Offering students the time to share these stories served to facilitate in-depth descriptions of the students homestay experiences, contextualize the vocabulary acquired, and provided a useful review of the language students were exposed to and used outside of class.
    One student in particular complained that conversations with the host family never included unfamiliar words. Upon further probing it became evident that the student himself tended to be quite passive and reticent in interactions with the host family. This led them to believe his English level was far lower that it actually was. With some one-on-one coaching on active listening skills the student s conversations with the host family quickly progressed to the point where he reported 3-hour conversations with his host mother, and radically increased the number of new words and expressions in his notebook. In addition, the student s theme presentations increased dramatically in both quality and depth.
    Task # 5
    Most students kept quite detailed journals, and some commented they enjoyed writing. Students also were engaged when reading their journals to each other in class. This gave the teacher a chance to wander through the class and get a feel for how the homestay experiences were going. While this did provide some insights into the students homestay experience, there still remained a concern that students were reluctant to really open up and express any worries or difficulties they might be having in class. In the end, it was important to directly and individually approach students regarding their feelings about the homestay family early on in the program.
    Task # 6
    Generally classroom activities encouraged students to interact outside of established cliques. Students repeatedly gave feedback that they appreciated the frequent opportunities in class to talk to and learn about other students in the program. Asking students at the beginning of the first class to record the names of students (and their universities) that they already knew, and mingle to address gaps in their knowledge, served as a useful consciousness raising ice-breaker. However, many of the students failed to contribute information regularly in their notebooks under the names of classmates. One way to facilitate this activity would be to give students time each day (or ask them to make time outside of class) to record things they learned about classmates, and report what they have learned to a partner. This way students would not only be regularly contributing information on classmates, they would also benefit from other students contributions. In the end, interactions among all students were limited by the fact they were divided into three leveled classes of about 12 students. Given that a) the differences in class levels are typically not that dramatic and b) the tasks carried out in classes are easily adapted to individual levels, it might be wise in the future to move students through the different classes. In addition, some thought could be spent on encouraging students to interact more on out-trips, particularly on the bus. One means to do so would be to ask students to learn new things regarding a specified number of students for each trip. A final consideration is the obvious precedence of task goals over that of the actual tasks themselves. While the task did serve as an effective and useful consciousness raising ice-breaker, it is not yet evident that increased and persistent participation over the duration of the program would serve to facilitate a stronger sense of community.
    Task # 7
    Specific out-trips, particularly the middle school and seniors home, benefited from program planning and rehearsal. It was particularly effective to organize students into smaller, more manageable, groups. Still there was some room for improvement:

    It was often difficult to coordinate adequate preparation for out-trips with students rotating from one teacher to the next. In the future, where there are three or more teachers, it might be more effective to delegate this aspect of the program to one teacher who could plan classes around the theme of weekly out-trips.
    While students were asked to maintain an all-English rule in classes, this was not carried over to out-trips. This became an issue when interacting on tours and events such as curling lessons, where a barrage of Japanese between students became a linguistic and affective barrier to communication with native English speakers. In the future it would probably be wise to extend an existing classroom rule and encourage all-English use in any situation where students need to interact with the general public.
    The following students comments are some indication that some have doubts regarding the educational value of out-trips, at least where they took away from valuable class time:
    Tour was too much—I wanted to study more
    Teachers and coordinator were so good! I wanted more class time!
    One obviou

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