September 2006 Foreword

Task-based Learning in an Asian Context

This set of papers started off as one section of the proceedings of the 2006 Asian EFL Journal Conference held in Pusan, Korea in March but has rapidly developed into a collection of full academic papers on Task-based Learning in Asian contexts. Teachers, curriculum developers and researchers working in Asian contexts, and some of the world’s top specialists on Task-based Learning, have all contributed their insights based on extensive experience of task-based learning. It is important to emphasize that task-based learning is not presented in this collection as an ideology, or indeed a “method” except in the very broadest sense of the term. As a coherent contextualized curriculum framework, it enables us to have meaningful and useful discussions that combine insights from extensive practical teaching experience, learning theories and practice-based research. When these three are combined, improved learning almost inevitably follows. A task-based framework can also help situate consideration of key issues relevant to all language teaching. One such issue is the relationship between focus on meaning and focus on form, a central concern of many of the papers in this collection. Arguably achieving the appropriate balance in this respect is the most important factor of successful implementation of task-based learning.

Most good studies start by defining their terms, and a study of “Task-based Learning” seems to require a definition of “task” as a priority. David Nunan provides us with a very useful starting focus for our collection of papers in this respect. Nunan reminds us of the important distinction between “analytical” and “synthetic” syllabus design, suggesting that in most Asian contexts the “synthetic” approach has tended to dominate. The implication is therefore that TBL proposes a challenging alternative. Much of Nunan’s discussion focuses on the definition of a “task”. After reviewing key definitions from the TBL literature, he presents us with his own:

“A task is 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.”

In many of these papers, Task-based Learning is not considered in isolation. Insights from TBL are linked to a wide range of discussions on subjects such as discourse and pragmatics, holism and holistic language use, using compulsory textbooks, content-based learning, learning and communication strategies and English as an International language. This is important because “Task-based Learning” is easily misrepresented as a new theory or as a limited “named method”, with fixed procedures to follow, with the implication that it is then out of focus in our so-called post-method era.

Having presented on this topic several times recently, the reactions have always been interesting. Many teachers in the audience for whom it is a “new” idea suggest that is not so different from what they already do. Models of task-based cycles and the design of task-based units seem to help these teachers rationalize their approach by providing some kind of conceptual framework, helping them to organize and reflect in a focused way on the relationship between their classroom approach and language learning. This seems very rewarding and positive for all concerned. However, it also seems to be a common assumption at conferences that presenters teach in ideal classrooms and audiences don’t. The very same teachers, and even during the same discussions, sometimes say that this “theory” is a nice idea but “will not work in my class”. While there is an apparent contradiction, the common point of these two views is that presentations on TBL seem to oblige listeners to reflect on their daily practice. Teachers at least consider modifying their current practice, attempting to imagine how or even if an activity being presented will work in their own context. This kind of “reflection on daily practice” is also a useful starting definition of what we often mean by “theory” in EFL discussion and is a core value of the Asian EFL Journal.

In this respect it is interesting that our key note speaker at the 2006 Asian EFL Journal Conference , Rod Ellis, whom we might have expected to focus on the theory of TBL in relation to SLA theory, also made it clear that discussion of task-based learning needed to be directly and immediately related to classroom practice. A significant part of his presentation involved bringing local students on stage to perform a task and the performance of this task became the focus of the “theoretical” discussion. Ellis’s paper, while firmly rooted in SLA theory, is eminently practical. The need to situate the use of tasks in some kind of coherent framework is a recurrent theme of the paper. It outlines a framework for planning “task-based” lessons. Teachers must first design the basic structure of the lesson, and then “the specific option(s) to be included in each phase of the lesson can be considered.”

The issues raised in these papers often relate to notions of SLA that are significant and will need to be addressed in any language learning context regardless of the approach being used. Indeed, one keynote speaker, Francis Munghabai, significantly did not directly address task-based learning at all, but every one of the eleven insights he discusses is also relevant to reflective teachers who are critically examining TBL in order to improve classroom practice and to develop professionally as teachers struggle to set up optimal conditions for improved classroom learning.

It is also interesting that none of these papers about task-based learning is exclusively about task-based learning. Designing and using activities that we can define as “tasks” will never be a sufficient condition in itself to foster language learning, but the way activities are designed and used in particular contexts in relation to other pedagogical considerations will always be significant.

My own contribution on “Designing Holistic Units For Task-Based Learning” also attempts to situate the use of tasks within a broader conceptual context, the notion of “holism” being particularly appropriate to both task-based activities and to the way language is used from a discourse and pragmatic perspective. The paper illustrates how tasks can be integrated into larger units and beyond lesson boundaries, proposing and illustrating a “task-based unit” that extends over several lessons. This paper does not just reflect a temporary interest in TBL as the trend of the moment or as a passing conference theme interest. It is based on a long-term and large scales curriculum project developed with a team at Kochi University in Japan.

Another member of the Kochi team, Darren Lingley addresses the issue of “content-based” teaching in relation to TBL further underlining the fact that TBL is not to be used as an impervious “method” in a traditional sense. It is rather a resource that can cross-fertilize with other areas providing useful SLA concepts for curriculum decisions, a framework for course planning and useful techniques for delivering different types of activities. Again the issue of how and when to focus on form is addressed, this time in a content-based course dealing with different aspects of Canadian culture taught to intermediate-level university students. Having observed the course personally, I can add that this is another example of TBL theory being applied (with great success) to a highly practical course.

Dr. Meena Lochana and Dr. Gitoshree Deb of the Language Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman return us to Bangalore in India, one of the homes of task-based language learning, where the medium of instruction is Kannada. Their research project is based on their concept of “whole language”, a concept they outline in detail. They begin with the hypothesis that “task based teaching enhances the language proficiency of learners”. As all teachers must, Lochana and Deb have to adapt to the realities of their situation, which in their case includes having to adapt to that traditional enemy of reflective teaching, the mandatory school textbook. The detailed report on their project implementation provides useful insights for other teachers attempting to apply principles of task-based learning in relation to notions of SLA such as input and focus on form. Lochana and Deb, in their textbook oriented system make it clear that they favour a major focus on meaning for the activities they describe.

In his report of preliminary research, “Researching the Influence of Target Language on Learner Task performance”, Theron Muller considers the relationship between focus on meaning and focus on form from a slightly different perspective. He directly addresses the issue of supplying students with language before or during a pre-task: “suggested phrases from the textbook were introduced before the task, but students were encouraged to also use their own ideas in task completion.” Muller’s preliminary results seem to suggest that there can be some value in supplying language, but that the way this is done needs careful consideration, a result supported by several other papers in this collection

In his thought-provoking position paper, “Models, Norms and Goals for English as an International Language Pedagogy and Task based Language Teaching and Learning”, Ahmet Acar, from Turkey, provides us with another reminder, from a more global viewpoint, that conceptualizing learning in relation to tasks is only one perspective that requires consideration in curriculum planning. His paper examines the theoretical assumptions and practices of task based language teaching and learning within the framework of English as an international language. He argues in favour of taking EIL competence and learners’ purpose in learning the language as a point of reference. For Acar, while tasks are “valuable pedagogical tools”, they need to be re-conceptualized within this broad global curriculum framework.

In his AEJ conference contribution, already published in our March issue, “EFL Teachers’ Perceptions of Task-Based Language Teaching: With a Focus on Korean Secondary Classroom Practice”, Jeon In-Jae addressed the important issue of EFL teachers’ perceptions of task-based language teaching in a Korean secondary school context. His research findings indicate “that there exist some negative views on implementing TBLT with regard to its classroom practice”. His paper makes useful suggestions aimed at helping teachers implement a TBLT curriculum more effectively.

We are also very pleased to be able to present a paper by Rebecca Oxford who was unable to attend our conference for personal reasons, but has set down her thinking on what would have been a keynote speech in great detail. She provides us with a very useful and comprehensive review of the field in her paper, “Task-Based Language Teaching and Learning: An Overview”. One of the many highlights in this paper is the original and stimulating discussion of possible definitions of “task”. This underlines the importance of the different focuses and meanings that can be assigned to “task”, such as “a general activity or exercise for L2 learners”, “an outcome-oriented L2 instructional segment”, “a behavioral framework for research”, or “a behavioral framework for classroom learning”. The definition of “task” is a daunting task in itself and one that Oxford addresses with skill and vigour throughout her whole piece. She ends with a very useful checklist that addresses key issues such as “goals”, “student diversity”, criteria for sequencing tasks, focus on form, needs of “ordinary teachers”, “global applications and cultural background. It will, of course, be no surprise to readers that Oxford also addresses the relationship between learning strategies and tasks in relation to the different roles that teachers and learners adopt at different stages of task-based instruction.

The Asian EFL Journal aims to publish papers from a wide range of cultural, geographical and educational perspectives. Our aim is not only to publish high-quality research but also to encourage different cultural “voices” and different styles of writing. We have often been fortunate to receive papers from leading international scholars but we also do our best to encourage and support younger scholars publishing for the first time in an International Journal and some of these have now become well-known names in Asia and beyond. Authors who publish online in AEJ have become used to receiving feedback from all over the globe. We would welcome responses to any of these papers and would be happy to review them for inclusion in future issues of the Asian EFL Journal.

Roger Nunn
Senior Associate Editor
Asian EFL Journal

Foreword to the Asian EFL-related articles (Articles 9-13)

The Pusan Asian EFL Journal conference in 2006 also offered the opportunity to several presenters from the region to introduce their recent work on Asian EFL-related themes which did not focus primarily on Task-based Learning. The following five articles represent a selection of such papers presented.

The first three papers have the common theme of writing at Japanese universities. The first of them by Mariko Eguchi and Keiichi Eguchi is a highly reflective account of the effect of an English newspaper project upon Japanese university students. A case study approach using questionnaires and classroom observation of the students ‘on project’ reveals how motivating such activities can be, yet also how the project was not perceived as having a strong influence upon their English language learning itself.

Dr. Benedict Lin’s paper addresses the introduction of a genre-based approach to a writing program in a Japanese university. Based on Vygotsky’s learning theories, the concept of a “Curriculum Cycle” is put forward as a means to implement such a program. The reflections by Lin give valuable insights into the issues surrounding not just writing programs, but also teaching EFL in a wider context.

Dr. Neil Heffernan’s paper also looks at an academic writing program for Japanese university students with the purpose of preparation before overseas study. This program embraced the practicalities of teaching students how to structure assignments, conduct small-scale research and give oral presentations based on their completed work. Heffernan’s paper offers some important advice to teachers in similar contexts wishing to introduce writing programs which have a long-term effect upon student writing strategies.

The next paper comes from Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson who puts forward a proposal for gaining a more macro picture of English teaching in Japan. This paper suggests that teacher knowledge can be effectively enhanced by tracing the Japanese history of ELT by interlinking it with non-ELT events both nationally and internationally. Globalization in its economic, political and philosophical forms is shown to have had an impact upon the status of English in various ways from the opening of Japan in the Meiji Era to the present day. Fujimoto-Adamson’s tabulated representations of these influences can serve as useful reflective tools for Japan-based teachers.

Finally, Todd Vercoe offers advice from cognitive psychology to teachers in the wider Asian sphere about “the way Westerners and North-East Asians perceive and think about the world.” This paper investigates L1 interference in L2 learning and can inform EFL practitioners about more effective ways to teach Asian students. Vercoe’s study puts forward practical implications for teaching methodology by applying the work of Nisbett to Asian EFL.

We hope you enjoy reading these Asian EFL-related papers from the Pusan conference.

John Adamson, Ed.D.
Associate Editor Asian EFL Journal