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Task Based Language Learning And Teaching English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2403 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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.Task-based Language Learning and Teaching (Ellis, 2003) together with Planning and Task Performance in Second Language ( Ellis, 2005) are among the latest of Rod Ellis’ more than two decades’ contribution to research in language learning and teaching . More specifically is his contribution to research on Second Language learning and teaching. He has written on a wide range of areas of concern in Second Language including developing a framework for describing the field of second language acquisition, and areas for further research (Ellis 1994), how people learn a language other than their mother tongue (Ellis 1997), reviews of a range of research in classroom learning, and developing theories of instructed second language acquisition (Ellis, 1990). Others are his contribution to teaching methodology in second language (Ellis 1999, 2001).

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Task-based Language Learning and Teaching (Ellis 2003) is first, and foremost about what task in language learning and teaching is. This in-depth book exhaustively covers several important topics on tasks in language learning and teaching. As a bonus, it reviews other literature on this aspect of language pedagogy, and thereby attempts to marry theory and practice. It is important to therefore look at the topics that have been covered by this text book.

Language acquisition and pedagogy

There is a clear argument by Ellis (2003) in chapter 1 especially that there is an interrelation between tasks and learning. All the four skills of language learning may be central in these tasks. When using speaking tasks, for example, Ellis argues that the teacher should be careful to differentiate between ‘focused’ and ‘unfocused’ tasks. Focused activities may aid language acquisition through the activation of language fluency and knowledge construction. For example a ‘focused’ task may involve giving verbal direction on how to reach point B from A. This way, both fluency in language being learned is improved and cognitive skills enhanced. Thus, the use of appropriate pedagogical skills and language acquisition are linked.

Ellis (2003) tries to bring out clearer understanding of tasks in language learning . He has argued that what most teachers consider to be tasks are what he calls ‘task-supported’ courses. Tasks emerge as work plans touching on any of the language skills, and involves real-world processes of language use( Ellis 2003: 11 ff). Tasks in language learning engages cognitive processes and have a clearly defined communicative outcome. He, however, acknowledges that there are disagreements among researchers as to what constitutes a task, making the definition problematic (Crookes 1986: 1). Ellis ,therefore, gives a number of definitions of task drawn from research and pedagogic literatures.

These definitions address a number of dimensions such as the scope of a task, the perspective from which it is viewed, the authenticity of the task, the linguistic skills required to perform a task, the psychological processes involved in task performance and the outcome of a task (Ellis 2003:2). The authors whose definitions of task are given include Long (1985) ; Richards, Platt and Weber (1985) ; Nunan (1989) : Cookes (1986) ; Breen (1989) and Prabhu (1987).

Listening Tasks

In chapter 2 Ellis (2003) clearly lays emphasis on listening tasks as part of the four language skills. He notes that listening is key in language learning. He differentiates between listening for comprehension and listening for learning. In view of this difference, there would be need to vary tasks and strategies for listening and develop certain schemata for listening . Note-taking, for example, is one such tasks that aids listening for learning new knowledge . He notes that researchers and teachers have their own aims in pursuing listening as a language skill. For researchers, listening provides means for investigating learners’ ability to process specific linguistic features ( Ellis 2003: 37). In view of this , he suggests that focused tasks can be devised by ‘seeding’ the input with the targeted feature and designing the task in such a way that the product outcome can only be achieved if the learners are successful in processing the targeted feature. Thus, listening tasks provide an excellent means for measuring whether learners have acquired the feature in question. On the other hand, listening skills can be devised to facilitate the acquisition of the targeted feature ( Ellis 2003: 37).

Ellis (2003:) describes how listening tasks may provide teachers with an opportunity for a task-based course designed for low-proficiency learners, such as simple listening tasks, or they may, like researchers, use listening tasks to present the students with input enriched with specific features they wish to target. For researchers there are two questions concerning listening that recur. The first is what effect the properties of the task have on listeners’ comprehension, and secondly, what effect the properties of the task have on second language acquisition. Underlying these two questions are the two different functions of listening, listening-to-comprehend and listening-to-learn. Of crucial importance is to what extent the two kinds of processes involved in comprehending and learning from input are the same or different. Ellis reports that applied linguists now generally agree that listening is an active rather than a passive skill( Ellis 2003: 39). Anderson and Lynch (1988) view listeners as active ‘model builders’ rather than people who simply receive information. Rost (1990) suggests that listening involves ‘interpretation’ rather than ‘comprehension’ because listeners are involved in hypothesis-testing and inferencing, not just decoding what is said . Further Ellis brings to the reader’s attention Brown’s (1995) argument that listening is a process by which listeners construct ‘shared mutual beliefs’ rather than ‘shared mutual knowledge’

Language Learning through Social Interaction

Learning language through interaction seems to be a recurrent theme of this author ( see Ellis and Foto 1999). Social interaction between learners as a source of input and means of acquisition is given prominence in chapter 3 . According to the Interaction Hypothesis, learners too contribute to language input and acquisition. In line with this theory, three aspects of tasks and language are dealt with in this chapter. These are the negotiation of meaning, communicative strategies and communicative effectiveness. By providing evidence Ellis (2003) argues that there are a number of design and implementation features that have a great influence on interaction. Ellis discusses instances of negotiation of meaning as a strategy ( Ellis 2003:69) which language learners use to correct themselves, substitute content or even conversation. He also discusses how different researchers use different terms to describe these strategies . For example, he discusses Varonis & Gas’s (1988:74) proposed model for resolving misunderstanding. He also emphasises that most researchers agree on four strategies of negotiation of meaning viz: (i) comprehension checks (ii) clarification requests (iii) confirmation checks and (iv) recasts. Recasts are defined as an utterance that rephrases an utterance by changing one or more of its sentence components( subject, verb or object), while still referring to its central meanings( Long 1996: 436). . Other researchers such as Rulon and McCreary (1986) have coined another term negotiation of content instead of meaning.

Productive Activities and Skills

Although productive activities and skills have been touched on in other chapters, they are given more prominence in chapter 4. To the extent that both focused and unfocused tasks benefit from production activities (Ellis 2003: 103), the quantity, quality, fluency, accuracy and complexity of output is is given much emphasis here . Language learners usually desire fluency, accuracy and flawless speech. In order to address this, Ellis(2003) tackles how linguistic knowledge is represented, the process of knowledge in production, and how linguistic knowledge contribute to language acquisition. Ellis (2003) explains that variables affecting task design have had a large influence on complexity, and also sets the conditions which elicit progressive complexity (126-127). In agreement with studies by Krashen (1978) Ellis explains that in order to promote accuracy more time should be given to Second Language speakers. Meanwhile strategic planning should be put in place to improve fluency and complexity. He recommends striking a balance between accuracy and fluency or else too much emphasis on one will affect the other.

Focused Tasks

This book gives prominence to focused tasks in chapter 5. Focused tasks are those activities that a specific productive learning aims at as its objective, or they are tasks employed to elicit use of specific linguistic features, either by design or by the use of methodological procedures that focus attention on form in the implementation of a task (Ellis 2003:141) . For instance, pupils may be given tasks which ask them to perform certain roles, and tasks are given which incorporates both language exercise and problem solving. Through the focused tasks, language skills as well as problem solving skills are exercised. On the other hand, unfocused tasks may not specifically have productive language learning objectives although other language skills may be used. Ellis (2003) emphasises the need to make a clear demarcation, for instance, between focused activity and grammar drill. Focused activity aims at the content while grammar aims at form of the language.

Contextual and Cultural Differences

Not many language writers pay attention to contextual and cultural issues as Ellis does in chapter six. He addresses the differences produced by contextual and cultural differences, which, he argues, modifies and affects the results of each task. It may be argued that real-life tasks are contextual and culture-oriented . A task-based international book published in Australia, for example, may not elicit predictable activities among pupils in Africa, India or China. According to Ellis(2003) because tasks may be contextual, a totally different activity may arise from a task planned by the teacher in his lesson design. This, however, does not indicate poor planning or teaching by the teacher. There is therefore a need for research in sociocultural tradition ( Ellis 2003:2) in second language learning .

The second half of this book is intended to facilitate practical teaching, and covers many topics related to lesson design and teachers’ procedures in teaching.

Lesson Design and Participatory Structures

How does task-based language learning (TBLL) affect course design, types of tasks, lesson content and teachers’ procedures for implementing TBLL ? These are issues that are given adequate attention by Ellis in chapter 7. In chapter 8 emphasis is on the practical ways of doing TBLL. Various methodological aspects underlying professional practice and Ellis’ conceptualisation of TBLL is outlined. Lesson design and participatory structures are laid out clearly . Clear instructions on design and teachers’ task performance are covered. This section offers more than a complementary cover to what Willis( 1996) and Skehan (1998) have done on task-based learning and teaching.

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For instance, Ellis deals with a number of important issues that none of the above authors tackle. Ellis (2003) has in this section discussed levels of task difficulty, goals and performance orientation. An important area perhaps, is the students’ active role and the need for their self-evaluation of progress and performance. Other topics covered include opportunities to focus on form, taking risks and focus on meaning.


As in all learning and teaching environments, assessment is important in task-based language learning . In TBLL, tasks are encouraged to form the backbone of assessment. Hot topics in assessment such as authenticity, validity and reliability are reviewed by Ellis in chapter 9 , and so is the matter of procedures to perform task-based evaluation. According to Ellis the foundations in task-based assessment is that tasks have to be meaningful and should reflect what has been taught. Tasks not only need to show what is being learnt, but how learning is going on. Task-based assessment can be used to measure long term learning and Ellis advises that they should be used together with other assessment types.

Criticism of Task-based Courses

In chapter 10 Ellis offers a critique of task-based courses. According to Ellis(2003) most teachers use task-supported courses rather than task-based ones. He suggests that most of the so-called tasks are ‘chunks’ of work rather than leading processes. He explains that cultural and implementation reasons have created the current skepticism towards task-based learning among applied linguists. However, he suggests that most difficulties in TBLL can be overcome. Compared to Skehan (1998) and Willis(1996), Ellis openly presents difficulties that may arise in TBLL and the need for more research in those difficult areas.

Task-based Language learning and teaching (Ellis 2003) is a response to questions that have been raised about the validity of TBLL. Ellis brings up new theories and ideas that attempt to address issues that have earlier on dogged TBLL. An important aspect of this book is how Ellis has been able to summarise the latest studies and analysis of them. The book has a current annotated Bibliography and glossary at the end to facilitate the reading and accessibility of material to the reader.

The book has some strengths as well as shortcomings. For researchers in task-based language learning and teaching it has in-depth materials, but for teachers the information may be too excessive. However, Ellis uses a lot of summary and hence makes the book easier to synthesise.


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