Focus on form in Task-Based Language Teaching

Option 1: Focus on forms

Option 2: Focus on meaning

Option 3: Focus on form

Some useful sources on focus on form

Focus on form in Task-Based Language Teaching
Michael H. Long
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Task-Based Language Teaching

Some examples would probably be useful at this point, so let us see how this would work in a particular kind of communicative classroom, one implementing Task- Based Language Teaching (TBLT). There are several lines of "task-based" work in the applied linguistics literature, and a flurry of commercially published textbook materials. Most really involve little more than the use of 'tasks' in place of 'exercises' as carriers of either an overt or a covert grammatical syllabus; they should not be designated 'task- based' at all, therefore, since they are grammatically based, not task-based. The task- based approach referred to here deals with grammar, but without recourse to a fixed grammatical syllabus, through focus on form.

As described more fully elsewhere (see, e.g., Long, 1985, 1997, to appear; Long and Crookes, 1992), recognizing the psycholinguistic problems with synthetic linguistic syllabuses, the syllabus and methodology for TBLT are analytic, and employ a non- linguistic unit of analysis, the task, at each of seven steps in designing and implementing a TBLT program (see Figure 2). It is steps 1 to 5 which concern us here with respect to the treatment of grammar in a communicative classroom.

Figure 2
Stages in TBLT

  1. Task-based needs analysis to identify target tasks.
  2. Classify into target task types.
  3. Derive pedagogic tasks.
  4. Sequence to form a task-based syllabus.
  5. Implement with appropriate methodology and pedagogy.
  6. Assess with task-based, criterion-referenced, performance tests.
  7. Evaluate program.

  1. Conduct a task-based needs analysis to identify the learners' current or future target tasks. These are the real world things people do in everyday life: buying a bus pass, asking for street directions, attending a lecture, reading a menu, writing a laboratory report, and so on. Four of many target tasks for a tourist, for example, might be to make or change a hotel, plane, restaurant or theater reservation.

  2. Classify the target tasks into target task types, e.g., making/changing reservations. This temporary shift to a more abstract, superordinate category during syllabus design is made for several reasons, including the frequent lack of sufficient time to cover all the target tasks identified in the needs analysis separately in a course, and as one way of coping with heterogeneous groups of students with diverse needs (for an example and details, see Long, 1985).

  3. From the target task types, derive pedagogic tasks. Adjusted to such factors as the learners' age and proficiency level, these are series of initially simple, progressively more complex approximations to the target tasks. Pedagogic tasks are the materials and activities teachers and students actually work on in the classroom. A false beginners class of young adult prospective tourists, for instance, might start with the following sequence: (i) intensive listening practice, during which the task is to identify which of 40 telephone requests for reservations can be met, and which not, by looking at four charts showing the availability, dates and cost of hotel rooms, theater and plane seats, and tables at a restaurant; (ii) role-playing the parts of customers and airline reservation clerks in situations in which the airline seats required are available; and (iii) role-playing situations in which, due to unavailability, learners must choose among progressively more complicated alternatives (seats in different sections of the plane, at different prices, on different flights or dates, via different routes, etc.).

  4. Sequence the pedagogic tasks to form a task-based syllabus. As is the case with units in all synthetic and analytic syllabus types, sequencing pedagogic tasks is largely done intuitively at present. The search is on, however, for objective, user-friendly criteria and parameters of task complexity and difficulty, and some progress has been made (see, e.g., Robinson, to appear; Robinson, Ting and Erwin, 1995).

  5. Implement the syllabus with appropriate methodology and pedagogy. The way I conceive TBLT (and LT in general), there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between potentially universal methodological principles, preferably well motivated by research findings in SLA and cognitive science, and desirably particular pedagogical procedures that realize the principles at the local level, choice among the latter being determined by such factors as teacher philosophy and preference, and learner age and literacy level. 'Provide negative feedback' is an example of a methodological principle in TBLT (and most other approaches and "methods" in language teaching); whether it is delivered in a particular classroom through use of an explicit rule statement, in oral, manual, or written mode, explicitly via some form of overt "error correction" or implicitly, e.g., via unobtrusive recasts of learner utterances (see, e.g. Doughty and Varela, in press; Ortega and Long, in press), and so on, are local pedagogical decisions best left to the teacher. 'Focus on form' is another methodological principle in TBLT. As an illustration of how it might occur, let us imagine that while working in pairs on the third pedagogic task outlined above, a number of learners are repeatedly heard to use a form considered insufficiently polite, e.g., 'I want X seats' for 'I'd like X seats', to ignore key words like 'window' and 'aisle', and 'coach' and 'business', or to employ singular 'seat' when plural 'seats' is required. One way focus on form might be achieved is through corrective feedback built into the materials themselves, e.g., through the output of task (iii) being rejected as input for task (iv) in a travel simulation, thereby alerting students to the existence and/or identity of error. Alternatively, the teacher might briefly interrupt the group work to draw students' attention to the problems, perhaps by modeling one member of a pair of forms and asking the class if it is good or bad, perhaps by explaining the difference between the pairs of target forms, or perhaps simply by pointing to the words on the board. As always in TBLT, the methodological principle is the important thing; the optimal pedagogy for implementing that principle will vary according to local conditions, as assessed by the classroom teacher. He or she is the expert on the local classroom situation, after all, not someone writing about language teaching thousands of miles away in an office in Honolulu or a commercial materials writer sipping martinis on a beach in the Bahamas.

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