This is the fourth in a series of posts I’m writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This week’s materials explored the integration of language focused activities in task based reading sequences.
We generally introduce language focus into reading lessons by exploring lexis either by pre-teaching blocking words or recycling vocabulary. The course suggests that this practice is controversial because it …
Can increase fluency and promote successful task completion
there is always a danger that pre-teaching vocabulary will result in learners’ treating the task as an opportunity to practise pre-selected words
This school of thought proposes that the pre-teaching of vocabulary threatens the integrity of the task by “diverting learner’s primary attention from meaning to language.”
I rarely pre-teach vocabulary these days unless it’s in some sort of demo lesson where I’m modelling ostensibly ‘good’ practices to teachers. Not being able to understand parts of a text is natural and mirrors what happens in real life. I believe it’s more productive to have the learners work out strategies that will help them deal with these situations.
During task/ While reading
This generally manifests through incidental focus on form techniques.
Focus on form refers to how attentional resources are allocated and involves briefly drawing students’ attention to linguistic elements … in context as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication.
While the learner’s focus remains on processing the content of the text, they also concurrently and incidentally pay attention to language. Textual modification, such as glossing and textual input enhancement, is often used as a way of drawing attention to language while reading.
Glossing refers to the linguistic information provided in the margin of the reading passage. For example, the meaning of a vocabulary item might be presented in a gloss.
Textual input enhancement refers to making target language items more salient through typographical manipulations such as coloring, underlining, and bold-facing.
These tend to be explicit language focused activities; Michael Long calls these focus-on-forms activities. Ellis suggests that the threat of the task being undermined by a focus on language, becomes minimized at stage. Willis explains that consequently language focus should only occur during this stage of the lesson. However, there isn’t consensus on this among TBL researchers and many of them hold the view that drawing attention to form in the during-task phase is possible and of value.
To pre-teach or not to pre-teach
We tend to assume that repeated presentation and practice of vocabulary will enhance textual comprehension. However, first language researchers’ findings in this area have been inconsistent. Some studies have found that the pre-teaching vocabulary appears to have negligible impact while others have reported a positive effect. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that pre-teaching vocabulary can be useful if it involves “rich instruction of frequent vocabulary items.”
Nation suggests that rich instruction “involves several meetings with the word, focuses on many aspects of what is involved in knowing a word. Including fluency of access to the word and meeting the word in several sentence contexts and getting the learner actively involved in processing the word.” For instance, the learner might explore the written and spoken forms of the word, synonyms, co-text, and register.
This kind of deeper processing has apparently been linked to enhanced retention. However, the target words for rich instruction need to be drawn from high frequency items that learners may also come across in other texts. Some researchers suggest that the pre-teaching of infrequent words may actually interfere with comprehension.
While the course presented a comprehensive, nuanced take on pre-teaching vocabulary, I can’t help but think some of the examples they presented on rich instruction would lend themselves to entire lessons. In a 40 minute really lesson, can you really afford to spend 20 minutes or more on pre-reading language activities?
Glosses provide information about linguistic items in the text, typically in the margin of the reading passage.
Research on glossing has found that it is beneficial but the findings have not been conclusive. Providing a gloss may stop learners from investing any effort in understanding a text.
The extent to which information is retained in long-term memory is dependent on how deeply information has been processed at the time of learning.
Craik & Longhart (1972)
Laufer and Hulstijn defined three components of task-induced involvement:, need, search and evaluation. Need refers to the learner’s motivation to understand the target word. Search refers to how the learners find this meaning; and evaluation is the comparison of the target words with other words.
This involves calling out linguistic features in the text using typographical devices, such as bold-facing, underlining, and italicising. For example, if learners often omit past tense endings, the teacher could use textual enhancement to highlight past -ed endings in the text.
Hussein Nassaji and Sandra Fotos suggest some principles for textual enhancement:
- Choose a linguistic feature that learners need to focus on
- Highlight the feature using one of the textual enhancement techniques
- Avoid highlighting too many forms or constructions that are very lengthy (for example you highlight entire clauses in the text which defeats the purpose)
- Employ techniques to keep learners focused on meaning by giving them a task to complete so that their attention is not diverted to an exclusive focus on form
- Avoid metalinguistic explanations to maintain the integrity of the task.
If this technique is indeed “implicit and obtrusive”, will learners really notice the target language? Meta-analysis by Sang-Ki Lee and Hung-Tzu Huang found that input enhancement can facilitate the internalisation of target language but that learners tend to perform slightly worse on comprehension i.e., they understand slightly less in an enhanced text. So, there seems to be some kind of trade-off between focus on meaning and focus on form.