A task-based approach to reading | Module 6 reflections

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This is the last in a series of posts I’ve been writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This module focused on selecting suitable texts and constructing appropriate tasks.

  • Narrow reading newspaper article tasks: Learners read two or three newspaper articles on the same topic, discussing their reactions after each one. They then compare the texts to notice differences and make inferences about the reporter’s stance. Alternatively, ask them to create a table where they add to incrementally as new information emerges from each text. This task will only work well if there’s an adequate gap between the texts to allow learners to deliberate over the veracity of the information.
  • Tasks structured around texts that present different opinions: First ask learners to identify the different perspectives and summarise each viewpoint. They then present these opinions in an oral role play such as an interview.
  • Texts with conflicting perspectives: Ask learners to debate who they agree with.

Some suggestions for adapting dry textual exercises from coursebooks:

  • Don’t go immediately to the comprehension questions. Instead, construct a small task that allows learners to explore their reactions to the text.
  • Extend discuss questions to make them more productive. For example, a question that asks learners what could be changed could be modified into an action plan that they need to produce. The action plan could be conceptualised as a poster or a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Instead of answering opinion questions individually, ask students to mingle and discover the perspectives of their peers. They can report the findings in a graph or a presentation.
  • If a text is prefaced by survey findings (as they often are), ask learners to conduct the survey with their peers before comparing it with the results in their coursebook.
  • Pre-reading vocabulary exercises can be made interesting using pictures or word search puzzles.
  • Introduce texts using video or picture-based tasks which allow learners to brainstorm ideas and produce target vocabulary.
  • Copy-paste the text into a word cloud and ask learners make predictions.
  • Subvert tasks or texts that are contrived by asking learners to make them more authentic (great idea from Prof. Pauline Foster)

The final assignment was on creating a task-based reading activity that met the course’s criteria for designing a task. Here’s mine:

My overall experience with the course

I believe this is an excellent course for training teachers on teaching reading skills more effectively. It goes beyond the knee-jerk skimming and scanning (or scheming and scamming as some of my learners refer to them) and offers teachers lots of interesting techniques couched within insights drawn from research. However, in terms of task-based teaching and learning, the course is weak. It attempts to reconcile conventional ELT reading approaches with task-based sequences and does so unsuccessfully. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive – for my assignments including this last one I was able to construct some approximation of a task-based reading lesson, but most of the assignments I peer reviewed weren’t able to achieve this.

I think the primary reason behind this shortcoming is the course’s inability to suggest real world tasks where meaning is indeed primary. It was almost as if they were scraping the bottom of the barrel for task creation – designing book covers as an example of an authentic post-reading task – honestly?!  The three course facilitators, Dr Amos Paran, Dr Andrea Révész and Dr Myrrh Domingo who I assume also designed the materials, were very focused on younger learners, particularly teenagers and I can see how it might be challenging to construct authentic tasks when the context for language learning is very general. This is reflected in the relative strength of each module, the weakest of which was ironically this week’s module on designing reading tasks.

On the other hand, some of the guest speakers were able to suggest relatively more authentic tasks because many of them were looking at adult-learning contexts, often with specialised needs where it becomes easier to design tasks that genuinely reflect the activities that learners carry out regularly in their personal and professional lives.

This limitation notwithstanding, this is a great course and I highly recommend it to both new and experienced ELT professionals. My experience in this regard has been fairly similar to Sandy Millin who’d originally recommended this course on her blog. I thought I knew quite a bit about teaching reading skills but I discovered a lot of new insights.

This is also the first Coursera MOOC I’ve actually (and diligently) completed since 2014 when I’d been on a MOOC binge. I’ve been finding it really difficult to stay focused and complete MOOCs. What helped with this one was that I paid for a verified certificate which helped me stay honest and on track.

Recommended reading 

Here are the additional reading lists from each module of the course.

 

Made with Padlet

Image attribution: Nancy Avery’s class by EarthFix | Flickr | (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A task-based approach to reading | Module 5 reflections

This is the second-last in a series of posts I’m writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This week’s material was on extensive reading. Extensive reading is …

Task based reading.jpg

a supplementary class library scheme attached to an English course. In which pupils are given time, encouragement and materials to read pleasurably at their own level as many books as they can without the pressure of testing or marks.  Colin Davis (1995)

The course suggests that the best way to improve reading skills is to read and that extensive reading is the obvious manifestation of this principle, facilitating fluency in readers. Despite this, teachers apparently don’t take advantage of extensive reading as much as they ought to.

Day & Bamford, in this paper, propose 10 principles for extensive reading and the course presenter introduces them by underscoring the importance of the quantity of reading and that the reading is pleasurable.

Principle 1: The reading materials need to be easy. The greatest benefit seems to come from easy texts which have a correlation with reading that we find pleasurable.

Principle 2: Learners should have access to a range of  reading materials on a variety of topics. Everyone doesn’t want to read the same thing.

Principle 3: Learners choose what they want to read (the ideal situation is that there’s a big library that learners can choose from). Choosing a book is also a  task. It is meaning focused and has an outcome.

Principle 4: Learners read as much as possible. This could mean reading a book a week or 10-15 min a day.

Principle 5: The purpose of reading is usually related to pleasure, information, and general understanding.

Principle 6: Reading is its own reward (not reading for a test or assignment).

Principle 7: Reading speed is faster than other types of reading.

Principle 8: Reading is individual and silent because silent reading is faster.

Principle 9: Teachers need to orient and guide their learners because extensive reading is different than other types of reading.

Principle 10: The teacher is also a role model of a reader. The teacher also sits down to read for pleasure, is seen holding books, and talking about books.

Principle 10 is noteworthy in that it’s instruction by example which is probably very powerful especially for younger learners. Paul Nation suggests that extensive reading should take up at least 20% of total class time and there’s some interesting research around how to to approach this. I have summarized key insights in a presentation which happens to be this week’s rather dull assignment.

The module ended with a discussion about using reading circles in an adult learning context to promote extensive reading. This weeks’s been interesting from the perspective of insights on reading but we’ve really veered off topic from task-based approaches. There was a cursory look at tasks in the penultimate video which I’ve summarized in the presentation. I’m not convinced that designing a book cover amounts to an authentic task that has a real life corollary. They really had to stretch the explanation to make reading circles and groups seem task-like. The only task that they suggest which seems real life in any way is writing a book review for an online portal and the course only hints at this preferring to focus on reviews written for the classroom.

The paper from Belgar and Hunt (2014) titled Pleasure reading and reading rate gains is worth a dekko.

Image attribution: Reading by Paul Bence | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

A task-based approach to reading | Module 4 Reflections

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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.

Pre-task/Before reading 

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

but

there is always a danger that pre-teaching vocabulary will result in learners’ treating the task as an opportunity to practise pre-selected words

Ellis (2003)

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.

Long (2000)

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.

Post-task/After reading

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?

Glossing 
Glosses provide information about linguistic items in the text, typically in the margin of the reading passage.
Some common glossing techniques including providing a definition in L2, offering synonyms, providing a translation, and including digital media. Glossing may contribute to contribution through bottom-up processing of texts.

 

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.

Textual-input enhancement 

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.

This week’s assignment involved the designing of either pre-reading or post-reading activity with a language focus characterized by rich instruction. Here’s mine:
Lots of interesting stuff on reading in module 4 but I’m chomping at the bit for a more detailed exploration of designing authentic tasks for a TBL reading lesson.

A task-based approach to reading | Module 3 Reflections

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This week’s materials analysed the application of insights from task-based learning to reading.

Task based reading.jpg

(Intensive reading is) the type of reading that happens in class, directed by the teacher using a text that learners would be unlikely to read successfully without assistance.  Macalister (2014)

The course suggests that we do too much intensive reading and often unsuccessfully, solely focusing on the linguistic aspect. And that by doing so, we imply to the learners that we read to mine for language i.e., the sole purpose of reading is learning a language, ignoring the fact that reading could potentially be an enriching and engaging activity from a non-linguistic perspective.

Building on concepts in module 2,  5 principles were introduced for effective reading.

1. Reading is a communicative act

2. Reading must be fluent and fast

3. We need to reach some sort of authenticity of task

4. Different learning objectives require different tasks (reading to learn a language,        learning to read, reading to learn content)

5. We must take into account the reading that learners already do

It was suggested that these result in a set of implications for how we ought to plan and teach reading lessons. We need to

1. Choose interesting texts

2. Make learners want to read a text

3. Focus on meaning

4. Focus on reactions

5. Offer choices to the learners

6. Provide narrow reading

7. Use electronic sources

8. Present text and activities that learners can cope with

At first glance, these implications make sense – who’d disagree right? But, I continue to see a paradox (see my post from last week) in what the course is discussing from a pedagogical and theoretical perspective and what it’s recommending in terms of practical classroom approaches. Last week was all about agency and letting learners bring in their own texts but implication one seems to do away with that. Take a look at this:

So we really need to make sure that at least at the beginning of a course, or the beginning of a year, we choose texts that are interesting and relevant to our learners. From there, we can move to texts that we think our learners should be reading and which are about topics that have values in themselves

… so we can move to texts that *we think* our learners ought to be reading!? Wherefore art thou, agency?

While I feel this is somewhat incongruent with what they’ve been preaching, the others seem reasonable and perhaps even pedagogically sound. For instance, the rationale for number four is that we often wait until after long drawn and inane comprehension questions to ask learners to react to text, and only when we’re not running behind time when we subject the reaction stage to the old skiperoo. The course recommends that we focus on reactions immediately after learners read a text.

Apropos principle 5, I recently ran reading circles at a teacher training program where participants were offered a choice from a bank of curated articles and they had to develop consensus among themselves for which text they wanted to explore. I thought this was very empowering. These democratic reading circles were with a group of teachers; I’m not sure how well it would work with learners.

I found the idea of narrow reading, implication 6, quite interesting. In narrow reading, learners read a series of texts on the same topic. As they go from text 1 to 2 to 3, they spend less trying to understand its content (because they’ve already done that in text 1) and can do a more nuanced reading and focus on how they might feel towards it. The course rationalised this by stating:

Outside the classroom we do this all the time by choosing what we read or following a news story over a few days. Or we have our own interests and we often read about a particular topic.

It was also suggested that narrow reading facilitates the learning of language because the learners don’t need to focus so much on meaning so there’s allegedly more incidental learning of grammar and vocabulary. Implication 8 is critical because apparently a reader requires knowledge of between 95-98% of the words in a text to achieve comprehension (not sure where they got these stats from) and that we ought to rein in our tendency to include or replace words to bring in our target language because it can be very frustrating for learners.

Intriguingly the course presented research that urged greater authenticity in task design but also suggested cases for avoiding it because some inauthentic tasks such as reading aloud, and re-reading multiple times have been found to be effective.

Subsequently there was a discussion about how the stages of a reading lesson (pre, while and post) seem to deceptively mirror a task-based learning sequence. However, there is usually no real life task, and if there is one there may still be multiple issues. The comprehension questions may focus on meaning but in a decontextualised way. There may be no communicative problem to solve and there is rarely a non-linguistic outcome.

Nevertheless, the course proposes that it;s possible to adapt a conventional reading sequence for TBL, illustrating this through an example from Reading Links by Marion Geddes and Gill Sturtridge.

The ultimate task which the learners have is to design a flag for an imaginary new nation … The initial groups receive different texts with different information about this new nation, its history, its geography, its people, and customs … Once they have read and reached an understanding of their text, new groups are formed with one person from each of the original groups. And the task is now to design a flag that will represent this new nation, based on the information from the different groups.

It’s a task/problem I suppose and a seemingly engaging one but how authentic is it? I dunno.

This week’s assignment involved constructing a jigsaw reading task where learners works in groups of three to read three different tasks on the same topic. I cheated a wee bit because I couldn’t find three texts on the same topic at a similar language level so I conveniently retrofitted my target learners to the text. A lot of the assignments I peer assessed stuck to largely conventional reading approaches and I questioned the authenticity of the task that their activities culminated in.

I am still waiting for a shift in focus from the status quo in terms how we deal with reading to a more thorough examination of how reading would work as a task-based strategy. Hope to see that in next week’s materials.

A task-based approach to reading | Module 2 Reflections

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This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing to consolidate and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This module’s content explored reading as a cognitive, communicative and strategic activity as well as looking into areas such as background knowledge and promoting reading fluency. The lead-in was an interesting online activity which asked course participants to post a picture of something we had read on that day or the day before in L1 or L2, on a Padlet wall. See if you can spot mine – it’s towards the bottom.

Reading as a cognitive activity

My own definition of reading was the ability to parse letters as words, phrases and sentences and interpret meaning from them. The course defined the core meaning of reading as “the activity by which we interpret language messages in written or printed form.” It was suggested that readers need to able to decode words and comprehend the connection between them and that the relationship between decoding and comprehension was not additive but dependent, i.e., strong decoding skills can’t compensate for weak comprehension skills or vice versa.

We read text through a sequence of eye movements that involve fixations and sacchades. The eye is still in a fixation and information is extracted. During a sacchade, the eyes move to the next point of fixation.

We can only extract information from the page while the eye is fixated. And we can only identify with certainty and clarity about seven to nine characters. This is because of the way in which the eye is structured and the structure of the retina, the part of the eye that receives this visual information … The average fixation time varies from reader to reader and from text to text. Some researchers suggest that it is about 200 to 270 milliseconds, although more recent estimates suggest that it is maybe 300 to 330 milliseconds … This means that we read at the rate of about 180 to 240 words per minute. So reading is a rapid process and it also needs to be an efficient process. During these very short fixations, there is a lot of work that our brain needs to accomplish.
Consequently, reading in L2 can be challenging because the nature of reading requires the process to be fast and fluent, with some automaticity in decoding text, “to leave cognitive capacity for comprehension.”
This point is conceptually explained here and here.

Reading as a communicative activity

While I focused on how reading provides the input for communication, in hindsight I realized that my thinking was constrained by the classroom. The course was more interested in how reading operates, to use the popular social media short form, IRL.

They suggest that reading as a process within and outside the classroom are very different. In the real world, the reader determines what he or she reads for the most part. They also get to decide the purpose for reading. We may also process the text in a very non-linear way, skipping, stopping and/or revisiting sections. Post-reading, there may or may not be a follow-up. We may frequently decide to do nothing after reading a text. If we do decide to respond, this response is usually in a spoken format and we often have conversations with people who may not have read the text, in which case we may present a short summary. For example, you read a news article and comment on it to your partner who hasn’t read the article. The follow-up may also be an action such as instructions for taking medicine, following a recipe, or responding to an email or text message.

The situation is completely inverted in the language classroom. While reading in real life is marked by a strong sense of agency on the part of the reader, reading in the language classroom is characterised by a loss of it. While students may be expected to do an initial reading to get a sense of the text, the principal objective is to “dissect it linguistically.” This is referred to by Tim Johns and Flo Davies as the text as a linguistic object (TALO).

The process of reading in the classroom is also highly linear. Students are required to read the entire text. They are not allowed to stop or skip. Skimming and scanning almost always prepare the way for a more detailed reading. We have been indoctrinated to believe that the extension task that follows is sacrosanct because we must the skill into production. Where follow-up is mandatory in the classroom, things are not so rigid in the real world.

Reading as a strategic activity

The strategies I teach are really the usual suspects: pre-reading, skimming, scanning, intensive reading, and critical reading, mostly in a highly stylised sequence which I haven’t actively questioned.

Reading skills are “information processing techniques that are automatic, whether at the level of recognizing grapheme-phoneme correspondence or summarizing a story.”

Reading strategies are “actions selected deliberately to achieve particular goals.”

 Paris, Wasik & Turner (1991)

The course suggested that skimming, scanning and guessing words from context were the most common strategies used by course books but that they present an incomplete picture of reading. Unlike some ELT colleagues who are skeptical about the value of skimming and scanning, the course doesn’t downplay their importance but proposes their utility is in very specific contexts.
They also implied that guessing meaning from words is treated too simplistically in the language classroom, suggesting that it’s a far more complex process dependent on multiple factors. They evidenced this using research from Margot Haines who found that readers were able to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words more accurately “if the clues for the meaning were local, near the unknown words.” Research by Paul Nation proposed that the frequency of the unfamiliar word in the text, the proximity of the occurrences to each other, the number of clues, the density of other unknown words, familiarity of content, among other factors all contributed to the ability of the reader to guess meaning from context.
Grabe’s 14 strategies were introduced as a richer range of processing techniques with the caveat that they may not be as specific or well-defined as the ones we are familiar with in terms of classroom procedure.
Strategies used by engaged readers

1. Reading selectively according to goals

2. Reading carefully in key places

3. Re-reading as appropriate

4. Monitoring reading continuously, being aware of whether or not they are comprehending the text.

5. Identifying important information

6. Trying to fill in the gaps in the text (through inference & prior knowledge)

7. Making guesses about unknown words

8. Using text structure information to guide understanding

9. Making inferences about the author, key information, and main ideas

10. Attempting to integrate ideas from different parts of the text

11. Building interpretations of the text as they read

12. Building main-idea summaries

13. Evaluating the text and the author and as a result forming feelings about the text

14. Attempting to resolve difficulties

Grabe (2009)

This section was concluded with the disclaimer that effective readers don’t use strategies in isolation, as they are often encouraged to do in the classroom. “Instead, they use multiple strategies in a flexible manner, choosing from their repertoire of strategies to make sense of the text according to the purpose of their reading.”

The role of background knowledge

A lot of the approaches discussed so far have been bottom-up but we have to acknowledge the role of compensatory processes as well. If you have some degree of familiarity with the topic, you may be able to compensate for a lack of linguistic knowledge
In this respect, schema are claimed to help readers in the comprehension, retention and inferencing of texts. Schema are

Previously acquired knowledge structures. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988)

Related sets of knowledge linked together in an established frame.  Grabe (2009)

Background knowledge could take the form of:

  • general knowledge of the world
  • topical knowledge
  • cultural knowledge
  • specialist expertise knowledge

However, background knowledge can also cause interference. This was attested to referencing a study where American and Indian test subjects were asked to read two letters, one about an American wedding and an Indian wedding. The readers misunderstood, mis-remembered or forgot facts and details from the wedding whose cultural context they were unfamiliar with.

Background knowledge interacts with other areas such as language proficiency, motivation and purpose to enable the reader to process texts more effectively. However, the significance of background knowledge is currently underplayed among researchers but the course seemed to suggest that we ought to be paying it more attention. In easing learners into a text, we often focus on linguistic scaffolding through the pre-teaching of vocabulary. However, preparing learners to face unfamiliar topics is done minimally through brief pre-reading discussions.

Automaticity and word recognition

The module started off by suggesting that automaticity is critical for effective reading and concluded by focusing on some research in this area. Akamatsu (2008) conducted a study in which she presented participants with word strings, each containing 5 words with no spaces:

sunbendgivebearpen

shallsattheeatclaimhome

snakepastwellshiftnone

In each training session, participants were exposed to 150 words or 30 strings and they had 90 seconds to recognize individual words. There were seven sessions over seven weeks with one session a week and students were able to improve their word recognition ability significantly.

Greta Gorsuch and Etsuo Taguchi focused on the effectiveness of repeated reading in their research. Participants were asked to read a section of a short story while timing themselves. They then reread the same section two more times while listening it to be read aloud. They then read the section silently two more times, once again timing themselves. Lastly, they wrote a brief report on the text they’d read.

This week’s assignment sought four specific actions for improving reading at your institution based on this week’s material. Here’s my submission:

————————————-
A lot of the concerns with reading as it is currently taught and conducted, are issues that I am familiar with and have discussed and debated with peers. While I acknowledge the problems with the linear, stylised way in which we treat reading activities, I continue to use the often seemingly mindless sequence of prediction, gist reading, specific reading and extension task. Why? I’m not really sure but I suppose it’s all boils down to what’s practical. Of course, I want my learners to read things that they select for themselves. But that sort of Dogme-style approach doesn’t always work out IRL! Only 4 out of 10 will bring in a text and of the four at least one might be inappropriate for whatever reason. And what about the fact that not all learners want to bring in texts. Providing choice in how learners to process a text sounds great conceptually but in practice may lead to readers who lose attention and might not get the maximum value from the lesson.


Paradoxically, the assignments that I peer-assessed prescribed actions from the standard ELT guide to reading … from now on, at my school, I will do a prediction exercise, then make my students skim the text, then scan … You see this where this is going. It felt like we were on different courses. I suspect this might be because a plurality of language teachers use an even more traditional approach to reading such as the one that’s prevalent in Indian schools: one student reads aloud while others follow along with their finger (the finger is very important). Then, students work individually to answer comprehension questions. If this constitutes a reading lesson, a more conventional ELT approach is perhaps quite innovative. However, the course seems to be suggesting something completely radical. It remains to be seen if this theoretical direction will be translated into realistic task types in the upcoming modules.

A task-based approach to reading | Module 1 Reflections

task-based-reading

It’s the beginning of the second week on this Coursera MOOC offered by the University of London and I’m already slightly embarrassed at the gaps in my knowledge. Here are some latent assumptions I discovered I’d been carrying around. I …

  • associated TBA with group work
  • used TBA primarily for speaking or writing-based outcomes
  • referred to activities and tasks interchangeably as if they were the same thing.

I do know the distinction between tasks and activities and was able to identify it accurately in one of the reflection exercise (before they displayed the answer, I swear!) When I introspected, I realized that it might have something to do with the connotations of the words – activity & task- and how I presuppose my clients perceive them. I suspect they see activity as a filler, something frivolous and fun, that provides relief from learning rather than facilitating it. Task seems to have so much more gravitas.

Technically tasks are a type of activity that facilitate learning linked to core outcomes. So, what exactly makes a second language activity a pedagogic task?

Traditional classroom activities often involve decontexualized language use and often focus on a particular aspect of language such as grammar or vocabulary (Skehan, 1996)

In contrast, pedagogic tasks are characterised by four features.

  • meaning is primary
  • there is some communicative problem to solve
  • there is some sort of relationship with real-world activities
  • the assessment of task is in terms of a task outcome

With pedagogic tasks, our primary focus is on whether the communicative purpose has been achieved, not the quality of the language. For example, describing an illness to a doctor, telling a story based on pictures, listening to an academic lecturer, or writing a cover letter for a job application. The course facilitators suggest that we often incorrectly believe that tasks can only be used for oral outcomes and that in reality, tasks can cover all four skills.

Many typical classroom activities can be somewhat deceptive because they seem communicative and task-like on the surface. For example, a ‘you say, your partner says’ type template for having a conversation is not a task according to Rod Ellis because learners are only required to identify appropriate language to convey meaning which is already provided in the exercise. This activity doesn’t lead to a non-linguistic outcome and the focus is on grammar instead of meaning. There is also no communicative problem to solve.

However, exercises with purely linguistic outcomes could be adapted to incorporate the affordances of pedagogic tasks. The course illustrated this through the example of a restaurant role play using a menu. The existing activity gets Ss to use a structured dialogue to order some food. The only choice they have in the activity is the food they order. If there was no task input by way of dialogue and learners had to work with some constraints such as a limited budget or allergies, we may have the frame for a task where the emphasis is on meaning and problem solving. The language used during the task may then mirror an authentic conversation.  Another example of tweaking a communicative activity to make it more akin to a task is to ask Ss to prepare a summary of findings after a ‘find someone who’ activity in the form of a graph or a report. The course facilitator suggested that although this activity is partly focused on meaning, in execution, Ss tend to focus on the form – past perfect or question forms instead of engaging in real conversation.

Types of tasks 

I could only recall three types of tasks that I generally use: guided discovery tasks, structured sharing tasks, and application tasks – and I’m not even sure if the first two are technically tasks. The course, however, presented many, many more. They come in pairs and I’ve summarised them in this table:

Target tasks are those that people do in the real world e.g., writing an executive summary if you’re a business professional. Pedagogic tasks are graded versions of target tasks that language learners work on in a lesson e.g., filling out only the personal details section of a job application form (complete a target task with pedagogic objective).
One way tasks are those where one participant has all the information to be conveyed.

This individual does most of the talking or writing, e.g.,, one S talks to the other S where to place some items on a floor plan, as if instructing someone from a moving company

Two-way tasks require all the participants to participate equally for the communicative problem to be solved e.g., a spot the difference task.
Open tasks have no predetermined outcome that the Ss need to achieve e.g., Ss take random pictures and form a story sequence. Closed tasks require Ss need to reach a predetermined solution which is often the correct answer e.g., an objective ranking exercise.
Convergent tasks get Ss to to reach consensus about the task outcome e.g., how to allocate funding to community projects. Divergent tasks don’t require Ss to agree about the task solution e.g., learners discuss pros and cons of issues such as ways of tacking pollution.
Unfocused tasks do not have a predetermined language focus. Focused tasks are constructed to induce the use of particular linguistic constructions e.g., in a spot the difference exercises, Ss ask each other questions.
Input-based tasks do not require production. Learners are expected to primarily engage in listening and reading during task work e.g., listening to an airport announcement and reading for a project. Output based tasks require Ss to produce language, that is, to engage in either speaking or writing.

It seemed as if most of these distinctions were sourced from Rod Ellis. Although I wasn’t familiar with the nomenclature, I use all of these tasks types regularly except open and one-way tasks which I use very rarely. The focus of this MOOC is, as the name suggests, on input-based tasks.

I did find the repeated references to spot the difference and story sequencing activities odd. I don’t see how they mirror real world tasks or indeed fulfill the four part criteria that was shared early on in this module.

What role do tasks play in your teaching?

Tasks play a significant role in my curriculum design. I tend to build my lessons around tasks rather than content items. My approach is influenced by an elearning design methodology called Action Mapping by Cathy Moore which essentially involves visualizing the tasks (although Moore refers to them as activities) that would enable the learner to accomplish the course’s objectives. I then think about how I might want to scaffold the experience which I might attempt by designing and incorporating relevant activities.

The course suggests two approaches to how tasks could influence curriculum design.

In task-based syllabi, the basis of this syllabus is not linguistic constructions … it’s predominantly pedagogic tasks that drive syllabus design. In traditional language teaching, course content is usually specified in terms of linguistic items such as grammar, vocabulary, and functions. A grammatical syllabus for example, might be defined in terms of constructions, such as the present simple, present progressive, and so on.(In task-supported syllabi), tasks play a key role but are not the primary basis for organization. The syllabus may be guided by other elements such as grammar, functions, or lexis. The assessment is not or not entirely defined in terms of tasks.

How do you typically structure a task-based sequence?

I usually have some kind of exercise that activates topic schemata along with a model for how the task could potentially be carried out either in the form of a written or listening text or a video or a demonstration. Learners then carry out the task in a pairs and groups and report back through whole class feedback. Language work or skill-based feedback happens as a post-task stage.

The course in turn presents a fairly conventional Ellisian approach to a task-based sequence:

  • Pre-task stage: activities that enable the Ss to focus on both language and content. This could included language focused activities that introduce new language or recycle exisiting linguistic resource. They could also be content-focused activities which engage learners with the topic of the task. They could do this by rehearsing the same or similar task or observing the performance of a parallel task. The T might allow for planning time and might frame the task by explaining procedure, outcome or by providing background knowledge. The T could also introduce or mobilize task share event language (a fancy term for pre-teaching useful vocabulary).
  • During-task phase: Ss perform the task. The T could adopt a passive or active role.
  • Post-task phase: Ss repeat the task before their peers which might compel them to use a more formal register and more complex structures. Ss could also also be asked to report back to the class about their task outcome. The T may also choose to engage Ss in explicit language focus activities which are referred to as ‘focus on form’ activities by Michael Long. These could potentially target linguistic features that Ss found challenging.

Interestingly, Peter Skehan and Pauline Foster’s research suggests that informing students of such a post-task requirement prior to the performance of the task could induce more attention to form in the during-task phase.

The assignment from this week was to produce an information sheet on tasks and their benefits. Here’s mine:

Lastly, I’m really to happy to see that the course is presented (and perhaps also moderated) by NNESTs and quite impressed with the course overall. Thank you Sandy Millin for recommending it!

The course recommends the following sources for additional reading:

  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language teaching and learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Long, M. (2015). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Samuda, V., & Bygate, M. (2008). Tasks in second language learning. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. M. (Eds.) (2009). Task-based language teaching: A reader.Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Reading skills for the selfie generation | Webinar summary

This OUP webinar was facilitated by Thomas Healy. He suggests that the reading skills required by the selfie generation are different than what we traditionally identify as important attributes.  He envisions this dichotomy in this way:

20th century learners  >>>> Selfie generation

Text >>>> Picture, sound, video

Single task >>>> Multi-tasking

Independent &  individual >>>> Interactive, networked

The physical world >>>> The digital world

teacher-training

It’s not just millenials who are selfie-obsessed. Here are some of my enthusiastic participants from a recent teacher training program. I quite dislike selfies and am grateful this one has come out a bit blurry.

Healy asserts that this presents a double challenge for our teaching because Ss are required to read both traditional print and digital text. Some of the other challenges he identified include skimming, scanning and all the other traditional skills in a digital environment, dealing with proximity issues (scrolling to find information as opposed to having it within frames in print), dealing with ‘rabbit hole’ issues (getting distracted by hyperlinks and wandering away from the text), and dealing with cognitive load.

He proposes interactive PDFs as a solution. Have you ever filled a PDF form before?  PDF forms are a type of interactive PDF. An interactive PDF allows users to do more than just read information; there might be hyperlinks, embedded audio or video clips, and text boxes to type information. When I was with Deloitte, there was a top down imperative to reduce the number of handouts used for courses and since all the employees had laptops, we created interactive PDFs. The rationale was to save paper rather than address the needs and affordances of millenials. Although there was WiFi everywhere, my colleagues and I were a little skeptical of creating activities that would have the Ss wander away from the PDF … they certainly didn’t need encouragement to multitask.

Digital reading activities 

Here are some of the ideas Healy shared for creating an engaging interactive PDF:

  • Hyperlink pictures within the text to existing YouTube videos and ask Ss to watch the video and answer questions.
  • Hyperlink to a private Facebook group and ask Ss to do a discussion activity there, for example, share some ideas about a topic. Ss are then required to report back in the interactive PDF by answering a question such as “Which of your classmates’ ideas do you agree with? Write them in the box below.”
  • Include text boxes within the PDF. Ss don’t have to write in their notebooks or in MS Word. Their responses are captured in a single PDF document which they could save and share with you.
  • Use screen capture tools like Camtasia to annotate text. Record yourself visually demonstrating to Ss the process of reading a text. Use different colours to highlight the different pieces of information a reader would typically look for and find. Upload the  instructional video to Youtube and create a link in the interactive handout. Ss watch the instruction video before they attempt the same process for the text in the PDF. I thought this was a particularly interesting idea – ties in with the popularity of ‘how to’ and encourages learner autonomy
  • Highlight structural or lexical elements in the text which could help Ss identify information such as using conjunctive adverbs or conjunctions – in contrast – to recognize contrast. This could be done through an instructional video using a screen capture tool or more simply, using an annotated image of the text.
  • Annotate to demonstrate scanning; for example, show Ss how they can quickly look for proper nouns, dates, and italics.
  • Give Ss a number of sources (URLs) on Facebook as a sort of webquest activity and ask them identify the source that would be appropriate for academic research. Ss must also explain why.
  • Share signposts such as words like ‘however’, ‘yet’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘whereas’ and punctuation marks like ‘?’ and ask Ss to use the search tool within the PDF to find information these signposts might be connected to. I thought this was a very relevant technique which genuinely considers the affordances of the digital medium.

Digital tools

Healy recommends Adobe Acrobat Pro for creating interactive PDFs and Camtasia Camtasia for making instructional videos. They’re both paid software but you can try out them for the first month for free.

Here are some free tools for creating interactive PDFs:

Copyright issues

As I was watching the webinar recording, I kept thinking about copyright issues which Healy addressed just before he concluded. Obviously, a lot of his suggestions for working with digital texts and media can only be executed if you own the copyright or if the text is in the public domain or you’ve got permission from the copyright holder.

Embedding video 

While Healy suggested adding YouTube links, I would recommend embedding the video within the PDF in order to limit reliance on external links. This shouldn’t be a problem if it’s an instructional video that you created – it’s quite easy to embed the video using Adobe Pro. The file size bloat a bit but then there are so many ways to share files these days so I don’t see that being a problem.

Have you used these or similar ideas for enhancing digital reading skills? Do you create interactive PDFs? What’s been the learner experience?