task-based teaching of grammar

Task-based Teaching of Grammar By: V. yousefi, Ave Sina Shahed High School, Hamedan I. Introduction The idea of getting learners to acquire English through tasks was developed in India by N.S.Prabhu in the 1980s. Prabhu made a strong Communicative Approach Project in Banglore, south India . He put forward many kinds of tasks, and designed the learning contents into all kinds of communicative tasks. He thinks learners may learn more effectively when their minds are focused on tasks, rather than on the language they are using. Prabhu’s Banglore Project can be regarded as a first try that tasks can be designed into a unit in classroom design (Li,2004). In recent years increasing numbers of teachers, in all subjects, have been looking for ways to change the traditional forms of instruction in which knowledge is transmitted, in a one-way process, from a dominant teacher to a class of silent, obedient, “passive” learners. They have sought ways to make the classroom more “student-centred” and have investigated the different ways in which students can play more active roles in discovering and processing knowledge. The result of the research is the outcome of task-based learning. Although task-based learning is regarded as one particular approach to implementing the broader “communicative approach” and, as with the communicative approach in general, one of the features of task-based learning that often worries teachers is that it seems to have no place for the teaching of grammar. Actually grammar is as important in a communicative approach as in any other approach. That is to say, grammar applies with equal force to task-based learning. And the newly published Senior High School English Teaching Curriculum Standard points out that the general aim of the English curriculum is to enable students to clarify the aim of English learning, and to develop integrated skills in using the language. The publication of the new standard leads the English Language Teaching (ELT) in Iran to a new direction. As a result, grammar teaching should not just maintain its rule-listing routine. Instead, some new attempts should be involved. Teaching grammar through tasks in situational contexts will pursue the appropriate practical use of grammar. Task-based Teaching can involve communicative elements such verbal and nonverbal elements and inductive teaching. II. Task-Based Learning (TBL)1. Various Definitions of Task Task-based learning are widely promoted in English language teaching nowadays. However the definition of task is greatly varied. Now let’s have a look at the following definitions of task given by some prominent scholars. M. Long (Li, 2004): A task is a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus, examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, taking a hotel reservation, writing a check, finding a street destination and helping someone across a road. In other words, by “task” is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between. Tasks are the things people will tell you they do if you ask them and they are not applied linguists. Nunan (Li, 2004): The communicative task is a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating or interacting in the target language while their attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its right. Prabhu’s definition of task is as follows: this makes no reference to real world needs. Instead, tasks are learning activities that engage learners in logical thinking. From the definitions given by the three famous scholars, we may get the conclusion that tasks can be acquired easily in our daily life and students’ attention can be shifted from the abstract and complex language items to the fulfillment of tasks through target language. So transmitting information is the focus. Anyhow, tasks do not include activities which involve language used for practice or display, such as ‘ Describe the picture using the words and phrases from the list below’ or ‘ Ask your partner if he likes the food listed here using the forms Do you like…? Yes, I do/ No, I don’t. where there is no outcome or purpose other than practice of pre-specified language. 2. Basic Characteristics of TBL

  • (1) Student-centeredness. Teachers should always be aware to plan a lesson for the aim of students’ mastery of how to use a language. Encourage students’ involvement in the task activities. If the teacher wants to design a task, firstly she should make sure that the students can get involved in the activity. 
  • (2) Meaning-focused instead of form-focused It is for the accomplishment of certain tasks that students use certain language forms to communicate meaningfully with someone. The students don’t note down all the rules any more. Instead, they are involved in the meaningful and interesting activities.
  • (3) Authenticity. The task given to students should be clear and authentic to the life reality and have some information transfer. Make sure the task designed is real in daily life. And tasks can be available everywhere from having dinner to making a paper plane.
  • (4) Teamwork. Cooperation is greatly valued during the process of reaching an outcome of a task. Students should help others, rely on others and learn from each other. If they are involved in an activity, they must try their best to finish it with the help of others.
  • (5) Feedback and evaluation. The reaching of an outcome is by far not the end of a task. Teachers should pay much attention to the process of feedback. Give students a chance to report on their findings and experience their achievements. Without this step, a task can hardly called a task in a TBL class. Teachers should give appropriate evaluation to their outcome as well.
  • (6) Inside and outside class. Often an in-class task can lead to post-class tasks. It is natural that the excitement of the whole class may lead to a further discussion after class. Once we talked about the prince of Britain—Charles and two women. That is Diana and Camilla. After the argument of the beauty of the two women on class, the students were so excited that they couldn’t help stopping their talking.

3. The Procedure of TBL Task-based learning consists of, not of language items, but of tasks requiring increasingly complex use of language. The problem-solving of practical tasks, usually done in groups, were designed to interest and challenge the learners sufficiently to get them to use the English they already knew and incorporate new items provided by input materials and the teacher. That led to a general proposal for Task-based Learning, suitable, in principle, for use in most English teaching situations. A three-stage procedure is commonly recommended:

  • (1) Pre-task Introduction to the topic and task Provision of useful input (listening, reading, brainstorming, etc.) If necessary, reactivation or provision of essential language Definition of the task (objectives, procedures, time limits, etc.)
  • (2) Task Planning the task Doing the task Reporting on the task or presenting the product of the task [teacher monitoring and guiding as necessary all the time]
  •  (3) Post-task Focus on the language used Practice of the language as necessary Retrospective discussion of the task-awareness-raising It is important to emphasize that tasks in TBL should have very clear objectives and conclude with a very tangible sense of achievement for the learners (Li, 2004). 

 III. The Background of Teaching Grammar through Tasks 1. The Role of Grammar The role of grammar has always been an argumentative focus in linguistic field. Grammar teaching has experienced some representative periods. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chomsky’s “grammatical competence” claimed that knowing a language equals to knowing the grammar of that language. In the 1970s and the 1980s, with the birth of the concept “communicative competence”, Hymes’ idea that knowing a language should also include being able to use the language for social and communicative interaction. According to the theory of communicative competence, focusing on meaning rather than form does not mean that grammar can be ignored. Instead, it should mean a balance between language system and competence in its use, with an emphasis on meaning. The important role of grammar cannot guarantee the important status of grammar teaching. As early as 1966, Newmark mentioned that grammar teaching interfered with language study and the language analysis. In 1989, Nunan testified in his report that some linguists did hold an idea that grammar teaching was not necessary. But since the 1980s, the view of neglecting grammar teaching has been under serious challenge. To the question, “Should teachers teach grammar?”, Ellis gives a positive response “Yes”. 2. Traditional Grammar Teaching Methods in Iran If we observe the grammar teaching class in middle schools or most of the schools, we may find out that nearly every teacher follows a simple way like this: firstly, the teacher lists the grammar rules. Then, the students learn by heart all the rules and do some exercises. Lastly, the teacher gives more written exercises such as blank-filling or translation. This is quite similar with what we called 3p theory: presentation, practice and production. These three stages convey different purposes. Presentation is to present new language in context so that the meaning is clear, to present the new form in a natural spoken or written text so that students can see its use in discourse, to link the new form to what students already know, to check comprehension, to elicit the form from students where possible and exploit their existing knowledge. Practice is to help students memorize the form, to help students produce the word order, to give intensive practice through repetition, to provide opportunities for feedback and error correction, to give practice in pronouncing new forms, to develop confidence. Production is to reduce control and encourage students to find out what they can do, to encourage students to use the forms in expressing their own content, to help students see the usefulness of what they have learned, to check what has been learned and diagnose problems. It is obviously known to everyone that grammar is an indispensable part of English learning in Iran. In order to get more information about grammar, the teachers try to list as many as possible the rules in each case, and the students have already got used to writing down all the rules on their notebook. Teachers try their best to give a clear explanation of each item and try to apply more information to the students. Almost every student spends most of their time memorizing rules of grammar in or after class. Correspondingly, grammar class became the dullest class and most students got confused by so many rules. Many students complain that they are eager to learn grammar well since grammar is the fundamental knowledge in English but they couldn’t help falling asleep on grammar class. Actually, grammar teaching should not just maintain its rule-listing routine. Instead, some new attempts should be involved. Teaching grammar through tasks can pursue the appropriate practical use of grammar. 3. The Need of Teaching Grammar through Tasks Recently the author has been teaching in a training centre- school and universities- where his work is to teach grammar to the students there, most of whom are adults and are going to pass the courses in a short period of time. As a matter of fact, some of the students have got good command of English especially in the examinations such as Final tests or even TOEFL. But when they open their mouth, they always find that they can’t get a proper word to express themselves or sometimes when the author points out some mistakes in their speech they can hardly believe they had made such silly mistakes. Most of the students mention that they are quite sure to have learned the corresponding term but couldn’t help making mistakes when they get to talking. That is the question which is going to be focused on today. IV. Teaching Grammar through Tasks As is mentioned above, the problem can be solved through tasks such as songs, plays, story telling etc. This is an example of teaching the grammar point used to. 1. Preparation:

  • (1) For this class the teacher prepares a photograph of himself when she was 10 years younger (or thereabouts). This works best if he looks considerably different in the photo than he does now.
  • (2) The teacher also needs to prepare a short text about how his life was different then to what it is now. In this text include at least two examples of things he used to do and two examples of things he didn’t use to do. The teacher can either record this text onto a cassette to play for the students, or practise reading it out loud until he is able to speak it comfortably in front of the class.
  • (3) Prepare a written version of this text that can be distributed to the class.

 2. Procedure

  • (1) Pre-task Aim: To prepare students for the task, to engage their attention. Tell the students that the teacher is going to show them a photo of him 10 years ago. Ask them what they think will be different, but don’t correct them at this stage (i.e. respond to the meaning of what they say, not the form). Then take out the photo of him and walk around the class, showing it to the students. Ask them what was different about him then. Put the picture up on the board and ask what else was different about him? Allow more comments from the class, but don’t tell them if they are right or wrong in their guesses. Explain that they will find this out later.
  • (2) Task A. Planning the Task Aim: For students to discuss how their life was different ten years ago. Ask students to work in groups of three. Tell them to talk about their life ten years ago. Put the following questions on the board: What did you look like? What was different about your life? Did you have different likes and dislikes? Different hobbies? Are you very different now? Explain that the questions are to help them start talking. Give them a time limit of three to five minutes to discuss this. Circulate and listen to the students doing the task, but do not correct any language at this moment. B. Doing the Task Aim: For students to prepare an oral report of their task. Stop the task. Tell the students to work together preparing a summary of their discussion for later report to the whole class. They must write notes for this summary and be prepared to report this orally to the rest of the class. Set a time limit of five minutes for them to do this. When the students are ready, ask a spokesperson from each group to do report. Rest of the class listen carefully and decide which students have changed the most in the past ten years. C. Presenting the Product of the Task Aim: For students to get a provision of useful language input. The students listen to a short passage in which the speaker is talking about his life ten years ago. Ask the students some quick comprehension questions about what they heard. For example, what did the speaker say about her hair? What did he say about his job? If the students find it difficult to understand, repeat the text again.
  • (3) Post-task A. Language Focus Aim: To raise students’ awareness about the target language. Let the students listen to the passage again, picking out those sentences which contain used to and write them on the board. For example: a) I used to go to heavy metal concerts. b) I used to have long black hair. c) I used to wear tight leather trousers. d) I didn’t use to do my homework. Check that students understand the meaning of the sentences. This is best done by concept check questions. For example a) above, the concept check questions would be: Did I go to heavy metal concerts in the past? (Yes) Was it a regular occurrence? (Yes) Do I go to heavy metal concerts now? (No). Write down the rules of form for used to: used to + infinitive and didn’t use to + infinitive At this point the teacher could ask students to find other examples of how she used to be and didn’t used to be. Point out that in English we use used to to talk about states and habits that continued for a period of time in the past.
  • (4) Post-teask B. Language Practice Aim: To give the students some restricted written practice in the target language. If you feel that your class needs some restricted practice in the grammar, ask them to write down three things that they used to do and three things that they didn’t use to do when they were children. Circulate and monitor. Ask students to check their sentences with each other and elicit some examples to put on the board. 
  • (5) Post task C. Optional Follow Up Aim: To give the students a chance to repeat (and hopefully improve) the task. Ask students to work with a partner that they haven’t worked with yet during this class. Tell them to repeat the same task as they did at the beginning of the class, but they should try to include the target structure used to into their speaking. Once students finish their practice, ask a couple to report back to the class what they talked about with their partner. Use this time to focus on accuracy, i.e. correct what they say if they make mistakes using the target language.

3. Basic Principles of Designing Tasks

  • (1) The situation in which the task takes place should be likely to happen in real life. Daily routines like buying a present for your friends, inviting someone to a dinner, booking a room or seeing a doctor are all available for tasks.
  • (2) The task should involve communicative factors which can help students work together to solve a certain problem. Give the students more chance to accomplish a certain work by groups. Try to make it available when designing the task. Only in this way can the students understand the usefulness of group work.
  • (3) Students’ individual ideas and ways of solving problems are encouraged. Always remember that the students are the host of the class. They can give their own ideas or comments without being afraid of being criticized. This will also encourage new ideas.
  • (4) Cultural issues should be involved in grammar teaching where possible. If the teacher wants to design a task of preparing a Christmas party, the first thing to confirm is the culture of Christmas in western countries. Culture is different from one country to another. Before designing the task, try to make sure the cultural diversity.

 4. Characteristics of the Task-based Grammar Class With accomplishing tasks and activities in real-life like situations becoming the focus of each class, grammar class will show the following characteristics:

  • (1) The process of learning is a process of obtaining information, dealing with information, analyzing problems and solving problems. When the students’ attention is focused on the problems or activities, it is much easier to learn the grammar items well.
  • (2) The purpose of language learning is not just learning grammar knowledge, but the practical use of grammar knowledge. It is quite clear that grammar is the fundamental knowledge in English learning, since “practice makes perfect”, the best way to learn it well is to practice, to use them in our daily life.
  • (3) Cooperative learning becomes accessible. In order to make the tasks more meaningful and interesting, the grammar class asks for the students’ cooperation. The students can make great ideas by discussion and argument in a group with their partners.
  • (4) Student-centred class is highlighted. A teacher is no longer a dominator in class but a facilitator of learning. The new class model welcomes different ideas from every student. The class focuses more on the students’ behavior and every has their own right to express themselves.
  • (5) Students’ individuality (creative way of thinking and personal views in understanding and solving problems) is appreciated. In task-based class, there is not only one answer to every question and there is no set answer. We appreciate new ideas from the students. As long as the answer given by students is reasonable, it is acceptable. V. Teachers’ Attitude towards Teaching Grammar through Tasks In order to make the thesis more reliable, the author did an interview among ten English teachers in Hamedan, Shahed high School to see what the teachers think of task-based grammar teaching. Questions mentioned in the interview include: Which part do you think is the most difficult part in English teaching? Vocabulary, reading or grammar? Which is the best way to teach grammar? What do you think of the item-listing way? What do you think of task-based learning approach? What’s your opinion about teaching grammar through tasks? Do you think the class should be teacher-centred or student-centred? Three teachers agree that the emphasis of each class should be on completing tasks set in real-life like situations rather than on just learning grammar rules by heart. Four teachers think if we don’t list the rules, the students may not get a clear concept of each item of grammar. The rest three teachers agree that the students’ individuality should be encouraged and the class should be learner-centred rather than teacher-centred. From the interview above, we may see that most of the teachers show affirmative attitude towards task-based grammar teaching, from which they think the students may benefit a lot. Tasks and activities can make the classroom atmosphere much more relaxing. The focus of each class is on practical use of grammar, which means grammar teaching can occur in a more natural and meaningful way. Cooperative learning through tasks and activities offers a good chance to form good learning strategies and team spirit. And students’ confidence will be greater than before because their ideas are appreciated by teachers rather than criticized, which as a result can work as an initiative to improve students’ learning. However, there are quite a lot of worries about the application of task-based grammar teaching. The worries focus on the following aspects: 1. Not every grammar item can be matched a good task set in real-life like situations. 2. Big classes are hard to control and organize in the process of tasks and activities. 3. Development of the whole class cannot stand for development of everyone. Low-achieved students might drop off. 4. Not listing grammar rules clearly might lead to grammar inaccuracy. 5. The adoption of task-based grammar teaching means the preparation for grammar class will be more complex than before, which, as a result, adds to the already-heavy workload. 6. Teachers have their own problems in understanding certain culture issues concerning the tasks. Although, not everyone agrees with the idea of teaching, the author is sure that the trend will be the demand of the new curriculum standards. Learning English does not just mean memorizing rules. Not looking at a grammar book does not equal not learning English well.

VI. Conclusion Although many prominent scholars have done lots of research about this topic, when we turned to practice, we may find that few teachers are putting this method into practice although they have heard of or even do some research on this matter. So there is still a long way to go to reach our goal in English teaching. Anyhow, teaching grammar through tasks should be promoted and time will prove that it deserves the promotion. What we need to do is to be confident to our teaching and learning in the future work. Only when we all be confident of ourselves, success is approaching. Bibliography [1]Brumfit, C.J & K.Johnson. 2000. The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. [2]Clandfield, L. 2004. Task-based grammar teaching. [A/OL]. www.onestopenglish.com. [3]Dean, D. 2001. Grammar without grammar: just playing around, writing. English Journal 91/2. [4]Hedge, T. 2002. Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. [5]Li Bofang. 2004. Introduction to theory and practice of task-based learning. Journal of Jining Teachers’ College 25/4. [6]Littlewood, W. 2000. Communicative Language Teaching. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. [7]Littlewood, W. 2002. Task based learning of grammar. [A/OL]. www.ecp.com.cn. [8]Martinsen, A. 2000. The tower of Bable and the teaching of grammar: writing instruction for a new century. English Journal 90/1. [9]Ma Li. 2004. A survey of teachers’ attitudes towards grammar teaching through tasks. Journal of Basic English Education 6/3. [10]Ur, P. 2000. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

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