Tag Archives: task-based learning and teaching

Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this presentation, Danijela Trenkic and Michael Sharwood Smith (2001) raise some fundamental questions concerning ‘form-focused instruction’ (more precisely, they focus on learners’ attention to formal aspects of the target language in communicative SLA environments). Does it make sense to focus on form (FonF) in the classroom? Trenkic and Sharwoold Smith come to the conclusion that “there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in [the; JK] language classroom” and “that there is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’” – “a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.” This is vague, but due to the paucity of FonF research carried out in actual secondary school foreign language classrooms, it is almost impossible to come up with further (research-based) recommendations, appropriate and suitable to the needs of all language learners. Here are, nevertheless, some additional thoughts on this subject:

As two thousand years (and perhaps more) of foreign language learning and teaching show, focusing on the form of the target language is indespensable. However, since (intercultural) communicative competence is the ultimate goal of instruction today,  ‘form-focused instruction’ needs to be placed in the wider context of developing accuracy, complexity, fluency and appropriateness as a whole.

At present, ‘message before accuracy’ seems to be the best guideline for orchestrating everyday classroom discourse and interaction in secondary schools, but – in the age of standards-based instruction and increased orientation toward measurable, skills-oriented outcome – balancing out form-focused and message-oriented communication has (arguably) become more difficult. How can learners be prepared best for the annual assessment and testing marathon (largely focused on skills, on accuracy and on discrete-point testing)? How is it possible to develop communicative complexity, fluency and situational appropriateness under these  circumstances?

Task-based instruction appears to be a promising strategy, but as research in this area shows, it is still unclear when and how a focus of form should come (before or after the task?). At any rate, mixing up form-focused and message-oriented discouse should be avoided as far as possible (see, for instance, Doff & Klippel 2007: 198-204). – ‘As far as possible’ means that learners should only be interrupted by the teacher if their utterances are unintelligable, inappropriate, etc. Otherwise, teachers run the risk of demotivating learners to use the target language productively and spontaneously.

Spontaneity (in general) should not be underestimated in this context. Since instruction always takes place in the here-and-now of the classroom situation, planning a focus on form is possible, and – whenever new grammatical structures are introduced – necessary and advisable, but in everyday classroom discourse and interaction, reacting flexibly to what learners say on the spur of the moment is equally important (i.e. treating errors spontaneously,  expanding learner utterances immediately, etc.). Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented  instruction and learning.


Doff, Sabine & Klippel, Friederike (2007). Englischdidaktik. Praxishandbuch für die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.


Task-based Instruction in the EFL Classroom

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

About a year ago, Andreas Müller-Hartmann (Heidelberg University of Education, Germany) gave a keynote speech at a regional DGFF-conference at the University of Wuppertal, Germany (November 28, 2008) in which he focused on the role of tasks in target language skills development and in promoting intercultural communicative competence. The audio podcast (in German) is available here.

Dimensions of Task-based Language Learning and Teaching

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

– task-based instruction
– task-based learning
– task-based language learning
– task-based language education
– task-based language learning and teaching
– task-based, task-oriented, task-supported, task-driven
– task design, task complexity, task sequencing, task cycle
– focus on form, focus on message, role of the mother tongue
– target tasks, pedagogical tasks, rehearsal tasks, activation tasks
– accuracy, fluency, complexity, appropriateness
– projects, tasks, activities, exercises
– task performance and assessment

Are you familiar with current research on task-based language learning and teaching? If not, here are a few presentations that give you an idea of what it is about:

David Nunan: Task-based language teaching: from theory to classroom practice

Kris Van den Branden: Task-based language education: from theory to practice .. and back again

Rod Ellis: Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings

Paul Knight: Task-based learning: myth or reality?

Greg Ogilvie & Bill Dunn: Taking teacher education to task

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (8)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisations are task-driven classroom activities designed to promote spontaneous, increasingly self-regulated peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. The following example is intended to illustrate how literary texts can be used to create meaningful, stimulating and challenging opportunities for improvisational communication (in secondary schools).

The Improvisation ‘Suddenly, as if by magic’

The starting point for this communicative activity is a text passage from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (Stoker, 1897/1995: 363-365). In the novel, this is the scene where Professor Van Helsing, Arthur, Jonathan and Quincey are in the tomb where poor Lucy (who is ‘un-dead’ already) is buried (story time: September 29, night). They are equipped with all sorts of ‘useful’ things, a lantern, the Bible, a set of operating knives, a heavy hammer, and a round wooden stake sharpened to a fine point at one end. The climax is reached when Van Helsing lifts the lid off Lucy’s coffin and urges Arthur to drive the stake through Lucy’s heart to end her miserable existence as a vampire.

Before the actual improvisation can begin, teachers need to make sure that their learners fully understand the text passage in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well as setting, central characters, plot development, etc. Instead of resorting exclusively to traditional, teacher-centered and IRF-based TEFLSPEAK comprehension techniques, EFL practitioners should come up with suitable, more creative pre-, while- and post-listening and reading activities as, for instance, described in Collie & Slater’s excellent resource book ‘Literature in the Language Classroom’ (1992). This is essential in order to avoid dramatic shifts in the overall methodological design of the learning and teaching process. Since this part of the novel reads almost like a stage description, it can be used for developing traditional role-plays as well (which can also serve to prepare the ground for the subsequent target language improvisational activity).

In general, improvisations differ from traditional role-playing in that they are far less scripted, allowing learners to collaboratively and autonomously create a stretch of largely spontaneous classroom talk-in-interaction. Usually, the starting point of an improvisational activity is a selection of suitable cues which need to be finely tuned by the individual teacher to meet the learners’ target language communicative abilities and specific interests. In my experience, humorous cues which somehow alienate the original plot can help to increase the learners’ willingness to speak and act spontaneously. Here are some ideas to try out (for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of English as a foreign language):

As Arthur took the stake and the hammer, Van Helsing opened the Bible and began to read. Arthur placed the point over Lucy’s heart.

Cue / Variation 1:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said: Who are you? And what are you doing here in the middle of the night? Arthur, who didn’t want to make her suspicious, answered: …

Cue / Variation 2:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said:
Arthur?! Why do you wake me up in the middle of the night?
Arthur: Well, we’re looking for your will.
Lucy: Here? In my coffin?
Arthur: …

Cue / Variation 3:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Count Dracula appeared and said:
How dare you disturb us here in the middle of the night?
Van Helsing: Well, we thought you might want to watch the beautiful sunrise with us.
Dracula: The sunrise?
Quincey: Yes. Look, we’ve brought sunglasses for Lucy and you.
Dracula: Sunglasses?
Jonathan: Yes, so the sun won’t harm you – well, only a little bit.
Dracula: Are you joking? …

As in the improvisation Bus Stop described in part three of the TEFLSPEAK-G series on this weblog, learners should be confronted with these or other communicative cues without any initial suggestions by the teacher.

After each improvisational enactment, learners ought to reflect on what they have come up with during the improvisation. There should be provision for error discussion, for enriching the learner’s vocabulary and for discussing alternative ways in which the learners might also have expressed themselves. This is of course important for more elaborated improvisational enactments based on this scene. (Repetition is highly important in the EFL classroom, but it should not be confused with or equated with memorized reproduction; for further details see Kurtz 2001, available only in German up to now).

Collie, Joanne & Slater, Stephen (1992). Literature in the Language Classroom. A resource book of ideas and activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. [Improvised Speaking in the Foreign Language Classroom]. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Stoker, Bram (1897/1995). Dracula. New York: Smithmark. 

More to come. Stay tuned.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (7)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisational enactments are communicative ‘journeys into the unknown’ (Johnstone 1999: 75), confronting secondary school learners of English as a foreign language with the complex challenges of unpredictable, meandering peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Contrary to (ultra-)traditional teacher-centered focus on forms-instruction (which is of course a theoretical black and white construct), improvisations seek to enhance spontaneous message-oriented communication, focusing on stretching the learners’ interlanguage, rather than on teaching and adjusting it systematically in preplanned (TEFLSPEAK)-classroom discourse. A number of important and difficult questions concerning the provision of new language material, the treatment of errors, the reduction of speaking anxiety, the teacher’s role, etc. arise from this.

As research has shown, focusing on message-oriented communication in EFL classrooms alone is insufficient to achieve higher / the highest levels of accuracy in target language production. There is a substantial body of evidence in German Fremdsprachendidaktik as well as in international SLA research indicating that periodic attention to the target language system is crucial to ‘push’ learners to greater accuracy. With regard to medium-oriented learning and teaching, Michael H. Long (1997) suggests the following:

“In classroom settings, this is best achieved not by a return to discrete-point grammar teaching, or what I call focus on forms, where classes spend most of their time working on isolated linguistic structures in a sequence predetermined externally by a syllabus designer or textbook writer. Rather, during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, and using a variety of pedagogic procedures, learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features, in context, when students experience problems as they work on communicative tasks, i.e., in a sequence determined by their own internal syllabuses, current processing capacity, and learnability constraints. This is what I call focus on form.”

In addition, Long (1997) states that “[…] focus on form refers only to those form-focused activities that arise during, and embedded in, meaning-based lessons; they are not scheduled in advance, as is the case with focus on forms, but occur incidentally as a function of the interaction of learners with the subject matter or tasks that constitute the learners’ and their teacher’s predominant focus.”

This (strong) interpretation of the communicative approach to learning and teaching foreign/second languages is compelling – at least in theory. Nevertheless, in everyday EFL classroom practice it is highly difficult for teachers to manage the complex interplay between meaning-focused and form-focused communication and to find the right timing for form-oriented classroom discourse.

Target language ‘problems’ occurring in minimally guided, meandering learner talk-in-interaction can be anticipated by teachers to a very limited extent only. Therefore, proactive medium-oriented communication (focus on form: explicit and/or implicit, direct and/or indirect, inductive/deductive) and reactive medium-oriented communication need to be combined with message-oriented communication (focus on the negotiation of meaning) in an iterative (!!!) way. Higher levels of fluency, complexity, accuracy and contextual appropriateness in the target language cannot be achieved through improvisational activities alone, as the following (condensed) transcript shows (13-14 year-old 7th grade middle school (Realschule) learners of English as a foreign language in Germany; after about two years of traditional, predominantly frontal textbook-based instruction):

T:   So what are your favorite hobbies, Sebastian?
S1: I like to play computer games
S2: What do you play .. I mean .. which games?
S1: Yes.. I play Tetris
S3: Is the play interesting?
S4: not play .. it must be games
S3: OK .. the games .. are they interesting
S1: Tetris is funny
S4: Have you .. ähm .. do you play Doom II too?
S1: No .. I don’t know the game
S5: What do you do by this game?
S1: Do you mean Tetris?
S5: Yes, Tetris
S1: Well, I must .. I must put little .. (looking for assistance)
S6: Stones
S1: Yes I must put little stones down … in eine Reihe [in one row]
S7: Is the game easy or difficult?
S1: It’s more easy
S8: Which stage .. oder so [or so] .. do you play the game
T:   You mean level .. don’t you .. go on
S1: Yes .. level … which level? … level twelve
S3: Is the level twelve easy for you?
S1: It’s not easy .. well, it’s difficult .. because it’s too fast
S9: How many levels are in the game?
S1: fifteen
S10: It gives more levels
T: There are more levels
S1: Well, I don’t know
S11: Where do you play Tetris?
S1: In my room

Attempting to prepare learners for improvised target-language speaking through direct or indirect (grammar) instruction is paradoxical. In order for learners to act as “creative designers of meaning” (Swann & Maybin 2007; see part five of the TEFLSPEAK-series), they need to be provided with thematically relevant lexical target language material before and immediately after an improvisation (not just single words, but potentially useful phrases or lexico-grammatical chunks gathered from an appropriate corpus). In order to enhance the accuracy of speech production, they need to be given adequate feedback, including corrective feedback on substantial errors. Thus focus on form / focus on meaning is not an either-or, but a more-or-less decision, depending on the individual learner or group of learners.

More to come next week.
Johnstone, Keith (1999). Impro for storytellers. New York: Routledge.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (4)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

When beginning learners of English as a foreign language are confronted with a challenging communicative task such as Bus Stop, how do they manage to keep the exchange going? What kinds of improvisation strategies (e.g. compensatory strategies) do they employ spontaneously? How do they negotiate meaning and coordinate turn-taking when speaking without a script? How do they help each other when target language vocabulary problems occur? How important are code-switching and code-mixing?

The following transcript documents a short dialogue between two 11-year-old German 5th grade students (after about nine months of learning English in a comprehensive school in Germany) (L = learner; T = teacher; … = pause; ? = intonation suggesting a question):

T: All right .. Benjamin .. throw the dice now
L1: It’s .. twelve /twölf/
T: So .. who has got number twelve … Dilek? … O.K. .. Once again Benny
L1: Sixteen
T: Kerstin? … Very good. … Dilek and Kerstin .. go to .. em .. the bus stop and sit down please … [applause]
T: Are you ready? Let’s count … 
[Whole class] THREE .. TWO .. ONE .. ACTION …
L12: Hello
L16: Hello .. my name is .. Kerstin
L12: Pleased to meet you .. em .. Kerstin .. I’m Dilek
L16: Are you waiting /ai/ for the bus?
L12: Yes .. how about some sweets?
L16: Thank you…. [cue:] I’m on the way to the supermarket, you know … I’d like to buy … [begin impro:] … mmh … apples // apples .. bananas .. chocolate
L12: Bananas and chocolate? … for you?
L16: No .. that is for my little … brother
L12: I’m driving to .. the pet shop
L16: Pet shop? What is this?
L12: It’s for dogs, cats … and animals .. [5 sec] .. It’s in Selby Road [reference to EFL textbook used]
L16: What’s your hobby? // .. [2 sec] .. hobbies?
L12: My hobbies? .. [5 sec].. Yes .. em .. swimming
L16: Swimming? Is .. er … swimming difficult?
L12: Sorry no idea … [end impro] … Oh .. here comes my bus .. I .. go .. nice talking to you .. bye ..
L16: Good bye
T: O.K. very good … let’s stop here .. that was very good indeed .. thank you Dilek and Kerstin .. well done

The transcript indicates that even at a very early stage of their interlanguage development, schoolchildren are able to communicate effectively. In the exemplary sequence above, they do not simply ‘get a message across individually’, but interactively co-construct a target language exchange all on their own, using a number of creative, more or less convincing strategies such as, for instance, variation of intonation (rising / falling) or meaning (general / specific) or change of topic, etc. Their target language repertoire is limited, of course. Nevertheless, instruction should not be reduced to the correction of target language pronunciation and grammar errors. The focus of teaching needs to be on the tiny little ‘communicative nuclei’ that the transcript shows, for instance: “L16: Pet shop? What is this? – L12: It’s for dogs, cats, and animals”.

More to come. Stay tuned.

PS.: Much of what has been published on task-based instruction is based on research carried out outside secondary school EFL classrooms. In his book Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching, Rod Ellis (2004: 336-337) points out that “… there have been few attempts to adopt this kind of teaching in institutional contexts (such as high schools) and few truly task-based courses published to date …”. The ongoing research project Improvised Speaking in Secondary School EFL Classrooms (Kurtz 1996 – …) is just one (of these attempts).