CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION English is considered to be the lingua franca of

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
English is considered to be the lingua franca of international communication and is one of the official working languages of the United Nations. As one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, English has become an important tool for international communication and scientific and cultural exchange. Learning and using English plays an important role in mastering advanced foreign technology and improving mutual understanding between China and the world. In China, English has been included in the curriculum since primary school and is a key compulsory subject on a par with language and mathematics. Although the importance of English has been emphasised by the society, there is no major difference between its teaching and that of other subjects, which are teacher-led. Under the influence of an examination system that focuses on reading and writing, little attention has been paid to the communication skills of English. According to statistics, only 3.53% of Chinese EFL (English as a Foreign Language) learners claim to be able to converse fluently in English (Wei and Su, 2018). Mastering the ability to communicate in English increases the possibilities for future educational development, careers and income. China’s Ministry of Education (MoE) has been working to improve Chinese students’ ability to communicate effectively in English since 2001, when it issued the ‘Guidance on Actively Promoting the Introduction of English Language Courses in Primary Schools’.
At the beginning of this century, the task-based teaching method (TBLT) was introduced into English teaching in China. In contrast to traditional methods of teaching grammar translation or auditory language, TBLT is developed by teachers based on the overall objectives of the curriculum and in relation to the content. Teachers and students use dialogue, communication and meaning-making in English to creatively design teaching and learning activities that are close to the students’ reality and to engage and organise their active participation. Students learn and use English by thinking, investigating, discussing, communicating and working collaboratively to complete a range of teaching and learning tasks designed to meet their developmental needs. TBLT emphasises a variety of English language learning tasks as a basis for students to do things in English to achieve learning objectives and achieve cross-cultural communication. Students must have a reflective process in completing the tasks, i.e., students first juggle how to complete the learning tasks rather than how to learn the English language forms. TBLT focuses on the process of learning English and emphasises multilateral student-student and student-teacher interaction in an attempt to create a natural and authentic language environment (Jeon and Hahn, 2006). Students develop their English language skills, particularly their communicative English, through meaningful negotiation and communication as they complete tasks, which is important for Chinese EFL learners who have limited daily exposure to English.
Research has shown that although Chinese EFL teachers are positive about the principles of the TBLT curriculum, they also feel that implementation based on these principles is hindered by a number of disadvantages, including student resistance, lack of support from school administrators, and the washback effect of examinations (Yan, 2012). Research has shown that although Chinese EFL teachers are positive about the principles of the TBLT curriculum, they also feel that implementation based on these principles is hindered by a number of disadvantages, including student resistance, lack of support from school administrators, and the backlash effect of examinations (Yan, 2012).Carless (2004, 2007a) studied Hong Kong secondary school English teachers’ experiences of implementing task-based learning. Teachers highlighted several challenges: for example, TBLT was more time-consuming, difficult to manage in large classes, and did not reflect the way English was assessed in examinations. Carless (2009) reported that English teachers in Hong Kong secondary schools seemed to prefer the Present-Practice-Produce (PPP) model of teaching to TBLT because they found the latter more complex. The purpose of teaching and learning needs change gradually at different stages of English education in China. Although scholars have given many examples of TBLT in the Chinese context, few have compared and analysed TBLT for different stages. Teachers play an important role in the process of how to implement TBLT more effectively. Understanding the perspectives of teachers from different backgrounds on TBLT and the rationale for task design can serve as an important reference for the development of TBLT in China.
CHAPTER 2: LITERATURE RIVIEW
2.1 Task-based language teaching
2.1.1 TBLT: theoretical background
Communicative language teaching (CLT) is a way of teaching ‘communicative competence’, i.e. ‘knowing when and how to say something to whom’ (Larsen-Freeman, 2000: 121). The aim of teaching shifted from developing learners’ linguistic accuracy to developing their communicative competence, which is essential for real-life communication. The emergence of the CLT approach in the early 1980s and the emphasis on learners’ communicative competence over the past two decades has promoted process-centred syllabuses and the design of communicative tasks to enhance learners’ authentic language use (Jeon & Hahn, 2000). TBLT is an approach developed within the framework of CLT that focuses on the use of meaningful and purposeful activities to facilitate language learning (Prabhu 1987; Willis 1996) and represents ‘the realisation of the CLT philosophy at the level of syllabus design and methodology’ (Nunan 2004: 10).
The Indian linguist Prabhu (1987) introduced the concept of ‘task-based teaching’ in the 1980s from the perspective of language teaching, aiming to enable students to complete tasks set by the teacher in the use of the language. TBLT suggests that teachers use meaningful tasks to support students and help them to complete these tasks through modelling, experience, practice, participation, collaboration and communication (Klapper, 2003; MOE, 2001; Nunan, 2004; Richards & Rodgers, 2001). This approach was seen as an innovation in teaching and learning when it was realised that the learner needed to be at the centre of attention. Learners strive to achieve certain outcomes while communicating in the target language. ‘Task-based’ has a central place in current language pedagogy (Ellis, 2003). This is evident from publications related to TBLT (e.g. Willis, 1996; Skehan, 1998b; Ellis, 2003).
As the use of TBLT has evolved, different approaches to its implementation have emerged. Researchers such as Ellis (2003) and Long (2015a) have proposed ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms of TBLT, referred to as ‘task-based language teaching’ and ‘task-supported language teaching’ respectively. According to Long, task-based language teaching is an ‘approach that uses tasks as the unit of analysis at all stages of curriculum design, implementation and assessment’ (2015a: 3). On the other hand, what Ellis (2013: 5) calls ‘task-supported language teaching’ simply incorporates tasks into traditional language-based teaching approaches. Tasks in a weaker form of TBLT are often used to ‘practice items from an overt or covert, predetermined language syllabus’ (Long 2015a: 3). Ellis (2013: 5) also states that in task supported language teaching, tasks are only used for the ‘practice’ part of the traditional ‘present-practice-production’ (PPP) approach.
2.1.2 Defining task
The term ‘task’ has been defined by many researchers and it covers different interpretations. Prabhu (1987:24), who was the first to make a significant contribution to increasing awareness of TBLT in the EFL world, defined a task as “an activity that requires learners to derive an outcome from given information through some process and allows the teacher to control and regulate that process”. In terms of how it works, Ellis notes (2003: 8) that tasks involve a ‘skill’; ‘tasks need to convince learners that the outcome matters […] and that the real purpose of the task is not that learners expect a successful outcome, but that they should use the language in a way that facilitates language learning”.Skehan (1998a) reflects the broad consensus among researchers and educators by proposing four definitional criteria.1). Meaning is primary; 2). There is a goal to work towards; 3). The activity is evaluated in terms of outcomes; and 4). There is a real-world relationship. Candlin (1987) defines a task as “one of a set of differentiated, sequenced, problem-posing activities involving learners and teachers jointly selecting from a range of different cognitive and communicative procedures, applied to existing and new knowledge, to collectively explore and pursue foreseen or emergent goals in a social context. Nunan (2004:4) provides an understandable definition of teaching and learning, emphasising that ‘teaching tasks refer to classroom work that allows learners to understand, manipulate, produce or interact in the target language. At the same time their attention is focused on mobilising their grammatical knowledge to convey meaning rather than on manipulating form. The task should also have a sense of completeness and be able to stand on its own as a communicative act, with a beginning, middle and end”.
These definitions have common ground in the following criteria identified by Ellis (2009).
1). The main focus should be on ‘meaning’ (this means that learners should be primarily concerned with the processing of semantics and syntax).
2). There should be some kind of ‘gap’ (i.e. the need to convey information, make a point or infer meaning).
3). Learners should rely primarily on their own resources (verbal and non-verbal) to complete the activity.
4). There is a clear outcome in addition to the use of language (i.e. language as a means to an outcome, rather than as an aim in itself).
2.1.3 Framework of TBLT
Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is an approach that focuses on authentic language and requires students to complete meaningful tasks in the target language (Douglas, 2014). In the absence of an accepted framework for a TBLT approach, various forms of approaches have been proposed, some of which have gained widespread attention and recognition.
Willis (1996) raised the importance of integrating theory and practice in task-based teaching and learning research. He suggests that tasks can be divided into three stages: the first is pre-task, the next is a task cycle stage and the last is the language focus. First, the teacher introduces the topic of the lesson, which can be presented through multimedia and pictures. Then, students are introduced to the rules and order in detail; the second stage consists mainly of student grouping, task implementation, presentation and debriefing of student performance; and the third stage is the language practice stage. The aim of task-based language learning is to combine theory and practice, thus stimulating students’ interest in learning and making them more actively involved in the task. Willis (1998) provides a slight update to the original framework (Willis, 1996); again, explicit reference is made to the three key stages of TBLT: pre-task, task cycle and language focus. Later Ellis’ (2003) model follows Willis’ (1996, 1998) three-stage design, but differs in that a focus on form is possible at all stages of the task cycle, with specific reference to teacher control of task variables such as time pressure and topic moderation.
Nunan (2004) is a well-known linguist and one of the representatives of task-based language teaching. He first proposed the idea of a detailed framework for classroom tasks. He argues that the framework for communicative tasks should have four aspects: firstly, learning objectives, secondly, learning activities, thirdly, teacher roles and student roles, and fourthly, learning situations, etc. The formal transfer of communicative task goals, sociocultural, language learning strategies and learning centres is reflected by cultural awareness and includes the following three aspects: language to culture transfer, knowledge to emotion transfer and teaching to learning transfer. He argues that language learners are first exposed to what is around them and then through this process they import language into themselves Process.
2.1.4 Types of tasks
When designing or selecting tasks for use in the language classroom, teachers have many options in terms of the type of task, the conditions under which students complete the task, and other task attributes. Classroom research on tasks often aims to find out the effects of particular task attributes, and Ellis (2000: 194) notes that ‘information obtained through research on important task variables can help teachers decide what tasks to use and when to use them’. In other words, the results of research on tasks can provide teachers with insights that enable them to make language teaching more effective. Furthermore, with the emergence of useful classifications of task types, the basis for effective organisation of task-based syllabuses has been established. For example, Nunan (1989a) proposes two broad categories: real-world tasks (e.g. using the telephone) and instructional tasks (e.g. information gap activities). These tasks may be further subdivided into other categories, by linguistic function (e.g. giving instructions, apologising, making suggestions), or by cognitive processes or levels of knowledge (e.g. listing, sorting and classifying, problem solving, being creative) Others may classify tasks by topic, by the language skills required to complete the task, or by whether the outcome is closed or open (sometimes referred to as divergent and convergent tasks. Long, 1989). Pica, Kanagy and Falodun (1993) take as their starting point the type of interaction that occurs during task completion, such as a one-way or two-way flow of information, resulting in five types: puzzle tasks, information gaps, problem solving, decision making, and exchange of ideas. Distinguishing between the different task types is important as it allows the researcher to investigate which type promotes learning most effectively.
There are seven types of tasks that are categorised by Willis (2009) and these types are also important references for many task-based syllabuses. These are: Brainstorming, fact-finding, Ranking, categorising, classifying, sequencing, Finding similarities and differences, Problem solving (Analysing real/hypothetical situations, reasoning, decision-making, logic problems), sharing personal experiences (Narrating, describing, exploring and explaining attitudes, reactions and opinions), creative tasks (Brainstorming, fact-finding, ordering and sorting, comparing, etc.).
2.1.5 Benefits of TBLT
TBLT offers many advantages as it is communication-based and allows learners to transfer previously acquired knowledge to new communicative contexts (Nunan, 1989). It aims to engage language learners in meaning-centred language use (Breen 1989, cited in Ellis, 2009). Tasks allow learners to acquire and assimilate language items that they can easily notice and understand. It enables learners to creatively transfer their previously acquired knowledge to new communicative contexts. It engages learners in purposeful communication, gives learners the opportunity to experiment with a variety of communication strategies, increases learners’ opportunities to use the target language (Sachs, 2007); and improves the ability to translate classroom outcomes into authentic contextual communication (Macías, 2004).
According to Park (2012: 238), task-based approaches are effective and motivating in ‘improving students’ communicative competence without impeding form-focused second language learning’. Jiang and Sun (2010) also state that TBLT encourages learners to experiment with new language forms and structures. chacón (2012) states that TBLT can help learners improve their speaking skills in terms of fluency, listening comprehension and vocabulary building. TBLT incorporates feedback well into adaptive output by encouraging classroom interaction between learners ( Iwashita and Li, 2012). Furthermore, McDonough & Chaikitmongkol (2007) argue that TBLT provides learners with a lively classroom atmosphere that makes the learning process fun and increases learners’ motivation (Lopes, 2004) and confidence (Park, 2012) .Weaver (2007) found that in Japanese classrooms, the type of task had a students’ willingness to communicate in English, suggesting that promoting L2 use in the classroom may be successful when tasks that motivate learners are used. He also found that learners with longer exposure to TBLT were more willing to use English in the classroom, a finding echoed in Hood et al.’s (1994) analysis of tasks and learner motivation. These findings suggest that sustained exposure to TBLT may help overcome learners’ silence in the classroom. Zhang (2007) found that once exposed to task-based instruction, Asian learners would adjust their learning preferences. The students of the most communicative teachers in her sample also preferred communicative teaching, and the teachers believed that students should try to speak English as much as possible in the classroom. Tinker-Sachs (2007) found that the use of cooperative TBLT in Chinese primary schools increased the amount of English used by students and teachers in the classroom.
Ellis (2003) states that the overall purpose of TBLT is to create opportunities for language learning and skill development through collaborative knowledge building. Ellis (2009) further summarises these benefits: 1) TBLT provides opportunities for ‘natural’ learning in a classroom context; 2) it emphasises meaning rather than form; however, it can also emphasise learning form; 3) it provides learners with rich input in the target language; 4) it is inherently motivating; 5) it is consistent with a learner-centred educational philosophy but also allows for teacher input and guidance; 6) it helps to improve communicative fluency without neglecting accuracy; and 7) it can be used alongside more traditional methods.
2.1.6 Limitations of TBLT
The main difference between strong and weak form in terms of teaching styles is when and how language knowledge is taught. Advocates of the strong form insist that a key feature of TBLT should be that learners are free to use any language form to achieve communicative goals, and that teachers should not provide language forms in advance (Willis, 1996), as those language features that students want to use but do not know how to use are the best targets for teaching TBLT (Ellis, 2003). Language knowledge emerges naturally in the process of using language to complete tasks. It is acquired through negotiation of meaning, attention to form, interaction and scaffolding, and is consolidated through post-task practice. Conversely, proponents of weak forms insist that language knowledge should emerge prior to the task and be consolidated during the task. That is, instruction should begin with non-communicative practice in the language form, move on to controlled communicative tasks, and finally be completed in a truly communicative task (Littlewood, 2004). However, each of these forms has its own drawbacks.
In the strong form of TBLT, the focus of classroom work is essentially communicative and there is no room to focus on the formal aspects of language (Savignon 1983). As grammar teaching is not a focal part of TBLT, this has caused dissatisfaction among learners (Lai et al. 2011; Lopes 2004). Krashen (1981, 1982) argues that all that is needed for language acquisition is to expose students to as much meaningful target language as possible, and therefore argues that grammar is “considered to be the best incidental and implicit learning” (Long 2000: 183). The problem with the strong form, however, is that learners often do not develop sufficient grammatical or formal competence. As Swain (1985: 248) argues, ‘implicitly communicating one’s message can and does occur’, but this message is often ‘grammatically deviant form and sociolinguistically inappropriate language’. The message is inaccurate, and the communication is unskilled.
In the weak form of TBLT, the communicative purpose of learning a foreign language is recognised. However, grammar is taught in an explicit, teacher-led and systematic way, what Long (2000) describes as a focus on form. Weak forms tend to converge towards what Klapper (2003) calls the ‘classical curriculum structure’ – presentation/practice/production, or PPP: first explicitly introducing the rules, then practising them, then producing them in a communicative activity. There are two main problems with this: (a) it leads to language grading, language simplification and functionally restricted and ‘poor’ input (Long, 2000), which can mean that grammar becomes more difficult as learners progress; and (b) in Long’s (2000: 182) words, it tends to produce ‘boring lessons, which leads to a decline in motivation, attention and student numbers. In addition to this, Seedhouse (1999) says that a rich, authentic, practical teaching environment is decisively helpful, but that a weak form of TBLT leads to a lack of language use and is of little value to learning. Learning a language is not just about learning the basics, it is also about learning how to use it in an authentic language environment. For example, it is difficult for Chinese EFL learners to use English in the relative absence of an authentic environment.
2.1.7 Different roles in TBLT
TBLT is a learner-centred teaching approach, where the learner’s role is the main aspect of the language processing process. In TBLT, the main characteristics of the learner’s role are: the learner is a negotiator or interactor, both giving and receiving; the learner is a performer and listener with little control over the content; and the learner is expected to take responsibility for his or her own learning.
In TBLT, the teacher’s role is shifted away from some of the traditional teacher roles of language teaching (Nunan, 1989), with roles similar to those of CLT, such as supervision and feedback. Teachers are expected to respond not only to students’ fluency but also to their accuracy. In addition, for the majority of the actual tasks, teachers spend more time on providing background information. According to Breen and Candlin (1980), the teacher has three main roles in the communicative classroom. The first is the facilitator of the communicative process; the second role is that of a participant; and the last is that of a motivator or observer. The teacher’s role in the classroom is to facilitate communication and supervision in the classroom rather than to be a model of correct speech and writing (Richard, 1996). In these activities, the teacher acts as an advisor to answer students’ questions and as a monitor to observe their performance. At the end of the activity, teachers give feedback to students (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2000).
However, teachers may feel uncomfortable with the shift in role required by TBLT, and Samuda and Bygate (2008) point out that the role of facilitator can be much more complex than that of knowledge disseminator, as one needs to be able to adapt plans to learners’ communication and needs as the lesson unfolds. In China, this shift is in many ways opposed to the role of the teacher who is considered the ideal ‘authority’ in Confucian philosophy (Carless, 2004; Jin & Cortazzi, 1996). In Jeon’s (2006) study, teachers felt that the demands of acting as a facilitator were so heavy that they constituted a psychological burden. A further concern raised by some teachers was about the demands of TBLT on teachers’ language skills. Some studies suggest that teachers may avoid curriculum innovation because they lack confidence in their own language skills or because they believe that communicative English practice is the domain of native English-speaking teachers (Butler, 2005; Jeon, 2006; Li, 1998; Shim, 2001).
2.2 TBLT in Chinese context
2.2.1 In the large classroom setting
In Asia, many English curriculum settings, particularly in public secondary schools, are not favourable to the use of tasks in the classroom, and a frequently cited problem is large classroom teaching. In schools in South Korea (e.g. Jeon, 2006; Li, 1998), Hong Kong (e.g. Carless, 2002) and China (e.g. Zhang, 2007), large classes have been identified as an obstacle to reform. Li (1998) notes that large classes are inherently difficult to manage and therefore pose a challenge to teachers’ ability to reform teaching and learning. Classroom management is also difficult in large classes. Ng and Tang (1997), for example, report teachers’ complaints about the management of large classes as follows.” We have 50 students in a class and if each student speaks one sentence, it takes up the whole class period (p. 77). It should be noted, however, that many of the problems associated with teaching large classes are only related to the use of interactive pair or group tasks. The logistics associated with listening, reading comprehension or writing tasks may not be strongly constrained by class size.
One issue associated with class size is that there are students of different ability levels in each class. Because primary and secondary students may be streamed by age rather than by ability, mixed-ability classes are common in Asian settings (e.g. Butler, 2005). Chao and Wu (2008) note that in Taiwanese schools, the inclusion of students of different ability levels makes it difficult for teachers to select appropriate tasks for their classes. To address this issue, Tinker-Sachs (2007) suggests promoting collaborative learning where students of different ability levels can help each other. Iwashita and Li (2012) investigated Chinese university classrooms and found that although these Chinese EFL students were unfamiliar with new teaching methods and had traditional views about teaching and learning, from the classroom observed frequent and rich teacher-student and student-student interactions, the implementation of TBLT was feasible.
2.2.2 Situational authenticity
In China, where English is taught as a foreign language, there is a lack of a natural environment for students to acquire and use it. In contrast, as far as the language environment is concerned, TBLT originated in a second language environment. There is a clear difference between second language teaching and foreign language teaching. In the case of second language learning, the language plays an institutional and social role in the community. In contrast, foreign language learning takes place in contexts where the language does not play a major role in the community and is mainly learned in the classroom. The difference between a second language and a foreign language learning environment can be very different in terms of what is learned and how it is learned. In a second language setting, informal learning takes place and learning is considered to be the result of direct participation and observation, without any underlying principles or rules being articulated. In contrast, foreign language learning is perceived as taking place through conscious attention to rules and principles and a greater emphasis is placed on the acquisition of ‘subject matter’ as a decontextualised body of knowledge. In TBLT, much attention is focused on communicative purposes and outcomes, or language functions. In China, however, learners in the classroom often fail to develop more functional language skills and the target language is seen primarily as an ‘object’ to be mastered by learning its formal properties. Research has shown that complex rules are not easily taught and classrooms do not provide enough input for them to learn naturally (Gass, 1987; Liu, 2013).
But how can we increase the feeling of informal learning by creating a second language-like environment, as it were? The focus is on enhancing the authenticity of the situation as much as possible. Situational authenticity can be considered here in two ways; firstly, as a teaching method and secondly, in terms of content (see Guariento & Morley, 2001). Firstly, the current TBLT model distinguishes between ‘tasks’ and ‘non-tasks’ or ‘exercises’ (Ellis, 2003; Skehan, 1998), where tasks should be motivating activities with clear outcomes, using real-world related content in meaning-focused communication or information exchange. This clearer principled distinction provides TBLT with an important identity of its own, emerging from the wider context of communicative language teaching (CLT) while maintaining continuity of principle between the two (Littlewood, 2004, 2007). Secondly, the focus on task authenticity extends to what is taught in local learning contexts (Kumaravadivelu, 2002, 2006), distinguishing between ESL and EFL contexts and what this means for the authenticity of a particular task design and purpose (Shehadeh, 2012). The ‘authenticity’ of a task (Long, 1985) is often considered to be equivalent to modelling the materials and cultural practices of the target language community, often with native speakers (Widdowson, 1996).
However, in EFL contexts, learners usually do not have the relevant contextual knowledge to validate the native speaker’s level of English. Furthermore, ‘authentic’ materials may not reflect learners’ real-life communicative contexts, which poses a challenge to EFL educators and teachers who have limited access to authentic materials or authentic tasks that reflect real-life language use (e.g. Hu, 2005; Luo & Gong, 2015; Sun & Cheng, 2002). Situational authenticity in EFL classrooms increases when teachers feel confident in adapting their task materials and outcomes to local contexts (Ellis, 2003; Guariento & Morley, 2001; Nunan, 2004; Skehan, 2003; Widdowson, 1998).
2.2.3 Localization
More and more scholars believe that the foreign TBLT model does not match the current reality of English teaching in basic education in China. Therefore, localisation of TBLT has become one of the research priorities for scholars in China. Teachers’ decisions about what to teach and how to teach are made on a per-lesson basis and are influenced by student expectations and institutional factors. In China, institutional factors play an important role, and the new 2017 curriculum standards state that the goal of English language teaching is to develop students’ core competencies of language proficiency, cultural awareness, thinking skills and learning abilities. These core competencies are achieved through the activity-based approach to English language teaching. For practical purposes, teachers have adopted what researchers following Mellow (2002) call ‘principled eclecticism’ – choosing between a range of approaches to suit the context, but in a way that is informed by knowledge and understanding. This is consistent with Andon and Eckerth’s (2009) study that ‘it is entirely appropriate for teachers to use TBLT ideas and suggestions as provisional norms in this way’ (pp. 306). This reality is reflected in Carless’s (2007) findings that some participants highlighted the need to adapt TBLT to make it an ‘eclectic compromise’ or ‘TBLT with local characteristics’ (pp. 600).
TBLT with Chinese characteristics can be summarised as the development of English language skills through TBLT, targeting the key competencies of the humanities. This is reflected in the new 2017 curriculum standards and in practitioners’ adaptation and innovation of TBLT in the English classroom. the localisation of TBLT in the Chinese context is the consideration of genre as a type of activity and a language learning process. Lu (1999) was the first scholar to attempt to study the localisation of TBLT in China. Lu concludes that when localising TBLT in China, careful consideration should be given to teaching requirements, teaching conditions and other pedagogical factors based on English education in Chinese primary and secondary schools. As Carless (2007) suggests, TBLT needs to be culturally orientated to fit the local culture in order to be accepted and implemented.
Chapter 3: Research design and methods
3.1 Context and background
In Chinese schools, although knowledge about TBLT is available to teachers from a variety of sources, including manuals, conferences and textbooks, this does not mean that teachers are completely biased towards strong TBLT in their teaching methods (Viet, 2014). Many teachers reflect a weak form of TBLT in their lesson planning, namely the Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) model, similar to what Carless (2009) found in the Hong Kong context, but this approach is inconsistent with that advocated by the TBLT framework proposed by Willis (2005). Some teachers argue that designing a task-based curriculum is very complex (Carless, 2009; Sheen, 2006; Shintani, 2011). The complexities here include (1) understanding the nature of the task (Ellis, 2003; Willis & Willis, 2007), (2) designing a sequence of integrated scaffolding techniques (Révész & Gurzynski-Weiss, 2016), (3) differentiating instructional formats (Douglas & Kim, 2014; Tan 2016) and (4) doing assessments (Douglas & Kim, 2014; Willis & Willis, 2007). Faced with these complex projects, some teachers are not confident in adopting TBLT in their teaching. Deng and Carless (2009) explored the extent to which Chinese primary school English teachers’ practices reflected the principles of task-based language teaching (TBLT), and they found very limited evidence of task-based practice as well. It is not surprising to see that teachers play an important role in the implementation of TBLT, and that teachers’ beliefs can have a significant impact on their teaching decisions, teaching practices and professional development.
3.2 Rationale behind the study
Research on language teachers’ beliefs and practices has developed rapidly (Borg, 2006) and beliefs are considered to be one of the most valuable psychological constructs in teacher education (Pintrich, 1990). In language pedagogy, teachers’ beliefs can be broadly defined as the ideas and claims that language teachers hold about various aspects of their work (Phipps & Borg, 2009). Teachers’ perceptions of the core features of TBLT (beliefs and understanding of concepts) are more influential than any other factor in innovative educational success (Carless, 2012). Andon and Eckerth (2009) analysed four adult EFL teachers’ understanding of TBLT and found that they had “a good understanding of their own teaching, as well as an awareness of . . the core principles of TBLT” (p. 304). In a recent study of New Zealand foreign language teachers, East (2012) concluded that there is encouraging evidence that teachers attempt to implement TBLT, but it is of concern that a quarter of the participants in this study had a limited understanding of TBLT and in some cases the tasks were interpreted as simple synonyms for ‘activities’. While the research indicates a growing interest in the meaning of TBLT for teachers, I believe there is a need to further examine the beliefs and contextual factors that inform Chinese EFL teachers’ pedagogical decisions, as well as the design philosophy and starting point of the tasks, and to use the findings of such research to inform the development of in-service training to support more effective curriculum implementation.
3.3 Research questions
1. What beliefs about TBLT do Chinese EFL teachers hold?
2. what factors, according to the teacher, shape the task design of TBLT?
3.4 Participants
Four teachers participated in this qualitative study and were interviewed remotely by zoom videoconference after asking permission. All four teachers are currently working as EFL teachers in China, but each has some important differences in their educational backgrounds and working environments. Mr.Wang (all names are pseudonyms) worked in his hometown primary school for two years, but moved to Shanghai for longer term career development. He is currently working as a tutor in an English tutoring centre with an adult student population, where the content is designed to help students improve their practical English skills using TBLT as the basis for his work. Under pressure to achieve higher education rates, students’ English performance is an important indicator in Mr.Gao’s assessment, and the teaching philosophy he used to uphold is often compromised as a result. He is currently working as an English teacher at a university in Nanjing and has more than three years’ experience. Mr.Chen studied English Education at university and gained teaching experience at many tutoring institutions through many part-time jobs during his university years. Since graduating, he has been working as an English teacher in a major primary school in Suzhou for 6 years. The school provides a lot of training and teaching support for teachers, so Mr. Chen has his own insights into various teaching methods. Specific information is provided in Table 1.
Table 1. Teachers’ background
Pseudonym
Age
Qualifications
Experience of teaching English (years)
Mr.Wang
32
BA
primary school (2), tuition centre (5)
Mr.Gao
26
BA+MA
high school (1)
Mr.Liu
29
BA+MA
university (3)
Mr.Chen
29
MA
primary school (6)
3.5 Data collection and analysis
I interviewed each teacher individually, in a single online one-to-one interview that ranged from 45 minutes to an hour. The interviews were semi-structured (see, for example, Richards, 2009), allowing the interviewer and interviewee some flexibility as to what was being talked about during the introduction and follow-up conversations. The interview was divided into two phases, with the first phase aiming to find out the teacher’s perceptions of TBLT. The perceptions consisted of two main parts, the perception of TBLT as a teaching method and the perception of TBLT in the Chinese context. I used semi-structured questions to get the respondents to give their views on the strengths and limitations of TBLT. When combined with the Chinese educational context, more factors will need to be taken into account. The appropriateness of this teaching method in a particular context is considered in relation to the educational and work context of the interviewees. At the same time, in conjunction with the discussion of the tasks in the literature above, these views indirectly reflect that the teachers have a good understanding of TBLT.
In the second stage, the interviewees present the material they have designed for the task and explain the rationale for the design and the results they hope to achieve. At the same time, the interviewees will explain what factors have contributed to the adjustments made to the task design and what the reasons for these factors are. The task material will be presented in the text and discussed in relation to the content of the interviews. The discussion will focus on the task itself (type, structure, criteria), the purpose of the teaching (English language proficiency and other competencies).
The interviews were recorded with permission using the Zoom conference recording function, and the interviews were conducted in Chinese. The interviews were transcribed into text and then translated into English, and the accuracy was verified with a colleague specialising in translation. The interview data was transcribed and subjected to a qualitative content analysis (see, for example, Newby, 2010), through which a range of beliefs held by the teachers were identified (through categorical summaries) and then categorised; factors in the teachers’ interpretation of the design tasks were identified through coding. Overall, the process involved careful and repeated reading of the interview transcripts and identifying (i.e. summarising) themes in the teachers’ comments from the data as they articulated their overall perspective and rationale for the task design. Teachers also had the opportunity to read and comment on my interpretation of their perspectives.
3.6 Findings
1 Mr. Wang
Mr. Wang believes that TBLT has considerable advantages as a teaching method, especially for learners, as it encourages more interactive communication and is more likely to stimulate interest in learning. This natural acquisition of language points helps learners to deepen their impressions. The student-centred approach to learning is freer, with students sharing both their experiences and the learning resources they are instructed in, and each learner has the opportunity to learn something new from the interaction with others.
TBLT can be more challenging for teachers, especially when dealing with a larger number of students, such as in Chinese public schools. This method of teaching requires a higher level of overall competence from the teacher and needs to be supported by more preparation and teaching experience. When a larger number of people are involved, it can be impossible to reach every student and the classroom can get out of control. For students, TBLT can lack some specificity and, for example, cannot meet the expectations of students with grammar needs. Entry-level learners can lose trust in the method or become resistant to it because of the lack of adequate support, and need some help with warm-ups, group discussions and other aids. He gives the following summary of the implementation of TBLT in the Chinese context:
1. The teacher needs to decide on the type of TBLT according to the level of the students. Advanced learners can participate in the tasks completely independently, but lower-level learners will need more material support, such as having a supporting textbook, or handouts, etc.
2. TBLT requires more of the teacher. If a good relationship and familiarity is established with the students, the tasks can be designed according to their learning needs and motivation, and the purpose of the learning should be clear, which is crucial to promote interest in learning.
3. TBLT is student-centred to drive the learning process, and the teacher can give feedback or make suggestions, but should not be overly involved.
4. TBLT works in large classes, but the demands on the teacher for classroom management can be very high, requiring experience in teaching mixed levels of students and knowing how to group them, how to smoothly move the learning process through tasks, and giving precise instructions. Smaller classes, on the other hand, are easier to control, the content is easier to carry out and more specific to the students.
5. Localising the content of a task is necessary to increase students’ willingness to participate and to speak up because they are more familiar with the content of the topic. For example, when Chinese students discuss the topic of asking for directions, choosing a Chinese city is more likely to resonate with them than a UK city.
6. Depending on the students’ learning objectives, adult students are more concerned with the practical value of English, so the authenticity of the scenario is of value to teachers when designing tasks.
Mr. Wang chose the topic of asking for and giving directions to design a complete course, which is divided into (1) a warm-up phase before the task preparation for a group discussion on the target language.
To start the class, I ask students ‘What do you usually do when you are lost?’ and let the students discuss freely, giving them some pictures to act as prompts and to get them to start focusing on the topic.
(2) Ask students “How to ask for directions” and give suggested answers and encourage students to practise.
After getting the answers from the students, I will show the answers I have already prepared. For example, ‘Excuse me, where is the café?’ ‘Excuse me, how can I get to the café? To emphasise the role of ‘register’, I will ask what Excuse me means to help students deepen their impression.
(3) Grammar section, on the use of prepositions.
For lower levels, they are unable to complete the task without building up their vocabulary and grammar, so I will provide instructions on prepositions and model sentences to help express directions in a better way. The students will also be asked to make sentences with objects in the classroom as a simple task to test their mastery of prepositions.
Figure 1
(4) Ask students ‘how to give directions’ and give suggested answers and ask them to practise. (Same as for the section on how to ask for directions)
(5) Asking for and giving directions based on the map. The two sets of maps are differentiated in terms of difficulty to suit the abilities of different students.
Figure 2 Figure 3
In the final task, students will have clear objectives. Figure 3 has less prompting information compared to Figure 2 and is closer to the real situation. This task is intended for students with higher expectations. Students will work in pairs to complete responses to ask for directions and give directions based on the locations shown on the map. I will stand at a distance from the students and observe their expressions until after the task is completed. If time allows, I will provide more realistic scenarios for the task, such as asking students to leave the classroom and ask the centre staff or other students. Such tasks are more in keeping with the needs of teaching and learning.
2 Mr.Gao
Mr.Gao’s views on task-based teaching are very positive, but he is not optimistic about the development of task-based teaching in the Chinese context, especially in less developed areas. The resistance to its implementation is likely to come from schools, parents or teachers themselves.
It is almost universally agreed that the primary academic goal of high school students is to perform well in the College Entrance Exam. This pressure has led to a structured approach to teaching, with an emphasis on grammar and vocabulary. As spoken English is not covered in the Exam and listening is not given much weight, TBLT, which is inclined towards interactivity, will only be presented as a demonstration class if necessary. The performance of the team of teachers at Mr.Gao’s high school is also measured by the level of student scores. Although he is more favourable to TBLT and has ample theoretical support, TBLT is still resistant to real implementation.
I once had a colleague who had studied in the UK and was a strong advocate of TBLT. After her first term as a teacher, the elite class, which was supposed to achieve excellent results, was achieving middle of the grade in exams.This created all sorts of dissatisfaction among school leaders and parents. She felt that the demands of the school conflicted with her own pedagogic philosophy, so she resigned.
Mr.Gao realises that teaching methods should be enriched and improved with the aim of improving student performance. Tasks can be more diverse in terms of setting and the teacher needs to be very flexible. For example, after watching a film clip, students can discuss it and retell it; or they can role-play the dialogue in the listening exercise. In fact, many kinds of tasks are well supported in textbooks, but teachers often choose to only teach the grammar and vocabulary parts. Task-based teaching can be demanding, especially in the area of spoken English, and teachers may not be competent to teach in English, or some may not be confident enough to give advice on students’ spoken expressions. Mr.Gao suggests that teachers can encourage students to use task-based learning methods to improve their English by having them complete them at the end of the lesson. These tasks could be more relaxed, such as collecting English lyrics about the grammar learned that day, or verbally describing an episode of a film. This approach develops students’ interest in English and opens up their minds. If a student has the ability to learn on his own and has a keen interest in English, then his English skills will improve quickly and will naturally be reflected in his grades.
Figure 4
Figure 4 shows the teaching of task-based reading. The students are required to take information from the textbook, analyse it and think about the grammar of the tense or passive voice before filling in the blanks. The students have previously worked on the target vocabulary and phrases and the purpose of the task is to get the students to do repetition exercises to consolidate the target language and as a way of self-testing their grammar.
Figure 5
The objective of the task shown in Figure 5 is to develop students’ ability to process information by asking them to sort out the structure of the text and outline developments according to the timeline. I will give the students enough time to think and work with their peers to come up with a result. Students will take the initiative to answer the fill-in-the-blank answers and give appropriate explanations. These two tasks would be considered task-supported teaching, with less interactive parts, but with more emphasis on vocabulary, grammar and reading skills, which is more in line with current teaching needs.
Figure 6
In the final section, students work in groups of four to discuss. This task encourages students to use their own words to summarise as much as possible, rather than quoting sentences from the text. At the end of the discussion, one person from each group can be chosen to give a short presentation. Through these tasks, students develop their reading and problem-solving skills, learn about the cultures of different countries and are given the opportunity to practise their English. Learners are able to absorb what they notice and understand as they perform the tasks. By engaging with the tasks, learners not only acquire new language items, but also make use of their recently acquired language.
3 Mr. Liu
In the Chinese university classroom, Mr.Liu believes that TBLT is feasible as a teaching method, but not as a dominant teaching programme, but as a supplementary teaching tool.
Firstly, for non-English majors, the level of English varies greatly between students and it is impossible to accommodate all students for a large classroom. He believes that TBLT is more suitable for small classes and the smaller the number, the better, as more energy can be allocated to each individual. Secondly, TBLT requires the teacher to know the students very well and to target the learning through a task-based approach by setting the difficulty level and grouping them in a reasonable way. In the university classroom, however, TBLT may not receive sufficient support from students and teachers due to the pressure of the syllabus and CET-4 exams. Although one of the disadvantages of traditional ‘PPP’ is that it does not bring energy to the classroom and the content is boring, it is undeniable that for most EFL students classroom ‘PPP’ teaching is one of the few opportunities for English input. If effective input is not guaranteed, the effectiveness of TBLT will be greatly reduced.
Mr. Liu also mentioned that TBLT is student-centred and learning by doing. This teaching method enhances students’ motivation to change from passive input to active output. This approach will also benefit students in other ways, such as communication skills and teamwork. Teachers also have to adapt to the change in role, and TBLT places greater demands on them in a number of ways.
1. The teacher needs to analyse the students’ progress and determine whether TBLT is appropriate for the task at hand. Tasks should be set at the right level of difficulty, not too easy or too difficult.
2. The teacher needs to give thoughtful consideration to the design of the task. The method of operation and feasibility of the task should be planned in advance so that the task cannot be completed due to problems of student understanding or other constraints.
3. In the classroom, the teacher should also keep an eye on the progress of the task and, as a bystander, should guide the students’ participation. The teacher needs to know when to intervene without interrupting student communication or interfering too much to make students dependent.
4. At the end of the task, the teacher needs to assess and reflect on whether the students have achieved their objectives, avoiding a focus on the activity itself without an outcome.
5. Although improving English language skills is the primary goal of task-based language teaching, teachers should also focus on the development of other competencies such as communication skills, dialectical thinking and problem-solving skills when designing tasks.
Figure 7
I would prefer to use the TBLT framework when designing a course in a demo class, as the process is more interactive and more engaging in terms of perception. The topic I have chosen is ‘The pros and cons of distant education’, a subject on which you will certainly have many ideas. Having been influenced by a global epidemic, the students’ lectures were for some time conducted online, so they could better relate their answers to their own experiences. However, there are times when students are unable to distinguish between examples, facts and opinions, and I will give appropriate prompts to help them summarise their ideas.
The short video shown at the beginning serves a number of purposes, helping to open students’ minds to relevant information and also acting as a model to encourage everyone to speak English. Moving on to the actual debate section, the students have a lot of preparation to do, which is done independently by the students with my guidance. I will ask them to write down the pros and cons of distance learning and then the students will be free to group themselves in groups of four and discuss with their peers as they wish. Brainstorming is a great way to brainstorm ideas and to prepare for the formal debate that will follow, as well as to ease the feeling of openness. In the course of the debate, alternating sides took place, giving reasons and examples. To increase participation in the event, everyone is given the opportunity to speak and a limit is set on the number of times the same person can speak as far as possible. After all the points have been made, I will give the corresponding comments and feedback. At the end, students will be asked to summarise the topic in a group discussion or in pairs. This summary will be used as a post-class assignment and students will be asked to submit it in the form of an essay.
The teacher assumes the role of guide and spectator almost exclusively during this series of tasks. However, the lesson demands a high level of task progression, time management and presentation of instructions. The students produce input in the target language through videos and group discussions. Output is then produced through debates such as ‘Online learning is very flexible and convenient.’ ‘Learners are more likely to be distracted by other things, such as mobile phones.’ The debates develop students’ dialectical thinking, the group discussions enhance their expressive skills, and the final assignment serves as a way to test the results of the task while also providing a teaching reference for the following writing instruction.
Mr.Chen
Mr.Chen is also a supporter of task-based teaching and learning and his colleagues agree with this approach as well. He believes that TBLT not only develops students’ English language skills, but also helps with overall competence and confidence. This method of teaching covers a wide range of areas, almost the entire classroom, whether it is the framework of the lesson or whole class or small group activities, which can be set in the TBLT model. The most important thing about task setting is that it is fun. At primary level pupils love games and are willing to get involved in activities, and tasks that are interactive can motivate students.
‘Children are pragmatic and if the games are uninteresting or repetitive, children may even complain: ‘又是这个游戏啊 (The same game again?!)’. Sometimes games are not relevant to their lives or culture, then it can reduce the motivation to engage. The willingness to participate in activities can also be stimulated by setting rewards, such as small dolls or sweets and snacks.’
It is best to choose tasks that combine real-life scenarios with local culture to enhance the appeal and at the same time emphasise the authenticity of the communication. Secondly, the setting of difficulty is also essential. Some students are significantly better at English than their peers, and as a teacher it is also important to know the students well enough to select activities and groupings in a targeted way.
We sometimes create lesson plans to suit different class levels. Even in simple content, alternative tasks are provided for students seeking a challenge to meet different learning needs.
TBLT allows the teacher to change from being an observer to a facilitator. Mr. Chen’s primary school provided a lot of theoretical and practical experience sharing and training. The teachers have a deep understanding of various teaching methods and are better able to transfer them to the classroom. However, this year the national education policy has been adjusted so that English is no longer an exam subject in primary schools and many parents are not concerned about their children’s English grades. But parents who do value English have not lowered their expectations, which has resulted in a wide gap in English achievement between students. And TBLT may not be suitable for all situations and all students. Other learning methods such as repetitive recitation, self-assessment, dictation, etc. can also be added to the TBLT framework. Teaching methods should be flexible and not set in stone.
Mr. Chen believes that task-based teaching is appropriate for the Chinese primary school classroom. At the beginning of the school year, this approach helps students to develop not only their language skills, but also to broaden their minds and improve other skills.
Figure 8
The purpose of this activity is out of a desire to get feedback practice from the students on their grasp of what they have learnt previously. The children have already learnt about the recent situation of each character in previous units and the learning was about various descriptions of being ill. The students are divided into groups of boys and girls and ask questions about ‘story time’ and each other gives an answer. If the answer is correct, the student will receive a reward. This is a very simple task, but the competition method fosters a sense of competition and encourages children to express themselves. As primary school children do not have the intelligence and language skills of adults. They may only be able to express themselves verbally, and when they do, they may not express themselves in full English. The teacher can help correct or assist if difficulties are encountered. However, the concept of active expression must be conveyed to children, otherwise they will still not be able to speak up when they reach secondary school level.
3.7 Discussion
Q1. What beliefs about TBLT do Chinese EFL teachers hold?
Positive attitudes towards the change in the role of the teacher
All teachers agreed that the biggest difference between TBLT and other teaching methods is the change in role. In a Chinese environment, the mode of teaching English is usually not very different from other subjects, where the teacher is the knowledge transferor and classroom manager, and passive listening is the norm for Chinese students. TBLT, on the other hand, shifts this role, with the student at the centre (Wills, 1996) and the teacher required to monitor and give feedback and facilitate communication through encouragement (Richard, 1996). This challenge to the traditional model of education can be psychologically taxing for the teacher Jeon (2006). Butler (2011) argues that the reason TBLT has not really been accepted in Asia is that it is difficult to reconcile with the examination culture. Teachers do not fully understand the task and do not really believe in its benefits. The interviews, however, did not show that the teachers expressed negative views about the change in role. Firstly, the teachers chosen for this study had a good understanding of the benefits of TBLT and relevant teaching experience, which is probably one of the main reasons for the endorsement of TBLT. Secondly, as TBLT is based on CLT, there is a greater emphasis on communication in the classroom. Mr. Chen tries to use simple words and short sentences to give instructions, and Mr. Wang uses body language to communicate, or ‘elicit’ to get students to express themselves.
However, it is clear from the interviews with Mr. Liu and Mr. Chen that although there are important differences between the situations of college students and primary school students, both reflect that the teacher will be more challenged as a classroom supervisor and a facilitator of activities. As TBLT is student-centred, the classroom is relatively unpredictable. The teacher needs to be flexible and responsive to all situations. Students have to be constantly encouraged to participate actively and also to ensure that tasks are completed effectively within the planned time frame. If the teacher is not experienced or lacks proper planning of tasks, then there is a high risk of the English classroom becoming an ‘activity class’.
Students can benefit from TBLT in a variety of ways
In task-based language teaching, each student is actively involved in discussion, negotiation and enquiry in a certain role and capacity. In the process of completing a task, each student assumes a certain level of responsibility and is therefore conducive to developing a sense of responsibility. In addition, in the process of completing tasks, students can easily see their achievements and experience success, which helps to increase their motivation for learning. At the same time, students can feel their own weaknesses, which helps to stimulate the desire for self-improvement and initiates the internal drive for continuous learning. Teachers almost invariably cite TBLT’s ability to increase learner motivation (Lopes, 2004), develop interest in learning, and improve a boring classroom environment; TBLT increases learners’ willingness to use English to communicate in class (Weaver, 2007) and break classroom silence (Hood et al., 2003). Mr. Chen has also repeatedly stressed that such active speaking habits, if developed from a young age, can go some way to avoiding ‘dumb English learners ‘at the secondary level, where more emphasis is placed on ‘reading and writing’.
Task-based language teaching focuses on both the language itself and the process of language learning. The focus on the learning process facilitates the development of independent learning skills and personalised learning. Students can even choose the content they want to learn according to their own needs. TBLT emphasises student participation, enquiry, induction and collaboration. Students take on the role of group participants, supervisors, adventurers and innovators by completing authentic tasks introduced in the learning materials, constructing their body of knowledge and developing their competencies, rather than simply receiving knowledge from the teacher. It is conducive to changing the old way of learning by rote, so that the learning of knowledge and skills can be changed from passive to active, thus optimising students’ learning style as a whole. This is also in line with the general trend and requirements of the basic education curriculum reform.
More importantly, TBLT not only focuses on language skills, but also plays an important role in improving learners’ communicative skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which is one of the reasons why respondents gave TBLT an overall positive rating. These skills are often not enhanced through a transfer approach in which learners passively acquire knowledge from the teacher. TBLT facilitates the development of language skills in conjunction with the development of other student qualities. Firstly, in TBLT, students need a lot of language input and they need to use language to receive, process and communicate information: secondly, they need to use language to do certain activities, to do things and to complete a certain task; thirdly, in the process of doing things and completing tasks, they need to cooperate, communicate and discuss, they need to relate to people and events around them and they need to involve their emotional attitudes and values . As TBLT involves a variety of learning activities, knowledge and skills and learning styles, it is conducive to the overall development of students’ overall qualities. Specifically, in the case of Mr. Wang, the ability to translate the target language into realistic scenarios, the use of asking for directions and giving directions; in the case of Mr. Liu, the critical thinking of looking at things from multiple perspectives by discussing the ‘advantages and disadvantages of distance learning’; in the case of Mr. Gao, the ability to sift through information, fill in the blanks and sort; and in the case of Mr. Chen, the development of a sense of competition and the development of a sense of belonging. Chen’s example of developing a sense of competition and encouraging students to express themselves.
TBLT is more communicative, but should meet the needs of today’s teaching and learning
Considered to be a development of TBLT based on CLT, communicative activities are a natural foothold for task design. From the materials collected, it can be found that Mr.Wang’s asking for giving directions are realistic situations in which communicative activities with a clear purpose would occur. In Mr. Liu’s task, which takes the form of a debate, there is constant interaction from group discussion to expressing one’s own views and then to refuting the views of others; Mr. Chen’s design, although simple, also uses groups and questions and answers to stimulate students’ interaction and thus promote language learning through communication. These examples also show that these teachers trust in the importance of communicative activities in language learning and prefer to use strong forms of TBLT. tBLT provides the basic conditions for language learning. Without the motivation to engage and the opportunity to use the language, language learning will not happen. Task-based language learning encourages learners to use language purposefully in collaboration. Learners have the opportunity to negotiate turns to speak and to experiment with a variety of communication strategies. Task-based learning creates the conditions for increased spontaneity in language learning. It prepares learners to use language in the real world (Andon, 2010).
On the other hand, Mr. Gao’s example also reflects that the current emphasis on test format in Chinese education, especially at the high school stage, can weaken the idea that tasks are designed with oral communication as the dominant format. Tasks are more often framed in terms of comprehension of the content of the text, in the form of filling in the blanks, judging correctness and matching, and so on. Mr. Gao prefers to focus on the semantic and pragmatic aspects of the tasks, and to be flexible in changing the format of the tasks so that the weak form of TBLT can better serve the educational model in the Chinese context and meet the needs of English language learning.
Q2. What factors, according to the teacher, shape the task design of TBLT?
All interviewees expressed that the biggest challenge comes mainly from the preparation before the lesson. The preparation mainly consists of the design of the overall TBLT lesson and the design of the tasks for each session. And the following factors were mentioned several times during the interviews.
Student profile: first of all if differences between students, in terms of personality or English level, are ignored, this can result in tasks that do not go as planned as expected, such as a lack of interest in student topics or task types and a low willingness to interact; setting tasks too high or too low in difficulty, which affects the student experience of the task. Extra care should also be taken with grouping, as large classes are often the norm in China. Mr.Wang and Mr.Liu believe that teachers should spend more time getting to know their students and paying attention to their learning to enable the tasks to be designed to help students in a more targeted way.
Fun: In both primary and adult classrooms, ‘interesting content’ is the main source of motivation for students to participate. Teachers can enrich the types of tasks as much as possible, such as puzzle tasks, information gaps, problem solving, decision making, and exchange of ideas. And different kinds of tasks bring different kinds of help. Secondly, visual aids are generally very effective. Teachers can use flash cards, videos, symbols, gestures and facial expressions to produce accurate images, appropriate inspiration and create an environment of interest. It can also be localised or personalised to be close to the students’ lives and make connections, thus increasing their motivation to participate. For example, Mr.Wang tends to design tasks with Chinese characters and cities in the background, which are more likely to resonate with students.
Engagement: One of the criteria for tasks in TBLT should be communicative in purpose (Ellis 2003; Long 1985; Skehan 1998). So as can be seen from the examples above, real-life scenarios of asking directions, debates, quizzes, discussions, etc. all have a communicative need. But the difference is that in strong TBLT the goal of the task is to be accomplished through communication. Communication is an important tool and is the process of student-led learning that TBLT emphasises. However, in weak TBLT, such as the Mr.Gao example, communication can be used as a method of task support to help students summarise what they have learnt or to gain new inspiration in their communication. When in either form, interactivity should be a prerequisite in the design of the task.
Authenticity: In the context of English as a foreign language, tasks should also be set in a contextualised and authentic way to more effectively simulate conversational scenarios. Mr.Wang would prefer to use role-playing tasks to meet the learning needs of adult learners with the help of props, such as asking a stranger for directions, getting money from a bank or shopping in a mall, etc. Mr.Wang believes that TBLT places more emphasis on authenticity and that translating learning outcomes into real-life communication skills is more helpful for adult learners with clear learning needs (Macías. 2004), 2004). Modern thinking on foreign language education emphasises the authenticity of language materials, believing that authentic language materials not only motivate students, but also enable them to learn and master authentic language that is current, rather than outdated or imaginary. Task-based language teaching emphasises the introduction of authentic language materials into the learning environment, and the language materials that students collect to complete tasks are certainly authentic and useful.
Purpose: Last but not least, tasks should have a clear objective. Mr.Liu believes that many teachers focus too much on the task itself and ignore the purpose, which can result in a process that does not produce learning. To only stress the generation of interaction and ignore the role of grammar and form will expose the limitations of TBLT and will not genuinely improve students’ English. Not only that, in combination with (Révész & Gurzynski-Weiss, 2016), overall, the sequence is very important when tasks act as scaffolding. Mr.Liu’s complete TBLT framework shows how step by step students can be enabled to express their views on ‘distance learning’ and even achieve the learning goal of dialectical discussion. Clearly defined roles and interactions of tasks also add complexity to the overall project. Good teachers need to evaluate and continually adapt based on actual results. Teachers can refine the rationality and relevance of tasks based on their own experience.
3.8 Conclusion
Before discussing the implications of this study, it is important to acknowledge its limitations. Obviously, I cannot make general assertions about Chinese EFL teachers based on the four cases I have analysed, and due to space constraints, only one of the task designs can be selected for discussion. However, I believe that the insights gained here are informative for the Chinese educational context and that this work makes a contribution to understanding teachers’ beliefs about TBLT.
The findings suggest that the respondents did not have an overall negative attitude towards TBLT per se. On the contrary, teachers held a positive view of TBLT in relation to how it helps students in terms of language skills and general competencies. In primary, college and adult learning contexts, TBLT can help students to varying degrees by developing habits of oral English expression, independent learning skills, and the value of teamwork. However, it is particularly important to note that English is learned as a foreign language in China with little practical need to use it outside the classroom. Most students learn English as a school subject rather than as a practical language. For learners at the high school level their aim is simply to get high marks in the GCSEs. In this context, the communicative activities developed in TBLT do not seem to meet the learning needs of students. Also there are many challenges in implementing TBLT in a Chinese EFL context, not all teachers fully understand this teaching method and make the effort to try it out, which hinders it from taking root in classroom practice.
However, despite the traditional classroom culture, language environment, exam-oriented teaching and learning, etc., the voices of the participants reveal the wisdom of the teachers in their teaching. The teachers interviewed were willing to embrace and utilise TBLT and overcome these challenges by designing appropriate tasks for their students to create a natural learning environment, adopting flexible teaching procedures, applying TBLT creatively, exploring task-based language assessment, and integrating TBLT with traditional teaching. What Chinese teachers should do is to harmonise traditional pedagogy with TBLT in a Chinese context that is constrained by examination requirements. TBLT will be most feasible and useful when tasks are designed flexibly to create a better language environment for EFL learners, so that the Chinese learning culture, context, teachers’ teaching beliefs, values and practices interact optimally with the principles of TBLT. In other words, when adopting TBLT in the English classroom, practitioners make changes, experiment with tasks in complex ways, and strive to make their language teaching more practical, more usage-based and more powerful, aiming to develop students’ English language skills and core competencies.