Dissertation Diary 3

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final component of my M.A. in ELT –  hypothesising that this will make it an even more effective learning experience for me, by mapping it, enabling me to look back on my thought processes and decisions and see what effect these have on the project development. (Other posts in this series can be found here) Once I get to the end (13th September is D-Day!), as well as looking back over the experience of doing the project, I plan to try and evaluate the effect of these reflective blog posts on it.
    Having spent the last 24hrs reading and grappling with the theory behind Task Based Learning, what does and doesn’t constitute a TBL task, how to design a Task-Based Syllabus, how to grade tasks in terms of their complexity and the different criteria that need to be considered in order to do this, how to sequence tasks to maximise learning and so on and so forth, (the beginnings of) my plan (well, plan A anyway – no guarantee that this will actually be implemented, more than likely it will just be the first to be discarded!) is slowly emerging. In fact, according to Ellis (2003:229), I may just about have started to establish my “starting point” – “the determination of the goal(s) of the course in terms of its pedagogic focus (general or specific purpose), skill focus (listening, speaking, reading, writing, learner training) and language focus (unfocused or focused)”…
It will (might?) go something like this:
      • Start with schemata activation tasks – topic-based input, on from which, perhaps, vocabulary focus can follow etc (Can be reading/listening input, output can be spoken and/or written, depending what the task lends itself to)
      • Task for encouraging use of self-access centre – for research for this project but also to meet their own specific needs/goals outside of class time.
      • Preparation/scaffolding for exploiting E.S.E. tasks – replicating the homework task in the classroom as a rehearsal for doing it outside the classroom (then focus on useful forms for this; use of models following attempts, to make comparisons etc), then repeating it, still as a rehearsal by using other students in the school (in the student common room in a break time). Brainstorming potential issues they might encounter doing this outside of the classroom, why these might arise and how best to deal with them.
      • Homework task – the task that learners do to acquire information from people outside the classroom [tools (e.g. questionnaire or…) to be prepared in class during the preparation tasks]
      • Tasks to do while the homework task is on going (to give them more than one day) – looking at the information collected in the rehearsals and using it. Deciding how to analyse it, what information to look for, maybe each group has different questions they want to answer etc. A task using the research/information acquired through use of the self-access centre. Reflection regarding what they have used the self-access centre for vis-a-vis their own specific needs (if they have, how, to what degree of success, if haven’t/unsuccessful, why/troubleshoot etc)
      •  Then once the information from the ESE has been collected, using this, comparing it with rehearsal task information – both in terms of content and in terms of learners’ linguistic choices etc Analysis to include use of pictorial representation e.g. putting the information into some kind of table or graph or chart or diagram.
      • Then task for using the wiki appropriately
      • Then task for extracting the most interesting/relevant/worth sharing information to put on the wiki, and looking at how to organize this most effectively (this can vary – sometimes an online magazine, sometimes more of a blog style, sometimes storyboard with voiceover and so on: this enabling different genres of production to be covered over time=more variety of output). To include peer editing, re-drafting etc where relevant.
      • Tasks for reflecting on learning (will be one at the end but others will be included at suitable points through the procedure e.g. between the rehearsal tasks and the homework task)

This would last for a week per module, each week consisting of ten hours of class-time. Therefore for this project, I will be developing two modules of work.

Topic ideas

Cultural norms related to
–       the food we eat
–       the things we do in our spare time
–       the way we behave towards other people
–       the way we interact with other people (influenced by age and status)
–       the rules we follow

 I will start with the food we eat and things we do in our spare time, for the topic/theme: close to learners but increasingly complex (i.e. using 1, “Students”, close/familiar topics to start, but then will lead to 4,”The world around us/our community” in the comparison with the ESE people – both native and non-native – cf. p. 219 Ellis, 2003): That will be my first module.

The second module will be based on “rules” regarding behaviour and interaction: close to learners but more abstract, so more complex. And again, increasing complexity for comparison with the ESE people – both native and non-native.

(NB: I have not yet got as far as trying to figure out just exactly how this plan will fit into a ten hour week time frame…! As yet it’s a very rough idea of what I want to do, need to think more about how to do it most effectively and timing issues…)

The goals for my set of materials will be:

          • To enable learners to interact more effectively with target language environment
          • To upgrade learners’ language skills
          • To provide learners with a balanced diet of skills/systems focus (as befits a General English course).
          • To develop learners’ intercultural awareness
          • To promote independent learning

I have also thought about the nature of the tasks that I will use:

  • Tasks that enable finding out more about culturally influenced things (from each other, through research through interaction with the E.S.E. e.g. host families, ss of other backgrounds in residences.)
  • Information gaps (if groups find things out, they must exchange the information and there must be some purpose for that..must think more about this)
  • Overall a balance of task types to be aimed for – according to the different criteria of classification synthesised by Ellis (2003).
  • Language focus: listening tasks, form focus post-task (for reading or spoken or written tasks). Focus on language suitable for the level (e.g. use CEFR) that selected tasks lend themselves to, things useful for carrying out homework tasks (which will involve exploiting ESE), things useful for using the virtual environment (type of language to use, discourse features, level of formality etc), maybe there can be some element of diagnosing and responding to the outcome of diagnosis (need to think more about this). Focus will be achieved using the Language Awareness/Consciousness Raising approach. But not limited to grammar, going to involve lexis, discourse features, pronunciation, pragmatics etc too.
  • For “the things we do in our spare time”, going to find out from people in Leeds what they do in Leeds (multi-purpose: to collect this information on the wiki to serve as a useful resource for new learners and for other learners in the school; to analyse samples of language that emerge [learners to record interactions, on their phones or whatever] – if people are rude, see if it is related to the learners’ use of language or not; to make comparison with learners’ and other cultures)
Of course, the all-important question is why…Why (on earth) do I think this is the way forward?

  • There will be a lot of opportunity for meaningful interaction, which the majority, if not all, of the learners expect from their time here. (They see the U.K. as an opportunity for using the target language which they wouldn’t have at home.)
  • Tasks that encourage exploitation of the target language environment should be motivating for learners, as through this they will be able to gain the most benefit out of being here.
  • The majority of learners come from a learning background with a heavily grammatical focus and they want something different when they come here. They still want focus on form, as they want to “improve their English” but they want more than declarative knowledge of the language.
  • Through the focus on form element of the course, there will be opportunity to consider language as discourse  (both spoken and written), to consider sociolinguistics and pragmatics, and increase vocabulary (something learners believe they need), all of which are important aspects of language.
  • The reflective/evaluative element will enable learners to understand why they are doing what they are doing and how it can help them – this should also be motivational.
  • The wiki provides learners with an audience for their output (other learners in the school will be able to access it as a resource), making this more meaningful and purposeful.
  • Integrating use of self-access centre helps bridge the gap between the classroom and autonomous language learning and not only will use of the centre have a beneficial effect on the project but also on learners’ ability to use it to meet their specific needs with regards to language learning, which may itself have a positive impact on what they are able to do in class, increasing the overall benefits of the course for them.
  • Intercultural awareness is important. With the globalisation of English and the increasing number of users from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, sensitivity to similarities and differences between cultures and awareness that there are many ways to skin a cat rather than only one “right” way is useful. Heightened awareness of U.K. norms will help learners while they are here, while awareness of other norms will help them in future intercultural encounters.
  • TBL is firmly grounded in SLA theory (and common sense/intuition too, apparently) so should be conducive to successful learning for these learners.
  • According to Svalberg (2007), citing Ellis, the Language Awareness approach fits in well with TBL, as discussion of language and pattern identification can become a task in itself. Cognitive and affective engagement are emphasised, which should make learning more memorable. It promotes learner autonomy, which will help learners keep learning beyond the end of the course – useful if they are studying in the U.K. or if they are moving on elsewhere.  Critical Language Awareness considers language in its social context, which is relevant to intercultural awareness development.
  • The project element (i.e. working towards final output being put on the wiki) will give each module longitudinal coherence, by providing a concrete goal for the tasks to be sequenced towards achieving, with the reflection to then round it all off.

One important element that is missing so far, from all this, of course, is the question of assessment. That would be because I haven’t read the chapters on TBL and assessment yet! But as far as my context is concerned, learners need to have a progress test each Friday. The format this takes is flexible and practicality will be key. The outcome/feedback will need to be formative and useful for learners.

So, my next goals are:

  • Take “It will go something like this” , flesh it out in terms of the “how” and shoehorn it into the time frame. I mean, work out how it’s going to work. At least broadly, with the caveat that once I get on to the specifics of task design, changes may be made…
  • Read the chapters on TBL and assessment; think about how that will work in terms of both my idea and my context.

Still got the rest of this evening, snatches of tomorrow (when I’m not working) and the whole of Tuesday to refine this ready for my proposed meeting with H on Wednesday. (Crucial because next opportunity will otherwise be very near the end of June!)

Back to it!

(Hopefully progress is being made…  However, I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on what I have explored in this post – be as critical as you like! :-))

References:

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching Oxford University Press.

Svalberg, A. (2007) Language awareness and language learning in Language Teaching vol. 40/4. (Abstract: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0261444807004491) Cambridge Journals.

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