Dissertation Diary 10: the end is approaching…

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.

The project plods on…

I had another tutorial last Tuesday, which, much like previous ones, has given me much to chew over and implement. It’s funny how when H points things out, they become blindingly obvious – but not until then! I now have a nearly complete draft of everything. I say nearly complete because although I’m on draft two, the redrafting has involved rather a lot of gutting and re-crafting, so there are still gaps… And then there’s the teachers book: I did it along side the student book, unit by unit, but then came all the changes – the teachers book has a lot of catching up to do!

I’m learning a lot from this process. For example:

  • That I tend to waffle in my instructions! I’m getting better at this now, since Sandy Millin gave me some training in being more concise…
  • That making materials that are to stretch over a series of lessons piecemeal in between going to work, eating, sleeping and so on, means I end up with something that lacks flow overall. So part of the redrafting and re-crafting process has been looking for the flow.
  • That it’s easy to lose track of the theories you’d adopted as you get distracted by trying to design activities. (This is where going back to the rationale and making sure I’ve done what I set out to do comes in – one of the many things on my epic list of “to do in the next 15-16 days” – I need to leave time for proof-reading and binding!
  • That it’s easy to forget to include things – e.g. lead-ins! (So obvious…and yet…)
  • That just because *I* know what I mean, doesn’t necessarily make it clear to anybody else!
  • That eventually materials design can take over your sleeping as well as your waking hours – I’ve started dreaming about them now…
  • That it’s probably not a good sign when you come back to your teachers book after a while and it doesn’t make sense even to YOU who wrote it!
  • That having people who are willing to look at what you’ve made and point out all the confusing bits and bits where improvements could be made (be it H or Sandy) is invaluable.
  • That making even half-way good materials is hard… (But when they begin to take shape, so delightful!)

I’ve already gone through the whole gamut of emotions and probably will again before the deadline – I’m hugely inspired, buzzing with ideas, fed up, frustrated, tired, loving the creative process, wanting to bin the materials and start again, excited etc in turns. Mostly I keep wishing I had more *time* to spend on them. But I suspect there would never be enough time, however much time there were!

I had a very interesting time trialling some of my materials at work: Only a few activities, but seeing learners carry out the activities and interact with the materials gave me some useful pointers for little changes that needed making. The good news is, they were engaged by the activities! Unfortunately, though, as most of them left at the end of last week and I’m back on cover rather than having my own classes, I won’t be able to review the lesson and see how much stuck. But if any of the students who haven’t left happen to be in the classes I cover this week, I shall try to see what, if anything, they remember…

God knows what kind of mark I’ll come out with in the end, but my aim is to make my submission knowing that I’ve done my best. This means I’ve a lot to pull out of the bag in the next 18 days. (Amongst packing, moving flat, working and so on and so forth!) One more tutorial to go – I need to remember to ask all my remaining questions. I’m so good at forgetting to do that – getting carried away in the moment, listening to all the feedback…

Oh and finally,  you may wonder why I haven’t posted any of my dissertation materials on here thus far… The answer is, if I did that I’d be in danger of self-plagiarising! In any case, I may keep them under wraps for a while – I’m planning to submit a speaker proposal for IATEFL 2014, based on them. However, once I am deadline free, I will be digging out the materials I made for my materials development module (which theory-wise are based on the text-driven approach, the metacognitive approach and TBL), changing all the pictures to copy-right friendly ones (for the assignment they didn’t need to be because only our tutors were looking at them) and then hopefully putting them on here.

18 days…tick tock….


Image from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Dissertation Diary 9 – The words behind the silence…

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.

Well, suddenly there’s precisely 7 weeks and 3 days remaining before submission, and ten days of that (coming up shortly!) I shall be on holiday! There will also be the small matter of moving house two weeks before the due date. Gulp…

All I’ve really done since the last post in this series, as far as my dissertation is concerned, is get down to the business of actually making the materials and be treated to an incredibly useful tutorial. (Outside of that, I’ve also been preparing for and participating in a conference, working part time and doing all the little tasks that winning the British Council blog award necessitated doing…) After all the planning and rationalising, finally there was no more avoiding the actual task of making the materials – so up to this point, I’ve made 3 tasks out of what was originally going to be 8 x 2.5hr tasks, but, following feedback from my latest tutorial (last Wednesday) has now been cut down to 6 x 3hr tasks. The remaining 2hrs are allocated to the two lots of homework that are set during this now 6-task module. I’m a lot happier having made these changes – the module now feels more compact and also more realistic in terms of time allocation vs content. It also means I won’t be producing far too much material for the 20hr requirement, which is a good thing as I would gain no extra marks for doing so and time spent producing superfluous material would be time taken away from honing the requisite material. I’ve also made initial drafts of the remaining three tasks minus the supplementary handouts. So progress is being made, slowly but surely.

I recorded the last tutorial (just I have been doing all along – and it’s so useful to have that record as well as to know that during the tutorial you can focus on what is being said rather than on frantically making notes for future reference) and then subsequently sat down, re-played it and took notes of recommended changes and things to think about. It came to 3.5 pages of 12pt. Suffice to say, I have my work cut out for me! Fortunately, a good few of the recommended changes are very minor in terms of time requirements.

At least I’m on the mountain proper now, no longer in the foothills! The down-side is, all of my time and then some is spoken for at the moment, between this project and work (and imminently my holiday!), which leaves little to no time for blogging! But don’t worry, I will be back… (I have a couple of posts up my sleeves for when I’m able to find time to get them down!)

Watch this space! 😉

Dissertation Diary 8

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.

Yesterday (how can it be nearly the end of June already?!), it was time for another tutorial (no. 3) with H. The focus for this one was my rationale and my materials framework. Once again, a gap in my reading was identified: The works of TBLT opponents. I need to read up on those, weave them in to my rationale and take a stance – argue against what one of them said, or take some of it on board. So, next on my reading list is:

Swan, M. Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction


Bruton, A. From Tasking Purposes to Purposing Tasks; A Non-Marginal Role for Tasks; When and How the Language Development in TBI?  (from the ELTJ)

Further problems with my rationale include:

  • Overly long introduction/description of context (words can be saved for the other parts)
  • Lack of bridge between context and why TBLT is going to do it better than anything else. I need to address the question of why TBLT is going to be suitable for exactly what it is that I am trying to do. (i.e. making the most of the English-speaking environment. Why is TBLT any better an approach for this than anything else? What are the learners going to get out of TBLT that they wouldn’t get out of any other approach? The answers to these questions need to come across strongly. So that it doesn’t seem to have just been plucked out of a set of possibilities, it needs to be argued why it’s the right approach.)
  • Need to say more about fluency/accuracy/complexity as competing goals – I mention it but I don’t make it clear how TBLT affects it and how a balance can be managed. It needs to be clear. One of the biggest criticisms of TBLT is that learners develop fluency at the expense of accuracy. I’ve got an accuracy/complexity focus in there, with the CR/LA, which compensates for the possibility that learners might not notice new language, just need to make it explicit.
  • Need to make sure when I refer to task organisation within the rationale, that either it is clear without a diagram to explain it or I put in a diagram to make it clearer what I mean, or  refer to an already existent diagram and adjust that diagram to clarify what I mean.

Then we moved on to the Task framework/map of my materials.

Issues that emerged:

  • What content in the first task is going to grab the learners’ attention and engage them, get them excited about the module? Need something more interesting and inspiring.
  • Lack of a ‘getting to know you’ type element for the beginning of the course as well.
  • Making sure the questionnaire-making is suitably scaffolded
  • Making sure the question-focus brings out issues of register/context so that learners can make suitable choices depending on who they are speaking to.
  • Lack of coherence in the task where they analyse an interview transcript?
  • Scaffolding for looking back on the pilots and deciding which questions did and didn’t work etc?
  • When they brainstorm possible problems, reasons and solutions, how will they be equipped with communication strategies, dealing with misunderstandings, language for asking for clarification etc so that they are armed with language and things to help them deal with problems that arise?
  • How to make sure the data collected doesn’t end up being incredibly superficial? How to encourage learners to dig a bit deeper? (Maybe model the questions in the first place to help the students get behind the attitudes, or get the students to research more after collecting the data to follow up on it?)
  • What if students are stuck for ideas? Need to preempt it a bit – make it a bit less open, so that there is less potential for it to end up being superficial – shepherd them towards deeper, more interesting directions. Give them topic suggestions/a model to help them dig a bit deeper etc (maybe a set of models, to illustrate different issues)
  • How to make it challenging for the students? To sustain the interest, it needs to be something worthwhile that’s coming back, not something really obvious that comes out of something really obvious that you asked, making no point in doing it in the first place.
  • How to push the students to set it up so that it’s interesting, that they are culturally engaging with other students and the outside world, how will it be set up? If it’s very loose and open, there may be issues with students lacking imagination. Need a model or a prompt or parameters, something to push them a bit more. So that what’s coming back is worthwhile. It needs to be an engaging process to go through, that they really learn something from.
  • When they take the least successful exchange, analyse it and write an idealised version, what happens if the lack of success isn’t their fault? You can focus them on the communication strategies used and so on, but it might not lend itself to idealised versions being produced.
  • If they have a choice of formats to use to present the information they’ve collected, how will that work? (Possibly go to the self-access centre and find an example of the format they want to use, which they analyse by guided discovery and use to help them produce their own.)
  • How will it be possible draw conclusions from the data collected? Maybe the key is to use it to illustrate the problem of making massive assumptions/jumping to conclusions. So that they can find things out without doing that and be aware of the need to keep finding things out rather than assume.
  • It’s very student-centred but relies a lot on students’ motivation and interest in the whole process. It goes on for 8 days. Quite a long time, not long for what they are doing, but will the students’ interest and motivation be able to be sustained for that long? Can more input be worked into it? Need to cater for the students who are not fully on board on it, maybe they don’t do the homework – what then happens? In the non-ideal situation. What if they don’t like analysing things? It’s a long, focused project to sustain, so it needs careful thought. Can some strands of something different be woven in? To minimise the risk of disengagement, which is higher when it’s so dependent on their own motivation. Need a contingency for when students are stuck for ideas, to make sure it doesn’t end up being mundane. Need to anticipate problems and make sure there are solutions on hand.
  • Can more use of the self-access centre be woven into the materials too? To justify spending the first task on getting to know the way around it. Related to language points? Exploit it by weaving in more things for them to work on. Otherwise what is the point of the self-access centre lesson?
  • How am I going to sell a research project to General English learners? What are they going to get out of it in terms of interest and enjoyment that’s going to keep them motivated?

(There were some positive comments too… ;-))

I need to step back and have a little think about how it’s all going to work with a group of students. Think through all the what-if’s and what the safety nets/support will be.  When I’ve decided what I’m going to do, then it will be time for the next tutorial to discuss it further!

…A little think? Ok, maybe more than a “little” one…! Anyway, seems my weekend has been taken care of! 🙂

Comments/questions/suggestions etc all welcome! 

Dissertation Diary 7

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.

The homework I set myself at the end of the last post in this series was:

  • Cross-reference justification to theory (either slides or texts)
  • Synthesise my approach to culture
  • Write a draft rationale

Cross-referencing my framework to the theory was definitely a useful interim stage. Whether it all makes sense is, of course, another matter! Part of doing this involved pinning down the whole culture strand. I haven’t read anything extra since last time, other than  Moran, P. (2001) Teaching Culture: Perspective in Practice Heinle and Heinle and more of Corbett, J. (2003) An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching Multilingual Matters. This is, I think, because I needed this phase of getting to grips with what I have already read and trying to make sure the theories I’ve selected are embodied in my materials, which was done through the cross-referencing stage.

Here is the updated framework, complete with cross-referencing to theory:

Materials Framework Draft 3

Having done that, I was able to get on and write the 5000 word rationale. This didn’t take as long as I had anticipated, perhaps due to the amount of intensive thinking/note-making/cross-referencing etc that preceded writing it?

Things I’m noticing about the process so far:

  • Where I had anticipated proceedings following a funnel shape i.e. starting very broad and narrowing gradually down into the materials, it has been more of a stacked hourglasses shape (I cannot think of the word to describe this!), so, yes, starting broadly and then narrowing, but then broadening out again to explore and expand on what has been narrowed down, bringing in extra theory, ideas and insights, which must again be followed by synthesising these, making for more narrowing down and repeat.
  • It’s a lot easier to complete the process of going through a task, clarifying each element (pedagogic goal, non-linguistic outcome, language focus etc etc) and cross-referencing to theory in discussion with H (as we did with Task 1), than it is to do it myself, but having gone through the process in the tutorial, it’s only difficult as opposed to impossible (which would be the case without the tutorial to scaffold it because I wouldn’t know so clearly what I was trying to do).
  • Powerpoint is a really useful planning tool. I’m not sure why it should be any more effective than Word, but somehow for me it is. (And this I can thank my Methodology in Context tutor for – she suggested using it to plan our assignment for that module!)

There are probably more but my brain is actually too tired to think of them…

So far, I’ve found it very interesting going through the process of looking at all the theory associated with the approaches I’ve selected (i.e. Task-Based Language Teaching, Language Awareness Approach and Intercultural Approach) and identifying the overlaps, as well as how they complement each other by bringing different things to the materials party, then systematically linking this with contextual factors. I suspect this process will be a useful one to apply to any approaches I might find myself thinking of using in different classrooms, in different contexts.

I won’t be doing huge amounts of dissertation work between now and my next tutorial on Thursday, due to various commitments including my conference presentation in Warwick, but having produced a first draft rationale already at this point, hopefully I will be able to revisit it with a fresh brain and tweak it before I submit it on Tuesday: I’m pretty sure the more work I put into it, and the more complete a document it is, the more feedback H will be able to give me.

All comments etc welcome, just as usual… 🙂

Dissertation Diary 6

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.

The homework I left myself with at the end of the last post in this series was:

  • Address the culture issue
  • Continue mapping my skeleton back to the theory/principles and fleshing it out/pinning it down
  • Once vertical sequences all mapped out, combine that with the diagram, thereby producing a framework for my materials.
  • Write rationale.

Progress report:

As far as the issue of culture is concerned, I’ve found a theoretical anchor for what I’m doing with culture within my materials: Corbett (2003) An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. Multilingual Matters. More specifically so far, chapter 6: Exploring Culture Through Interviews. This is essentially what my learners will be guided through doing in the course of the macro-task cycle. What I need to do is link this anchor to my stance on culture, which should be backed up by further related theory (this should not be difficult, having spent a semester doing a module on “Methodology in Context”, in which culture featured prominently…) This is something I need to include in my rationale.

As to mapping the skeleton out properly and justifying each step of it, that I have finally done. It’s taken 48 power point slides. The first 27 consist of theory and notes to myself of the links I need to make in relation to my materials. This, I think, is another step towards being able to produce the rationale. The last 22 slides are the map of my materials, consisting of a series of diagram (but in the end not filled in because there isn’t enough space, so the content is on subsequent slides), task description slide and task justification slide. Each vertical task in the horizontal macro-cycle  represents a 2.5hr lesson, and 8 of these bring me to the required 20hrs of materials, if my maths hasn’t failed me.

Materials Framework Draft 2

I might possibly now need another interim stage, between this Materials Framework Draft 2 and writing a draft of my rationale, where I explicitly link the first 27 slides (+other associated theory I’ve read) with the last 22 slides… The justification slides were made with the first 27 slides etc in mind, but it might be useful to go through them and cross-reference. I think it would be as simple as putting a (see slide x) or a (see [e.g.] Ellis 2003:xx) in brackets after elements in the justification. That should make it easier for H to negotiate the document when I send it in advance of our next meeting, and to see more clearly why I’m doing what I’m doing (hopefully…), and, for me, it should also make writing my rationale that much more straight-forward. Again, hopefully… It will also make me double check everything I’ve done so far in terms of the framework, which means if there are any anomalies I can also hopefully spot them and eliminate them. This is still very much a work in progress.

I haven’t started writing my rationale yet. Not formally, anyway. (Another way to look at it would be to say that everything I have done so far is rooted in writing the rationale. Maybe this is a process approach.. :-p)

So, next lot of homework:

  • Cross-reference justification to theory (either slides or texts)
  • Synthesise my approach to culture
  • Write a draft rationale

I have 11 days before my next meeting (it’s on the 27th June), although several of those will be taken up conferencing (Warwick PG Conference of Applied Linguistics) and some time will need to be dedicated to preparing for further conferencing (MATSDA). It should be perfectly feasible, even with everything else I have planned between now and then. As Sandy said, if you need something doing: ask a busy person…

Meanwhile, thoughts/criticisms/suggestions/comments etc are welcome. 🙂

Dissertation Diary 5

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 read Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing  Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press, and made copious notes relevant to my materials, flicked through Willis, J. (1996) A framework for Task-based Learning. Longman (looks very useful and clear, I will refer to it while making my tasks), and looked at a bit of Nunan, D. (2004) Task-Based Language Teaching Cambridge University Press, I do feel a lot better informed about TBL now than I did before. There is a lot more similarity between Ellis (2003) and Willis&Willis (2007) than there is between those and Nunan (2004). For Ellis (2003) and Willis&Willis (2007), the task is central whereas for Nunan (2004), it comes at the end of lengthy preparation sequence that resembles PPP. I prefer the Ellis and Willis versions, which have a stronger link to SLA theory. I like the principles that Nunan’s version is based on:

  • Scaffolding (to maximise learners’ chances of successful task completion)
  • Task dependency (logical sequencing)
  • Recycling (to maximise learning opportunities)
  • Active learning (active use of language helps learners learn best),
  • Integration (form, function and meaning)
  • Reproduction to creation (not only reliance on models)
  • Reflection

(Nunan, 2004:35-38)

However I think they can be met through the Ellis and Willis approach, keeping the task central. Ellis and Willis both demonstrate how to scaffold the task through the preparation phase, while maintaining the focus on meaning and language (learner-directed – vs focus on form, which is teacher or materials led). Task-dependency is important vertically (within a lesson) and horizontally (across the task-based syllabus) – there needs to be logic behind it all. This can still be achieved while keeping the task central; it’s a matter of selection, grading and ensuring coherence. (In the case of my materials, the coherence is being maintained horizontally by the project thread and vertically by logical sequencing and grading of activities) Recycling can be achieved through giving learners the opportunity to produce similar meanings in different contexts (Willis and Willis, 2007). Active use of language occurs during the main task as well as in the preparatory and post-task activities. Integration is achieved through focus on language and focus on form, all contextualised. Making the task central does not prohibit creativity or limit the learners to following a model. And reflection can be woven in at any point in the task cycle, both vertically and horizontally.

As far as I can make out, Ellis (2003:163) believes that Consciousness-Raising (CR) Tasks, “a kind of puzzle which when solved enables learners to discover for themselves how a linguistic feature works” are tasks in their own right, with the non-linguistic outcome being awareness of the feature in question, while Willis&Willis (2007) believe in explicit form focus only featuring in the post-task phase, with implicit, learner-directed focus (language focus) able to arise at any stage. For CR tasks, Ellis (2003:163) identifies 4 main characteristics:

  1. There is an attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature for focused attention.

  2. The learners are provided with data that illustrate the targeted feature and they may also be provided with an explicit rule describing or explaining the feature.

  3. The learners are expected to utilize intellectual effort to understand the targeted feature.

  4. Learners may be optionally required to verbalize a rule describing the grammatical structure.

Heightened cognitive engagement, in the discovery element, should make the forms learnt in this way more memorable. So, this is materials and teacher-driven discovery of elements of language, where the task consists of discovering whichever structure it is. (Now I begin to see why H was emphasising the need to clarify exactly where the overlaps and differences are between this and Language Awareness, and which elements I am using of each…) 

Language Awareness, then. As I discovered early on (see Dissertation Diary 2), Borg’s description of LA is cited thus in Svalberg, 2007 (emphasis as in original):

  1. It involves an ONGOING INVESTIGATION of language as a dynamic phenomenon rather than awareness of a fixed body of established facts.

  2. It involves learners in TALKING ANALYTICALLY about language, often to each other.

  3. It considers essential the INVOLVEMENT of learners in exploration and discovery.

  4. It aims to develop not only the learners’ knowledge about and understanding of language but also their LEARNING SKILLS, thus promoting learner independence.

  5. The aim is to involve learners on both a COGNITIVE and AFFECTIVE level.

Comparing Ellis’s CR features and Borg’s LA features, exploration and discovery of language are common to both. Talking about language is common to both, if the CR task is collaborative. Recognition of the importance of cognitive engagement is common to both. The aims, I think, differ slightly. I think LA is wider, embracing the affective level, the learner skills, as well as the dynamism of language. I think Borg’s first point almost seems to be contrasting LA with CR. Ellis (2003:166) claims that CR tasks are “an effective means of achieving a focus on form while at the same time affording opportunities to communicate” but warns that they are not “an alternative to communication activities, but a supplement” (ibid:167). I think LA is similarly effective with similar caveats, but allows greater breadth of focus, perhaps more holistic. I.e. language is more than “a puzzle” (it’s dynamic, it’s socially situated – if Critical LA is included), learning is more than cognitive engagement (includes “learning skills” and the “affective level”). Bolitho et al. (2003) stress the importance of affect in LA and in language learning – unsurprising, perhaps, given that Tomlinson is part of the ‘et al.’! – and this seems compatible with TBL, provided task design takes this into account. How? Presumably by allowing for personal response, using engaging texts and providing learners with the opportunity to engage emotionally as well as cognitively.

TBL and LA make good bedfellows on the level of theory and principles: Bolitho et al. (2003) explain that LA approaches “like Task-Based Approaches, reflect the research findings that, in both L1 and L2, language acquisition occurs when, and only when the learners are ready” whereas LA approaches “do not typically exploit a syllabus based on a prescribed inventory of language items”, again much like Task-Based approaches. In terms of theories of language, “Pedagogically […] Language Awareness is seen as inseparable from text awareness, and the emphasis on language and use and in context entails a view of language as a social and cultural medium”; the importance of use and context echoes in TBL. So, it seems logical to agree with Ellis in terms of the validity of CR tasks within TBL but expand such tasks to reflect LA principles too. I think if a set of materials can successfully embody this (as mine will aim to…!), learners will benefit from a task-based approach that is enriched by the LA principles of language and learning.

For an LA approach, Tomlinson in Bolitho et al (2003:257) recommends that “some lessons are experiential, with the learners unaware that they are developing implicit awareness by focusing on features of a text in order to achieve an intended outcome” while “other lessons are both experiential and analytical, with the learners being helped to begin the exploration of features of a text which they have just experienced.”. To me, this parallels with the focus on meaning and focus on form elements of TBL. He adds that other lessons could be “analytical with the learners being asked to articulate and refine discoveries they have previously made” (ibid) – I think part of other lessons could, and this would be in keeping with the idea of recycling language in different contexts to refine awareness of how it is used, which Willis and Willis recommend. Tomlinson also recommends that “in all lessons learners are asked to think for themselves, and are encouraged to become more aware”. Within TBL, reflection is described as “a natural conclusion to the task cycle” (Willis 2006), though Willis (2006) emphasises the outcome of the task as the primary focus, while Ellis recommends that learner performance of the task and how they might improve it is equally valid. I think awareness of the reasoning behind the tasks is important too: metacognitive awareness. According to Vandergrift and Goh (2012), Self-awareness, task awareness and strategy awareness, elements of metacognition, are important in language learning. I think all of of these may be implicit in Tomlinson’s recommendation for learners to “become more aware”.

Ok, so now:

  • I am clear on how CR and LA are similar and how they are different: that’s one piece of homework addressed.
  • I’ve read Willis and Willis, and mined it for relevant, useful information in relation to my materials: another homework tick.
  • I’ve thought intensively about the organisation and labelling (with regards to what constitutes a task etc) of my materials and made a diagram to illustrate this: I’m clear in my head with regards to the vertical and horizontal progressions that I want. This is the beginning of the diagram:

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 09.19.24

So, each vertical pod is a task cycle but these task cycles sit in the macro-task cycle, which is the horizontal pod. So there is vertical sequencing and horizontal sequencing to think about. *NB The right-hand side of the horizontal pod should really be open, only closing right at the end of the very last vertical pod. But, I’m using power point to organise my thoughts and I don’t know how to make it do that, with only two vertical pods fitting per slide. 

I need to:

  • Address the culture issue
  • Continue mapping my skeleton back to the theory/principles and fleshing it out/pinning it down: doing day one was easy, having discussed it with H during the tutorial – the rest will be more challenging! But at least having talked through the process for one sequence, with H, and knowing what questions I need to ask and answer, I am in a good position to have a decent crack at this.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 09.10.41

This is what I am attempting to do for all of my vertical sequences, as a starting point: identifying exactly what each part is and what it is trying to do. Once I have done this for all vertical sequences and made sure they cohere horizontally towards the main task of the horizontal cycle, I can then flesh them out more in terms of exactly what steps each task will entail etc. Part of identifying this information for each vertical sequence is the cross-referencing to theory and seeing if what I am trying to do matches with my rationale for doing it. My rationale for doing it is based on TBL and LA theory in interaction with my context. Obviously a massive omission in the above example, which is the only one I’ve done so far, is timing. Timing is still on the list of things to do…

  • Once I have mapped out the vertical sequences as above, and fleshed them out, including deciding how much time to allocate to each vertical sequence and therefore the complete duration of the horizontal sequence, I need to combine that with my diagram. The combination will then be the map of my materials.
  • Then I need to draft a rationale.

So, progress is being made….!


Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing  Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for Task-based Learning. Longman

Nunan, D. (2004) Task-Based Language Teaching Cambridge University Press

Bolitho et al. (2003) Ten questions about Language Awareness in ELTJ vol. 57/3 Oxford University Press.

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.

Of course, thoughts/criticisms/suggestions etc all as heartily welcomed as usual. 🙂

Dissertation Diary 4

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.

Yesterday (a day earlier than planned, by necessity, but it worked out well in the end, happily!) I had my second tutorial with H. It was fantastic! Much better than the previous meeting (which was also really, really good, don’t get me wrong!), because I’d done some proper work on the project, so there was something to properly pull apart and get our teeth into. So, this post will summarise what we covered in 45mins of tutorial as well as the next set of goals that have emerged. Boy, do I ever have my work cut out for me now! (Both in synthesising that little lot AND implementing the resulting plan of action!)

(But a quick aside before I start: I think doing a dissertation project like this, with an experienced supervisor whom I trust implicitly (important because it means I feel comfortable discussing my [often questionable] ideas), a.k.a. a “more experienced other”, means exactly working in my own “Zone of Proximal Development” (a la good old Vygotsky) – I’m being scaffolded to work beyond my current capabilities and produce something that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce, acquiring valuable skills/learning in the process. Socio-constructivist learning in action. And I LOVE it! :-))

Right, to business…

We began with a somewhat timid “What do you think of my ideas?” from me, and the first thing addressed was a glaring gap in my reading thus far. So, next on my list to read is:

Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing  Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press.

Or it might be…

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for Task-based Learning. Longman.

Ach, why not both! Basically, there is a Willis (and Willis?)-sized hole to be filled! I don’t have to follow the Willis framework but it can be a starting point, even if it becomes a case of simply rationalising why it isn’t there or using it as a point of comparison when discussing Ellis’s version. Not unreasonable – a dissertation project based on TBL with no mention of Willis OR Willis might be rather questionable!

H likes the combining the Language Awareness work with Task-Based Learning idea, so that was a good start. I need, though, to clarify exactly what the cross-over is between Ellis’s Consciousness-Raising and Language Awareness – if I claim they are similar, I need to be very clear how they are similar and how they are different.

Regarding the culture element, for the rationale I need to be aware (and state) exactly what my approach is:

  • what cultural content am I including?
  • what exactly is it that I am aiming to do AND aiming not to do in terms of culture? E.g. I’m not trying to get them to learn about the Queen/parliament!, it’s a different kind of culture and a different approach, an enabling approach.
  • what exactly are the materials doing and not doing with culture?
  • what about intercultural capability?

We discussed how I am approaching the syllabus. My task cycle is preparatory tasks, the main task (exploiting the ESE), then tasks using the information gathered, then ending up with it on the wiki and then reflection. I need to think about/justify in the rationale my approach to language focus (in terms of selection).

Then we moved onto the (somewhat half-baked) framework I produced yesterday (just in time for the meeting!) and spent the rest of the meeting pulling it apart in great detail, which was very useful (genuinely!).

Here is the framework as it was: Framework Draft 1  

One of the criteria for calling something “task” is that it must have a non-linguistic outcome. (NB: A non-linguistic outcome needs to be tangible e.g. for the task “Find 3 pieces of dirt under your table”, the outcome would be the three pieces of dirt!) “Page 1” involves scaffolding use of the self-access centre. However, that may be the pedagogical goal of the sequence but it isn’t an outcome – as far as the task goes it’s a means to an end. The leaflet that the learners are going to produce is an outcome but it’s an outcome of the post-task element rather than the main task. In the end we established that the data collected through use of the self-access centre (scaffolded via a worksheet which will be a photocopiable resource in the teacher’s book) was the non-linguistic outcome of the main task. Getting from the outcome of the main task (the data collected) to the outcome of the post-task (the completed leaflet) will require more scaffolding for the learners. Another task…

And herein lies a major flaw in the current framework: The word “task” is repeated so many times that it becomes at best confusing and at worst meaningless. I need to decide what I am going to label a “task” and what I am going to label an “activity” and I need to be careful in applying these labels.

  • What I call things needs to be principled and thought out so that it is clear when the big task is coming, which will have all the qualities specified in the literature.
  • Avoid the trap of calling everything a “task” and then not knowing what is meant anymore. It will make things seem more sensible.

“Page 2” – With regards to the vocabulary focus, I need to think very carefully about how to focus on form in a) Task-based learning and b) Language Awareness approach. Is this going to be teacher and materials led or is it going to be students finding what they find useful? Need to link back to the theory – look carefully at what L.A. says about how much it should be teacher/materials-led and how much it should be open to students to look for examples of x and work out the rules for yourself. Need to think about exactly how I am going to do this.

  • Will the students be able to work out the rules?
  • What happens if they can’t?
  • Are the resources there for the teacher to guide them?
  • Is the L.A. approach suitable for everything? Or suitable only for some language points?

For the materials-led form focus, I can have a language reference in the book as well as the L.A. stuff, but I need to justify why I am combining these approaches. Now is the time where I need to go backwards and forwards between this initial draft framework and the theory, it’s a good stage to do this. And keep asking for every step of it:

  • Is this compatible with the theory or am I just trying to shoehorn something in for the sake of it or something that doesn’t quite fit with the ethos of what I am doing?
  • What am I going to put in my rationale to justify this?
  • Is the world ready for this?! Or might I want to include something a bit more traditional (e.g. the language reference vis-a-vis Language Awareness approach) to make it more palatable?
  • What are the non-linguistic outcomes for each of the tasks in the task cycle?
  • What exactly is the purpose of each main task?
  • Exactly which part of the task is the main part? (It is from this that the non-linguistic outcome must emerge.)

“Page 3” – It starts to become clear that I am taking the students through a process, almost like a research process, some input at the beginning and preparing them for the main task (exploiting E.S.E.) through making questions/a questionnaire and then exploiting the data collected. So each of the stages is a mini-task but the whole thing is also one big task cycle.

To make it easier to understand:

  • I need to make a framework of the macro task cycle, divided up into stages, A/B/C/D etc however many stages.
  • That framework then should be reflected in the mini-tasks that go on in each lesson so that each lesson is going to take on a task cycle.

It’s a matter of the labels and the language I use around it that will make my pattern transparent.

  • I need a formula that will be followed for each mini task and for the overall task.
  • A diagram in the rationale would be good.
  • And I must pay attention to the headings for everything and the language used to describe everything (very important!).

That’s what will (hopefully!) make it understandable for me/H/teachers and students who use the materials/to anyone who looks at the materials: They would be able to look at the pattern, understand it, see how everything fits in. That will also make it fit what I say it’s doing, vis-a-vis the theory (Ellis and Willis and so on), which will be important for the rationale: bringing it all together in perfect harmony… (ah, can you just imagine it…somewhere wayyy up the dissertation mountain…)

So, next goals:

  • Address all the above bullet points/questions
  • Think about how long each mini task cycle is going to take and therefore how long the macro cycle will take as well. (This is important because if it’s a 20hr cycle, then I only need to make one but if it’s a 10hr cycle, then I need to make two)
  • Make sure the task sequence that is followed each lesson is clear (in terms of non-linguistic outcome, duration etc)
  • Maintain the inclusion of different kinds of tasks.
  • Map out the the materials – an outline (what is each task going to be, what is each stage in each lesson going to be, that kind of thing)
  • Draft a rationale if possible (or headings and notes and references otherwise)

There’s no one way to structure the rationale, but I do need to consider and include:

  • Description of the context
  • What theories I’m drawing on (methodology, SLA, materials design…) [this is the biggest part of it]
  • Main principles behind what I’ve chosen to do.
  • Make an argument for the design of the materials in the way that I’ve done it (why I’ve chosen the methodologies/principles that I’ve chosen )
  • Why TBL? What task cycle am I using? What kind of tasks? How are the materials organised? Exemplify it.

Essentially it’s a whole justification of what I am doing. So I can make a diagram of the task cycle, relate it back to the theory and justify why it is that students will be learning from this task cycle in that context better than they would if done in a different way. It answers the question: “Why are my materials like this?”

At this point time ran out (I reckon we could easily have gone on for another 15mins or half an hour if H hadn’t had back to back appointments all afternoon – we only talked through the first two pages of the plan and touched on the third!). Next meeting will be at the end of June. Plenty to be getting on with meanwhile… So many questions to answer, so much thinking to do, so much to produce. I think I might still be in the foothills of this dissertation mountain!

First things first, time to go to the library and dig out the Willis collection…

As ever, any thoughts/criticism/comments etc all very welcome! 🙂