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! 🙂

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)”…
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Dissertation Diary 2

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.

Delta module 1 exam is over, all semester 2 assignments are in: time to focus on this dissertation now. My next meeting with H is on Wednesday (assuming I’m ready), so I’m in the process of responding to everything that was raised for consideration in the first meeting. As well as getting my head around all those questions that emerged, I need to prepare a possible framework for my materials. So, here goes…

So far, since my last dissertation meeting, I’ve read (in order):

Nault, D. (2006) Going Global: Rethinking Culture Teaching in ELT Contexts  in Language, Culture and Curriculum vol. 19/3.

Ellis, R. (2009) Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings in International Journal of Applied Linguistics vol 19/3. Blackwell Publishing.

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

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

Next on my list to read: 

Van den Branden, Bygate and Norris ed. (2009) Task-Based Language Teaching: A reader John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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

My context:

Private language school in Leeds

Upper intermediate learners

Multilingual classes

Continuous enrolment (students arriving and leaving regularly, some stay for a number of months, others as little as a week or two)

Big mixture of learning goals (some want to study in the U.K., some want to improve their English because it will help in their job back home, some are on holiday and want to improve their English at the same time, for some it’s a hobby).

They study General English in the morning and in the afternoon the sessions are more skills-focused and for those that want it there is the possibility of joining an IELTS preparation class or having one to one tuition.

Students can also use the self-access room, which has a suite of computers, some graded readers and other resources. This is supervised on a daily basis by different members of staff, for 2hrs on a Monday and an hr Tuesday to Thursday, who are on hand to help the students find something suited to their needs/wants.

The majority of the students particularly want to improve their speaking and listening, but there are some whose speaking/listening are already pretty good and whose writing lets them down. These tend to be the students who want to study in the U.K. and choose the IELTS afternoon classes. Students also tend to have learnt English at school in their home countries, usually with a heavy grammar focus.

I want to make materials for the morning classes, so systems and skills needs to be integrated and content suited to General English learners.

The teachers at this school are all pretty experienced and used to preparing weekly schemes of work based on the course books in use. There are also regular CPD sessions. They do, however, make good use of teachers books in their planning – whether or not they then elect to adhere to what the teachers book says. So, a good set of teachers notes to accompany my materials will be a must. Ideally, these notes will have a lot of flexibility built in, rather than being didactic.

Theory:

Having (re)read the articles listed above, I think a well-designed set of TBLL materials, using elements of the Language Awareness approach would work well for this context:

  • Although usually associated with speaking tasks, Ellis (2009) points out that tasks can be input-based too. Apparently in a book of his, he has a chapter on the use of listening tasks in TBL – I will be reading that! I believe it should therefore be possible to design materials, using this approach, that ensure focus on all 4 skills, as well as grammar/vocabulary/pronunciation – Ellis (2009) explains that focus on form is not limited to grammatical form and cites studies that show focus on vocabulary and pronunciation. So it’s possible, the challenge will be designing materials that promote and enable this.
  • Tasks can be focused or unfocused. A task-based syllabus can be purely focused, purely unfocused, or a mixture. I would go for a mixture, as I can see benefits for both task types.
  • Language Awareness can be deductive or inductive, but inductive is most common. According to Borg, cited in Svalberg (2007), there are five main features of an LA methodology:
  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.

(Svalberg, 2007:291, emphasis here as per the article)

  • (Continuing from the above bullet point) As is mentioned in this article, there is a crossover here between LA and Ellis’s Consciousness-Raising approach to grammar, which he believes is compatible with his TBLT framework. I’m inclined to agree with Ellis on this one, I think his TBLT framework and elements of the LA approach could complement each other nicely. I would add a further metacognitive element, so that learners are helped to understand this non-traditional approach and not feel threatened by it.
  • Combining the two approaches would enable a greater variety of learning styles to be catered for: LA is very analytical BUT, as cited above, aims to involve learners affectively too. Affective engagement could come, for example,  through use of engaging texts, to which learners respond, in input-based tasks as well as through use of input or output-based tasks which draw on learners’ experiences and backgrounds.
  • Using tasks which generate written output would enable learners who are keen to improve their writing the chance to do this, while those learners who are most interested in speaking would still benefit from the task process, which would involve collaboration and therefore the opportunity to speak. Speaking skill development, meanwhile, could come through form focus in speaking tasks, by focusing on features of spoken discourse. In keeping with the LA approach, awareness of how and why these features are used, and to what effect, would need to be incorporated.

Other features that my materials will include:

Development of intercultural awareness

This, I believe, would be helpful for learners, whether they stay long term in the (multicultural) UK, e.g. to study, or whether they return to their own countries and use English as a language of wider communication. Nault (2006:323) recommends that more attention be focused on “issues such as cultural misunderstandings, cross-cultural pragmatics, stereotypes, non-verbal communication and culture shock”. Of course, the question is quite how to go about this. I think one immediate resource would be the diversity of learner backgrounds within classes in my context. Another interesting resource would be recordings of learners’ own interactions with each other during tasks. These could be compiled into a corpus and learners could look for patterns. (This needs further thought with regards to how it would work on a practical level!)

Use of the English-Speaking Environment

This is a valuable resource for these learners, so it would be beneficial for materials to exploit it. I think this would work well as a project thread. So it could be that tasks prepare learners to undertake the project, then scaffold them through the process of undertaking it, after which it could be used as a basis for further tasks. Then the cycle would begin anew. For this element, I am also considering use of a wiki. The non-linguistic goal of the wiki would be to create a resource for incoming learners to access, which would help them better understand and negotiate the ESE of Leeds. In terms of dealing with the constant flow of new learners, new learners would join existing groups (as these lost members) and existing group members would then explain what they have been doing and what they intend to do. New learners would also access the resource, once established, and begin to participate, helped by their group.

The school/context has a social programme, which learners can take part in. This would be a resource that could be tapped in the course of these projects. Additionally, learners stay in residences with other non-native speakers or in host families. This, too, could be exploited by the materials. For example, activities could include surveys and interviews about what people do for fun in Leeds or the types of films they like and why. Learners are keen to interact with people in their environment, so giving them a purpose and scaffolding the process through use of pre-, during- and post-project tasks would be helpful for them and may also motivate and help those who are keen but uncertain about how to go about it or perhaps shy. The collaborative element would provide additional support.

Information gathered, e.g. what people do for fun in Leeds, could be compared with learners’ own countries/cultures, but also in terms of different-subcultures, such as different ages, different social backgrounds etc. A task could be used to scaffold this process, the outcome of which could also go on the wiki. Thus, as well as information about Leeds and the people who live in it, either temporarily or permanently, there would also be information about how this compares with other countries in the world. Newcomers to the class could add their perspective to such tasks at any time, if their country wasn’t represented in a particular task, or they wanted to add to the representation of their country, as well as participating in whatever the current project was.

This will be where the “originality” of my materials comes in: Because they are designed specifically for the E.S.E. rather than as a global course book, they will scaffold the use of this environment as a learning tool. (In fact, Tomlinson, 2008, complains that “none of the books [that he reviewed for this volume] seem to really help learners to make use of the English which is in the out of school environment everywhere”.)

Use of multimedia

As well as the wiki/project element, it would be useful to scaffold learners’ use of the self-access centre computer suite, to enable them to benefit more fully from this resource. In order to do that, tasks could be used which require grouped learners to use the suite initially during class time and then outside of class time, with subsequent in-class discussion/reporting/presenting/reflecting/evaluating based on this.

And now it’s time for me to go away, get more books out of the library and work on a unit framework and an organisational framework within which units will sit. For it to be task-based, the task needs to be the unit of organisation, but also to consider is the task-as-plan vs task-as-process, sequencing of tasks to maximise their yield for learners, and how this will fit together with the ESE project and intercultural awareness threads…

References:

Ellis, R. (2009) Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings in International Journal of Applied Linguistics vol 19/3. Blackwell Publishing.

Nault, D. (2006) Going Global: Rethinking Culture Teaching in ELT Contexts  in Language, Culture and Curriculum vol. 19/3.

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

Tomlinson B. and Masuhara H (2008)  Materials used in the U.K. in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) English Language Learning Materials: a critical review. Continuum. London.

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! 🙂

Dissertation Diary 1

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final part 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. 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.

 My dissertation project will involve creating 20hrs worth of learning materials and a 5000-word rationale for these. The other option was to do a traditional research project of 10, 000 words, so electing a route to take was the first major decision. I’ve opted for materials development, not because I didn’t want to do research (au contraire, I think it would have been really cool to do a research project!), but because doing this reasonably substantial materials project under the guidance of a highly skilled, experienced supervisor should be a great opportunity to further develop those skills that I started to develop during my materials development module and that I hope to use in my post-course professional life.

I had my first post-proposal submission meeting with my supervisor (H) on Friday. When I went in, my thoughts regarding my project were very woolly. Truth be told, they are still pretty woolly but I now have a list of things I need to consider, a bunch of reading I need to do and a clearer idea of how to go about marshalling said woolly thoughts. So, quite a lot of progress for one meeting!

The first thing was to decide whether to do English for Academic Purposes (EAP) materials or General English (GE) materials, as initially I had decided on GE materials but then, since submitting my proposal, had the idea that making EAP materials might be beneficial in terms of compensating slightly for a lack of EAP teaching experience when I come to apply for EAP jobs (my goal…). We discussed the advantages of doing each and through that I came to the decision that perhaps making good quality, principled materials is the main thing, regardless of type. If I’m able to do that, then when I’ve got some EAP experience, I should be able to transfer that skill to making EAP materials if the need/opportunity arises. Meanwhile, I will read up on EAP and learn what I can about it. H also suggested observing a few classes, which I will definitely look into the possibility of doing. Of course, a major benefit of making GE materials is that, as I will be teaching GE part-time over the summer, there may be the opportunity to pilot what I create, which would be very useful.

Having settled on GE, a whole new set of considerations and decisions to make emerge:

  • Will my materials integrate all four skills, like a standard coursebook, or focus on specific skills?
  • What type of teachers are the materials being made for? This will influence what goes into the teachers’ book and how ‘adventurous’ the materials themselves are – as the more adventurous they are, the more experience might perhaps be required of the teacher in using them. (An important factor to think about in designing materials.)
  • What approaches will I use in the materials? Using two approaches, would I go with using both at slight separate times in the unit, depending on the language point or stage in the unit, or combine them? Will combining them work? Will I take a particular approach and select certain aspects but not others? What would be my rationale for these decisions?

I need to be clear about what the approaches are saying and then what my approach to those things is going to be – I don’t necessarily have to go along with every single element of a given approach in my materials. I can synthesize, adapt and change things, but I must think about what it is I am changing and why, and be able justify those decisions in the rationale.

H suggested that a good place to start could be to look at the approaches, have a really good think about each one that I might possibly want to use in my materials, (re)read up on them and decide which to use. From a practical point of view, I need to be selective: The more approaches I try to combine, the more unwieldy it becomes, the more difficult to give each one enough focus, and the more there is to justify in the 5000 word rationale. Not impossible, but it is more straightforward to choose fewer.

I need to think about the theory but then in the back of my mind also be thinking about the project and about how it’s going to work with my context, and which of the theories are going to be workable in the kind of materials that I want to develop.

More questions that were raised and that I need to answer:

  • What is going to be original about my materials?
  • Will the materials be the basis for the main bit of teaching in the day (G.E.), which case all systems and skills will need to be addressed (unless the rationale contains a very good reason for why not!), or the ‘afternoon slot’ i.e. materials for a more specialist focus e.g. pronunciation or speaking.
  • Intercultural skills: will it be comparison between one culture and another or developing intercultural communicative competence? If culture is going to be a feature of my materials, I need to do some reading around culture and decide where I stand on the various different questions around what we do with culture. Everything is potentially offensive: including content about different cultures can offend people or seem stereotypical. But then it’s needed to get interesting content and it’s an important thing to help learners with.
  • Criticality: Why would I want to develop criticality on a G.E. course? More usual for academic courses. If doing it on a G.E. course, need a rationale for it.
  • What sort of format will the multimedia take?  (There’s no obligation to use any particular format.)

To do for next meeting (before the end of June):

  • Start by doing some reading
  • Put together an outline of the rationale. (Headings and notes) that can be used for the basis of discussion in the next meeting.
  • At the same time, develop a skeleton framework for the materials – framework of a unit, a list of what it will constitute – then the two can be looked at in conjunction. It would help if they relate… 😉

Aim: ideas for rationale and materials need to be more firmed up.

So, all in all, I have a lot of reading to do, a lot to think about and a lot of decisions to make. But that will start to happen post-5th June (Delta Module 1 exam, preceded by final semester 2 deadline on the 3rd). Until then, all of these questions and thoughts will just keep percolating away in the back of my head…