Taking to task(s): Task design and CALL

Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities

XVII International CALL research conference. Tarragona, Spain, 6-8 July 2015.

This paper examines language teaching and learning activities in EFL classes in the French secondary school context with the aim of understanding factors affecting the design and implementation of such tasks. Participants are pre-service teachers in a university Masters in Teaching English programme with a practical component involving classroom observation and teaching. These student teachers designed communicative activities following a common design brief which leaves the technological component open (Samuda, 2005). Data include teaching materials and activity descriptions, reflective writing, questionnaire data, semi-structured individual and group interviews, and practitioner analysis of learner language. Analysis combines coding of the resulting tasks (Erlam, 2015) with qualitative analysis of questionnaire, interview and reflective writing data. Results suggest wide variation in proposed teaching and learning activities, in the design process, and in reflection on classroom implementation in both technology-mediated and non-technological tasks.

Task design & language learning and teaching

The design of language teaching and learning activities as defined broadly with the terms “task” and “exercise” in the theme of the conference has recently emerged as an important issue in second language teaching research. Viewed as an element of materials development alongside implementation, evaluation, and analysis of materials (Tomlinson, 2012), task design has long been considered a practical activity which is “still largely a practitioner-led practice, not always informed by theories of learning” (Reinders & White, 2010). Task-based and task-oriented teaching have however begun to attract increasing research interest both in technology-mediated contexts (Doughty & Long, 2003; Thomas & Reinders, 2010; Van den Branden et al., 2007) and in non-technological environments (Bygate et al., 2001; Ellis, 2003, 2009; Johnson, 2003; Samuda, 2005).  Indeed, pedagogy and design, as opposed to the integration of technologies per se, have recently been identified by leading CALL figures as both current areas of interest and priorities for ongoing research in our field (Colpaert, 2013; Levy et al., 2015). The academic study of task design offers the chance to improve our understanding of language learning opportunities in the (physical and virtual) language classroom and our models of professional development for language teachers.

Practitioner involvement via action research (Burns, 2005), for instance, or teacher engagement with research more generally, can contribute both to this research enterprise directly and to continuing teacher development.  In recent reviews of research in this area, Borg (2010, 2013) highlights the role of teacher research engagement in helping teachers reflect on their planning and decision-making processes, and thus in promoting “new ways of thinking.” Research in task planning has examined one aspect of this process using think-aloud protocols to study communicative activities developed by expert practitioners and materials writers using the same prompt or “design brief” (Johnson, 2003; Samuda, 2005).  These researchers call for further work to include both more diverse contexts (beyond the commonly studied university or private adult ESL class) and data on the actual implementation of the tasks designed by participants.

The present study seeks to address this gap in the literature by investigating task design and implementation in state school settings and by looking at new teachers rather than expert task designers.  It constitutes a partial replication of the Johnson and Samuda studies to investigate how novice EFL teachers design and implement tasks with their learners and the technological opportunities and constraints of their own classrooms.  By avoiding a specific focus on technology in the design brief, data can be collected on both technological and non-technological tasks and information gathered on the impact of technological considerations on the task design process. In this way, the study sheds light on how new teachers take to tasks in the process of becoming ELT professionals.

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Bio data

Shona Whyte is associate professor of English at the University of Nice where she teaches EFL and TEFL and researches classroom interaction, interactive technologies, and teacher education. Recent work focuses on the integration of the interactive whiteboard by language teachers (Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching, Palgrave Macmillan; Teaching languages with technology, Bloomsbury).

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