Humanising Language Teaching
Skehan's proposals for task design in Task Based Learning/Teaching
Seth Lindstromberg, Hilderstone College,UK
In his book A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning (1998), Peter Skehan closely examines the issue of TBT/TBL in light of:
I am devoting this article to a part summary of A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning for the reason that—although the proposals it offers should raise discussion of TBT/TBL to a new level of sophistication—this book seems to have attracted little of the attention I believe it deserves. And so what follows is my attempt at a preçis I hope will tempt people to read the book and make up their own minds about the implementability of what he advocates.
1. Skehan believes the following—
2. Skehan accepts the distinction between mental representations of language (what is stored and how) and mental processes (how we access representations in 'real time'). Further, he believes that…
3. Skehan's process approach to thinking about tasks derives from the belief that processing of language (if not also representation of language) is bi-modal—that is, it may be lexical or syntactical (see especially Pinker 1999). For example, when speaking we may combine words according to rules (syntactical processing) or we may just utter one pre- fabricated phrase after another (lexical processing). We are most likely to do the latter when we (1) are concentrating on the message we want to get across and (1) are under some kind of pressure.
4. Phases in the development of processing of language:
lexicalization => syntacticalization => re-lexicalization
This three stage evolutionary sequence goes on all the time with respect to different phrases.
The gist is that learners may first learn a phrase as an unanalyzed chunk. This is lexicalization. Later they may see how the phrase is structured; that is, they may see its internal grammar. This is syntacticalization. Even later, learners may once again process the phrase as an unanalyzed chunk since communication is faster if we are not always assembling/interpreting phrases word by word. This is re-lexicalization.
Skehan believes that all three stages are to be encouraged. In fluency tasks, learners tend to process language 'lexically'. For example, in speaking they may use key words and unanalyzed phrases they have learned—but they may make grammar mistakes, including ones they could self-correct if they were focusing on meaning. He is particularly interested in tasks which encourage syntacticalization—that is, with tasks likely to lead not so much to improvements in fluency but rather, especially, to readjustment of learners' interlanguage.
This is not to say that Skehan scorns fluency tasks; it's just that he thinks that not enough has been said about tasks which have potential to develop the complexity of interlanguage).
5. Believe it or not, SLA theorists and researchers seem to have discovered the importance of attention and noticing only a decade or so ago. In other words, it is only recently that much consideration has been given to the fact that change in interlanguage can happen only if learners are (1) paying attention to linguistic form and (2) that they actually notice particular formal features. The new wisdom is that tasks which create the conditions for attention and noticing are good.
6. Use of target structures in a task can be…
7. Skehan says that tasks may promote the development of fluency, accuracy or complexity but that one and the same task will not do all three things, or even two owing to the fact that learners have limited attentional resources. He notes, for instance, that research suggests that complexity comes only at the cost of (decreased) fluency and accuracy.
To say much the same thing in more detail--there is some evidence that…if students concentrate on the meanings they want to convey, they find it easier to speak fluently but they tend to make mistakes in grammar, pronunciation and wording--mistakes which, in other circumstances, they could self-correct. If, on the other hand, they concentrate on getting their grammar, pronunciation and wording right, their fluency is reduced. So--among other things--if learners have a diet of nothing but fluency tasks, it becomes probable that…
Conversely, if learners do nothing but accuracy exercises, it becomes likely that it will be their fluency that fails to develop satisfactorily.
A note on complexity--This is sometime measured by the number of clauses per c-unit. Skehan (and others) suggest that task designers who wish to help develop learners' interlanguage, should take complexity into account.
8. Drawing on the work of others, Skehan observes that tasks can be difficult in terms of—
Skehan believes that task design and task sequencing must take (7) and (8) into account in a detailed way.
9. Skehan's information processing approach to tasks (p. 129 ff.) is, in brief—
Pinker, Steven. 1999. Words and Rules: The ingredients of language. Phoenix.