Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

When you start teaching English in Colombia in an entry-level position, you are usually given a coursebook and told how many units you are supposed to cover. I assume this is common in many parts of the world because it’s the most convenient way to teach languages. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most effective approach. It’s definitely a good idea to explore other options, so I would like to focus on a book written by Michael H. Long, a proponent of Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).

Long’s work deserves a lot of attention, and I recommend that you listen to this interview with him on the SLB Podcast. I had written a draft of this blog post about his book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching several months ago, and this paragraph originally included more positive information. Sadly, Professor Long passed away in February this year. You can read more about this brilliant scholar and his impact on teachers around the world on this website created in his memory.

Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

The first part of the book deals with second language acquisition (SLA). I find this topic fascinating because the fine details of our language learning process are still shrouded in mystery. Long does a great job of describing the main SLA theories and their practical implications. Even though I had previously studied ideas of well-known academics like Krashen and Prahbu, I learnt something new about their work. Right from the beginning, you will notice that Long is very diligent when it comes to referring to books and studies. In fact, there are no fewer than 56 pages of references at the end of Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching!

Long argues against treating languages as objects, and he is definitely not a fan of the synthetic approach. Dividing a foreign language into small pieces and teaching them one at a time doesn’t necessarily lead to good results. My own experience as a Spanish learner and an English teacher certainly confirms that assumption. Why do so many Colombian students say “he have” when the present simple is dealt with in one of the first units of every coursebook for beginners? I don’t think that we learn languages by simply imitating what the teacher or the coursebook says. Half of my students keep saying I am agree, but I have never taught them that and it doesn’t appear in the coursebook either. It seems that explicit teaching of individual items doesn’t always work well in real life.  

Obviously, Long proposes TBLT as a more appropriate way of teaching languages. What I love about his book is the fact that it’s not just about language. Long talks about the role of education and TBLT’s philosophical principles, and emphasises the need to treat students as rational human beings. Learning by doing, emancipation and egalitarian teacher-student relationships are one of the principles mentioned, and I think it’s difficult to disagree with any of them. I definitely feel more comfortable when my students see me as a communication partner rather than a person of authority who is meant to lecture them about the wonders of English grammar.

The book provides you with concrete steps for implementing Task-Based Language Teaching in a classroom setting. Long suggests abandoning coursebooks, which may seem like a radical idea, but there are pretty good reasons for that. If you want your course to be truly personalised and relevant, you need to conduct a needs analysis and design the course for your group of students from scratch. In addition to syllabus design, the book deals with materials, methodological principles and evaluation. It also provides useful advice related to focus on form and giving negative feedback to students.

Everything in the book makes perfect sense to me and I have no doubt that TBLT is very effective. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching should be read by those responsible for the way English is taught in their organisation. That said, as Long himself admits, his version of TBLT is unlikely to replace traditional coursebook-driven teaching. To be honest, I can’t imagine many Colombian institutions spending money on needs analyses, course design and training teachers in TBLT when they can simply adopt a structural syllabus provided by a coursebook. It just doesn’t seem to be a financially viable option.

I would love to get a chance to work on a TBLT project at some point in the future. In the meantime, I plan to keep going beyond the coursebook as much as possible because I believe that my students benefit from using English in a meaningful manner. Even if your course ends with a discrete-point test of grammar and lexis, it’s perfectly fine to deviate from an externally imposed syllabus from time to time. Designing tasks and materials that are more relevant for your learners is undoubtedly more demanding than just following your coursebook, but it will lead to a more satisfying experience for both you and your students.

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