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.

Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

If you are an English teacher involved in professional development, you have most likely come across Scott Thornbury’s work. I remember that when I was chatting with other teachers right after finishing my Delta Module One exam, one of them found something relevant on his phone and exclaimed, ‘Bloody Thornbury again!’ He has written so many books, articles and blog posts that when you search for ELT-related information on Google, Thornbury’s name will probably appear

What I really like about Scott Thornbury is that he isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. His ideas inspired me to start experimenting with the Dogme approach in my classes, which seems to work surprisingly well even when teaching online. I also recommend that you read his article Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. It’s common to encounter texts dealing with those topics now, but Thornbury wrote it in 1999, and I think that he deserves a lot of respect for that. All in all, he comes across as a genuinely good guy. He has written plenty of good books, but if I had to choose one that I enjoyed the most, it would be Beyond the Sentence.

Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

When I was at university, I took one semester of CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis). Since I studied journalism, we focused mainly on the media and analysed how one event is reported differently depending on the newspaper’s political leaning. Even though I found it quite interesting, I still didn’t fully understand what discourse was. It started to make sense to me only after becoming an English teacher. When I decided to study for Delta Module One, I knew that it was necessary to explore the subject of discourse much more, and Beyond the Sentence was recommended to me as a must-read.

As its name implies, this book invites you to go further than individual lexical and grammatical items. We use language to achieve something, and focusing only on single sentences isn’t enough. This has clear implications for language teaching because we have to think of the context in which communication takes place. Asking students to fill out exercises full of random sentences without any connection to each other probably isn’t the most motivating way to teach English.

I think that discourse is one of those ideas that aren’t that easy to grasp because it involves so many concepts. Fortunately, Thornbury is very thorough when it comes to terminology and providing practical examples. Words like cohesion, coherence, theme and rheme don’t sound very exciting, but Beyond the Sentence makes their importance perfectly clear. I guess that all Delta candidates are familiar with the phrase ‘activating schemata’, which is something we use in our teaching practice all the time.

What I really like about this book is that there are some genuinely funny moments in it. Scott Thornbury is a frequent speaker at conferences, and as you can see in this talk about methods, he is a very witty man. He can’t resist including humorous comments in his books, and that’s always nice to see. In Beyond the Sentence, he points out how contrived and unnatural some coursebook texts are, so there is no need to take them too seriously. Even if you are expected to use a coursebook in your classes, you don’t have to use the texts exactly as they were intended. When I see a stilted dialogue in a coursebook, I sometimes ask my students to create a backstory for the characters or come up with an alternative ending, which is always good fun.

Thornbury seems to enjoy referring to news articles, particularly from tabloids, which is another way of making English learning a more interesting experience for your students. Authentic texts, if utilised correctly, can definitely serve as a helpful resource. Even when you are supposed to teach something like the passive voice, showing real-life examples of how and why it is used is better than just doing gap-fill exercises. Beyond the Sentence also deals with ideology in texts, which is another area worth exploring.

I really like the fact that the book includes useful text-adaptation strategies and other ideas that can be used in your teaching practice. Beyond the Sentence has provided me with plenty of inspiration for my own lessons, particularly when it comes to teaching writing. I was a little worried that a book about discourse might be a bit too academic for me, but Thornbury managed to write it in a way that helps you understand the subject and its practical implications. Beyond the Sentence is a great book for developing teachers and you certainly won’t regret reading it.