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.

379 days and counting

It has been a long time since I last taught in a physical classroom. I remember the lesson very well because I had just started working with a new group of students. The news coming from Europe wasn’t good and I knew that Colombia would inevitably get affected by the pandemic as well, so I prepared my students for the eventuality that the following week’s lesson might be postponed. Schools in Colombia were closed the next day and I haven’t been back to the classroom since then, which is something I certainly didn’t expect at the time. This post is my reflection on a year of teaching online.

379 days and counting: teaching online

The first weeks of teaching through Zoom were pretty exciting because it gave me and the students an opportunity to try out new things. Like many others, I just flipped my lessons to the online environment, which was quite easy thanks to using breakout rooms. We were all happy to see each other through the screen and it all felt like a cool adventure.

However, the novelty wore off after a few weeks. I believe that most students thought the suspension of in-class courses was just a temporary measure. People started getting frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t meet their classmates face-to-face, and their energy levels dropped a little. We were originally supposed to return back to our classrooms in August, but that obviously didn’t happen and we had to endure a very long quarantine.

When it dawned on me that this would be a long-term issue, I decided to change my approach to lesson planning. I knew that I had to make more effort to adapt to the new reality, and that teaching from my living room was going to be part and parcel of my professional life for more time. These days I feel much more confident about being able to deliver good lessons online, and it’s great to work with students who are now used to learning in this environment.

A lot has been written about teaching online and there are numerous courses, lesson plans and tutorials for teachers that can help you with that. I think it’s important to choose an approach that works for your learners. For example, most of my students enjoy working on tasks that require collaboration with their peers. This may range from serious topics like job interviews to creating hilarious infomercials about useless products, and I love it when my students get involved in such activities. Of course, it’s necessary to take your teaching context into account.

I know that some teachers don’t find it easy to work with technology in their classes. Everyone seems to be using Jamboard, Padlet and other tools, and you may feel that it‘s something necessary for a good online lesson. I understand that you can do some pretty cool stuff with those tools and I do use them from time to time, but I think we shouldn’t lose track of what’s important. Being able to build rapport with students is more useful than the ability to use the latest technology. I enjoy including a few Dogme moments in my lesson and just letting the lesson flow in a direction decided by the learners. I always look forward to unexpected deviations from the plan when someone shows us something interesting on their screen or when we have a conversation about a topic relevant to the students‘ lives.

There are differing opinions on the use of cameras in online classrooms. Since I usually teach small groups, I encourage my students to have their camera on. I think everyone feels more comfortable when they have visual contact with all the participants in the group. ‘My camera doesn’t work’ is one of the most common sentences I have heard in the past year, but in reality very few students are truly unable to use it, and the ‘broken camera’ usually gets fixed during the course of the first lesson. I understand that not everyone wants us to see their apartment. Fortunately, it’s easy to use a virtual background to resolve that. If someone doesn’t want to show their face for some reason, I just ask them to use a filter because I’d much rather talk to a banana floating a space than try to communicate with a black square.

Inevitably, teaching online hasn’t been all fun and games. The internet sometimes brings out the worst out of some people and there have been a couple of students whose behaviour made them really difficult to work with. My priority in such cases is to make sure that it doesn’t affect the rest of the group. Fortunately, most of the students have been amazing. When you work with people interested in learning, it’s very easy to enjoy the lessons and forget that you aren’t sitting in the same room.

The main issue with synchronous online learning is the fact that it isn’t accessible to everybody. Many students in Colombia can’t rely on their internet connection, so it doesn’t make sense for them to pay for online courses. Learning through a cell phone isn’t great either and it may make the learners’ experience less enjoyable. I am looking forward to returning to in-class teaching, but it’s good to know that for some students online classes provide a viable alternative when we can’t share the same physical space. Going forward, I can imagine myself working on blended courses or working with some groups exclusively online. How about you?