We have all been using technology to teach and we’ve realised it has many drawbacks, but have we thought about how it may be helping our learners? In this post, Chiara Bruzzano considers research on the benefits of integrating Task-based language teaching (TBLT) and technology.
Chats, wikis, blogs, games, forums, interactive presentations, polls… you’ve probably heard and tried it all by now. Many of us have tried our hand at teaching online, and some of us might be wondering: does technology actually work for our learners or is it just a current necessary evil?
Technology in education has its problems: from the digital divide and widening of socioeconomic inequalities, to more micro-level (but still significant) issues such as technical problems and the blurring of boundaries between teachers’ personal and work time. One of the problems affecting many of us is that technology has been “added” to our work: we’ve had to move our teaching from face-to-face to online, often without training. As a result, we may not necessarily have had the chance to consider how pedagogically sound our approaches are and whether technology can help our learners.
The good news is, research on this has been going on for years. One of the areas researched is how Task-based language teaching (TBLT) and technology have been integrated. You can read more on TBLT here, but on a basic level, it is an approach to teaching based on tasks that has gathered a lot of consensus recently, especially because of its strong connections to SLA (second language acquisition) research.
Various definitions of tasks exist, but one of the most influential ones was given by Mike Long, who defines them as “the real-world activities people think of when planning, conducting, or recalling their day” (p. 6). The focus in defining tasks is on their outcomes, i.e. managing to book a plane ticket, and not on pre-setting the language to be practised in the task (e.g. “fill in the gaps using the past simple”).
When it comes to designing tasks using technology, we can follow five guiding principles:
- Focus on meaning: learners focus on content rather than form
- Goal orientation: tasks must have a communicative purpose, which learners can achieve by using language – though the use of language is not the goal of the activity
- Learner-centredness: learners should use mostly their own existing linguistic, non-linguistic and digital skills to complete the task
- Real world: tasks are authentic, inspired by real-life linguistic processes and integrating form and function
- Reflectiveness: students learn by doing, but are also given the opportunity to reflect on their learning and outcomes
So how is technology helping with all this? Research tells us that it can improve important aspects of language acquisition: negotiation of meaning, noticing and affective factors.
Negotiation of meaning
It is useful for students’ language development to negotiate meaning, that is, communicating in such a way as to achieve mutual understanding. This can happen by, for example, asking for clarification or checking comprehension. Activities such as information gap or decision-making tasks done through technology have been found to be especially useful in eliciting negotiation from learners.
Noticing refers to the key process through which learners notice features of the language they’re studying as well as gaps between how they use language (i.e. their interlanguage) and how the language is used by expert speakers. Technology seems to give learners more opportunities and time for noticing. In tasks based on text-chat, for example, learners have more time than in face-to-face interaction, so they get more chances to review what they and their interlocutors have written, and more time to process and plan for it. Also, some research suggests that learners notice their mistakes more often and teachers’ recasts can be more effective in chat-based communication than in face-to-face interaction.
Using technology-mediated tasks can help decrease learners’ anxiety and increase their willingness to communicate, as communicating with technology might be less stressful than doing it face-to-face. Learners have more time to process input and elaborate their responses, which helps both anxious and lower-level learners. Also, introverted learners might feel more comfortable with emailing and chatting than having to speak in front of a classroom and this can help raise their level of participation. Operating in online environments, learners can also build some new positive identities for themselves, escaping the constraints of the social norms of their real-life contexts.
Overall, designing tasks based on the principles above and following a TBLT approach through technology can help our learners in many ways, not least in negotiating meaning, noticing language and tackling negative affective factors.
Have you tried TBLT? How has technology worked out for you so far? Let us know in the comments!
- Long, M., Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. 2014: John Wiley & Sons.
- González-Lloret, M. and L. Ortega, Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching technology and tasks. Vol. 6. 2014: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
- Ziegler, N., Taking technology to task: Technology-mediated TBLT, performance, and production. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 2016. 36: p. 136-163.