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Challenges in the Implementation of Task-based Learning and Teaching in a Chinese Context

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 Challenges in the implementation of task-based learning and teaching in a Chinese context

  1. Introduction

In the 1970’s, the field of English language teaching experienced a “period of awareness” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p.59), during which researchers began to question the notion that language should be taught as a set of forms and structures and recognize its use and importance in performing linguistic functions in real life situations. Communicative language teaching (CLT) emerged during this period as a response to the perceived failures of previous approaches to language teaching and learning, emphasizing that communicative competence, rather than linguistic knowledge alone, should be the primary goal, and that activities involving authentic communication ought to be incorporated into classroom methods. Task-based learning (TBLT), evolving from the principles of CLT, represented a manifestation of the CLT philosophy in terms of syllabus design and methodology (Ellis, 2003). However, while TBLT has been successful in many countries, it has met with substantial difficulties and resistance in Asia, where its objectives conflict with many traditional educational values and traditions.

This paper will firstly provide an overview of TBLT and consider its benefits along with some objections raised by its opponents. It will then offer some background into the educational values of Confucian influenced societies in Asia and using China as case study, discuss the challenges TBLT has faced surrounding its implementation within the Chinese educational system. Finally, it will suggest several possibilities for the future of TBLT in China, including some avenues that may warrant further research.

 

  1. Overview of TBLT

While the majority of language teaching approaches have traditionally been form based, developments in second language acquisition in the last few decades have uncovered several incorrect assumptions about the nature of language learning, leading to doubts surrounding the effectiveness of this approach. One assumption was that ‘input’ will directly result in ‘intake’, so that what is presented can simply be mastered by the learner (Corder, 1967, as cited in Ying, 1995). Another erroneous belief was that translation is a reliable way of learning the target language. TBLT developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s as a result of a questioning of these assumptions by SLA researchers, alongside further research which found that L2 learning can be facilitated through engagement in social and interactive contexts. Through performing tasks interactively, learners will use language, and while doing so they can gain understanding of how language works, while also incorporating new language, all within a meaningful context. In TBLT the tasks are viewed as mediators of language learning and a reference point’ to make sense of the language, so the focus is on meaning, not form (Bygate, 2016).  Task-based learning, therefore, runs counter to traditional object-oriented teaching, treating language as a tool rather than as an object (Ellis, 2017). In this way, TBLT is far more connected to real life interaction than previous teaching approaches and in this way, according to Bygate, “goes counter to traditions of language teaching everywhere, both East and West” (2016, p.385).

The central concept of ‘task’ in TBLT has been a point of discussion and dispute among various scholars since the term was introduced. In reaction to Widdowson’s protest that tasks are “loosely formulated” and do not differ from any other form of language activity (Widdowson, 2003, p.126), Ellis attempted to establish four conclusive criteria necessary for a language activity to satisfy the concept of task: 1. The primary focus is on meaning. 2. There is some kind of gap. 3. Learners need to use their own linguistic and non-linguistic resources. 4. There is an outcome other than the display of language (Ellis, 2009, p.223). Unlike traditional classroom activities, the outcome is not the correct use of language but the successful completion of the task through the communication, negotiation and understanding of meanings (Ellis, 2009).

Willis’ (1996) task-based framework offers a practical guideline for implementing the TBL method in the classroom. A three-part sequence, the task-based lesson involves a pre-task phase, where the teacher may highlight important language, the task stage, during which students work together on the task, and the post-task phase in which there is a language focus, including analysis and practice. The language focus at the end of the process distinguishes TBLT from the long-favoured presentation, practice, production (PPP) approach, where students have a language focus prior to the communicative activities. Willis’ main criticism of PPP is that it may lead to overuse of the target form and demand learners to focus on too much before they are developmentally ready, resulting in stilted production, a decline in motivation and ultimately, failure to acquire the language successfully (Willis, 1996). Her task-based framework is more flexible, allowing teachers to decide which phase or component of the lesson to emphasise more, depending on the needs of the learners.

2.1 Strengths and weaknesses of TBLT

The greatest strength of TBLT, according to its advocates, is that it can lead to greater language acquisition by providing contexts in which learners can relate language to meanings and purposes. Language is used naturally, (Ellis, 2014) and the tasks can create optimum opportunities for input, interaction and output, all conducive to L2 development (Skehan, 1996).  A related advantage to this is the motivating effect the creation of an authentic context can have on students’ performance, as well as adding to their enjoyment of the learning experience (Le Gal & I- Chou, 201; Kim, Jung & Tracy-Ventura, 2017; Ruso, 2007). Another important benefit is the potential of tasks to promote student independence by placing them at the centre of their own learning, thus fostering their responsibility, as both language users as well as language learners. In performing meaning-oriented activities, students will be able to see their potential for communicating in real life situations, and through the process of cooperative activities, self-evaluation and decision making, develop their autonomy (Vieira, 2017).

Despite the benefits offered by TBLT, there have been several concerns brought forward by critics, some quite challenging and seemingly valid. Sheen, (2003) claims that in TBLT, there is no grammar syllabus. Instead, it assumes that students have a natural disposition to learn a language given maximum exposure, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support this. (Sheen, 1994). Furthermore, Sheen points out that there is insufficient focus on form since “treatment preferably takes the form of quick corrective feedback allowing for minimal interruption in communicative activity” (Sheen, 2003, p.225). It is true that in some versions of TBLT such as Longs’ (1996) there is no grammar syllabus. However, this is seen as advantageous by proponents of TBLT, as teaching discrete points of grammar is problematic, since it has been found learners do not learn language in a linear, incremental process (Long & Crookes, 1993). The heart of the language learning process, according to Ellis, is the fact that while the learner is primarily focused on meaning, they can simultaneously have their attention drawn to linguistic features as they arise within a context (2015). In Ellis’ view, all versions of TBLT allow for attention to grammar through focus on form at some stage in a task-based lesson Therefore, though grammar in itself may not occupy a central place in TBLT, it is certainly important (2009).

Arguing that TBLT ‘outlaws’ a grammar syllabus, Swan (2005) introduces an alternative approach to TBLT, a ‘task-supported approach’, which he believes combines task use with traditional pedagogy, is consistent with a weak version of CLT and possibly a more effective form of TBLT (Swan, 2005, as cited in Shafipoor et al. 2016). There are varying interpretations of the task supported approach, but generally, in task supported teaching, tasks are incorporated as part of the language-based syllabus to give additional communicative opportunities. Task- based curricula, on the other hand, also known as ‘strong TBLT’ are based purely on a sequence of tasks, with the syllabus and teaching process all revolving around the tasks themselves rather than language units.

Swan (2005) also criticized TBLT for the background role it encourages teachers to take, in a student-centered classroom that only requires the teacher to act merely as an interlocutor and manager, rather than a source of new information. Ellis, however, believes that all stages of a task-based lesson can be either a learner-centered or teacher-led and that Swan’s criticism ignores the potential of the pre and post task phase for teacher involvement (Ellis, 2009). Teachers occupy a key role in the TBLT classroom in selecting or creating tasks, preparing learners to carry them out, and in motivating, providing feedback and incorporating a focus on form in the meaning oriented work the students are doing (Van Den Branden, 2016).

Another prominent issue raised is that since task-based learning promotes meaning based activities and the use of authentic language, it may not be applicable in certain parts of the world where there is limited opportunity to use the L2 outside of the classroom (Butler, 2011). Swan (2005) felt that the success of TBLT is limited to “exposure rich” contexts (p.393), since it assumes the availability to a large amount of input as well as opportunities for output. In an attempt to solve this problem, researchers (Butler, 2011; Carless, 2004, 2007, 2012; McDonough, 2015; Kim, et al., 2017) have suggested moving from “adoption to adaptation” (Butler, 2011, p. 43), which means supporting a contextualized version of TBLT that may better suit the local needs and educational values in Asian countries. Ellis, on the other hand, suggests that TBLT may actually be ideally suited ‘to acquisition-poor’ contexts in its potential to create an alternative to the natural communicative environment within the classroom (Ellis, 2003, 2009).

While many general criticisms of TBLT have been well countered, there are still significant constraining factors in the use of TBLT in Asian countries, which remain unresolved. These difficulties will be discussed in the following sections in the context of China, where English has long been considered as one of the most important subjects in school curriculum. To understand the implementation difficulties, it is firstly necessary to provide some background into educational culture in Asia.

3. Introduction to TBLT to China

3.1. Educational culture in Asia

Educational practices in Asia are strongly rooted in “Confucian heritage culture” (Ryan, 2010), which generally includes the east Asian countries of China, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and Korea. Confucian thought holds great reverence for education, and views learning as a painstaking process of knowledge accumulation which requires considerable commitment, effort and self-determination. According to Confucianism, this undertaking is necessary to gain social mobility, self-respect and even perfectibility (Lee, 1996).  However, it is a mindset that does not place high value on knowledge for practical purposes such as communication and negotiation of meaning. In the classroom, this traditional line of thought has led to the general belief that textbooks are the main source of information and that the teachers’ role is to transmit knowledge to students in an authoritative manner. Classroom relations are hierarchical between student and teacher, with students expected to be receptive and classrooms teacher centered, using strategies including repetition, reviewing of material, memorization, and reproduction. Mental activity is more valued than verbal activity, and forms of mental engagement in the classroom, such as analysis, questioning, discriminating and reflection are believed to be the key to gaining success in knowledge acquisition (Hu, 2002).

Given the importance and value placed on these skills, teaching in China has generally utilized the grammar translation and audio-lingual methods within the presentation, practice and production model, which is based on a view of learning as a linear process of understanding, internalizing and activating language knowledge (Tan, 2016). The features of task-based learning, with its emphasis on real life situations to promote learning, communicative engagement in tasks rather than reliance on books to acquire knowledge, and teacher facilitated rather than teacher dominated classrooms, appear to both contrast and conflict with traditional Asian educational values.

 

3.2. New education Policy for schools in China

English has been highly valued as part of the curriculum in Chinese schools for decades, yet it is was only in the early 1990’s that the Ministry of Education decided to respond to a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of English instruction in China and expand its efforts and attention to reforming the field of ELT.  Unsurprisingly, a major factor in both this dissatisfaction and in the government’s decision to act was the increasing demand for English proficiency along with China’s socioeconomic development. It was becoming clear that the traditional grammar translation approach was problematic as it was producing learners who were able to achieve high scores on discrete-point grammar tests, yet unable to communicate fluently and accurately in communicative contexts (Hu, 2002). Similarly, audio-lingualism, though initially seen as more effective in its ability to promote communicative patterns, was soon discovered to be insufficient in helping students develop real communication skills. When communicative language teaching was first introduced, it was hoped that it would provide a successful alternative to these traditional, ineffective ways of teaching English. However, studies show that it failed to achieve any significant changes (Rao, 1996; Hu, 2002) due to the vast discrepancies between its principles and Confucian heritage educational values. In 2001, the Ministry of Education made another attempt at ELT innovation with the introduction of task-based language teaching, which was introduced in the new ‘top down’ curriculum (Hu, 2005). Believing that the old method of teaching “over-emphasizes grammar and vocabulary knowledge and neglects the development of students’ practical language competence”,  (Ministry of Education, 2002, as cited in Zhang, p.74), and that the practices of English education at the time could not meet the needs of  economic and social development, the Ministry of Education (MOE) released the new English language Curriculum Standards, which urged teachers to implement TBLT in order to improve student’s ability to use English through the use of contextualized and authentic language use during the engagement of real life tasks (Zhang, 2007). The reform aimed to promote a combination of constructivist and communicative task-based teaching, and to enable students to develop themselves as not only learners, but as members of society (Yan, 2012).

The new curriculum was an ambitious and innovative project which proposed to make drastic changes to the state of ELT in China. However, a national ‘top down’ curriculum change, such as TBLT in mainland China was not a straightforward undertaking, but an extremely complex interactive process involving several parties, whose involvement or lack of inevitably led to various interpretations, misunderstandings and reconstructions of the ministry’s original plan. (Zhang, 2005, 2007) Therefore, the result was a large gap between what was intended by the new curriculum and the extent to which it was carried out. The following section will discuss these misunderstandings, in addition to the problem of inadequate teacher training in TBLT and the effect of the prevalent examination culture, all of which have led to substantial difficulties in the implementation of TBLT in China.

 

 4.    Difficulties associated with implementing TBLT in China

             4.1. Misunderstanding of the method

TBLT was met with confusion in different parts of the world, but in China, a country with a very long held traditional approach to teaching, the misconceptions were made even greater by the conceptual uncertainties surrounding the concept of ‘task’ itself (Littlewood, 2007). When the new curriculum was introduced to secondary level schools in China, teachers were provided with guidelines in order to help them design appropriate tasks to develop students’ communicative skills. These guidelines included creating activities that “have clear and achievable aims and objectives” and that were “relevant to students’ life experiences and interests…. as true to life as possible.” It also stated that activities would require students “to develop their ability to use English to solve real problems” (Ministry of Education, 2003, as cited in Zheng and Borg, 2014, p.206). However, these guidelines neglected to define exactly what the new curriculum understood a ‘task’ to be, or how it may differ from other kinds of classroom activities. (Littlewood, 2004; Zheng & Borg, 2014; Zhang, 2007). Instead, teachers were given no choice but to interpret the meaning of ‘task’ for themselves, so tended to design tasks that involved the prior presentation of language, reflecting their pre-existing ideas of what a task should do. Yan, (2012) found evidence of this, with her classroom data showing that despite teachers’ positive attitude along with their seeming endorsement of the new curriculum reform and TBLT, in practice it was not being implemented. Instead, observations during her study, which took place in a secondary school in Hubei province, revealed that teacher’s classrooms continued to be teacher centered, with emphasis on the textbook and little communicative practice.

Furthermore, Zhang (2007), points out that in the English Language Curriculum Standards (ELCS), which was written in Chinese, the term ‘tasks’ is used in a rather ambiguous manner. The documents present the term ‘tasks’ translated as ‘renwu,’ and although the word appears ten times throughout the text to mean tasks, the other ten times it is used to refer to assignments or objectives. One teacher, in a study also conducted by Zhang (2005), interpreted TBLT as setting targets, including the teaching of grammar and vocabulary, and therefore believed that she used TBLT in all of her lessons by setting linguistic objectives. Hu, (2013), found that many teachers did not feel they understood the method, and adopted an attitude of passive acceptance, believing that if they used the textbook designed for TBLT, then they had done their job sufficiently. Carless (2004) also noted that teachers did not always have a clear idea of what a ‘task’ is. He found that the tasks used by primary school teachers in Hong Kong often ended up as ‘language practice’ rather than affording opportunities for genuine communication. Further evidence is found in Tong, Adamson and Che’s (2000) observations, which revealed that activities in a task-based classroom were found to be lacking in communication, and instead could be characterized as something between exercises and tasks, which placed structured linguistic practice within a context.

 

4.2. Assessment issues

It is generally the case in educational situations that where important certification is at stake, assessment is what most concerns the thoughts and the study behaviors of students. This is particularly true in China given its long history of examinations (Carless, 2012). Therefore, the most significant constraint to TBLT at the societal institutional level is the high stake, competitive grammar-oriented college examination system (Butler, 2011). While both teachers and students have expressed levels of interest and enthusiasm for TBLT and a growing awareness of the importance of communicative competence, the fact remains that examinations continue dominate to the education system and that classroom time leaves limited room for task-based activities. As one teacher explained “I am responsible for my students’ college entrance examination, so I have to teach each unit carefully and thoroughly” (Zheng and Borg, 2013, p.212). Furthermore, since discrete point grammar and factual knowledge still dominate the content of these examinations, teachers tend to focus on language rather than communicative elements in order to help their students to succeed (Rao, 2002).  As Hu, (2004) states, “When a pedagogical approach is not closely tied up, or is even in potential clash, with the goals of the curriculum and syllabus that must be followed, there is no compelling reason for teachers to adopt it” (p.52).  Deng and Carless (2010) found in their case study to examine the effect of teacher beliefs on the use of TBLT and examinations, that out of four teachers, three felt discouraged from carrying out tasks because they felt examination preparation was more important. However, the fourth teacher perceived that tasks would help her students learn best, and that this would adequately prepare them for any test which they took (Deng & Carless, 2010). This perhaps indicates that if TBLT could be made somewhat relevant to examination content, teachers’ perceptions may be altered, and TBLT could well be adopted more often and more readily by teachers.

A natural response to the issue of assessment in TBLT may be to propose that, since the government has specified communicative competence through TBLT as a curriculum requirement, assessment should be changed to reflect this. However, this may be problematic as it is not clear how the criteria would be determined, whether emphasis would be on task completion or language performance, or how to guarantee performance assessment with validity and reliability (Butler, 2011). Ji (2017) suggests that the solution lies in formal teacher training in how to assess students task performance in terms of fluency, accuracy and complexity. In designing an assessment system based on these three elements, communicative competence could serve as the fundamental basis for teaching, while continuing to lay some emphasis on grammar structures. This system would still be in accordance with TBLT rationale which is that attention should be drawn to form within a meaningful context (Long & Crookes, 1992).

However, the obsession with examinations in China extends beyond the major examinations, and also permeates the everyday classroom, where tests are common and frequent, and the concern with scores is evident in the students in a general sense.  High scores not only increase students’ likelihood of future success, but also have personal significance for them in increasing their credibility by reflecting their knowledge and ability. This can be illustrated in Lixin’s (2011) study of communicative language teaching practices in a university in China, where students were asked to participate in an oral presentation and discussion activity. Although they had previously displayed the ability to engage actively in a free talk activity, when they were informed that the presentation, but not the discussion activity, would count towards their end of semester course grade, they neglected the latter and were only concerned about the score they would receive for the presentation. This shows that not only are structural changes necessary to make examinations cohere more with TBLT, but the mindset of students and teachers towards examinations as the only mark of achievement also needs to change, which will undoubtedly be a gradual and lengthy process.

 

4.3. Inadequate teacher training in TBLT methodology in China

Following the introduction of TBLT in the new curriculum, training was given to certain nominated teachers nationwide in the form of two and three-week workshops where they were introduced to the goals, new textbooks, methodology and classroom teaching methods of TBLT. Participants were then expected to return to their provinces and deliver in-house workshops to colleagues from local districts during the summer break. Monthly research activities were also organized, and seminars given by local experts in schools, along with demonstration lessons and video materials about teaching the new textbook. However, as these were once only mass lecture sessions without any follow up, it is unlikely that they were sufficient. Zhang (2007) also found that in-service programmes, which were sporadically implemented and mainly theory based, gave teachers no opportunity to practice or gain the confidence and understanding to relate the training to their daily practice. Furthermore, they were organized and delivered by local teacher trainers who had limited understanding of TBLT themselves. In Liu and Xiong’s (2016) study on teachers’ attitudes towards TBLT, findings showed that the majority of teachers had a positive attitude towards the approach. However, their research also revealed that none of the participants had any training in TBLT, that there was limited opportunity for teachers to develop their teaching skills and that the only accessible way for teachers to develop this was by self-learning. Teachers were left with instructions to use methods they were not familiar with without any institutional support. Because implementing TBLT requires not only a high level of understanding task-based instruction and evaluation of task performance, this lack of training has made it intimidating and challenging for teachers to implement TBLT and led to its eventual avoidance among many. In other instances, though training was thorough and institutional support in the form of materials has been available, teachers were still not inclined to fully adopt TBLT, or feel confident enough to adapt it to their settings. Chen and Wright’s (2017) study based in a high school which had relatively longer experience with the use of TBLT in China, nevertheless found that participants “felt constrained” (p.525) in using TBLT, despite the extensive training in the first year, and believed that TBLT was not always locally appropriate.

Carless and Deng (2009), in their observations of one teacher over the course of a year, found that lessons were form focused and only “superficially shared some similarities with TBLT”, (Deng and Carless, 2009, p.128). The teacher, on the other hand, who was chosen as an innovative and likely candidate to have some success with TBLT, showed satisfaction with some of the activities. She believed that her activities were communicative, even when they did not meet the researchers’ criteria for communicative language practice. This implies that not only was the teacher’s understanding of TBLT somewhat misinformed, but that there were other factors and priorities guiding her choices of activities and her perceptions of what constituted a successful lesson. This may suggest that it is not only the teachers who need to adapt to the new method, but that the method may have to be adapted to their contexts.

 5.    The Way forward

Carless, (2007) called for the introduction and development of a “situated task-based approach” (p.605) whereby the values, examination demands, and teachers’ beliefs and practices interact best with the principles of TBLT. Also termed a “localized approach” (Butler, 2011, p.49), it would involve some compromise on the part of the ‘strong’ version of TBLT in considering the contextual limitations in a Chinese EFL setting. The potential for this approach to work  may be supported by earlier research findings based in Chinese classrooms (Zhang, 2005; Zheng & Borg, 2014), where it was often found that the teachers were naturally adopting their own ‘weaker’ form of TBLT, rather than a ‘pure’ TBLT based method, despite the instructions of the new curriculum and the new books they had been given. Bygate (2016) also suggested another approach to TBLT, the ‘task referenced’ approach, similarly to the UK key stage curriculum. In this approach the tasks are used to ascertain the target abilities students are supposed to develop by the end of the course, assuming that there will be a washback effect on teaching (Bygate, 2016). Although, this approach does not yet have a framework for how this will take place, it may be a possibility for the Chinese classroom, since it has some relation to assessment, the target abilities defined will be relevant to the context of the students, and it could have a grammar focus, more or less, as the teacher would see fit.

Regarding assessment, requirements need to be reevaluated in order for it to incorporate communicative performance and task achievement, as well as language knowledge and reading. Therefore, a curriculum based on communicative competence within the local context needs to be developed. Progression in this area has been made in Hong Kong in its implementation of a task-based, in-class oral assessment component in the school-based assessment (SBA). Students are required to take part in group interactions and discussions which aim to continuously assess student’s oral development, with the teachers free to adjust the tasks according to learner needs. There have been some difficulties identified, such as students pre-planning or rehearsing speeches for the discussion, leading to them becoming mechanical and inauthentic, but this is certainly a positive development in terms of assessment and TBLT (Carless, 2012). In addition, the Ministry in China has recently announced the development of a new English proficiency examination, expected to be introduced by 2020. In an attempt to build a more unified and modern examination equivalent to other international testing systems, the test will include a “pragmatic competence” scale, which encourages students to develop practical language and communication skills (Wang, 2016). It is predicted that schools and universities concerned will endeavour to relate their curricula, textbooks, approaches, and examinations to the reference levels (Liu, 2017). The outcome of the new system remains to be seen, but this may prove to be an encouraging development for TBLT, with educators and students seeking ways to improve pragmatic language skills.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to gain a full understanding of the new curriculum innovation, learn new approaches to presenting the content, and new means of interacting with students. Therefore, teacher training needs to be systematic, continuous and practical in order for teachers to develop their methods and update their knowledge concerning the implementation and assessment of TBLT. It is vital for teachers to have the opportunity to develop their confidence, as well as their positive beliefs and trust in TBLT, in order for it to be implemented effectively and on a long-term basis.

 

6. Conclusion

China is an example of a context which places high significance on English language education, yet little opportunity for its use outside the classroom, since it is mainly studied for exams or work requirements. In addition, it has been seen that there is a mismatch between what the government wants and the reality of what is happening inside the classroom. Additional hindrances also exist for TBLT in Chinese classrooms, including large class size, lack of available materials and excessive use of the L1 during task-based activities, which are not possible to discuss within the scope of this paper. Despite the difficulties, TBLT has generated enthusiasm and interest from teachers and positive reactions from students, which indicates that it still has potential to work within the Chinese educational setting. Furthermore, it is still currently necessary for EFL in China, as it was again put forward by the Ministry in the most recently revised English curriculum (Shaoqin & Baoshu, 2011). If TBLT is to be successful, it will necessitate the greater involvement and commitment of all stakeholders, including the higher levels of management, policy makers and curriculum developers. In addition, there is a need for further research on contextual adaptations to TBLT, more effort to integrate examinations and task-based learning goals, and a search for appropriate forms of teacher education and support. Finally, both teachers and students need to reflect and reassess their personal beliefs and attitudes towards learning and assessment, since this will influence their practice, behaviours and ultimately determine what will be carried forward in the development of language teaching in China.

 

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