Abstract The use of tasks has become increasingly popular in primary school English-as-a-foreign-language programmes. However, it remains unclear how appropriate the tasks introduced in textbooks are for young learners given their cognitive and linguistic developmental needs. To explore this issue, we analysed activities appearing in select government-approved textbooks (for grades 3–6) and teacher resource books in China and South Korea where task-based language teaching is being implemented by policy. We found that most activities would be classified as non-tasks according to the conceptualization of tasks in the field, but also that there were challenges in making such judgements due to some vagueness in these conceptualizations. Moreover, the tasks in the textbooks were differentiated across grade levels mainly through the manipulation of linguistic elements, but not of cognitive demands, resulting in fewer opportunities for meaningful target language use needed to stimulate children’s language development. We offer suggestions for task design and curriculum development. Introduction As a means to promote communicative language teaching, tasks have gained increasing attention in primary school English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) programmes (García Mayo 2017). However, in some regions, such as East Asia, despite strong policy recommendations or requirements to use tasks in instruction, it has been reported that activities introduced in young learners’ EFL classrooms are not communicative and that teachers often do not perceive tasks as being effective (e.g. Deng and Carless 2010). Assuming that textbooks play a significant role in teacher practices, it is worth examining how tasks are introduced in textbooks and how their implementation is suggested in teachers’ manuals. To date, there has been a lack of systematic analyses on textbooks for young EFL learners, and it remains unclear how ‘appropriate’ the tasks in textbooks are in light of young learners’ cognitive and linguistic developmental needs. To address this issue, we analysed ‘tasks’ that appeared in textbooks and teachers’ manuals from selected regions in East Asia. We focused on government-approved textbooks for 3rd to 6th grade students (ages 8–12) in China and South Korea where task-based language teaching (TBLT) is implemented by policy. More specifically, we investigated the following questions: To what extent did tasks appear in primary school EFL textbooks in selected East Asian regions (as opposed to non-communicative activities or exercises)? What are the characteristics of the tasks that appeared in the textbooks in terms of their cognitive demands? Are there any differences across grade levels? Studies on tasks have largely been conducted with adolescent and adult learners, and thus our knowledge on how best to design tasks for young novice learners still remains limited (Butler 2011). In light of this situation, our exploratory case study on tasks in selected textbooks in East Asian regions may provide valuable information on task design for young learners and ultimately assist teachers to implement communicative tasks in a wide variety of contexts beyond East Asia. Criteria for tasks There has been some variation in the literature when it comes to defining a task (Willis 1996; Ellis 2003; Littlewood 2004, 2007; Long 2014). Addressing this variation, Ellis (2003: 9) noted ‘a need for a generalized definition … that can serve to identify the essential commonalities in tasks’. Thus in this paper, we adopted Ellis’s (2003) criteria to determine whether an activity was a task or non-task, as his definition synthesizes discussions by previous scholars. In his framework, the following features are identified as key components for a task: A task: ‘is a workplan’; ‘involves a primary focus on meaning’; has ‘participants choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete [it]’; ‘involves real-world processes of language use’; ‘can involve any of the four language skills’; ‘engages cognitive processes’; ‘has a clearly defined communicative outcome’. (Ellis 2003: 9–10) While our paper mainly draws on these characteristics of tasks, during the process of our analysis we also encountered several challenges in applying the framework. Our challenges largely stemmed from the vagueness in the conceptualization of tasks in the field of ELT/applied linguistics, which we believe is worth addressing. Thus, here we describe and present our decision on two issues that we faced while analysing ‘tasks’ in the textbooks: (1) choice vs. use of resources in input-based tasks, and (2) meaning as semantic vs. pragmatic. First, we had some difficulty in assessing tasks that involve only receptive skills. Ellis (2003) posited that a task could ‘involve any of the four language skills’ (see point 5, above) and acknowledged a type of task that does not require learners to produce the target language: input-based tasks. Importantly, input-based tasks still have to meet all the criteria Ellis lists. When we attempted to judge if activities that solely involve listening and/or reading were input-based tasks, the third criterion above (‘participants choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete [it]’) often became an issue. Ellis’s further explanation of this criterion states that a task ‘does not specify what language the task participants should use but rather allows them to choose the language needed to achieve the outcome of the task’ (Ellis 2003: 9, emphasis added). In this explanation, there seems to be a difference between merely ‘using’ and ‘choosing’ the language; a learner can still use his/her linguistic resources without having the freedom to choose what to use. However, it is not entirely clear what is meant by choosing the language to use during reading and listening. For example, in judging a case where learners must display understanding by identifying from a list of multiple-choice options, we cannot clearly tell whether the activity allows learners to choose their own resources or not. Later, Ellis and Shintani (2014: 139) explained that ‘learners need to use both their linguistic and their non-linguistics resources (i.e., context and world knowledge) to process the input’, and did not seem to make a solid distinction between ‘using’ and ‘choosing’ the language. They described input-based tasks as ‘one-way tasks where the teacher is in charge of the information to be communicated but the learners have the opportunity to negotiate for meaning when they need to’ (ibid.: 139). Detecting such an opportunity turned out to be difficult when simply looking at the designs of the textbook activities. Therefore, in our analysis, we also adopted the term input-based tasks, but did not make a judgement on the third criterion Ellis (2003) lists (i.e. whether the input-based tasks allowed learners to choose their resources; see above). Our second challenge in judging tasks was related to the conceptualization of ‘meaning’ in the second criterion above. Meaning can be both semantic and pragmatic. According to Ellis and Shintani, semantic meaning refers to ‘the specific lexical and grammatical meanings encoded by words and grammatical structures’, whereas pragmatic meaning refers to ‘the functional meanings that arise when language is used to describe, request, apologize, and so on’ (Ellis and Shintani 2014: 136). They claimed that tasks should require both semantic and pragmatic meaning. However, it seems that this requirement is not strictly kept in TBLT research, perhaps because the distinction between semantic and pragmatic meaning is not always straightforward. One example of this ambiguity can be observed in a listening bingo game used as a task by Shintani (2012). In this activity, the teacher and children each had a set of cards with objects on them. After the children had assembled the cards in a 3-by-3 formation, the teacher chose one of the cards and named the object on it. The children listened to the teacher, and if they had the corresponding card, they turned their card face down. Although we found that this type of game appeared frequently in the textbooks that we examined, it is questionable whether such an activity requires children to process pragmatic meaning. Therefore, in our analysis below, we classified activities as tasks only when they clearly focus on both semantic and pragmatic meaning. Once we judged if an activity was a task or not, for those we determined as tasks, we further examined the cognitive demands required of learners. As Ellis (2003: 7) notes, ‘one of the limitations of both SLA research and language pedagogy is that insufficient attention has been paid to the cognitive dimension of tasks’. Robinson’s widely cited Complexity Hypothesis (Robinson 2001) also suggests that tasks should be sequenced according to the degree of cognitive complexity. Thus, we drew from Robinson (2001) and Robinson and Gilabert (2007) when conducting our analysis. In these frameworks, cognitive factors are examined under the term task complexity, and these factors are further categorized as either resource-directing or resource-depleting. Of these, we selected relevant features among resource-directing factors which require the learner to make use of their cognitive or conceptual resources: here-and-now (coded as there-and-then), reasoning demand, and perspective-taking. (Another feature under resource-directing factors, few elements, was not included because it was difficult to define ‘elements’ in a consistent fashion across tasks in the textbooks.) Our textbook study We analysed two textbook series from South Korea and four series from China. In Korea, English is currently taught from the 3rd grade, and the nationwide curriculum adopts a Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach with a specific emphasis on using tasks as a pedagogical technique. Among the different textbooks approved by the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, we chose two widely used textbook series for our analyses (referred to as Korea-1 and Korea-2 hereinafter). In China, the national policy also regulates that English be taught starting from the 3rd grade, but local governments are allowed to introduce English from an earlier grade level if resources are available. We chose the most widely used series from three major cities: Beijing (two series, referred to as Beijing-1 and Beijing-2), Shanghai (one series) and Guangzhou (one series). In most schools in Beijing and Shanghai, English is taught from the 1st grade, whereas it is taught from the 3rd grade in Guangzhou. In terms of policy, all three cities adopt TBLT.1 For each series, we obtained textbooks from the 3rd to 6th grade levels. Shanghai, where we obtained textbooks from the 3rd to 5th grade levels, was an exception as primary school education ends at the 5th grade level there. Because the textbooks alone usually do not provide sufficient information on how activities should be implemented, we also obtained teachers’ manuals for the corresponding grade levels which contain detailed instructions regarding the activity objectives, content, and procedures. For each textbook, two research assistants worked on coding. Prior to the actual coding process, the research assistants attended a training session held by one of the authors. They were then asked to code a select number of activities individually for practice. After this, they were paired up with one of the authors and another coder to identify and discuss any discrepancies. The discussions were repeated until the coders reached 100 per cent agreement. After this process, the research assistants proceeded with the actual coding. Findings Our major findings were as follows: (1) tasks constituted only a small proportion of the total number of activities within the textbooks; (2) the tasks in the textbooks were differentiated across grade levels mainly through manipulation of linguistic elements (different linguistic features were introduced), but not through the cognitive demands required of learners. Tasks were small in proportion overall Figures 1 and 2 indicate the raw frequencies of tasks, input-based tasks, and non-tasks, among all the activities that appeared in the textbooks (Figure 1 for South Korea, Figure 2 for China). It should be noted that tasks here refer to activities that involve some form of production and meet all the criteria identified by Ellis (2003) discussed above. Input-based tasks are tasks that do not require leaners to produce language. As mentioned, since we did not make a distinction between ‘choosing’ and ‘using’ linguistic resources in the third criterion, our input-based tasks possibly contain some activities that may not meet this criterion. All the other activities in the textbooks were classified as non-tasks. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks, input-based tasks, and non-tasks (Korean textbooks) Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks, input-based tasks, and non-tasks (Korean textbooks) Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks, input-based tasks, and non-tasks (Chinese textbooks) Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks, input-based tasks, and non-tasks (Chinese textbooks) While there were some variations across textbook series (e.g. Shanghai textbooks had much higher numbers for activities), tasks were small as a proportion of the number of activities overall. Even if input-based tasks are counted into the total number of tasks, this combined proportion of ‘tasks’ is relatively small; many activities that appeared in the textbooks were still classified as non-tasks. When tasks did appear, they overwhelmingly appeared as part of some sort of presentation–practice–production (PPP) sequence. To give one example from the 4th grade Beijing-1 textbook, children are first presented with some sample ‘thank you’ notes addressed to a father from his child (presentation). After this, a series of activities are introduced where children can practice the target vocabulary and expressions (practice). As part of the production phase, children are asked to write a card to their own fathers and to orally present them in class. No systematic consideration for cognitive demands Further analyses on cognitive demands were conducted on activities that were identified as tasks. Figures 3–8 show the results. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of here-and-now and there-and-then (Korean textbooks) Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of here-and-now and there-and-then (Korean textbooks) Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of here-and-now and there-and-then (Chinese textbooks) Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of here-and-now and there-and-then (Chinese textbooks) First, we examined if the tasks required reference to here-and-now or there-and-then events. Robinson and Gilabert (2007: 165) defined here-and-now as ‘events happening now, in a mutually shared context’ and there-and-then as ‘events that occurred in the past, elsewhere’. As Figures 3 and 4 indicate, four of the textbooks that we examined (Korea-1, Korea-2, Beijing-1, and Guangzhou) had relatively smaller proportions of tasks involving there-and-then, whereas the remaining two textbooks (Beijing-2 and Shanghai) had relatively larger proportions of such tasks. This may be because the tasks involving there-and-then require a certain level of linguistic knowledge, such as knowledge of past tense. Until appropriate linguistic devices were introduced, here-and-now tasks appeared dominant. The relatively larger proportions of there-and-then tasks in Beijing-2 and the Shanghai textbooks may in part be related to the fact that English had been taught from the 1st grade level in those cities. The children who used these textbooks may have been expected to have enough linguistic knowledge to engage in there-and-then tasks. Lower rates of there-and-then tasks in Beijing-1, however, did not seem to be related to expected prior linguistic knowledge. Next, we examined if tasks required children to engage in causal, intentional, or spatial reasoning as opposed to simply asking them to transmit information. Causal reasoning refers to ‘reasoning about causal events and relationships between them’, and intentional reasoning refers to ‘reasoning about other people [sic] intentions, beliefs and desires and relationships between them’ (Robinson and Gilabert 2007: 165). Examples of tasks that demand causal and intentional reasoning include looking at a sequence of pictures and coming up with the next event and looking at a picture and coming up with a dialogue for the characters, respectively. Spatial reasoning meanwhile requires ‘reference to spatial location, where easily identifiable and mutually known landmarks can be used’ (ibid.). In one task, for example, students were asked to create their own maps and then help their partner recreate the same map. One student would give directions based on their own map while the other tried to construct the same map based on these directions. Such a task requires students to engage in spatial reasoning. Although Robinson and Gilabert (2007) distinguished between causal, intentional, and spatial reasoning, we combined these different types of reasoning as actual cases in the textbooks were too few to distinguish. As Figures 5 and 6 show, while there was some variability across textbooks, tasks which demanded some sort of reasoning were rather low in frequency (in Chinese textbooks in particular). More importantly, the proportion does not necessarily increase by grade level, but changes unsystematically. Reasoning demands does not seem to be sufficiently considered when designing tasks. Figure 5 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require reasoning (Korean textbooks) Figure 5 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require reasoning (Korean textbooks) Figure 6 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require reasoning (Chinese textbooks) Figure 6 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require reasoning (Chinese textbooks) Finally, we examined perspective-taking in tasks. Perspective-taking is defined as ‘whether the task requires the speaker/listener to take just one first-person perspective on an event, or multiple second, and third person perspectives’ (Robinson and Gilabert 2007: 165). A common type of task frequently found in the Korean textbooks was one that asked children to look at a picture of two characters and create and present a dialogue in pairs. This involves perspective-taking because children have to interpret the picture from the perspective of the characters. As with reasoning demand, the requirement of perspective-taking was infrequent (in Chinese textbooks in particular) and it did not increase as the children progressed through grade levels (see Figures 7 and 8). Figure 7 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require perspective-taking (Korean textbooks) Figure 7 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require perspective-taking (Korean textbooks) Figure 8 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require perspective-taking (Chinese textbooks) Figure 8 View largeDownload slide Frequencies of tasks that require perspective-taking (Chinese textbooks) Discussion and implications Our analyses revealed that non-tasks were predominant in government-approved textbooks for young EFL learners in select East Asian regions, despite policies requiring or strongly recommending TBLT. When tasks were introduced, many of them appeared as part of a PPP sequence. We also found that tasks were differentiated across grade levels mainly through the introduction of different linguistic elements, but not through a change in cognitive demands. This may lead to fewer opportunities for the meaningful target language use needed to stimulate children’s language development. Of course, our analysis was limited in that we only focused on task designs; we did not observe how teachers actually implement ‘tasks’ in the classroom. Our analysis was also based on a limited number of textbooks and only considered a few select variables to examine cognitive demands. Indeed, TBLT researchers have not yet established a reliable framework to analyse the cognitive demands of tasks for curriculum and materials developers (Long 2016). A framework developed and validated based on empirical data is necessary in order to better inform curriculum and materials development. How to design, sequence, and implement tasks in the classroom is a complicated matter. As Long (2016) suggested, there is no one-size-fits-all pedagogic approach to tasks, and pedagogical decisions have to be made based on various individual learner factors (e.g. learners’ age, goals of learning, first- and second-language literacy levels) and target linguistic features, as well as empirical evidence from second-language acquisition research. Teachers play a critical role in this decision process. It is a matter of debate as to whether or not tasks can be combined with traditional approaches such as PPP, but it is important to keep in mind that ‘tasks’ as a part of PPP are in danger of being easily turned into traditional grammar exercises. For example, the task of writing a thank-you note to a father, the example from a Chinese textbook mentioned above, can become a non-task if the teacher requires learners to use only the practised target linguistic forms. At the same time, we also noticed that some of the non-tasks could be transformed into tasks if the teacher created more opportunities for children to meaningfully use the targeted linguistic features (along with other language forms). This suggests the importance of providing teachers with sufficient opportunities to better understand tasks. Although our study focused on the cognitive dimensions that need to be considered when developing and sequencing tasks, it is perhaps equally important to consider the interactive and affective dimensions of tasks, since young learners are still in the process of social and affective development. Interactive dimensions include: solution type (e.g. learners need to agree on one solution [convergent] or multiple solutions are acceptable [divergent]), information flow (one-way vs. two-way), participation format (e.g. individual, pair, or group participation), and so forth. We still have a limited understanding of how young learners interact during tasks that have different interactive formats; we should not simply assume that children will interact during tasks in the way intended by task designers or teachers. Additionally, in terms of affective dimensions, there is little research on task elements that may aid young learners’ task performance by attending to their affective needs. Incorporating motivation-raising factors such as fantasy/imagination and kinaesthetic elements may be critically important in order to maintain young learners’ attention and intrinsic motivation during tasks; however, more research is needed. Finally, to what extent and how linguistic and non-linguistic scaffolding should be incorporated as part of task design is another question that warrants further investigation. More comprehensive approaches to analyses that consider a variety of dimensions in addition to cognitive demands will be important for curriculum and materials development for young EFL learners. Note Footnotes 1 Researchers have different views towards TBLT as well as tasks. For those who make a distinction between task-based language teaching and task-supported language teaching, the former refers to teaching based on a syllabus consisting of unfocused tasks only, whereas the latter refers to teaching that uses tasks as part of a structural syllabus (e.g. using tasks as part of the traditional presentation–practice–production [PPP] sequence) (Ellis 2003). The policies in Korea and China, however, do not distinguish between TBLT and task-supported language teaching. The authors Yuko Goto Butler is an Associate Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Director of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program at Penn. Her research interests include language assessment and second- and foreign-language learning among children. Katherine Kang is a Ph.D. student in the Educational Linguistics Division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Her research interests lie in second-language acquisition and pedagogy, particularly in the area of vocabulary. Heejin Kim is a doctoral candidate enrolled in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her main research interests include second-language acquisition particularly in grammar and syntax, and young second-language learners’ interlanguage in EFL contexts. Yeting Liu is a doctoral candidate in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include language policy and planning, second-language acquisition, and teacher education. References Butler, Y. G. 2011. ‘ The implementation of communicative and task-based language teaching in the Asia-Pacific region’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 31: 36– 57. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Deng, C. and D. Carless. 2010. ‘ Examining preparation or effective teaching: Conflicting priorities in the implementation of a pedagogic innovation’. Language Assessment Quarterly 7/ 4: 285– 302. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ellis, R. 2003. Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ellis, R., and N. Shintani. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research . London: Routledge. García Mayo, M. P. (ed.). 2017. Learning Foreign Language in Primary School: Research Insights . Bristol: Multilingual Matters. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Littlewood, W. 2004. ‘ The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions’. ELT Journal 58/ 4: 319– 26. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Littlewood, W. 2007. ‘ Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms’. Language Teaching 40: 243– 49. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Long, M. 2014. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. Long, M. 2016. ‘ In defense of tasks and TBLT: nonissues and real issues’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 36: 5– 133. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Robinson, P. 2001. ‘Task complexity, cognitive resources, and syllabus design: A triadic framework for examining task influences on SLA’ in P. Robinson (ed.). Cognition and Second Language Instruction . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Robinson, P. and R. Gilabert. 2007. ‘ Task complexity, the Cognition Hypothesis and second language learning and performance’. IRAL 45: 161– 76. Shintani, N. 2012. ‘ Input-based tasks and the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar: a process-product study.’ Language Teaching Research 16/ 2: 253– 79. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Willis, J. 1996. A Framework for Task-Based Learning . London: Longman. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 17, 2018
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