Task Based Language Teaching and the Manitoba Ritz cracker

Language Teaching

A mother in Manitoba sent her children to pre-school with a warm lunch of carrots, potatoes, and meatballs. As reported in this newspaper article, the pre-school fined the mother $10 for not having included any grain in the lunch. The pre-school supplemented this lack of grain with Ritz crackers. The teachers at the pre-school were acting based on their understanding of the Canada Food Guide.

This reminds me of my dealings with the Canadian Immigration Service. I was asking them to make LingQ available as an option for immigrants who are learning Canada’s official languages. They refused and explained to me that all government financed language instruction has to conform to Task Based Language Teaching methods. Both are examples of how bureaucratic decision-making takes away choice from individual citizens.

Even if the bureaucratic decisions were better, I still believe individuals should be allowed to make their own choices. But in both cases the bureaucratic recommendations are quite unsatisfactory in my opinion.

Ritz crackers are highly processed foods that I would never feed to my children or grandchildren. Many of the recommended food choices in the Canada Food Guide are arbitrary and inappropriate.

Task Based Language Teaching is nothing more than a new language teaching fad. I have linked to the Wikipedia article explaining what is meant by this term. It is well worth reading. It is interesting that when you search Google for “task based language” there are far more pages with “task based language teaching” than “task based language learning”. The reason is that this technique is more about how teachers can control students in the classroom, rather than how language learners can learn.

Here are some excerpts:

“According to N. S. Prabhu, there are three main categories of task; information-gap, reasoning-gap, and opinion-gap.[7]

Information-gap activity, which involves a transfer of given information from one person to another – or from one form to another, or from one place to another – generally calling for the decoding or encoding of information from or into language. One example is pair work in which each member of the pair has a part of the total information (for example an incomplete picture) and attempts to convey it verbally to the other. Another example is completing a tabular representation with information available in a given piece of text. The activity often involves selection of relevant information as well, and learners may have to meet criteria of completeness and correctness in making the transfer.

Reasoning gap Reasoning-gap activity, which involves deriving some new information from given information through processes of inference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns. One example is working out a teacher’s timetable on the basis of given class timetables. Another is deciding what course of action is best (for example cheapest or quickest) for a given purpose and within given constraints. The activity necessarily involves comprehending and conveying information, as in information-gap activity, but the information to be conveyed is not identical with that initially comprehended. There is a piece of reasoning which connects the two.

Opinion gap Opinion-gap activity, which involves identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation. One example is story completion; another is taking part in the discussion of a social issue. The activity may involve using factual information and formulating arguments to justify one’s opinion, but there is no objective procedure for demonstrating outcomes as right or wrong, and no reason to expect the same outcome from different individuals or on different occasions.[7]

I am totally opposed to this kind of instruction. I do not want to sit around with other learners and have teachers prescribe for me what I am supposed to pretend that I am talking about. I prefer meaningful listening, meaningful reading, and meaningful interaction with native speakers. All of this can be achieved via the Internet and doesn’t require me to attend the classroom where I am fed Ritz crackers or tasks, at the whim of a teacher.


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4 comments on “Task Based Language Teaching and the Manitoba Ritz cracker

Andy R

Often, schools require a certain number of years of foreign language formal education (or the option of testing out of it if a student has already acquired another language somehow). As long as this is the case, there are limited options. Task-based methods are an attempt to move away from the one-to-many model of one teacher and many students to more one-on-one and small group practice where students have more time to speak the language. Of course, you brought up once that students are forced to speak too soon before they’re ready. Nonetheless, for better or worse, I believe that task-based instruction will remain permanently in classroom settings as at least part of the repertoire of methods available to a teacher. I don’t think it’s a good enough approach used by itself. It might be more appropriate to have, for example, content-based instruction which happens to include occasional task-based activities for variety. Personally, I found it difficult (when I taught English as a Foreign Language overseas) to create task-based conversation activities, but my students seemed to enjoy at least some of them. I wouldn’t rely on those activities exclusively, though. I also engaged in games and conversations with the whole classroom, and sometimes we split into pairs or small groups for open discussion on a topic–depending on the level of the students.

    I still believe that most language learning takes place away from the classroom. What happens in the classroom is less important, except that the classroom should stimulate the learner to go out and learn the language.

Emilio T

You have done a great job developing and marketing a product that works great for you but is rooted in little, if any, scholarly research on second language acquisition. It’s funny you label TBI a fad because your website, product, and testimonials remind me of all the diet fads I see that work great for a few people, but at the bottom you always see the fine print: “results not typical.” I was looking for a CV or other evidence of scholarly research to back your claims, particularly since you label yourself a “linguist”, but unsurprisingly I found nothing of the such. TBI allows meaningful, contextualized input to reach the LAD and has been proven to particularly effective at navigating the complex web of affective factors that can block L2 acquisition. It allows students who aren’t particularly motivated to learn the language to get something meaningful out of language instruction.

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