At the end of September, I attended the Shanghai Center for Research in English Language Education (SCRELE) Conference on Language Teaching for Young Learners.
The conference started with a day of workshops for local teachers and students. The morning session I attended was ran by Annamaria Pinter from the University of Warwick, UK. Her session was called ‘Listening to Children’s Voices’ and she spoke about the importance of engaging children in their learning, motivating them and giving them ownership of their studies, and the different ways in which teachers might do this. We participated in several classroom activities, such as questioning Annamaria about the items in her handbag and seeing how many English words we could make out of the letters in the word ‘chocolate’. I was beaten in this task by the Swedish attendee next to me!
During the afternoon session, I attended Jonathan Newton’s workshop on creativity in classroom language teaching. This was also an interactive session during which we discussed the different ways in which teachers can engage learners. This included thinking up unusual ways in which teachers might start a class or do the unexpected. I left the session enthused and inspired with all sorts of ideas…only to remember that I am not a teacher and won’t be putting these ideas into practice!
Then, as the pouring rain began, so did the main conference. But we were not concerned, as we were told that in China rain at the start of an event is a good omen as it means that the event will run as smoothly as the rain! And that was true…the conference did run smoothly and was an interesting few days, filled full of talks on the topic of teaching languages to young learners. The conference organisers had invited an impressive array of keynote speakers: Rod Ellis, Maria Pilar Garcia Mayo, Anna-Maria Pinter, Xiaotang Cheng, Yafu Gong and Jonathan Newton, as well as two colloquia organised by Janet Enever and Yuko Goto Butler, and several sessions of papers.
During my time in Shanghai I was also able to squeeze in lunch with my long-standing contact, Huachu Liu and his colleague Angel, of the Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. We have worked together with SFLEP over many years to enable some of our books to be available in local editions (at local prices) for Chinese readers. It was great to finally see where they are based and to enjoy chatting over a delicious lunch of local specialties.
All in all, it was a great trip to Shanghai, despite the pouring rain!
My interest in task-based language teaching has two sources. One is my own experience many years ago of teaching English in a rural secondary school in Zambia. The other is my ongoing research into second language acquisition.
As a teacher, the approach I followed in Zambia was not task-based. But it did involve the use of tasks and my memory is that some of the most successful lessons I taught were those involving tasks. I recall an activity where the students read a passage about a famous person. One student was chosen to role-play this person with the rest of the class firing questions at him/ her which the student tried to answer in character. This activity – which I would now call a ‘task’ – proved highly motivating and generated spontaneous interaction among the students in a way that was clearly very different from the more traditional types of lessons I was also teaching at that time.
My interest in second language acquisition also grew out of my experience as a teacher in Zambia. I was puzzled why students continued to make the same grammatical errors after what I felt were successful lessons designed to eradicate them. The students would use the correct grammatical structures in drills and written exercises but fail to do so in their spontaneous speech. Through studying second language acquisition research I came to understand the limits of direct instruction and see the advantages of instruction that enabled students to acquire a language in their own way. Task-based language teaching seemed the best way of helping students develop the kind of knowledge of a language needed to communicate effectively.
More recently my professional life has given me experience of Asia – a situation very different from Zambia as English played no role in students’ lives once they left the classroom. I saw that too many students in countries like Japan and China left school after years of studying English with little ability to use the language they had been learning in every day communication. I believe that task-based teaching is the best way of avoiding this unfortunate state of affairs.
My new book, Reflections on Task-Based Language Teaching, draws on both my professional experience as a teacher and a teacher educator and my work in second language acquisition research to present a case for task-based language teaching and also to reflect on the issues about this approach that need further consideration.
For more information about this book please see our website.
Last week I attended the 30th annual International Conference on Foreign and Second Language Acquisition (ICFSLA) conference in Szczyrk, Poland. This conference is well-loved by those who’ve attended regularly over the years, and upon arrival I was struck by how welcoming everyone was and what a warm and friendly atmosphere the organisers had created, despite the unseasonably chilly, rainy May weather!
As Multilingual Matters hadn’t been to this conference since 2015, the delegates seemed pleased to see us and find that they could actually buy the books we were displaying. Our SLA series was so popular among the conference-goers that a few of them assumed that was the name of the publisher, not realising it was just one of a number of our series! Alongside the SLA books, the first book in our new PLLT series, Language Teacher Psychology (coedited by Sarah Mercer and Achilleas Kostoulas), was a particular favourite, selling out on the first day.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Identity in Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Learning” and I was able to take some time out from manning my stand to go to the plenaries by our authors and series editors Rod Ellis, David Singleton, Sarah Mercer and Simone Pfenninger. Topics discussed included social identity and language development in study abroad, bi-/multilingual communication and identity, language teacher identity and third age identity, and it was nice to have the opportunity to see our authors in action!
Apart from a packed programme of plenaries and sessions, the conference organisers also put on some great entertainment in the evenings. First up was an “Evening of Memories” in which ICFSLA enthusiasts past, present and regretfully absent reminisced (some by audio/video!) about the past 30 years, accompanied by a slideshow of ICFSLA conferences gone by, and with many fond memories of the late Janusz Arabski, the conference’s founder. A special surprise was saved for the last night, when, following the conference dinner, we all trooped up to the bar, where the conference organisers had arranged a concert by Polish a cappella sea shanty band, Banana Boat. The band was brilliant, and somehow I found myself singing along, despite most of the songs being in Polish! The disco at the end of the night rounded off the conference nicely, with some serious dance moves being exhibited well into the early hours.