Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Task Based Lesson at a Junior High School

On October 1, I gave a task based lesson at a junior high school in an Iwate city. The following definition of "task" guided my lesson planning:

" A task is an activity in which a person engages in order to attain an objective, and which necessitates the use of language."
(Van den Branden, K. (Ed.) (2006). Task Based Language Education: From theory to practice. CUP.)
The goals of the class were the following. You can see the lesson plan here (in Japanese).

  1. Listen to an easy speech (actually, it was more like an interview) and understand the general meaning without worrying about words that you do not understand.
  2. Give a simple speech without memorizing every word but by using key words to recall the content.

Description of Students and Class
This was a kenkyuujugyou or open class. I taught 20 first grade students (12- 13 years-old) who I had never met before. There were also 30 English teachers watching. I was asked to do this by the municipal board of education. They asked me to teach page 55 of the New Horizon text book. It was a listening exercise where students had to listen for the nationality, age, residence and other information of 2 fictitious foreigners living in Japan. Another teacher did a demonstration class after me using the same page of the textbook with different students. The objective of the 2 open classes was to compare and learn about different teaching styles.
Before I had met the students, their homeroom teacher had told me that they were hard working and motivated to study English. They had all been studying English for about 6 months, or since entering junior high school.

The Class
I decided to make my own content for the class rather than use the textbook page, because I did not think that anybody cares about fictitious foreigners living in Japan. I decided to introduce to the students a real non-Japanese person (other than me) living in Morioka.

Task 1
The objective of the first task was to watch an interview of a researcher at Iwate University and learn 1) where he is from, 2) his occupation, 3) the languages he speaks 4) and his likes. I tried to chose someone with an interesting background: he came from a country that students did not know well, spoke 5 languages etc. After watching the interview, students were then asked to confirm the answers in English. The real world language use necessary to attain the objectives was 1) listening for specific information 2) using language that you hear in your speech and 3)confirming the answers to a problem with a partner. The interview that students watched is below. I had videotaped the interview the day before and burned it onto a DVD.

The handout that students used is here. In the handout (see exercise A) students attempted to circle the correct answer for each question. Because the students were not familiar with the a lot of the vocabulary, (Slovakian, chemistry, etc... ) the multiple-choice questions were in English and Japanese.

After introducing the video to the students, I played it for them twice. I then asked them to make pairs and confirm their answers in English. I knew that students had the ability to confirm the answers in English but they did not know how. So, before they confirmed the answers, I played them a video of a colleague and myself doing a similar task and using English that was at about the level of the students. I told students that they should watch the video carefully and write down any English they think would be useful for confirming the answers with their partner. In the video, I used subtitles so students would know exactly what was being said.
The video is below:

Overall, most of the students got all the multiple choice questions correct and 11 the 16 students who completed a simple questionnaire after the class reported that they were able to use English to confirm the answers after watching the above video. I had originally budgeted 20 minutes for task 1 but ended up using about 26 minutes. This meant that I had about 20 minutes to do task 2. This would mean that I would have to make some modifications so that class would finish on time.

Task 2
I asked the students to write a simple speech using part B of their handout. To write the speech they simply had to fill in the blanks of a prewritten speech. The objective of this task was to say a simple speech in English using keywords to recall the content rather than memorizing every single word. The real world language use was giving a monologue in front of people using key words to give. After students wrote their speech, I put the following key words on the blackboard (in Japanese):

  1. Name (名前)
  2. Residence (住まい)
  3. Age (年齢)
  4. likes (好きなこと)
  5. day (you do what you like) (何曜日に好きなことをするか)

I asked students to prepare to give a speech in front of the whole class. I told them that when they give the speech, they should not read their speech from the handout. Rather they should look at the keywords on the board and use it to give their speech. I added that quite often when we are asked to do public speaking we do not have time to memorize a speech. So, one thing we can do is use keywords to organize the speech in our heads and then we can give a speech. I told students to take 5 minutes and practice their speech by themselves. After the 5 minutes, I had originally planned for students to give the speeches in pairs and then have individual students perform their speech in front of the class. Unfortunately, because time was limited students did not give the speeches in pairs. Rather, I called on students to give their speech in front of the whole class. A total of 8 students gave their speech in front of the class and they were all able to do it without looking at their prints.

Wrap-up of my experience: Considering how to facilitate task based language learning more smoothly and the use of the L1 in a communicative class

This was my 5th time doing this kind of "open class" in the past 2 years. My first open class was a miserable failure, my second open-class was a failure, my third open-class was mediocre, my fourth open-class went fairly well but students did not speak, and this class went well and students DID speak! The reason why my classes have improved is because I have slowly learned to put myself in the shoes of the junior high school students and imagine how difficult they might find certain activities or the anxiety they might feel. I think the key to planning good language learning tasks is to give students a task that is challenging so that they have to overcome a little anxiety to succeed but not too easy. I also think that when conducting task based language teaching, a key to having a successful class is to be able to change the lesson plan as the lesson proceeds depending on how the students' are working. In other words, to attain the learning objective of a task, teachers might have to add an activity, take away an activity or modify an activity as the class progresses. I have become more comfortable with this.

After the class, the teachers who observed me commented on how much I used Japanese. I explained the rationale of each activity in Japanese, gave tips in Japanese about how to do activities, introduced the rationale of the class in Japanese, and helped individual students who were stuck in Japanese. If I had done the class only in English we would not have been able to finish the lesson. Using Japanese saves time because you only have to explain something once or twice while in English in can take a lot of effort on the part of the students and teacher to understand one particular point. If I had not been under so much pressure to finish the demonstration task in the 50 minutes of class time, I would have used more English.