Book Review: Task-Based Language Teaching and Technology by Thomas, M. and Reinders, H. (eds.)

Nigora-azimovanBy Nigora Azimova, Teaching and Learning Consultant, ASSETT, University of Colorado Boulder.




Thomas, M. and Reinders, H. (eds.) 2010. Task-Based Language Teaching and Technology. New York: Continuum.

Task-based Language Learning and Teaching with Technology explores the interface between task-based learning (TBL) research and Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). The book, edited by Michael Thomas and Hayo Reinders, is divided into two parts. Consisting of five chapters, Part I of the book focuses on research on tasks in CALL. Part II offers articles providing insights into developing and applying technology-mediated tasks in practice.

In the book’s introductory chapter,Thomas and Reinders provide a compelling case for creating this edited volume. The authors start off by discussing the affordances of current technologies, and how they are making the web-enhanced, blended, hybrid and online classrooms possible. By citing Chapelle’s work, the authors assert that new technologies create an environment for technology-mediated tasks which provide opportunities to enhance the process of second language acquisition (SLA). Thus they discuss the need for exploring potential synergies between TBL and CALL research as a response to better grasp the nature of technology-mediated tasks.

Part I of the book starts with Müller-Hartman and Marita Schocker-v. Ditfurth providing an extensive overview of recent research on the use of technology in task-based language teaching. The authors also discuss the need for a theoretical framework that allows the integration of TBL and computer-mediated communication (CMC). They offer Activity Theory (AT), a modern development of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, as a viable option for this purpose. The authors provide an overview of AT and its interrelated units such as object (activity), subject (teacher), mediating artifacts (foreign language, materials), rules (curriculum), community (language classroom), and division of labor (interaction between learners). The article further explains the units of AT, and provides a review of literature on AT’s object, i.e., activity and how it can be structured to enhance learners’ motivation and engagement during CMC.

In the next chapter, Mark Peterson explores the influence of both psycholinguistic and sociocultural accounts of SLA research on designing tasks in network-based CALL. Peterson provides a comprehensive review of nine studies examining the CMC carried out through typed text. His review reveals that students engaged in tasks via CMC become more self-confident, actively participate in discussions using higher quality target language output, negotiate meaning and engage in collaborative dialogue. Peterson also discusses the limitations of these studies, including the failure to provide sufficient focus on form and “fully maximizing the potential of the affordances provided by computer-based interaction” (p.42).  He concludes the chapter by identifying directions for future research. Among other things he emphasizes the need for incorporating real-time teacher feedback and using CMC transcripts to give students opportunities to focus on form.

Chapter 4 by Mathias Schulze explores the contributions that Intelligent CALL (ICALL) has made to TBL research, and how TBL research informed the development of studies within ICALL. The chapter provides a comprehensive review of studies and the innovative ICALL software products developed in last 30 years. Schulze also discusses and demonstrates the issues and limitations of tasks used in these products. The author attributes these issues to the complexities of computational processing of the human language accompanied with the complexity of foreign language learning processes. Nevertheless, Schulze provides a solid review of studies and products so rarely discussed in mainstream SLA literature. The chapter concludes with a positive note about the outlook of ICALL, stating that when ICALL software tools use well-designed tasks, they can facilitate, support and develop language learning.

Chapter 5 by Glenn Stockwell reports on the results of a study that examined the effects of multimodality in CMC tasks. The study analyzed asynchronous (forum discussions) and synchronous (chats) CMC data collected from 24 advanced learners of English at a Japanese university. Although there was no significant difference in the use of vocabulary in terms of spelling accuracy and lexical complexity, students used much more complex structures in forums compared to structures used in chats. However, the language used in chats was much more syntactically accurate. Stockwell attributed these differences to the affordances provided by different modes of CMC: forums allowed more time to process information and draft a message, while in chats students were more concerned to convey meaning as efficiently as possible. Admittedly, the study shows the importance of multimodal CMC for providing learners with opportunities to use and develop different aspects of their target language. However, it lacks in discussing the characteristics, selection and design of tasks used for each CMC mode examined in the study. Considering the TBL focus of this book, a more detailed discussion of task types would have been appropriate, and especially useful for the language practitioners interested in incorporating multimodal CMC into their curriculum.

The results of another study measuring complexity of task-based synchronous CMC are reported in Chapter 6. A total of 30 intermediate and advanced learners of Spanish at a US university were asked to participate in two different tasks. In the first activity students were tasked with solving a murder by collecting information from a Flash-based activity and discussing the finding in pairs. In the second activity, dyads of students pretended to be apartment tenants trying to find their lost keys by interviewing various personnel. The first task forced students to explore a Flash-based program for three seven-minute intervals, and then chat in three five-minute intervals. On the other hand, the second task allowed students to have one fifteen-minute chat preceded by a 21-minute information gathering/exploratory activity. The results demonstrated that intermediate level learners produced complex structures during the second task, i.e., when they were not forced to chat in intervals. The advanced level students performed equally well and produced complex L2 structures in both tasks. Besides confirming the hypothesis that a smaller cognitive burden results in more linguistic complexity, the study demonstrated a good example of successful integration of technology into TBL, and provided a plethora of information on developing, designing and measuring tasks.

Part II of the book starts with Regine Hempel’s examination of task design for a Learning Management System (LMS). The chapter demonstrates how a three-level model of task development can be used to inform the design and implementation of an online blended language course. Hempel examines each level, namely, approach (applicable SLA and CALL theories), design (task development, teacher and learner roles) and procedure (implementation and use of tasks) to a great extent. The chapter also provides a discussion of how this model was implemented in creating a German language course offered through the Open University. Most importantly, the chapter illustrates the limitations of academic LMS and institutional regulations into the development of successful tasks for online learning. For example, Hempel discusses the obvious conflict between the decentralized, non-linear style of Web 2.0 and the centralized and linear format adopted in Learning Management Systems.

In Chapter 8, Thomas Raith and Volker Hegelheimer examine teacher development, TBL teaching and technology. Based on the results of a qualitative data collected from five student teachers, Raith & Hegelheimer show the limitations of traditional teacher training programs at two German universities. Among other things, their data show that the traditional methods (video and written reflections) do not help teachers in acquiring task-based competencies. Thus, the authors discuss the advantages of using e-portfolios and having the reflection practices to be guided by specific criteria such as standards based-questions (pp.170-173). They assert that e-portfolios have the potential for offering student teachers immediate formative feedback from their supervisors and peers that can lead to better learning and development. Overall, the chapter offers intriguing insight into in-service teacher development which practitioners and language program developers could find crucial.  In addition, many would find Raith & Hegelheimer’s sample workplan for implementing e-portfolios to be quite useful.

Chapter 9 by Kenneth Reeder returns to the topic of ICALL by describing Edubba, simulation software that puts the user in a position of an intern reporter in a fictional newspaper. In this virtual world, users interact with virtual characters in order to complete graded tasks and reporting assignments. The pedagogical model of writing in Edubba includes four stages, namely, pre-writing, drafting, editing and proofing. In each stage, learners assigned specific tasks, such as interviewing the virtual characters, cross-checking and/or visiting the parts of Edubba City. Through the discussion of functions, genres and task design implemented in Edubba, Reeder demonstrates the ways Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies enable interactive practice and authentic context to “support both the development of subject matter context and academic writing and reading” (p.177). Indeed, the description of the effort that went into developing, choosing and designing tasks for Edubba is quite impressive. The chapter also serves as a great follow up to Chapter 4 to demonstrate how far ICALL has come in terms of selection, design and implementation of TBL.

In the final chapter, Gary Motteram and Michael Thomas discuss the present and future of technology-mediated tasks. The present is demonstrated through vignettes about two projects, LANCELOT and AVALON, funded by the European Commission. The vignettes describe the challenges faced by developing, designing and implementing technology-mediated tasks in these language learning projects. Furthermore, the chapter discusses three current criticisms of task-based language teaching, and demonstrates how the use of technology-mediated tasks can help to mitigate these issues. Finally, Motteram & Thomas address the future of technology-mediated tasks, and warn TBL and CALL practitioners about the fact that many technological innovations of the past “were driven by commercial rather than pedagogical interests, and pass through a well-trodden cycle from excitement to disappointment” (p.233). Therefore, they recommend that teachers and researchers make realistic choices, and “consider carefully the core characteristics of TBLT” and “to ground their research in SLA” (p.238).

Overall, the collection of articles in Task-based Language Learning and Teaching with Technology provides a thought-provoking overview of research in both TBL and CALL. Among other issues, the authors raise a number of important questions regarding task design, curriculum development, LMS selection, and the development of in-service teacher competencies. Some chapters also provide unique and interesting examples of research methods and tools (Chapter 6, for example) employed to collect data from language learners. Others explore topics that are rarely discussed in mainstream SLA or Applied Linguistics literature, such as artificial intelligence, NLP technologies, virtual simulations, and other ICALL innovations. Although the book editors do not specifically address the audience of this book, the topics discussed in this volume would definitely be appealing to both researchers and practitioners alike.

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