‘Critical Moments? Are they like… Dogme Moments?’

No, not really, although they may both describe moments that happen in the classroom (see also: Awkward Moments and Senior Moments). The key difference is that critical moments are something that can be experienced by learners, typically during task-based language training (TBLT) using micro-simulations, whereas it seems to me that dogme moments are something that teachers experience during conversation classes when language ‘emerges’.

Dogme devotees have claimed that the approach has similarities with task-based learning, and according to founder Scott Thornbury ‘likely leads to similar results’, but (for me at least) the workings of dogme have always been a bit of a puzzle at classroom level. Rather like task-based learning but without a task. If there are such things as dogme moments, and there may well be, they are mysterious and complex and not to be confused with the very simple critical moments practised as part of the TBLT process.

‘So these Critical Moments? Are they like… Critical Incidents?’

Not exactly. The Critical Incident Technique (CIT) was originally developed by American psychologist John C. Flanagan who described it thus: ‘The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behavior in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.’ (Flanagan, 1954)

More recently, critical incidents have found their way into the world of teacher training. According to Professor Thomas Farrell of Brock University: ‘A critical incident is any unplanned event that occurs during class. It has been suggested that if trainee teachers formally reflect on these critical incidents, it may be possible for them to uncover new understandings of the teaching and learning process.’ (Farrell, 2008) So this term is being used to describe what teachers experience in the classroom, and Prof Farrell’s own research is more concerned with teacher observation and reflective practices.

There seem to be so many ideas currently circulating in ELT (or TEFL, TESOL, TESP, ELF, etc.) that it’s hard to keep up with them all; it’s also difficult keeping up with a constantly shifting nomenclature. I wonder what newly qualified teachers make of such a smorgasbord, with its many crossover definitions and its constant dipping into the bran-tub of linguistic theories and philosophies. Even Task-Based Learning (TBL), or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), can be found in a multitude of guises. It seems that the word ‘task’ can mean any of a number of things upon which language teaching can be based. Is a task the same thing as an activity, for example? Maybe it’s not a smorgasbord that’s rearing up out of the bran-tub so much as a many-headed monster.


“These are my ELT methods, approaches, movements, pedagogies, concepts and philosophies, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

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Teachers: more than just warm-bodied apps?


App-ologies to the writers of Fiddler on the Roof there! But according to research carried out by IT consultants Gartner, in the year 2017 users of mobile devices will download 268 billion apps, of which 94.5% will be free. So, that’s a lot of apps, practically an app for everything. There was even a recent BBC radio programme entitled My Teacher is an App.

Incidentally, I find that if I look at the word ‘app’ for too long, or write it too many times, it does something to my brain and the word temporarily ceases to mean anything. This effect (for which the term semantic satiation was coined by psychologist Leon Jakobovits James back in 1962) is caused by repetition arousing a specific neural pattern in the cortex that corresponds to the meaning of the word. Perhaps brain fatigue would work as well.

Another strange phenomenon, which may be entirely unconnected, is the app-earance of the word ‘app’ in other words (apart from app-lication that is). It may be hanging off the front of the word like an unofficial prefix, as in app-rehension and app-reciate, or tucked into the middle as in dis-app-earance or pine-app-le, or popping up in more exotic words such as Zünd-app or M-app-a Mundi. I’ve also been noticing it quite a lot recently in the educational buzz-term Ad-app-tive Learning, which even looks a bit like ‘Add Apps To Learning’.

‘Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks. The technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, and psychology.’ (Wikipedia)

Sounds impressive, but does this mean that teachers are going to be replaced (or at least sidelined) by computing? Well, according to Knewton, an education technology company that develops and provides adaptive learning platforms:

“The Knewton award-winning Adaptive Learning Platform uses proprietary algorithms to deliver a personalized learning path for each student, each day. Knewton’s technology identifies each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and unique learning style. Taking into account both personal proficiencies and course requirements, the platform continuously tailors learning materials to each student’s exact needs, delivering the most relevant content in the most efficient and effective form.”

As stated on their website Knewton is already well represented in ELT, with many of the big publishers using the technology as they move into the global marketplace with their latest ‘products’:

“With this Knewton-enhanced Pearson product, every student gets the benefit of instructor-guided course work supplemented by adaptive follow-up assignments.”

“Macmillan plans to create next-generation products that are targeted to the ELT market, using Knewton technology to provide personalized recommendations and analytics.”

“Using Knewton adaptive learning technology, Cambridge University Press will develop a new generation of digital ELT products.”

So students download the content, learn it, and then click to continue along their personalized learning path. I can see the global implications for such an app-roach, especially in certain Asian countries where children spend most of their school years doing stuff that prepares them for ‘high IQ’ scorings: rote learning, memorization, constant testing, high stakes. Oh, and adaptive learning is also being incorporated into the field of distance learning, as well as new areas of online education such as group collaboration. Anywhere, in fact, where ‘measurable learning outcomes’ can be delivered.

The issue of adaptive learning is generating a lot of discussion among teachers, but I wonder what learners think? Has anyone asked them, or carried out any research? The ELT profession is a very broad one, of course, with many different teaching contexts. I can imagine situations where adaptive learning technology could be applied on a grand scale, where teachers are employed primarily as materials operators and test administrators, but this brave new world of ‘massification’ in education seems to me an un-app-ealing utopia.

There is not yet, as far as I know, an app that delivers task-based learning as I use it with my students. This is because the process develops in real time, and involves interaction with other warm-bodied people. When students use language to complete tasks they are required to make constant adjustments and corrections as they respond to the unexpected and the spontaneous. They may then repeat a task but in a different role, armed with new words and phrases to try out. True, they may turn to their smartphones to find a word or check out a reference, but the real value of the training is in the room where they are interacting with other learners and receiving support and correction from the trainer. They see that by repeating and extending tasks, and pushing themselves towards new challenges, they are making progress through continuous improvement. This must be a more satisfactory learning experience than using apps, even those containing ‘proprietary algorithms that deliver a personalized learning path’.

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Critical moments: tackling the Sisyphus effect

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a badly-behaved and deceitful king who so displeased the gods that his punishment in the afterlife was to push a huge boulder up a hill for eternity. To add to his woes, each time he got the boulder near to the top, the gods would cause it to roll back down to the bottom. Thus he was forced to keep repeating his futile and frustrating labour.

One of my students, who has reached a fairly fluent B1 level, complained to me: ‘I feel that I’m making some progress but my problem is… there are so many words to remember, and so many rules, it is like a multi-task and I think my head…’ <makes a despairing ‘head exploding’ gesture>

Maybe this is where critical moments training can help, because it takes a ‘little and often’ approach and allows learners to dip into all that information they have banked and cherry-pick elements of the language that have high surrender value. Once a situation has been identified where learners need key phrases in (say) a business situation where they find themselves put on the spot, these phrases can be selected and practiced until fluency and confidence is achieved. Dipping into those burgeoning language banks could be represented thus:


The green zones in the diagram show the cherry-picking in action: language is selected from three main areas during the preparation for the task. So, let’s take the example of a critical moment scenario that involves greeting a foreign visitor to the company. First-contact phrases such as ‘How do you do?’ and ‘Please come in’ and ‘Can I take your coat?’ are relatively straightforward and will correspond to similar phrases in the learner’s L1.

Moving on then, but still within the critical moments remit, let’s consider a more challenging ice-breaker. We can start with a word from the topic area to cover ‘travel or journey’ and this could be incorporated into a simple question form to create a standard phrase that fulfils the function of ‘showing interest’. Thus we arrive at ‘How was your flight?’ which being only four words is easy enough to practise (and repeat as necessary) within the one-minute red zone of the critical moments activity.

What is great about these key phrases is that they are chunky, easy to remember, highly effective and they come with the grammar already in there. Because ‘How was your flight?’ is short it can be retained in the memory almost as one word (Howuzyuflight?) without the need to analyze the structural aspects. Furthermore the key phrases can be presented and practised as conventions, so that any feedback along the way can simply explain that nobody would ever say ‘How was your travel?’

As well as helping learners to develop strategies for coping with the unexpected, critical moments training can be incorporated into an English course as a ‘leavening agent’ to provide relief from what might otherwise be perceived as a Sisyphean endeavour. My student with the exploding head, for example, was facing the prospect of having to show foreign customers around his factory and imagined himself struggling with a host of technical terms and descriptions. By focusing instead on key phrases for welcoming visitors and conducting them around the factory floor, he has now gained confidence in the area that was really daunting him which was the communicative one.

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The Flipped Pyramid and the Snaggle-Toothed Edifice

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), creator of the well-known Hierarchy of Needs, posited that only when our lower order needs (starting with survival: such as air and water) are satisfied can we concern ourselves with higher order needs such as status, achievement and personal development. If the lower order needs are not fulfilled, or are withheld, we can no longer maintain interest and motivation towards higher order needs. There have been many versions of the Hierarchy of Needs, and they are nearly all in the form of pyramid diagrams (even though they look like triangles). However there are no pyramids in any of Maslow’s work, even in his original ground-breaking book Motivation and Personality, published in 1954.

Who knows what Maslow would have made of this interpretation, which has wifi internet connection as its lowest order of needs, because… without it nothing else can function/life is not worth living/…


This meme has been around (in various forms) on the internet for a while now. Although tongue-in-cheeky it does contain certain truths: We can all relate to the existential angst that kicks in the moment some inexplicable internet crash leaves us cut off from the world. Also, Maslow could not possibly have predicted how the internet, and social media in particular, would impact on his snug and dated construction around human needs. Thirdly, the scribbled addition of the ‘wifi’ layer shows how easily pyramids can be subverted, undermined from below. They may look robust but they are built on sand.

On the theme of pyramids, Bloom’s Taxonomy is another model that has been tinkered with over the years. The familiar pyramid-shape is often shown with lower order thinking skills (LOTS) at the base. Each subsequent level, moving towards higher order thinking skills (HOTS), depends upon the student’s ability to perform at the level or levels that precede it. It is an effort to hierarchically order cognitive processes.

The model was first introduced in 1956 but even today the idea of such a hierarchy is used in arguments about the validity of rote-learning and memorizing (LOTS) and examination performances (example: when considering the outcome of the recently published PISA results). It has been reinterpreted and reconstructed many times, however it is worth noting that Benjamin Bloom, like Maslow, never used a pyramid to illustrate his original idea. Notwithstanding, here is my take with an added ‘cognitive domain’:


The most radical revision of the Bloom pyramid has been to flip it. The Bloom 21 model (the 21st century Bloom) by Shelly Wright now has creating as the starting point for the student task, and then works through the phases to end up at remembering what has been discovered and revealed. The thinking behind this *flipped Bloom* is that as we are living in a world where innovation and creativity are increasingly important, so learners should be encouraged to spend more time creating, evaluating and analyzing rather than acquiring rote knowledge. There are interesting connections here to the task-based learning approach, and in particular the critical moments training, that are espoused and discussed elsewhere on this blog.

And what about pyramids of language levels? The widely-accepted Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) goes from A1 for beginner up to C2 for advanced, and although these ‘can-do’ levels were (also) not designed to be a pyramid they are now often represented in that form. A whole industry of examinations, teaching and preparation materials, and other services has sprung up around the CEFR with the purpose of getting learners up to the top of the stack.

This version would seem to suggest that starting off at the lowest level requires the greatest amount of effort, with what for many learners may be entirely new grammar, phonology, syntax and lexis to wrestle with. Once the underpinnings are in place, more rapid progress is more assured.

But there are also flipped versions around and they might suggest the opposite: that at A1 initial progress will be rapid, because a small amount of vocabulary will allow basic conversation and comprehension. Thereafter, progress may seem slower as it takes longer to master more complex structures. As the learner advances from one level to the next, the time and effort required to progress increases.

So you pays your money and you takes your choice. Either way, teachers are always going to be asked by their students: ‘What level am I? And when will I reach the next level?’ and it would be nice to have something as neat as a pyramid (even a flipped one) to assure them, but in reality the way forward is probably more like this:

brick wall

I’m not suggesting that they are going to be confronted by a brick wall, merely that progress in language learning can resemble a snaggle-toothed edifice rather than something smooth and geometric. Of course nobody would set out to construct a wall like this one, but allowing for the course of time, and weathering, a few shifts in the foundations and a bit of cracking, many can end up looking that way. Even the Great Pyramids (they were built of bricks) do, at least on close inspection.

Anyway, to pursue my metaphor: As the edifice progresses there will always be a few loose bricks, or even some missing ones, and some that don’t fit. Certain wobbly parts will need revisiting, re-working, re-pointing. There will be attempts at underpinning, at plastering over cracks, or even attaching a superficial fascia to hide what’s underneath. And there are bound to be slumbering fossils in amongst the layers.

So, from flipped pyramids to slumbering fossils. And there are many other images and metaphors (some of them just as unlikely) that get applied to the mysterious process of language learning. If you don’t like the idea of a straight-ahead linear approach, how about a learning curve or a spiral curriculum or fractals or something more holistic like concentric ripples spreading out from a central point? How do you ‘see’ language learning and how do you explain to your students how things are progressing?

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Repetition in Task-Based Learning: the Deming Cycle in action?

The Deming Cycle (or PDCA Cycle) is a four-stage method used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products. It is named after the US statistician and management guru J. Edwards Deming who originally developed it for improving manufacturing processes in the Japanese automotive industry. His aim was to improve quality and efficiency through problem-solving and critical thinking.

The steps in the Deming Cycle are:

1) Plan – recognize an opportunity and plan a change.

2) Do – test the change. Carry out a small-scale study.

3) Check – review the test, analyze the results and identify what you’ve learned.

4) Act – take action based on what you learned in the study step.

The cycle should be repeated again and again for continuous improvement, in what Deming referred to as ‘spirals of increasing knowledge of the system that converge on the ultimate goal, each cycle closer than the previous’. PDCA allows for major jumps in performance (breakthroughs), as well as frequent small improvements.


This diagram of the Deming Cycle is very similar to the four-stage TBL cycle which is also a method for continuous improvement in language learning. An introductory input phase leads on to a task, which is followed by feedback and evaluation, and then a follow-up activity which could involve a degree of repetition and consolidation. When working with groups, this might well include reshuffling the interlocutors so that they feel that they have been dealt a fresh hand. It is important that this repeating of language tasks has a logical sequence and is not perceived as ‘just doing it all over again’.

I was recently able to facilitate and observe this process of continuous improvement while working with a group of (B1-B2 level) German business students who were doing the StartUp Enterprise simulation. They were in the ‘Finance’ phase of the activity which involves the new start-up companies visiting banks and trying to negotiate a loan.

On this occasion there were four groups, and each group had been split to create four companies and four banks. During the task each company and each bank would be required to do the same negotiation three times, as none of the companies would negotiate with the (now) bank that comprised their own former colleagues. In order to avoid this happening, the meetings between companies and banks were organised thus:


If the tables in the room can be arranged in this way, companies can rotate from one bank to the next without any bottlenecks happening. Each negotiation will last twenty minutes, so after that time is up (we sometimes use a clapperboard to keep changeovers snappy) they have to move on to the next bank. Another key classroom management point – in order to set up an information gap, companies should prepare for the negotiations in another room, so that when they are ready to start they will be ‘visiting’ the banks.

So the four companies were ready, they had copies of their neatly-typed business plans which they had prepared during a previous writing task, they had reviewed the key language for negotiating by going through a handout of selected phrases, and they had decided amongst themselves who was going to say what. (The four start-up companies wanted bank loans to develop: a smart iFridge, a scooter suitcase, a robot dust extractor, and an app for ordering fast food). Meanwhile, in the main training room, the banks were prepared and had organised their tables so that they would be sitting facing the companies. They had copies of a credit assessment form on which to make notes about the suitability of each company’s application, and each had placed a card on their table with the name of their bank.

The first round of negotiations, when the companies came into the room and met their first bank, involved critical moments and were therefore a little slow off the mark as students tried to remember chunks such as ‘Pleased to meet you’ and ‘Have a seat’ and ‘Let me introduce myself’.  However, by the time they had practised these opening exchanges for a second and third time they were noticeably more fluent and natural-sounding. Indeed this was also true of their use of other key lexical items such as target market, USP, prototype, break-even point, business premises, and so on.

While the negotiations were under way we (I was tandem teaching with a colleague) were watching, moving between the tables, sitting in on the discussions, taking language notes and occasionally helping if things got sticky. I try not to intervene while a task is running, but at one point there was a misunderstanding when one of the banks asked a company: ‘Are you really going to pay yourself an income of €20,000 per month? That’s not possible!’ It turned out there was a mistake on the business plan (even though the English had been checked) and one of the monthly expenditures was ‘Personal income: €20,000 per month’, but this actually referred to ‘Employees wages’ (personnel).

Most of the spoken errors that found their way into the language notes were minor things (‘Five hundred dollars are too much’ – ‘Just a minute, I’ll make a notice of the details’ – ‘We should meet us again next month’) which were rounded up and then given as feedback after the task. After the three negotiations, which were limited to a strict twenty minutes each, the students felt tired as they had been speaking English quite intensively for an hour without a break. However, the companies had enjoyed the ‘buzz’ of negotiating a loan with three different banks, and equally the banks had enjoyed negotiating with three different companies. Indeed, some of them were still negotiating furiously after the time limit, even switching into German to argue some fine point at issue! They needed a few minutes to come out of the simulation and have time to reflect on the outcome of the task.

So before moving on to the language feedback phase, they were asked to give their comments on how the negotiations went, which parts were the most challenging, and which banks offered the best deal/which companies made the best pitch. They agreed, without being prompted, that there was a real value in ‘changing the players’ and then repeating the task. They noticed that each time, as they moved through the stages of the negotiation, they felt more confident. Better able to find their words; better able to organise their message; better able to communicate effectively.


Whether they would recognise this as the cycle of continuous improvement in action, or indeed spirals of increasing knowledge, or not, doesn’t really matter. What is important is that by completing the task, and gaining confidence, and having another go, and seeing the improvement in performance for themselves, they appreciate the value of task-based learning and develop an appetite for broadening their English to match an ever-increasing range of contexts and degrees of challenge. What seems difficult, and even unsettling, at the outset will surely become easier (measurably so) with practice. A good motto for repetition in task-based learning could be: ‘Practice makes perfect’. Or perhaps (at the risk of sounding a bit Nietzschean) something like: ‘It won’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.’

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Oof! A collision of acronyms? TBL versus ENSP, feat. PARSNIP

Task-based learning needs a task, and English language learning needs a purpose. Often a very specific purpose (hence ESP). So put the two together, matching the purpose behind learning English with the tasks that are going to need it, and you’re in business. At least this has been my experience; the people I teach (whether referred to as students, learners, clients, or participants) tell me why they need English, and how they will be using it in their place of work or study, and it is up to me to put together a programme built around tasks that are fit for purpose. Let me furnish an example:

One of my (one-to-one) students is just starting a new job in an international company. He will be taking on the position of Technical Director, having overall responsible for manufacturing, R & D, and quality. It will be a demanding job, in a very competitive sector, but he doesn’t lack managerial experience. His main challenge now is that for much of the time he will have to communicate in English.

In the first session, a discussion framework on ‘Communication at Work’ builds up a detailed picture showing who he will communicate with, how he will communicate with them, why he has to communicate with them, and what they need to communicate about. From this information a programme of study can be drawn up that will be predominantly task-based, because the new job involves chairing meetings, having technical discussions, negotiating with customers and suppliers, giving presentations, holding conference calls – in fact a whole range of speaking activities that readily lend themselves to language training scenarios. In addition, writing tasks such as emails, reports and press releases can be practised as follow-up work after the sessions in class.

Thus what learners will have to do in English in the real world, they can practise in a ‘safe’ classroom environment under the auspices of a language trainer. They will feel comfortable with this way of working if an informal contract has been agreed beforehand and the subsequent training is focused and relevant. They will gain in confidence by completing tasks in English that are very close to the tasks that they are required to carry out in the workplace.


So it would seem that TBL fits rather well with ESP. But how does it fit in with language teaching that is not aimed at a specific purpose, what we might call ENSP (English for No Specific Purpose)? You won’t find this one in the forest of acronyms that has sprung up around what used to be known simply as TEFL, it is not an officially recognised term and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly. If it did exist, however, it would most likely be found under the blanket term ELT (English Language Teaching) which is currently emerging as the preferred term for, well, teaching English in any and every context going.

Even among students who do not (yet) need English for working or studying, one can imagine setting up any number of tasks in order to practise language – asking for and giving directions, checking in to a hotel, shopping, ordering lunch, etc. Indeed, many of those scenarios are applicable in the ESP context too, since professional people also need English for travel, hotels, and socializing. And the same TBL cycle can also come into effect, with (say) a discussion framework about checking into a hotel, followed by a task done in small groups – critical moments at the reception desk, for example – and then language feedback. This would then lead on to a follow-up writing task, such as completing a ‘trip advisor’ type report or even a letter of complaint.

However, by definition students of ENSP often don’t know why they need English, other than to raise their level (they may be told they are A2, and should aim for B1), and perhaps to earn a certificate by the end of the course. Alternatively they may have as their goal a TOEFL or IELTS (see diagram) examination. At many language schools, students are tested for level when they join up, and then may get sorted into the Lower Intermediate group. This could be a very heterogeneous group with very different aims and interests. Without an initial needs analysis, and often with no curriculum (in some language schools, new students join existing groups on a Monday morning on a ‘revolving door’ basis), the likelihood is that the teacher will play safe and used a tried and tested course book.

Even so, good course books will offer a range of tasks for students to do, either in pairs or small groups. Needless to say, these will be more prescriptive than those tasks that teachers have designed around their students’ needs. The topics have been preordained by the publishers, and very often the tasks selected are favourites that the teacher knows will ‘work’ with this type of group. Interestingly, in ENSP the word ‘task’ has morphed from being a simulation based on a real life situation (e.g. a negotiation or an interview) into a ‘language task’. In other words, an exercise. The following examples may have value as speaking exercises in class, but are unlikely to prepare students for situations in the real world.

Look at the picture of a room. Now see how many things can you list in one minute.

Discuss with your neighbour the best place to hide something small in the room.

Work in pairs. Find out how much money you both have in your pockets.

Draw your family tree and compare it with others in your group.

Such language tasks, apparently, encourage processing strategies such as listing, sorting, ordering, and comparing, and in turn lead on to reporting and evaluating the work done. In addition, the tasks often have a fun element to them, because students need to be kept stimulated (some might even say entertained). However the idea of games in the classroom, especially when combined with a prescriptive approach, can have an infantilising effect that I think of as the Groan Factor. Usually it is the unfortunate students who utter the groan, wordlessly articulating ‘Why are we doing this?’ It is the Task-Induced Groan (TIG) which all teachers should do their utmost to prevent.

Moving on from the ‘edutainment’ element and the TIG factor, we may find another phenomenon at work. Just as students may become jaded by the idea of yet more ‘tasks’ to do in small groups, so the teacher may get bored with all the contrived fun that can be wrung out of a course book and decide to spice things up a bit. Clearly nobody in the real world would go around explaining their family tree to complete strangers, but everybody is sure to have views about gay marriage or suicide bombers. Why not introduce subversive topics, such as those on the so-called (acronym alert) PARSNIP list – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork? Now the class will really be buzzing, will it not, with robust exchanges of controversial views and awareness-raising all round. Pedagogically, things in the classroom just went critical!

Indeed, and things might well go into meltdown. If the classroom has become an edgy, uncertain place – rather than a safe and supportive environment – are students going to feel comfortable? Might they not reasonably ask if the language that results from such discussions and exercises is going to be of value to them? I don’t know, because in my experience no group of business English (or ESP, or EAP) students has ever requested that ‘subversive’ topics be specifically included in their language programme. It could be that ENSP creates a quite different set of conditions, and a suitable tilth in which PARSNIPs might flourish.

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‘Why are we doing this?’ – an informal teacher-learner contract

Task-based learning in business English training is a highly effective method but it can be a big ask. The key to success from the outset is managing expectations and explaining the way of working. The idea of ‘learning by doing’ may be new to some students – there may be those who have been accustomed to more traditional methods; there may be others who have different expectations of teachers. There may also be students who come from cultures where the role of the learner has been traditionally more passive, less outspoken.

During the training students may find themselves outside their comfort zone, and face disorientating dilemmas – they are being encouraged to carry out tasks using input and experience from their true self, yet their output may reflect their limited self. Their language errors will be exposed, and revisited and analysed, during the subsequent feedback stage. It is important therefore that students are well prepared so that they have the confidence and support to complete the tasks, and are also comfortable with the feedback and correction. They should never have to ask: ‘Why are we doing this?’


So at the start of any training course it is a good idea to set up an informal contract for working together that can be agreed by the teacher and the learner. This is not something written, nor is it something set in stone, it is just some flexible guidelines that remain ongoing and can be revisited and reappraised by both parties. There are ‘no rules of engagement’ as such, but here are some points that could be discussed with students:

A needs analysis is usually conducted at the start of a course, and this is an opportunity for business students to talk about what they need their English for and what they need to focus on. However, needs analysis should be an ongoing process throughout the course, because priorities may change as students discover strengths and weaknesses in their English that they may not have been aware of. The dynamic nature of task-based learning cycles, and the idea of a spiral curriculum that they embody, means that changing perceptions of needs can be catered for – and this should be pointed out to students at the outset.

Students should be acquainted with the idea of group work in class. Some may be familiar with the idea of language training as being interactive, whereas others may not. Explain that some activities involve the whole class as one group, while others require that small groups are formed. The groups will also get changed around to optimize speaking opportunities. Group dynamics are an essential part of language training for students just as they are a key challenge to classroom management for teachers.

It is important to point out the teacher’s role in task-based learning. Among other things this will include – introducing topics, facilitating discussion frameworks, setting up tasks, monitoring tasks, taking language notes, and giving language feedback. Once students become familiar with the role of the teacher in the process, and in the TBL cycle, they will feel that they are in a professional and supportive classroom. They can approach their own part in the process with the confidence and the motivation to succeed.

When students have completed a task they will want to know how they performed, and what they need to know in order to improve their performance. The feedback stage is at the heart of task-based learning, and normally takes place immediately after the task (so that correction is fresh, while the errors are still ‘warm’) although some points may lend themselves to further work as a worksheet or language clinic. I have always found that students like feedback and correction, once some basic rules have been explained and agreed. Feedback should be timely, supportive, challenging, solution-focused, and illuminated with clear examples. There is no real need to distinguish between positive and negative feedback, anything that helps students improve their English has value.

Another point worth raising with students is the dynamic nature of the TBL classroom. Some students may have been used to the static seating arrangements of a schoolroom or lecture hall. For example, from my own experience in German universities the room layout is very formal and linear, and students sit behind regimented rows of tables – it is quite difficult (at first) to get them to move! However, in TBL the scenarios are constantly changing and the classroom has to play host to meetings, interviews, telephoning, presentations and other things besides, so it needs to be a classroom that can ‘shape-shift’ when required. Sometimes good classroom management comes down to the quick and efficient moving of tables and chairs.

In addition to carrying out tasks and being involved in simulations, students may be asked to take part in critical moments training which requires them to do things suddenly and spontaneously. Again, this may be new to students and especially challenging to those who (perhaps for cultural or personal reasons) may be unsure about how to act when they find themselves ‘in the spotlight’. These exercises are effective for practising quick, informal exchanges and developing fluency in a range of situations. However they should not be brought into the course too early; better to introduce them once there is a good level of trust within the group.

Finally, it is useful to discuss with students what it means to be an independent learner, what is expected of them and what they can expect from the teacher in terms of support. Depending on their background and experience, some students will already have acquired the skills necessary to achieve learner autonomy while others may not. It is important to suggest ways in which task-based learning can fit into a broader approach to language development, especially in the absence of more traditional materials such as textbooks and coursebooks.

Once the informal contract for working together has been set up, the training can proceed within a mutually agreed framework that allows for consultation, discussion and tweaking along the way. In essence, it creates a professional and supportive atmosphere along the lines of the familiar adage: ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’.

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