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

  1. Torn Halves says:

    Correct me if I am coming away with the wrong impression, but this seems to be a nice statement of the currently dominant (online at least) view of the teacher as facilitator helping the student achieve his or her aims.

    An alternative, more muscular view of the teacher allows for the teacher to have other aims. Businessmen should be encouraged to do other things than just learn how to do business in a routine and rather wooden way in English. For instance, if Ken Robinson is to be believed, even in the dull world of business the future belongs to those who can think creatively and step outside the box. So a Ken Robinson school of English would include a fair number of looser and more creative tasks that are not tied to stereotypical work situations. And how do people get out of their box? Perhaps one way involves reflecting critically upon what they are doing. Someone groans. Let’s discuss why they are groaning and whether they are right to be so negative about the attempt to do something different.

    Subversive topics: You might be right to avoid these, but when we address teachers of business English our message is always that business English must be taught subversively. Every course must include, for instance, an activity that looks at hypocrisy in business. A favourite example of ours is Bill Ford’s talk at Wisdom 2.0 about the importance of compassion in business, which we then compare with a news report of protests in the UK from ex-Ford/Visteon workers who are angry about Ford not keeping its promises to pay their pensions in full.

    • Hi Torn, thanks for your interesting comments.

      You’re right, I do take a facilitative approach to English language training, and favour using participants as a resource. One of the great rewards of task-based learning and using simulations is that students come in so many different learning types, and constantly surprise me with the creativity and spontaneity they bring into the class. There are always going to be some, of course, who are not so outgoing and who have to be encouraged to participate.

      Regarding subversive topics, students of mine are welcome to bring up any topics they like – the only proviso being that they don’t set out to upset the sensibilities of other group members. As I said, the classroom should be a safe and supportive environment rather than a place where students feel uncomfortable. I see it as a duty of care to maintain the optimum conditions for learning to take place. So I don’t set out to teach subversively.

  2. I do the needs analysis as you described in your post, I teach adults who either want to travel or need it for their jobs. I love the challenge of teaching adults because I find it very rewarding when they finally see the light once they become confident enough to function in English. However, the main obstacle I find is self esteem, I have to work on this every class and I agree that a positive atmosphere is the key. They need to know that we are all here to learn. As regards the “forbidden topics” I´ve had the most interesting discussions once there are different opinions in the room, again the interactions should be done with respect for other people´s opinions. And it´s funny when in the heat of the discussion they ask permission to talk in Spanish, because they are too excited to say that in English!

  3. Hi Maria, many thanks for your comments.
    I agree that interesting discussions can arise in a language class on pretty much any subject, these may develop unexpectedly and spontaneously with very little input or guidance from the teacher! I would never want to ‘forbid’ any topic from the classroom as long as it was something that everyone was keen to discuss. On the other hand, I would not seek to introduce controversial or subversive topics that I felt (for reasons of my own) that students ‘should’ be addressing.

    I like the idea of students asking permission before switching into L1 in the heat of the moment, that sounds rather considerate! Sometimes, during a simulation, my students aren’t even aware that they have ‘lapsed’ into their own language (which where I work is usually German). My ideal class is with a mix of nationalities because everyone, regardless of their ability level, has to express their ideas in English. And they will get support from the other students, which creates a great learning environment.

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