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Task or Text: which is best?

April 4, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about curriculum. Six years ago, I started posting the curriculum units that I had created for my own, personal classroom use so that other teachers could use them, too. At first, I was just posting isolated activities and lesson plan outlines, and I eventually started formatting them and explaining activities better and…and…and. One thing led to another, and now there are a lot of people out there using my curricula. And you know what? If I’m being honest with you, that is really freaking scary. It’s one thing if I design my curricula poorly and my students suffer, but if I design my curricula poorly and other teachers’ students suffer…well that’s another thing altogether. I had great results with my students while using it, my students continued on to be successful language students in upper levels—but who’s to say that there’s not something better out there? Something more effective? Something that teachers should be using instead of my curricula?

I like ACTFL. I like the Proficiency Guidelines. I like the Can-Do Statements. And I like my curricula. I’ve sat down about a million times (okay, maybe like 10) to align my curricula with ACTFL’s Can-Do Statements. And it’s not that I haven’t finished it because I CAN’T DO it (ha, ha)…it’s just…it’s like apples and oranges. At the end of the same unit, students might be able to check off a can-do statement that ACTFL has listed as being a “novice low” task and another that is listed as an “intermediate high” task. They’re checking off tasks from diverse proficiency levels and diverse task types simultaneously. This tells me that my curricula have different objectives than one that is backward designed from the Can-Do Statements: any Can-Do tasks that are checked off by students using my curricula are done so incidentally. The eventual outcomes are the same, but the journey looks very different. One of the purposes for the creation of ACTFL’s Can-Do Statements was to provide learning targets for curriculum and unit design. Backward planning from Can-Do Statements should help teachers to develop “good” curricula. Creating these communicative goals—can-do tasks—ensures that teachers will need to use a communicative instructional approach, not lecturing on discreet grammar rules and shoving their students full of vocabulary lists. (I realize that there is a big conversation to be had right there about what a ‘communicative approach’ means, what it could mean, what it should mean, but I’ll ignore that for now.) To accomplish Can-Do tasks (I can say hello and goodbye to someone my own age, I can accept or reject an invitation to go somewhere, I can talk about my family history, etc.) at the end of a unit, students must practice communicating in the language during the unit—using the language in a context. This is a good thing! Since I already referred to my curricula and the Can-Do Statements as “apples and oranges”, does that mean that my curricula—or any CI curriculum, for that matter—are not “good”? Will they not produce students that are able to effectively communicate in the target language?



I didn’t include this section in the first draft of this post, and I think this is the part that causes the most division. Let me try to describe the two kinds of teaching that I am going to be comparing in the rest of the post: “task-based” teaching and “text-based” teaching. Both are oriented toward proficiency: with ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines in mind, we plan instruction in a way that will allow students to communicate ever more proficiently—with ever increasing fluency. Therefore, both are also communicative. The end goal is to communicate in the target language. I like Bill VanPatten’s definition of communication as “the expression, interpretation, and/or negotiation of meaning in a context”. That is what we ALL do in class. We all aim to use 90%-ish target language in the class, because we want students to learn the target language, not learn ABOUT the target language. We ALL use comprehensible input, because both task-based and text-based teachers that attend to research know that language is acquired through comprehensible input, not through practice.  And yet, differences remain…


TASK BASED TEACHING - Task-based teachers start their lesson planning from Can-Do tasks: what do I want students to be able to do at the end of this unit? How will they show that they can accomplish that task? What language will they need in order to accomplish it? How can I provide comprehensible input for them to acquire that language? How will they practice the task? What authentic resources can I use to help them prepare for the task? Task based teachers use texts—many texts—in their instruction and assessment, but only as they are needed to accomplish the task. The TASK is at the center of planning. Teachers that use task-based teaching often refer to themselves as “Proficiency Based Teachers”. This is totally cool with me, as long as we understand that using that name doesn’t mean that non-task-based teachers do NOT teach for proficiency. Nomenclature is problematic.


TEXT BASED TEACHING - Text-based teachers start their lesson planning from language. Many text-based teachers work from frequency dictionaries, others work from novels that were written based on frequency dictionaries, others argue that there is no need to start from a frequency dictionary at all because using language naturally will have the same effect, since the frequency dictionary is a report of the words that make up natural language use. I’m calling it text-based teaching because “language-based teaching” is confusing, perhaps ambiguous,, and teachers that fall into this category rely heavily on texts—whether written or auditory, both authentic and non-authentic—for their instruction. These teachers do not have a specific linguistic task in mind: the acquisition of the language is the goal. Since the assessments in this kind of teaching are text-based (having students read a text and answer questions about it, write a story or response to a question, listen to a selection and translate it, etc.), I guess that’s why I am calling it text-based teaching. Teachers that use text-based teaching often refer to themselves as “Comprehensible Input Teachers”. This is totally cool with me, too, as long as we understand that using that name doesn’t mean that non-text-based teachers do NOT teach with comprehensible input. Once again, nomenclature is problematic.


“Are you a proficiency based teacher or a comprehensible input teacher?”


“I’m both, dagnabbit!” There certainly has been a lot of conflict in the ranks over the years, and I consider myself to be part of the movement that is asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” All teachers that are striving to do better and be better are moving in the same general direction and doing the same kinds of things—yet differences remain! My husband, Matt, and me have tried all the same beers but at the end of the day, he prefers malty and I prefer hoppy. I still sip his beer and he still sips mine, and we are happily married. But we will almost always order something different. It’s okay to teach differently and it’s okay to grapple with differences as long as we are coming from a place of love and respect. I hope you know that I am! I don’t think it does us any good, though, to pretend that we are all doing the same thing. We aren’t! We are all teaching language in the way that we believe to be most effective in our particular situation. And as more and more teachers are moving away from “legacy methods” (oh boy, there’s a complicated term for ya!) and trying to find their way in the new proficiency-based, comprehensible-input-driven world of language teaching, it helps us communicate better and more efficiently about diverse practices if we can categorize teaching styles.


Back to the curriculum reflection….


As I’ve been mulling this over, one question stood out in my mind: What exactly is it that I am preparing my students for? 

At best, they might spend a week in the target culture on a school trip in a couple years, when they’re in Level 3 or 4 or AP. Maybe they’ll live abroad as a Rotary Exchange Student as a junior or senior, or maybe they’ll study abroad in college. Maybe they’ll run into a family that only speaks Spanish—no English—in their after school job. But, realistically, my students that are in Spanish 1 or Spanish 2 will not need to be accomplishing tasks in the target language for some time—probably not during the time that they are in my classes, and certainly not extensively. In upper levels, I think it could be fair to say that you are preparing students to communicate in all modes in the real world, but I don’t think that’s true in lower levels. Realistically, I am preparing my Novice students to be Spanish students in subsequent levels. In a dream world, I am preparing them to be life-long learners of Spanish—that’s the dream, anyway!

I feel a slight sense of revulsion when I read that statement. It feels like the idea of making kindergarteners do homework so they get used to doing homework so they can do homework forever because doing homework is so important. I hate that idea, but I think that preparing my students to continue to be students of Spanish is different.Am I delusional? I don’t mean that I am trying to teach them “Spanish class survival skills”, like “how to most effectively memorize verb charts” or “how to pass an IPA”; I mean that I am trying to place them on a language trajectory and keep moving them along it so that they are able to continue that trajectory in their next courses or in life. I am preparing my Novice students to become more proficient later in life in the same way that I am preparing my children to communicate better tomorrow than they did today.

If it is true that I am preparing my Novice students to be Spanish students in subsequent levels—not to communicate in all modes in the real world—then I don’t think it makes sense to backward design my lower level curricula from discreet Can-Do tasks. I think that it makes sense to backward design my curricula from the building blocks of language, the high frequency structures that will create a foundation for my students to one day be able to successfully communicate in all modes in the real world. I’m saying this because I’ve been there; I’ve been in language classes, and I want to find a way for my students to communicate more successfully than I could when I headed off to my first real-world Spanish experience—a semester in Spain after SIX AND A HALF YEARS of studying Spanish!

Think about it: how do we determine which structures in a language are “high frequency structures”? We take all of the real life tasks—the authentic tasks—that people are accomplishing every day, we squish them together, and we tally how many times each word is used across all of those tasks. So wouldn’t it be more efficient to design a curriculum from the language required to accomplish collective tasks than from the language required to accomplish a specific set of tasks? Doesn’t it just make sense to backward plan from high frequency structures (starting with structures from Terry Waltz’s Super 7 and Mike Peto’s Sweet 16) that will allow students to accomplish a range of tasks with just one or two new variables each time?

If I am backward designing from high frequency structures—which, by the way, I am—then the question is not “How can I prepare my students to accomplish this task?” but rather “How can I get my students to acquire this structure?”. The answer is always “THROUGH COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT”—through comprehensible texts, whether written or auditory. For that reason, my curricula become text-based, because through the interpretation of diverse texts, my students produce texts of their own—both written and oral, individual and interpersonal. The production, however—is incidental; it is the natural result of the successful interpretation of input. You know, the old “overflow” analogy: input is like pouring water into a glass, and eventually the glass is so full of water (input) that it starts spilling over the sides (output). It just happens!

I don’t mean to say that the goal of a task-based curriculum is not for students to acquire structures; certainly, in order to accomplish tasks, they must! Task-based teachers teach for proficiency, just as text-based teachers do. Both of our students acquire language and both of our students can accomplish tasks with that language. However, we have different approaches that result in the acquisition of different kinds of language and ultimately a different kind of acquisition.

Being able to check off Can-Do tasks is a great way to ensure that our instruction results in the ability to communicate; it ensures that proficiency is the goal. Ultimately, this is the most important thing. And for that reason, I think that task-based teaching has become synonymous with proficiency based teaching. Text based programs, those used by “CI Teachers” also produce students that are able to communicate in the target language with ever-increasing language proficiency. For that reason, I believe that text-based programs are also both communicative and proficiency based.

The choice to use a text-based or a task-based curriculum will affect many aspects of your teaching. Both text-based and task-based curricula are student centered, have proficiency as the goal, and encourage teachers to teach in the target language, and those things are ultimately most important. The choice will affect the activities that you use in class. It will affect the kinds of assessments that you administer. It will affect the resources that you select and what you do with them. It will affect the content that you cover. Ultimately, I decided that a text-based curriculum in Levels 1 and 2 was the best fit for me and for my students. I love that backward designing from high frequency structures has allowed me to design a curriculum that is both relational and culturally rich. From the first week of class, I am able to talk to my students about what is going on in their lives and in the world in the target language because we have the building blocks of all communication—high frequency structures—at our disposal. We can understand texts instead of just survive them. Gosh, I wish that I had been able to do that when I was in my first Spanish literature course! Can you even imagine what I would have been able to do if I had been reading in the target language for the SIX YEARS that I spent in Spanish classes before I got there?? Dang, I could have been amazing!!!!

Ultimately, I think that using a text based curriculum at the novice level will produce students that can accomplish more tasks, more profoundly in the upper levels than will a task-based novice curriculum. That is why I stand behind the curricula that I have developed. That’s not to say that a task based curriculum can’t also be wonderful, so please don’t think I’m slamming you for not going text-based like me. Y’all are fabulous and great teachers to boot; many of you have read a lot more research than I have and taught for much longer than I did—but I’d be crazy to teach in a way that I DON’T believe to be best practice! I reserve the right to be wrong, and you are welcome to attempt to convert me. Just be nice!

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