Preparing for the iTDi panel, I answer the 4 questions posed.

Panel discussion on April 10 at 3PM Japan time, both on Zoom and Facebook, with Steven Herder, Dorothy Zemach, and Scott Thornbury.

Why did you choose your Great Minds in Language Education book?
I had taken courses on iTDi, one from Dorothy about publishing eBooks, and the Dogme course from Scott. My career has been what I’ll call TBLT adjacent. I teach grad school courses in Vocabulary Acquisition, Psycholinguistics, Methods and Materials, and Teaching with Technology. I’ve tended to focus on different areas like CALL, SLA, and Intercultural Communication.

Last December, when Steve proposed this idea of facilitating a group of keen people on a subject, I thought of TBLT, because it has been nagging me for years. I don’t really have a good handle on it. I feel like one of the blind men encountering an elephant. Is it a wall, a rope, or a tree trunk? The best way to learn something is to teach it. TBLT was on my “to-read” list.

The best part of this book is that it looks at TBLT from 5 perspectives: Cognitive-interactionist, Psycholinguistic, Sociocultural, Psychological and Educational. It’s the perfect answer to the blind man problem.

It’s also a great balance of Theory and Practice, the subtitle. It really looks at the science and how it is applied. Mind, it is not a “how to teach” book, but it does give you a solid background. It gives you an almost complete grasp of the field. It’s kind of like Ellis’s earlier book on language acquisition, what grad students would call “the purple monster” because of the color of its cover.

You shared your favourite quote from the book … can you tell us a little more about it?
“Nevertheless, problems still exist with the definition of a task. Van den Branden (2006) distinguished seventeen definitions of a task, which he divided into those that define a task in terms of language learning goals and those that define it as an educational activity.”

Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., Lambert, G. Task-Based Langauge Teaching: Theory and Practice. Cambridge University Press. 2020. Page 342.

This quote shows how the state of the field has changed in the last 15 years. It comes from a book with almost the same title. Now, there are even more definitions, but the great thing is that they are aligning, congregating around a few principles.

I’ve just finished my second reading of the TBLT book. The first reading is like a participant, to get the feeling of the book and how it feels to discover so much new stuff. The second is a deep dive, reading some of the related literature in the 45-page bibliography. There were 11 meta-analyses, for example. The third reading is to build the content of the course, the paths of action. It’s what I do for my graduate courses. This quote encapsulates progress and lack of it in TBLT. It gets at the central question of the quest. What is a task?

What do you think Ts can get from your GMILE course?
I’m just beginning my 3rd reading, for teaching. It depends. There is a nice balance of theory and practice in the book and, depending on participants, we can shift in one direction or the other. Another organizing principle has a burning question for each week, for example, “What is a Task? How do we handle Corrective Feedback? What about Motivation?” Yet another organizing principle could be to look at the main people in the field, the five authors, plus Robinson, Dornyei, and ask why some like Nunan and don’t appear so often. We may even try a mix of those. Keep updated on my prep at If you sign up, I may contact you before the course starts for tailoring.

How do you plan to approach your course?
It will be a mix of 2 formats. Start with a grad seminar, sitting at a round table, no head. I’m a facilitator and the less I talk the better. I just lay the groundwork. This works for me, smoewhat. But I have tiny classes. With only 2-3 it is more like a conversation, not a lot of discussion.

The second ingredient comes from a podcast about old movies. The Rewatchables. It’s not like your traditional critic, being analytical and holding things at arm’s length. It’s a small group of guys that know a lot about movies. They get excited. They love and hate things. The other thing is a set format. You can always find the Apex Mountain. Was that movie the best of the actor’s career? Then you have the Test of Time. Has the movie held up over time? There are a dozen others in each podcast. Listen to the one. Pick out a classic movie you’ve seen and listen.

Like that, I ask participants to bring 3 things each week from their reading and experience. ASQ. Agree, Surprise, Question. Something Agreed, Surprised, Questionable.

  • Agreed (correct, you agree with, is both important and valid, a “right on”)
  • Surprising (new, unknown, raises your curiosity)
  • Questionable (doubtful, wrong, demonstrably false, or something you disagree with)

Note that none of these necessarily indicate the theme of the reading. They could just as easily be about a small divergence in the reading. These are what each participant finds important. Ideally, we get the Agreed part done online, before the session. Surprise usually takes up most of the session, then we deal with the Questionable with the time left over or online.

After the first week or two, we can add a new dimension, three tiers Tasks and teaching, Linguistics and SLA, and Science. So that makes a matrix of 3×3: ASQ in 3 columns, with 3 rows of Tasks, Linguistics and Science. Like this:

TasksIn TBLT, the learner is thus the agent in the learning process, and teachers or course designers serve to facilitate this process through planning and implementation of learning opportunities.(p. 155)Such devices are what Sabet and Zhang (2015) refer to as vague language, which functions to create pragmatic meaning such as tentativeness, self-protection, collaboration and cooperation. (p. 167)Language is seen as a by-product or artefact of successful task performance. Task performance in Long’s sense is thus trainable and measurable in terms of objective criteria that apply to all learners. (p.185)
Language & SLAEngagement has been a mercurial construct in L2 research and has tended to piggyback on trends in research on information processing and cognitive – interactionist theories of SLA . (p. 171)Ellis makes a clear distinction between task – as – workplan and task – as – process. (p.196)Unlike Long and Robinson , Ellis ( 2009a ) defines ‘ task ’ not in real – world terms , but as a language learning tool. (p.196)
ScienceLittle work has been done to systematically address the issue of learners’ interests in the sense the term is used in Dewey’s theory of experience. (p. 156)Dewey defines feelings as mental states that do not lead to further action on the part of the learner , and he argues that it is a mistake to orient instruction towards learners ’ feelings. (p. 158)
Example participation matrix for Chapter 6: Educational Perspective

That about wraps it up for now. I am looking forward to putting this course together. If you have any input or ideas, I am all ears.

Background: I’m preparing an 8-week course about TBLT for iTDi as part of their Great Minds series (not mine, the ones in the book). I am blogging about the process of preparation mostly for the fun of it. I was inspired by Cory Doctorow, an SF writer that does this with all his books. But it also helps me focus. This is even more exciting than teaching a grad school course. I’m looking forward to it and hope this might spark an interest.