When our group was discussing the level of proficiency and the interests/preferences of the learners that would work on our task, we came to the conclusion that a thrilling story with interpersonal conflicts would be perfectly suitable. I started off with the first chapter and passed it on to the next person, who then added chapter two, introducing a new character to the plot. As we had five people in our group, the final story consists of five paragraphs and five different characters.
Each of us comes from a different cultural background, which gives the story different perspectives. When I started with the first chapter I did not imagine the end to be as it is now. I was geared to French and Scandinavian thrillers, and therefore made my character come alive from a European viewpoint. Chapter three, four and five were written by our female, Asian group members, whose view of relationships and dilemmas are very different from mine. Their focus lies in double-faced characters, responsibilities towards family members and the burden of a student or working life. Chapter two was produced by the only native English speaker of our group, as can be seen by his use of vocabulary and sentence structure. This chapter also describes the most complex relation between people, with a third, nameless player entering the stage. Personal and literal experiences have had distinct influences on us and hence, a diverse outcome has been produced by us.
I consider our group work as a task by itself, the task to design a task. We had to use our second language in order to communicate in the seminar room. We had to write our story in our second language, using our own linguistic resources. We also had to send and reply to emails in our second language to request clarification. Each of us had an information gap, as we did not know any other part of the plot except the one we wrote (there were some minor opinion gaps as well). We used our own language resources (with occasional help of our native speaker) and then we had a clear outcome: our task.
I will not go into more detail here as my paper focuses on a description of our task and the learners, a lesson plan and a rationale.
As I have already mentioned above, the cover story for our task is a thriller. There is the boss of an exotic fruit company, Bill Carpenter, who has to face various problems, in private as well as working life. His wife Dolly is sick of his affairs and wants to leave him, but Bill refuses to let her go and take half of their assets. She is financially dependent on him, unwilling to leave him because of this and therefore furious. Bill’s former employee Chris has contracted an unknown disease while working for the company and is now blaming his boss for his state. He has already threatened Bill in public. When Chris’ wife Janet tries to get her boss Bill to support medical care for her husband, Bill asks for sexual favours in exchange. Janet and Chris’ son Bruce comes to know, and he is enraged by Bill’s behaviour as he is studying hard to support his family. He announces that he is going to solve the problem.
All of the characters in the story have got a motive to kill Bill, and he himself has got more than one reason to commit suicide. As a consequence, he is found dead in his office in the end of the story.
The learners are supposed to read the story by themselves and independently rate the characters as to which of them is the number one suspect, number two suspect, and so on. When they are finished, they will meet in small groups of two or three and discuss their rankings. After the discussion, they should come up with a group list. In the third part of the lesson, the whole class will debate the rankings and try to create an overall list. There are three skills involved in the task: Reading, Listening and Speaking.
“Who killed the boss” is an unfocused task, as there is no intention for the learners to use any specific linguistic features (Nunan, 2004). It aims on communication between the learners and, if one considers Lantolf’s theory of socio-cultural SLA, private speech when the learners think about their own ranking of the characters and mentally rehearse their arguments for the group discussion (Ohta, 2001 in Ellis, 2003).
The task has a clear outcome (Ellis, 2003): The final ranking that is created by all learners. At this point, one can argue that there are, in fact, three outcomes:
First: Every student’s individual list, where reading in the second language is required in order to produce an outcome. Second: The group ranking, where the learners use their second language to discuss their individual lists and contingently request clarification about the information given in the story (e.g. If Dolly was the murderer, would she ring the door bell? How can Chris be the murderer if he spends most of his time in hospital?) Third: The final list, assembled by all students through the use of their second language.
The task involves a primary focus on meaning, not on form. The learners are supposed, “to employ the same kinds of communicative processes as those involved in real-world activities” (Ellis, 2003).
“Who killed the boss” contains two kinds of gaps, an opinion and a reasoning gap (Prabhu 1987 in Ellis, 2003). The opinion gap occurs after the students have created their personal rankings (as long as they do not all come to the same order, which is rather unlikely to happen) and get together in their groups. Then the reasoning begins and the learners bring forward arguments for their interpretation of the story.
Therefore “Who killed the boss” is both an interpretation task and a prioritising task, as Bygate (2006) points out. As for the concept of the Interpretation task, Bygate states that the learners have to “consider the significance of a set of objects in terms of some specified context”. The specified context in our case is the murder, the set of objects are the suspects and their significance is the role they play in the story. Each student’s individual ranking therefore reflects his own interpretation of the story. Since all of the learners have to prioritise in their personal ranking, “Who killed the boss” can be considered a prioritising task as well, because “the learners are given a set of options to consider and prioritise in order of importance, preference, urgency, moral significance, and so on” (Bygate, 2006).
The input the learners will be provided with is the story itself in the beginning, and then the input each student receives by listening to the other group members (Lee and VanPatten, 1995 in Lee, 2000). Verbal information is supplied by the text and shared by the students, since all of them will read the same text. The methodological procedures of the task include individual work, pair or small group work and finally a class discussion (Nunan, 2004). The predicted outcomes are, as described earlier, the three different lists as the product, and the linguistic devices used to negotiate information and opinion as the process (e.g. questions and answers, statements, arguments), as remarked in Ellis (2003).
“Who killed the boss” is an open task (Ellis, 2003). There is more than one answer to the question of who killed the boss. If, for example, learner one chooses Dolly to be the number one suspect in his individual list, he might change his mind during the group work phase, and then again later, during the class room discussion. The students are most certainly familiar with the topic (Prabhu, 1987 in Ellis, 2003); everyone has either already read a detective story (novel or comic) or seen a thriller on TV. The discourse mode (Ellis, 2003) consists of a narrative input (when the learners read the story) and an argumentative output (when they discuss their results). The kind of decision-making involved has a human-ethical aspect (Ellis, 2003) in a way, if one considers that the choice of a main suspect would probably lead to his arrest in real life. However, that might be a weak argument. It is certainly not objective, as every learner has to make his subjective decision about a ranking, and to call it spatial does not meet it either as no direction giving is involved. Putting it in two words, one might call it a human-subjective decision-making task.
To answer the question as to how many elements there are given as task input variables (Ellis, 2003) is rather difficult. There are at least five, if one just looks at the main characters in the story. Then there is the murder, the company, the filing clerk, the tropical disease, and so on. These are all things the learner has to record and to recall when he decides about his ranking. Hence, one can speak of a high amount of information in the task that needs to be processed. The information given is detailed, it is context-free (Ellis, 2003), as there isn’t any subliminal meaning hidden between the lines.
The task demands a single accomplishment. The learners do not have to concentrate on more than one issue at a time. First they read the story then produce a list. Subsequently they get together in their groups to debate, and finally the whole class discusses their results.
As for the task implementation factors, there is some kind of planning involved in the task. While each learner reads the story and makes mental notes, and while he decides for an individual ranking, he prepares himself for the following discussion. During the group work phase, additional strategic planning time is given to each learner while others present their points of view and opinions. Online planning occurs while a student formulates his arguments. Other than strategic planning, it “is directed at formulation and articulation, and manifests itself through monitoring” (Ellis, 2003). The planning in our task is therefore both strategic and on-line (Ellis, 2003).
The task will be taught at the English Language Academy. The group of learners consists of eleven upper intermediate students of whom four are male and seven female. There are three Korean, three Japanese, one Russian and one Taiwanese student, all in their twenties, and there are three English teachers from Thailand who are in their forties. It is quite a heterogeneous group of learners.
The lesson plan
1) Introduction / Pre-task (5 min)
Welcome the students and explain them that they will be working on a task today.
“Before I hand out the task, I am going to explain the procedure (not everyone might be listening if I hand out the work sheets and talk at the same time): In the beginning you will work by yourself. First read the story and then have a look at worksheet two where you find further instructions. While you are reading the text, I will write those words on the board, that I think you might not be familiar with. If there are other words you do not know, ask me.
When you are finished with your individual work, you will be arranged into groups of two or three, where you will discuss your rankings and make a group listing. Then finally come together with the whole class and debate your results”.
Distribute the work sheets.
2) Individual work (15 min)
Watch the students: although they should be familiar with the vocabulary in the text, there might be lacks of understanding. Explain unacquainted words by using synonyms or paraphrases. When they are all finished, arrange the learners into groups of two or three (probably the best solution for a class with eleven learners is to compose four groups of two and one group of three).
3) Group work (15 min)
Give the learners enough time to discuss their personal rankings. Keep in mind that it might take longer to agree on an overall ranking. After 15 minutes, suspend the group work and begin the class discussion by asking one of the groups for their results.
4) Class room debate (15 min)
Chances are that an overall ranking cannot be found. If the learners do not come to agree on a ranking, offer them more than one final listing. In the end, it is about interaction and communication, and the more the learners discuss their results, the better. Consider that shy people are unlikely to take place in the class discussion. Keep the debate going by addressing the learners.
5) Final stage (1 min)
Thank the learners for their cooperation.
Total: approx. 50 min
The main reason why our group has chosen this topic and developed this task is that we thought it would suit the learner’s interests. We were told that the task-takers were interested in interpersonal relationships as well as tragedies. Consequently we expected our learners to be motivated and contribute better if we gave them a story they enjoyed reading. It was only later, during my work on this paper, that I noticed both the existence and the non-existence of some of the design features we actually used in our task. I am aware that there are advantages and disadvantages in the task, but it is the first time that I have worked on one and after taking everything into consideration, I am quite pleased with the result.
“Who killed the boss” is an interpretation and a prioritising task as I mentioned above. Interpretation tasks encourage constructive repetition, if in this case the learners are pushed to speculate in turns about the significance of each character, and to propose a likely order of suspects. Prioritising tasks, as Bygate (2006) states, “are likely to enhance repeated use of expression of opinion, and of justificatory comments, and depending on the design of the task can also give rise to repeated comparisons”. Although open tasks are stated less positive according to the Interaction Hypothesis, because information exchange is only optional, “Who killed the boss” is an open task where the learners need to exchange arguments and opinions in order to come to an overall ranking. Hence, they negotiate meaning by presenting their interpretation of the case. As there are only a few possible outcomes of the group discussion, this again forces interaction.
- Quote paper
- Liliom Strauch (Author), 2007, Task Design. Who killed the boss – a murderous task, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/116809