Welcome to the July/August edition of TLT Interviews! For this issue, we are excited to bring an interview with Dr. Natsuko Shintani. Dr. Shintani is a Professor in the Faculty of Foreign Language Studies at Kansai University. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Auckland in 2011. She has worked as a language teacher in Japan and New Zealand, including in her own private language school for children. Her research interests include task-based language instruction, the role of interaction in second language acquisition and written corrective feedback. She has published widely in leading journals and has authored several books including The Role of Input-Based Tasks in Foreign Language Instruction for Young Learners (2016), Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research (2013), and Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice (2019). Dr. Shintani was interviewed by Paul Marlowe, who is an Associate Lecturer of English in the School of Policy Studies at Kwansei Gakuin University. He earned a Ph.D. from Temple University in Japan and is interested in researching L2 writing development. So, without further ado, to the interview!
Paul Marlowe: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join me for this interview. You’ve taught in lots of different contexts from language schools to universities, and I wanted to know a little bit about how you’re able to use research in those different teaching contexts to help you resolve some of the classroom issues you’ve had or perhaps to confirm some of the approaches you’ve used that you thought were effective. If you could tell us a little about that.
Natsuko Shintani: Thank you. As you said, I taught in many different contexts and mainly the first context that I was teaching was my own English school which was very small with maybe 60-80 students. I conducted my master’s study and my Ph.D. study there. My master’s research was about learner autonomy, and I examined my students participating in a self-study project. The study was motivated by the issue I faced as a teacher. My school provided lessons for 90 minutes once a week and some of the students were very motivated, but I realized that 90 minutes a week is not sufficient to see their visible development of language knowledge so that was really a big issue, and I thought that maybe I could have encouraged students to study outside of the classroom. My participants were 10-11 years old at that time, and I created a lot of opportunities to do self-study like visiting a library and doing extensive reading kind of things. And on the weekend, they could come to the school and play some English games by themselves and a lot of worksheets they can do by themselves, and they made their own learning portfolios. I found that the kids of about 10-11 years old are very capable in self-study and sometimes can creatively develop their own games using the given tasks or materials if they get appropriate reminders and support from the teachers. So that’s kind of related to my issue.
My Ph.D. study was about TBLT (Task-Based Language Teaching), and that was also motivated by my issues because I was the owner of the school, and the parents often asked, “When can my kid speak English?” or something like that. I thought that my teaching was limited, that it was quite mainly mechanical with mostly pattern practice. Many times, they enjoyed it because I made it like a game, but still, they could not go beyond that. They can answer the questions that they have learned well but were not able to try to communicate using their knowledge more flexibly. I found that some of the kids started to be able to do it, and I realized that those kids, apart from my school, had a chance to communicate using English in real situations. They had experience with homestays, or they had a cousin in the U.S., and they visited during the summer break. I thought that maybe if I could provide an opportunity in the classroom that they can really try to use their own language to try to communicate then they might be able to develop more flexible ability and develop a communicative ability to use English. Then I found that TBLT might be the answer, and I tried to conduct it for young children. That is also very much related to my own context.
You were recently scheduled to do a JALT event about TBLT in Nagoya that was canceled due to concerns related to COVID-19. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share a little about what you were going to talk about and maybe describe the different areas of work you’ve done with task-based language teaching.
The first thing I wanted to talk about is the difference between TBLT and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), which is sort of a typical language teaching format. PPP starts from providing explicit information to students. So if it is grammar, it is like providing the explanation about how to create past tense and the difference between regular verb and irregular verb. That’s explicit instruction. Then at the practice stage, you provide mechanical practice like fill in the blanks or choose the correct answers in the certain situation. And then you move on to the free production stage, which involves more roleplay kind of things which are more similar to real situations. But the point is that even if you provide the communicative activity, the students will still focus on their accuracy. While the task [TBLT] still uses the communicative activity, which we call a task, that is the center of the lesson. The reason is because we try to create their artificial situation—a context in which students are focusing on the communication and using language to communicate rather than seeing the language as an object to learn. So the task is the center of the lesson. The typical format is pre-task, main task, and post-task. Pre-task is not teaching something. The purpose is to help the students, provide information, or help the students to be able to complete the task. In the pre-task, you might provide some vocabulary, but learning the vocabulary is not the purpose. The purpose is to use the language in a communicative task. The post-task phase is something that you might feel is not really teaching because they don’t really have a chance to learn. If you don’t do post-task, maybe some students feel that it’s just a kind of game or something like that. The post-task can provide grammatical explanation or practice.
It [TBLT] is almost like PPP, but in a different order. The last P comes first, and then Present and Practice later. So, it provides an opportunity for the students to try to use their own knowledge, communicate, and create their hypothesis that this might be wrong or might be correct. Then you can provide the correct answer and provide knowledge. Still, you provide the opportunity for learners to use their own knowledge to communicate focusing on the communication between TBLT. So that’s kind of the difference between TBLT and PPP. In one word, the TBLT tries to create the situation that learners use language, English, to communicate while PPP tends to provide a situation where learners see English as an object to learn. So that’s a really big difference.
What would you say is the difference between doing TBLT with university learners and with young learners?
It’s just recently that there are some textbooks focusing on TBLT tasks for the university level. In my workshop, I often provide how you can differentiate the levels of tasks for different levels and age groups. To decide the difficulty of the task, there are some different aspects. One is language level. If you use difficult language, it is more difficult, and if it is easy, it is easier. Another aspect is task content. If you use something like square or round or 1, 2, 3, or something like that, the context is easy. If the context is about international issues or that sort of thing, the content is difficult. Content and language level is a different aspect. Another aspect is task design. If it is very simple, the task requiring you to identify some items and information gaps are very easy. But tasks could be more difficult if you design the task as an opinion gap task. You have to discuss or if there are some different stages, you have to do this first and then use the information and do this next. So you can make the task more complex, more difficult. You have to consider those three aspects. Even with very simple English, you can make the task more difficult or more appropriate for adults by using difficult topics and making the task more complicated. For young learners, you can use a simple task like an information gap task. I often use input-based tasks. Students don’t have to provide English; they can just listen and find the picture or draw a picture or something like that. Also, you can use very simple topics like Doraemon or animals or that sort of thing. So, that’s what I am suggesting. I found that it is more difficult to create tasks for university students because their language skills are still very limited. You can’t use a very complex newspaper or authentic newspaper. But you can adjust the level of difficulty to suit university students or use a topic that is very difficult like international affairs, but don’t require the learners to write the report or write the newspaper. Just try to read the newspaper and get the point and they can communicate in Japanese, but they can present in English.
You have given lots of examples of TBLT in speaking activities and even just now you mentioned a reading activity. Are there ways we can apply TBLT to other skills such as writing?
When people talk about TBLT or tasks, they tend to think that it is oral communication tasks. Of course, tasks can be written tasks. The purpose of TBLT is to improve communicative ability and writing is one way to communicate with others. When you write, you anticipate readers. Of course, email is really a communication tool, but even if you write an essay or something, you are trying to convey something to others. So, it is a way to communicate and, in that sense, it is the same as speaking. If we create the context where learners need to write to convey something to someone else and they are evaluated by the outcome of the task rather than how accurately they use the language, it’s a task.
To make an activity a little task-like, either a speaking task, a listening task, a writing task, or a reading task, you add something so that the students’ attention is to the goal rather than writing, reading, or speaking accurately. Then you can make an activity a little task-like. I don’t really like to have a clear-cut idea of this is a task, and this is not a task. You can make any activity a little bit like a task by trying to direct the students’ attention more to meaning and more focus on communication, even in writing.
You have done a lot of research in writing and particularly on written corrective feedback (WCF). This has been an ongoing debate in the field for decades. To what degree do teachers need to give explicit feedback on writing tasks? Can you talk about what the results of your research say about this issue and what is your overall view of corrective feedback in the writing classroom?
There was a debate about WCF, but more recent cumulative research overall shows that it is effective. And it depends on how you define the effectiveness of WCF. Of course, it is effective in the way that it improves the writing. If a student writes something, you provide feedback and they rewrite based on that, usually it improves. The point that has been discussed is whether that kind of activity improves their language knowledge. Overall, yes, but it depends. There is a lot of discussion about whether the feedback should be direct—like correct and provide answers, or indirect—just indicate this is wrong so you have to think about it yourself. Or either focused or unfocused, like correcting feedback for all the errors or focusing on certain errors repeatedly. The research indicates that basically it depends on the learners. Some learners need more support from the teachers. They want the answers for their errors, but some more advanced learners might not need it. They prefer to think by themselves, and they are capable of doing it. So, it depends, but overall, it is effective.
So now researchers are more interested in processing. How the learners process the feedback rather than providing this type or that or which type is better. Actually, researchers are looking at what they are doing and how they process it. Basically, we know whether or not corrective feedback is effective depends on what learners do with the feedback. If learners ignore it, it is not effective. But if they look at the feedback and think, “OK, this is the correct answer” and “This was wrong and why was I wrong?” and “Maybe I should be careful.” Then they improve, obviously. So it depends how deeply they process the feedback. That is the kind of thing researchers have started to look at. Sometimes we call it engagement—the level of engagement to the WCF or the depth of processing. It’s difficult because you can’t see inside their brains. Quite often, researchers create the context of collaborative writing. Then they talk to each other, so we can observe what they are thinking. Or we use an artificial approach called think aloud protocol. While they are writing, we ask the students to keep talking about what they are thinking and categorize their depth of processing based on what they are saying. So we kind of create different levels of processing and how the different levels of processing and feedback influence their correction or their knowledge development. So that is something that we are starting to do, but still not many studies have done this. Gradually we realize that we found a very small thing: The deeper the processing is, they improve more. But teachers know that, but how can we do it?
So as teachers, if we want our students to deeply process that feedback, what is the research suggesting at this point? Are there any specific things we can do to encourage that deep processing?
Some researchers suggest that after receiving the feedback, instructors should ask the students to write what they have learned, meaning languaging. If you try to produce something, you have to think, you have to process. So that is one way to encourage students to engage more.
A kind of reflective task?
Yes, a reflective task. Receiving the feedback and studying it, but not just studying it, but asking the students to write what they have learned. By producing it, you learn something as well. The production helps you to develop your language knowledge. So that is one way. Another more sociocultural approach is that more gradual feedback. If you just provide the answers, it is easy. But you can start from less support, just asking the student to think by themselves. If they cannot do it, you can provide indirect feedback. And if that doesn’t work, you provide metalinguistic explanation like, “Do you remember the past tense?” And if they can’t do that, you say it is wrong here and provide the correct answer. Sort of adjusting the level of the feedback to the student. Synchronous written corrective feedback online while they are writing allows teachers to do that. You can provide a very general comment and if they couldn’t do it, you can provide more sort of support.
More of a scaffolded approach to feedback?
Yes, scaffolded. So differentiate the scaffolding level depending on the students.
Now that sounds like a great approach if you have a very small number of students you can workshop with. What would be your advice and suggestions for teachers giving feedback to large groups of 30-40 students?
Synchronous corrective feedback can work. It helps teachers because teachers don’t have to wait during the classroom, finish writing, and then outside of the classroom, the teachers have to provide feedback. Teachers can provide feedback all along. Even outside the classroom students can keep writing, so it is quite flexible in a way. For around up to 20 students, it is possible. But if it is more than that, what you can do is identify common errors and provide some explicit instructions in the classroom and ask students to self-correct or peer correct.
Is that what you refer to in your research as metalinguistic explanation?
Yes. And often people talk about peer feedback to reduce the teacher’s burden, but peer feedback requires a lot of scaffolding. Students cannot really do it. More specifically, looking at this or providing the rubric or something like that. So you need to do that level of support to ask the students to do it. Another possibility is to ask the students to use machine translation like DeepL or Google Translate. They can put their answers into the translation software and see if it correctly retranslates into Japanese. I think there really is little research on it because teachers have a strong reservation about allowing students to use it, although they do. So, thinking more proactively about how we could use machine translation as feedback in the classroom might be a new kind of topic that a lot of researchers should think about. I think that is another possibility to reduce the amount of time given on feedback. Another one is providing a model. After students finish writing, then they can look at the model and compare it. That is another way to ask the students to evaluate by themselves rather than providing feedback. There are a lot of ways, but still students like feedback. They feel like they are supported.
That is one of the things I think that as teachers we often feel our students want from us. Whether or not it is effective, we feel like we should give it to them because that is what they want.
Yes, that is what they want, actually. But there are many ways like I said, like providing models or asking students to do peer feedback or explicit instruction or using machine translation. And if you make it very clear to the students that it’s not that I’m not trying not to provide feedback, but this is another way to do this. So if they feel like this is another way, then perhaps it is OK.
We need to sell it to them to some degree, right?
Yes. And I think somehow receiving feedback is quite passive. And trying to find their own answer by themselves even using Google Translate is much more proactive. So it depends on how you use it. In this sort of online teaching era, it is another way to do it, I think.
In terms of writing, something I try to tell the students and myself is that the purpose of writing class is not to make them to be able to write perfectly from the beginning. Really, 80-90 percent of writing is revising. Even myself, I have to revise many times, so we need to teach how to revise. DeepL is really only a small part of English writing. You need to revise it to make it a good report and maybe it’s time to teach how to revise the DeepL answers into good English. That sort of aspect could be focused on in the teaching, even a little bit. It’s a difficult issue.
Well, thank you Dr. Shintani for sharing your time, experience and your expertise with us!
Ellis, R., & Shintani, N. (2013). Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203796580
Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019). Task-based language teaching: Theory and practice. Cambridge. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108643689
Shintani, N. (2016). Input-based tasks in foreign language instruction for young learners (Vol. 9). John Benjamins. https://doi.org/10.1075/tblt.9