EDUCATION RENAISSANCE / Task-based teaching focuses on mastery
Emi Yamada / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

This is a translation from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. This article–the third in a five-part subseries focusing on school efforts to teach English by immersion–features a Tokyo high school that has adopted a task-based teaching method to encourage students to speak English voluntarily.

“There are a lot of ‘mottainai’ things in our school. What are they?”

Akie Kawakami posed this question to a late May session of her second-year English class at a public Tokyo high school in Katsushika Ward, and the students started discussing the issue.

The concept of “mottainai,” meaning “what a waste,” was promoted by the late Kenyan environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai to encourage more ecologically friendly lifestyles and actions.

Kawakami’s students performed several other tasks during the 50-minute class at Katsushika Sogo High School, beginning by asking each other questions using the English words they had just learned.

Next, they answered “what” and “why” questions in line with teaching points in their textbooks. The students then formed pairs and presented summaries of a story from the textbook. Finally, they exchanged opinions on familiar topics, with one student acting as chairperson of the discussion.

“We encourage students to be ready to speak voluntarily so they can execute tasks that can’t be performed without English,” Kawakami said.

Sixteen-year-old Risa Nagai said she had memorized several English expressions just by using them with her teacher and friends. “When I was in middle school, I hated English. But I like it now,” she said.

“Task-based Language Teaching,” the style of instruction Kawakami uses in her classes, places more emphasis on speaking actively while focusing on specific themes than using precisely accurate English. The method was created about 30 years ago and makes extensive use of pair and group discussions.

Recently, English education in Japan has shifted its focus to trying to give students a better command of English. Task-based teaching fits well with this goal and has been taking root at schools, replacing the conventional method of translating passages into Japanese.

Kawakami started using task-based methods in her class three years ago. “Students who were introduced to task-based methods in their first year [of high school] can use English grammar and vocabulary more smoothly” than students taught under the traditional style, she said.

People often hesitate over the proper words or grammar when asked to express an opinion in speech or writing in another language. Even with the proper knowledge, it is not always easy to express oneself. This difficulty is found in all types of human communication.

Task-based training aims to fill this gap between knowledge of English and command of the language.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education has given task-based methods its stamp of approval. Tamako Yonemura, a supervisor at the board’s high school education section, said, “Task-based teaching helps students learn unfamiliar words and grammar by actually using them.”

(Aug. 2, 2012)