Hatice Sezgi Saraç, PhD
In this study, it was aimed to compare two distinct methodologies of grammar instruction: task-based and form-focused teaching. Within the application procedure, which lasted for one academic term, two groups of tertiary level learners (N=53) were exposed to the same sequence of target structures, extensive writing activities and evaluation criteria. Nevertheless, these two groups differed only in the in-class teaching procedures, which were task-based in one group and formal and explicit in the other one. According to the results, the experimental group who had task-based instruction on contextual grammar outperformed the group of learners who received formal grammar instruction.
Key words: Task-based language teaching, grammar teaching, form-focused teaching.
There exists a plethora of task definitions in the related literature on language learning and teaching. Breen (1987) defines a pedagogical task as a structured language learning endeavor with a specific objective, suitable content, particular working procedure and varied participant performance outcome. Skehan (1998) identifies the key features of a task and indicates that in a task, meaning is primary; the participants do not make use of others’ meanings; a relationship between a task and real-life activities exists; the task completion has importance, and the task outcome is the basis of assessment. Ellis (2003) proposes an amalgam of previously stated features on the definition of a task and highlights that it is a workplan that necessitates pragmatic language use for the purpose of achieving an outcome evaluated in accordance to the accuracy and appropriacy of content. Nunan (2004) elaborates on the definition of pedagogical task as a classroom application involving learners in comprehension, manipulation, production or interaction in the target language to mobilize the grammatical knowledge with the intention of conveying meaning rather than manipulating form.
In terms of classroom practice, Adams and Newton (2009) suggest a twofold version of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT), strong and weak, based upon the identifications proposed by Ellis (2003). The weak version conveys teaching via interspersing some tasks into the regular syllabus. However, in the strong version, the cores of curriculum and lesson flow are based upon TBLT only. Cook (2010) states that TBLT perceives in-class tasks applied by the students as the center of the second language learning process. Therefore, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is reconceptualized as tasks instead of the language or cognition-based syllabuses in CLT. Wesche and Skehan (2002) compare TBLT with CLT and state that TBLT is a “more thoroughgoing version” (p. 228) and define task as an activity in which meaning is paramount; communication is targeted, a link to real-world activities exists; task completion has priority, and the outcomes are assessed.
For the design and sequence of task-based teaching, Ellis (2003) suggests an application using three principal phases: ‘pre-task,’ ‘during task’ and ‘post-task.’ For the pre-task stage, four different alternatives of application are suggested. Firstly, the learners may be provided a task similar to the one they will perform in the during-task phase. Secondly, the learners may be asked to observe a model to have an idea on how to perform the task. Thirdly, the learners may be engaged in non-task activities to prepare for the main task, and as the last suggestion, the learners may be involved in strategic planning on how to perform the main task. Lee (2000) indicates that the first phase of the task procedure provides an advance organizer guiding the learners on task requirements and the targeted outcome.
The initial research specifying the benefits of TBLT suggests a framework of theoretical construction (Willis, 1990; Swain, 1995; Nunan, 1991; Pica, 1994). Among such research studies, the suggested categorization of task types are presented in three groups: the structure-focused tasks which prioritize the injection of linguistic forms into classroom procedure (Newton and Kennedy, 1996; Mackey, 1999); the conscious-raising tasks which bring learners into processing specific language features presented in the input (Bygate, 1999; Doughty, 1991), and the consciousness-raising tasks which target explicit learning of the target structures (Nassaji, 1999; Schmidt, 1994; Fotos and Ellis, 1991).
The research on TBLT designates that task-based instruction can be integrated with the English Language Portfolio to encourage learner autonomy and to facilitate more authentic classroom communication (O’Dwyer, 2009). The TBLT-related applications in computer assisted language learning, distance education programs and virtual learning environments have become a contemporary issue in the area (Levy and Stockwell, 2006; Hampel, 2010; Motteram and Thomas, 2010). Depending on learner and content variables, recent studies focus on empirical evidence on TBLT via teachers’ and students’ reflections on TBLT applications in the language classrooms (Robinson, 2011; East, 2012, Kirkgoz, 2011; Pavon, Prieto, Avila, 2015).
Klapper (2003) highlights that TBLT contributes to language teaching, but its mainly inductive approach to the teaching of language structure might be problematic, especially for adult learners. The adult language system is described as “less receptive to naturalistic input,” but such learners are described as better achievers in learning “from information about the language system” when compared to younger learners (p. 38). Moreover, in a research study on task-based teaching, Mann (2006) found that students from ‘collectivist’ cultures may have a traditional view of learner and teacher roles, and students might bear an expectation of a traditional, teacher-centered approach to the language teaching methodology, unlike the TBLT methodology. The students from such cultural backgrounds can be more successful with the traditional exercise approach as they feel more comfortable with it. From such a view point, traditional, or form-focused instruction, might be regarded as the obverse of TBLT, and it refers to instructional activities inducing language learners to concentrate on linguistic forms (Ellis, 2001). As emphasized by Laufer and Girsai (2008), when grammatical competence cannot be attained through meaning-based language teaching, form focused instruction is usually suggested as an instructional compensation. Nevertheless, there is a need for sound research-based evidence on the efficiency of form-focused instruction over meaning-based instruction and vice versa. In addition, as it is highlighted by Basterrechea, Garcia Mayo & Leeser (2014), further research is required to identify the effectiveness of various types of language production tasks. Therefore, this study aims to discuss the efficiency of these two instructional methods standing at opposite ends of the continuum via in-class applications and students’ productions.
This study is designed to collect data on the efficiency of using task-based teaching in comparison to form-focused language instruction. In task-based teaching, since the teaching process is not focused on the structural features of language explicitly, it might be regarded as disadvantageous for learners, especially in classes where linguistic accuracy is targeted in assessment. Hence, the present study aims to evaluate two ends of a continuum, which are the explicit grammar instruction in form-focused teaching and implicit grammar teaching in task-based teaching for an advanced English language level. Therefore, the research questions that guided this study are:
The study followed a mixed method research. The quantitative and qualitative data were collected from two groups of learners taking the course Contextual Grammar which was an advanced level course for first year students in the Department of English Language Teaching at a foundation university in Turkey. The participants of the study were students in two different sections; therefore, the ones exposed to the form-focused instruction were in the control group, and those who experienced task-based instruction were the experimental group. Two different methods of instruction, form-focused and task-based teaching, were compared by taking into account the participants’ achievement levels. Their achievement was measured according to the scores they gathered at the end of the academic term. The data on their scores were collected using a written language assessment criteria designed through negotiation between the course participants and the instructor. In order to detect whether there exists a significant difference between the achievement levels of the two groups of participants, the collected data were analyzed and compared via the Independent Samples Test on SPSS 20.0.
In addition, the students who experienced the complete task procedure both in and out of the class evaluated the course procedure through a questionnaire and written feedback. The results of the questionnaire were represented via percentages and frequencies. Furthermore, the qualitative data collected was analyzed by multiple readings for theme and code identification, and member checking (Guba and Lincoln, 1989) was applied by asking the participating students to confirm the final version of the analyzed data.
All the participants were first-year students (N=53) enrolled in the Department of English Language Teaching at a foundation university in Turkey. They had all passed the proficiency exam administered by the Department of Basic English at the same university before starting the first year education in their own faculty. The students were taking the course “Contextual Grammar 2” in two different sections. The participants shared similar backgrounds concerning the language instruction they had received in the past. The number of students in the first section was 27 and in the second section was 26. The participants’ ages ranged from 19 to 23. The first group of students carried out task-based applications during classes, and the second group experienced form-focused instruction all through one academic term.
The course participants in two different sections followed the same sequence of selected advanced grammar structures from the “Grammar Dimensions 4” coursebook (Frodesen and Eyring, 2007). The experimental group practiced in-class applications of conscious-raising tasks (Bygate, 1999); nevertheless, the participants in the controlled group were exposed to explicit grammar instruction through the selected coursebook content. Both of these groups produced writing assignments outside of class. The control group practiced form-focused study within class-hours and produced their writing tasks as take-home assignments. The experimental group did not focus on form but performed tasks instead and completed the task cycle (Ellis, 2003) with out-of-class written assignments as during-task activities and in-class sharing exercises as post-task activities.
The participants in both the experimental and control groups compiled their language portfolios and evaluated their productions twice with the teacher in individual meetings scheduled in an academic term. The criteria used for data collection on the evaluation of participants’ written language productions were designed with the course participants through negotiation on the items included. Later, the expert opinion was received on the criteria in terms of content and clarity. Subsequently, the related modifications were shared with the learners, and then the active use of it by the participants was initiated. The set of criteria designed was as follows:
|Organization and Task Completion||Portfolio is organized perfectly, it includes the syllabus and follows the same sequence, and productions are filed in the correct order.||Portfolio is well-organized, materials follow a sequence, and productions are eligible.||Portfolio is somewhat organized, follows a sequence but not the one in the syllabus.||Portfolio seems intact, but productions are not orderly.||Portfolio does not follow a sequence of order. Productions are presented randomly.|
|Accuracy||Productions include structurally excellent sentences.||Productions include only some typos and one or two mistakes.||Productions include few grammatical errors.||Productions have repeating grammatical errors.||Productions have repeating grammatical errors that are many in number.|
|Content Organization||Sentences in paragraphs are perfectly related to one another via connectors.Paragraphs have an opening and a concluding sentence.||Paragraphs are well-organized with opening and closing sentences but include very few relevant connectors.||Paragraphs are coherent but include very few opening or closing remarks and organizers.||Paragraphs are somewhat relevant but lack opening or closing sentences, and they do not include any connectors or discourse organizers.||Paragraphs include no opening or closing remarks and lack sentence connectors.|
|Target Structure Usage||Productions include relevant usage of target structure with at least 5-6 examples.||Productions include relevant usage of target structure with 4-5examples.||Productions include relevant usage of target structure with a limited number of examples.||Productions include the target structure but not enough in number.||Productions do not include sound examples of the target structure.|
The assessment criteria tool includes five different categories: organization and task completion, accuracy, content organization, and target structure usage. These five items were scaled from five to one with detailed descriptors of achievement. Within the criteria used, the production fulfilling the target of each category at the highest level was regarded as ‘excellent’ and at the lowest level as ‘needs improvement.’ Since task completion has priority (Skehan, 1998), and without tasks, it is not possible to carry out the assessment of personal written productions, the item addressing this issue was in the first place on the list of criteria and required the completion of all tasks assigned. The other categories were aimed at the evaluation of both the content and the language use in the written productions. Moreover, in order to ensure the inter-scorer reliability (Best and Kahn, 2006) of the data obtained via the checklist, another instructor other than the one giving the course was asked to evaluate the productions, and an inter-scorer reliability coefficient greater than .87 was achieved.
The participants’ performance, both in the controlled and experimental group, was evaluated via the abovementioned checklist designed both by the course participants and the instructor through negotiation. The syllabus designed for the experimental group was as follows:
|Target Structure||In-Class Tasks||Out-of-Class Writing Assignments|
|1. Correlative Conjunctions||Writing about personal study strategies while learning foreign language/s.||Internet Search||Comparing two different Erasmus Partner Universities and writing a report on findings to present in class.|
|2. Sentence Connectors||Creating a paragraph that describes plans to improve one language skill.||Watching an episode of a TV series||Summarizing/Criticizing an episode of a TV series (Lost, Big Bang Theory, etc.) to present in class.|
|3. Modal Perfect Verbs||Reflecting on language learning experiences and setting targets for the future in paragraphs.||Reading a newspaper||Evaluate/Criticize recent news on politics, everyday life, and economics.|
|4. Discourse Organizers||Writing a paragraph on the importance of learning different languages.||Reading a short story||Summarizing the plot of a short story.|
|5. Conditionals||Writing the school rules and regulations for adult learners on campus.||Reading a book||Reading a book and changing the content of one/two pages by adding sentences (with target structure).|
|6. Reducing adverbial clauses||Writing suggestions for prospective teachers of English.||Watching a movie||Summarizing the movie content by using the target structure.|
|7. Gerunds and infinitives||Filling out a chart on language learning strategies and writing a paragraph.||Listening to a song||Download the lyrics of a song or two and add more lines to the lyrics with the target structure.|
|8. Interview with the instructor|
|9. Perfective Infin||Writing about regrets and expectations||Watching a documentary||Watching a documentary on a global problem (global warming, financial crisis, etc.) and reflecting on what we could have done not to experience that.|
|10. Subjunctives||Giving advice to a friend on how to improve English||Watching News on TV/Internet||Reporting on a selection of recent news on TV/Internet|
|11. Fronting structures for emphasis and focus||Writing commercials for a product||Reading a poem||Rewrite the poem you found by adding instances of the target structure.|
|12. Interview with the instructor|
The learners in the experimental group participated in the pre-task stages, which were in-class writing tasks, instead of being exposed to explicit grammar instruction provided by the instructor using the selected coursebook as the control group did. The participants engaged in different writing tasks on strategies for study, plans to improve a language skill, reflections on language learning strategies, etc. The content of such writing tasks was determined to be different from the out-of-class writing assignments/tasks since similar content would give an unfair advantage to the experimental group over the control group, and it would not be possible to observe the difference made by the instructional methodology. Besides, the learners in the controlled group were exposed to explicit grammar instruction on the grammar items indicated in the syllabus, including but not limited to correlative conjunctions, sentence connectors, and modal perfect verbs.
Two groups of participants in the control and experimental groups were compared in terms of the total scores they gathered at the end of the academic term. The final data of students’ grades were collected via the aforementioned checklist for the evaluation of written production. The raw data was analyzed via SPSS 16.0, and the group statistics of mean scores are as follows:
|Groups||N||Mean||Std. Deviation||Std. Error Mean|
|Levene's Test for Equality of Variances||t-test for Equality of Means|
|F||Sig.||t||df||Sig. (2-tailed)||Mean Difference||Std. Error Difference||95% Confidence Interval of the Difference|
|Equal variances assumed||2.942||.092||4.094||51||.000||12.13248||2.96362||6.18277||18.08219|
|Equal variances not assumed||4.064||43.397||.000||12.13248||2.98553||6.11318||18.15178|
When the mean scores of the experimental and control groups are compared, it is seen that the experimental group achieved a higher mean score (the experimental group = 78.5556 and the control group = 66.4231). Further evaluation of data through the independent samples t-test and the related findings are illustrated below:
As is given in Table 3, the significance value of the statistic is 0.092. Since this value is lower than 0.10, it can be assumed that the groups have different variances. The Sig. (2-tailed) value presents a probability from the t distribution with 51 degrees of freedom. The p value (sig-2 tailed= .000) is less than 0.05; therefore, it is possible to state that the groups differ significantly in terms of achievement scores obtained at the end of the academic term.
In order to evaluate the procedural aspects of the course design, the participants in the experimental group provided their evaluations on the course content and instructional method via a four-scale questionnaire and written feedback to an open ended question which were collected at the end of the academic term. The results of questionnaire on the evaluation of procedural aspects of the course were as follows:
|When I evaluate the ‘Contextual Grammar Course’, I think that…||Very Effective||Effective||Not Effective||Very Bad|
|1||in-class activities were…||57.6||15||42.3||11||3.8||1||-||-|
|2||developing a portfolio was…||38.4||10||53.8||14||7.6||2||-||-|
|3||correcting peers’ productions was…||53.8||14||46.1||12||-||-||-||-|
|4||in-class discussions were…||50||13||46.1||12||3.8||1||-||-|
|5||one to one conference with the class teacher was…||57.6||15||42.3||11||-||-||-||-|
|6||working in groups during classes was…||57.6||15||42.3||11||-||-||-||-|
|7||carrying out individual work was…||46.1||12||26.9||7||26.9||7||-||-|
|8||carrying out self-evaluation was||46.1||12||53.8||14||-||-||-||-|
|9||developing written production was…||46.1||12||53.8||14||-||-||-||-|
|10||receiving feedback from peers was…||38.4||10||61.5||16||-||-||-||-|
|11||receiving feedback from the teacher was…||73||19||30.7||8||-||-||-||-|
As far as the participants’ evaluations on in-class activities of task-based teaching were concerned, the students were generally of the same opinion that such applications were efficient (57.6% very effective, 42.3% effective). The participants also took a positive stance on developing portfolios of written productions (38.4% very effective, 53.8% effective). The qualitative data collected from the students on in-class applications resulted in the identification of two themes: “more effective than traditional grammar classes,” and “such applications lead learners to be more productive in speaking and writing.” On portfolio development, the theme gathered from the collected data was “it is a record of improvement in language use.” Two different participants reported in their written statements on such applications as follows:
“We Turks are much better than English people at English grammar and its rules. Nevertheless, we have serious problems in speaking and writing. In grammar classes this term, I found the opportunity to improve my speaking and writing as the classes were not like the ones we were used to. We discovered usages and produced much better texts at the end.”
“We developed portfolios before, but the teacher had not given importance to it, and we had it just as we had to do so. In this class, I understood that the portfolio is just like a coursebook. Its difference from a real coursebook is that it is written by me only! It is a real book of my writings showing how I improved as time passes.”
All the participants indicated that correcting the peers’ productions (53.8% very effective, 46.1% effective) and one-to-one conferences with the class teacher to evaluate these productions (57.6% very effective, 42.3% effective) were effectual applications. The theme identified in the qualitative data on evaluating peers’ productions was “evaluating others makes you see your mistakes better.” A participant stated that:
“Since we designed the checklist to evaluate our writings together, I found it so enjoyable and meaningful to read others’ texts and mark them according to our checklist. While doing so, I realized that we have so many common mistakes. A mistake in another’s writing is definitely your own mistake, too. Maybe you cannot see some of your errors, but while evaluating others you realize that you also might have that mistake.”
On meeting with the instructor in one-to-one conferences to evaluate the productions together, the participants highlighted in the collected qualitative data the notion that “they felt themselves and their productions valued.” As stated by a student:
“The teacher spared time to talk to me on my portfolio. No one ever did it before. We compared our evaluations and talked on how the portfolio could be improved in a much better way. The teacher gave importance to my ideas and my writings, and I do appreciate it.”
Nevertheless, some participants (26.9%) highlighted that carrying out individual work of written productions was not effective. Within the qualitative data, individual work was compared with group work in general (57.6% very effective, 42.3% effective in the quantitative data), and the theme identified was that “individual productions are to be shared with others.” An excerpt from a participant’s verbatim is as follows:
“I liked bringing in my individual writings into the class and talking over them with the others. If we did not do something like that I would not give importance to my writings. If we did not share, the writings would just be to keep them in the portfolios and get marks”.
The participants also pointed out that carrying out self-evaluation (46.1% very effective, 53.8% effective) and developing written productions in general (46.1% very effective, 53.8% effective) were effective. In qualitative data, self-evaluation was described as “knowing what was expected from you,” and for developing written productions, the theme was “producing to share and talk.” On these two items, two participants’ identifications are given below:
“Without the checklist and self-evaluation, I could never know what I was supposed to do. As time passed, the criteria were in my mind, and I was automatically paying attention to the items included in that checklist to beautify my work.”
“I wrote texts because I had a reason to do so, which was coming to the class and sharing them with my friends. If you have something in hand, you can share and talk. Otherwise, I have to keep silent and watch people enjoy talking.”
Regarding the feedback received from the peers (38.4% very effective, 61.5% effective) and the teacher (73% very effective, 30.7 effective), the participants indicated the efficiency of both applications. Nevertheless, more participants (73%) stated that teacher’s feedback is very effective when compared to the percent of participants declared that peer feedback is very efficient (38.4%). Within the qualitative data collected from the participants, the theme identified for peer feedback was that “it helps for the betterment of products,” and for teacher feedback, the theme was “expert opinion.” An extract from a participant’s verbatim was as follows:
“A peer is the second eye for the text you have written; a fresh eye to catch your mistakes. A chance to improve your work before presenting it to the teacher who helps you more with the language and how well you use it.”
The discussions which took place during the classes among course participants were identified as effective (50% very effective, 46.1 effective, 3.8 not effective) by the majority of participants. Besides, the theme on the issue was “talk more and learn more.” Only one participant stated that they were not effective. His/her written evaluation on in-class discussions was as follows:
“The discussions took too much of a class time. We all enjoyed while participating in discussions, but it was so hard for me to get used to such a grammar course as it was so different from the ones I had experienced before.”
Within this research study, the first question scrutinized the difference between form-focused instruction and TBLT with relation to the participants’ performance on language use in written productions. According to the results gathered via a statistical analysis procedure, the experimental group (n=27), who experienced TBLT, achieved a higher score than the control group (mean score for the experimental group = 78.5556 and the control group = 66.4231). The t-test results indicated the statistically significant difference between the groups (the significance value of the statistic is 0.092) in terms of achievement obtained at the end of the academic term.
The in-class applications designed as different tasks of writing, instead of explicit grammar instruction as in the control group, constituted the main procedural distinction between the groups. Such applications were found to be effective by the participants of the study. The task-based in-class instructional design necessitated the development of other related applications such as peer correction, in-class discussions, portfolio development and self-evaluation. When the participants’ evaluations were examined via data collection, it was found that all the related applications were reported to be effective. In the qualitative data collected from the participants, the task-based in-class instruction was indicted to be more effective than traditional grammar teaching.
In this study, the aim was to compare two distinct methodologies of grammar instruction: task-based and form-focused teaching. Within the procedure of application, which lasted for one academic term, two groups of learners were exposed to the same sequence of target structures, extensive writing activities and evaluation criteria. Nevertheless, these two groups differed only in the in-class teaching procedure, which was task-based in one group and formal and explicit in the other one. According to the results, the experimental group who had task-based instruction on contextual grammar outperformed the group of learners who received formal grammar instruction. Moreover, according to the collected data on the evaluations by the students in the experimental group, most of the participants indicated that the course was effective in terms of the instructional applications carried out for task-based teaching.
Within the literature, a weaker version of TBLT, which is supported by form-focused teaching, is also suggested with different reasons; such as, for effective grammar teaching (Klapper, 2003) and because of the learners’ traditional learning experiences (Mann, 2006). However, it is also indicated that there exists a broad literature on TBLT in relation to its effectiveness on adult classes where English is taught as a second language, and there is a lack of research data on TBLT applications in foreign language contexts (Candlin, 2001; Charless, 2003). Despite the challenges and constraints, TBLT related implementations have begun to indicate evidence of success in the contemporary research findings on language teaching in foreign settings (Chacon, 2012; Hadi, 2013; Kırkgöz, 2011; Lai and Lin, 2012). Besides, in terms of teacher effectiveness and teaching of form and functional aspects of the language, the students’ expectations from an English teacher should be investigated as well (Celik, Arikan & Caner, 2013). Therefore, further research findings on the related implementational designs, perceptions and evaluations are required for the development of TBLT methodology.
In light of the findings of present research, the following pedagogical implications can be suggested:
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H. Sezgi Saraç currently works as an Assistant Professor at Akdeniz University, Department of English Language and Literature, Antalya, Turkey. She is also the editor-in-chief of the journal Novitas-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language). She has worked as an English instructor (1998-2001 / Baskent University), Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (2004-2005/New York State University), Research Assistant (2001-2007 / Hacettepe University), and Assistant Professor (2007-2013 / Baskent University). She holds a PhD from Hacettepe University, specializing in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Her research interests include curriculum development, pedagogical content knowledge, teacher training, teaching of literature, materials development and syllabus design.