This article focuses on research previously done by the first author, who developed a task-based teaching and learning programme for international students studying at the University of Stellenbosch (Beukes 2017). The main aim of this article is to indicate how the grading and sequencing of three target tasks within a task-based teaching and learning programme can be done to optimise language acquisition. The study was conducted according to the following research question: Which aspects should be considered during the grading and sequencing of tasks for a task-based programme?
After careful investigation into different teaching approaches, for example suggestopedia and the communicative approach, the authors decided to find an alternative approach because there are problem areas in each of the approaches just mentioned. These earlier teaching approaches mainly support a behaviouristic model of teaching and learning. They see language as linguistic systems (phonologically, lexically and grammatically) and fail to prepare learners to use spontaneous contextualised language. The authors therefore decided to investigate the task-based approach because international researchers like Ellis (2003; 2017), Nunan (2010) and Skehan (2018) as well as national researchers, for example Kruger and Poser (2007), Adendorff (2012) and Beukes (2017) believe that this approach facilitates language acquisition the best. The abovementioned researchers state that the task-based approach offers the most opportunities for interaction so that meaning negotiation can take place effectively.
The task-based approach is a development within the communicative approach where the use of tasks as a methodological base and as the units from which courses can be designed is the most important component. It is an approach which centres on tasks and not according to language structures. Within the task-based approach real-world tasks are the starting point when a task-based syllabus is being designed. Within a task-based teaching and learning programme tasks cannot be haphazardly presented to students. Well-thought-out decisions about the presentation of tasks must be made. Therefore the grading and sequencing of tasks play a very important role in the design of a syllabus, in the design of tasks done in class, as well as in task methodology.
The research of Robinson (2001; 2005; 2009; 2010; 2011) on his cognition hypothesis as well as his criteria for the grading and sequencing of tasks are used in this article. The research on task typology done by Pica, Kanagy and Falodun (1993) and adapted by Gleason and Slater (2016) as well as the language use situations described by Van Avermaet and Gysen (2006) also formed part of the research for the article. Further research about Analysis of Speech Units (ASU) done by Foster, Tonkyn and Wigglesworth (2000) is also used for the grading and sequencing of the three tasks and forms part of the theoretical framework. The abovementioned researchers’ work was used specifically because they provide the most complex and most complete breakdown for the grading and sequencing of tasks.
The participants in this study were international students enrolled for the course Afrikaans for Beginners Level I at the University of Stellenbosch. The course was developed and refined by staff of the Language Centre who specialise in language acquisition and is offered to any international student studying at the University of Stellenbosch who does not have any previous knowledge of Afrikaans. Most of the students enrolled for the course come from Germany and the United States of America.
The number of students for the last offering of this course in 2018 was 116. Seventy-eight students came from Germany and 20 students were Americans. There were also six students from Finland, four from Norway, three from Sweden, four from China and one from South Korea. Eighty of the students were female and 36 were male. Dutch students are not allowed on the course because there is a separate course tailor-made for their specific language needs. Most of the students are familiar with the Common European framework of references (2001) and they indicated that their Afrikaans language skills were even lower than an A1 level on the framework. This grading confirms that the students enrolled in the course have no previous knowledge of Afrikaans.
The planning of a task-based syllabus includes certain procedures. The first procedure is to identify the language needs of the language learners. The use of needs analysis within a task-based programme has increased, because the students’ needs are central. Needs analysis is also important so that the objectives with regard to the content, skills level as well as the assessment criteria can be determined. Van Avermaet and Gysen (2006) state that different methods and resources, for example interviews, questionnaires, observations, role play and simulations, can be used within a needs analysis. Using two or more of the abovementioned methods creates triangulation that also helps to confirm the reliability and validity of the findings. Shekan (2018) states in his book Second language task-based performance that there should be a harmony between qualitative and quantitative methods within a needs analysis. The authors therefore used questionnaires that provide more quantitative data, as well as interviews and observations that provide more qualitative data. For the purpose of this study the researchers used the Common European framework of references (2001) as one of the measures to determine the language proficiency level of the students. The language use situations as defined by Van Avermaet and Gysen (2006) as the situations where typical fluent and natural language use is needed were also used for this purpose.
The main purpose of the needs analysis was to identify subjects that the students want to talk about with native students of Afrikaans. The eight subjects identified were: places to visit in South Africa; directions; hobbies; housing; ordering food; weekend plans; buying food in a supermarket and favourite movies, actors and actresses. The article will focus on only three of these subjects, namely weekend plans, asking for directions and places to visit in South Africa. The information that came out of the needs analysis was used to construct target tasks which represent subjects that the students want to talk about in a social environment. These are segments of authentic communication themes and subjects. The target tasks are used as examples of authentic language and are used in class to form the content from which lessons are planned. The students study the target tasks and use them outside of the class so that at the end of the course they can use them to create their own dialogues. Before the abovementioned target tasks are presented to the students, they are first rated by native speakers of Afrikaans so that the authenticity of the tasks can be confirmed. These tasks are written texts that contain possible conversations that native speakers of Afrikaans may have with one another. These tasks are semi-authentic because they contain representative content and language structures of real-world language use.
After the needs analysis the three tasks were analysed according to the task typology of Gleason and Slater (2016), the framework of Robinson (2005:8) and an analysis of the speech units as done by Foster, Tonkyn and Wigglesworth (2000). The aim was to determine the complexity of each task. The grading and sequencing of the three tasks indicated that the target tasks would be graded with the less complex tasks done before the more complex tasks. The conclusion that the authors came to is that the sequencing of the three tasks would take place in the following order: Target task three would be done first in the syllabus, followed by target task two, and lastly target task one, since the latter is linguistically and cognitively complex and offers the most opportunity for the negotiation of meaning.
The article attempted to present a workable model for the grading and sequencing of target tasks to illustrate how different theoretical approaches could be used for syllabus design.
Keywords: Afrikaans language acquisition; Afrikaans language learning; grading and sequencing of tasks; syllabus design; task-based learning and teaching; task complexity; task typology