Language-Learning Objectives do Make a DifferenceFlavia Vieira
As a teacher trainer, one of the most troublesome areas I deal with in my interactions with beginning EFL teachers is the definition of language-learning objectives. This may seem a trivial problem if you believe that setting objectives for a lesson is a rather formal and unnecessary task carried out by trainees just for the sake of teacher-training demands. Objectives, and plans in general, are things too many teachers are suspicious of. “It’s a waste of time!” they say.
Surprisingly, methodologists themselves have had little to say on the subject. When looking through the TEFL literature in search of practical guidelines, one usually finds objectives described either as global tasks learners are supposed to accomplish, like “writing a letter of complaint,” or as expressions of the teacher’s intentions, like “teaching students to write a letter of complaint.” The difference is just one of focus-on the learner or on the teacher-not one of content, and any specification going further than this is hard to find.
This situation is strange, since one of the main theoretical concerns within language education has been the clarification of FL teaching/learning contents and aims. The semantic approach to course design, particularly the work carried out by the Council of Europe (see van Ek 1986), appears to be contradicted by a widespread tendency by practitioners to overlook the specification of language-learning objectives when planning units, lessons, and tests.
Despite the generally negative and simplistic attitude towards the definition of what it is that learners are supposed to learn, I would like to stress the fact that objectives do make a difference. The way you choose to define them affects all that you do as a teacher, because objectives stand for what you believe is the goal of your and your students’ actions; they show your personal perception of the teaching-learning situation; they reflect your teaching and testing priorities; they determine your choice of activities and materials; they influence your teaching procedures, your attitude towards learner errors, even your teaching pace; ultimately, they determine the kind of learning that occurs in your classroom.
What makes a language-learning objective relevantGiven the importance of objectives, why is it that they constitute a problematic area for FL teachers? How do we define language-learning objectives? And what is a relevant language-learning objective?
Within the context of teacher training in general, teachers have been encouraged to use taxonomies from curriculum theory, in which affective, cognitive, and psychomotor categories of learning content and behaviour are organised hierarchically. However important it is to have these taxonomies in mind (see Tsopanoglou 1990), one must question their value in the context of FL teaching and evaluation for one simple reason: they do not specify communicative competence, which is, in fact, the goal of language learning. Objectives derived from such taxonomies can bring about a sense of frustration and uselessness among FL teachers, because they do not provide a clear definition of the linguistic skills to be developed in the classroom.
It is my contention, then, that FL learning objectives are relevant to both teacher and learner only if they are described in terms of the specific areas of knowledge and ability involved in the development of communicative competence. One might argue that learners must also “learn how to learn the language,” that is, acquire “learning competence.” Our reason for focusing only on communicative competence is simply a matter of priority: until we determine what we want our students to learn, it is impossible to establish how they should learn it or what learning skills and strategies they should develop.
An approach to defining relevant objectivesA possible approach to defining relevant objectives for the FL classroom consists in using a taxonomy of language skills. Munby’s taxonomy, published in 1978, is still the most complete one available. My proposal is based on it, and is intended as a contribution to a thoughtful reflection on its potential application in planning units, lessons, and tests.
Munby is particularly well known for his complex sociolinguistic model for specifying the content of purpose-specific language programmes. In his Communicative Syllabus Design (1978) he presents a taxonomy of 54 language skills, with a total of 260 subcategories of productive and receptive language use. His purpose was “to facilitate the process of selecting skills appropriate to previously specified activities” in the program (p. 117). A “skill” is conceived as a “microconcept, to be distinguished from the macroconcept of an activity, to which its relation is that of enabling factor to resultant activity” (p. 116). A linguistic activity like “ensuring a passenger understands regulations on illegal exports” would imply the use of enabling skills like “expressing information explicitly” or “using indicators in discourse for emphasising a point.”
According to the activity-skill distinction, we can say that there has been a tendency to overlook “skills” and to identify learning objectives more in terms of “activities,” like “writing a letter” or “reporting.” But when you decide to teach your students to write a letter or to make a report, what is it that they have to do in order to accomplish those linguistic activities successfully? What skills must they develop? Surely, if you are not able to answer this question, you cannot possibly know what your students should learn and what you should do to help them learn it.
Munby groups his 54 skills into 14 skill types (examples in parentheses were taken from his original list; for a complete reference, see Munby 1978:123-31):
A. Motor-Perceptual Skills (e.g., “articulating sounds in isolated word forms: phoneme sequences”)
B. Understanding and Conveying Meaning (e.g., “producing intonation patterns: neutral position of nucleus and use of tone, in respect of falling tone with declarative/moodless clauses”)
C. Inferencing (e.g., “deducing the meaning and use of unfamiliar lexical items through contextual clues”)
D. Understanding and Expressing Information (e.g., expressing information implicitly through inference)
E. Understanding and Expressing Conceptual Meaning (e.g., “understanding conceptual meaning, especially time: tense and aspect”)
F. Understanding and Conveying Communicative Value (e.g., “understanding the communicative value-function of sentences and utterances with explicit indicators”)
G. Understanding and Expressing Relations (e.g., “expressing relations between parts of a text through lexical cohesion devices of repetition”)
H. Relating Textual to Extra-Textual Information (e.g., “interpreting text by going outside it, ‘reading between the lines’ ”)
I. Understanding and Using Discourse Coherence Devices (e.g., “using indicators in discourse for introducing an idea”)
J. Summarising (e.g., “extracting salient points to summarise the whole text”)
K. Reference, Skimming and Scanning (e.g., “basic reference skills: understanding and use of table of contents and index”)
L. Initiating, Maintaining, and Terminating Discourse (e.g., “initiating in discourse: how to initiate the discourse-elicit, inform, direct, etc.”)
M. Planning and Organising Information (e.g., “planning and organising information in expository language, using rhetorical functions, especially description of process”)
N. Transcoding and Recoding Information (e.g., “transcoding information presented in diagrammatic display, involving straight conversion of diagram/table/graph into speech/ writing”)
Munby’s taxonomy has great potential as a tool for language planning and monitoring in general. You can build a checklist of skills to be covered throughout a period of time, and make a regular register of when and how they are taught and/or tested. The same list can be used in class/individual progress charts, where performance levels for each skill are established (e.g., 1=Poor, 2=Satisfactory, 3=Good). And, of course, it can be used in the definition of lesson/unit/test objectives. Teachers working within this framework become increasingly aware of the significance of their pedagogical action: teaching and evaluation are seen as interdependent, purpose-oriented tasks which focus on the learner’s communicative competence.
In my work as a teacher trainer, I have made some adaptations on Munby’s taxonomy, the result of which is presented in Appendix 1. My purpose was twofold: (1) to make the taxonomy simpler and readier for use by teachers who do their teaching practice in a class of beginners or near-beginners (levels 1-3); (2) to expand the taxonomy so as to include two missing dimensions of language learning: the metalinguistic/cultural and the strategic.
As far as the first purpose was concerned, the following changes were made: (a) a selection of skills more relevant to low-level learners; (b) some simplification of their original formulation; (c) specification of the possible relations between each skill and the macroskill area(s): listening, reading, speaking, and writing; (d) rearrangement of skills according to four broad components of communicative competence: grapho-phonic, grammatical, discourse/sociolinguistic, and strategic.
The selection mentioned in (a) was made with reference to the Portuguese syllabus and common textbooks, and also to criteria of communicative relevance and linguistic complexity. Any selection of this kind will have to be made according to the educational context and must not be regarded as final; particular situations may require further specifications, either from Munby’s original list or added by the teacher himself.
Eight skills were added to Munby’s list (signalled with an asterisk in the proposed version): (a) skills referring to the development of the learner’s metalinguistic and sociocultural awareness (see B. 4/5, C. 14/15/16); (b) skills referring to the strategic dimension of language learning-that is, to the negotiation of meaning (D. 1/2/3).
Some of the skills included under (b) were already in Munby’s taxonomy, but not with the underlying concept of strategic competence, which was developed much later by theorists like Michael Canale (1983).
A large number of beginning teachers have used the modified version of Munby’s taxonomy with success in planning units, lessons, and tests. The materials were produced by Carla Menezes, a young teacher who did her teaching practice in 1990/91. The grid formats were suggested in training sessions so as to include a column where objectives could be described in linguistic terms and related to the other grid components. Clearly, this kind of work facilitates a good perception of teaching direction, thus providing a sound platform for teaching action.
If other people feel sufficiently motivated to try out my suggestion, it would surely be challenging to receive feedback and to share ideas and experiences on this somewhat forgotten but inescapable and crucial issue. (Address for correspondence: Flávia Vieira, Universidade do Minho, Instituto de Educação, 4700 Braga, Portugal.)