The concept of competence has been a mixed blessing for ELT. On the one hand, it gave rise to the European Framework of Reference with its action-oriented and integrated approach to learning. On the other hand, it championed a fragmentation of language into discrete skills in the interest of standardization and a marginalization of areas not easily testable (personal expression, creative writing, and so on).
The main quality of Wolfgang Hallet’s new book is that he comes down squarely on the side of an integrated, student-centered approach and shows concrete ways of employing the concept of competence to benefit learning. He argues, for example, that learner differences can become an asset for learning, provided that teachers have the necessary diagnostic skills to spot students’ talents and interests and use the right tasks to develop them. Whenever he discusses such issues, Hallet is writing for teachers (not theorists) by giving hands-on advice on how good tasks can foster individualized learning: they should allow students a choice of topics, texts, or approaches; they should be “open” to encourage individual solutions and creative thinking, but also “scaffolded” so that students receive the support they need to develop their own ideas, and; they should be “holistic” and varied in order to appeal to different learner personalities, intelligences, and strategies.
The concept of the task is at the heart of Hallet’s book, and rightly so: knowing a language means being able to use it successfully in a wide range of situations and contexts. The teacher’s main responsibility, then, is to create challenging scenarios which bring students into contact with real questions and authentic discourses without losing sight of the specific “outcomes” stipulated in the curriculum. This means that the topics discussed in the classroom should be relevant to learners and meaningful in the sense of confronting them with issues of the “real world”. It also means opening up innovative forms of interaction such as “think – pair – share”. Good tasks should encourage students to think and speak on their feet, which could mean striving to understand authentic texts or genres as well as forming personal opinions. They should initiate dialogic processes of social interaction in which students exchange their views, get to see issues through the eyes of another, and learn from their peers at the level of language and content. Finally, good tasks should be focused on tangible outcomes or products in which students share their ideas with the community and contribute to the construction of shared knowledge in the classroom.
The idea of sharing and exchanging knowledge is directly linked to assessment, the main function of which Hallet sees in establishing a multi-dimensional feedback culture in the classroom. Discussing different forms of evaluation (external, classroom, peer- and self-based), he shows ways in which good assessment should not only produce information about the students, but also for the students.
This book unlocks the true potential inherent in the “output-oriented” approach, showing how it gives teachers the chance of selecting the materials and tasks they think will benefit their students most. And while it is clear that students should eventually do well in standardized exams, we are reminded that making them competent in English means ever so much more. It means taking learners seriously as personalities with the capacity for independent thinking; equipping them with the tools to express their ideas coherently and persuasively, and helping them to make their voices heard in this globalized exchange of discourses that is our modern world. In showing practical ways of achieving all this in the everyday classroom, this book is a must-read for English teachers at secondary level.
Stefan D. Keller