Content and language integrated university course: A task-based approach

Author: Anna Rita Tamponi


The presentation discusses the results of an experimental study carried out at UCL, Italian Department, aiming at finding an acquisitional model in order to abolish the barrier between content courses and language courses through a task-based approach to teaching/learning, and at creating a bridge between language and content courses. The presentation shows how an input, relevant to the learner (i.e. related to content courses) to be processed through tasks, raises motivation and allows a rapid interlanguage change and development. Results of a two year experiment will be presented, acquisitional models will be discussed and operational solutions will be proposed.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

This experimental study carried out at UCL originated in my observation that learning the Italian language was not perceived by ab initio students as connected to their content curriculum. In particular, they seemed to separate their language proficiency from the language requirements of their content courses. Keeping in mind this consideration, the intention is to fill this traditional gap between language and content and to integrate students'personal and academic experiences by contextualizing learning.

The present study seeks to place learners' perspectives (personal and cultural) and content within a given instructional context (University, first year) as central in the teaching/learning process of Italian as a foreign language at University level, through a task-based approach to literary texts in Italian and to their cultural implications. Therefore, the overall objective is framing the interaction between FLA processes and contexts, linguistically and cognitively oriented, through a context sensitive approach.

If we agree that language learning is the site of identity construction and leads towards a new identity (Cook,V, 2002), it is pivotal to recognize the L2 learner status as regards his /her background factors (both personal and academic) (Abraham, R. G. e R. J. Vann, 1987), his/her motivation (Gardner, R.C., 1985; Dörnyei Z.,2001). Other important factors are the instructional context and the way the learner elaborates input into a meaningful output (Sharkey, N., Sharkey, A. & Jackson, S.).

The study has been carried out over two years with a qualitative approach, through interviews and questionnaires, in the pre-actional and actional stages, while with a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis in the post-actional stage (students' production).

We may consider L2 users as individual agents whose multiple identities are subject to change over time through interaction with the instructional context and with the materials proposed, and through the interplay between implicit knowledge of the world (non-linguistic information) and explicit knowledge of the linguistic and cultural L2 system (Pavlenko, 2000). Moreover, while L1 reception and production are largely automatic, L2 production and reception require the L2 user to intervene regularly in the process. Tasks represent a re-elaboration of input and combine representational structures with controlled attention.

2. Background factors

Theoretical studies and empirical observations have confirmed that each learner is different and retrieves information in a different way according to his/her previous experiences, attitude, motivation, cultural and personal background, but also in relation to the instructional context in which teaching/learning takes place.

In line with this view, the assumption of the present study is that together with personal factors, the cultural categories already possessed affect the re-elaboration of the materials proposed in a specific instructional context. This model may be considered an attempt to systematize the impact of individual views and personalities on foreign language acquisition and to combine personal categories and instructional context in what is called philosophy of learning, thus assigning a key role to the learner. In fact, both approach and strategies are mainly seen as the result of this philosophy and may vary from one individual to another. Background factors and motivational factors have been identified. It is interesting to note that in none of the cases academic considerations were mentioned as a relevant motivation for the study of Italian.

3. Instructional context

Learners of Italian as a Foreign Language attend University courses either as students of single honours Italian, or as combined honours (Italian and other languages, Italian and Design, Italian and Business studies, Italian and of Media studies, etc.) and good achievements in content courses often correspond to an uneven mastery in the language. So, it seemed important to create a language course in which meanings could be recognized through tasks,in order to develop a hidden awareness about the target language. The need to produce in the language could make this implicit awareness explicit, and the production of language related to other subject matters. So a course was devised in which texts are the starting point and the model necessary to process language. In particular, linguistically easy short literary extracts, of about 300 words each, representing models of different text types such as letters, dialogues, poems and ballads, narratives and descriptions, dealing with topics familiar to the learners, have been selected.

A first consideration was that if it is true that the starting point of our creation and reception of reality is the text, literary texts are even more relevant since they

  • Represent a stimulus for language acquisition
  • Develop students' interpretative abilities
  • Rely on previously acquired knowledge
  • Expand students' language awareness
  • Encourage conversation about opinions and feelings

4. Input - Input processing - Output

Since the research aims at verifying how written performance in ab initio students leads towards an integration of language and content and towards the development of transversal skills and strategies, the elaboration of texts through tasks has been favoured. So materials have been selected and tasks created keeping in mind a modular approach to teaching.

Tasks predispose the input to be processed and represent a re-elaboration of input and combine representational structures with controlled attention. They accelerate the process of learning through the activation of cognitive strategies such as analysis, control and selective attention (inhibition of misleading cues) and

  • balance implicit and explicit knowledge,
  • favour the passage from Short Term Memory to Working Memory,
  • overcome communicative anxiety, which causes stress and pressure on the WM (Dewaele, 2000)
  • facilitate FL acquisition, i.e. the internal organization of variables.

What does the L2 learner rely on when accomplishing a task?

  • Familiarity with cognitive categories
  • Information organization, i.e. general organizational principles

The tasks learners were required to accomplish represented the Second Language Acquisition processes as discussed by Skehan (2002).

flow diagram - the tasks learners were required to accomplish represented the Second Language Acquisition processes

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, an input relevant to the learner, i.e. related to content courses, to be processed through tasks, raises motivation and allows a rapid interlanguage change and development. In fact, through the elaboration of texts it is possible to balance cognitive demands and interactive conditions, passing through incidental learning, which links implicit and explicit L2 acquisition processes.


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