Iwate Medical University, Japan

Most EFL learners in Japan have few opportunities to observe native speakers (NSs) performing in task-like scenarios, and consequently struggle to access the lexical phrases and formulaic chunks that facilitate fluent communication in goal-oriented conversation tasks. This often results in the use of the L1 during tasks. This chapter reports the findings of a study of native-speaker task interaction over a range of task types, focusing on the ways in which patterns of interaction are influenced by task design, and showing how recordings of NS task interaction can be used to better equip learners to perform similar tasks without recourse to L1. Findings of the study imply that valuable insights can be obtained by analyzing NS task performance, enabling L2 researchers to obtain a deeper understanding of how task design and task selection can influence interaction. As a consequence, this will enable researchers to make principled recommendations to materials writers, syllabus designers, and classroom teachers for a reasoned TBLT implementation and practice in the classroom regarding issues such as task selection and design, sequencing of tasks, control of task complexity, and identification of task demands.


For almost three decades an unbroken thread linking varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the role of tasks has fed the belief that meaning-focused interaction is a driving force of language acquisition, not simply an end product facilitated by lan-guage learning (e.g., Ellis, 2003; Long, 1985; Nunan, 1989, 2004; Prabhu, 1987; Samuda

& Bygate, 2008; Willis, 1996). This argument is supported by the evidence that sponta-neous, fluent, nativelike discourse consists mostly of chains of multi-word chunks of meaningful language acquired mainly through natural exposure and stored in subcon-scious memory (Becker, 1975; Lewis, 1993; Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; Pawley &

 James Hobbs

Syder, 1983). If we want learners to produce more language in this way, and become less dependent on paying conscious attention to language form, it seems logical to en-courage them to experiment freely with language while performing tasks. Thus, while a focus on specific forms may be embedded in a meaningful task, it is vital that learn-ers’ conscious attention be focused primarily on meaning while performing tasks.

Many teachers new to task-based language teaching (TBLT) are unconvinced by this argument, and wonder why it is not better simply to place tasks at the end of a presentation-practice-production (PPP) cycle. If we want a task to elicit a specific structure, they argue, surely it is better to make this explicit and encourage learners to focus conscious attention on using this structure while performing the task. However, to believe this is to miss a fundamental point in the case for TBLT: learners can indeed be frustratingly adept at sidestepping the language forms to which tasks are designed to direct them, but if teachers respond by imposing lexical shackles on them (Say it this way, please!), then they may be diluting the focus on meaning that drives language development, and denying learners valuable opportunities to experiment with alterna-tive language forms. Instead, teachers committed to TBLT should respond by seeking a deeper understanding of how task design influences interaction, and by developing ways to identify the appropriate task language for form-focused instruction. This lan-guage should emerge from tasks, not be imposed on them.

An approach accessible to individual teachers in local contexts is to observe how native speakers (or advanced nonnative speakers) perform tasks that resemble those to be performed by learners. Hobbs (2005) used this approach to discover that much of the language that supports interaction in opinion-exchange interview tasks consists of interactive lexical phrases: Learners perform better if they can access appropriate fixed and semi-fixed L2 phrases to discuss task procedure (I’ll go first; Shall we start by ...

ing...?), agree and disagree (Yeah, right; I’m not sure), give feedback (OK; Really?), and so on. This chapter focuses on a larger study of native speaker (NS) performance on a range of structurally diverse tasks, and addresses three questions that should interest TBLT researchers and practitioners of TBLT:

– How do patterns of NS interaction vary between different kinds of tasks?

– To what extent can NS use of interactive lexical phrases be predicted on the basis of task design?

– How can insights obtained by observing NS interaction be presented to learners to help them improve their own performance on tasks?

Research into task interaction

The issue of how task structure influences NS interaction appears to be a largely unex-plored area, and analyses of NS task performance are often small-scale investigations by lone teachers in EFL contexts (e.g., Baigent, 2005; Cox, 2005; Hobbs, 2005). This is

Chapter 6. Task structure and patterns of interaction 

surprising, for if NS norms are to form the basis of what is taught in class, there appear to be significant risks involved in deciding the target language and behaviours for giv-en task scgiv-enarios without actually looking at how NSs perform in such situations.

Indeed, Cox (2005) found that in the case of open tasks (without a fixed outcome/solu-tion), relatively inexperienced teachers trained in PPP methodology made largely inaccurate predictions about the language used by NSs in a set of tasks.

Of course, this is not to deny the equal or perhaps greater importance of under-standing the many variables that influence learner output. The heavy focus on learner output in the research literature is understandable, and has generated valuable insights into how learner output is influenced by factors such as task repetition (e.g., Bygate, 2001), planning time (e.g., Foster & Skehan, 1996; Gilabert, 2007), corrective recasts (e.g., Nicholas, Lightbown, & Spada, 2001), and corrective precasts that anticipate learner difficulties before they occur (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001). Research has also shown that we can influence learner performance in predictable ways by alter-ing task design. For example, Loschky and Bley-Vroman (1993) show that some tasks naturally elicit particular structures, and describe how changes in task design can make particular language more or less likely to appear. Mackey (1999) describes how a series of tasks successfully elicited targeted question forms. Tavakoli and Foster (2008) and Skehan and Foster (1999) show that narrative tasks elicit more fluent and accurate language when incorporating a tighter structure with clear time sequences.

Interestingly, related research also shows that this variation in fluency is not seen when native speakers perform such tasks (Foster & Tavakoli, 2009). However, such com-parisons of learner output with the performance of native speakers in similar situa-tions are still comparatively rare, and much remains to be done to help researchers and teachers understand not only how task structure and lesson procedures are likely to influence learner output, but also how NS task performance can inform the identifica-tion of target language associated with a particular task, and how NS recordings can best be used in class.

Practical guides for implementing TBLT encourage teachers to make room in the lesson cycle for examples of native or advanced speakers performing tasks that mirror those that learners will subsequently perform (Nunan, 1989, 2004; Willis, 1996; Willis

& Willis, 2007). However, few reports are available of what has actually been discov-ered by observing NS task performance, and fewer still of how valuable such data can be for teachers in EFL settings. Carter (1998) notes that the language that learners encounter in the classroom often consists largely of contrived dialogues lacking the very features that identify discourse as nativelike. This is a particular concern if learn-ers have few opportunities outside the classroom to compare their own output with that of NSs. However, given evidence that learners notice salient features of transcribed talk even when their attention is not formally directed to them (Takahashi, 2005), it would seem important for teachers to expose learners to examples of NS task perfor-mance, not only through pre-task listening, but also in materials for post-task form-focused study.

 James Hobbs



Task interaction between NSs can generate predictable discourse patterns featuring recurring lexical chunks. Previous research (e.g., Hobbs, 2005) showed that question-based opinion-exchange tasks typically included (1) an opening move (Are you ready?), (2) question markers (Now I’m going to ask you about...), (3) feedback (That’s interest-ing), (4) a move to return the question (How about you?), (5) pause fillers and vague language (Let me think..., ...or something), and (6) an ending move (Let’s stop there).

However, when such tasks were used with low-intermediate Japanese university stu-dents, many of these moves were either performed in the L1 or simply omitted. A question about summer holiday plans, for example, was seen by most not as a spring-board for discussion, but as a prompt to simply take turns to compose and deliver a grammatically accurate sentence (e.g., I want to go to the beach). Kumaravadivelu (2003) notes how such perceptual mismatches can cause learners to fail to match teachers’ expectations, but perhaps another reason why learners frequently revert to the L1, or avoid particular interactive moves, is that they simply lack the lexical re-sources needed to perform these moves smoothly in the L2.

Hobbs (2005) goes on to describe how this problem was addressed, for these par-ticular opinion-exchange tasks, by using NS recordings in class within the task-based learning (TBL) framework proposed by Willis (1996). In the pre-task, learners an-swered meaning-focused questions based on an NS recording. After the task, they listened again and studied the transcript, focusing on the use of interactive lexical phrases. After only a few lessons, significant improvements were noted; not only did the learners show more fluent use of lexical phrases, but also the near-elimination of code-switching, and topic development beyond the previously ubiquitous one-sen-tence answers.

While Hobbs (2005) investigated only question-based pair interview tasks, the encouraging results suggested that NS performance on other types of task might also reveal distinct patterns of interaction and lexical choice that could form a basis for classroom instruction. Moreover, these results invite speculation that common fea-tures of otherwise distinct tasks might exert a predictable influence on interaction. The current study, larger in scope and scale, sought to investigate these issues using tran-scripts of NS performance on nine different tasks, seeking connections between task structure, interaction patterns, and lexical phrases associated with specific interactive moves, as well as considering ways to present findings to learners.


Three pairs of NSs of English participated in the present study. Two speakers were resident in Japan. Two others were friends of the researcher in the UK and the USA,

Chapter 6. Task structure and patterns of interaction 

Table 1. English native speaker participants Nationality

(Gender) Age Language-teaching

experience Experience living in Japan Pair 1

(USA) Speaker A American (F) 30s Yes Yes

Speaker B American (M) 30s No No

Pair 2

(UK) Speaker A British (M) 30s No No

Speaker B Irish (F) 30s No No

Pair 3

(Japan) Speaker A American (F) 30s Yes Yes

Speaker B American (M) 30s Yes Yes

respectively, and each solicited the help of a friend. Finding six volunteers among col-leagues in Japan would have been easier, but I wanted to include speakers who were neither language teachers nor were familiar with characteristics of Japanese learners.

Participant details are summarized in Table 1.

With only six speakers it was clear that it would be difficult to draw firm conclu-sions about native speaker language, and the sample was certainly too small to investigate variations between different standard varieties of English. It may have been unrealistic to expect the study to do more than simply open up avenues for future re-search on the issues of how patterns of NS interaction vary between tasks, and the extent to which the use of interactive lexical phrases can be predicted based on task design. However, with regard to the third research question – how insights gained from observing NS task performance can help learners perform better on tasks – the potential was considerably greater. With regard to this third question in particular, the research described here is offered as an example of what is achievable by lone research-ers working with limited resources in parts of the world where access to NS volunteresearch-ers may be limited, and where teaching duties may place significant restrictions on the amount of time that can be devoted to research.


The three pairs of NSs each performed nine tasks fitting the description of “an activity that requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain an objec-tive” (Bygate, Skehan, & Swain, 2001, p. 11). Care was taken not only to include a range of structurally distinct tasks but also to pose a genuine cognitive challenge for NSs, and so to avoid simple tasks that might tempt speakers to consciously act out the roles of imaginary students. As one goal was to compare interaction between different task types, I chose nine tasks based roughly on Prabhu’s (1987) three task categories of reasoning-gap, information-gap, and opinion-gap.

 James Hobbs

1. Reasoning-gap activities (tasks 1–3): These were “ordering and sorting tasks”

(Willis, 1996, p. 26), which involve organizing given information. Task 1 required speakers to arrange historical events in chronological order:

TASK 1: The events below occurred during 1980–89, one for each year. Arrange them in chronological order.

A nuclear disaster occurs in Chernobyl, USSR John Lennon is assassinated by Mark David Chapman Michael Jackson releases the album “Thriller”

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives win a third consecutive UK general election The Berlin Wall falls

The first compact discs are released Prince Charles marries Diana Spencer

Ben Johnson is stripped of Olympic gold after testing positive for steroids Live Aid takes place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia The AIDS virus is discovered

(Task created by researcher)

Task 2 (from Jones & Kimbrough, 1987, p. 54) gave the statement I don’t understand.

Do you speak English? translated into 12 different foreign languages, together with a list of the 12 languages, and asked speakers to match them. Task 3 involved ordering pic-tures to make a story (Appendix 1).

2. Information-gap activities (tasks 4–6) required speakers to exchange given infor-mation. In task 4 speakers took turns defining words:

TASK 4: The words below are all connected with health and fitness. Explain each word on your paper to your partner without saying the word. For the spaces in your list listen to your partner’s explanation and guess the word.

Student A

START: doctor →______→diet→______fever→______→AIDS→______

FINISH←←hangover←←exercise←______←smoking (Student B words: nurse-gym-hospital-vitamins-dentist-aerobics-cigarettes-drugs) (Adapted from Bunday & Randell, 1996, p. 93)

In task 5, one speaker saw a 100-word summary of the life of Abraham Lincoln, the other a similar text about John F. Kennedy, and they were asked to identify coinci-dences and similarities through discussion only, without looking at each other’s text (from Jones & Kimbrough, 1987, p. 7). Task 6 was a picture-based spot the differences

Chapter 6. Task structure and patterns of interaction 

task (Appendix 2). For all three tasks in this category the term information gap signals a need for the exchange of information between speakers, but it should be noted that Prabhu (1987) uses the term slightly differently to identify tasks in which information is changed from one form to another.

3. Opinion-gap activities, which were all decision-making tasks. These required the exchange of opinions, and had no correct solution. In task 7 speakers discussed the desirability of hypothetical laws:

TASK 7: Imagine you have the power to enact the following laws, but only if you both agree. Which laws will/won’t you enact?

1. Doubling the tax on cigarettes in order to discourage people from smoking.

2. Doubling the tax on alcohol in order to discourage people from drinking.

3. Requiring all school students to wear a school uniform.

4. Raising the driving age to 21 in order to reduce traffic congestion and road accidents.

5. Legalising the use of marijuana.

(Task created by researcher)

Tasks 8 and 9 were also created by the researcher. Task 8 asked speakers to discuss the relative merits of printed reference books as compared with reference materials on CD-ROM, and agree on three advantages of each; in task 9 each speaker was asked to suggest three interesting places to visit in his/her country of birth, and the listener in each case then decided which of the suggested places he/she would most like to visit.

The similarities between the tasks in each group provided a basis for analysis, but the variety was felt to be sufficient that any common patterns of interaction observed would be significant. For example, task 4 differs in many ways from tasks 5 and 6, so it would be interesting if patterns of interaction reflected the common need to exchange given information. However, it was necessary to record several pairs performing each task in order to confirm that findings did not reflect only the conversational style of a particular speaker. Overall, the project had a 3x3x3 structure: three pairs of speakers, three task categories, three tasks per category.

Data collection procedures

The researcher did not attend any recording sessions. Each pair received printed in-structions and task papers. They knew that the recordings would be analysed carefully, but knew nothing of the research goals. Each pair recorded their own unrehearsed performance of all nine tasks, in one or more sessions. Although no order was speci-fied, all pairs performed the tasks in order 1–9, each pair taking roughly 60 minutes in total. The recording was then sent to the researcher.

 James Hobbs

Coding and analysis of data

The recordings were transcribed by the researcher, yielding a research corpus of some 16,000 words, including all the interaction except for a few utterances that could not be clearly discerned.

Analysis was also performed by the researcher, and began with simply browsing transcripts for recurring features in three areas: interactive structure (e.g., initiation-response-feedback), specific interactive moves (e.g., seeking agreement; commenting on task progress), and lexical choices (e.g., I think...). In some cases, potential areas of interest were decided in advance by intuition and investigated by analyzing transcripts (e.g., in tasks without a fixed order/procedure, how do speakers go about deciding this? In tasks requiring agreement, how is agreement/disagreement expressed? etc.).

At other times the researcher simply noticed a word or phrase encountered elsewhere in the transcripts, or recognized a particular interactive move or pattern seen earlier.

Where such features were identified, comparisons were made with other pairs and other tasks to determine the degree to which the feature correlated with the task cate-gory, as opposed to being associated only with a particular task and/or speaker.

Frequency counts (e.g., of specific lexical items) were performed by computer where possible, but analysis of interactive structure was necessarily carried out manually us-ing printouts of transcripts. It did not seem prudent to fix an arbitrary value for a quantitative definition of recurrence, as the items being considered were often quite disparate in nature, with frequency not necessarily the best indicator of significance.

For example, a particular interactive move appearing only once in a transcript might nevertheless be significant if also appearing once in several other transcripts for tasks of a similar type, while conversely a specific lexical item encountered 20 or more times might be less interesting if used by only one speaker, and hence clearly not something that could easily be predicted. In short, the aim was not simply to validate or disprove specific predictions, but rather to keep a sharp eye open for any way in which task design appeared to have influenced the interaction, to identify features that offer a basis for predicting performance by other NS on similar tasks, and to consider ways that learners could be exposed to recordings and transcripts of such interaction in order to perform better on their own classroom tasks.


Findings of the study are presented by task category, focusing on the most striking

Findings of the study are presented by task category, focusing on the most striking

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