18 Jun

So… apparently movies in the Marvel ‘Cinematic Universe’ have grossed over $3,400,745,593 dollars. That’s 3.4 b-b-b-billion for 11 movies with a whole slate of follow-up on-screen bombast en route to complete their cinematic world subjugation. Not too shabby eh?

I’d argue though that the studio masterminds have left money on the table by overlooking a key figure in their comic book source material, the 1980’s anti-hero Taskmaster!!! Intent on “[training] a large number of thugs at criminal academies”, Taskmaster was a superhero and a teacher! True, he never went much into humanistic language pedagogy, but not all super teachers can start pseudo-scientific Hungarian cults.


I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Taskmaster until I googled the word a few minutes ago, but I can relate to the idea of a task-setting obsessive. It definitely doesn’t get into any of the deeper truths about language learning, but it still amazes me that the success of a lesson can hinge on whether learners have actually understood the tasks. That’s probably why a few years ago one of my first posts ever was about ICQs, and somehow, that post still gets more hits than almost any other (which doesn’t say much for my improvement as a writer!). Back then, I was railing against pointless instruction checking questions, and a few dozen CELTA courses later I’m still not a huge fan.

A few months ago though I decided to dig a bit deeper and see what actually does work in terms of helping students to come to grips with activities. Here, the concept of ‘instructional scaffolding’ was helpful, covering all kinds of support structures like checking questions, visual support, examples and demonstrations, gestures, etc. (Applebee and Langer, 1983).

With the kind permission of my Celtees, I made a note of every instruction given, the type of scaffolding used, and whether or not teacher intervention and repair was then needed. I even recorded a few samples for good measure. Four weeks, a bunch of pretty graphs, and one excessively long paper later, I came to a couple of simple conclusions:

1)  Instructional scaffolding works:

Pretty ground-breaking stuff, I know. Basically, looking at both the numbers and transcripts, it seems that no matter how you do it, providing some kind of support for instructions leads to better comprehension. This was true even when taking into consideration the type of task and the quality of the scaffolding, e.g. clear, unchecked instructions vs. garbled, checked instructions. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this!

Types of scaffolding used and subsequent repair


Between the three most common support types, there was not much difference in either usage or apparent effectiveness in comparison to when there was no support.  However, these stats are a bit misleading as Visual support was never used in isolation.

2)  Combinations of instructional scaffolds work best

More importantly in terms of being able to help my trainees, there was pretty compelling evidence that combinations of instructional scaffolds are more likely to ensure task comprehension than any instructional scaffold used in isolation. Although just asking ICQs or doing a demo worked some of the time, when used in combinations there was a massive improvement in task understanding. In fact, although it might seem excessive, when there was a demo or example, an ICQ, and some sort of visual, the learners understood 100% of the time on the course, no matter which of the eight trainees was teaching. At the other end of the spectrum, one or no scaffolds led to repair between 70% and 100% of the time.

Combinations of Scaffolds Used and Subsequent Repair


Of course, all the usual caveats apply – specific context, small sample, only one course, etc. Still, it was interesting to put intuition to the test and to gain a little evidence that may help future teachers trying to effectively set tasks.

Like with past blog posts about projects of little interest to all but a strange few, feel free to contact me for the complete paper full of thrilling facts, methodology, and figures. As well, if anyone has had a different experience in their teaching/training context, it would be great to hear about it as there are a lot of questions still to answer – does it make a difference if they are new or experienced teachers? The length of time the teacher has had the group? The cultural context?

More importantly, when will Taskmaster be coming to a theatre near me?


Applebee, A. and J. Langer. 1983. ‘Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities’. Language Arts, 60/2.

Richards, J.C. and T. Rodgers.  2001.  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


8 Responses to “Taskmaster!!!”

  1. Chris Ożóg June 18, 2015 at 4:23 am #

    Excellent work and enjoyable post, Ben, and I don’t mean that in a you-wrote-a-blog-post-therefore-I-must-say-it’s-good way. Very interesting to read some data on the dark arts of task-setting and the success and failure thereof. It seems the ICQ may be annoying, but is empirically useful in combination with other factors. Hm, I guess that actually mirrors my own teaching and use of checking questions of all sorts.

    I’ve been meaning to write something on giving useful task language (particularly at lower levels) as a means of scaffolding even minor discussion tasks, e.g. “I think x because y” as I’ve found with monolingual Thai elementary learners, it is by far the most effective way of getting them to speak and to so in English. Not rocket science, I know, and arguably just good task-setting, but it really is dramatically effective in my current context, more so than I’d ever noticed before.

    Anyway, did this come up in your thinking? Obviously you’ll be working with multilingual groups, but I’m interested if you included task language as part of “demo” or “example” or if you’ve had any thoughts on it.

    I look forward to the next well-considered and entertaining post! For now, so that my thirst be at least in part slaked, could you send me your paper?


    • Ben Naismith June 18, 2015 at 8:04 am #

      Cheers Mr. Ozog, you flatter me now that you’re on the other side of the world.

      I didn’t specifically record if useful language was provided although sometimes it was part of either the example or the visual support. It would have been useful to know but since there were all kinds of tasks, it would have thrown out of whack the numbers with receptive skills comprehension tasks, controlled written tasks, etc. Plus, trying to observe, make notes of all instructions, and also write feedback was keeping me busy. Would be interesting though for action research with a focus on productive skills tasks. Likewise, I would have liked to have recorded gestures used in task setting.

      Will send on the paper as there probably won’t be a new post for a while until I can get through my next module on corpus linguistics or unless the baby starts talking. Can I combine the two? Comparative corpora of babies with parents of different L1s? PApa vs paPA?

      When’s your annual blog post due? Maybe we could combine blogs with a couple of other minimal bloggers to make one complete one?

  2. ampersand June 18, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    very cool info to know, and much thanks for the graphs – will be saving that 2nd one away for good use!

  3. Sandy Millin July 14, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    Hi Ben,
    This was fascinating, and while neither you nor Chris writes very often, it’s always worth the wait! As Chris said, it’s useful to see some figures put to this, and it might help persuade some of the more reluctant trainees that it really is important to support their instructions in some way. I’d like to read your paper too please.
    Good luck with the corpus linguistics!

    • Ben Naismith July 14, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

      Cheers Sandy and thank you also for adding one of my posts to your useful CELTA page – I always recommend it to trainees already, so it’s nice to be a part of it. I’ll send on the paper soon.

  4. Janani Lakshani February 23, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Dear Ben:

    This topic about ICQs has always been vague to me specially if it’s applicable across all levels and so on…Because in one of the ESL classes I am undertaking to my surprise I found that many students have deviated from the instructions given for a writing task despite their sound level of proficiency.So,I could easily relate to your post and found it interesting and useful to get the air cleared about the matter.Thank you very much.

    Grateful if you could please mail me the full paper.

    • Ben Naismith February 23, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

      Hi Janani,

      Thanks for visiting and I’m glad you find the post interesting – I agree that there is often a disconnect between what learners have actually understood and what the teacher thinks they’ve understood!
      I’ll send the paper now to your email.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: