PBLA: A Need for Task-Based Needs Analysis and a Study in Task Differentiation

Man stretched between two cliffs
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Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA) is here to stay. “Teachers cannot opt out” (p. 58) and it is “an expectation of employment” (p. 71). Once implemented the way it was meant to be, the evidence suggests, it is an academically sound approach to teaching and learning. The PBLA programme, now being implemented in all ESL non-credit classes that are funded by Citizenship and Immigration, has two critical shortcomings which I have encountered while trying to implement it in my classroom. The shortcomings are identified in the academic literature.

The Canadian federal government’s  text, Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA): Guide for Teachers and Programs (2014 ed.), from which all quotes in this blog are taken, does mention the various birth pains associated with the coming of something new, in this case PBLA for many instructors, myself included, unaccustomed to- task based instruction and task-based assessment.  The guide mentioned above, now used to train instructors (myself included) throughout the country, ignores two substantive and interrelated caveats central to the smooth implementation of the PBLA programme. And I don’t need to nit-pick.

The first is on the issue of needs assessment and tasks based on authentic materials that are used in real-life situations. The PBLA guide in question, like many other teaching guides, rightly emphasizes needs assessment. It further added that instructors should introduce PBLA “as they would any other topic, such as a module” (p.29).  Here lies the problem.  Since using PBLA is specific and mandatory on using tasks, it is impossible to introduce it using “any other topic, such as a module.”  My main point is that if we are going the PBLA route, we need to do task-based needs analysis to see the target tasks (real-world things) learners need to do to match with their learning goals. Whether I, or anyone else, (I would like to know) could plan a term’s work using tasks is another matter.  Current needs assessment simply consists of asking learners to check boxes with items such as clothes, transportation, food, time, money and so on.  Surely we can generate endless tasks and activities from such topics, but what is it about any of those topics that the learner really needs to transfer into real-world situations?  A task-based needs analysis and not a needs assessment could determine real world language tasks learners need in the real world of today and tomorrow.

The second point, directly related to the first, is that the Guide for Teachers and Programs fails to address the question of differentiation. Students’ autonomy, individualized competencies, need,s and assessment techniques – the foundations of PBLA – necessitate the differentiation of everything, from feedback, materials, and even instructional practices. The guide states that “teachers need to adjust their lesson plans to accommodate PBLA activities appropriately and effectively” (p. 35).

For over two decades now, I have tried ‘effectively’ to adjust my lesson plans to ‘accommodate’ the needs of my students ‘appropriately’.  Today I have examined the many wonderful samples of task-based lessons on TUTELA. I have also tried using a few of them. They are great, but not for a whole class since each part of one of them has to be differentiated, in one way or another, to suit the individual needs of each student.   The mechanics of constant differentiation- some call it modification- of both the learning task and assessment task is not a subject addressed in the above-mentioned guide. Differentiation, after much time and painstaking detail, is doable and it wonderfully serves each individual student. This means that I (and maybe others too) need to learn how to do it effectively and quickly.

I am not questioning the merits of PBLA.  There is indeed strong academic support for its use. There is also strong academic support for task-based needs analysis and the mastering of differentiation of tasks in PBLA. I see a bright future for PBLA.

Reference:

Pettis, J. C. (2015). Portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA): Guide for teachers and programs (2014 ed.). Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.


After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board.  He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University.  He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.

POST COMMENT 29

29 thoughts on “PBLA: A Need for Task-Based Needs Analysis and a Study in Task Differentiation”

  1. Sridatt,
    Well, your conclusion certainly throws me for a loop. How is it connected to the body of your blog post? Where is the strong academic support for PBLA? Please elaborate. Have you watched Professor Norm Friesen’s talk that he gave last month in Manitoba? https://vimeo.com/220251988
    Respectfully questioning,
    Kelly

    1. Sridatt,
      Forgive me. You are the author of a much earlier blog post in which you questioned the appropriateness of PBLA for older learners. I quoted you when I wrote a proposal to my employers imploring them to revisit the decision to impose PBLA on our seniors’ class. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that blog post.

      Well, all these months later, having given it our all, having tried and failed to properly implement PBLA as currently prescribed in a multilevel seniors’ class spanning CLBs 2 to 8, I have been GIVEN PERMISSION to adapt it. You can sometimes, it seems, opt out. “PBLA is here to stay?” Maybe yes, maybe no. I predict it will stick around in some form or other, but so much of how it is being rolled out today is flawed.

      I hope the designers and funders wake up sooner rather than later to the fact that nothing this heavy-handed, this undemocratically imposed, is ever a good thing in education.
      Kelly

    2. Thanks for taking the time to write Kelly. I am no big fan of PBLA. I have mixed feelings about its use, more negative than positive. I was in a PBLA training session and when I questioned its use , a fellow participant said, “Sridatt, simply embrace it.” So I did. I have checked the internet and there is quite a lot of materials supporting its use. I could prepare a short reading list. I will certainly look at Prof. Friesen’s talk. I am really glad that you took the time to send it and question my piece. Thanks
      Regards,
      Sridatt

  2. Thank you so, so much Kelly. I am happy to hear that your employer allowed you to adapt PBLA. I could probably write a major paper on how flawed what is being rolled out today. The saddest thing is that PBLA has to be rolled out and no two lead instructors are in agreement on any one subject.
    I could only wish you every best wish in your quest for a common sense.
    Thanks
    Regards,
    Sridatt

    1. I agree totally, Sridatt. There seems to be no consensus whatsoever, even within one organization. The frustrations continue to mount on a daily basis. Sigh.

  3. Sridatt, Common sense, practicality and heart -as well as solid SLA theory and practice are missing from PBLA.
    I am interested in your reading list. Is there anything that supports PBLA SPECIFICALLY? (PBLA is a uniquely Canadian invention in process of being developed through the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks which manages PBLA . It is mandated by the Federal government but the government of Ontario sends millions of dollars each year to the CCLB) Are the readings about AFL, TBL, and portfolios for classroom use? All these approaches have pros and cons We have used them for years but not in the trained gorilla prescriptive turned-on-their heads way that PBLA requires.
    I understand instructors “embracing” the required “Training” They need their jobs, they love teaching. Wait. No questions allowed? Amend that to “Indoctrination”.
    But support I don’t understand. So I’d really be interested to hear about the positive part of your “mixed” feelings.
    For my part I have zero, repeat zero positive feelings about PBLA . My dear friends and colleagues who are Leading, Training, Implementing PBLA to the best of your ability and in good faith – my criticism is NOT aimed at you.

  4. PBLA’s foundation is cracked. How it can weather the storm remains to be seen, but if left as is, well, a cracked foundation leads to a shifting structure, or a structure that collapses in on itself given time/pressure.

    We do know that the original goal of “consistency” in assessment is out the window. Because of the lack of resources for the numerous skill building/skill using/ assessment tasks, instructors are forced out of necessity to build their own. To be clear, the lack of resources was identified by the funders as an issue, and it was even mentioned that in a perfect world, the resources would have preceded the rollout of the New Approach.

    I say that the foundations of PBLA are shakey because of the very strong reliance on Dylan Wiliam’s “research”, which as Friesen points out, has very serious academic flaws (cherry-picked studies, non-peer reviewed, etc). For this reason, and for many others, I *do* question the merits of PBLA, and like the above writers. I do not think it is a good fit, or a better, more practical approach than the experiential, task-based approach I had formerly been using with my learners.

    I was trained in the 2014 cohort, and I have been trying to do PBLA both as mandated by funders, and as tweaked by my employer. I understand the role of needs assessments, learner autonomy, and regular formative feedback, (I’ve been doing that since I started teaching, except for the formatted needs assessments – I’ve done them in a different way).

    Our classrooms are somewhat emptier and less joyful as activites we once did are scrapped because of lack of time, or because they don’t fit in with the module. I don’t think that the wrecking ball will demolish PBLA at this point; too much investment has gone into it. But now, to quote one of my favourite builders, we owe it to our students and colleagues to “Make It Right”. We owe it to ourselves, as well.

    1. JA
      I agree with your assertion that we as ESL instructors need to “make it right” and I certainly agree with Sridatt that we need to focus on task-based assessment from the beginning of the school year. Many try to do so, but are caught up in as Sridatt mentions the endless checking off of boxes. After brainstorming, eventually the class comes to some kind of an agreement, so that we can begin. I wonder if the needs assessment could be more tailored and made more specifically task-based rather than simply a checklist of topics.
      I’m grateful for this discussion. I believe we can begin to make a difference and “make it right” if we take concerns to our superiors and to our union respresentatives. Let’s speak up! The reality is that PBLA is here to stay, so let’s do what we can.

      1. Why? PBLAis here to stay? Only if we behave like sheeple. Governments have been known to err and to have to cancel projects midstream when they realise they are on the wrong side of history. Every time someone says “The funders want it” and”It us here to stay” a nail is driven into the coffin of Free Speech.
        PBLA is a big government mistake wasting taxpayer dollars…and worse, denying immigrants access to true language learning. How many of you out there are being given two hours of PBLA “prep” time a week on Friday – stolen from the students who have to go home early?

      2. Hi Susan:
        You have most certainly addressed the points I have been trying to raise in my piece. Everyone I know who has to implement PBLA seems simply scared ( or something else) to approach either their supervisors or even the union. I really cannot believe that so many people would really work in frustration or suffer silently in a democracy such as ours. With so much concern over PBLA, I am certain that there will be changes to suit the teaching style and philosophy of most instructors.
        I must sincerely thank you for freely expressing your views.
        Thanks
        Regards,
        Sridatt

  5. Sridatt, thank-you for starting this conversation. I would be very interested in seeing the list of academic research supporting PBLA as it is now structured. Has anyone started a bibliography of robust, peer-reviewed research into the efficacy of PBLA?

  6. There are some aspects of “PBLA”, the LINC version (NOT project-based learning, which is very popular in some school districts) that I really appreciate. I think it’s great to work on what students need to know and to use authentic materials for real-world tasks. Frequent formative assessments help students to keep improving their learning.

    However, I find the LINC materials are almost totally lacking in what vocabulary or grammar students need to learn in order to successfully complete their tasks. Doing all of the classroom work in the form of tasks is not a very effective method to transmit these skills, in my opinion. Not only that, but teachers don’t have experience or training in curriculum development. I’d like to see some basic curriculum for each level, with a lot of the teaching and assessments being done in the form of tasks. The current system places an undue burden on teachers.

    1. Ellen,
      You have stated it perfectly. I am teaching LINC and love the idea of task based learning for real life needs. But it is very time consuming and sometimes confusing filling in the missing skills of vocabulary building and grammar not to mention having the time in class needed to practice and build on all of the skills – especially for the lower levels.

      Assessments are a good way to measure ability, but the number of assessments required by PBLA for the student to pass to the next level is burdensome and excessive for both teacher and student.

  7. I am really happy to see so many experienced and qualified instructors questioning the validity and applicability of PBLA in our classrooms. These questions and issues are long, long overdue. I wish they were raised when PBLA training started and by many, many more concerned instructors.
    I will, as time allows, reply to each and everyone : very sound ideas were expressed. And I expect others to join the discussion. Maybe, some changes can be forced. I am hoping for such a development.
    I have been reminded, I must note, that our Federal Government paymasters have bought into the PBLA package and have indirectly made it a condition of our employment. And I have been asked whether they are aware that there are serious misgivings about it. Now we are talking about lobbying our MP’s.
    Again, I am thankful to all for expressing their honest and sincere opinions.
    Regards,
    Sridatt
    I am yet to meet anyone personally who happens to like PBLA.

    1. Hello Sridatt and All,
      I am really happy to see the doubts I have had for a while being voiced by experienced teachers.
      We have just started PBLA training in our organization, but having been meeting teachers in later implementation stages, and I am sorry to say positive feedback was hard to find…
      Through my own extensive research I was unable to find independent empirical support for the implementation model that we are experiencing.
      Those implementation models that have been researched extensively, have barely any similarity to PBLA roll out (e.g., presentation on implementing task-based language teaching in Belgium http://prezi.com/y6dz6gk2iabs/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share).
      This absence of independent academic review creates an urgent need for Canadian research on PBLA implementation.
      Anyone interested?

  8. Thank you for addressing this subject…. yes! to tasks based in the reality of student life in Canada….I’d like to say yes to differentiation to… I’d like to say yes to everything PBLA. BUT… I don’t get paid for the extra hours I invest in prep time and in the search for materials that are not easily available in the LINC classroom.
    I’d like to see the this issue addressed.,. by someone!
    Thanks.

  9. Thank you Sridatt. Agree that PBLA does have shortcomings. Talking about differentiation, I am with you on this one and also that tasks need to be based on how the students would use the language in real life over here. Language needs to be used first and foremost for functioning life skills and then the rest.
    Thank you once again.

    1. lol…we’ve been using “real life tasks” ever since I started teaching ESL and KINC 17 years ago – only we called them “functions.”. Anyone remember “Functioning in English”?

  10. Hi Patricia:
    Thanks very much for your keen and apt comments. As you have rightly noted the role of tasks needs to be addressed and developed so that we can use them ‘for functioning life skills.’ I am hoping that more instructors would press on for such a task.
    Thanks again.
    Regards,
    Sridatt

    1. Nooo! No more “resources” (hastily and poorly designed to jump on the bandwagon). FIRST – INDEPENDENT emoirical research to prove the merits of PBLA –
      or the utter bankruotcy of the ideology ( yes, ideology, not methodology. )

      1. Hi Claudie and All,

        I am a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a LINC teacher. In response to numerous calls I have heard about the need for independent empirical research, I am starting a research project on how PBLA affects teaching and learning. How big of a resonance the project will make will depend on the number of participants. If you or anybody you know would consider joining – you can e-mail me for more details at yuliya.desyatova@mail.utoronto.ca
        Thank you!

        1. http://www.teslcanadajournal.ca/index.php/tesl/article/download/1220/1039

          …..Everything you wanted to know about the completely divorced from reality attitude of the PBLA inventors but were afraid, very afraid, to ask. Nowhere does it mention how diverse our classes are: The “same” approach for Literacy as for LINC 6/7? The same approach for F/T as P/T or occasional classes? The same approach for continuous intake as a college based programs? The same approach for ALL types of learners – those who are working AND studying, those carrying burdens of family responsibilities, those with learning disabilities, PTSD, health issues, seniors? The same for those with little formal education as those with education waaaaay beyond that of the LINC Instructor? (“Dr Nguyen! Where’s your “About Me” What do you mean you don’t want to do it again? Could you please reflect on your “task”, your week, and tick the little box with the happy, neutral, sad face? You see my superiors are going to check whether you’ve collected the requisite number of, ahem, artefacts, and you can’t move to the next level without them”. (And if I question the wisdom of this I will be told I am a resistor and if I don’t like it I can quit. NO opt out. )

          Nowhere does this acknowledge the burden placed on instructors/teachers. From the security of their (dare I say cushy?) secure jobs the inventors of this ill begotten program are congratulating themselves on their “legacy” to the ESL profession. Really?
          While the job description for ESL/LINC teachers is completely rewritten without negotiation – – more workload and responsibility but no increase in pay or paid hours – precarious employment in this sector means instructors will sacrifice time and health to
          comply – under the threat of being fired. Nice. AND there is NO proof that the future job potential, social integration, personal satisfaction of the learners is BETTER than prePBLA..

          Nowhere does this speak of what the LEARNERS want. As the “learner” of six languages I can say that this is NOT how I would want to learn a language. I would NOT want to be turned into an artefact collector. Nor, as an adult, woukd I want to be seen as someone who needs to learn how to be organised (I too would refuse the cumbersome “binder” – or abandon it at the school as I hear is being done. ) I would not want to be ( unwittingly) part of an experiment of “training at scale”. I would want to learn, and to learn to love, the target language.

          I applaud your initiative Yulia. It will be interesting to see how you craft your research (as a LINC instructor you can’t be “independent” but you could do action research. ) I will contact you.

  11. Hi Claudie,

    Thank you for your comment!
    I hope I will be considered independent enough by the University of Toronto Ethics Review Board. I feel obliged to do this project (even though I originally had a different idea for my thesis) because in my 6 years with one of the most research-intense institution I have met one (!) classmate who knew very well what LINC (or PBLA) is. Unfortunately, not too many researchers or prospective researchers look at adult language education. Most of them work within either university/college (preparation) context, or K-12. So unless LINC teachers start publishing in peer-reviewed journals (how likely is that?), this context and policies regulating it risk staying under the radar of academic community, just as they are now.
    Adult language education programs funded by the IRCC need to be brought into the spotlight for independent academic research. It cannot be done without teachers participating…

    1. I hope so too Yuliya. You’re a professional. They know you will be neutral and will report positive and negative findings with impartiality – a must for true scholarship.

      Positive AND negative feedback can only benefit ANY new injtiative. . The stifling of “negative feedback” and the denigration of those who tried to pass along an honest critique is one of the worst asoects of PBLA ( stifling free speech as well) – and shame on those principals who intimidated, humiliated and harrassed instructors who raised issues. There’s a research topic in itself.
      You echo the message Penny Ur ( the inspiring) gave in her plenary at #BCTEAL50 https://vimeo.com/217611466?ref=tw-share
      ESL Instructors/Teachers need to read, do, participate in more research.

      Our Canadian TESL associations do produce peer reviewed journals, e.g. TESLCanada Journal, Contact, BC TEAL Journal (look at the review boards Impressive. )
      The Research Symposium at TESLOntario is always a must for me.
      Keep us posted about your research. Way to go!

  12. So refreshing to come across this site and read all the comments. Our agency completed PBLA a few months ago and implementation is well under way. To be honest, I was disappointed with the PBLA training. The comments about the assignments and readings took on a ‘weird cheerleading’ quality that I have never seen before. It was like the Emperor’s New Clothes…things like, “I can’t wait to use this in my classroom…” were common. I have been teaching for almost 20 years including teaching grade 1 here. Doing PBLA reminded me of some of the portfolios we had in our grade 1 and in our JK/SK classrooms. At the end of my PBLA training, I was a little disappointed because I teach a high-level class with students that are highly educated and have a wealth of work/management experience. . Many of them saw PBLA as a ‘national filing system’. Looking through the PBLA binders I have found that some of the readings are outdated and there are some grammar mistakes. There are some people in our industry that say that PBLA is here to stay but if it is here to stay then why do I hear so many people that dislike it so much(teachers AND students)?

  13. Josée,
    I’m glad you brought up the ‘weird cheerleading’ quality that many of us encounter in workshops and training sessions. It’s like there is heavy peer pressure for us to gush over the Emperor’s gorgeous new outfit. That is not democratic and not healthy for any academic setting. It would be a lot easier for me to embrace the helpful parts of PBLA if it did not feel as if I’m being asked to accept the whole kit and kaboodle with a big fake smile. There are those at the top who are completely resistant to a healthy dose of skepticism or critical thinking, who seem to fear a probe of the validity of the theoretical underpinnings, who run around on social media and try to browbeat into silence those of us trying to expose problems, and they do so under the guise of weeding out the whiners. It’s disturbing to say the least. –K

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