The Interface Between Interlanguage, Pragmatics and Assessment: Proceedings of the 3rd Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 22-23, 2004. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Keizai University.

Focused tasks to proceduralize TOEIC® learning strategies

by Joseph J. Falout (College of Science and Technology, Nihon University)


This paper shows how the TOEIC® can be taught communicatively. Learners begin a second language (L2) from a set of rules on linguistic forms, declarative knowledge. Performing from this knowledge burdens processing capacity, but learners can progress to the procedural knowledge stage by practicing communicative activities through focused tasks based on linguistic forms, and receiving extensive feedback. This lightens the processing load. The author points how practicing communicative activities through focused tasks based on cognitive strategy use assists proceduralization of skills that are beneficial for TOEIC test takers. This paper concludes by mentioning some focused tasks to proceduralize TOEIC strategies.

Keywords: focused tasks, proceduralization, language learning strategies, communicative activities, TOEIC®


キーワード:	キーワード:フォーカストタスク、手続き化、言語習得ストラテジー、コミュニカティブ学習活動、TOEIC

When students asked me to teach the TOEIC communicatively, I experienced some cognitive dissonance. I believed one of the best ways students acquire language is through participating in conversations. This is based on the pedagogy of negotiating for meaning (Long 1996), enabled by the use of tasks (Long and Crookes 1992). It dominates every corner of my syllabi and classroom practice. But the TOEIC, despite its widespread use as a test of communication, does not assess skills of negotiation for meaning. Instead of assessing the two-way, production skills required for speaking and writing, it tests only one-way skills of listening and reading, only in a multiple choice format.

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With this type of listening and reading test, it seemed obvious to me — as well as it does to many others (Krashen 2004) — that activities should be designed to build these receptive skills. But building receptive skills through a receptive approach may be a misguided endeavor. In this paper, I argue it is efficacious to study for a test of receptive skills by a communicative approach, and describe the communicative activities my students used to study for the TOEIC.

Passive approach for a passive test

Here is the approach to teaching the TOEIC that I am most familiar with. Using examples of past tests, or mock exams, learners practice taking the test in samples as short as one question at a time. Then the teacher explains why answers are right or wrong. Often students listen to the same audio segment again and again, and the teacher explains what they listened to. Or the teacher explains discrete points, especially the ones often found in the reading section. Teachers might also prime learners for a practice test by focusing on a phonological or grammatical feature, or a learning or test-taking strategy.
In these examples, we see teacher-centered classes with passive learners. That sounds justifiable since students are learning receptive skills for a receptive test. Though the learners may follow class lessons, often I find they cannot apply these rules back home for practice, let alone at the time of the test. That is because they are learning the rules as declarative knowledge, with no further support to proceduralize them.

Proceduralization and focused tasks

Cognitive models of general skill learning have been applied favorably to describe the process of second language (L2) acquisition (DeKeyser 1997; Ellis 1994; DeKeyser 2001). The models distinguish between declarative and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is gained by remembering explicit rules, such as learning a grammatical form. Learners can show their declarative knowledge by solving problems in a controlled environment, such as on a paper test. An example is placing an s at the end of run to complete the subject-verb agreement in the sentence, The dog runs. When the learner can produce this correct form in conversation without thinking about it, then declarative knowledge has become procedural knowledge — it has become proceduralized (Anderson, Fincham, & Douglas 1997; DeKeyser 2001; Skehan 1998).
Though performing from procedural knowledge requires a complex chain of cognitive operations, this automatic processing expends little effort, and the results are more accurate. Proceduralizing knowledge is not simply a matter of speeding up declarative knowledge, but of its restructuring or reorganization so that large, stored chunks of it may be retrieved instantly (Ellis 2003; Skehan 1998).
L2 speakers with only declarative knowledge are unable to focus on the meaning of their messages — they are too busy remembering each little rule (Ellis 2003). Their language use requires much processing capacity, considerably more than if they were using the target skills through procedural knowledge. Because of the cognitive demands on proceduralization, learners should be given support to reduce the load on memory. This burden can be lightened by the use of focused tasks (Ellis 2003).
"In a communicative activity, learners should practice the declarative rule on a linguistic form while partners help them through feedback."
Knowledge that has first been presented declaratively can be supported by practice through focused tasks, or tasks which raise incidental awareness of a specific, declarative rule. In a communicative activity, learners should practice the declarative rule on a linguistic form while partners help them through feedback. The feedback informs learners how to correct their form. This frees the load on processing capacity so learners can attend to, and even modify, the content of their messages (see Figure 1). Thus declarative knowledge can be proceduralized in an approach to language instruction known as task-supported language teaching (Ellis 2003).

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Figure 1
Figure 1. Phases of task-supported language teaching (Ellis, 2003)

Task-supported language teaching assists the proceduralization of linguistic forms, one of the language-related skills performed within a communicative activity. But there are other language-related and communicative-related skills that L2 instructors want their learners to acquire. Any declarative rule on a communicative-related skill can be the point of a focused-task. Within communicative practice, these skills are also assisted in their proceduralization. Skills that help learners prepare for and perform well on the TOEIC are learning strategies and test-taking strategies (Hagino 2003; Rogers 2003). For example, test takers are recommended (Rogers 2003) to listen to questions while simultaneously searching for answers on the page. Instead of listening to a CD, learners practice by listening to each other. I call this task-supported cognitive strategy teaching (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Phases of task-supported cognitive strategy teaching

The benefit of practicing strategies with partners is immediate, extensive feedback. Though some computerized or web-based TOEIC mock tests do provide immediate feedback, communicative feedback from partners brings learners closer to the process of skills development. From the previous example, test takers can practice with a CD, but the lack of immediate feedback limits learner awareness of the learning processes. The practice scores are often the sole interpretation of learner progress. The effect of their strategy use is conveyed by the correctness of their answers. Learners need more information than that. When practicing communicatively, partners see reactions and give feedback so learners can better orient cognitive processes and gauge progress. Furthermore, since learners are manifesting cognitive processes by thinking out loud, partners can help guide or tease out target performance. To raise awareness where needed, they know what features to emphasize. In these ways learners can attend to the processes of their learning.

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Focusing on strategies

The 42 learners in this study practiced the focused tasks in communicative activities over a three-and-a-half day summer retreat for intensive TOEIC study. Before the retreat, participants took a pre-test using the book Hajimete Ukeru TOEIC Test Pafekuto Kouryaku (Matsuno and Negishi 1998), and for a post-test on the final day of the workshop, a practice test from the book Complete Guide to the TOEIC Test, 2nd Edition (Rogers 2003) was administered. Since neither of these constitute official TOEIC tests, any pre-test/post-test comparisons should be considered with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the difference in the averages of the scores among the nineteen undergraduate and twenty-three graduate students in this group showed an average increase of 35.8 points on the listening section, and 75.9 points on the reading section. Two months later, thirty-two of these students took the institutional form of the TOEIC test and improved on their post-test scores, on average, an additional 24.1 points on the listening, but only 0.5 points on the reading. The continued improvement on listening suggests that the listening strategies extensively practiced at the retreat were effective. The lack of continued improvement on reading may be accounted for by the lack of focus on and practice of reading strategies during the retreat.
The test-taking strategies that we focused on during the summer retreat came from the Complete Guide to the TOEIC Test, 2nd Edition (Rogers 2003). Each chapter of the book corresponds to each part of the test — the first four parts comprise the listening section, the last three parts comprise the reading section. Each chapter of the book opens with a description of the test format and a set of tactics & or strategies — particular to that part of the test. We covered these tactics explicitly, practiced them in written exercises and communicative activities, and reviewed them before the post-test.
For choosing appropriate listening strategies, I turned to Hagino (2003). She identified the most effective listening strategies for Japanese students of English taking passive listening tests such as the TOEIC. Selective attention is a strategy of listening for stressed words (words spoken louder or longer) and ignoring unstressed words. Hagino called this "catching fish," so students can readily understand they are listening for the "bigger" or "longer fish." Often the content words are stressed. The "small fish" are usually the function words. Often they are not as important to the meaning of the message as content words.
Note taking is effective for increasing awareness, and thus memory. But remember — this strategy should be used only for self-study, or away from the official sessions of the test, as the rules of the TOEIC forbid it. Inferencing relates to guessing the meaning of an unknown word by taking hints from the context in which it appears.
The last two strategies I modified from Hagino's original form of prediction. I liken playback (rehearsal) to pressing the playback button on a tape or CD player and listening to what you have just heard. This is a skill we all have extensive experience with in our L1, that fluid ability to mentally move back and forth between the words of the moment and the words just preceding them. The counterpart of playback, prediction, is moving your attention to the words you think you might hear.

Focused tasks for TOEIC Skills

For each Part, I will first describe a simple task, one that may or may not be communicative, before describing a larger task. Progression from simpler to more complex tasks may take a series of related tasks and repetitions in practice. For this paper, I will show a minimum of simpler tasks.

Part One

On the first part of the TOEIC, the test book shows pictures, usually of people but occasionally of objects, while the audio program offers four declarative sentences. The test taker must decide which sentence best describes something about the photograph. Rogers recommends anticipating all the possible correct answers by asking a slew of the four Wh- questions, such as "Who are they?" "Where are they?" "What is it made out of?" "What is happening?" (Rogers 2003).

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Students practice "catching fish" by looking at the picture, listening to the audio, and taking notes by either (1) simply writing down the stressed words in each sentence of the four answer choices, or (2) with the text of the audio provided, underlining the stressed words. The "caught fish" can be compared with a partner.
Test-takers need to predict what they will hear just by looking at pictures. In pairs, students hold up pictures and ask Wh questions related to them, and their partners answer as best as they can – maybe they need to negotiate for meaning, or they can request to be given hints. The questioners can be given appropriate questions with correct answers, and then progress to making the questions themselves. Eventually pairs should debate the best way to describe what they see, and draw each other's attention to important features.

Part Two

The second part of the TOEIC consists of question-and-answer listening tasks. A single question is spoken, followed by three possible responses. Test takers must choose the best response. Rogers says to identify the best response, test takers should first identify the type of question, which primarily means information questions and yes/no questions, but also other types as well. For example, information questions that begin with the word which ask for a choice from a limited selection (Rogers 2003).
Pairs work on one type of question at a time, going through a stack of cards or working off a list, to become familiar with the types of questions and the types of responses such as "Which do you prefer, chocolate or vanilla?"
With a picture prompt as in Part One, or without, pairs take turns asking questions and identifying the type of question asked. To make this task more challenging, after identifying the correct type of question, pairs can see how many possible replies they can offer.

Part Three

In this part of the TOEIC, the audio program gives a short conversation, and the test book asks a question about it. Rogers advises test takers to look at the four choices while listening to the conversation (Rogers 2003). This multi-tasking strategy requires test takers to simultaneously read and listen to related but different messages.
Build the prediction and playback skills of your students. Simply shadowing, listening to a sentence and repeating it, is not enough. Students can prepare for multi-tasking skills by the following variation.
Pairs take a kind of verbal personality test, or interview. Without any visual clues, one student listens to a question that involves three our four choices. The answer must come in the form of a full sentence that rephrases the original question into a statement. The statement must also contain the answer. Here is an example of such an exchange. Student A asks, "When relaxing, do you sit with (a) your legs bent? (b) your legs crossed? (c) your legs stretched out straight?" Giving a personal response, student B says, "When relaxing, I sit with my legs bent." Note how the answer requires from the student not only short-term memory, the playback skill, but also the ability to change the syntax.
Another way to prepare for short conversations is to have pairs practice and perform a short conversation from memory, and have another pair listen. The second pair takes turns asking and answering questions about the short conversation, and the first pair confirms whether the answers are correct or not. Rotate pairs for maximum practice.

Part Four

Similar to Part Three, there is a spoken passage with written questions. The spoken part is a short monologue, performed by one speaker. The written questions come in sets of two, three, or even four. For each question in the set, the test taker must choose the best answer from among four possible choices. Rogers says test takers will be asked overview questions, detail questions, and inference questions (Rogers 2003).

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Here you might want to rely on an old standby, dictogloss. With this method, the teacher reads from a short passage, and students individually take notes. Then in groups the students collaboratively re-create the passage in detail. But for TOEIC practice, instead of re-creating the story word-for-word, the students can try to "catch the fish" first, then collaborate on summarizing the story.
Getting the gist of a monologue is not the hardest part for most students. Correctly answering the inference questions takes learners beyond basic language skills. So do the dictogloss, but pad it in front and back. Before dictation, tell the students what the topic is. Let them predict the words they will hear, or the outcome of a story. After dictation, pose questions to which students must collaboratively come to conclusions. Where no direct reason is given for an outcome of a story, groups can discuss how something probably happened. They must be able to cite from their recreated text, or otherwise provide evidence that supports their claim. In the same fashion, groups can predict what might happen later on in the story. These tasks build the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed on the inference questions on this part of the test, and in any higher L2 application.

Part Five

Part Five of the TOEIC opens the reading half of the test, where listening skills are not tested. Of course, with emphasis on word choice and grammar, Parts Five and Six may be prepared for by practicing a declarative rule on a linguistic form in a communicative activity – yes, the basic formula previously described for using focused tasks to proceduralize linguistic knowledge.
Part Five consists of sentence completion exercises. Test takers complete sentences by filling in one or more blanks by choosing one of four words or phrases. Rogers advises test takers to guess the missing words or phrases before looking for them from the choices below. The most common testing point is word choice, then next is word form (Rogers 2003). This is where practice with prediction pays off.
To keep students standing on firm ground, I like to recycle established situations. In this case, I am referring to the dictogloss story from Part Four. From a re-written version of the story, perhaps one that is graded up, students collaboratively guess the missing word or phrase. This activity is also a good place to practice inferencing at the word level – guessing the meaning of a word from context – by circling the unknown word and collaboratively guessing the meaning. After placing a guess on the meaning, groups check the accuracy of the guess against the dictionary definition.

Part Six

This section of the TOEIC tests the ability to recognize sentence-level errors in grammar or usage. Rogers recommends test takers to pay attention to the context of each sentence (Rogers 2003).
Instead of teaching declarative rules to students, have students teach the declarative rules to you (Swan 2001). Groups study examples of isolated linguistic forms as they appear in a variety of sentences, then collaboratively write the rules themselves.

Part Seven

This last part of the TOEIC consists of short reading passages. For each passage, there are two to five questions, with four possible answer choices for each question. Rogers identifies five types of readings: articles, business correspondence, advertisements, announcements, and non-prose readings. He tells test takers to get a quick idea of the passage, read the questions, and go back to the passage to look for the answer by reading quickly rather than by skimming. He also warns not only is it the longest part of the test, but also the last part — test takers need to stay focused and avoid fatigue (Rogers 2003). The following activity keeps students awake.

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Five types of readings is a very convenient number of categories — perfect for playing a version of the TV game show, "Jeopardy." Groups are given the complete set of readings. They choose the question they want to be asked by category and points: "We'll take business correspondence for 50 points." They should be given the question – verbally only is most challenging – in the TOEIC format, which gives four possible choices. For a lively game, I recommend a time limit of 30 seconds to answer. That kind of pressure forces students to read and think fast.
". . . cognitive strategy use helps learners prepare for and perform better on the TOEIC."


The intensive workshop on communicative practice described in this paper suggests that cognitive strategy use helps learners prepare for and perform better on the TOEIC. These skills are often taught as declarative knowledge, rules that learners may understand but are unable to use – the knowledge has not yet reached the target level of procedural knowledge, where skills are performed rapidly and accurately.
With task-supported cognitive strategy teaching, learners can practice strategies within communicative activities. This provides learners with immediate, extensive feedback, which frees up processing capacity and helps learners develop the proceduralized skills of strategy use. In that sense, learning receptive skills of communication requires an active approach.


For significant contributions to this paper and to the speech that it is based on I thank Mika Falout.


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