Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: task-based learning

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing task-based learning consciousness-raising activities.

I've been looking into TBL recently trying to get the methodology straight before I try it in class. It seems to me that the consciousness / awareness /-raising activities are one of the essential elements of the model (after all that's what makes it a lesson and helps the students to improve). This stage, however, is normally mentioned just in passing without much explanation. Can you please explain what exactly a CR activity is in this situation and how it is different from normal feedback i.e. is it something planned and prepared in advance or is it a direct /spontaneous/ response to spotted mistakes.

Dani Zheleva

Scott Thornbury

The term consciousness-raising (CR) is used to describe how the attention of learners is deliberately directed at features of the language, e.g. grammar or lexis. It’s what used to be called presentation. But the term consciousness-raising is now preferred in some quarters, since it credits the learners with some active role in the process of learning, whereas presentation does not. Also, whereas presentation assumed some form of subsequent practice and production (PPP), CR may occur solely at the level of understanding.

How does this fit into Task Based Learning? If TBL were simply “learning by doing” – as it was first conceived – there’s always the risk that some learners wouldn’t learn much because they would be so caught up in the “doing” that they wouldn’t notice features of the language being used, or, worse, they would take linguistic short cuts, rely on words rather than grammar etc – in short they would take the first steps down the slippery slope of fossilization.

Therefore, proponents of TBL Mark 2 recommend that the task sequence include some directed attention on features of the language. That is, CR. Purists argue that this should emerge out of the task and in response to the learners’ needs and interests. This is what was once known as a test-teach-test instructional cycle. In this sense the “teaching” stage cannot really be planned – although an experienced teacher might well be able to predict it. One way of engineering this stage is: once the students have attempted the task – let’s say it’s a ranking task – play them a tape of more proficient speakers doing the same task, and let them follow the transcript. Language features can be noted (with or without overt intervention on the part of the teacher), and then appropriated for use in a subsequent re-run of the task, perhaps with different partners.

Of course, these stages could be reversed, so that the learners first hear the proficient speakers, note features of the language they use, and then seek to incorporate these features in their own performance. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s hardly TBL in the strict sense of the term. Other ways of engineering a post-task CR stage might be:

  1. Record the learners doing the task and then they transcribe all or some of the recording. This often draws attention to features of their output that they might like to modify. They can “correct” the transcript, and then have an other go at the task.
  2. The learners perform a task and then write a summary of what they did. The chance to reflect on their performance may throw up language issues that are then available for discussion – with each other and with the teacher.
  3. Learners perform the task in pairs, while a third student observes and makes notes. These notes can be framed like this: Did you say…? Did you mean…? These questions can then be discussed post-task. The students then change roles and repeat the task.
  4. Students work in small groups and improvise a conversation, which is recorded, utterance-by-utterance. This is then played back to the class, the teacher pausing the tape strategically, in order to elicit comments from the class. The conversation can also be transcribed on to the board. (This is based on the standard Community Language Learning activity).
  5. Learners form groups of three. One learner talks to another for, say, two minutes about a pre-selected topic. The “listener” then re-tells the “speaker” as much as he or she can remember, without commenting, interpreting, evaluating, etc. The “observer” then asks questions to elicit their individual responses to the interaction, and makes comments about anything deemed noteworthy. Out of this retrospection language issues may emerge. Then the learners switch roles and a new round begins. (This is based on a technique called Non-directive listening).

Philip Kerr

Task-based learning (TBL) means different things to different people – to such an extent that it normal for writers on the subject to begin their discussion by a definition of what they mean. Rod Ellis’s recent study (see the suggested reading list below) provides a long and comprehensive description of the various issues and an account of the disagreements as to how we should implement a task-based approach in the classroom. However, most variants of TBL have a number of things in common:

  • They are more interested in the processes of language learning than in the products. Learning a language is seen as being centrally concerned with learning activities, rather than lists of language items to be learnt.
  • They recognize that learning is an unpredictable process and that we cannot assume that students will learn what we teach them. For this reason, they tend to reject any syllabus that is based on lists of grammatical items.
  • They see the main business of acquiring a language as happening while learners are attempting to communicate and deal with meanings.

Consciousness-raising learning

Consciousness-raising (CR) activities draw students’ attention to language forms (grammatical and lexical patterns, for example) and, as such, are not necessarily oriented towards communication or meaning. CR activities are classroom activities (within a task-based approach) that draw students’ attentions to the forms of language. There is now a lot of research that suggests that such activities help students to acquire more language more efficiently, but not long ago, many people would have disagreed with you that CR activities were an essential part of a task-based approach. This may explain why, in some of the literature, references to CR activities is made only in passing – or not at all.

What exactly is a CR activity? The best way to answer the question is by considering, first of all, what a CR activity is for. Although task-based models reject traditional building-block approaches to language learning (where one structure is taught after another in a predetermined order), they generally accept that students can only benefit from having their attention drawn to features of the language that they might otherwise not notice. This is not to say that students will learn or acquire bits of language to which their attention has been drawn in this way, but the potential for learning is increased if their conscious awareness of language features is raised.

Many traditional classroom procedures can act as CR activities, but the teacher’s objectives will be different in a task-based framework. A simple drill, for example, can be an effective way of raising students’ awareness of a particular grammatical pattern. In more traditional approaches, a teacher will continue drilling until she feels that students have ‘learnt’ the language. In a task-based framework, on the other hand, the teacher recognizes that no amount of drilling can ever guarantee that the students will actually learn (i.e. acquire) a particular piece of language. They may be able to reproduce it accurately for a short while, but tomorrow (or next week) is another matter entirely! So a task-based teacher will only continue drilling up to the point where she feels that awareness has been sufficiently raised.

This shift in perspective means that CR activities will take place towards the end of the task cycle. CR activities could be done before a communicative task, but the danger here is that the communicative task will become an opportunity for freer practice of a particular language item. In TBL, it is vital that the tasks are centrally concerned with meaning (not particular language items). Once a communicative task has been carried out, a teacher can focus on bits of language without this effecting the task itself.

There will obviously be a link between the language that is focused on in CR activities and the language that is needed for the earlier task. We can often predict what sort of language will cause the students problems during a task and we can prepare, in advance, CR activities that will focus on it. However, to some extent, we also need to be ready to respond more spontaneously, because there will always be bits of language that we want to focus on that we haven’t been able to predict. These won’t necessarily be mistakes, either. It may be the case that students have used language perfectly accurately, but in a limited way. CR activities can provide opportunities for students to extend their range, just as much as they can be used to draw attention to error.

Practical suggestions

The simplest way of raising awareness is by providing feedback (e.g. “you said X, but you should have said Y”). Depending on how it is done, there is nothing wrong with this, but (1) it can be perceived negatively, (2) does not particularly involve the students in the learning process, and (3) tends to become rather repetitive. Jane and Dave Willis, two of the most well-known names in TBL, suggest a much richer menu of CR activities to add to our repertoire. They include the following ideas in their list:

  1. Ask students to search a set of data (this could be a text or examples you have selected yourself) to identify a particular pattern.
  2. Ask students to group a set of language examples according to similarities or differences.
  3. Give students a generalization about language (a language ‘rule’) and ask them to check it against a set of data.
  4. Ask students to find similarities or differences between English language patterns and patterns in their own language.
  5. Ask students to recall and reconstruct elements of a text that will draw their attention to significant language features.

Further reading

Both of the Willis books in the suggested reading list below give plenty of very concrete examples of such task types. Adopting a TBL approach is hard at the start because we don’t always have a repertoire of such activities, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

The two most accessible and practical books on the subject are:

  • Willis, J. & Willis, D. (eds.) (1996), Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Macmillan (now out of print).
  • Willis, J. (1996), A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Longman

Note from editor: Jane and Dave Willis have recently published another book (see below)

  • Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007), Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford University Press

They have also set up a website which offers articles on task-based teaching and a number of lesson plans: http://www.willis-elt.co.uk/

If you want to read a more academic account of the subject, have a look at:

  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press

I wish you all the best with your experiment. Whether or not you decide to adopt a full-blooded TBL approach, I’m sure that you’ll enjoy trying it out.

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