Number one for English language teachers

Teaching approaches: task-based learning

Type: Reference material

An article discussing different models for the organization of language lessons, including Task-Based Learning.


What is TBL?

How often do we as teachers ask our students to do something in class which they would do in everyday life using their own language? Probably not often enough.

If we can make language in the classroom meaningful therefore memorable, students can process language which is being learned or recycled more naturally.

Task-based learning offers the student an opportunity to do exactly this. The primary focus of classroom activity is the task and language is the instrument which the students use to complete it. The task is an activity in which students use language to achieve a specific outcome. The activity reflects real life and learners focus on meaning, they are free to use any language they want. Playing a game, solving a problem or sharing information or experiences, can all be considered as relevant and authentic tasks. In TBL an activity in which students are given a list of words to use cannot be considered as a genuine task. Nor can a normal role play if it does not contain a problem-solving element or where students are not given a goal to reach. In many role plays students simply act out their restricted role. For instance, a role play where students have to act out roles as company directors but must come to an agreement or find the right solution within the given time limit can be considered a genuine task in TBL.

In the task-based lessons included below our aim is to create a need to learn and use language. The tasks will generate their own language and create an opportunity for language acquisition (Krashen*). If we can take the focus away from form and structures we can develop our students’ ability to do things in English. That is not to say that there will be no attention paid to accuracy, work on language is included in each task and feedback and language focus have their places in the lesson plans. We feel that teachers have a responsibility to enrich their students’ language when they see it is necessary but students should be given the opportunity to use English in the classroom as they use their own languages in everyday life.

How can I use TBL in the classroom?

Most of the task-based lessons in this section are what Scrivener** classifies as authentic and follow the task structure proposed by Willis and Willis***.

Each task will be organized in the following way:

  • Pre-task activity an introduction to topic and task
  • Task cycle: Task > Planning > Report
  • Language Focus and Feedback

A balance should be kept between fluency, which is what the task provides, and accuracy, which is provided by task feedback.


A traditional model for the organization of language lessons, both in the classroom and in course-books, has long been the PPP approach (presentation, practice, production). With this model individual language items (for example, the past continuous) are presented by the teacher, then practised in the form of spoken and written exercises (often pattern drills), and then used by the learners in less controlled speaking or writing activities. Although the grammar point presented at the beginning of this procedure may well fit neatly into a grammatical syllabus, a frequent criticism of this approach is the apparent arbitrariness of the selected grammar point, which may or may not meet the linguistic needs of the learners, and the fact that the production stage is often based on a rather inauthentic emphasis on the chosen structure.

An alternative to the PPP model is the Test-Teach-Test approach (TTT), in which the production stage comes first and the learners are "thrown in at the deep end" and required to perform a particular task (a role play, for example). This is followed by the teacher dealing with some of the grammatical or lexical problems that arose in the first stage and the learners then being required either to perform the initial task again or to perform a similar task. The language presented in the ‘teach’ stage can be predicted if the initial production task is carefully chosen but there is a danger of randomness in this model.

Jane Willis (1996), in her book ‘A Framework for Task-Based Learning’, outlines a third model for organizing lessons. While this is not a radical departure from TTT, it does present a model that is based on sound theoretical foundations and one which takes account of the need for authentic communication. Task-based learning (TBL) is typically based on three stages. The first of these is the pre-task stage, during which the teacher introduces and defines the topic and the learners engage in activities that either help them to recall words and phrases that will be useful during the performance of the main task or to learn new words and phrases that are essential to the task. This stage is followed by what Willis calls the "task cycle". Here the learners perform the task (typically a reading or listening exercise or a problem-solving exercise) in pairs or small groups. They then prepare a report for the whole class on how they did the task and what conclusions they reached. Finally, they present their findings to the class in spoken or written form. The final stage is the language focus stage, during which specific language features from the task and highlighted and worked on. Feedback on the learners’ performance at the reporting stage may also be appropriate at this point.

The main advantages of TBL are that language is used for a genuine purpose meaning that real communication should take place, and that at the stage where the learners are preparing their report for the whole class, they are forced to consider language form in general rather than concentrating on a single form (as in the PPP model). Whereas the aim of the PPP model is to lead from accuracy to fluency, the aim of TBL is to integrate all four skills and to move from fluency to accuracy plus fluency. The range of tasks available (reading texts, listening texts, problem-solving, role-plays, questionnaires, etc) offers a great deal of flexibility in this model and should lead to more motivating activities for the learners.

Learners who are used to a more traditional approach based on a grammatical syllabus may find it difficult to come to terms with the apparent randomness of TBL, but if TBL is integrated with a systematic approach to grammar and lexis, the outcome can be a comprehensive, all-round approach that can be adapted to meet the needs of all learners.


Tasks: Getting to know your centre

The object of the following two tasks is for students to use English to:

  • Find out what resources are available to them and how they can use their resource room.
  • Meet and talk to each of the teachers in their centre.

To do these tasks you will require the PDF worksheets at the bottom of the page.


Task 1: Getting to know your resources

Level: Pre-intermediate and above

It is assumed in this lesson that your school has the following student resources; books (graded readers), video, magazines and Internet. Don’t worry if it doesn’t, the lesson can be adjusted accordingly.

Pre-task preparation: One of the tasks is a video exercise which involves viewing a movie clip with the sound turned off. This can be any movie depending on availability, but the clip has to involve a conversation between two people.

Pre-task activity: In pairs students discuss the following questions:

  • Do you use English outside the classroom?
  • How?
  • What ways can you practise English outside the classroom?

Stage one - Running dictation
Put the text from worksheet one on the wall either inside or outside the classroom. Organize your students into pairs. One student will then go to the text, read the text and then go back to her partner and relay the information to her. The partner who stays at the desk writes this information. When teams have finished check for accuracy. You can make this competitive should you wish.

Stage two
In pairs students then read the Getting To Know Your Resources task sheet (worksheet two). Check any problem vocabulary at this stage. This worksheet can be adapted according to the resource room at your school.

  • Stage three
    Depending on how the resources are organized in your centre, students then go, in pairs, to the resource room or wherever the resources are kept and complete the tasks on the task sheet.
  • Stage four
    Working with a different partner students now compare and share their experience.
  • Stage five - Feedback
    Having monitored the activity and the final stage, use this opportunity to make comments on your students’ performance. This may take form of a correction slot on errors or pronunciation, providing a self-correction slot.

Task 2 - Getting to know your teachers

Level: Pre-intermediate and above

Students may need at least a week to do this activity, depending on the availability of the teachers in your centre

Pre-task activity: In pairs students talk about an English teacher they have had.

  • What was her name?
  • Where was she from?
  • How old was she?
  • Do you remember any of her lessons?
  • What was your favourite activity in her class?

Stage one
Using the Getting To Know Your Teachers task sheet (worksheet three) and the Interview Questions (worksheet four) students write the questions for the questionnaire they are going to use to interview the teachers.

Stage two
To set up the activity students then interview you and record the information.

Stage three
Depending on which teachers are free at this time they can then go and interview other teachers and record the information. You may wish to bring other teachers into your class to be interviewed or alternatively give your students a week or so to complete the task, interviewing teachers before or after class, or whenever they come to the centre.

Stage four
Working with a different partner students compare their answers and experiences then decide on their final answers on the superlative questions.

Stage five
Feedback and reflection. Allow time for students to express their opinions and experiences of the activity. Provide any feedback you feel is necessary.


Further activities


The Get To Know Your Resources task sheet could be turned into a school competition entry form. Possible prizes could include a video or some readers.


References


*Krashen, S. (1996). The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Prentice Hall
**Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching. Macmillan.
Anchor Point:bottom***Willis, J. & Willis, D. (eds.) (1996). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Macmillan (now out of print).

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/

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nice article. But could have been much better if you had given a more general example of such way of teaching. You were saying about a real life situation in which all students could appear,but for example I teach individuals,or small groups and we do not offer any resources apart from the printouts that we hand out to them and there is consequently no way I can use the example lessons which you have offered. But still thank you, I got inspired to search for more info and to read the Willises)

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