Task Based Learning for Newcomers by Adam Simpson


This text serves as an introduction to teachers curious about the phenomenon of task based learning, and is of particular relevance to those at the post CELTA stage wishing to expand their knowledge of the profession. Its purpose is to provide a basic definition of this particular methodology, to give a brief contrast to other methodologies, and also to indicate its pros and cons.

1. Introduction

At the outset of my teaching career, I readily adopted what little teaching methodology I was aware of to my classroom practice. As with most new teachers fresh from the CELTA course, my lessons followed the PPP (presentation, practice, production) model, or slight variations thereof. However, as my teaching quickly developed on a steep learning curve, so did my awareness of other methodological possibilities, and also the shortcomings of the method I had thus far applied. Nevertheless, I persisted with this method.

Whilst the PPP method offered a comfortable and safe framework (1) for me as a newly qualified teacher, I nevertheless soon realised that i) it is important to meet the specific needs of ones learners, and ii) an authentic context will enhance the learning experience. A failure to deliver on both of these counts is one of the major reasons why the PPP method is criticised. This is also the reason why I have chosen to examine an alternative to this model: Task-based learning.

2. A Comparison of Approaches

2.1 PPP

As stated, the model I based much of my early teaching on was PPP. In this method, the teacher presents a particular language item; it is then practiced in a controlled way by the learners (2), and then finally used by the learners in freer practice activities. My reasons for using this model were twofold. Firstly, it was the one presented to me during my initial teacher training. Furthermore, it offered me a very safe framework in which to operate as an inexperienced teacher, in that it is a reasonably straightforward process to present a structure from a grammatical syllabus (most course books tend to have this to a lesser or greater extent). Having said this, there is a clear drawback. There is an apparent arbitrariness to most 'selected' grammar points, which may or may not meet the needs of the learner.

2.2 TTT

A radically different model exists in the form of TTT (test, teach, test), in that the production stage occurs first: the learners are required to perform a task (3) without any input or guidance from the teacher. The grammatical or lexical problems that this activity generates are used by the teacher for language analysis, the learners then being asked to do a similar/the same task again. Although Bowen suggests that the language presented in the 'teach' can be predicted (especially if the initial test is car fully chosen) (4), there is a distinct danger of randomness which in turn means that the language focus may not reflect the needs of the learner.

2.3 TBL

A third model for organising lessons is offered by Willis (1996) (5). Task-based learning is not entirely different from the aforementioned TTT, although this approach clearly takes into account the need for authentic communication. Typically there are three stages (6);

2.3.1 The Pre-task Phase

Before the task, the teacher explores the topic with the class. Useful (relevant) lexical items may be given. Also, the learners may be given further input, such as a recording of someone doing a similar task or part of an authentic text as a lead in. During the pre-task stage the learners will have their schemata (7) activated, and given the opportunity to become personally involved in the lesson.


2.3.2 The Task Cycle

The task cycle can be broken down into three stages (8); task, in which the learners do the task; planning, when the learners prepare to report to the whole class (usually orally or in writing) how they did the task; and report, when the reports are presented to the class and results compared.

During the task, the teacher monitors and encourages all attempts at communication without correcting. Willis suggests that this harbours a free environment in whish learners are willing to experiment (as mistakes aren't important) (9). At this stage in a PPP lesson the focus would be very much on accuracy, with all mistakes corrected. During the planning stage, the learners are aware that their output will be 'made public' and will consequently aim for accuracy. The role of the teacher here is therefore to provide assistance with regard to language advice (10). The teacher then chairs the report, and comments on the content. At this stage, the focus is on both fluency and accuracy (11). Also, the learners may hear a recording or read a text of a similar task, in order to compare how they did it.

2.3.3 Language Focus

The language focus consists of analysis and practice. In the analysis learners examine the recording or text for new lexical items or structures, which they then record. The teacher conducts a practice of the new items either during the analysis or after. The learners are given the opportunity to reflect on how they performed the task and on the new language they used in this final part of the lesson (12).

3. What TBL Offers

Such a framework theoretically provides the learner with an opportunity to use the language they need for genuine communication (13). I will now consider how this approach benefits the learner, and how it theoretically eliminates the pitfalls of other teaching approaches.

3.1 Motivation

A need to achieve the objectives of the task and report on it provide short-term motivation. Long-term motivation will be gained from successfully completing tasks (14). Bowen (2002) notes that the range of useable tasks (15) offer a great deal of flexibility and should also lead to more motivating activities for learners (16). TBL also therefore accommodates different learning styles

3.2 Private v Public

There are clear instances in TBL in which the learner has the chance to privately practice the language, using it fluently, and then to publicly show other learners that they can use the language in a fluent and accurate manner. There is no such opportunity or necessity for public performance in the other methodologies.

3.3 Reflection

Task-based learning offers action and reflection. In contrast, PPP is relatively low in action and offers little if any chance for reflection as the language focus comes at the start of the lesson, and is entirely teacher generated.

4. Potential Shortcomings

Learners who are used to a more traditional grammatical syllabus may find this approach difficult to come to terms with. This is primarily due to the apparent randomness of TBL, a criticism shared with TTT. Just because the teacher is aware of the benefits of this type of methodology, will the learners ever grasp what is going on, or what they are supposed to have gained from the experience?

In addition, Littlewood (1999) notes that one of the features of TBL that worries teachers is that it seems to have no place for the teaching of grammar (17). Nevertheless, Willis (1998) suggests there are two phases of TBL in which focus on form prove beneficial (18). Firstly, the planning stage between the private task and the public report promotes close attention to language form. Secondly, the language analysis activities provide a focus on form through consciousness-raising processes (19). To summarise, TBL does not, or rather should not, mean 'forget the grammar' (20).

5. Relevance to Teaching Contexts

As stated, PPP is popular with many new teachers, as it offers what Scrivener (1996) defines as a single, simple, clear, workable lesson model (21). Furthermore, it is very comforting for the teacher to be in charge of proceedings (22), and this method of teaching is largely based on teacher activity. This ties in with shortcomings mentioned in the introduction, in that it isn't facilitating the needs of learners so much as easing the life of the teacher.

Indeed, it is true to say that utilising learner interaction (which clearly occurs in TBL) as a teaching method is underused, mainly due to the fear of factors such as a reversion to L1 (23). However, the relevance of learner motivation and involvement cannot be overlooked. Learner-centred methods, such as TBL, draw on the learner's knowledge, and consequently materials are selected on the basis of both their needs and interests. Learning can be seen as a collaborative enterprise, in which there is a great deal of negotiation between the teacher and learner.

Nevertheless, when considering TBL it is necessary to examine the context in which it is to be used, and furthermore the possible reaction of the learners. Will learners openly accept a methodology that is alien to them? If learners are unfamiliar with TBL, then it will be necessary to negotiate with learners to make sure that they are happy to learn in this way. If this can be done, then the learners become stakeholders in the approach. It is therefore vital for me as a teacher to take into account my teaching environment and apply this new approach sensitively.

It is an accepted fact in my institution that learners cannot possibly be taught all the English that they need to know in one academic year. Consequently, a large part of their classroom time is allotted to teaching skills that will i) allow learners to cope with academic English using the level of language they have thus far attained, and ii) to encourage autonomous learning through the development of learning skills and the use of resources relevant to their future academic careers. Therefore, a methodology that supports the reflective learner, encourages autonomy and accommodates a range of learning styles should suit my learners' needs.

Also, as stated, TBL is of particular relevance as language is used for a genuine purpose, meaning that real communication should take place. Furthermore, learners are forced to consider language form in general rather than focusing on a single structure (24), as is the case in PPP. Another way in which TBL is more relevant to learners than PPP is that the aim of TBL is to integrate all four skills (25) and move from fluency to accuracy plus fluency (26).

6. Conclusion

TBL offers a structured approach to learning, and supports the notion that learning occurs most effectively when related to the real-life tasks undertaken by an individual. TBL encourages the development of the reflective learner, and accommodates a wide range of learning styles. TBL offers an attractive combination of pragmatism and idealism: pragmatism in the sense that learning with an explicit sense of purpose is an important source of student motivation and satisfaction; idealism in that it is consistent with current theories of education.

Nevertheless, teachers wishing to branch out and develop through the use of alternative methodologies should be careful not to jump on the latest language learning bandwagon. Michael McCarthy, the eminent applied linguist, suggests that TBL figures high on such a list of latest fads, and in its strongest forms risks relegating learning about the language system to a secondary place, subservient to some real-world task (27). TBL, as a practical and pedagogically sound alternative, should not exclude grammar and vocabulary learning via a systematic syllabus, as systematic progression is a key psychological concept for learners.

Notes & References

1. As noted by Skeehan, (1996), p.17.
2. Usually in oral or written exercises such as drills.
3. Such as a role play.
4. Bowen, T. (2002).
5. Willis, J. (1996), p1.
6. As noted by Willis, J. (1998).
7. Schemata is the knowledge of the lexis related to a particular subject.
8. Willis, J. (1998).
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Bowen, T. (2002).
12. Harden et al, (1996).
13. Harden et al, (1996).
14. As stated by Willis, J. (1998).
15. Examples being reading texts, listening texts, problem-solving, role-plays, questionnaires.
16. Bowen, T. (2002).
17. Littlewood, W. (1999).
18. Willis, J. (1998).
19. Learners can reflect on language features, or recycle the task language, for example.
20. Willis, J. (1998).
21. Scrivener, J. (1996), p.79.
22. Skeehan, P. (1996), p.17.
23. Dinou, G. (2001). L1 refers to the learner's native language.
24. Bowen, T. (2002).
25. Reading, writing, speaking and listening.
26. Bowen, T. (2002).
27. McCarthy, M. (2005)


Bowen, T. (2002) Task-Based Learning, ONE STOP ENGLISH WEBSITE (http://www.onestopenglish.com)

Dinou, G. (2001) A New Approach to Course Design: Task-Based Learning, TESOL GREECE CONFERENCE PAPER 2001 (http://www.tesolgreece.com/dinou01.shtml)

Harden, R.M., Laidlaw, J.M., Ker, J.S. and Mitchell, H.E. (1996) Task-Based Learning: An Educational Strategy for Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Continuing Education, MEDICAL TEACHER JOURNAL (1996) Volume 18, no.1 pp.7-13 and Volume 18, no.2 pp.91-98

Littlewood, W. (1999) Task-Based Learning of Grammar, HONG KONG BAPTIST UNIVERSITY (http://www.eltnews.com/features/interviews/036_michael_mccarthy1.shtml)

McCarthy, M. (2005) quoted in an interview for ELT News website, ELT NEWS WEBSITE (www.eltnews.com/features/ interviews/036_michael_mccarthy2.shtml)

Moor, P. (2000) Implementing a Task-Based Approach Without Task-Based Materials, IH WORLD INTERNET JOURNAL (http://www.ihworld.com/ihworldjournal/)

Skeehan, P., (1996), A Cognitive Approach to Language Leaning, OUP

Stone, L. (2000) Task-Based Activities: Making the Language Laboratory Interactive, ERIC CLEARINGHOUSE ON LANGUAGES AND LINGUISTICS

Tritt, G. (2000) Task-Based Exercises, (http://tritt.bizland.com/swissenglish/tbl/richmond.htm)

Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning, LONGMAN ADDISON-WESLEY

Willis, J. (1998) Task-Based Learning: What Kind of Adventure? JAPAN ASSOCIATION FOR LANGUAGE TEACHING WEBSITE (http://langue.hyper.chubu.ac.jp/jalt/pub/tlt/98/jul/willis.shtml)


Adam Simpson has been living and working in Istanbul for the past six years. After several enjoyable years at Istanbul Bilig University, he is now enjoying life at the school of languages of Sabanci University, also in Istanbul. He is currently plying his trade as an apprentice corpus linguist, and is heavily involved in the development of the school's lexical syllabus. Adam can be contacted at adams@sabanciuniv.edu

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