Using Task Based Learning

This article focuses on the following quote from Jane & Dave Willis, The Cambridge Guide to TESOL, CUP 2001: 174. 

'One feature of TBL …… is that learners carrying out a task are free to use any language they can to achieve the outcome'. 

and considers the following questions:

a) What might be the advantages and disadvantages of task-based learning? 

b) In the light of the above quote from Willis, how can the teacher ensure that the language syllabus is covered in task-based learning? 


a) Advantages (underlined) include:


1. TBL prepares the Ls to use language outside the c/r, as it focuses on fluency and on communicating meaning and fluency. During the task the learners are allowed to use whatever language they have at their disposal – as they will need to do in the “real” situation. 

2. TBL is a process based approach which is possibly closer to current theories of second language acquisition than product based approaches such as Presentation Practice Production. For example, the type of grading and systematic coverage provided by PPP may not reflect how language is actually acquired while  TBL provides scope for the ideas expressed by Swain in her “Output Hypothesis” – that it is by formulating and reformulating ideas until they are understood that learners will gradually acquire the “language that works”. 


3. TBL allows for more varied patterns of interaction; focuses on ‘real’ communication within classroom limits and thus teaches communicative rather than purely linguistic competence.For example, while performing the task, learners will have to negotiate meaning, turn-take, use repair strategies, ask for clarification etc as well as using the lexical and functional/structural items that the task itself requires.


4. Except in its most extreme form (Prabhu, the Procedural Syllabus), TBL does still provide scope for a focus on form, but form-based instruction arises from naturally occurring examples of use rather than any predetermined linguistic syllabus. Learners are therefore focusing on “improved” versions of what they wanted to say, which may mean the language is processed at greater cognitive depth than if it was just “the next thing in the coursebook” with no personal relevance.


5. TBL is good for mixed ability/mixed level  classes as the same  task can be completed successfully by weaker or stronger learners using different language.  Eg in a task involving making suggestions, weaker or lower level learner may use “We could…” or “Why don’t we…”  while hearing stronger learners use “it might be a good idea to…” or “Have you thought of…”. Similarly, if they (inaccurately) say *“Why we don’t…” they might hear the correct form (or be corrected by) the stronger learners.


a) Possible disadvantages (underlined):

6. TBL is difficult to implement at lower levels where Ls haven’t yet assimilated enough of the possible language items that could be used to perform the task.

7. Even at higher levels, focus on meaning could come at the expense of focus on form as learners  just use language they are already familiar with (more or less accurately) in the task. Whilst a focus on form does occur after the task stage in TBL (eg comparing their own performance with a version of the task recorded by native speakers or other expert users of the language), if Ls are not given the chance to practise it and repeat the same or a similar task (as in the Test-Teach-Test approach) it may not be internalised. Fluency may be increased but not range or accuracy.

8. This potential lack of assimilation of the language in TBL may also lead to dissatisfaction with the course as learners feel they are not learning anything new.

9. Many TBL models include a Pre-task stage which feeds in information, but also language items, useful for the task. This means that ls are essentially moving straight from Language Focus to Free Practice (the task itself) – or in other words from Presentation straight to Production rather than having an intermediate Controlled Practice stage – as in the PPP approach. Again, at lower levels this lack of a chance to manipulate the language before having to use it may result in inaccuracy or avoidance of any new items.

10. It is difficult to grade and sequence a focus on form and function appropriately in TBL. This may not match the learning preferences of serialist learners who like a systematic “step by step” approach to learning.

11. TBL may also be contrary to Ls’ cultural expectations – for example those of some SE Asian learners who expect to be “told” what they have to learn.


b) Coverage of the language syllabus


12. Tasks can be organized in order to encourage (rather than compel) learners to use particular language from the syllabus. For example, a task where learners have to explain how cook a specific dish from their own country will naturally involve the use of sequencing expressions and clauses, eg  – First / Next / After you XXXX (etc). If these items are not used, they can then be highlighted in the language focus stages.

13. Tasks can be done in parallel with language work (whether grammar, lexis, discourse or pronunciation), as with a course-book such as ‘Cutting Edge’. 

14. Alternatively, a TBL lesson can be “inserted” into a course at regular intervals with the tasks chosen to “match” the language that learners have been studying recently. The language focus stage can highlight any item remembered and used accurately, any used inaccurately, or any avoided  in preference of other more familiar items  – eg if the learners completed a task discussing how they spent their holidays as children using only adverbs of frequency  plus the past simple (“We often went to the mountains” they can be “reminded” how to express the idea in the same way using “used to” or “would”).


15. Post-task analysis can focus on learner error with items on the syllabus, or items from the syllabus which could have been used but were avoided. Eg. If higher level learners are heard to say  “It rained a lot”, the T. can recycle more advanced expressions which they have met in previous units  such as “It poured with rain all weekend” or “It rained really heavily”.