"The Task-Based Classroom in Practice"
PAC2 Conference, Seoul, Oct 3, 1999.
Andrew Finch, M.Ed., M.A.
Visiting Professor, Andong National University.
This paper concentrates on the practical aspect of using TBTL ideas
in the classroom, at the same time making the point that teacher-reflection
on basic principles and beliefs (in addition to methodology and pedagogy)
is indispensable, since these perceptions determine everything that happens
in the classroom.
Second-language teaching in the last 30 years has shown a tendency to
adopt "new" methodologies to the exclusion of those preceding them, these
"new" ways of teaching subsequently suffering the same fate as even "newer"
trends come along. In this process, current politically correct terms enter
the teaching vocabulary, becoming "all things to all people" and being
absorbed into teaching practices that are otherwise unchanged. Thus (for
example) few teachers would claim not to be promoting "communication" and
"autonomy" in their classes. The same situation has occurred with the term
"task-based". Many practitioners advocate "Task-Based Teaching" though
continuing with previous methods and underlying principles, simply using
the term to justify these: "Today our task is to listen to the teacher";
"Here is a grammar-translation task"; "Your task is to do the cloze
exercise on page 52"; "Here is your rote-learning task." As can be seen,
the "goalposts" have shifted a little, but everything else is unchanged.
However, if we look at the literature, we find that choice of the task
as the unit of syllabus analysis (Crookes & Gass 1993). Tasks and Language
Learning. Cleveland, UK: Multilingual Matters) actually implies a certain
approach inherent in the term "Task-Based Language Teaching" (TBLT). Thus
White's (1988) "Type B", analytic (as against synthetic) syllabus, and
Breen's (1987) "process" (rather than "propositional") paradigm, imply
a student-centred focus on performance, problem-solving (learning skills),
and reflection (self-evaluation) which is not found in the earlier forms
of syllabi. The focus now is on process rather than product, and on how
to learn rather than what to learn. The task, rather than being a unit
of grammar to be digested, or a collection of lexical items to be remembered,
is a means of using the language (Widdowson 1978) in order to learn the
language (Allwright 1984). It has meaning for students who have to solve
communication problems, and that meaning, along with the authenticity in
the use of real-life situations, becomes internalised as linguistic competence.
Lastly, the process of understanding, performing and reflecting on the
task produces a wealth of 'real' use of the target language (e.g. agreeing,
suggesting, questioning, explaining, checking for understanding, asking
for clarification), fostering learning in a cyclical, ongoing manner.
Type A: What is to be learnt?
Type B: How is it to be learnt?
External to the learner
Internal to the learner
Inner directed or self fulfilling
Determined by authority
Negotiated between learners and teachers
Teacher as decision-maker
Learner and teacher as joint decision makers
Content = what the subject is to the expert
Content = what the subject is to the learner
Content = a gift to the learner from the teacher or knower
Content = what the learner brings and wants
Objectives defined in advance
Objectives described afterwards
Assessment by achievement or by mastery
Assessment in relationship to learners' criteria of success
Doing things to the learner
Doing things for or with the learner.
Table 1: Language Syllabus Design: Two types (White 1988:44).
This attitude to teaching and learning inherent in the 'task-based'
approach can be summarised in terms of the sort of basic principles referred
1. There is a difference between learning and education.
2. Learners learn what is meaningful to them.
3. Learners learn in ways that are meaningful to them.
4. Learners learn better if they feel in control of what they are learning.
5. Learning is closely linked to how people feel about themselves.
6. Learning takes place in a social context through interactions with
7. What teachers do in the classroom will reflect their own beliefs
8. There is a significant role for the teacher as mediator in the language
9. Learning tasks represent an interface between teachers and learners.
10. Learning is influenced by the situation in which it occurs.
Reasons for TBLT
The immediate problem for over-worked, tired language teachers is one
of application: "Even if I subscribe to this idea,
how do I put it into practice in my classrooms?" "How do I structure
lessons and courses using tasks?" "My syllabus is based on an old-fashioned
traditional-style textbook and is exam-driven. Why should I use tasks to
teach this prescribed material?" In answer to these very valid questions,
let us look at the "why" of TBLT first:
1. Meaning: When tasks are the means of learning, the target language
takes on meaning. Instead of the TENOR situation (Teaching English for
No Obvious Reason), students have a reason for learning. They can see that
the new language is a means of communication, and that they need to be
able to transfer information and opinions in that language (teaching through
communication: rather than for communication [c.f Prabhu, 1980:164]).
2. Ownership: If students are allowed to see the task through all of
its stages (task completion), without the teacher playing an interventionist
role (explaining instructions that students can read for themselves and
focusing on discrete learning points that are irrelevant to the majority
of students) they can achieve a valuable (and motivating) sense of fulfilment
and heightened self-confidence that comes from understanding, performing,
and reflecting on the activity by themselves. Without such motivational
stimulus, learning is unlikely to occur, irrespective of method.
3. Learning levels: Learners take on (intake) content matter (input)
that is appropriate to their current stage. If everyone learns the same
thing at the same time, this content will rarely be suitable for more than
a minority of students. If they are allowed to progress through tasks at
their own rate, however, students can concentrate on aspects that are suitable
for their learning level.
4. Assessment: Evaluation usually concentrates on the teacher, providing
him/her with a snapshot of learning that can be turned into a grade. However,
it is the students who need to know how they are progressing, so that their
learning in the future can be informed by feedback. Tasks give students
such information, focusing on outcome, showing them their learning needs,
and helping them to evaluate their communicative competence.
5. Error-correction: As with other aspects of the synthetic, grammar-based
propositional approach to learning, error-correction can be harmful to
motivation and self confidence, and ineffective in terms of its results
for the whole class of students. If they are conducting problem-solving
in groups, however, errors in communication become evident to the whole
group, and the teacher (functioning as a language resource) can be asked
to supply the necessary language, giving "the right information to the
right people at the right time."
Secondly, let us take a look at the "How?" of TBLT: A number of writers
(e.g. Skehan 1998; Skehan and Foster 1997); have commented on the need
for a structured sequence of tasks in the classroom, rather than the disconnected
and directionless mixture of game-like activities that can result from
an uninformed application of task-based ideas. Task difficulty is important
in this structuring, and Candlin (1987) offers a checklist of considerations:
* One-way tasks should come before two-way tasks; * Static tasks should
come before dynamic ones;
* "Present time" tasks should come before ones using the past or the
* Easy tasks should come before difficult tasks;
* Simple tasks (only one step) should come before complex tasks (many
The following chart (table 2) suggests a means of doing this, proceeding
from static, one-way information-transfer (upper
left of the chart) to dynamic, independent tasks (lower right). For
more information on task types (and definitions) and
associated research, table 3 presents a list of research findings to
* memory games
* review activities (one-way)
* simple lexis activities
* review activities (two-way)
* classroom English
* interactive lexis activities structural activities
* questionnaires (one-way)
* basic role-plays
* questionnaires (two-way)
* short skits (dramas),
designed by the students, based on earlier role-play
* pair-work (one-way)
* group-work (one-way)
* tasks which access information about class
* simple dialogs
* pair-work (e.g. interviews)
* group-work (two-way)
* jigsaw activities
* pyramid activities
Table 2: Checklist of task-types .
Two-way tasks prompt more conversational adjustments than one-way tasks
Brown & Yule (1983)
The length of the speaking turn is a factor in the difficulty of speaking
Brown, Anderson, Shilcock & Yule (1984)
Distinction between static, dynamic and abstract tasks:
* static tasks involve simple transmission of information in a linear
sequence, often using easily prescribed language;
* dynamic tasks involve the speakers in two-way conversations in which
language is not prescribed, and in which relations
* Static tasks (e.g. description) are easier than dynamic tasks (e.g.
narration), which are easier then abstract tasks
* The number of elements, participants, and relationships in a task
makes it more difficult
Attention to form has a clear effect on accuracy of performance.
Use of referential questions prompts significantly longer and more
systematically complex responses containing more
Doughty & Pica (1986)
Required information exchange tasks generate significantly more interactional
modifications than optional information
Convergent (problem-solving) tasks produce more negotiation of meaning
than divergent (debating) tasks (this was not born
Long & Crookes (1986)
Use of referential questions results in greater mastery of experiential
There is evidence of an interaction between the engagement of planned
discourse and different forms of the past tense under
different task conditions.
Use of referential questions prompts more negotiation of meaning and
syntactically and discoursally more complex language
Classification of task types:
* Information-gap tasks
* reasoning-gap tasks
* opinion-gap tasks
Nunan (1988a; 1988b)
There are often dramatic mismatches between the activity preferences
of teachers and students.
Learners' activity preferences can vary markedly and are determined
by cognitive style and personality variables
There is greater complexity and lexical variety for tasks done under
a planning time condition, but no greater accuracy
Classification of task types:
* experience tasks (using the learners previous experience);
* 5shared tasks (getting learners to help each other bridge the learning
* guided tasks (providing support while learners perform the task,
by giving exercises and focused guidance);
* independent tasks (in which learners work alone without planned help).
Interpretive tasks generate more complexity
Pica et al. (1993)
Symmetric tasks generate more interaction and negotiation of meaning.
* agreed-outcome tasks favour short turns and less complex language;
* tasks allowing disagreement lead to longer turns and more complex
and varied language.
Foster & Skehan (1996)
* Structured tasks produce greater fluency (unplanned) and accuracy
* Concrete/immediate tasks are easier, but evidence supporting this
proposition is mixed.
* There is an interaction between opportunity to plan and task type.
Table 3; based on Nunan (1993:60) and Skehan (1998:116-7): Research
on task types
Planning tasks for the lesson
Tasks are best if they have preparation ("pre-task") activities, "during-task"
activities and follow-up ("post-task")
Pre-task activities are important, because they give a chance to:
* introduce new language;
* increase the chances that the students' language system will change;
* mobilize language;
* recycle language;
* ease the language-processing load;
* push learners to interpret tasks in more demanding ways.
"During-task" activities are concerned with:
* the language-learning task;
* planning (decision-making, agreeing, suggesting);
* reporting (concluding, making inferences).
"Post-task" activities give language input and focused tasks, in order
to help learners to :
* identify and consolidate the language;
* classify (structurally or semantically);
* hypothesize, check;
* engage in cross-language exploration;
* search for patterns;
* recall or reconstruct texts.
Using tasks in the lesson
Willis (1996) offers five principles for the implementation of a task-based
approach. These provide input, use, and
reflection on the input and use:
1. "There should be exposure to worthwhile and authentic language."
2. "There should be use of language."
3. "Tasks should motivate learners to engage in language use."
4. "There should be a focus on language at some points in a task cycle."
5. "the focus on language should be more and less prominent at different
Skehan (op. cit.) also proposes five principles for task-based instruction:
1. Choose a range of target structures;
2. Choose tasks which create appropriate conditions for learning;
3. Select and sequence tasks to achieve balanced development. (i at
an appropriate level of difficulty"; ii focused between
fluency, accuracy, and complexity";
4. Maximise the chances of a focus on form in the context of meaningful
5. Use cycles of accountability. Get learners to self-assess regularly.
These checklists are fine, but let's take a look at some actual examples
(see Appendix B). This is a Chapter from the
Teacher's resource Book of "Now You're Talking!" (Finch & Hyun
1998), in which a topic ("At the Doctor's") is used as a
framework for practising various aspects of the target language (making
appointments, parts of the body, explaining, etc.):
(See notes on the pages). As can be seen from this progression of activities,
language (including grammar) is presented and
practised, and students can work through it all at their own speed,
taking in what is appropriate for them at their own
stages. Instructions are to the students, and are practical comprehension
tests, providing valuable feedback to the teacher
and the student. Only if students do not start performing the
activities does the teacher need to explain the instructions
and to talk to them. Towards the end of the Chapter, students make
their own role play about the topic (independent,
dynamic use of the language), they perform it (language practice),
and assess it (reflection), giving themselves valuable
input about their current learning needs.
Before concluding, let us take some time to reflect on the beliefs
and perceptions that drive our own behaviour in the language classroom.
There are of course no right or wrong answers, but the act of thinking
about these ideas and talking about them with other people will help to
clarify them for us, and will set evaluative processes in motion, thus
informing our teaching in the future. Please put a check next to the appropriate
items (any number of checks is OK):
Why am I teaching?
For the money
In order to travel
In order to meet colleagues
In order to learn a new culture
In order to promote western culture
To help my students become more fluent
To help my students become good learners
To help my students become responsible citizens
To change society
What sort of syllabus do I prefer?
Who am I in the classroom?
Dispenser of knowledge
Who are my students?
Absorbers of knowledge
Recipients of knowledge
How do I evaluate my students?
Quantitively (formal tests)
Qualititatively (interviews, learning diaries)
Through student self-assessment
Through "snapshot" proficiency tests
Formatively (feeding results back to the students)
Through reviews of previous lesson content
Through projects and portfolios
It is important to remember that TBLT is an approach rather than a
method. It assumes that the teacher respects the
students as individuals and wants them to succeed. It also acknowledges
that motivation, attitudes to learning, student
beliefs, language anxiety, and preferred learning styles, have more
effect on learning than materials, or methods. We
therefore need to take these into account in our classrooms, taking
advantage of the opportunity TBLT gives us to promote a
student-centered learning environment. Teacher-centered controls, threats,
rewards and restrictions are not an effective
means of stimulating learning, since no-one can be forced to learn.
If we can instead stimulate a need to learn, and a
desire to learn, based on unconditional respect and mutual trust, learning
will take place in an enjoyable and facilitative
In conclusion, the following table summarises the task-based "approach"
and its rationale:
What knowledge does it focus on?
* Communicative knowledge as a unity of text, interpersonal behaviour,
* the learner's experience and awareness of working upon a new langauge.
What capabilities does it focus on and prioritise?
* communicative abilities and learning capability";
* the ability to negotiate meaning: the ability to interpret meaning;
and the ability to express meaning
On what basis does it select and subdivide what is to be learned?
* communication tasks: from an analysis of the actual tasks which a
person may undertake when communicating through the
* learning tasks: selected on the basis of metacommunicative criteria.
They provide the groundwork for the learner's
engagement in communication tasks and deal with learner difficulties
which emerge during these tasks, addressing i) how the
knowledge systems work, and ii) how the learning may be best
* subdivision is on the basis of task types (various ways).
How does it sequence what is to be learned?
* sequencing "can .. be characterised as cyclic in relation to how
learners move through tasks, and problem-based (or
problem-generated) in relation to the on-going difficulties which learners
* there is a sequence of refinement as tasks require more and more
* there is a sequence of diagnosis and remediation in parallel with
* sequencing here "depends upon: a) the identificaton of learning problems
or difficulties as they arise; b) the
prioritising of particular problems and the order in which they may
be dealt with; c) the identification of appropriate
learning tasks which address the problem areas" :
What is its rationale?
* broader view of what is to be achieved in language learning.
* the learner's initial competence can be engaged as the foundation
upon which new knowledge and capabilities may be
accommodated during the undertaking of tasks, matching the process
which occurs when learners mobilise knowledge systems
when undertaking actual tasks in the L1;
* participation in communication tasks which require the learners to
mobilise and orchestrate knowledge and abilities in a
direct way will itself be a catalyst for language learning;
* a more sensitive methodology: represents the effort to relate content
to how that content may be worked upon, and
thereby, learned more efficiently;
* means-focused and ends-focused;
* assumes that learning is necessarily both metacommunicative and communicative;
* based on the belief that learners can be analytical in their exploration
of communication in the target language and of
the knowledge and ability use it entails";
* "Rests on the principle that metacommunicating is itself a powerful
springboard for language learning."
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ANU Language Center's Teacher's Resource books can be found at these
"Tell Me More!": http://lc.andong.ac.kr/eng/tmmt/tmmt003.html
"Now You're Talking!": http://lc.andong.ac.kr/eng/nyt/nyt001.html
"The Way Ahead": http://lc.andong.ac.kr/eng/twa/cover/contents.htm