About Task-Based Learning
Task-based learning (TBL) is a communicative approach to language instruction which focuses on the successful completion of “tasks” as its primary goal. Other terms which are also used interchangeably, are task-based language teaching (TBL), task-based language learning (TBLL) and task-based instruction (TBI).
Tasks are usually defined as:
- corresponding to a real-world activity
- having a clear non-linguistic outcome
- allowing for an authentic, meaningful use of language
A task may be short and self-contained (e.g., ordering a pizza by telephone) or it may be a longer and more complex project (e.g., organizing and publishing a student website).
More examples of tasks include Write a thank-you letter, Listen to a lecture, Read a news article, and Make a paper airplane. Each of these corresponds to something that is done in the real world. They may happen to include a language component, but the language component is not the outcome. For instance, "having spoken English well" is not the point of ordering a pizza; getting pizza is the point of ordering a pizza.
Also note that each of these is meaning-focused and relatively unrestricted as to which language forms can be used, and how well they are used. For example, a thank-you letter could contain a great number of grammar mistakes and yet still be received as an "successful" thank-you letter; on the other hand, it may be written in flawless prose and yet be inappropriate for other reasons.
This brings us to another crucial aspect of TBLT tasks, which is that tasks must be assessed primarily according to their outcome. Whether a learner can order a pizza appropriately should be measured first by whether that pizza has—or, in a classroom situation, would have—arrived, and not by whether the learner has used specific target language items such as “Could I have extra cheese?” or “That will be $20 please”.
To put it another way, grammar worksheets, vocabulary tests, scripted dialogs, etc. are never tasks in a TBLT sense. They may be useful components of instruction, but they are decidedly NOT “real-world” activities, they have no intended outcome besides language practice, and they strongly favor accuracy over meaning.
In short, a task-based approach organizes lessons in such a way that learners will focus on getting something done while using the language, rather than on the explicit practice of language forms, as in more traditional methods of instruction.
TBLT provides a structured framework for both instruction and assessment. Using tasks as the basic building blocks of syllabus design allows teachers to both sequence lessons and to assess their outcomes, while at the same time creating reasonably authentic parameters within which learners can communicate with each other for a purpose.
Most importantly, it allows learners to focus on what they are saying to each other, rather than only on how they are saying it.
About Task-Based Assessment
Task-based assessment can be easy, straightforward, and meaningful for learners.
Consider the following hypothetical task, including some specific task parameters:
Tell a story
On a simple, familiar topic (e.g., family trip)
To a single sympathetic listener (e.g., a friend)
For a certain length of time (e.g., two minutes)
With visual support (e.g., a photo album)
Note that parameters are important in order to keep tasks at a specific level. For example, if we were to remove the visual support, or change the “single sympathetic listener” to “an audience of English teachers during a high-stakes university entrance interview”, this would make the same basic task more challenging.
Now, let's say we are grading the task on a 10-point scale. If the learner appropriately completes the task (i.e. they tell a story within these parameters, regardless of how “good” it actually was), then they pass. Their grade will be somewhere between 6 and 10.
If they could not accomplish the task (i.e. they could barely be understood, or if what they produced would not reasonably be called “a story”) then they fail. Also, if they spoke reasonably well but did not stay within the parameters—for example if they spoke for only one minute, or spoke about an entirely different topic—then they did not achieve the task outcome adequately and they "fail". In a classroom situation, this may be an opportunity for feedback and a chance to do it over, especially if students are not yet used to task-based criteria for assessment.
If the learner achieves the task outcome adequately, the next step is to assess how well the task was achieved. Now, secondarily, we can look at things such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Bear in mind that, if an appropriate task outcome has been achieved, then by definition we already know that the learner's pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar are at least at an acceptable level for the task. They could not have achieved the task otherwise.
In short, task-based assessment works like this:
Step 1: Decide ACHIEVED or NOT ACHIEVED based on the task outcome.
Ask yourself: Is this an adequate example of the task type? Literally, did the learner do the thing they were asked to do?
In other words, could the task outcome be reasonably acceptable by an “average” fluent speaker of English? It needs to have been adequately clear, on topic, short or long enough, informative enough, etc. to achieve its intended purpose. At this stage, avoid judging discrete language features. You are making a holistic decision only.
If yes, CONTINUE to Step 2.
If no, STOP and give feedback.
Step 2: Decide how well the task was performed.
At this point, you may consider aspects of language use. Read the descriptors below, or use other similar criteria, and assign a grade from 6 to 10. Give feedback based on these descriptors. An easy way to do this is to print out such descriptors, highlight or cross out relevant items, and give that to the learner.
If STOP, what were the issues? Were there nevertheless some redeeming qualities? Inform the learner that they did not achieve the task and why. Whenever possible, allow them to attempt the task again.
Example scoring criteria for ACHIEVED:
10 No grammar mistakes worth mentioning. Vocabulary use was very appropriate. Pronunciation was exceptionally clear. Speech was very smooth and fluent. Gestures, facial expressions and manner were effective and natural. Speaker was very confident and engaging.
9 A few small grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation mistakes that did not affect meaning. Speech was smooth, near-fluent, and very easy to understand. Gestures, facial expressions and manner were effective and natural, with perhaps one or two minor slips. Speaker was confident and engaging.
8 A small number of minor grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation difficulties sometimes affected meaning. Despite these, the overall speech was easy to follow and understand. Gestures, facial expressions and manner were generally appropriate. Speaker was mostly confident and engaging.
7 Occasional serious difficulties with grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. Speech was not always smooth and clear, but overall quite understandable. Speaker did not revert to L1. Gestures, facial expressions or manner may have been marked or distracting.
6 Serious difficulties with basic grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. Required some support from the listener. Occasionally reverted to L1. Gestures, facial expressions or manner may have been distracting. Speech not always clear, but overall it was complete and understandable.
Feedback criteria for NOT ACHIEVED:
There are many, varied reasons why a learner may not achieve the task outcome. Often these are linguistic in nature (grammar or lexis mistakes, pronunciation, insufficient complexity or linking, etc), but not always. It may be due to length, pragmatic or cultural misunderstanding, missing the point of the task, or simply a lack of effort. It is usually appropriate in an instructional context to give relevant feedback, and to allow the learner to try again.
The example above is for a speaking task assessed on a 10-point scale, but the same basic principles apply for writing, listening, or reading tasks. First: decide ACHIEVED or NOT ACHIEVED based on task outcome. Second: if ACHIEVED, decide how well and give feedback; if NOT ACHIEVED, give feedback and allow another attempt.
A useful tip: use even-numbered scale, so that there is no "maybe" option. That is, force yourself and other graders to always make that first, crucial, YES/NO decision. If necessary, get a second or third opinion from colleagues and go with the consensus.
Sequencing tasks and setting parameters
The real trick in TBL assessment is to select tasks appropriately, and then to set parameters which apply to your context. [to be continued...]
What Does "Appropriate" Mean?
One of the more difficult points in task-based assessment is arriving at a good definition of what "appropriate" means. For example, when we say that the point of a task such as Order a pizza by telephone is that a hypothetical pizza restaurant employee would understand the order well enough to successfully deliver the pizza, what do we mean by "well enough"?
In other words, at what point do we draw the line between clear and unclear, or appropriate and inappropriate? Do we assume that a typical interlocutor knows the learner's L1? Is familiar with other learners of the L1? Is not familiar with those learners at all, but is experienced with language learners in general? What about attitude—is the interlocutor patient and sympathetic to learners? Are they even in a position to be sympathetic; e.g. a waiter vs. a police officer? These questions can go on and on, and there is no easy answer.
One way of solving the issue is to simply arrive at a clear definition of one's own, and to accept that these variables will be interpreted differently by different teachers. Some teachers prefer to imagine a person whom they know to be a "reasonable" interlocutor. For example, a teacher in Japan who is too familiar with Japanese L1 learners could distance themselves somewhat by asking the question, Would my brother/mother/friend understand this?
That is, instead of trying to establish what a hypothetical "pizza guy" might do, they might imagine a more specific person in that role, at least for the purpose of making that crucial initial pass/fail distinction.
Assessment in Widgets
Many self and peer assessment pages are built into the student book (for example, the "Paperwork" pages at the end of each stage). These can be filled in and then a copy made to submit to the teacher, or they can be downloaded and copies made for students to fill out: