Task-Based Learning

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Task-Based Language Teaching

Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is a communicative approach to language instruction which focuses on the successful completion of “tasks” as its primary goal. Other terms, often used interchangeably, are task-based learning (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 still be received as an appropriate thank-you letter.

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”.

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.

Challenges in TBLT

TBLT has grown out of communicative language teaching (CLT), which is the broad idea that learners learn a language best by using it to make meaning. In theory, CLT is largely uncontroversial for most teachers these days. We all basically agree that some meaning-based activities are important at least some of the time. However, in practice, this is not always easy to do.

One important factor is facility. Looking at language as a collection of items to be taught is relatively easy to do, easy to teach, and easy to test. On the other hand, real-life authentic communication seems messy, difficult to describe and assess, and nearly impossible to structure into a syllabus. As a result, in practice, there has been considerable resistance to applying CLT in the classroom in certain countries.

The basic tenets of CLT, however, are sound. Languages ARE best learned when there is an opportunity for learners to focus on meaning rather than form (again, at least some of the time). The problem only exists in how to present these opportunities to learners.

“Making conversation” is oftentimes too vague. Not only do the learners themselves become confused as to what exactly they should talk about and why, but from the teacher's perspective there is also little basis for assessment or indeed systematic instruction. A task-based approach solves many of these problems.

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 it is that they are saying to each other, rather than only on how they are saying it.