"Task-based learning is like an adventure--learners surprise you by coming up with all kinds of things..." "... exploring language in this way opens up whole new vistas...." These were comments made by teachers at the end of a recent workshop on using a task-based approach to language teaching.
Classroom adventures, though often exciting and rewarding, entail elements of risk that can make things quite scary for the teacher. I want to show here how this risk can be minimised by principled use of a task-based learning framework, and then propose a taxonomy to help teachers generate tasks that will prove fulfilling and challenging but not too risky.
What is a Task?
By task, I mean a goal-oriented activity with a clear purpose. Doing a communication task involves achieving an outcome, creating a final product that can be appreciated by other. Examples include compiling a list of reasons, features, or things that need doing under particular circumstances; comparing two pictures and/or texts to find the differences; and solving a problem or designing a brochure.
Tasks can be used as the central component of a three part framework: "pre-task," "task cycle," and "language focus." These components have been carefully designed to create four optimum conditions for language acquisition, and thus provide rich learning opportunities to suit different types of learners. Figure 1 outlines the roles of the teacher and learners during a task-based learning (TBL) lesson. Note especially the degree of teacher control, and the opportunities for learner language use.
Figure 1: Task-Based Learning Framework
Components of a TBL Framework
Learners may now hear a recording of others doing a similar task and compare how they all did it. Or they may read a text similar in some way to the one they have written themselves, or related in topic to the task they have done.
Sometime after completing this sequence, learners may benefit from doing a similar task with a different partner.
Conditions for Learning
Learners get exposure at the pre-task stage, and a chance to recall things they know. The task cycle gives them speaking and writing exposure with opportunities for students to learn from each other.
The task cycle also gives students opportunities to use whatever language they have, both in private (where mistakes, hesitations, and approximate renderings do not matter so long as the meaning is clear) and in public (where there is a built-in desire to strive for accuracy of form and meaning, so as not to lose face).
Motivation (short term) is provided mainly by the need to achieve the objectives of the task and to report back on it. Success in doing this can increase longer term motivation. Motivation to listen to fluent speakers doing the task is strong too, because in attempting the task, learners will notice gaps in their own language, and will listen carefully to hear how fluent speakers express themselves.
A focus on form is beneficial in two phases in the framework. The planning stage between the private task and the public report promotes close attention to language form. As learners strive for accuracy, they try to organise their reports clearly and check words and patterns they are not sure of. In the final component, language analysis activities also provide a focus on form through consciousness-raising processes. Learners notice and reflect on language features, recycle the task language, go back over the text or recording and investigate new items, and practise pronouncing useful phrases.
Language Analysis Activities
People have often been under the impression that task-based learning means "forget the grammar." As we have discussed above, this would not be a wise move.
The aim of analysis activities is to encourage learners to investigate language for themselves, and to form and test their own hypotheses about how language works. In the task-based cycle, the language data comes from the texts or transcripts of recordings used in the task cycle, or from samples of language they have read or heard in earlier lessons. Having already processed these texts and recordings for meaning, students will get far more out of their study of language form.
Analysis activities can be followed by quick bursts of oral or written practice, or dictionary reference work (see Willis & Willis, 1996 for specific ideas). Finally, students need time to note down useful words, phrases, and patterns into a language notebook. Regular revision of these will help vocabulary acquisition.
Assessing the Risks
So what risks are there for the teacher? The pre-task stage is normally teacher-led: little risk of chaos here. Although learners are free to interact in pairs and groups in the task cycle, there is a firm agenda for them to follow, such as the achievement of the task goal. A (shortish) time limit for each phase helps, too. The pressure from the prospect of reporting in public ensures learner engagement at the interim planning stage. At the beginning and end of each phase, the teacher assumes full control.
The language focus component does need careful preparation: Whatever analysis activity is set needs to be done by the teacher beforehand to iron out problems. More examples can then be found in dictionaries or grammar books. Sometimes teachers worry that they may not know the answers to incidental language queries that learners have--there are always some! But learners can be encouraged to explore these further on their own, or in pairs, or together with the teacher, with the help of dictionaries, computer databases, or concordance lines, and then report on them in the next lesson.
Designing Tasks to Promote Language Use
Any topic or theme can give rise to different types of tasks, which can be generated with the help of the typology shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Typology for TBL Task Design
ORDERING, SORTING, CLASSIFYING
CREATIVE TASKS, PROJECT WORK
SHARING PERSONAL EXPERIENCES, ANECDOTE TELLING
Each type involves different cognitive processes. The top three types increase in cognitive complexity from left to right, but are generally cognitively less challenging than the three at the bottom. These may involve more complex cognitive operations or combinations of simpler task types.
For example, taking the topic "cats," a listing task might be: List three reasons why people think cats make good pets. A comparing task might be to compare cats and dogs as pets. A problem-solving task could be to think of three low budget solutions to the problem of looking after a cat when the family is absent. An experience sharing or anecdote telling task could involve sharing stories about cats.
It is always a good idea to record two or three pairs of fluent speakers doing (and reporting) the tasks, so that you can choose the best recording, transcribe it, and use it in class to illustrate features of spontaneous and planned language. Working with real data is exciting; there are always discoveries to be made, and here the risk is reduced by having time to prepare for what crops up in the recording.
TBL offers a change from the grammar practice routines through which many learners have previously failed to learn to communicate. It encourages learners to experiment with whatever English they can recall, to try things out without fear of failure and public correction, and to take active control of their own learning, both in and outside class.
For the teacher, the framework offers security and control. While it may be true that TBL is an adventure, it can be undertaken within the safety of an imaginatively designed playground.
References and Further Reading
For more on how people learn languages (in and out of classrooms):
Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, J. (1995). Focus on form in communicative language teaching: Research Findings and the classroom teacher. TESOL Journal, 4(4),12-16.
For more on applying a TBL approach, designing tasks, making recordings, and dealing with typical problem situations:
Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Harlow,U.K.: Longman Addison- Wesley.
For a fuller paper on the TBL framework, more on consciousness-raising activities, and many examples of teacher innovations: