Now the hungry lion roars...

Scott Gardner


Now the hungry lion roars,

And the wolf behowls the moon;

Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,

All with weary task fordone. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Task Based Language Teaching, or TBLT as it is called, should not be confused with BLT (Bondage in Language Teaching), nor with TLT (Torture in Language Teaching), which both share the same basic ideals, although TLT maintains as its primary focus “making them talk.” Unlike BLT or TLT, Task Based Language Teaching has a definite advantage in that it does not require any specially-equipped “language extraction chambers.” TBLT instead has more conventional goals in mind, goals that lie within relatively easy physical or cognitive reach. (Example: “Pull my finger.”)

The glorified image of the task based language learning course is that of a classroom full of students, working together in small groups, diligently using English to accomplish an objective. Like doing my taxes. And why not? The Latin root of tax is after all identical to that oftask. I usually have each group working on a different deduction. The advanced students get to try working out a way to make a loss at the local boat races look like a donation to charity.

One of the most common TBLT activities is the information gap exercise, in which partners must share ideas about a certain concept in order to correlate incomplete sets of information. Of course some of the most rudimentary information gap tasks occur naturally among students without need of teacher guidance at all: “What page did he say?” “80.” “80? Are we that far?” “Maybe it was 18.” “That girl’s on page 20.” “She’s Student B. You’re Student A.” “Oh.”

Using the target language to share meaningful messages is one of the cornerstones of TBLT, but I can’t help thinking that some tasks given students to complete are unnecessarily artificial and far removed from their own experience. (“Ask your partner the color of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s shirt. Discuss other historical freedom fighters and plan an armed uprising of your own.”) A lot of teachers make their info gap tasks more relevant by creating situations in which students must exchange information that is more personal and important to them. A resourceful teacher, rather than simply having students indicate their blood type and personality traits, might instead walk into the classroom with a somber look and say: “Students, I have to cancel class next week for some experimental and dangerous surgery. Oh, by the way, could a few of you go around the class and compile a list of everyone’s blood type? My doctors suggest that I take up a collection. In English, please.”

In TBLT one must remember to keep priorities straight. The primary purpose of such activities is supposed to be language use rather than task completion. Forcing your students to prepare an order of 100,000 pairs of basketball shoes for export is missing the point. In short, activities should be “task based,” not “base tasks.” On the other hand, in some situations completion of the task seems logically to outweigh any language factors involved: “I don’t care if it’s an emergency, Taro, you’re not allowed to use the restroom until you pronounce gastroenteritis correctly!”

Those who have mastered TBLT (taskmasters, as they are called) claim to have statistical proof of its effectiveness. They say classrooms using TBLT have more orderly desks and chairs than those that don’t, and the windows are up to 30% cleaner. There may also be evidence that students speak more target language as well, but I’ll leave discussion of that data up to someone else. That wasn’t part of my assignment.