Learning theories in practice/Task-Based Learning

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Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching

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Consider the following classroom:

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This is an English class in Taiwan where English is a foreign language. There are thirty students who are sixth graders, high beginners, in the classroom. Seven students are high-level students who went to cram school to learn English for six years or more. Five students are low-level students who have difficulty in recognizing and reading most of words or sentences they have learned. Their English teacher, Connie, is going to give them some tasks to practice the four language skills, especially speaking, and learn some specific sentence patterns or phrases that can be used when they want to compare or contrast things. Her lesson plan is as follows:

Task Goal (Outcome):

Students are able to use English to describe objects, actions, and signs as well as exchange information. Furthermore, they will complete the task “ Spot the differences”, which asks the students to find out seven differences between two pictures (Picture B and Picture B’).


1. Show a picture on the board and have the class discuss what is in the picture. Students might try to recall and use sentence patterns as many as they can to help describe objects, actions, and signs in the picture.

2. Divide students into groups of four. Give each group two similar pictures (Picture A and Picture A’) but with seven differences. Have each group discuss and find out all differences. Remind them that this activity is like one they have done before only with different pictures. Each student will see both pictures. Together they have to find the differences and write them down in note form. (Put an example (cat on right or on left of sign) on the board or the teacher models how to describe the pictures.) They will only have one minute. They should talk in English, but quietly.

3. Bring class together and have each group report their findings to the teacher and the class.

4. Introduce task: “Spot the differences” puzzle, like the one they have just completed. The difference is that each student cannot see both pictures. They need to try their best to use English to describe details in their own picture.


1. Get students to stand up, find a different partner and sit down with their new pairs. Give each group two new pictures (Picture B and Picture B’). Keep them covered up for now. They also need two sheets of paper between the two of them, pens or pencils and their language notebooks.

2. Get them ready to start: We are going to work in pairs. Now, each of you takes one picture and notice that you are not allowed to see the picture until the task starts. Find seven differences between your picture and your partner’s picture. You are not allowed to show the pictures to each other. You are only allowed to communicate by talking about the pictures. You may use a sheet of paper and a pen to plan what you are going to say before you start describing your picture.

3. Tell all pairs to choose four differences they think will be in the two pictures. They write them down in detail, and practice explaining them, so they can tell their partners and the whole class later on. Show the students some examples, such as the cat example, on the board.

4. Go around the room and help the students while noting useful phrases and writing some on the left of the board, e.g. In picture B…the sign says….

5. When time is up, have students stop discussing and be ready to report their answers. Give them two minutes to practice. Draw attention to phrases on board.

6. Explain that they must listen carefully to other pairs. If they have the same difference, they check it off. Once they hear a difference, they must not report it themselves.

7. Each pair gives one difference (write these on the board as they tell the class) till there are seven. Some pairs may give the wrong answer or still have more. Write them on the board too.

8. Have students find out the correct differences by checking out each other’s picture.

9. Then, play audio recording of David and Amy doing the same task. There are one or two factual inaccuracies in the recording. Have students check off the differences they hear. (May need to pause after each one, and play it again.)

Here is a sample dialogue from such an activity:

David: Do you have the number of the house?

Amy: Yes, it is thirty. How about yours?

David: Mine is thirteen.

Amy: uh… thirteen, Oh, okay. How many people on the street in your picture.

David: Well, I got two, and you?

Amy: I have two, too. Mm…I think this part is the same.

David: How about trees? How many trees do you have? Are they tall or short?

Amy: I have one tree and it’s tall.

David: Oh, I have two trees and they’re tall. That’s another difference here.

Amy: What else?

David: I think maybe the number’s different.

Amy: What number?

David: The phone number of the restaurant.

Amy: My number is six three one nine zero. Your phone number is…

David: It’s six three three nine zero.

Amy: Okay. How many have we got? That’s three.

David: Three. How many do we have to have? Seven. Mm.

Amy: How about the television- is that on in your picture? Mine is not on.

David: Yes, it is!

Amy: …and it’s on in your picture but off in my picture.

David: Right. Anything else? The woman in the restaurant is waving the waiter.

Amy: I guess that is the same in my picture. What about the man on the street? He’s carrying an umbrella.

David: He isn’t carrying anything in my picture.

Amy: All right! So what shall we put? The man…

10. Now ask the class if any pairs have more differences? Ask them to spot the inaccuracies in the recording.

11. The teacher plays the audio recording in which contains one or two inaccuracies.


1. From the board, students choose a useful phrase from each sentence and practice saying it. Delete the phrase immediately after it has been said. Delete other words gradually. This is called “progressive deletion” and should be fun!

2. Students read out all sentences in full, including the missing parts. Clean board.

3. From transcript, students hear recording again and follow it in the transcript. Pause tape sometimes to let them predict how next phrase will be said (intonation with stress on key words).

4. Students read whole transcript and find ten questions to classify in whatever ways they like (e.g. questions with shall or get; short questions/long questions; questions with/without verb, etc.)

5. Students find two examples of the word and tell where it is in the conversation.

6. If time permits, students write down any new phrases they noticed.

7. Bring the class together and review analysis of questions. Practice short questions (point out many are without verbs) and then list questions with shall, got, have and practice them. Also, discuss use of so, and ask what word(s) are also used for the same function.

8. After the task, give students a reflection form with several questions on it. (e.g., What is the most difficult part in the “spot the differences” task? What are some interesting things you see in the task? What did you do if your partner couldn’t understand what you described?)

9. Peer and teacher feedback on task performance.

10. Optional activity: Have students imitate the “spot the differences” activity. They could draw two similar pictures to create a task to quiz their partners.

11. Create a task to quiz their partners.

(This lesson plan is adapted from A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis. 1996. p.156-158)


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As early as the 1970s, the communicative language teaching (CLT) approach became popular among second language acquisition (SLA) researchers and second language teachers (Skehan, 2003). During the 1980s, “task” replaced the term “communicative activity.” The task-based language teaching (TBLT) became a new teaching method that has been broadly adopted in language classroom. As with content-based instruction, the task-based approach aimed to provide learners with a natural context for language use. As learners work to complete a task, they have abundant opportunity to interact with each other as well as the teacher and the content. Such interaction is thought to facilitate language acquisition, as learners have to work to understand each other and to express their own meaning. By so doing, they have to check to see if they have comprehended correctly. In addition, at times, they have to seek clarification from other students or their instructor.

By interacting with others, students have an opportunity to listen to language which may be beyond their present ability, but which may be assimilated into their knowledge of the target language for use at a later time. As Candlin and Murphy (1987:1) note, “The central purpose we are concerned with is language learning, and task present this in the form of a problem-solving negotiation between knowledge that the learner holds and new knowledge.”


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Most researchers would agree that effective language learning takes place under four conditions. To learn a language with reasonable efficiency, three essential conditions must be met and one additional condition is desirable. Task-based language instruction can help teachers select and devise useful classroom activities that could lead to task-based learning and help students to further learn a language successfully.


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The task-based learning and teaching is based on several theoretical backgrounds:

1. From psycholinguistic perspective: (1) A task is a device that guides learners to engage in certain types of information processing that are believed to important for effective language use for language acquisition. (2) Using mental processing that is beneficial to acquisition.

2. From interaction hypothesis: Meaning negotiation can contribute to acquisition.

3. From cognitive approach: (1) TBLT constructs both exemplar-based system and rule-based system. (2) Lexical items and ready-made formulaic chunks of language contribute to fluency, accuracy, and complexity.

4. From Constructivism: (1) Learners learn in ways that are meaningful to them, (2) Learners learn better if they feel in control of what they are learning, (3) Learning is closely linked to how people feel about themselves, and (4) Learning takes place in a social context through interaction with other people.


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A task is an activity “where the target language is used by the learner for a communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome.” (Jane Willis, 1996:23)

A task has several features as follows: (Ellis, 2003:9)

1. A task is a work plan (a plan for learner activity).

2. A task involves a primary focus on meaning.

3. A task involves real-world processes of language use.

4. A task can involve any of the four language skills.

5. A task engages cognitive processes such as selecting, classifying, ordering, and evaluating information in order to carry out the task.

6. A task has a clear defined communicative outcome.

Skehan (1998), drawing on a number of other writers, puts forward five key characteristics of a task.

1. Meaning is primary

2. Learners are not given other people’s meaning to regurgitate

3. There is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities

4. Task completion has some priority

5. The assessment of the task is in terms of outcome


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Although the designs of task-based lesson have been proposed variously, they all include three common phases, which are shown in Table 2. These phases reflect the chronology of a task-based lesson.

The pre-task phase

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The purpose of the pre-task phase is to prepare students of perform the task in ways that will promote acquisition. Lee (2000) describes the importance of ‘framing’ the task to be performed and suggests that one way of doing this is to provide an advance organizer of what the students will be required to do and the nature of the outcome they will arrive at. For example, in the pre-task phase of the lesson plan, the teacher gives some examples (e.g., cat on right or on left of the sign) on the board to let students know what the target language is that they are going to use in the task. Additionally, the teacher introduces the procedure and outcome of each task.

Skehan (1996) refers to two broad alternatives available to the teacher during the pre-task phase: an emphasis on the general cognitive demands of the task, and/or an emphasis on linguistic factors. These alternatives can be tackled procedurally in one of four ways; (1) supporting learners in performing a task similar to the task they will perform in the during-task phase of the lesson, (2) asking students to observe a model of how to perform the task, (3) engaging learners in non-task activities designed to prepare them to perform the task, or (4) strategic planning of the main task performance.

Performing a similar task

In order to prepare learners for performing the main task individually, the teacher involves the learners in completing a task of the same kind as and with similar content to the main task. Prabhu explains that the pre-task was conducted through interaction of the question-and-answer type. The teacher was expected to lead the class step-by-step to the expected outcome, to break down a step into smaller steps if the learners encountered difficulty, and to offer one or more parallels to a step in the reasoning process to ensure that mixed ability learners could understand what was required. For example, in order to help students complete the main task “Spot the differences” in pairs, the teacher starts the class by discussing a single picture. Next, she might have them work in groups to see both pictures and find differences. By so doing, students could practice similar strategies or language skills which will also be used in main task, and it will reduce their anxiety related to completing more complicated tasks. Moreover, the pre-task serves as a mediational tool for the kind of ‘instructional conversation’ that sociocultural theorists advocate. The teacher, as an expert, uses the pre-task to scaffold learner’s performance of the task with the expectancy that this ‘other-regulation’ facilitates the ‘self-regulation’ learners will need to perform the main task on their own.

Providing a model

This involves presenting learners with a text (oral or written) to demonstrate an ‘ideal’ performance of the task. Both Skehan (1996) and Willis (1996) suggest that simply ‘observing’ others perform a task can help reduce the cognitive load on the learner. However, the model can also be accompanied by activities designed to raise learners’ consciousness about specific features of the task performance. For example, the teacher can demonstrate how to use adjectives to describe objects and how to use verbs to describe people’s actions.

Non-task preparation activities

Non-task preparation activities can centre on reducing the cognitive or the linguistic demands placed on the learner. Activating learners’ content schemata or providing them with background information serves as a means of defining the topic area of a task (Ellis, 2002). Willis (1996) provides a list of activities for achieving this, such as brainstorming and mind-maps. In addition, recommended activities for addressing the linguistic demands of a task often focus on vocabulary rather than grammar, perhaps because vocabulary is seen as more helpful for the successful performance of a task than grammar. Newton (2001) suggests three ways, predicting, cooperative dictionary search, and words and definitions, in which teachers can target unfamiliar vocabulary in the pre-task phase.

Strategic planning

Learners can be given time to plan how they will perform the task. This involves ‘strategic planning’ and contrasts with the ‘online planning’ that can occur during the performance of the task.

The during-task phase

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Two basic kinds of options available to the teacher in the during-task phase are ‘task-performance options’ and ‘process options’. The formal options relating to how the task is to be undertaken that can be taken prior to the actual performance of the task and thus planned for by the teacher. The latter options involve the teacher and students in on-line decision making about how to perform the task as it is being completed.

Task performance options

There are three task performance options. The first of these options concern whether to require the students to perform the task under time pressure. The teacher can elect to allow students to complete the task in their own time or can set a time limit. This option is important because it can influence the nature of the language students’ produce. It seems that if teachers want to emphasize accuracy in a task performance, they need to ensure that the students can complete the task in their own time. However, if they want to encourage fluency, they need to set a time limit.

The second task performance option involves deciding whether to allow the students access to input data while they perform a task. For example, to increase the frequency of students’ use of correct words to describe the picture, the teacher could provide students with a list of key words or even some basic sentence patterns to follow. Joe (1998) reports a study that compared learners’ acquisition of a set of target words (which they did not know prior to performing the task) in a narrative recall task under two conditions with and without access to the text. She found that the learners who could see the text used the target words more frequently, although the difference was evident only in verbatim use of the words not in generated use (i.e., they did not use the target words in original sentences). Joe’s study raises an important question. Does borrowing from the input data assist acquisition? In Prabhu’s point of view, he sees definite value in borrowing for maintaining a task-based activity and also probable value in promotion acquisition.

The third performance option consists of introducing some surprise element into the task. For example, after describing the differences of pictures, the teacher may give another set of pictures to the students and ask them to find similarities of two pictures by using oral expressing. Or, after they have seen their own picture for 30 seconds, the teacher could ask students to recall and list the actions, objects, and signs they saw. After which, they could tell each other what they remembered and find out differences. However, there is still no obvious evidence to show if introducing such a surprise had any effect on the fluency, complexity or accuracy of the learners’ language. This does not mean that this option is of no pedagogic value, as requiring learners to cope with a surprise serves as an obvious way of extending the time learners spend on a task and thus increases the amount of talk. It may also help to enhance students’ intrinsic interest in a task

Process options

Process options differ from task performance options in that they concern the way in which the discourse arising from the task is enacted rather than pedagogical decisions about the way the task is to be handled. Whereas performance options can be selected in advance of the actual performance of the task, process options must be taken in flight while the task is being performed (Ellis, 2002).

Figure 3 contrasts two sets of classroom processes. The first set corresponds to the classroom behaviors that are typical of a traditional form-focused pedagogy where language is treated as an object and the students are required to act as ‘learners’. The second set reflects the behavior that characterize a task-based pedagogy, where language is treated as a tool for communication and the teacher and students function primarily as ‘language users’ (Ellis 2001). Thus, the set of behaviors which arise are crucially dependent on the participants’ orientation to the classroom and to their motives for performing an activity.

The post-task phase

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This phase has three major pedagogic goals: (1) to provide an opportunity for a repeat performance of the task; (2) to encourage reflection on how the task was performed; and (3) to encourage attention to form, in particular to those forms that proved problematic to the learners when they performed the task.

Repeat performance

When learners repeat a task their production improves in a number of ways (e.g., complexity increases, propositions are expressed more clearly, and they become more fluent). For example, after the main task, the teacher can have students draw their two similar pictures with several differences to quiz their partner. By so doing, students not only have an opportunity to repeat the linguistic knowledge they have just learned but also create a task for themselves to examine their fluency. Besides, Skehan and Foster (1997) also suggested that students can carry out the second performance publicly. Which is likely to encourage the use of a more formal style and thus may push learners to use the grammaticalized resources associated with this style (Givon, 1979).

Reflecting on the task

Wills (1996) recommends asking students to present a report on how they did the task and on what they decided or discovered. The teacher’s role is to act as a chairperson and to encourage the students. The reports can be oral or written and should primarily focus on summarizing the outcome of the task. However, they could be invited to reflect on and evaluate their own performance of the task. For instance, to help them reflect on their work, the teacher may ask students “What’s the most difficult part while you are trying to express information to your partner?” and “What did you do if your partner can’t understand what you described?” Additionally, students could also be invited to consider how they might improve their performance of the task. By so doing, students may develop their metacognitive strategies of planning, monitoring, and evaluating. Furthermore, there is also a case for asking students to evaluate the task itself. Such information will help the teacher to decide whether to use similar tasks in the future or look for a different type.

Focusing on forms

Once the task is completed, students can be invited to focus on forms. That is, they might focus directly on grammar. Teachers should select forms that the students used incorrectly while performing the task or ‘useful’ or ‘natural’ forms (Loshcky, Bley, & Vroman 1993) that they failed to use at all. In other words, teachers should seek to address errors or gaps in the students’ L2 knowledge.

There are four main activities available to the teacher to deal with target forms:

1. Review of learner errors. Teacher moves from group-to-group to listen and note down the errors, and then address these errors with the whole class. The error can be written on the board. The students can be invited to correct it. After the corrected version is written up and a brief explanation is provided, students listen again and edit their own performance. Finally, the teacher comments on any points that have been missed.

2. Consciousness-raising tasks. CR-tasks can be used as the main task in a lesson and also can be used as follow-up tasks to direct students to attend explicitly to a specific form that they used incorrectly or failed to use at all in the main task. Taking the lesson plan for example, when used as follow-up tasks, the teacher could record the students’ performance of the task. By referring to the recording of their language use in the task, students might be presented with a number of their own utterances all illustrating the same error and asked to identify the error, correct the sentences, and work out an explanation.

3. Production practice activities. An alternative or addition to CR-tasks is to provide more traditional practice of selected forms. Traditional exercise types include repetition, substitution, gapped sentences, jumbled sentences, transformation drills, and dialogues. Those activities maybe have no direct effect on learners’ interlanguage systems; however, they may help learners to automate forms that they have begun to use on their own accord but have not yet gained full control over. For example, activities that could be applied in lesson examples include choosing some sentence patterns to drill or pointing out the errors students made and have students practice correcting errors.

4. Noticing activities. These activities focus on linguistic form. Fotos (1993) used dictation exercises that had been enriched with the target structures that students had tackled initially in CR tasks to examine whether the subjects in her study subsequently attended to the structures. She found that they did so quite consistently. Lynch (2001) recommends getting students to make transcripts of an extract (90-120 seconds) from their task performance as a method for inducing them to notice. After transcribing, they make any editing changes they wish. The teacher then takes away the word-processed transcripts and reformulates them. The next day the students are asked to compare their own edited transcripts with the teacher’s reformulated version. By so doing, students cooperated effectively in transcribing and engaged in both self- and other-correction. For instance, instead of creating a task to quiz others, students could create a task and try to guess or predict what sentences their partner is going to use to describe the differences. Next, they might be asked to write down the transcripts of possible conversation. Finally, they might be asked to follow the steps mentioned above to compare and contrast their own edited transcripts with the teacher’s reformulated version.


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The overall purpose of task-based methodology is to create opportunities for language learning and skill-development through collaborative knowledge-building. The following principles can be used to guide the selection of options for designing lessons (Ellis, 2002):

Principle 1: Ensure the appropriate level of task difficulty

Principle 2: Establish clear goals for each task-based lesson.

Principle 3: Develop an appropriate orientation for the students related to performing the task.

Principle 4: Ensure that students adopt an active role in task-based lessons.

Principle 5: Encourage students to take risks.

Principle 6: Ensure that students are primarily focused on meaning when they perform a task.

Principle 7: Provide opportunities for design options.

Principle 8: Require students to evaluate their performance and progress.

These principles are intended as a general guide to the teaching of task-based lessons, not as a set of commandments; that is, it is up to teachers to make their own methodological decisions based on their understanding of what will work best with their own students.


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Even though TBLT can contribute to meaningful learning, there could be still some limitations or problems in certain school settings such as following listed:

1. Large class sizes:

The task-based learning and teaching could be more time consuming when the task is complicated. Along with large class size issues, teachers might not have enough time to take care of every student and monitor their learning process or progress. In response, teachers could choose and train some high-level students as little teachers. They can help teach or model target skills for other students and also learn communicative skills for themselves.

2. Cramped classrooms:

If the classroom is too cramped to have task-based learning, changing the classroom or reducing dynamic activities among the resolutions.

3. Lack of appropriate resources:

Resources here might refer to time, place, technology tools, supplementary materials for TBL, and so forth. For example, some schools located in rural areas might not have the Internet in the classroom. Therefore, teachers should take these limitations into account while designing task-based lessons.

4. Teachers not trained in task-based methodologies:

It could be a problem if teachers are not trained in task-based methodologies and still want to adopt this approach. In this case, teachers could adopt textbook materials designed for TBL. Such an approach could be an easy way for teachers to scaffold students’ learning effectively. In addition, teacher educators need to offer adequate practical in-service training for teachers to practice TBL in real teaching. Finally, teachers could attend some professional development workshops aiming in TBL to gain the professional knowledge of TBL. By doing so, teachers would feel more confident in implementing TBL in class.

5. Teachers with limited language proficiency:

Since most ESL and EFL teachers are not native speakers, if we want to incorporate TBL in EFL/ESL classroom, it is possible that those teachers lack of adequate language proficiency to guide and model students’ learning. Or, they cannot provide abundant language exposure to support students’ language acquisition. Encouraging teachers to enhance their language proficiency by attending professional workshops or certain language communities could be helpful.

6. Traditional examination-based syllabi

Another common worry voiced by teachers and students is “What about the exam?” many teachers worry that TBL will undermine students’ chances of success in traditional exams, especially if these put more emphasis on grammar and accuracy than on ability to communicate appropriately. Exams--school exams, university entrance exams, or external public exams--are often the student’s main motivators for studying a language. Anything not directly connected with them is often deemed a waste of time. If their exams do not test oral communication, students often wonder about the relevance of taking part in oral tasks (Willis, 1996). While the educational bureaucracies are conservative to change, teachers are responsible for striking a balance between standardized tests and task-based instruction.


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Task-based learning 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, it may be true that the task-based language teaching is an adventure. But, it is also an effective language instruction that is worth trying.

Task-based learning can also be used in content areas well beyond language learning. In such instruction, the learning “task” is viewed as a basic tool that teachers use to guide students developing strategies for real-world problems solving. Such an approach is broadly and effective in science, social studies, and other disciplines, including business, medical education, accounting, etc. By completing the task, learners are provided with a real purpose for knowledge or strategy use and a natural context for content study.


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