Task-based language learning and teaching

farmers talkingWhat is task-based language teaching? Task-based language learning and teaching (TBLT) was originally espoused by Prabhu (1987), who felt that focussing on particular elements of language should not be part of a task-based approach. Rather, he felt that it was best to focus on language incidentally while learners were completing a task. Task-based language learning and teaching tries to give learners something real to do using the language they are learning. This is a way to make language learning more authentic. According to Ellis (2003) the key characteristics of a task-based lesson are that:
• It should be as authentic as possible, resembling a task the students would likely complete in the real world outside of the classroom.
• The major objective should be for the students to communicate meaning.
• There should be a non-linguistic goal.
• The students should rely on their own resources, not those provided by the teacher.

This video lecture explains some of the thinking behind TBLT.

Here are some ideas for tasks that language learners can work with.

Each of these can be broken down into smaller tasks like this:

The class has been asked to identify 4-5 sports people/ film makers/ politicians/ actors/rally drivers/artists/ singers/writers to be invited to Christchurch from Marseilles/Mexico City/Berlin/Osaka/Shanghai/Apia.

  1. Choose individuals and research them
    1. Why are they famous?
    2. biography
  2. Argue for your choice of visitor in a balloon debate
  3. Approach them by mail or letter to invite them
    1. Genre: what does a polite mail look like?
  4. Confirm the dates and practical arrangements by telephone with them and their manager
    1. Genre: telephone language
  5. Meet them at the airport and take them to their hotel/homestay
    1. Vocabulary and structures needed?
  6. Take them to dinner at a restaurant or your home
  7. Show them around the city
  8. Introduce them to the rest of the class
  9. The guests make a short speech or presentation about the thing they are famous for, relevant to the visit
    1. Genre: what does a speech look like?
    2. Research content
    3. How to start and end
    4. Film or record the speech
  10. Question time after the speech
    1. Genre: how does a question and answer session work?
    2. Prepare questions
  11. Media interview with the guests
    1. Genre: What do these interviews look like?
    2. Research questions and answers
    3. Film or audio record the interview
  12. Write a press release about the visit for the press in the guests’ home town/country
    1. Genre: What do press releases look like?
    2. What information needs to be there?
    3. Short, and written so it can be used as it stands or chopped from the bottom
  13. Write an article for a magazine about the visit.
    1. Research a suitable magazine/paper
    2. What does an article look like
  14. After the event, write to thank the visitors
    1. Genre: what does a polite letter look like?
  15. Visitors write to thank for the hospitality

What does research show? As Ellis (2009) states, there are many ways of organising a task-based lesson but allowing the students to do the work leads to genuine learning in all contexts (mainstream schools and ESOL classrooms). If the task-based lesson is meaningful for the students, this leads to “interactional authenticity” (Ellis, 2009, p.227) and what Dewey (1913, as cited in Ellis, 2009) called an ‘intelligent effort’. The cognitive effort needed to convey information means students need to take extra care to make their message comprehensible by refining and polishing their language output.

Nonetheless, specific target language forms can be added to push students further, although this is not a strong approach to task-based learning and teaching. The advantages of adding some type of target language is that learners often need “clear and explicit models of the language behaviours they are going to encounter” (Thornbury, 2005, p.121). Likewise, Ellis (2009) states that tasks can be designed to promote communication using specific features of language and that information gap activities with convergent goals (ones that require learners to agree on an outcome) lead to more interaction and negotiation of meaning (Ellis, 2003; Yilmaz, 2011).

Implications for practice. The task-based approach is student-centred and creative. It allows learners to discover language through meaningful interaction and to refine their output when communicating in group tasks. This means that the teacher needs to stand back and become the guide on the side while learners collaborate and co-create new knowledge. Learning becomes fun and useful for real world activities. Examples of task-based lessons include:
• Very young learners making greetings cards, making their own puppets, growing seeds or creating their own videos in their second (or third) language.
• Older children creating a holiday in space, their own fantasy tales, animal stories and T.V. news reports.
• Adult learners making a newspaper, international food festival, video with advice for international students
• Adult students studying English for academic or business purposes creating their own IELTS reading/writing test, business students creating their own company with accompanying website or hospitality students producing a video guide for tourists.
The language learned will be relevant to the students’ specific needs and proficiency levels.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: Sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19(3), 221-246.
Loewen, S. (2015). Introduction to instructed second language acquisition. New York and London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Thornbury, S. (2005). How to Teach Speaking. Harlow, England: Longman.
Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the sentence. Introducing discourse analysis. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
Yilmaz, Y. (2011). Task effects on focus on form in synchronous computer-mediated communication. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 115-132.