What is Task-Based Learning

What is Task-Based Learning?
Using tasks
Teachers have been using tasks for hundreds of years. Frequently, in the past,
the task was a piece of translation often from a literary source. More recently,
tasks have included projects for producing posters, brochures, pamphlets, oral
presentations, radio plays, videos, websites and dramatic performances.
The characteristic of all these tasks is that rather than concentrating on one
particular structure, function or vocabulary group, these tasks exploit a wider
range of language. In many cases, students may also be using a range of
different communicative language skills.
What makes 'task-based learning' different?
The traditional way that teachers have used tasks is as a follow-up to a series of
structure/function or vocabulary based lessons. Tasks have been 'extension'
activities as part of a graded and structured course.
In task-based learning, the tasks are central to the learning activity. Originally
developed by N Prabhu in Bangladore, southern India, it is based on the belief
that students may learn more effectively when their minds are focused on the
task, rather than on the language they are using.
In the model of task-based learning described by Jane Willis, the traditional PPP
(presentation, practice, production) lesson is reversed. The students start with
the task. When they have completed it, the teacher draws attention to the
language used, making corrections and adjustments to the students'
performance. In A Framework for Task-Based Learning, Jane Willis presents
a three stage process:
Pre-task - Introduction to the topic and task.
Task cycle - Task planning and report
Language focus - Analysis and practice.
Does it work?
Task-based learning can be very effective at Intermediate levels and beyond, but
many teachers question its usefulness at lower levels. The methodology requires
a change in the traditional teacher's role. The teacher does not introduce and
'present' language or interfere ('help') during the task cycle. The teacher is an
observer during the task phase and becomes a language informant only during
the 'language focus' stage.
You can read more about task-based learning in:
How to Teach English p31 by Jeremy Harmer [Longman]
The Practice of English Language Teaching 3rd edition pp86-88 by Jeremy
Harmer [Longman]
A Framework for Task-Based Learning by Jane Willis [Longman]
What is Communicative Methodology?
'Communicative' is a word which has dominated discussions of teaching
methodology for many years. Although in a monolingual English language
classroom, 'real communication' in English is impossible, in 'communicative
methodology' we try to be 'more communicative'. That is to say, even though it
may be impossible to achieve 'real communication', we should attempt to get
closer to 'real communication' in our classrooms.
What does it mean?
Communicative methodology includes a number of different (and perhaps
interconnecting) principles.
1. The primary aim of foreign language learning is communication with users
of the foreign language.
2. Students study the foreign language as a system of communication.
3. Students learn and practise the foreign language through 'communicative
Communication as primary aim
In the past the 'primary aim' of language learning seemed to be mastery of the
grammatical system. The only practical task was translation and that was usually
translation of 'great literature' rather than letters to the bank manager. The
methodology for teaching modern, 'living' languages was identical to the
methodology for dead, classical languages like Latin and Ancient Greek.
Today, we see our primary aim as teaching the practical use of English for
communication with native speakers and others.
Learning English as a system of communication
Language contains many 'systems', one of which is the system of grammar.
Mastery of grammar is still important but only as a means to successful
How long have you been here?
How long are you here for?
We are less concerned with the grammatical difference between these two
questions than with their difference in meaning. We are less concerned with
grammatical errors of form than with errors of meaning because these will lead
to a breakdown in communication.
What are communicative activities?
In its purest form, a communicative activity is an activity in which there is:
a desire to communicate
a communicative purpose
a focus on language content not language forms
a variety of language used
no teacher intervention
no control or simplification of the material
Let's examine each characteristic in turn.
1. A desire to communicate.
In a communicative activity there must be a reason to communicate. When
someone asks a question, the person must wish to get some information or
some other form of result. There must be either an 'information gap' or an
'opinion gap' or some other reason to communicate.
2. A communicative purpose.
When we ask students to describe their bedroom furniture to their partners, we
are creating an artificial 'communicative purpose' and making the activity more
artificial by asking them to do it in English.
We also create artificial 'information gaps' by giving different information to pairs
of students so that they can have a reason to exchange information.
3. A focus on language content not language forms.
In real life, we do not ask about our friend's family in order to practise 'have got'
forms. We ask the question because we are interested in the information. That is
to say, we are interested in the language content and not in the language forms.
4. A variety of language is used.
In normal communication, we do not repeatedly use the same language forms.
In fact, we usually try to avoid repetition. In many classroom activities we often
try to create situations in which students will repeatedly use a limited number of
language patterns. This is also artificial.
5. No teacher intervention.
When you are buying a ticket for The Lion King at the theatre, your teacher is
not usually beside you to 'help' or 'correct' your English. Teacher intervention in
classroom communicative activities adds to the artificiality.
6. No control or simplification of the material.
In the classroom, we often use graded or simplified materials as prompts for
communicative activities. These will not be available in the real world.
How can we make classroom 'communicative activities' less artificial?
As we have seen, there is no real possibility of real communication in English in a
monolingual classroom. Learners must 'pretend' that they need to communicate
in English. However, we can reduce the artificiality by looking at the features
mentioned above. We can easily reduce teacher intervention, we can use more
authentic materials, we can encourage a wider variety of language use, we can
create more natural communicative purposes.
Games and puzzles make good contexts for communicative activities. The books
of 'Communication Games' at different levels by Jill Hadfield (Longman) are good
examples of successful 'communication' activities for the language classroom.