Task-Based Learning (TBL)

What is Task-Based Learning? 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.

A lesson planned within this framework consists of three phases: pre-task, task cycle and language focus.

Pre-task: The pre-task phase introduces the class to the topic and the task, activating topic-related words and phrases.

Task cycle: In the task cycle the teacher sets up a communication task which learners are encouraged to do using the language means they already have at their disposal and then to improve that language, under teacher guidance, while planning their reports of the task. Feedback from the teacher comes when learners need it most to fulfill the task.

Language focus: The last phase in the framework is language focus. During this phase students have a closer look at the language structures which have naturally turned up during the task cycle. By this phase they have already grasped the meaning of the new language and they need to focus on form. All kinds of practice activities, including different drills, are done at this stage.

TBL critique

In light of the communicative approach to language teaching, the TBL lesson planning model is preferred due to the following reasoning:

1) The lesson becomes less teacher-centred. The teacher plays the role of a facilitator who ensures the necessary conditions for the learning to take place by providing exposure to the language and guiding learners to use the correct language for fulfilling the task. It is the learner doing the task who becomes the centre of the lesson. The learner’s language needs for successful task fulfillment are met during the lesson.

2) There is a natural progression from the holistic to the specific. On the whole, the task cycle offers learners a holistic experience of language in use. The language gradually emerges through the stages of initial drafting, rehearsal, report and final practice.

3) Instead of focusing on the correct production of one single form the learner is encouraged to consider appropriateness and accuracy of language form in general.

4) Because learners use the language for the purpose of communicating and sharing their ideas, they get personally involved in the lesson and they operate language for the sake of expressing a meaning. This factor is very important for reinforcing and retaining the language material.

PPP and TBL compared

On the whole if we compare PPP and TBL, we can easily identify the same stages:

A)  doing a task using the target language to focus on meaning
B)  getting the necessary information about the target language (either through the teacher or by discovering it for yourself), analyzing its meaning and form
C)  encountering the target language (in a model dialogue, in texts for listening and reading, or through prompts supplied by the teacher)
D)  Doing language-focused activities to focus on form

In the PPP lesson model, this sequence looks like this CBDA.

In the TBL lesson model, this sequence is ACBD.

The real advantage of TBL is that it mirrors the process of natural language acquisition by first feeling a need to say something, then attempting to say it, practising and refining the target language.

Within the PPP approach there is an element of imposing the target structure upon the student without a need on her behalf. Therefore the learner is passive and the knowledge she gets doesn't get retained and acquired. In other words, the communicative intention, the function and the notion (the meaning) do not get linked to its linguistic expression (the form).

In communicative teaching, the tendency is to build every activity either language or skill-focused around some task. The rationale for it is that while working with the target language and doing all kinds of mental operations with certain language samples, the learner retains the material and the learning does take place. These tasks are as follows:

1) Listing words, things, people, places, actions, questions within some situation or topic, e.g. making a list of holiday-making activities, questions for a hotel receptionist, etc.

2) Ordering and sorting – working out a set of information or data that has been ordered and sorted according to specified criteria, i.e. sequencing jumbled paragraphs, ranking items from least important to most important, categorizing pieces of furniture to fit into different rooms, classifying different kinds of food as either good or bad for you.

3) Comparing - matching non-verbal texts (pictures) and their verbal descriptions, finding similarities or differences between texts or pictures

4) Problem solving - doing puzzles, logic problems, or solving real-life problems

5) Sharing personal experience - narrating, describing, exploring and explaining attitudes, opinions, reactions.

6) Creative tasks - creating a product which can be appreciated by a wider audience.

-- taken from ‘A Framework for Task-Based Learning' by J. Willis (Longman, 1996).

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