Task-based instruction, or TBI (also known as task-based teaching), is another methodology that can be regarded as developing from a focus on classroom processes. In the case of TBI, the claim is that language learning will result from creating the right kinds of interactional processes in the classroom, and the best way to create these is to use specially designed instructional tasks. Rather than employ a conventional syllabus, particularly a grammar-based one, advocates of TBI argue that grammar and other dimensions of communicative competence can be developed as a by-product of engaging learners in interactive tasks. Of course, most teachers make use of different kinds of tasks as part of their regular teaching. Task-based instruction, however, makes strong claims for the use of tasks and sees them as the primary unit to be used, both in planning teaching (i.e., in developing a syllabus) and also in classroom teaching.
The notion of task is a somewhat fuzzy one, though various attempts have been made to define it. Some of the key characteristics of a task are the following:
- It is something that learners do or carry out using their existing language resources.
- It has an outcome which is not simply linked to learning language, though language acquisition may occur as the learner carries out the task.
- It involves a focus on meaning.
In the case of tasks involving two or more learners, it calls upon the learners’ use of communication strategies and interactional skills.
Many of the activities proposed in the early days of CLT can be described as tasks according to the definition above, i.e., information-gap and information-sharing activities that we find in many course books and ELT materials. From the point of view of TBI, two kinds of tasks can usefully be distinguished:
Pedagogical tasks are specially designed classroom tasks that are intended to require the use of specific interactional strategies and may also require the use of specific types of language (skills, grammar, and vocabulary). A task in which two learners have to try to find the number of differences between two similar pictures is an example of a pedagogical task. The task itself is not something one would normally encounter in the real world. However the interactional processes it requires provides useful input to language development.
Real-world tasks are tasks that reflect real-world uses of language and which might be considered a rehearsal for real-world tasks. A role play in which students’ practice a job interview would be a task of this kind.
Willis (1996) proposes six types of tasks as the basis for TBI:
1. Listing tasks: For example, students might have to make up a list of things they would pack if they were going on a beach vacation.
2. Sorting and ordering: Students work in pairs and make up a list of the most important characteristics of an ideal vacation.
3. Comparing: Students compare ads for two different supermarkets.
4. Problem-solving: Students read a letter to an advice columnist and suggest a solution to the writer’s problems.
5. Sharing personal experience: Students discuss their reactions to an ethical or moral dilemma.
6. Creative tasks: Students prepare plans for redecorating a house.
There are many other taxonomies of tasks based on particular features of tasks, such as whether they are one way, two way, simple, or complex. Many classroom activities do not share the characteristics of tasks as illustrated above and are therefore not tasks and are not recommended teaching activities in TBI.
These include drills, cloze activities, controlled writing activities, etc., and many of the traditional techniques that are familiar to many teachers. Despite the extensive recent literature on tasks, however, there are virtually no published teacher resources containing tasks that meet the criteria proposed in TBI.
Willis proposes the following sequence of activities:
Introduction to Topic and Task. T helps Ss to understand the theme and objectives of the task, for example, brainstorming ideas with the class, using pictures, mime, or personal experience to introduce the topic.
Task Cycle. The task is done by Ss (in pairs or groups) and gives Ss a chance to use whatever language they already have to express themselves and say whatever they want to say.
Planning. Planning prepares for the next stage where Ss are asked to report briefly to the whole class how they did the task and what the outcome was.
Report. T asks some pairs to report briefly to the whole class so everyone can compare findings, or begin a survey.
Analysis. T sets some language-focused tasks, based on the texts students read or on the transcripts of the recordings they hear
Practice. T conducts practice activities as needed, based on the language analysis already on the board, or using examples from the text or transcript. Task-based instruction can, in theory, be applied in a number of different ways in language teaching:
As the sole framework for course planning and delivery: Such an approach was used in a program described by Prabhu (1987) in which a grammar-based curriculum was replaced by a task-based one in a state school system, albeit only for a short period.
As one component of a course: A task strand can also serve as one component of a course, where it would seek to develop general communication skills.
As a technique: Teachers who find the procedures outlined by Willis unrealistic and unmanageable over a long period could still use task work from time to time as one technique from their teaching repertoire.
Many issues arise in implementing a task-based approach Criteria for selecting and sequencing tasks are problematic, as is the problem of language accuracy. Task work may well serve to develop fluency at the expense of accuracy, as with some of the other activities suggested within a CLT framework. Content issues are also of secondary importance in TBI, making it of little relevance to those concerned with CBI or mainstreaming. The fact that TBI addresses classroom processes rather than learning outcomes is also an issue. In courses that have specific instructional outcomes to attain (e.g., examination targets) and where specific language needs have to be addressed rather than the general communication skills targeted in task work, TBI may seem too vague as a methodology to be widely adopted.
1. Richards, Jack C., and Theodore Rodgers (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Second Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2. Skehan, P. (1996). Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction. In J. Willis and D. Willis (eds). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann.
3. Willis, Jane (1996). A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Harlow: Longman.