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Task-based Learning (TBL), or from the teaching perspective Task-based Teaching (TBT), is a methodology that rectifies a common, yet serious problem in today’s English language teaching classrooms. 

Many English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers are finding that traditional learning styles are insufficient for the expectations that they and their students have with regard to English learning. 

ESL textbooks are, by nature, generally prescriptive, where learning is accuracy-focused – answers to questions are usually correct or incorrect. The established teachers’ role is to take a dominant position in the classroom where the students act as receptors to whatever instructions or information the teacher provides. 

The problem is that this teacher-centred, accuracy-focused methodology does not equip students for the real world – the demands of communicating with native-speakers on an equal level outside the classroom. 

By completing tasks, students develop communication skills, such as forming opinions, debating ideas, negotiating, compromising and coming to conclusions in environments that reflect real-life situations.

Accuracy vs Fluency

The ESL teacher faces a constant dilemma – they must teach both accuracy and fluency in the classroom, but focusing on one inhibits focusing on the other. For example, students can’t practice conversational fluency if they are being constantly interrupted to correct grammatical errors.

While there’s no argument that both are important, it’s interesting to examine if one is more important than the other.

Many observers of ESL trends believe that in a global sense, most teachers still gravitate towards accuracy-focused lessons. This means that fluency-focused learning – not just in speaking, but also in terms of thought processing speed when it comes to listening, reading and writing – is either neglected or undervalued.

Thank about this scenario – when a student is in a conversation with native speakers, is it better to be fluent or accurate? Assuming that their accuracy is at a level where the other participants can understand them, fluency will trump accuracy every time.

Even native speakers sometimes use incorrect grammar. But if your fluency is poor – and you can’t keep up with the conversation – your ability to participate effectively will be seriously compromised.

What are the key differences between typical classroom exercises and TBL?

Below is a table that shows why TBL is becoming more and more accepted as a teaching methodology.

Typical Classroom Exercises

TBL
Passive Learning MethodologyActive Learning Methodology
Students complete prescriptive exercises and the teacher supplies the answersStudents complete open-ended tasks where a variety of answers are possible
Accuracy-focused learning – answers are right or wrongFluency-focused learning – answers are opinions with reasons
The teacher has the dominant role and controls the entire process of learning – students are receptorsThe students have the dominant role and control what decisions are reached – teachers are facilitators
Students rely on the teacher, the textbook and the whiteboardStudents learn to become autonomous communicators

What is a task?

In the context of English Language Teaching, a task is an activity:

  • that is generally completed in pairs or small groups
  • which focuses on meaning rather than form
  • that is comparable to or replicates real world activities
  • where students control the language and the decision-making process

Phases of a TBL lesson

Pre-task

The teacher needs to spend a portion of the class setting up the task – to set some parameters to ‘frame’ the activity, including explaining what the task is, putting students into groups, setting the time period for task completion and providing outcome possibilities.

Task

This is where the teacher changes their role from leader to facilitator. While the teacher decides what the task is, each student group will decide through negotiation how to complete it. The teacher rotates around the groups, providing advice or support where necessary.

Communication is based on students fluently giving opinions and reasons for those opinions. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Final responses are determined based on which student or students confidently provide the most compelling or persuasive ideas.

Post-task

After completing the task, the student groups report to the class as a whole on what they decided. The teacher leads a class discussion on the group responses.

Teacher can include a ‘Language Focus’, which is optional. Students can examine and discuss specific language features and the teacher can ask students to practice grammatical structures or to try using new words and phrases that appeared as a result of the task.

It’s important to note that if a ‘Language Focus’ is included, it should always be secondary to the task itself.

One last thing

As students develop their English skills, they will face more and more situations where they will want to or are expected to engage in communication where the discourse is dynamic, fast-changing and complex.

They will need to make rapid decisions on how they will interact and will need to analyse and respond to statements made by others around them in a variety of situations.

Task-based learning will help students prepare for these kinds of challenges. Students become empowered and motivated because when they participate in completing tasks, they ‘own’ the language and they start to gain confidence in their ability to become, in their minds, ‘legitimate’ English speakers.

If you’d like to learn more about English language teaching, check out our other articles on our TESOL Advantage website.

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