What is Task-based learning?
TBL (Task-based learning), or TBLT (Task-based language teaching) is an approach in which learning revolves around the completion of meaningful tasks. In the TBL approach, the main focus is the authentic use of language for genuine communication. In this post, we'll talk about what defines a task, the possible phases of a TBL lesson and give you an example of a TBL lesson.
In order for us to understand TBL, we need to define what a task is. According to Willis, tasks can be real-life situations or have a pedagogical purpose. In both cases, a task should:
- provide opportunities for students to exchange information with a focus on meaning, not a specific form or pattern/structure;
- have a clear purpose: learners should know the outcome they are expected to produce when they finish performing the task. The outcome may vary. It might be making a YouTube video tutorial, finding a solution for a problem or writing an email requesting information;
- result in an outcome that can be shared with more people;
- relate to real world activities.
Phases of a TBL lesson
The framework of a TBL lesson may vary. It is usually composed of the following phases:
- Task (which can be sub-divided in different stages)
The pre-task phase of a TBL lesson is the moment when the teacher sets the task, contextualises the topic of the lesson, raises students’ interest and prepares learners to perform the task. When preparing students to perform a task, teachers might need to help students with both content and language. This can be done by activating students’ general knowledge on a certain topic and by helping students anticipate the type of language they will need to perform the task proposed. It is extremely important that students understand the objectives of the task during this phase.
In this stage of the TBL lesson, learners perform the task proposed. They are supposed to perform the task in small groups or pairs, and use their existing knowledge of language to express themselves in a spontaneous way. As the focus is communication, the teacher is not supposed to carry out extensive error correction at this stage, but should monitor and provide support.
When students finish performing the task, they need to plan how they are going to report it to the rest of the class or to other groups. They may rehearse and research the language necessary in order to share the outcome of what they had done.
Finally, students report the outcome of the task to other students.
The post-task stage is when students evaluate their performance. This might be done by comparing the outcome of their task to that of a proficient user of the language. It can also involve feedback provided by the teacher and subsequent practice of language items that emerged from the task. It is important to stress that form-focused language work should be in response to students’ production. That means that the teacher will not teach a grammar lesson and expect that learners use that specific structure while performing the task, neither should the teacher work on a pre-selected language item in this phase of the lesson. This makes the role of the teacher as a monitor extremely important in TBL.
The lesson below is a TBL lesson that I used with one of my Intermediate (CEFR B1) students. In this lesson plan, I’m describing the rationale behind my choices, the outcomes of the different phases of the lesson and how they might differ with other groups of students. You’ll notice that the breakdown of every phase is very detailed – “organising” and managing the completion of the task is an important role for the teacher in TBLT. If the teacher just sets a task and let students do it, they might not understand why they are doing what they are doing, feel lack of support and not perceive that they are learning.
A TBL lesson plan
TASK: Recommending places in São Paulo to a friend via a What’s App audio message
In the pre-task stage, students learned about the task and were asked to talk about popular places tourists could visit in their city, São Paulo. In order to generate interest and prepare students for the upcoming task, and depending on your group profile, you may give suggestions, use prompts to provide support to learners, ask students to carry out research, or even provide an input task to help students generate ideas. However, in the pre-task stage, the teacher is not supposed to pre-teach vocabulary or structures to students.
In order to help students carry out this task, you may ask them to:
- Create a mind map containing interesting places to be visited
- Suggest places and ask learners to share what they know about them / carry out research
In this phase of the lesson, students carry out the task. In this lesson, learners worked in groups of three during this stage. In order for the task to be completed successfully, it is the teacher’s role to break down the task and help learners get organised.
In this lesson, the task was delivered in three different phases:
Assessing: students were asked to go back to the list of places they had brainstormed and discuss how appealing they were. They were asked to list characteristics of these places and share why they might be appealing (or not) to tourists. Students were allowed to search online to gather as much information as possible.
Selecting: students were asked to compare the places and select the ones not to be missed by someone visiting São Paulo for the first time. They were expected to come up with a list of three places.
Recording the audio message: Students were asked to plan, rehearse and record an audio message suggesting places in the city.
Reporting: Students shared their audio messages with other groups and compare their recommendations.
Apart from giving instructions for the completion of the task, an important role the teacher should play during the task is to monitor learners’ production. In the post-task phase, I gave feedback on content and language that emerged during the task. Some aspects dealt with during feedback were:
- adjectives to describe places
- language to make comparisons
- language to make recommendations
In the post-task phase, it is important to provide students with the chance to practice the language that had emerged from the task.
The lesson described shows that, in TBL, tasks are a way to promote the use of authentic and genuine language with a focus on meaning and communication. When employing this approach to teaching, thus, teachers need to be prepared to design relevant and meaningful tasks, adopt a number of roles in the classroom and possess the linguistic competence to deal with emergent language and provide students with useful feedback and practice.
Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. (2015). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 3rd edition.
Willis, D. and Willis, J. Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Andreia Zakime is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?