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Let's Talk about Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT)

Let's Talk about Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) | ITTT | TEFL Blog

This article explains what TBLT is and how it differs from more traditional approaches to teaching. Why has it become such a popular teaching method for languages? Will it continue to be popular or will it be replaced by another approach?

Do you use TBLT in your teaching? What are the challenges and benefits of the approach?

Why do you think that a task-based approach in teaching is considered a good approach?

PPP now stands for present, practise, and produce. The teacher is in charge of everything in the PPP classroom. As a result, there is a finite amount of room for student behaviour and agency. A linear syllabus is also a part of PPP. So you only get one chance to learn grammatical rules and other aspects of the language. Finally, lessons in the PPP format can become repetitive and boring. So this isn't the most effective method of inspiring students.

Task-based language instruction has emerged as an alternative. The emphasis in TBLT is on sense rather than form, on what we do with language rather than grammar and other laws. TBLT focuses on programmes that encourage students to express themselves through language in a variety of ways. The four language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all used in TBLT. Language skills such as grammar and vocabulary can be recycled using TBLT. In several aspects, TBLT aligns with theoretical understandings of language learning processes.

Current language learning research, for example, emphasises the importance of meaning-based language processing. It emphasises ‘noticing,' in which language learners identify what they should be using as well as what they still need to learn. Finally, it promotes the concept of 'languaging,' which emphasises the process of actively working out the language required to complete a particular language function. A variety of methods have been developed for identifying tasks. Tasks, according to Willis (1996), are exercises in which the learner uses the target language for a communicative reason to accomplish a goal.

Another recent field of research that has piqued my interest is the idea of how teachers use tasks. Andon and Eckerth (2009) identified four roles for teachers in their research. To begin with, tasks are ways for teachers to encourage students to express their meanings using their own words. Second, the activities are contexts in the classroom where the classroom language is made to sound more like the language of the outside world. Task structure activities are the third type of activity. There is a conclusion, and the students are conscious of the structure of the lesson that the teacher has prepared. Finally, they act as language input reference points. So teachers can introduce explicitly or focus on particular language forms which benefit the students.

To say a few things about TBLT's future. In terms of what we find in course books and other learning materials, in the context of teacher education services, and in the context of quality control schemes around the world, TBLT has become the prevailing approach to language teaching in all of its variations. Although there may still be some doubts about TBLT's efficacy, more variations and adaptations to TBLT, rather than any teaching form or solution, are more likely to lead to greater effectiveness.

What is a task?

The way linguistics researchers identify and explain tasks is defined by Richard Kiely. In task-based language instruction, there are several meanings of the term "task" (TBLT). These usually centre on vocabulary usage and context negotiation in order to achieve a real-world goal.

Rod Ellis' description is especially useful because it focuses on the role as:

i) an activity managed by the teacher in the classroom, and

ii) an instrument used by researchers to understand classroom interaction and processes of language learning.

‘A task is a work plan that allows learners to process language pragmatically in order to produce a result that can be assessed in terms of whether the right or relevant propositional content was communicated.' To this end, they must pay careful attention to meaning and make use of their linguistic resources, even if the task's nature will predispose them to use unique forms. A task is designed to create language usage that is close to how language is used in the real world, either directly or indirectly. A job, like other language tasks, can engage both constructive and receptive skills, as well as oral and written skills and different cognitive processes.’ (Ellis 2003:16).

Three major characteristics of tasks are defined in the description.

First, in terms of propositional substance and pragmatics, the importance of interpretation is emphasised.

Looking at a picture storey (a storey told by a series of pictures) and then considering the initial significance of the pictures and what they signify, for example, may be a challenge. Learners can also think about whether the photos are suitable for their cultural context or history. A teacher or researcher who uses a picture storey must also consider whether the pictures and their implied significance or'story' are suitable for their institution or age group of students.

Second, the importance of language forms is emphasised. Students make choices about the tense to use in telling a storey or the specific adjective to reflect happiness or sorrow as they use linguistic tools and use particular forms, with or without the guidance of the instructor.

Students may be reminded of the ambiguity and contextual essence of language usage as a result of their participation.

Third, there is an emphasis on how language is used in everyday situations. This presents a challenge to the instructor when planning a task: the exercise should preferably conform to how the students use language or how they would hope to use the target language.

For example, if a picture storey task is used in a setting where students are studying for an exam and grammatical precision is a key criterion, the task outcome could be writing an account. Students might concentrate on telling the storey as an anecdote in a social situation or re-enacting the behaviour portrayed in the storey in another setting.

Students might rehearse, present, document, transcribe, and develop in such situations, all as part of the language learning experience with a focus on how language is used in the real world.

The Ellis description concludes with a list of cognitive processes. This is a connection to the language learning mechanisms that have been recognised as significant in research on second language acquisition (SLA).

This study emphasises the importance of using language that has meaning (Skehan 1998). Learning is helped by 'pushed' language development (Swain 2005): a sense of being engaged in a communication task that reminds students that their existing stock of grammatical structures or words is inadequate.

This allows students to notice (Schmidt 1990), a tendency in which students notice new structures or words in texts that they believe they can use or clear holes in their language use that they need to fill. Many of these cognitive mechanisms of language learning through language use are encapsulated in Merrill Swain's concept of 'languaging':

‘Languaging occurs when language is used to mediate problem solving, whether the problem is deciding a term to use, how to formulate a sentence so that it implies what you want it to mean, how to justify the effects of an experiment, or how to make sense of another's behaviour.' (Swain 2006: 96).


To summarise the definition of an assignment, it is first and foremost a work plan that has the potential to encourage language usage in the classroom.

It is a successful task in actual implementation if it catches the students' imagination and engages them in being both imaginative and compliant: in using the language in innovative, fun, and convivial ways, while still adhering to the task outcome criteria, as well as the accuracy and appropriateness of language types.

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References and further reading

Andon, N. & J. Eckerth (2009) Task-based L2 pedagogy from the teachers’ point of view. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 19/3 pp. 286-310

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.

Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Skehan, P. (1998) A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Skehan, P. (1998) A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Swain, M. (2005) The Output Hypothesis: Theory and Research in E. Hinkel (Ed) Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 471-483.

Swain, M. (2006) Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency. in H. Byrnes (Ed.) Advanced Language Learning: The contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky. New York: Continuum, pp 95-108

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for task-based learning. Harlow: Longman