What is task-based learning?
The idea of using tasks which do not focus specifically on sentence translation or grammar exercises was not suggested until the late 1980s. Until then, students of other languages would typically work alone on copying, transforming and completing sets of words and sentences on paper.
By contrast, a communicative language task will encourage learners to do something with the language that they are learning, to interact, discuss, play and organise pieces of language according to some set instructions. The theory goes that students are more likely to benefit from the meaningful interaction that takes place in tasks, and that this will engage them and therefore help them to remember new language more effectively. Even in large high school classes, task-based learning can increase communication and learning efficiently.
The benefits of student-centred tasks
There are a lot of reasons why communicative, task-based work is a good way of studying language. Firstly, we use language to achieve tasks all the time in daily life, so it makes sense that doing this in the classroom mirrors the purpose of interaction. Also, tasks can bring several aspects of language together for students to practice. In the real world outside the classroom, we don’t use language one tense at a time, or purely by completing sentences in written form. We speak and listen simultaneously, we integrate grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation spontaneously to make the language choices that we use to communicate. Tasks mirror this by encouraging freer use of different types of language to achieve the aim of the activity.
Communicative tasks are also adaptable - the same task type can be adapted to different contexts (the skills developed in a form-filling task can be used in the topic of visa applications, bank account applications, job applications… and be useful in many areas of life). Similarly, the same task types can be adapted to different language points. A task which is effective for practising the past simple tense may also be useful for practising other tenses, with a change of topic and time.
The main principle of task-based learning is that what the students do with a task should make them use the target language in a meaningful way, and allow for some flexibility of expression depending on how they wish to complete it. Again, as in the real world, there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of using language in social situations - we change our language depending on the situation we are in. This flexibility with language is really important to develop confidence and range in the language that students are learning.
Tasks don’t stop with instructions
When we deliver a task in the language classroom, we need to plan what we are asking the students to do, and how we will ask them to do it. Giving clear task instructions is important to keep everyone on track and using tasks constructively, but our job doesn’t stop there.
Once we have instructed and checked the task, the students will start work, and this is the important time when we need to know what is going on between them. The quality and quantity of student-student interaction can help us to understand where our students are with the language, whether they are producing things correctly, or appropriately, and what other work may need to be done to help them out.
For this reason, once a task is in flow, make sure that you walk around the room listening to what students are saying to each other and making a mental (or physical) note of any comments you may need to make to correct errors that you hear or help them develop their language use. The information you gather from monitoring like this will inform the post-task feedback stage of the lesson
Feedback is where the learning happens
Once students have completed a task, it is important to have a short session where everyone reflects on their responses and discusses how they performed. This is called post-task feedback, and is an incredibly important lesson stage. If students do not get a chance to talk about what they did in a task, to give their answers or discuss their ideas, they will always be moving from activity to activity without ever knowing how they did, or what they have learnt.
The act of completing a task may aid retention of new language, but it is in post-task feedback where more and bigger realisations (real learning) take place. Getting students to share their various answers around the room, commenting on each others’ ideas and opening up in different ways to different people, can develop further confidence in speaking around the topic and responding in different ways, adding further to the flexibility of language use with what is being learnt.
Whatever kind of class we are teaching, it is important to make sire that we are developing or learners’ language for flexible communication around topics and situations, and task-based learning is a good way of doing that.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.