Many of us are familiar with the traditional, teacher-fronted, ‘repeat after me’ approach that is common in high schools around the world, but this approach does not give enough opportunities for true language practice. The opportunity to apply the language that a teacher presents for study is key to retention and use of what students learn, and these opportunities most commonly come in the form of tasks.
As any student knows, focusing on task work provides the opportunity to try out new language in sentences and examples, which can then be checked and corrected according to a model, or a given pattern of language. However, the Task-Based Learning approach to language instruction goes one step further than that.
Not all tasks are task-based
The true principle behind task-based learning is not just to get students working on examples together, but to utilise the task-based processes for the greatest effect on learning - in TBL, the task presents the language being studied in a specific way, to get students engaged in its use, but also provides a framework for use of other authentic language to work on the given activity together in groups. The defining principle of TBL is for students to use natural language to negotiate a problem in a task - to use the target language to find a solution in groups.
This is a far cry from simple drilling, sentence-completion and gap fill tasks that I remember from my own school days, and represents a real challenge to learners as they speak their way through a complex activity. Task-based learning has been used in many different educational disciplines, from business and corporate training to STEN subjects and academic skills training, so it promotes a lot more skills than simple language development.
Example task and language requirements
Imagine a lesson where students have been learning how to give instructions using preposition structures and phrasal verbs (‘turn on the computer, type the word into Google and click on the site that you want to see, etc.). Sentence examples and fill-in-the-gap activities will help students to form these sentences accurately, but is this all they need to give and understand instructions effectively in the real world? No - we use a range of different functions and language when we process instructions: we may need to clarify repeat, explain, take a step back, ask for help, ask for definitions… if we are trying to do something that we have never done before.
These real-world functions may not be covered by textbook examples, so taking a TBL approach can help students to activate these functions in real-time as they perform a real task. Now imagine the same students helping each other to do something that they have never done before online (playing a new computer game, using a new app or working in a programme that is new to them, for example). This challenging, real-world situation creates an ‘information gap’ for not only the target language, but a range of other connected skills and phrases, vocabulary and functions, which students will need to employ to get the job done.
This kind of task brings a group of students together and helps them to interact using specific language to perform a task, upgrading their language skillset along the way. This is the essence of TBL, and a well-planned task (thinking outside the box and towards more practical, group activities that require language to solve problems) can bring out so much more than just the target language you are teaching.
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.