Coming Back Around to TBLT

Coming Back Around to TBLT

By: Jason Walters

In my early days working as a teacher in Japan—and mostly as an excuse to spend some time in the big city—I attended a seminar in Tokyo on something called “task-based language teaching” (TBLT). Relatively green in the classroom and possessing only a bachelor’s degree in English literature by way of language teaching qualifications, I found TBLT immediately attractive. It was the first alternative to the “presentation, practice, production” (PPP) model that, with my limited theoretical background, seemed intuitive. It appeared to defy the classroom emphasis on rote memorization and grammar translation, something I had been told was the source of all language learning impediments in Japan. What I especially liked at the time was the sense that it seemed to give me a respectable, academic-sounding excuse for my limitations. Of course I’m—thoughtfully and deliberately—not teaching grammar directly. Nothing at all to do with the fact that I’ve never really learned to teach grammar directly.

I was drawn initially to TBLT not out of laziness so much as what seemed to be a lack of alternatives given my inexperience. Any port in a storm. Over the years, I came to suspect that I was not alone—TBLT’s emphasis on outcome while engaging learner interest and maintaining a relation to real-world usage provides a lifeline (or a crutch, if you’re feeling less generous) for many new and inexperienced language teachers, particularly in Japan where language teaching certification is rarely a prerequisite for language teaching work. Now and then I have wondered whether TBLT has gained so much ground due to this phenomenon, more so than because it is effective. Over time, additional training, certification programs, my graduate research, and the sheer number of hours spent in the classroom have made me a fierce believer in the need for direct instruction and language-focused learning. The pendulum has swung in the other direction and I have developed what I think is healthy skepticism toward approaches that go depth-first rather than breadth-first. 

Having said that, I still find myself leaning on TLBT. Teaching education majors at a foreign language university, I find that my students’ need for extensive, authentic practice far outweighs a need for additional grammar instruction. I found that technology-mediated TBLT, allowing learners multiple modes of participation, provided greater flexibility in managing virtual classrooms when the pandemic required a move to emergency remote learning. I continue to find it useful when creating activities for a coordinated program taught by several teachers with different levels of expertise. I imagine most of our readers have also solved some of their problems by using TBLT, so the question for us is not whether TBLT is effective, but rather, “what can brain science tell us about the effectiveness of TBLT?”

The idea to put together a TBLT Think Tank was not without concern on how to do it right. In a months-long email chain, members of the editing team expressed the need for caution in linking TBLT to brain research, citing established evidence for the necessity of explicit instruction, highlighting conflicts with Cognitive Load Theory, and noting the lack of research comparing it to other approaches. While we all agreed that it could be the basis for an interesting issue, it was clear that a neuroscience-informed view of TBLT would require care; Curtis Kelly noted that “this is the problem with ‘brain’-anything. It is easy to make claims that go too far. On the other hand, making connections (emphasis mine) is less problematic and may lead to insights.”

I confess to once having told a colleague that “language teachers use TBLT as an excuse not to teach.” After reading through this issue’s four key articles, however, I can truthfully say I’m feeling more charitable toward TBLT and viewing everything I thought I knew through a new lens. Our contributors have done an excellent job making a case for TBLT as a brain-friendly approach. When reading Think Tank issues, I tend to jump around, first reading articles written with my teaching context in mind or written by people I know well. If I may offer a recommendation—I would suggest tackling this month’s articles in order. We start with an introduction to TBLT from the experts—an outstanding overview of the model from Paul Leeming and Justin Harris, founding members of the JALT TBL SIG and organizers of the TBLT in Asia conference series. Next, Heather Kretschmer draws on her experience teaching Business English to address the issue of cognitive load with an article describing student engagement in the task cycle. From there, Amanda Gillis-Furutaka brings us recent research examining how tasks engage the brain’s attention filter, reduce stress, and sustain interest through prediction and the dopamine reward cycle. Then, Curtis Kelly shares what he describes as “the article I’ve wanted to do for years,” managing to present hard neuroscience in a lighthearted and eminently readable piece examining “The Killer Theory” underpinning TBLT. Marc Helgesen closes with a touching story about one of his learners in the PLUS section.

We anticipate that this month’s issue will generate dialogue and debate. Over the years, I have gone back and forth on TBLT; this outstanding issue has brought me back around to it with a fresh perspective, revitalized a familiar topic with new connections and insights, and given me tools and strategies to energize my lessons in 2022. Whatever your take on TBLT may be, you will be challenged not to find something relevant in this month’s Think Tank.


Jason R. Walters is Assistant Director of the Core English program at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. His primary research interests include self-access learning, native speaker-ism in Asian EFL education, and practical applications of positive psychology in the classroom. <[email protected]>

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