Cultivating Active Learning in the Task Cycle

Cultivating Active Learning in the Task Cycle

By: Heather Kretschmer

Learning a foreign language is like growing a garden. To develop foreign language skills, our learners can’t just lounge on a garden bench all day, lazily soaking up the sun. Rather, they have to take an active role in their learning, much like apprentice gardeners do to learn the tricks of their trade. This process requires time, effort, and brain power, in other words, active learning. One way we can foster active learning is through a task-based language teaching approach (TBLT).

In TBLT we need to take a principled approach to designing tasks for our students. We should ask ourselves: What do our learners need or want to do in the foreign language? How can we encourage our students to be active participants in their learning? How can we best integrate learning science principles in this process? Answering these questions helps us develop suitable tasks for our learners. And we can organize these tasks in task cycles, each potentially consisting of three phases: pre-task, main task, and post-task.[1]

To illustrate a principled TBLT approach, I’m going to take you on a tour of my students’ garden for one task cycle from a Business English course I teach. Along the way I’ll connect the activities to learning-science principles using this infographic from the Deans for Impact website. I’ll also suggest ways of adapting the activities to different language levels.

[1] Only the main task phase is required. The pre-task and post-task phases are optional.

Deans for Impact (2021). Deepening Meaning and Learning, p. 6

Overview of the Business English task cycle example

My Business English course is designed for university students studying economics and business administration. Their English level is fairly advanced (CEFR C1 “Proficient User”). At the beginning of the course, students are told they are “interns” for a large international financial organization, and they are divided into small groups. Each group is responsible for a different region of the world. The following task cycle is part of the topic Employment. Steps 1 and 2 occur together as homework, and Steps 3, 4, and 5 take place in three different class sessions:

    1. Pre-task phase (individual work): Students predict the content of a recent news podcast on the topic of employment.
    2. Input-based task (individual work): Each group member is assigned a different news podcast to listen to and take notes on. Students are informed they will explain the content of the podcast to groupmates in the next class (Step 3).
    3. Output-based task (groupwork): First, students explain the content of their individualized podcasts to their group members. Next, each group discusses and decides (1) which problem from the podcasts is most pressing for their region, (2) which solutions are possible for this problem, and (3) which solution they find best for their region. Finally, each group writes a summary of their decisions for their “superior.”
    4. Post-task phase (groupwork): After receiving feedback from the teacher on their written summaries, each group either improves their summary or compares an improved version written by the teacher with their original summary.
    5. Post-task phase (pair work & full class): In a game-like auction activity, pairs bid on collocations taken from the Employment unit and try to buy as many correct collocations as possible.

Okay, now let’s dive a little deeper into the different task phases.[2]

[2] A complete overview of all the options available to teachers in the task cycle is outside the scope of this article. For a more detailed description of task cycle options, see Ellis’s (2006) article.

Pre-Task Phase

The aim of the pre-task phase is to get our learners ready for the main task. We have lots of options, such as task planning, vocabulary retrieval, and discussion work.[3] In the Business English example above, the learners are asked to read the podcast titles and predict what they will hear in the podcast. This activates students’ background knowledge before they start listening (infographic, second column). Having students do prediction activities supports deeper learning as “our learning stems most fundamentally from the cycle of making predictions and then adjusting our thinking in light of the accuracy of those predictions” (Lang, 2021, p. 25). Since my students are experienced English learners, telling them to predict what they will hear is sufficient for them to activate a suitable prediction strategy. In contrast, learners at intermediate or beginning levels benefit from receiving more explicit, step-by-step instructions or from going through the process together with the teacher.

[3] Ur (1981) offers teachers a plethora of engaging discussion ideas which can be used in the pre-task phase in her book Discussions that Work: Task-Centered Fluency Practice.

Sometimes in the pre-task phase we want to draw our students’ attention to known vocabulary items that are potentially useful for the upcoming task. We can do this via retrieval practice, where students call to mind information they’ve already learned. For example, one way I’ve used retrieval practice prior to a writing task is by giving my students a brief list of wordy expressions and asking them to think of shorter alternatives. After they come up with ideas, I give them feedback and encourage them to use the succinct versions in the writing task. This is only one example of retrieval practice. For other ideas, check Hedlund and Houston’s (2021) article and Miller’s (2021) blog.

The Input-Based Task

Input-based tasks are useful for practicing listening and reading, and teachers can also use them as starting points for output-based activities. When asking students to do input-based tasks, we should allow enough time for them to understand and think about the content of what they’ve listened to or read (infographic, third column). In the Business English input-based task outlined above, students complete the listening task as homework. They have ample time to understand the content, take notes, and prepare for the discussion. And, certainly, learners can do input-based tasks during class. As long as we don’t rush students through tasks, we cater to the needs of different students, some of whom will be more introverted, and others more extroverted. As McCulloch (2020) emphasizes, giving introverts time to think about course content prior to a discussion can help them participate more actively during the discussion. Having time to reflect also encourages extroverted students to think more about their responses. So, we facilitate our students’ learning process when we allow sufficient time for them to complete tasks in class or at home.

With any task, including input-based ones, teachers also need to consider cognitive load, the amount of information the working memory can hold at one time. Since my students are advanced learners of English, they already know effective listening strategies to keep the cognitive load manageable. In contrast, students at lower levels need listening strategy guidance, and scaffolding their learning is key to helping them cope with the workload (infographic, first column). We can provide lower-level groups with a well-designed graphic organizer to help them follow the content more easily as they complete the input-based task. In addition, in this listening activity, students who listened to the same podcast can compare their understanding of the listening first before they explain the content to their group. These are only a few strategies that help our students at lower levels manage cognitive load and still actively learn and use the foreign language.

The Output-Based Task

Output-based tasks are suitable for practicing writing and speaking. Students can do output-based tasks individually, collaboratively in pairs or small groups, or as a class with the teacher. When we ask students to work collaboratively, we need to create optimal learning conditions so that all students participate (infographic, sixth column). Helping students feel safe enough to take risks in the foreign language is important, and Playsted (2020) highlights ways to do this for speaking tasks. Even among my advanced students, the more reticent ones don’t always feel confident enough to participate during groupwork. I find that giving students time to build connections with each other helps them trust each other enough to communicate in the target language. Interaction activities like the ones in this February 2021 Think Tank article can pave the way for more equal participation.

In TBLT, teachers need to let go of tightly controlling all parts of the lesson, especially for output-based tasks. Our students sometimes interpret tasks differently than we originally intended.  This can happen when students modify the task either to pursue their own aims or to take on a challenge they are capable of (Van den Branden, 2009, p. 269). In the Business English output-based task I outlined above, some groups from previous classes decided that the countries in their region were too disparate to make recommendations for the entire region. Therefore, they came up with targeted recommendations for one country in their region. In classroom situations like this one, being flexible can help teachers serve different students’ needs or desires.

Flexibility on our part is also necessary when we consider our students’ language use. Although we can guess what language our students will readily use or, conversely, struggle to use, the actual language our students use in the lesson depends on them. They may also draw on other languages at their disposal such as their native language(s). So, the question is, what is our role as teachers? TBLT advocates have various views on what teachers should do during the main task phase. For example, Willis (n.d.) feels that the teacher’s role in this phase is to encourage learners and help them express their ideas but only correct mistakes if learners request this type of support. In contrast, Long (2016, p.17) believes that the teacher should intervene with corrective feedback and other language input as learners carry out the task. In my experience, the degree and type of teacher involvement during the main task phase depend on the teaching context, the aim(s) of the task, the teacher’s beliefs, and the students’ expectations.

Post-Task Phase

Teachers can pursue different goals with students during the post-task phase. These include focusing on form, repeating the task, reflecting on task performance, and setting goals for future learning. When focusing on form, we direct our learners’ attention to certain linguistic points (grammar, lexis, pronunciation, pragmatics, etc.) from the main task which our learners struggled with or avoided using altogether. The language focus might include explicit instruction, particularly for forms that are not salient for learners. Explicit instruction can be coupled with meaning-based focus on form activities.[4]

When we give our learners feedback on their task performance, we need to decide what needs to be addressed and how to do that. First, it’s important to consider whether students are developmentally ready for potential corrections. It’s best to select only those language points our students are able to process. Once we’ve determined the focus of our feedback, we have to figure out the best way to give that feedback (infographic, fourth & fifth columns). There are, of course, many options. One way I give feedback is to highlight strengths and weaknesses and ask groups to improve the problematic aspects of their summary themselves. Another feedback technique I use is to write slightly improved versions of each group’s text myself. Groups first only receive the improved version and discuss and mark aspects they think are different from their original text. Next, groups receive their original texts, compare the differences, and discuss why they think the changes were made (Bilbrough, 2011, pp. 123-124). Both feedback techniques require students to reflect on their language use and stretch themselves linguistically.

It’s also possible to spread post-task activities over time. One way we can do this is to integrate spaced practice in our classes (infographic, fifth column). Spaced practice involves covering learning material in short time segments in multiple lessons. I encourage my students to learn useful language points they encounter during a task cycle and review them from time to time. If we take my Business English example above, a few lessons after the feedback activity, I can give my students a list of correct and incorrect collocations from the Employment unit. Examples of correct collocations are “to prevent brain drain” and “a drop in employment,” and incorrect (or atypical) collocations include “career way opportunities” and “to support workers in trainings.” In pairs, students try to figure out which ones are correct. Then with the full class, I auction off the collocations, letting the students know, after an item has been bought, whether it is correct (Rinvolucri, 2002, p. 44[5]). The pair that bought the most correct collocations wins the game, but I also tell students if they mostly recognized which collocations are correct, they are winners, too. This game-like activity motivates students to think about language items they previously encountered.[6] After the auction, I elicit correct alternatives for the incorrect collocations from my students.  The goal for this post-task step and the previous steps of the task cycle is for students to use what they’ve learned in future tasks, whether they are in the classroom or in a real-world context.

[4] A good source of engaging grammar activities focusing on specific grammar problem areas is Ur’s (1988) Grammar Practice Activities.

[5] Rinvolucri (2002) actually recommends using collocations from the previous, current, and following units for this collocation auctioning activity (p. 44).

[6] Other ideas from Rinvolucri’s (2002) Humanising your Coursebook: Activities to Bring your Classroom to Life lend themselves well to spaced practice. See also Hedlund and Houston’s Think Tank article from May 2020 for spaced practice ideas.

As you can see from this excursion into my students’ garden, TBLT requires considerable cognitive effort from learners. Throughout the task cycle learners are active agents in their learning process. That said, there is space in TBLT to inspect the garden your students and you have been cultivating. So, do take time with your students for a walkthrough to celebrate their progress. Sit on the garden bench and enjoy the fruits of their labor.


Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Economics and Business Administration students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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