In the last few decades, task-based language teaching (TBLT) has grown in popularity to become a very well-known teaching approach all over the world, and there are now international organizations, conferences, and journals focused exclusively on the approach (for example the International Association of Task-based Language Teaching, and John Benjamins’ new journal Task). Within Japan, the JALT TBL SIG was founded more than 10 years ago; it organizes the biennial TBLT in Asia conference series. It has also published a regular newsletter, Taking it to Task, since that time.
In spite of the increasing popularity of TBLT, it is perhaps surprising that one of the most common problems we have noticed as founding members of the TBL SIG and organizers of TBLT in Asia, is the endurance of some common misunderstandings about TBLT. Although there is some debate over the finer points even among the more prominent scholars in the field (Ellis, 2018; Long, 2015), most agree on a basic definition and set of requirements for what constitutes a task. In this article, we are going to illustrate a TBLT approach through examples. In order to do this, we will often refer to present, practice, produce (PPP) as a counterpoint, as that approach is commonly used as a contrast in TBLT literature.
A useful definition of a task is provided by Ellis and Shintani (2014). First, the focus of any language task should be on the meaning of language, rather than just the practice of linguistic features. Traditionally (such as in a PPP approach), teachers first introduce language, highlighting specific words and phrases that learners are then expected (at least implicitly) to practice. While explicit language focus is not proscribed in TBLT (as explained below), the initial focus in a lesson should be purely on meaning. Simply put, this means that learners should be engaging in a task for a meaningful purpose. In a “directions task” for example, the “meaningful purpose” might be “to find the bank,” and the main goal is for students to successfully achieve that, not to practice specific vocabulary or grammar. Generally, it is believed that successful communicative experiences lead to developing learners’ intrinsic motivation, providing an impetus for them to want to learn more. In contrast, PPP focuses on students’ accurate use of the target structure. This is how success is evaluated.
Second, there should be a gap. This means that a learner has some information (or an opinion) that another does not know. This is the reason to communicate. Again, this means that learners are not just practicing language, but are using it to fill the gap. That is one of the main reasons why we communicate in the real world. We want some kind of information. This doesn’t just mean typical “gap fills” that you find in most textbooks, where the goal is simply to fill in the missing information. The gap should be something that you actually want, or need, to know.
The third requirement is that learners use their own linguistic resources and non-linguistic resources. Basically, this means that they can use any language they have, and not language that is dictated by the teacher. They can also use gestures to aid in communication. So, in a TBLT approach, teachers don’t usually pre-teach (or tell) learners what they have to say, with the exception of some pre-task language work that may have teachers eliciting possibly useful language from learners. In contrast, PPP introduces language that students are expected to use, and there is more limited freedom in language choices.
The fourth and final requirement is that the task has some kind of non-linguistic outcome. Again, put simply, there is a point. The point is not to just complete the task, or to show successful memorization of the given language, but to find out or decide something, and that “something” should not just be limited to accurate language use, which is the case with a PPP approach.
This explanation might feel a little abstract, so let’s take a look at an example task to highlight these four points. We will explain what makes this a task, and how it could be changed to become a PPP lesson. The example is an output task from the EFL coursebook, On Task 3 (Harris & Leeming, 2018).
The first thing to note is that the focus is on meaning. When were you born? What is your hobby? There is no language introduced, and learners prepare for the task by simply filling in their own personal information. So, what might this look like in a PPP approach? Before this task, learners would be presented with key language: “When is your birthday?”, “Where were you born?”, “Why are you studying English?” They would drill this language with the teacher until they could use it comfortably. The focus of the “task” would then be on learners demonstrating that they could accurately use that language, not actually finding out the information per se.
Now let’s look at this example task in terms of the second requirement, that there is a gap. That is fairly straightforward. Learners are able to complete the table about themselves, but are highly unlikely to be able to complete the information for the other members of their class. In this sense, most activities in PPP will also have some kind of gap, but there is a fundamental difference. In TBLT the gap is there to provide a genuine reason to communicate while focusing on meaning, while in PPP the gap is just missing information to be filled in in order to provide learners with an opportunity to use the language that has been introduced and practiced during the lesson. Often with PPP the goal is simply to complete a set of information, often in table form, not to find out information that you genuinely want or need to know. The difference is subtle, but important.
The third requirement is that learners are able to use their own linguistic and non-linguistic resources. This means that the teacher should not decide what language learners use. If a learner with lower proficiency is able to complete the task by asking “What month born?” then in TBLT this would be seen as successful task completion. Of course, the teacher would probably introduce the correct form of the sentence after the task had been completed (depending on the level and confidence of the learner), but at least the learner would be able to attempt the task first and experience successful communication using their own language. They would have thought for themselves how to do so, and they may have noticed that they lack knowledge of how to say something, thus priming them more effectively for post-task instruction. For this reason, with TBLT, language is generally introduced after the task. In PPP, “What month born?” would constitute failure. Despite introduction and practice of the language, producing an incorrect sentence like this in the final task would mean that the learner was not able to successfully use the language that has been taught, and therefore might be deemed to have failed.
The final requirement is that there is an outcome beyond the display of language. For the example presented here, the outcome comes in the “report” stage. Learners count up their ticks, and then report back to the class. The most “typical” learner is the one with the most ticks. It then becomes fun to find out the most common birth month, or the most common reason for studying English, or conversely, who is the least “typical” member of the class. These are outcomes that are not related to language. Although a PPP approach may have this report stage, the outcome that is important is how accurately learners were able to use the language that had been introduced in the lesson.
We believe that a TBLT approach fits perfectly in EFL settings, particularly in tertiary educational contexts, where learners may have receptive knowledge of grammar and vocabulary but have often never been given a chance to use it. Through the secondary school and university entrance exam systems common in many countries, they have usually also experienced difficult tests that reinforce the idea that the L2 is difficult, and that they cannot really use it effectively to communicate. TBLT gives learners a chance to use some of the language that they have studied, and also to experience successful task completion.
We hope that the description above has helped to clarify what constitutes a task, and what TBLT is. For those interested in learning more about TBLT, we would recommend Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice, by Rod Ellis, Peter Skehan, Shaofeng Li, Natsuko Shintani, and Craig Lambert (2020). This is a very comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to the theory of TBLT. In terms of practical texts on how to actually implement TBLT in your own classroom, we would recommend Doing Task-Based Teaching, by Dave Willis and Jane Willis (2007), which contains a wealth of ideas that you can adapt and use in your own classroom.
Ellis, R. (2018). Reflections on task-based language teaching. Multilingual Matters.
Ellis, R., & Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. Routledge.
Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2020). Task-based language teaching: Theory and practice. Cambridge University Press.
Harris, J., & Leeming, P. (2018). On Task 3. Abax.
Long, M. H. (2015). Second language acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley-Blackwell.
Willis, D., & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford University Press.
Paul Leeming and Justin Harris are founding members of the JALT TBL SIG and are involved with running the biennial TBLT in Asia conference series. Their research interests centre on the classroom application of TBLT, and they co-authored the TBLT coursebook series On Task (ABAX).