Why is TBLT an Effective Approach to Teaching Languages? Some Explanations from Brain Science

Why is TBLT an Effective Approach to Teaching Languages? Some Explanations from Brain Science

By: Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

TBLT and I go back a long way. I was very lucky to have studied for my MA in TESOL at Birmingham University (1990 – 1992) under the guidance of Dave Willis, with occasional guest lecturer appearances from his wife Jane Willis. When I started working in universities in Japan, I was assigned both language skills and content-based classes and had a great deal of freedom in what I taught and how I taught it. Although I would not characterize my various self-created syllabi over the years as specifically TBLT, I recognize that the philosophy of TBLT has always guided my approach to planning and teaching lessons. The tenets of TBLT make sense, and keep students engaged, but I never understood why until I started looking into how the brain learns. Two books I read recently have brought into sharp focus why TBLT is such a great way to teach, and I’d like to share some of the highlights with you.

The first of these two books, Research-based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from Neuroscience and the Classroom (2020) is, coincidentally, by a pair of authors both called Willis—Judy and Malana. They take the reader through the process of learning, step by step, explaining what is happening in the brain at each stage, and provide abundant classroom activities to enable and reinforce learning. Then I read Doing Task-based Teaching, by Dave Willis and Jane Willis (2007) and found that what they had been recommending for over 17 years was supported by discoveries in neuroscience about the learning process which Judy and Malana Willis explain. So, let’s take a look at some principles and practices of TBLT which align with recent research on how the brain learns.

The role of the RAS and why teachers should spark curiosity and relate classroom activities to the learners’ interests

TBLT practitioners emphasize the importance of starting a teaching cycle with a task, to spark curiosity and create engagement, rather than by explaining a grammar form or functional realization and then practicing it. In their book about the brain, Judy & Malana Willis (2020) explain the role in learning of our RAS (reticular activating system, aka our attention filter). Millions of bits of information are continuously sent from our senses and within our body to the RAS, but only about 1% are selected to pass through into the higher-level processing areas of the prefrontal cortex for closer analysis. What is so special about this selected information? This 1% of information is seen as important for survival because something unexpected, changed, or emotionally salient has been detected and so it requires special attention.

Why is it important for teachers to be aware of this brain function? The RAS has evolved to ensure our survival on the plains of Africa, but it can create a barrier to classroom learning. When information presented in class is not selected by the RAS, it is unlikely to be learned. The good news is that the neural networking of the prefrontal cortex of learners in their late twenties (aka executive functioning) has completed its development. This means that these higher-level processing areas can send messages to the RAS that will influence what information the RAS allows to pass through. In other words, more mature learners have greater self-control to focus on what their teacher wishes them to do. Although the brains of younger learners don’t have the ability to intervene in this way, teachers can plan activities that are so surprising and different that the new information is directed by the RAS to the prefrontal cortex for processing. But that is not all! Teachers can also help their younger learners to strengthen their neural networks by training them in executive functions such as paying attention, prioritizing, planning, and thinking critically, to name a few. This will boost their ability to influence what passes through their RAS filter and help them to block intake through the RAS of input that is not relevant to the task they are working on. How can teachers do all this? I believe that by the time you have read this issue on TBLT to the end, you will see for yourself how different stages of task cycles incorporate training in all these executive functions!

To return to the topic of the start of a teaching cycle, to catch the full attention of all their learners, young and old, it is essential that teachers surprise them, pique their curiosity, and engage them by providing a connection with their personal interests. Both pairs of authors, Judy and Malana Willis (2020) and Dave and Jane Willis (2007), provide a wide range of suggestions for the first step in a lesson cycle or task sequence. These activities are designed to grab the learners’ attention by doing or introducing something new or unexpected and by relating classroom activities to the learners’ personal lives and experiences.

Here are some examples that both sets of writers recommend:

    1. Use a teaser at the end of the previous lesson to arouse interest and speculation about the next lesson (anticipation primes the brain to pay attention to what is going to happen).

    2. Use video clips, photos, or other visual media related to the upcoming topic (visual images have impact and are memorable).

    3. Play music related to the content of the lesson (music stimulates emotions and memories and can create excitement or provide calm and enable focus).

    4. Make changes in the classroom (a new classroom layout signals change, different decorations alert learners to a new topic, everyone will be curious).

    5. Use an unusual fact, a provocative quote, a riddle, or a surprising headline (puzzles, mysteries, and the unexpected can alert brains to the need for closer processing)
    1. Use extremes (the Guinness Book of Records is a good source) to promote surprise and curiosity.

    2. Set fact-finding challenges (to alert learners to gaps in their knowledge).

    3. Tell a personal anecdote connected to the topic to be studied and invite learners to share their own stories and reminiscences (see the Think Tank issue on the Social Brain to understand how fascinated we are by other people and our relationship to them and why this kind of introduction to a new topic is guaranteed to draw the attention of learners).

    4. Start by mentioning local or community events or issues that can be connected with the lesson topic (another way to alert our Social Brain to information of personal importance).

    5. Use an opinion survey or a questionnaire that relates the topic to the learners’ own personal lives and experiences (knowing about the Social Brain is a powerful tool in a teacher’s repertoire!).

The role of emotion and how teachers can maintain learner engagement by reducing stress

We have all encountered students who seem uninterested in the lesson, don’t pay attention, and make excuses to leave the classroom. Are they just being lazy or is there a different reason for their behaviour? One explanation is related to what we have just learned about the RAS and to the brain’s emotion system. 

We know that when sensory information passes through the RAS, it can either be sent to the prefrontal cortex, where it will be consciously processed and evaluated, or to the lower brain, which reacts to information through instinct rather than reflection. The amygdala controls where the information will be sent. It is part of the brain’s emotion and memory system. In a normal, stress-free state of alertness, the amygdala allows input from the senses to reach the prefrontal cortex for reflective processing. The information can then connect with prior knowledge and be constructed into long-term memory. However, if a learner is experiencing a high-stress state during a lesson (which can include boredom, frustration, and fear of being called on to speak), the flow of information that the learner needs to attend to may be diverted to the lower brain where responses are involuntary. These responses are like the survival-oriented reactions of other mammals (fight, flight, or freeze) and can take the form of learners acting out, making frequent trips to the bathroom, reaching for their phones, or zoning out. Although this behaviour is often seen by teachers and parents as intentional misbehaviour, it is in fact involuntary.

Such a state is clearly not conducive to learning because information related to the lesson is only minimally processed into memory. Furthermore, when under stress, our brain may opt for a reaction that tries to protect us but is counterproductive to learning. For example, if learners feel embarrassed when they answer a question wrongly in class, this may prevent them from raising their hand to answer or ask a question, or offer an opinion again. Such a self-protective response is automatic and happens without them thinking or choosing to do this, and it prevents them from participating actively in classroom learning. How can teachers alleviate the stress that learners may experience in a language classroom setting and enhance their opportunities for learning? Is a task-based approach beneficial?

In fact, the sequence of activities in TBLT (working from an initial focus on the meaning of the language rather than a focus on memorizing and producing correct language forms) minimizes stress for language learners in a natural way. TBLT practitioners emphasize the importance of allowing learners to draw on all the language resources at their disposal to engage in an initial activity with a meaningful outcome. TBLT activities allow the learners to “deploy whatever language they have already learnt from earlier lessons, and experiment with language they are not sure of in order to get their meaning across” (Willis & Willis, 2007, p. 113) rather than strive to use correctly the new language forms that the teacher has just introduced. Attending to language issues is left until later when learners are familiar with the context and may even recognize a need to know how to express certain ideas in the target language. Such a relaxed and flexible attitude to target language use can reduce classroom stress and increase motivation to learn new language forms.

Dave and Jane Willis (2007) provide many suggestions in Chapter 6 for non-threatening approaches to drawing attention to language form, such as the teacher re-phrasing learner contributions to the discussion (p. 121) as part of the flow of conversation. Furthermore, they recommend providing opportunities for learners to discover appropriate language forms for themselves. For example, after working on the topic of parenting, students are given a text they have used (written or spoken) and asked to identify things that the author “had to do” or was “allowed to do” and compare the difference in meaning for themselves. They can then create their own sentences about what they had to do and were allowed to do when they were young. Dave and Jane Willis also provide examples of grammaticization activities (p. 125), in which the teacher again uses a text the learners are familiar with (the transcript of a listening passage, a questionnaire used at the start of a task cycle, a reading passage, etc.). The teacher removes many of the grammatical markers and asks the students to work in groups to restore them. Such kinds of group work activities, which are based on already familiar materials and concepts, reduce learner stress while helping to raise consciousness and make the learners more aware of the language forms. The learners’ active and collaborative engagement also makes the new correct language forms more memorable (see our Think Tank on the Social Brain for the importance of collaboration in learning).

The roles of Predictive Processing and the dopamine reward system and how teachers can sustain learner interest through prediction activities

Judy and Malana Willis (2020) explain in Chapters 1 and 2 how the brain is constantly predicting in many ways at various levels of consciousness, which you can also learn more about in our Think Tank on Predictive Processing. Interest can be sustained effectively in a lesson through prediction activities because our brains need to find out if their predictions are correct in order to decide the next course of action. The brain stores information in patterns and makes predictions by activating memory networks that have been built through the process of making predictions and choices, and then experiencing and evaluating the outcomes of their predictions. It is important to know that the dopamine reward cycle is activated when we make predictions. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is closely associated with pleasure and intrinsic motivation. When dopamine levels increase, so do our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, together with a desire to persevere. Dopamine feedback helps to guide the brain on how to expend its limited energy and attention resources. Also, when dopamine is released, comprehension is enhanced, memory storage is improved, and higher-level thinking and creativity are stimulated. The dopamine reward system helps drive us to seek and experience reward because memory of the dopamine boost will guide subsequent behaviour.

A surprising discovery is that repeatedly failing to make correct predictions does not suppress the predictive process, especially when an individual (not public) response system is used in class. And, when opportunities are provided for students to revise their predictions, their interest level is kept high (Willis & Willis, 2020, p. 69).

According to Judy & Malana Willis, even when learners’ first predictions are not correct, the dopamine reward system creates pleasurable feelings if the learners start thinking that they are getting closer to being correct. Crucially, when learners’ responses are guided by careful corrective feedback, they can experience positive expectations from such feedback. This then helps them to build tolerance for mistakes and develop growth mindsets, become more resilient, and push themselves through boredom, frustration and other challenges. In fact, providing corrective feedback is an underlying principle of computer gaming design which is proving to be highly successful.

Dave & Jane Willis (2007) recommend prediction activities to sustain the learners’ engagement during a task, especially when learners are reading, because “prediction tasks help learners by providing a context for reading and by guiding the reading process” (p. 34). For more advanced learners, they suggest starting with the title of a story, or a newspaper article headline, such as, “Hello, I’ve just jumped off the Empire State Building” (p. 35).  Teachers can elicit suggestions about the content, then provide some words or phrases from the text in chronological order to allow learners to adjust their predictions, or teachers can provide the first and last sentences of the text. Learners will be drawing on all their language and other communication resources to do this prediction task, which is good for strengthening neural networks (you will learn more about this in our fall 2022 Think Tank on how the brain learns). An additional bonus is that when presenting these tasks, the teacher can prime and teach new vocabulary which the learners will need to use when they later read the article or story and “the new items will be salient because the learners’ attention has already been caught” (p. 37). The key to keeping learners’ full attention is for the teacher to ask questions that elicit predictions before the learners listen to or read the text that they will later work with.

Judy and Malana Willis (2020) provide some additional suggestions for the skillful use of prediction activities that could be used in a TBLT classroom. They point out that learners must remain invested in their predictions if they are going to stay connected and alert to the incoming information. So, it is not a good idea to give the answer before all students have had a chance to think for themselves or to always call on the same few students who are most likely to give the correct answer. It is better to enable all students to think for and answer by themselves through the use of response cards that students can hold up, or raised hands or fingers, or IT game-style responses made by all learners simultaneously.

Open-ended questions that are learner-centered, like those often used in a TBLT task, also maintain curiosity and can allow for more predictions over time. And they are especially effective if learners are given the opportunity to revise their answers. Working in pairs or small groups reduces stress from making mistakes and the positive feedback reward they experience when they find out if their predictions are accurate or not keeps learners on track.

Closing remarks

Having explored some key findings in brain science about how the brain functions, we can see why the TBLT approach is clearly conducive to successful learning. The TBLT emphasis on alerting the attention of learners through arousing curiosity, focusing on personal interests, and then maintaining learner interest and positivity through prediction activities is highly appropriate. Furthermore, a TBLT classroom can provide a safe and stimulating language learning environment because focus on correct language forms is integrated into the task cycle and follows the initial focus on meaning. New language forms are encountered in a meaningful context and are examined and practiced in ways that relate them to the learners’ own life experiences. Moreover, collaborative learning in pairs and groups is the norm in a TBLT classroom and there is plenty of evidence to show that such an environment provides optimum learning opportunities. The role of a TBLT teacher is to serve as a watchful organizer, consultant, and cheerleader.

I now have a deeper appreciation for why task-based lessons have been effective through my long teaching career and I hope that you will too. Both books are packed with great teaching suggestions. If you have the means to acquire them, they will be well-thumbed additions to your bookshelf or Kindle library, I guarantee.

Amanda Gillis-Furutaka is a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University and has recently taken over the role of Coordinator of the Mind, Brain, and Education SIG.

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