In task-based language learning (TBL), the focus is on language use rather than language knowledge. It assumes that by using language, students will acquire it. The focus of TBL is on the task itself rather than a language structure.
A task is an activity which requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain a goal.
Martin Bygate et al. (2001)
Research has shown that TBL leads to improved fluency and accuracy. However, this is not the same as learning new language.
Proponents of TBL argue that because it pushes students to communicate meaning, it forces them to learn new language items. But does it develop accuracy?
I believe that it is when users begin to use language creatively that they are maximally engaged in language acquisition because they are required to draw on their emerging language skills and resources in an integrated way.
TBL is often contrasted with the traditional PPP (Presentation-Practice-Produce) approach used in many EFL classrooms. In PPP, the lesson is based around a specific language structure, such as the present continuous tense, and the lesson typically begins with a teacher presentation of the language structure, followed by controlled activities such as filling in blanks and then a freer production phase such as role plays. But even though students may produce correct responses during the lesson, they are often unable to make proper use of the language structure once the lesson in over.
Typical Structure of a TBL Lesson
The teacher explains the topic and task, and helps sets the scene, introducing some language which may be useful and also connecting the topic with students’ prior knowledge. A model of the task might be shown.
The students complete a task in pairs or groups using the language resources that they have as the teacher monitors and offers encouragement. In this phase, language will be oral and informal.
Students prepare a short oral or written report to tell the class what happened during their task. (It’s probably better to have oral reporting first, followed by a write-up if necessary.) They then practise what they are going to say in their groups with support from the teacher of each other. Students then report back to the class orally or read the written report. In this phase, the teacher needs to help students move from informal, oral language to more formal, precise language that may be in a written form.
The teacher then highlights relevant parts from the text of the recording for the students to analyse. They may ask students to notice interesting features within this text. The teacher can also highlight the language that the students used during the report phase for analysis.
Finally, the teacher selects language areas to practise based upon the needs of the students and what emerged from the task and report phases. The students then do practice activities to increase their confidence and make a note of useful language.
Focus on Form
The above structure shows that focus on form is a key part in TBL. The language item to be focused on will come out of the task (as opposed to designing as task around a language item).
Criticisms of TBL
Since the focus is on completion of the task (rather than learning new language, it could be argued that students could complete the task much more effectively by using their L1 rather than English (a thought that might well be going on in the minds of the students). In effect, a task-based approach means that English becomes an obstacle to completion of the task. This means that language objectives have to form part of the task to make it worthwhile.
TBL assumes that students either have the language to do the task – in which case it serves no language learning function, only a language practice one – or they will somehow pick it up while doing the task (the sort of ‘bootstrapping’ that goes on in L1 learning). Again, this means that there needs to be some kind of focus on language structures (focus on form), either during or before the task, so that students have the language necessary to complete the task.
International schools in effect use task-based learning because the focus is asks that support curricular learning objectives. In fact, it’s quite a good use of TBL because the tasks are designed to support the curriculum; they are not arbitrarily chosen by the teacher as can happen with TBL in EFL environments. But to support language learning, language objectives (delivered through focus on form activities) must form part of planning.