Task-Based Language Teaching

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In my last blog, I wrote about the educational movements and how they have encouraged new methods of viewing teaching and learning. They have also made room for new forms of content delivery to be developed. One of the more recent developments in content delivery, which is becoming popular in language teaching, is Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), or “learning by doing.” Learning by doing can be defined as performing an action, i.e. enactment; in comparison, other ways of learning something are learning by viewing or learning by listening (Steffens et al., 2015). There is a general assumption that learning by doing creates better memories of an event or action, and so styles like TBLT are becoming more popular.  

The use of TBLT has been found to be positive and significantly impactful in a variety of contexts. González-Lloret and Nielson (2015) implemented TBLT in a border patrol training program that traditionally used the grammar-translation method to teach new agents Spanish. Students in the task-based group outperformed students in the grammar-based group on measures of fluency, lexical complexity, and syntactic complexity, and results from a MANOVA test indicated that there were significant differences between the groups, with stronger performances in the task-based group (González-Lloret and Nielson, 2015). Sarani and Farzaneh Sahebi (2012) also found that using TBLT to teach vocabulary in English for Special Purposes (ESP) to university students resulted in a significant difference in learned technical vocabulary and use in-context compared to a traditional teaching method.  

The literature on TBLT demonstrates that it is a worthwhile practice and should be used in language classrooms, but in order to do so, teachers must be motivated to use it as well. While TBLT can simplify the work of the instructor by providing a clear direction for teaching and assessment, instructors still shy away from it and feel uncomfortable making tasks (Vanderveen, 2018). Not only should classroom activities resemble work-related activities as closely as possible, but instructors also need to know what a manageable amount of vocabulary and grammar is per unit, how to increase student consciousness in their own learning, elicit answers from them, and when to step back (Vargas Vasquez et al., 2016).  

Completing a task in the classroom that replicates a real-life situation provides L2 learners with a safe place to practice and perform what may be classified in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research as pre-task planning. When students are in the classroom and practicing the language, they are receiving feedback from the instructor and input from their environment and the people they are interacting with. When faced with a task that replicates a real-life situation, they are exposed to the social context and linguistic expectations of the interaction and, as such, are able to practice before completing the task for real. The other type of planning, and likely the most common in oral production, is termed online planning. Online planning occurs at the moment; people are forced to self-correct and choose words, possibly through translation. It can be defined as “the process by which speakers attend carefully to the formulation stage during speech planning and engage in pre-production and post-production monitoring of their speech acts” (Yuan & Ellis, 2003, p. 6). In a typical classroom setting there may be a lot of learning by viewing and listening to the instructor, but learning by doing has been shown to improve memory for actions and recognition (Steffens et al., 2015; Engelkamp, 1998; Golly-Haring & Engelkamp, 2003). 

While the conversation here today was very heavily based on research in the field, I bring this to your attention because one of the most common pieces of feedback from teachers and researchers in the field is the disconnect between research and practice. Teachers often feel that research is inaccessible to them and very hard to comprehend, parse through, and then implement. I hope that this little literature review today will help you understand the importance of TBLT and that research does support its use.  

What types of task-based activities have you integrated into your classroom practice? 


De Larios, J., Marin, J., &Murphy, L. (2001). A temporal analysis of formulation processes in L1 and L2 writing. Language Learning, 51(3), 497-538. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1111/0023-8333.00163 

Ellis, R., &Yuan, F. (2004). The effects of planning on fluency, complexity, and accuracy in second language narrative writing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26(1), 59-84. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0272263104026130 

Engelkamp, J. (1998). Memory for actions. Psychology Press. DOI: 10.1002/(SCI)1099-0720(199912)13:6<582::AID-ACP650>3.0.CO 

Golly-Haring, C., &Engelkamp, J. (2003). Categorical-relational and order-relational information in memory for subject-performed and experimenter-performed actions. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, memory and cognition Exp., 29(5), 965-975. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.29.5.965  

González-Lloret, M., &Nielson, K. (2015). Evaluating TBLT: The case of task-based Spanish program. Language Teaching Research, 19(5), 525- 549. http://doi.org/10.1177/1362168814541745 

Sarani, A., &Farzaneh Sahebi, L. (2012). The impact of task-based approach on vocabulary learning in ESP courses. English Language Teaching, 5(10). https://dx.doi.org/10.5539/elt.v5n10p118 

Steffens, M.C., von Stülpnagel, R., &Schult, J.C. (2015). Memory recall after “learning by doing” and “learning by viewing”: Boundary conditions of an enactment benefit. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01907 

Yuan, F., &Ellis, R. (2003). The effects of pretask planning and on-line planning on fluency, complexity, and accuracy in L2 monologic oral production. Applied Linguistics, 24(1), 1-27. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1093/applin/24.1.1 

Vanderveen, T. (2018, October 18). The Nature and Impact of Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA). Contact Magazine, 5-11, from http://contact.teslontario.org/the-nature-and-impact-of-portfolio-based-language-assessment-pbla/ 

Vargas Vásquez, J.M., &Moya Chaves, M., &Garro Morales, C. (2016). The roles of the instructors in an ESP task-based language teaching course. Revista Actualidades Investigativas en Educación, 16(1), 1-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.15517/aie.v16i1.21974 

Hi! I'm Sarah Langridge Bitar. Passionately obsessed with teaching, it is a part of everything I do. I work full-time as an EdTech Development Coordinator at Carleton University and work part-time as an ELT instructor in an IT program. I've taught everything from literacy to EAP and anything in between. I've worked all over Kingston and Ottawa in ESL and for Global Affairs and NAV Canada as a Pedagogical Advisor and Learning Quality Specialist. I enjoy writing and sharing my research with others, so I am excited to have a platform to encourage all of you, and challenge you to think about your teaching and learning methodologies. I'm on my way to work in the photo here, and I just think, if you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right. Feel free to connect on LinkedIn to learn about my other publications.


2 thoughts on “Task-Based Language Teaching”

  1. “Task Based Learning” used to be called “Functions “ (e.g. Prof. D. Mendelsohn “Functioning in English”. )
    In essence ALL language learning in a classroom needs to be relevant, useful, connected to learners needs, goals, objectives.
    “Task Based Learning” jargon was highjacked by “PBLA”. It became code for “don’t teach grammar”. Bookrooms were emptied of grammer books (even the ones that had communicative practice embedded…RWTasks 🙂 and all other approaches were denigrated. “ What’s the REAL WORLD task?” managers ask!
    This is similar to the claim the PBLA is based on AFL – which was (and still is) touted as “better than having a one shot standardised test” . LOL. Turns out researchers (Dr Fox and others) concluded that what PBLA was a SERIES of “summative tests” (high stakes) ) The validity of RWTaskLearning “tests”/assessments done “in the classroom” as part of Task Based Learning and used as “evidence” of learning is also questioned. Penny Ur questioned the feasibility and validity of such “tests”….(Learners even report – can do in class, can’t do outside and my experience has been some learners CAN’T DO in class…but are high functioning outside! Go figure. ) The government’s own independent experts concluded that the (TASK BASED) PBLA assessments should NOT be used for assessments as they are subjective….
    Now PROJECT BASED LEARNING… that’s something I (and others) really like and do when I can! If I had space and time I’d share about that….

  2. Hi Claudie, thanks for your comment. Maybe we can connect over LinkedIn? I would be interested to hear more about the project based learning you are working with.

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