Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach – Week 1

I started a new course last week, quite unexpectedly. I am a huge fan of task-based language teaching (TBLT), and I have wanted to learn more about it for a long time – ever since completing Delta Module 1. I read Doing Task-based Teaching (2007) by Willis and Willis about a year ago and had my mind blown – I highly recommend it to anyone interested in TBLT. It was then and there that I realised that I wanted to take this further and integrate more tasks in my classes. Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to take it too much further until now. The University of London is running a free course on teaching reading through TBLT on Coursera, and I will aim to give you all a run-down of what we have covered in the first week, some of my thoughts, and the assignment we had to complete.

Before we go into that, however, let’s test your knowledge! Try to answer the following questions.

What is TBLT?

What is a task?

What are some benefits and challenges of TBLT?

What is TBLT?

This is the logical starting point for a TBLT course, and it was good revision. So, what is TBLT? Could you define it? The short answer is an approach in language teaching, but that doesn’t really capture its true meaning. So, try this definition out for size:

TBLT is a student-centred approach to language teaching that encourages learners to carry out tasks in which meaning is primary, where there is some noticeable gap or communicative problem that needs to be solved, and where there is some kind of defined communicative outcome.

What is a task?

Another difficult component of TBLT that is difficult to define. The one thing that is clear is that there are certain criteria that need to be met for an activity to be called a task. Skehan (1996) created the following list:

  • meaning is primary
  • there is some communicative problem to solve
  • there is some sort of relationship with real-world activities
  • the assessment of the task is in terms of task outcome

It is from these criteria that I created my own little definition of TBLT, as you can imagine. But these criteria are not everything we need to know; rather, there are a number of task dichotomies we need to be aware of. Let’s take a look at them now.

Target vs. Pedagogic tasks: Target tasks are everyday, real-world tasks that people do in their lives (e.g. complete a job application) while pedagogic tasks are simpler versions of these target tasks, made for classroom instruction (Long, 1985).

One-way vs. Two-way tasks: In one-way tasks, one learner has most of the information that needs to be conveyed or shared, and they do most of the speaking or writing while the other learner(s) indicate whether they understand or can follow (e.g. someone giving directions). In two-way tasks, however, both learners (or a whole group) work together and need to participate to successfully complete the task (e.g. spot the difference tasks).

Open vs. Closed tasks: Open tasks have no predetermined outcome (e.g. create a story with a set of images, but there is no predetermined order) while closed tasks do (e.g. spot the difference tasks).

Convergent vs. Divergent tasks: Convergent tasks require the learners to reach an agreement on the outcome (e.g. group needs to decide how much money to allocate to school budgets) while divergent tasks do not require learners to agree (e.g. learners discuss and create a list of pros and cons of solar energy).

Focused vs. Unfocused tasks: Focused tasks are those that are created to induce a certain linguistic feature (e.g. spot the difference is likely to elicit questions) whereas unfocused tasks have no language focus (Ellis, 2013).

Input-based vs. Output-based tasks: Output-based tasks require learners to produce, i.e. speak or write, language in order to successfully complete a task while input-based tasks require learners to interact with language through reading and listening during task work.

Task-based or Task-supported teaching?

Another distinction that is quite important is that of task-based and task-supported teaching. Task-based teaching is basically doing pure TBLT – this is your approach to language teaching and there is nothing else. In task-based teaching, you carry out a needs analysis and then create tasks for your learners based on the findings. Again and again.

This contrasts with task-supported teaching which is when tasks are integrated into other, perhaps more eclectic approaches to teaching. On the course they use the example of having task days – basically saying that two or three days a week are going to be TBLT-focused while the rest could be course book work or something else.

So, if you ask me I think the pure version of TBLT is a little scary to most teachers simply due to the workload. Carrying out a needs analysis for every class is something that should be done anyway, however the creation of tasks is something that I can see taking a very long time and a lot of sitting down thinking about how to put it all together. Furthermore, trying to make something like this fit in line with learner perspectives of formative and summative assessments, exam preparation, etc. could be difficult. With this in mind, I can see task-supported teaching perhaps being the best way forward for most teachers, myself included. I think it’s a good in-between, getting the best of both world. I’d love to hear your thoughts – what do you think?

Benefits of using TBLT

  • Research shows that instruction is more effective for acquisition when it is meaning-focused. Tasks are, by definition, meaning-focused.
  • Tasks provide a great springboard to language focused instruction.
  • Tasks are relevant both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Tasks are student-centred and thus encourage more engagement
  • Experiential learning, i.e. learning by doing, is a very effective way to learn and create stronger connections between language and meaning.

Some challenges of TBLT

  • Quite difficult to find a lot of ready-made tasks that a relevant to all learners
  • The creation of tasks takes time and ‘thinking’
  • Depending on the teaching context, task-based teaching may not be what learners expect teaching to be

Peer assessment task – information sheet

The course assignments are optional; however, if you would like to get the certificate at the end you need to complete them – plus they are a great way to solidify your learning and show your understanding. For the first week we had to create an information sheet for teachers with the ‘bare bones’ of TBLT as the teachers do not have much time to read. We were given a limit of 300-400 words. I found the word limit to be extremely restrictive, but it did make me think about how to get as much important information across as quickly and efficiently as possible. You can find my assignment here below:

Final thoughts

The first week has been insightful and I have certainly refined my understanding of TBLT and what actually constitutes a task. The course itself is focused on TBLT and reading, i.e. input-based tasks, so I imagine the focus from now on out will be reading and how to integrate and use these tasks. Very happy so far and looking forward to what comes next!

References

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8, 1-27.

Long, M. H. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: task-based language teaching. In Hyltenstam, K. & Pienemann, M. (Eds.), Modeling and assessing second language development (pp. 77-99). Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Skehan, P. (1996). A framework for implementation of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17, 38-62.

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