Review: Task-Based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice – Ellis, Skehan, Li, Shintani and Lambert.

For those of you that have been following me, you know I’ve been going deeper into task-based language teaching (TBLT). I recently reviewed Anderson and McCutcheon’s fantastic Activities for Task-Based Learning and I recently finished a course focused on Reading in a task-based classroom. Alongside these, I’ve also been reading – well, now finished reading – Ellis, et al.’s (2020) Task-Based Language Teaching. It is thick, some 414 pages, but geez was it a read. It look me a little while to get through but I think it is has been one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read.

Three-sentence summary

Split into five parts, the book aims to give the reader a very wide overview and deep understanding of task-based language teaching from numerous perspectives. Ellis et al. take us on a journey all the way from theoretical perspectives to points that need to be addressed as TBLT moves forward. Anyone reading this should expect to come away with one hell-of-an understanding of TBLT, the research that supports TBLT, the arguments for and against (and responses to) as well as a clearer picture regarding how TBLT might be implemented in their teaching context.

Three takeaways

I don’t know why I make my life difficult by limiting myself to only three, but here goes:

  1. TBLT is very evidence-based: While reading this book you get taken through a substantial amount of SLA research that focuses on TBLT and its components as well as other methods and approaches. Some of the really interesting points I noted include:
    • Different task types may influence the kinds of interaction that takes place between learners, especially regarding negotiation of meaning and negotiation of form. For example, it has been shown that learners are more likely to negotiate meaning in information-gap tasks when compared to opinion-gap tasks (Long, 1980; Foster, 1998).
    • More complex tasks are more likely to see learners engage in Language Related Episodes (LREs), which are basically moments when learners discuss the language they are using together (e.g. clarifying doubts about forms). It should be said here, however, that task complexity is very difficult to ascertain. Ellis et al. present a load of research that indicates one thing and then other research that indicates another. It is still one of the points I am not sure about.
    • TBLT holds it own against other methods and approaches regarding acquisition of grammatical features. Throughout the later part of the book, TBLT is compared to other methods and approaches, with the predominant method in focus being the ever-popular PPP. Many studies have shown that TBLT is just as effective at developing learners grammatical accuracy and far superior at developing fluency and complexity. The point that was made was that while PPP is ‘generally’ structural in nature and aims to develop learners’ grammatical accuracy, TBLT does not ‘aim to do this’; rather, it relies on Focus on Form (corrective feedback based on learners linguistic needs in the moment) and implicit learning to develop grammatical accuracy. As such, one would expect TBLT to be less effective at developing grammatical accuracy.
    • TBLT may be more effective than PPP for vocabulary acquisition. In another comparative study between TBLT and PPP, Shintani (2015) was able to show that while the PPP lessons in the study did help learners acquire certain nouns and adjectives, the TBLT lessons were more successful regarding retention and quality of vocabulary use. She explained this using cognitive load theory, namely the ‘need’, ‘search’, and ‘evaluate’ paradigm. In the PPP lessons, learners needed to use the items, but were not involved in searching for them as the meanings were provided by the teacher. The TBLT lessons saw learners not only need the items but engage in the search for meaning of the unknown items. Both PPP and TBLT engaged learners in evaluation, although PPP did so in a restrictive manner because it was dependent on teacher’s feedback. TBLT, on the other hand, saw learners engage much more deeply in evaluation as they had to evaluate words based on breakdowns in communication.
    • 1 – 5 minutes planning aids in complexity and fluency: Studies have shown that planning in the pre-task phase can increase the level of complexity and fluency in tasks, although not accuracy (in great amounts). The reason for this is that learners generally plan the content of what they would like to produce rather than language. So, what about time? Well, some research has shown that less than one-minute of planning time is ineffective, whilst anything more than five minutes seems to be a waste in that it does not produce greater results. The conclusion to be drawn here is that planning time is good, perhaps needed, and should be kept between 1 and 5 minutes, although with YLs, shorter times are better, e.g. 1 – 3 minutes.
    • Some research indicates that pre-task Focus on Forms can actually be detrimental to task performance: In a study conducted by Ellis, Li and Zhu (2018), they showed that pre-task instruction of grammar (in this case English passive voice) encouraged learners to focus more on the form and less on the task. They showed that learners produced the ‘target language’ more often but the pre-task instruction did not increase accuracy of form. A common theme amongst all TBLT proponents seems to be that anything done in the pre-task stage needs to be very carefully thought through because we don’t want the task integrity to be jeopardised, i.e. learners attending to form instead of meaning.
    • Modelling can have a powerful effect on learners and task performance: Ellis et al. talk about how modelling of tasks can scaffold learners in their task performances. They recommend that tasks be modelled, but not in their exact form. That is to say that the tasks learners are going to do should not be the modelled tasks – they should be slightly different. Models can also be a great way to introduce grammatical forms implicitly for focused tasks!
    • Corrective feedback is super important: Not only do learners need corrective feedback, they want it! Long (2015) noted that online corrective feedback actually motivates learners to attend to form whilst trying to communicate meaning. There is a lot of research that has been carried out on during task, online corrective feedback. Much of it suggests that explicit feedback is better than implicit feedback, with prompts being much more effective than recasts. This is not to say that everything is done and dusted. Much research still needs to be done on offline (after the fact) feedback, and in fact Ellis et al. recommend providing mixed corrective feedback, using prompts, recasts, questions, etc.
  2. TBLT is not simply speaking – and not only for higher levels: There is this misconception that TBLT is a ‘speaking’ approach to language teaching. TBLT focuses on both input- and output-based tasks, in which meaning is always central and learners need to use their linguistics resources to reach some kind of goal. It should be said that TBLT allows for speaking and communication in many of the tasks, including input-based (which are listening and reading tasks). However, TBLT is not necessarily done in pairs or groups either. In fact, Ellis et al. talk about how TBLT can be used with complete beginners, including YLs, and how this can only be done through input-based tasks (e.g. read/listen and do).
  3. L1 can be used effectively in TBLT: So, one of the biggest criticisms against TBLT is the fact that learners often revert to their L1 (when in monolingual classrooms). This is natural and, depending on your predisposition, perhaps necessary. One way to get around this is task repetition. By allowing learners, especially very low-level learners, to carry out the task the first time in English while being supplemented with L1, you effectively allow them to conceptualise the task more effectively and identify their own linguistic deficiencies. Through Focus on Form and assistance, learners can then complete the task successfully in future attempts. I like how Ellis et al. make note towards the real-life perspective of bilingual education. The reality is that many learners and users of English may be able to use their L1 to their advantage in real-life situations. With this in mind, we shouldn’t stigmatise L1 use; rather, we should use it to help learners see where they can improve or what they need to learn.

What I liked

  • Ellis et al. take the time to build the reader’s understanding of TBLT from numerous perspectives. In Part 2, we look at TBLT from five different perspectives (cognitive-interactionist, psycholinguistic, sociocultural, psychological and educational), and it is really interesting to see how these work together or even at times are conflicting (e.g. cognitive-interactionist vs. sociocultural perspectives). This part takes a little while to get your head around, but you come away with a much ‘bigger’ picture of what TBLT is.
  • There is plenty of up-to-date research. Many books I have read are quite old (I often can’t afford the latest ones!) and so being able to read a book that was released last year and that is full of ‘new’ research was quite refreshing.
  • Ellis et al. don’t hold back any punches. It is very clear that the writers have strong opinions, but these are backed up by serious research – and they show it. But more than that, the writers go through and examine research almost to the point of being extreme. What I mean by this is that with many of the studies that have been carried out, the writers go through and analyse the methodological soundness. This was done for both studies in favour and against TBLT. They are very critical and point to areas of improvement for most of the studies. This is something that I have not done a lot of and it has made me rethink research. That is, often I go straight to the conclusions sections of a paper without going over the methodology.
  • There are many take-aways for teachers. So, you might be thinking that this book is just for SLA fans or budding linguists. Not necessarily true. I could say that a lot of the book is very interesting but not necessarily relevant to classroom practices, but then again I have found much of it relevant to my practice. This being said, I would say that the one chapter teachers should read if they read any of it is Methodology of task-based language teaching. This chapter goes through the details of the pre-, during- and post-task phases, and gives plenty of ideas, backed up by research, regarding what can be done and why.
  • The book presents the challenges and way forward for TBLT. The proponents of TBLT openly admit that there are many areas within TBLT methodology that need further research and ‘refinement’. This book has a whole chapter on things where TBLT could improve or more research would be beneficial to teachers and learners.

What I didn’t like

As usual there is not a lot that I didn’t like, but a few things do spring to mind.

  • Many of the concepts that are presented in the book require another book to really understand them. This is not so much a criticism of this book, but rather a struggle of my own to remember all of the models presented. There are quite a few presented in this book and it was difficult to keep track of them all.
  • As with most ELT-related books, I really enjoy completing end-of-chapter tasks. This book does not have any tasks and perhaps there was scope for them to be included, although the book would have been even much larger.
  • There were a few publishing errors with misspellings and incorrect reference dates. This is a minor thing, but it annoyed me for some reason.
  • While there were a number of lesson ‘plans’ presented in the book, it would have been nice to see more teacher perspectives, not only research perspectives, on their implementation. That is, how they were done time and again, what variations they used, reasons why they worked, etc.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers who use tasks: So whether you have a task-based syllabus or a task-supported syllabus (or you simply want to start using tasks), I would recommend reading, at a minimum, Chapter 8: Methodology of task-based language teaching.
  • Trainers: TBLT is not an approach that can be ignored in the modern day language classroom (in my opinion). Teachers are becoming more curious about it, course books are incorporating more and more task-based methodology into their design, and assessment practices are moving closer and closer to task-based, or at least task-like, assessment. With this in mind, trainers need to have a good understanding of the principles that underpin TBLT, the rationale for its use, and knowledge of how it can actually be implemented in various contexts and with different age groups. Perhaps there is not a need to read the whole book; however, parts 3 – 5 would certainly be beneficial as they provide the reader with the critical information.
  • Materials writers: It is interesting that many course books nowadays incorporate tasks in their design. With this in mind, I would encourage writers to look at task complexity (and how difficult it is to measure), task design, and the importance of input- and output-based tasks. Much of the book focuses on these factors.
  • Researchers: I think much of this book is directed at SLA researchers and asking them almost to take the research further. Pretty much all of it is relevant in this regard, but certainly parts 2 and 4.
  • Syllabus designers: This seems to be another logical choice regarding who should read this book. Around the world in many contexts, certain people are in charge of developing and implementing syllabi. Tasks often make up a good part of modern language teaching syllabi, and so I would certainly recommend that those in charge of this read this book and look at why a task-based, or at least task-supported syllabus, is superior in many aspect to the more traditional structural syllabus.
  • Delta and DipTESOL candidates: For those taking on diploma-level courses, parts 3 – 5 of this book would be very useful as they look at the methodological perspectives as well as issues and criticisms (and responses to) of TBLT.

Final notes

There is so much information in this book – I have probably close to 150 post-it page markers telling me what I need to remember. With this in mind, I will aim to go through and review my notes over the coming weeks. I can imagine that the size of this book may put some people off reading it, but for those of us really interested in implementing TBTL from a research-based perspective, then I believe it is worthwhile. This is not to say that once you have read this book you will know everything about TBLT – far from it. Rather, it will help you implement TBLT in a much easier manner (for the most part).

I actually have Long’s (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching sitting on my desk – thank you for the birthday present, Patrick! I look forward to reading it (when I get the chance to do so) and comparing notes and perspectives. One of the things that is quite clear in Ellis et al.’s book is that whilst many of the proponents see eye to eye on many things, there are also many aspects of TBLT that are viewed differently depending on who you speak to (e.g. Focus on Form vs. Focus on Forms or the need for an in-depth needs analysis). When I do, I’ll let you all know what I think!

If you do decide to read this book, I would love to hear your opinion. Did you enjoy it as much as I have? Are there any points that you agree or disagree with? Feel free to let me know!

And if any of the authors read my review and feel I’ve got anything wrong or would like to discuss any of the points mentioned, please get in touch!

Book details

Title: Task-Based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice

Authors: Rod Ellis, Peter Shehan, Shaofeng Li, Natsuko Shintani and Craig Lambert.

ISBN: 9781 1087 1389 4

Pages: 414

Amazon link

References

Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N. & Lambert, C. (2020). Task-Based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foster, P. (1998). A classroom perspective on the negotiation of meaning. Applied Linguistics 19, 1-23.

Long, M. (1980). Input, interaction and second language acquisition. Unpublished PhD Dissertation University of California at Los Angeles.

Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Shintani, N. (2015). The incidental grammar acquisition in focus on form and focus on forms instruction for young learners. TESOL Quarterly 49, 115-140.

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