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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT): An Action Research

 

 

 

Luke O’Duffy is a Teacher of Adults at the British Council in Seoul, Korea.  He recently completed the Trinity Diploma in TESOL and has been teaching in South Korea for five years.  His professional interests include TBLT, error correction and pragmatics.  Email: luke.o’duffy@britishcouncil.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

This is an account of an action research cycle undertaken as part of the Trinity Diploma in TESOL. The topic of the research was task-based language teaching (TBLT), which was chosen for two reasons: my own personal development as a teacher and the needs of my learners. Ten lessons were taught using an explicitly TBLT framework and task types. The two specific objectives I had set were both achieved. Other benefits and drawbacks of using TBLT in my context were also noted, enabling me to draw up a list of nine “rules of thumb” for using this approach in future.

I hope the rules of thumb in particular might be useful for any teacher interested in using TBLT, especially in a general English class with adult learners.

 

Rationale for topic and objectives

This was informed by both developmental and learner considerations, supported by the available literature.

Teacher’s personal development

1. Prior to the research, the vast majority of my lessons followed a PPP-style approach in which language items are pre-selected, taught inductively and practised before a final communicative task.  Although the final element is certainly influenced by TBLT, my background reading made it clear to me that many methodologists would consider this quite “weak” TBLT and would recommend instead a “strong” or “pure” form.  Pure TBLT posits that “learning should emerge from the tasks rather than preceding them” (Harmer, 2007, 73).  The framework I decided to use was Jane Willis’s influential Pre-task – Task cycle – Language focus (1996, 56-8), which she describes as “PPP the right way up” (Willis, 1996, 62).  I felt that gaining confidence using this framework would improve my flexibility as a teacher.

2. Reflecting on my own doubts about TBLT, it was necessary to add a second objective (see below).  A former colleague of mine had strongly suggested that TBLT should mainly be used for discussion and decision-making tasks e.g. organizing a party.  I felt that for TBLT to be a useful tool for me going forward, it would have to be useful for a wider range of tasks, and so I aimed to teach the six task types listed below.

3. I felt there was not enough genuine communication in my lessons, especially considering the strong evidence supporting Michael Long’s Interaction Hypothesis, which states that negotiation of meaning (NoM) is vital for acquisition (Mitchell, Myles & Marsden, 2013, 48).  Long is a staunch advocate of TBLT due to its “reactive quality … [which] means that the timing of attention to grammar is more likely to be developmentally appropriate and occur at the most propitious moment” (2016, 17).  I felt TBLT could promote interaction during my lessons.

 

Learner needs

1. Student feedback at British Council Korea continually suggests that our learners would like greater variety in their lessons.  I reasoned that pure TBLT could be one way of achieving this and could be used to give learners a wider variety of language experiences.

2. I had a growing conviction that my learners should have greater control of the language they learn in class.  This belief was fueled by statements such as “[r]esearch suggests that … the topics that learners remember best (i.e. their uptake) are those raised by other learners” (Thornbury, 2017, 289), as well as my own observations that autonomous, self-directed learners usually improve faster than others.  TBLT supporters argue that it increases learner control: for example, Richard Frost, listing the advantages of the method, notes “the students are free of language control” and “the language explored arises from the students’ needs” (2004). 

 

Definitions

While perhaps the most comprehensive definition of task is provided by Ellis (2003, 16), for me the most pedagogically useful was the six questions from Willis and Willis (2007):

“The more confidently you can answer yes to each of these questions, the more task-like the activity:

1. Will the activity engage learners’ interest?

2. Is there a primary focus on meaning?

3. Is there a goal or an outcome?

4. Is success judged in terms of outcome?

5. Is completion a priority?

6. Does the activity relate to real world examples?”

I adopted this definition, combined with Jane Willis’s taxonomy of six task types (2008B): listing and brainstorming; ordering and sorting; matching; comparing; problem-solving; and sharing personal experiences and storytelling.

 

Objectives

1. To implement a task-based approach to give learners greater control of the language focused on in class and promote interaction.

2. To use a range of different task types to give students a variety of language experiences and develop my ability to use TBLT

 

Background

Ten classes using the TBLT framework and six task types mentioned above were taught at the British Council in Korea for 900 minutes in total.  Each 90-minute class was part of a general English course for adults called “myClass”, which has a flexible booking system and usually focuses on improving speaking skills. I taught Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate and Advanced lessons, but not Elementary due to the skepticism in the literature about the effectiveness of TBLT at this level (see Littlewood, 2007, 244 for an example of the skepticism).  Questionnaires were distributed to students after L9 and L10 so that they could give their opinions on the effectiveness of the method.

 

Lesson records

Lesson No.

Date

Time

Level

Task type (Willis)

L1

29.12.2018

4pm-5.30pm

Intermediate

Listing

L2

3.1.2019

6.30pm-8pm

Intermediate

Comparing

L3

3.1.2019

8.15pm-9.45pm

Upper-Intermediate

Ordering and sorting

L4

10.1.2019

2.30pm – 4pm

Intermediate

Sharing personal experiences and story-telling

L5

11.1.2019

6.30pm – 8pm

Pre-Intermediate

Problem solving

L6

17.1.2019

8.15-9.45pm

Upper-Intermediate

Matching

L7

23.1.2019

8.15 – 9.45pm

Intermediate

Sharing personal experiences & story-telling

L8

30.1.2019

8.15 – 9.45pm

Intermediate

Listing

L9

31.1.2019

8.15 – 9.45pm

Upper-Intermediate

Ranking

L10

2.2.2019

10 – 11.30am

Advanced

Comparing

 

Evaluation

Objective 1

This was achieved because all ten lessons used pure TBLT, albeit with some modifications (see the nine “rules of thumb” below).  Students undoubtedly had more language control than usual for the following reasons:

1. They asked me for language much more often.

2. This language was often recycled and shaped later lesson content e.g. “tactile paving” (L1).

3. Useful student language was often shared with the whole class e.g. “I don’t get it” (L3).

4. Students spoke much more, including formal reports.

5. L1-L6 either did not have a planned language focus or I did not insist on focusing on it in class, since “the teacher [shouldn’t] pre-determine what language will be studied” (Frost, 2004).  This was replaced with more on-the-spot error correction.

However, after L6, I deliberately chose to reduce the amount of student control, in response to a classic TBLT difficulty: “how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?” (Thornbury, 2017, 277).  Before L7, I reflected that the most successful lesson had been L4, in which I had introduced a planned skills focus after the task cycle and then repeated the task.  This reflection dovetailed with student complaints in L3 and L5 that they had not learned enough “language”.  Therefore, in L7-L10, I predetermined a language focus, did a controlled practice and repeated the task, an approach which gave much more salience to the language focus and received positive feedback in the student questionnaires.

Interaction was also promoted in the following ways:

1. Defined outcomes for tasks led to much more NoM, such as clarification requests.

2. The reporting stage clearly promoted NoM, as students made great efforts to understand what their partners had said before reporting it.

3. Students also had to engage in genuine communication when listening to others’ reports, for instance when voting on who had the strictest parents in L2.

However, from listening to occasional negative student feedback and having discussions with local staff, I gathered that many of my students might not see interaction as beneficial.  Rather than believing NoM is the stuff of language acquisition, they are more likely to believe that other students’ language is simply “wrong”, especially if those students are weaker than them, and may prefer to hear more of the teacher’s “right”.  This belief is hard to shift and teachers should accommodate it to some degree.

 

Objective 2

I succeeded in using all six task types at least once:

1. Listing and brainstorming: L1, L8.

2. Ordering and sorting: L3, L9.

3. Matching: L6.

4. Comparing: L2, L10.

5. Problem-solving: L5.

6. Sharing personal experiences and storytelling: L4, L7.

 

These tasks gave learners a range of language experiences beyond the “organize a party”-type tasks that are synonymous with TBLT.  For example, the five most successful lessons focused respectively on speaking skills (L4), grammar (L7) and vocabulary (L8-L10); moreover, I used webquests effectively in L3 & L10.  My preparation time decreased as I became more confident about lesson design and quicker at adapting tasks to the Willis & Willis criteria (see “Definitions” above).  The only exception to this was the matching task (L6), as it was time-consuming to find photographs or headings that match a text while giving an appropriate level of challenge.  It seems to me that “matching” tasks are the most challenging to create.

 

Other benefits

1. Task performance improved as it truly felt like the focus of the lesson, especially when the task was repeated.

2. Reporting stages enabled students to practise informal and formal registers each lesson, which was praised enthusiastically by one student in her questionnaire responses.

3. Students felt the benefits of “noticing the gap” between their own language and that of native speakers, as shown by two positive questionnaire comments to this effect.

4. Students found all the classes enjoyable: a recurring word in the feedback (both oral and in the questionnaires) was “interesting”.

 

Other drawbacks

1. “The teacher’s role in TBLT requires greater expertise, and is more important, more demanding and certainly more communicative than in PPP” (Long, 2016, 24).  I found this to be true, especially for time management, since several early tasks overran.  I remedied this by disciplining myself to start the Language Focus stage after no more than 60 minutes.

2. Although I became much faster at preparing the lessons, it was still very time-consuming when I had to create my own post-task listening (L5, L7 & L10).  However, it was also very rewarding.

 

Conclusions

I was satisfied that I achieved my objectives and am now confident supplementing my lessons with TBLT lessons.  Along the way, I developed three other skills:

1. I became more confident composing and recording my own listening texts.  Now that I know I can grade these and make them rich enough for effective mining, I will not hesitate to compose more in future.

2. I developed new techniques to make activities more communicative, such as by asking students to vote on each other’s reports or identify the student most similar to them by listening carefully.  I have continued to use these techniques in non-TBL lessons and am now much more sensitive to communicativeness in the classroom.

3. I became better able to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of a lesson, and adapt lessons to learners in my context.  This is shown by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from students in their questionnaires, and the “rules of thumb” I was able to devise (see below).

 

Future implications

The benefits of deep-end TBLT outweigh the drawbacks for my learners and since completing the research, I have used it much more frequently in my teaching, with the main constraints being preparation time and learner beliefs. To accommodate my learners’ beliefs, I have adopted TBLT as part of a principled eclecticism and I try to abide by the following nine “rules of thumb” that emerged from my reflections on the ten lessons:

1. Repeat the task after the language focus.  The lesson feels incomplete otherwise, and its usefulness is widely accepted, (Long, 2016, 11).

2. Have a clear language focus prepared before the lesson, including a controlled practice.  This contradicts traditional TBLT methodology (see Frost 2004), but is the most practical way to give salience to language features.

3. Inform students of the lesson format at the beginning of the class.  Several aspects of TBLT are likely to be unfamiliar, such as the reporting stage and delayed language focus.

4. Perform copious error correction throughout the lesson.  This is what students expect, even if correction during the task cycle is expressly discouraged by Willis (1996, 56).

5. Restrict the timing of the reporting stage.  Reports should last no longer than two minutes, otherwise other students lose interest.

6. Include the reporting stage nevertheless.  At least some students value it, and they are even more motivated if it is referred to as a “formal presentation”.

7. Record a bespoke post-task listening before class if the existing text is not sufficiently similar to what was required in the task.

8. Be disciplined about starting the language focus on time.

9. Include a checklist at the end so that students know what they have achieved.  TBLT lessons risk the students leaving without a sense of how they have improved.

 

Bibliography

British Council (2008).  Personas Project.

Ellis, R. (2003).  Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford.

Frost, R. (2004).  A task-based approach.  Retrieved from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/a-task-based-approach.

Harmer, J. (2007).  The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006).  TESOL methods: Changing tracks, challenging trends.  TESOL Quarterly Vol 40.

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2013).  How languages are learned. Oxford.

Littlewood, W. (2007).  Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms.  Language Teaching Vol. 40.

Long, M. (2016).  In defense of tasks and TBLT: nonissues and real issues.  Annual Review of Applied Linguistics.

McDonough, K. & Chaikitmongkol, W. (2007).  Teachers’ and learners’ reactions to a task-based EFL course in Thailand.  TESOL Quarterly Vol. 41.

Mitchell, R., Myles, F., & Marsden, E. (2013). Second language learning theories.  Routledge.

Nunan, D. (2004).  Task-based language teaching. Cambridge.

Swan, M. (2005).  Legislation by hypothesis.  Applied Linguistics Vol 26.

Thornbury, S. (2017).  The New A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts.  Macmillan.

Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007).  Doing task-based teaching. Oxford.

Willis, J. (1996).  A flexible framework for task-based learning in Willis, J. & Willis, D. (eds) Challenge and change in language teaching. Macmillan.

Willis, J. (2008A).  Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL.  Retrieved from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/criteria-identifying-tasks-tbl

Willis, J. (2008B).  Six types of task for TBL.  Retrieved from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/six-types-task-tbl

 

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

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