#ELTChat Summary: Task-Based Language Teaching [TBLT] (8/5/19)

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Introduction

Each ELT era has had a preferred teaching method, from grammar-translation to audiolingualism to PPP. To me, at least, TBLT seems to be the zietgiest of current ELT teaching. In this edition of #ELTchat, we discuss TBLT. However, due to various reasons, it seems that a lot of teachers don’t fully practice or are fully aware of what TBLT is. As one commentor succinctly mentions, she is “task-curious” [0.1].

We had 3 guest contributors, @NeilJMcCutchen, @neilpma74, and @GeofferyJordan who all thoroughly added their expertise to this subject. I’d like to personally share my gratitutde to each of you; it feels very rewarding to listen to very educated people share their expertise in my profession.

In this week’s #ELTchat, the discussion focused on 3 key themes: (1) What is TBLT?; (2) A discussion of tasks, and (3) Issues and Solutions of TBLT.

I highly encourage you to read the references I give, especially where prompted, as they give more detail about the topic than this summary could.

1. What is TBLT?

The discussion starts off with a definition of TBLT. @NeilJMcCutcheon states with he takes a broad view of TBLT: it’s a fluency first approach that “needn’t follow a … rigid framework” [1.1]. He further explains that the aim of the lesson focuses on a communicative task rather than “rehearing pre-selected language items” [1.2]. He also comments that teachers might have already have TBLT leanings in their teaching without knowing it.

@GeoffreyJordan and @JessBCM provide definitions from some scholars:

task = a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target language while ther attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form
Nunan, 2009
a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. In other words, by “task” is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and inbetween
Long, 1985
A task has four characteristics:

1. A task involves a primary focus on pragmatic meaning
2. A task has some kind of gap (information, reasoning, opinion gaps)
3. The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task
4. A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome.
Ellis, 2003

@JessBCM brings up an interesting point: how do we assess whether a task has been ‘completed’? Language is unpredictable and some authentic/real life tasks don’t have tangible goals, remain unfinished, or serve a higher function. For example, what about an aimless task such as small talk? What would the criteria for success be – if somebody doesn’t walk away? [1.3] @TESOLacademic replies that for Ellis and others, “TBLT completion usually involves a non linguistic outcome”. He references Jarvis 2015 for the practice of TBLT in MALL. More non linguistic outcomes might also include politeness, persuasiveness, empathy, or reading between the lines [1.4]

It was also discussed how similar TBLT is to other ELT approaches or methodologies. For example, @Marisa_C notes that some people call TBLT an “upside down PPP” [1.5]. This image by Jane Willis compares the two. On another note, @fionaljp questions how different the TBLT is from dogme if they both focus on student driven communication [1.6]. They do have similar elements, however TBLT has a clearer framework that supports lesson design. Further, dogme is less structured and the lesson can (or should?) go in any way the students take it. The outcome of dogme can be vague whereas the outcome of TBLT has a definite goal and outcome [1.7]. On another note, @PhillipMErasmus questions the relationship between TBLT and ELF. A focus on “getting the job done” and communication rather than an obsession with ‘linguistic accuracy’ (although the discussion of what standard English is and what accuracy inside that is is another topic) [1.8]

2. A discussion of TBLT tasks.

As stated before, the aim of a task is communication and fluency rather than accuracy. To this end, @neilpma74 notes that it is “important to recognise the value of scaffolding a task with supporting language.” [2.1]

@MarisaC notes that information gaps are limited and aren’t a good task. They seem to be more of a linguistic activity. Instead, opinion gaps and reasoning gaps, instead, are better alternatives. [2.2] Another way to create tasks might be to “problematise something” and create a task around finding the solution [2.3]. @SueAnnan likes to give students a fictional island in which they have to determine infrastructure, society, needs, etc. [2.4]. The communicative skills of negotiation, compromise, describing cause and effect, and more are all present here and authentic communication. Another important aspect of a good task-based lesson is the ability for the student to repeat the task. Conversely, an error that a lot of teachers make is a lack of repetition in the lesson (possible due to time) [2.5].

There is disagreement of how complex tasks should be, not only by #ELTchatters but also by academics. For a brief explanation of the differences between Robinson (2008) and Skehan (1998), please read Geoff Jordan’s comment. It is also important to consider the students: for instance, are they younger learners or presessional EAP/ESP students? Scott Thornbury talks about upping the ante each time (e.g. no notes, different partner, no prep time) to increase complexity through repetitons. Check quote 2.6 for a more thorough discussion [2.6].

A concern about the task-based lesson is how to deal with new emerging language that pertains to solving the task. @neilpma74 responds with a detailed explanation of I.C.E [2.7].

Jane Willis gives six types of TBL tasks here. More tasks might be found in Long, M (2015) Task-Based Language Teaching and Second Language Acquisition.

3. Issues and Solutions of TBLT

With the emergence of TBLT, it seems in comparison that PPP is the older but less useful relative. Despite this, PPP is still prevalent in the modern ELT industry. One of the reasons is the prominence of PPP on ITT courses which cements PPP in teachers. Another reason might be the state of the current ELT industry: short teaching hours; low/zero planning hours; low student motivation, and large classrooms simply make the PPP model more accessible than TBLT. @neilpma74 understands that there needs to be a bridge between SLA research and the realities of the ELT industry. He, among other commentors, propose a sort of ‘TBLT Light’ which follows a Task, Teach, Task model. Check quote 3.1 for a more thorough explanation [3.1].

Another aspect of the current ELT industry that opposes TBLT are coursebooks. Coursebooks don’t generally seem to promote TBLT, which might then lead to a lack of teacher knowledge and experience of TBLT. @SueAnnan thought that Cutting Edge had ‘TBL leanings” [3.2]. There was some discussion as to whether Cutting Edge actually has or intended to have TBLT. @MatsSupport notes that in her use, Cutting Edge has a task at the end of a unit which she revolves her teaching around [3.3].

Conclusions

As a teacher, I am given a lot of autonomy in my class. However, this comes at the expense of little to no guidance in my practice. I, as well as other teachers I’m sure, can feel like lesson planning can sometimes be a shot in the dark and praying for good results on the day. I am particularly pleased with this chat because despite studying it before, TBLT has become more demystified and accessible. Moreover, I am glad that the disconnect between SLA research (which may sometimes assume the ideal classroom? perfectly motivated students; ideal class size; adequate resources, etc.) and the realities of the various ELT classroom  was addressed. As a former proponent of PPP due to classroom circumstance, the suggestion of ‘TBLT light’ is something I am keen to implement into my class.

Further Links

 

 

 

 

Credits

Title Image: http://www.tblt.org/

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Author: Jonjo Murphy

ELT Teacher and lifelong student from the UK in Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @jonjoTESOL

4 thoughts on “#ELTChat Summary: Task-Based Language Teaching [TBLT] (8/5/19)”

  1. Thanks very much for this great summary, Jonjo. One small clarification.

    Robinson’s (2004) Cognitive hypothesis claims that increasing the cognitive demands of tasks by increasing their complexity along 2 dimensions (resource directing & resource dispersing) will;
    (a) push learners to greater accuracy and complexity of L2 production so as to meet the increasing demands of the tasks;
    (b) promote interaction, and heightened attention to input, thus increasing learning from the input, and incorporation of forms made salient in the input;
    (c) lead to longer term retention of input;
    (d) lead to automaticity by performing simple to complex sequences.

    The implication is that pedagogic tasks should be designed, and then sequenced for learners on the basis of increases in their cognitive complexity. We start with relatively simple tasks, and gradually increase their complexity so as to approximate to the full complexity of real-world target task demands.

    Robinson suggests the following stages:
    Stage 1: Resource-dispersing variables are made simple so as to promote access to, and consolidate, the learner’s current L2 interlanguage system. Lots of planning time; Familiar content; Few items. These demands are increased to target task levels helping the learner get increasingly automatic access to the current system in responding to task demands.
    Stage 2: Resource-directing variables are gradually increased to target-like levels. These direct learners’ attention and memory to aspects of the L2 system which are needed to encode more complex concepts, and to express more complex functional operations. This promotes development of the interlanguage system. Increasing these demands should lead to more accurate and complex learner production, more noticing of task relevant input, and heightened memory for it, and so lead to more uptake of forms made salient in the input through various focus on form intervention

    Skehan’s (1998) trade-off hypothesis questions Robinson’s assumption of unlimited attentional resources, claiming that these are, in fact, seriously limited, as a result of which learners will make a trade off between the accuracy, complexity and fluency of the language they use to do a task. Skehan & Foster have done studies where they’ve shown that planning can improve both accuracy & complexity.

    Robinson’s theory has at best mixed suppport from studies. It suffers from its proliferation of terms and general, ehem, complexity and seems counter-intuitive. Skehan’s hypothesis seems to me much more plausable, but it’s less powerful. More research is needed!!

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  2. Don’t want to take things off-topic, but am very puzzled by the idea that the current trend of the industry is ‘short teaching hours’. From what I can see, most teachers are teaching longer hours than 10 years ago, and certainly longer than what is optimal for CPD.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. My wording could have been better. I meant to say shorter classroom hours. Shorter classes = more classes = more students = more £££. In both public and private schools I’ve taught in, classes aren’t long. All this is anecdotal from my own experiences and stories I’ve heard.

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      1. Ah I see. Well I guess that raises an interesting question that deserves its own thread : what is an optimal length of a language class in different contexts?

        Personally, I’m of the view that much over an hour and learners get a bit cognitively burned out in many cases.

        To return to the topic a bit, the more task based, the longer they can be for sure, because a different kind of energy is at work

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