Task-based Language Teaching

Task-based Language Teaching


1. How TBLT started         

       TBLT started in the 1970s when scholars argued that language instruction should teach both grammar and meaning (Skehan, 2003). The field widely takes Prabhu as one of the first proponents for tasks or TBLT when he started the approach in teaching secondary school classes in Bangalore, India in the 1970s (Ellis, 2003; Long & Crooks, 1992; Shehadeh, 2005). From then on, TBLT began to be recognized and widely discussed in language teaching and research in Second Language Acquisition (SLA).

       Some of its proponents (e.g., Willis, 1996) believe that TBLT develops from communicative Language Teaching (CLT), the predominant language teaching approach since the 1970s, because TBLT shares the same several principles with CLT. From the 1980s, “task” and “task-based language teaching/instruction” have become increasingly preferred terms to those of  “communicative activity” or “communicative language teaching” (Bygate, Skehan, & Swain, 2001; Crooks & Chaudron, 2001; Kumaravadivelu, 2006; Skehan, 2003).  

       Though TBLT is argued to have originated from CLT, it has its own rationales from different philosophies and approaches toward language instruction. Nowadays TBLT is a broad term, which involves not only research and teaching, but testing and curriculum design in SLA. Crooks and Gass (1993) claim that TBLT is mainly used in two areas: “first, as an aspect of the research methodology used in studies of second language acquisition (SLA) from the beginning of the 1980s, and second, as a concept used in second language curriculum design from the middle of the 1980s” (p.1). Recently Samuda and Bygate (2008) go beyond SLA and illustrate TBLT from an educational perspective. According to Samuda and Bygate (2008), “by 1913 Dewey was arguing that classroom learning needed to be focused and shaped so that it met the personally held interests that pupils brought with them, and the ends that they held in sight” (p. 19). That is, classroom learning should be connected with students’ personal experiences, or classroom teaching should be authentic. The implication is that “we need to seek out new ways of teaching so that the content is accessible, useful and relevant given the levels of experience and understanding of learners” (Samuda & Bygate, 2008, p. 20).

2. Defining tasks

       Contrary to CLT, which has never been assigned a clear definition in the field of SLA, “task” in TBLT has been defined albeit in various ways. From the 1980s to now, more than 20 definitions of task have been offered in the literature by the researchers from different research perspectives. From its initial use in the literature in the early 1980s up to today, the concept has been associated with relating with real world activities, focusing on meaning and focusing on form, and finally comes to the comprehensive definitions after 2000. In the following, three definitions are selected to indicate the changes in people’s conception about tasks or task-based language teaching.


A task is a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus, examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, taking a hotel reservation, writing a check, finding a street destination, and helping someone across a road. In other words, by “task” is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between. “Tasks” are the things people will tell you they do if you ask them and they are not applied linguists. (Long, 1985, p.89)  


[A task is] a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on mobilizing their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to manipulate form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand along as a communicative act in its own right. (Nunan, 2004, p.4)


Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is an educational framework for the theory and practice of teaching second or foreign languages. It is based on a constellation of ideas issuing from philosophy of education, theories of second language acquisition, empirical findings on effective instructional techniques, and the exigencies of language learning in contemporary society. Though there is broad interest in the potential value of TBLT to foster worthwhile language teaching and learning, there is also considerable diversity in the theoretical scope, applied practice, and research that corresponds with the TBLT name. (TBLT 2007; TBLT 2009)


3. Limitations of TBLT

        Although TBLT has been in existence for around 30 years and still widely discussed nowadays (e.g. TBLT 2007; TBLT 2009), there have been some critiques about it in the literature.

3.1. The context for TBLT

       Skehan (2003) acknowledges that TBLT “tends to be with adults (and some adolescents), generally at intermediate proficiency levels, and mostly with English as the target language” (p.3), or TBLT is oriented toward those who “have already been taught more language than they can use” (Swan, 2005a, p.255). For example, Nunan’s (2004) framework for task design is directed at intermediate-level and adolescents (one of the required readings for this topic). However, “if one is seeking an efficient way of improving one’s elementary command of a foreign language, sustained conversation and linguistic speculation with other elementary learners would scarcely be one’s first choice” (Swan, 2005b, p.390). As a result, the research of TBLT has focused on ESL adult classes, but little attention has been paid to TBLT on children or in EFL or FL contexts (Carless, 2003; 2004).

       On the other hand, although it is not a new idea to connect learning with real life in education, it might not be so good to apply it in language learning, especially in a foreign language context for children. Not very much research has been done in this area yet. However, Carless’ research (2002; 2003; 2004) on TBLT in Hong Kong elementary schools doesn’t find evidence to support TBLT’s superiority to other language pedagogies in teaching a foreign language to children. In fact, TBLT might negatively affect children’s foreign language learning since children are overburdened with learning a foreign language and performing tasks concurrently, and they may not be able to balance the two.

3.2. Interactions in TBLT

       Among all rationales for TBLT, interaction hypothesis is perhaps the most fundamental and essential. However, there are some critiques on interactions in TBLT.

       First, “much communication (in TBLT, my note) is lexical in nature” (Skehan, 1996, p.41), and “there is a general tendency to minimize linguistic forms” in learners’ interactions (Seedhouse, 1999, p.152). That is, learners’ verbal interactions tend to be short and simple. They may just communicate by doing, and use words or phrases only when it is very necessary for task performance. Complete sentences are rare. Second, TBLT focuses on fluency but neglects accuracy or more new input by relying on interactions to facilitate L2 acquisition (e.g. Ellis, 2000; Swan, 2005a, 2005b). With communication strategies and strategies of comprehension, learners detect meanings from the target language and ignore or neglect the forms (Skehan, 1996). Third, interactions in TBLT may be imbalanced when the participants do not have the same L2 proficiency. The learners of higher L2 proficiency may speak more and even dominate the communication, while the learners of lower L2 proficiency speak less and even very little.

4. Task design

       Little work has been done to explore and illustrate the process of task design and implementation. In the literature, Nunan (2004) and Willis and Willis (2007) are among the few who offer a framework for task design or give examples to illustrate how to design a task. These are the two required readings for TBLT this week.

       Nunan (2004) offers a framework which consists of six steps for task design and implementation: “schema building”, “controlled practice”, “authentic listening practice”, “focus on linguistic elements”, “provide freer practice”, and “introduce the pedagogical task”. Since this framework is developed from Nunan’s own 1989 work and his own teaching experience both in ESL and EFL settings, it looks more applicable to language teachers.

        Willis and Willis (2007) do not illustrate theoretical foundations or propose theoretical frameworks for task design. Instead, they illustrate how teachers apply TBLT in their teaching and what the tasks look like.

       The other two readings give more theoretical accounts about different types of tasks. Pica, Kanagy and Falodun (2009) illustrate five kinds of communicative tasks: jigsaw, information gap, problem-solving, decision-making, opinion exchange. Willis (2009) offers her theoretical framework for a task cycle. Since these two readings are more theoretical and abstract, they are listed as selective. That is, if you have time and want to know more about TBLT, you are encouraged to read them. However, for Adobe meeting, we will focus on Nunan (2004) and Willis and Willis (2007).


Bygate, M., Skehan, P., & Swain, M. (2001). Introduction. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan & M. Swain (Eds.), Researching pedagogic tasks: Second language learning, teaching and testing (pp. 1-20). New York: Pearson Education Limited.

Carless, D. (2002). Implementing task-based learning with young learners. ELT Journal, 56(4), 389-396.

Carless, D. (2003). Factors in the implementation of task-based teaching in primary schools. System, 31(2), 485-500.

Carless, D. (2004). Issues in teachers' reinterpretation of a task-based innovation in primary schools. TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 639-662.

Crooks, G., & Chaudron, C. (2001). Guidelines for language classroom instruction. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 29-42). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Crooks, G., & Gass, S. (1993). Introduction. In G. Crooks & S. Gass (Eds.), Tasks in a pedagogical context: Integrating theory and practice (pp. 1-7). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Ellis, R. (2000). Task-based research and language pedagogy. Language teaching Research, 4(3), 193-220.

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

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). TESOL methods: Changing tracks, challenging trends. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 59-81.

Long, M. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: Task-based language teaching. In K. Hyltenstam & M. Pienemann (Eds.), Modelling and assessing second language acquisition (pp. 77-99). San Diego: College-Hill Press.

Long, M., & Crooks, G. (1992). Three approaches to task-based syllabus design. TESOL Quarterly, 26(1), 27-56.

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

Pica, T., Kanagy, R. & Falodun, J. (2009). Choosing and using communication tasks for second language instruction. In C. Van den Branden, M. Bygate, & J. Norris (Eds.), Task-Based Language Teaching: A Reader(pp. 171-192). Amsterdam : John Benjamins Pub. Co.

Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method-Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176.

Samuda, V., & Bygate, M. (2008). Tasks in second language learning. New York: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.

Seedhouse, P. (1999). Task-based interaction. ELT Journal, 53(3), 149-156.

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards & J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Mcmillan.

Skehan, P. (1996). A framework for the implementation of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17(1), 40-62.

Skehan, P. (2003). Task-based instruction. Language Teaching, 36, 1-14.

Swan, M. (2005a). Legislation by hypothesis: The case of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26(3), 376-401.

Swan, M. (2005b). Rod Ellis, 2003, task-based language learning and teaching (book review). International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 15(2), 251-256.

TBLT. (2007). 2nd International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching.   Retrieved Feb. 2, 2009, from http://www.hawaii.edu/tblt2007/index.html

TBLT. (2009). 3rd International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching.   Retrieved Feb. 2, 2009, from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/events/tblt2009/index.htm

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

Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Harlow: Longman Pearson Education.

Willis, J. (2009). The TBL Framework. In C. Van den Branden, M. Bygate, & J. Norris (Eds.), Task-Based Language Teaching: A Reader(pp. 227-242). Amsterdam : John Benjamins Pub. Co.