Task-based language learning and teaching

Roger Hunt

Article first published in IATEFL TT Ed sig newsletter.

What is, and is not, a 'task'? A question much debated. Is a gap-fill requiring students to differentiate between the uses of certain prepositions or verb forms a 'task', or is an activity which asks students to discuss the possible solution to a riddle a 'task'?

You may well have your own views on this, certainly the colleagues who co-habit the staffroom I find myself in during coffee breaks do. There tends to be a lot of disagreement in that staffroom. ('Tasks' which do not involve the use of language eg: painting a fence [Long. 1985] are deliberately disincluded at the minute for, I hope, obvious reasons.)

A question less frequently considered is what students consider a task to be, and whether or not they are aware that they may be involved in one. I think most students would consider completing a gap-fill of the types mentioned above a 'task'; they might also consider it a very demanding 'task' (or not). Many students might consider a 'task' such as discussing the possible solution to a riddle a diverting (interesting, amusing, etc) pastime, but may see no language learning aim involved.

Take for example, the common activity type: "You are going to the North Pole - choose a maximum of ten items from the following list of twenty five that will you take." A typical student interaction might be:

Student A: Tent?
Student B: Yes.
Student A: TV?
Student B: Ha ha.! Ok.
Student A: Number 6?
Student B: Ok.

This is an all too common student interaction pattern in my experience resulting in 'We've finished!' after about twenty five seconds of 'interaction'.

However, many writers on the subject would consider discussion of what to take to the North Pole a 'task' as it involves 'meaning-focused communication' ie: the students are primarily concerned with getting their ideas across to each other, as opposed to 'form-focused communication' in which the students are concerned with using particular linguistic forms accurately (although Widdowson 1998 states the case for both).

What has gone wrong with this 'task' then? Obviously the students thought they were supposed to solve the problem as quickly as possible, but what was the teacher's intention in engaging the students in this task in the first place? Quite possibly to cause the students to use a structure such as: 'If we don't take the tent, we'll freeze to death', or even: 'If we didn't take the tent, we'd freeze to death'. (This in line with Skehan 1998 whose model of Task Based Learning suggests the teacher first select the structures the students will most likely require to complete the task [as opposed to the lexis?]).

Perhaps the teacher had not made this preselection of structures clear to the students in the first place? In other words perhaps they were unaware of the teacher's linguistic aim in engaging them in the 'task'? (Note: in many common situational interactions such as discussing plans for the next weekend, how the last weekend was spent, buying a railway ticket, shopping for fruit and vegetables, ordering in a restaurant etc. the language items likely to be required for task completion can be very predictable.)

However, a 'task' involving students differentiating between the use of certain verb forms in a gap-fill, for example, may well be less predictable linguistically and might go something as follows:

Student A: I think we need the present perfect here.
Student B: No, I don't think so. Look it says 'in 1997' - you use the past simple when the date is given.
Student A: Oh? Well, Ok. Are you sure about that?
Student B: Yes. I read about it in my grammar book.
Student A: Really? Which grammar book is that?
Student B: I forget the name, it's the one with the red cover.
Student A: I don't know that one. Mine's got a green cover.
Student B: Green? Yes, I've seen a green one. I was in the library yesterday. It was stupid?
Student A: What was?
Student B: The library, ha ha! - no, sorry - I meant the book was.

Although the example above is fictional, this type of exchange is common (see also Naomi Storch 2001). It also involves both 'meaning focused' and 'form focused' communication in as much as the two students are expressing their opinions on the uses of certain forms, but are not concerned with the forms they use to express these meanings.

The criterion that students should express meanings without preoccupation with the forms used to express them is one of the principal tenets of 'Task Based Learning' as advocated by many adherents to this model - I hope the above exchange serves to illustrate the unpredictable nature of much discourse (particularly when discussing a gap-fill exercise), and, consequently, the linguistic features the teacher may decide to help the students notice. (Obviously all but the most advanced of learners would be unlikely to use such accurate English as that in my example).

I offer this example as a genuine form of classroom interaction and, as such, a genuine form of interaction generally - most of the people I have come into contact with spent/have spent years of their lives in classrooms. This form of interaction has often been considered not 'genuine' by many ELT writers and practitioners.

Writers on Communicative Language Learning/Teaching have long placed emphasis on meaning driven classroom activity and have suggested that the perceived need for a linguistic form by a student will result in a firmer retention of that form once provided by the teacher or another source (for more on this argument see Wilkins 1976). But what of the student who completes the 'task' without perceiving any linguistic need (as in the discussion of what to take to the North Pole above)? When does the teacher step in, or does he/she? And who determines what a task is, and what it isn't?

Equally, what about the student who has come to the class because he or she wants to know about a grammatical form or the difference between some similar items of lexis? Does this student get a look in or is he/she engaged in a riddle-solving task because, like the doctor, the teacher knows best? ('Yes, I know you want to know about the present perfect Maria, but we are learning how to book railway tickets today.') (Come back tomorrow???)

Rereading Byrne's 1976 'Teaching Oral English' recently I noticed that he does not give precedence of one 'P' over another in his Presentation, Practice, Production model. 'Production' could well precede 'Presentation' and 'Practice' for example.

If this progression were followed it would not be very different from many versions of TBL ie: task first, help with linguistic necessities, give them some restricted practice then back to the task. (I use the word 'restricted' deliberately as the same model could be described using Scrivener's Authentic, Restricted, Clarification (ARC) model in which he suggests that the ordering of 'A', 'R' or 'C' can, and should - depending on the situation in hand - be varied). I think Donn Byrne may have shared this view all those years ago. So, whence now, or from, TBL? Have we already been there a number of times? Are we setting out on the same journey again? (Not to mention Michael Lewis's OHE, or Leo Van Lier's AAA etc).

So, now to the task of painting the fence. A meaningless, onerous 'task' to Tom Sawyer became a coveted option for many of his friends. He felt he had nothing to gain from it personally, but when 'presented' to his friends they saw the benefits. Perhaps he would have excelled as a language teacher had he only been a real person: he provided incredible motivation.

Our students are real people and perhaps they too could gain by discourse on North Pole necessities if they knew what the task was all about - after all, it is not too likely that many of them will ever pack a rucksack and head off there. I am not advocating the traditionally accepted view of PPP here, more a 'let them know what you are doing' view to teachers. More importantly: 'let them know why you are doing it' - their views may be less ELT fashionable than yours, but, most probably, equally as valid. And, if they know why they are engaged in a task - whether it be riddle solving, completing a gap-fill, or painting a fence - they might just gain a bit more from it.


  • Byrne, D. 1976. Teaching Oral English.London: Longman.
  • Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
  • Long, M. 1985. 'A role for instruction in second language acquisition: task-based language teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Scrivener, J. Learning Teaching
  • Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Storch, N.  2001. 'How collaborative is pair work? ESL tertiary students composing in pairs.' Language Teaching Research.
  • Van Lier, V. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. London: Longman
  • Widdowson, H. 1998. Skills, abilities, and contexts of realities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics.
  • Wilkins, D. 1976. Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roger Hunt


More articles on language teaching