Marcos Benevides, author of the award-winning book, Whodunit, spoke about Task-Based Learning and Teaching (TBLT) at Shinshu JALT’s An Afternoon with ABAX. He began by making a distinction between TBLT and tasks. Since essentially anything assigned to a student could be labeled a task, some may think that they are employing task-based learning and teaching. Consequently, it’s important to discern that TBLT is a specific approach, and that not all tasks qualify as TBLT.
In order to help clear up any confusion, Mr. Benevides explained that TBLT is a subset of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and generally has more structure, such as sequencing, recycling, and assessment.
In an ELT blog , Mr. Benevides outlined TBLT in six points:
Tasks should be authentic. The main goal is not linguistic. In his example of ordering a pizza, he points out that the main goal is to get the pizza, not to use certain grammatical or vocabulary terms. As a result, the tasks should be chosen carefully. Tasks should be meaningful to their lives (and meaningful does not necessarily mean useful). Assessment must be based on the fact that the main goal is not linguistic (see #2). Using the previous pizza example, teachers determine whether or not the pizza would have come. If yes, then the student passed, and if not, then he/she failed. Mr. Benevides suggested three levels of assessment: a) An initial pass/fail; b) varying levels within the pass/fail spectrum (on a scale of 1-10, for example); and c) feedback, which is where linguistic comments can be made. He also mentioned that the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) may be useful to establish an assessment standard. Allow language to emerge. Students can take any path to get to the goal, and when they need help, they ask for it, resulting in more effective learning. Also, grammar and vocabulary are not pre-taught, but explained either as the students need it during the task, or post-task. The tasks should be contextualized or themed, which allows for recycling in an authentic way.
He also pointed out that while all of the above help describe TBLT, the most important points are numbers two and four.
After presenting an overview of TBLT, Mr. Benevides then described three types of tasks along the “Task Continua.” First he talked about closed versus open tasks. A closed task has one or more correct outcomes (e.g., spot the differences information gap), while an open task has no predetermined solutions (e.g., planning a trip).
Next, he explained focused versus unfocused tasks. Focused tasks target a specific language feature (e.g., a To-do list), while unfocused tasks have no set linguistic target.
Last, he discussed pedagogic tasks versus real world tasks. Pedagogic tasks depend on a classroom context (e.g., arrange a mixed-up paragraph), while real world tasks simulate conditions that are found in a real situation (e.g., job applications, in a restaurant). He pointed out, however, that this distinction is problematic considering that any classroom-based task will be skewed due to the fact that it’s done in a classroom.
There was a bit of discussion about how to implement TBLT into a system that places so much importance on passing tests. As one member of the audience pointed out, there is a focus on vocabulary and grammar in high school English classes, and often, defining terms and explaining complex grammar are done before an activity. Yet, Mr. Benevides explained that defining key vocabulary or targeting a specific grammar point or phrase prior to a task-based activity can lead to restrictions on student communication. Moreover, worrying about a test can also restrict the students. For more information, he referenced The Language Teacher’s special task-based learning issue from March 2009: Muller, T., Talandis Jr., J., & Inamori, M. (Eds.). (March 2009). The Language Teacher 33(3), .
Unfortunately Mr. Benevides didn’t have time to get into the importance of having themes, but before he ended his talk, he shared an activity whereby students have a list of common words that they must communicate to their partner without using the actual words, Japanese, or gestures. He stressed that using words the students know, such as restaurant, mouse, Canada, etc., is crucial; if students don’t understand the word themselves, they can’t explain what it is to someone else. The main point of this kind of task-based activity is that the students can find a way to communicate.
Inspired by Mr. Benevides’ talk, I recently tried a task-based activity similar to the one mentioned above in my first and second year high school English classes, which resulted in classes full of students communicating (mostly) in English. However, I didn’t just throw the students into the activity, but had them try it after I gave some examples. For lower-level classes, I also wrote some examples on the board. As one student commented, “This activity is a little difficult. I couldn’t think of questions early. I want to know some words.” I find I have to use a combination of approaches to address the various learning styles and abilities in my classes. That being said, however, even if one’s pedagogical approach isn’t wholly task-based, I think that incorporating TBLT can help students actually use English in a meaningful and interesting way. The evidence is in many of the students’ post-class comments: “Today’s communication challenge was difficult, but interesting.”; “I enjoyed this class! It’s fun for me to speak English.”; “Today’s class is the best fun in this year.”