9 – Get the Job Done: Task-Based Instruction
A father looked at his lazy son. The young man always sat on the couch and played video games. The father sighed and said, “Why don’t you get a job?”
The son replied, “Why should I get a job?” The father answered, “So you can earn some money.” And the son said, “Why should I earn some money?”
The father said, “You can put money in the bank and earn interest.” The son replied, “Why should I earn interest?”
And the father said, “When you are old, you can use the money in your bank. And you won’t have to work again.” And the son said, “But I”m not working now!”
Work. The son doesn’t like it. The father recommends it. But what exactly is work? We can define work as an activity for achieving a purpose or result. By this definition, language teachers have a method that requires work. We call it Task-based Language Teaching.
Introducing Task-based Instruction
With Task-based Instruction, teachers give learners tasks to work on. Tasks require learners to communicate messages. Tasks require learners to negotiate the meaning of these messages. Learners know they have communicated when they complete a task. Through the process of communicating, learners acquire grammar, vocabulary, and chunks of language. In short, tasks are meaningful, require communication, and have clear outcomes.
For example, our students belong to an English class at a school in Tokyo. For our task, we provide this setting. Some international guests want to visit Tokyo. They want to meet next Saturday at 8:00 AM at Tokyo station. Students will plan a day of activities for them.
- Plan to visit 3 places in or around Tokyo.
- Plan the amount of time spent at each place.
- Plan the transportation to each place.
- Plan the costs for travel.
- Plan the costs for visiting each place, food, tickets, etc.
- Plan the time to return back to Tokyo station.
In groups of 3, students make their plans — using English. If they have questions, the teacher can give language support. When the plans are ready, students practice reporting their plans in their groups. When done practicing, they can report their plans to the class.
As groups report their plans to the class, the teacher can take notes. She can write down correct and incorrect phrases. After students finish, the teacher can focus on language. She can write 5 correct and 5 incorrect phrases on the board. She can ask students, which are correct, and which are incorrect? When the students find mistakes, the teacher can ask them to make corrections. At the end of the lesson, the teacher can ask students to write down words or phrases on flash cards. This will help students practice retrieval, spacing, and interleaving with the language they used.
Different Kinds of Tasks
For our purposes, let’s review with a simple definition of tasks. With tasks, learners use language to reach a goal or create an outcome. The goal is not linguistic, but language helps learners produce the goal. Thus, Thornbury (2018) says when students fill in blanks with words, they are not doing Task-based Learning because the goal is linguistic. If filling in blanks is not a task, then what is?
In the lesson above, students made a detailed plan to visit places in Tokyo. As a goal, they did not fill in blanks or answer grammar questions. These are linguistic goals. Rather their goal was to make a plan — a plan that they can use in the real world. We don’t want to play games with the word “task.” After all, we often do “language tasks” in language classes. But in Task-based Learning, we do “outcome tasks” or “end product” tasks. Learners use language to produce a schedule, draw a picture, or solve a problem.
Examples of Tasks
Information Gaps :Tasks with Pictures. With information gaps, one student knows something that another student does not know. We can use this principle with pictures or “Picture Gaps.” Partner A sees the picture. Partner B cannot see it. Partner A describes the picture. Partner B draws it. We can use printed pictures or pictures projected on a screen where Partner B sits with her back to the screen, and Partner A faces the screen.
Problem Solving Tasks. With “Problem Solvers,” students work together in groups to solve a problem. Nation (2013) suggests three basic outcomes: suggest, choose, and rank. First, we need a problem, like this: One of your friends is not healthy. He drinks. He smokes. He’s overweight. His brother had the same problems and just died. First, in your group, “suggest” 5 things your friend can do to become healthier. Make a list. Second, when your list is ready, each individual student “chooses” a favorite activity to become healthier. Lastly, the group “ranks” their list of 5 from best to worst.
Doing Task-Based Learning
Teachers can plan a whole course around tasks. These teachers will focus mainly on “end product” tasks where students use language to produce outcomes. Other teachers may want to simply add tasks as a part of their communicative language classes.
In both cases, teachers may experience some problems when doing tasks. In schools where all students share the same native language, students may end up using their first language to complete tasks. If this happens, teachers will need to help students use English by teaching them the phrases and words they need to complete tasks.
Teachers need to explain the tasks clearly so that students produce clear and practical outcomes. But even when teachers do this, they may not have a clear idea what outcomes the students will produce. Teachers also may not have a clear idea about what kind of language students will need. Tasks also may be too narrow and only require students to use some specific bits of language. Now some students may only need to use language in a specific area, like working at a train company, or doing eye exams at a hospital. But for acquiring general English, students may need more than tasks. (This is one reason why extensive reading is a great way to acquire general English ability.)
But overall, tasks help learners use language to get something done. Tasks require learners to communicate. Tasks require learners to negotiate for meaning. Tasks require learners to make choices about what they say. Tasks require learners to take charge and produce outcomes. With all these benefits, language teachers will do well to make tasks a continual and essential part of their language lessons.