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TASK BASED LEARNING

Introduction

During the past 20 years, there has been a large and


growing body of literature around TBLL. The impetus was
given in 1984 by the outcomes of the Bangalore/Madras
Communicational Teaching Project which accounted for
the association between the acquisition of linguistic forms
and learners attention to form (Prabhu, 1987). Ever since,
what is acknowledged about TBLL is heavily based upon
empirical studies of second language practice and second
language research that investigate how language is
acquired through tasks whose focal point is meaning and
real life language use (Long & Norris, 2000).
The aim of this paper is to critically examine the view that
Task Based Learning is a research-based approach to
teaching a second language, both in terms of the extent to
which it is underpinned by SLA research and research into
its effectiveness. The first section of this paper will give an
account of TBL and Tasks and examine them from a
psycholinguistic and socio-cultural perspective. It will then
go on to discuss language learning conditions, grading
tasks and the TBL Framework. It will conclude by
considering some misunderstandings surrounding TBLL.

[ ]

Task Based Language Learning


According to Van den Branden (2006), TBLL is a top
down process which enables learners to focus on form
instead of forms in a holistic or discrete, teacher or
learner-centred, meaning or accuracy-focused manner.
Van den Branden, Bygate and Norris (2009) maintain that
TBLL comes to pedagogical choices, it is authentic in
terms of interaction (Numan, 2004), facilitates output
production (Swan, 2000) and offers opportunities to
negotiate either simple or complex meaning (Ellis, 2009).
Compared to focus on meaning, corrective feedback
(Long, 2007), form-focused instruction (Ellis, 2001), pre,
main and post-task planning (Ellis, 2003) as well as
accurate, complex and fluent use of language (Skehan,
2003) are considered to facilitate SLA through the
development of cognitive skills (Richards & Rodgers,
2001). According to SLA research, language learning is
neither a linear process nor does it depend on learning
isolated linguistic items but involves complex mappings
of form-function relationships (Van den Branden, 2006)
and can be promoted through tasks whose focus is on the
semantic and pragmatic meaning of utterances, and
can manipulate utterances, utilize linguistic and nonlinguistic resources and are goal oriented (Ellis, 2009).

[ ]

Ellis (2003) draws a distinction between task based


learning (using languages as tool) and task supported
learning (using languages as object) and maintains that it
is communicative use of language that facilitates
interlanguage development and not practice or control.
Conversely, Samuda (2000) argues that TBLL does not
facilitate the development of new skills nor leads from
declarative to procedural knowledge through its
fragmentary instruction but that it assists the
automatization of already learnt language through
practice (Swan, 2005). Unlike Samuda (2000), Littlewood
(2004) argues that TBLL is based on units of
communicative teaching that provide learners with
opportunities to develop their L2 language/ interlanguage
and working memory capacity (Ellis, 2005) through goal
attainment and the production of language output that
can be met in real life contexts and does not focus on the
kind of language used to produce this output (Numan,
2004).

What is a Task?

Much of the available literature on TBLL regards tasks as


goal oriented communicative activities with a specific
outcome, where the emphasis is on exchanging meaning

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and not producing specific linguistic forms (Willis, 1996).
Van den Branden (2006) defines tasks as vehicles which
facilitate SLA through eliciting language production,
interaction, negotiation of meaning, processing of input
and focusing on form. For Skehan (2002), tasks are
simulations of real life situations which involve linguistic
skills and resources as well as cognitive processes to
comprehend and reshape input in order to produce
output during opportunities of negotiable difficulty (Van
den Branden, 2006). Long (2014) maintains that language
use and the cognitive processing system of each person
restores this input and turns it into intake. In this respect,
tasks necessitate the interplay of learners conscious and
unconscious attention to form to produce outcomes in
terms of linguistic performance (Van den Branden, 2006).
Ellis (2003) makes the distinction between focused (focus
on linguistic form) and unfocused tasks (use any linguistic
resource). Willis and Willis (2001) defines focused tasks as
metacommunicative and Ellis (2009) as consciousness
raising since via inductive and deductive procedures
facilitate output past noticing (Schmidt, 2001) and through
the comprehension of a linguistic feature (Numan, 2004).

The psycholinguistic perspective

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Drawing on Longs Interaction Hypothesis (Tran, 2009), it
is comprehensible input and the opportunities to negotiate
meaning that assist learners communicative
effectiveness. In the case of SLA, Long (2014) maintains
that during task completion, learners are urged to focus on
form, modify and reformulate their output production and
go into a negotiation of form mode (Swain & Lapkin,
2000) so as to find ways to overcome any difficulties they
face (Skehan, 2003). In this respect, the learners effort
and feedback they receive from their output and
interlocutors output facilitates acquisition as it creates the
conditions to notice the gap between the target language
and their linguistic resources (Schmidt, 2010). In an
analysis of meaning negotiation and communicative
strategies, Ellis (2003) determines the interrelationship
between identification of referent (notice, distinguish,
encode) and role taking dimension (shared meaning
between interlocutors) and maintains that they are totally
dependent upon learners cognition and personality.
With respect to the cognitive approach to task based
learning Skehan(cited in Mayo, 2007) distinguishes tasks
into exemplar-based ( lexicalization) and a rule-based
(interlanguage development, cognitive processes,
Universal Grammar) and points out that in order learners
to produce output they need to be fluent( access their
lexicon stock and show proseduralised / automatised
declarative knowledge), accurate ( access their rule based

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language system) and be in control to use complex
linguistics patterns. In the case of output production with
wrong rule created exemplars, though, syntactic
fossilization may occur (Skehan, cited in Mayo, 2007). In
the same vein, Robinson in his Cognition Hypothesis
(2007) distinguishes tasks as resource directing (thought
process) and resource depleting (strategic planning) and
advocates that learners focus of attention, fluent or
accurate performance depends on whether the task
involves here-and-now or there-and-then events and
salient or related linguistic items. Robinson (2007) further
maintains that learners degree of automaticity is affected
by the provision of background knowledge, time to plan,
the tasks framework, stages and prerequisite steps of
completion.
The socio-cultural perspective
The socio-cultural theory provides a useful account of how
TBLL facilitates SLA (Nunn, 2001). In a Vygotskian
approach, L2 proficiency depends on how rather than
what and is not attained through but in interaction
as linguistic functions are internalized after they have
been performed in a social manner (Ellis, 2005). During
the dialogic process of task completion (Ellis, 2003),
learners develop scaffolding strategies by assisting each
other in performing functions, retaining interest,
establishing aims, reducing anxiety and enhancing their

[ ]
performance. Tasks outcomes subject to the socio-cultural
background of learners, their interpretation of a task which
determines their goals and performance (Goodyear & Ellis,
2007) and the given time the task is conducted (Nunn,
2001). Thus, not only does collaboration build a common
ground on which interlocutors increase their Zone of
Proximal Development and develop the ability to use
language (Samuda, 2000)., but it also enables them to
become communicatively efficient and use linguistic
resources that are not internalized in their language
system( Ellis, 2000).

Language learning conditions


Willis (1996) asserts that language learning is fostered
when certain conditions are met, namely exposure, use,
motivation and instruction.
Exposure and use
According to Willis (1996), learners need to be exposed to
various situations so as to notice the use of language
according to circumstances. Learners must be offered the
opportunity to express themselves for communicative
purposes, implement linguistic strategies so they can

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adjust input to their comprehension level and construct
meaning. Learners conscious attention to input fosters
language processing, output production and the
internalization of language (Ellis, 2005).
Motivation

Different theories exist in the literature regarding


motivation and SLA. Motivation could either be integrative
(cultural appreciation) or Instrumental (academic or
professional development) (Murray et al., 2011). In terms
of self-determination theory, Noels et al. (2000) identifies
motivation as extrinsic (external reward), intrinsic (internal
reward) and amotivation (no desire to learn). In a study
which set out to determine motivation, Dornyei (2002)
classifies the stages learners go though during the
learning process into preactional (personal choice),
actional (personal goal achievement) and postactional
(evaluation) and ascribes task motivation to task
execution, appraisal (stimuli process) and action control
(self-regulatory enhancing, scaffolding learning). Thus, in
terms of TBLL, learners motivation can be facilitated by
the criteria for grading and sequencing tasks (linguistic
complexity, cognitive complexity, dialogical approach)
( Brown, 2007), attainable goals that facilitate academic
achievement and build self assurance (Pintrich &
Schmunk, 2002), positive classroom environment that

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involves learners in their learning process (Dornyei, 2002)
and promote constructive self- evaluation (Ellis, 2005).

Instruction
Instruction, as an equally important condition for language
learning, must have its main focus on linguistic features
(Willis, 1996). In this way, it can assist learners in their
effort to notice lexical or grammatical patterns and work
out their meanings and uses. When learners attention is
drawn on specific linguistic features, they can support,
test or reject previously made hypotheses, become
consciously aware and are led to automaticity (R. Ellis,
2012). Numan (2004) maintains that effective instruction
must integrate form, meaning and function of linguistic
elements. Instruction is task completion dependant and
facilitates learners language scaffolding through implicit
or explicit language which is gradually withdrawn to
facilitate autonomy, creative use of language and
reflection on newly acquired language (Numan, 2004).
Sequencing tasks
Sequencing tasks depends on learners and teachers
(Crawford, 2002), attitude and motivation (Dornyei, 2002),
learning styles (Oxford, 2001), age (Robinson, 2001),
educational (Woolfolk et al., 2003) and cultural
background (Armstrong, 2009). Numan (2004) sequences

[ ]
tasks starting from comprehension processing, productive
and finally interactive as skills acquired and practiced in
one step are extended in succeeding steps. In the same
vein, Ellis (2003) sequences tasks in agreement with
input, conditions, learning process and task outcomes.
Skehan (2003) points towards code complexity (linguistic),
cognitive complexity (familiarity and cognitive processing)
and communicative stress (time constraint, speed,
participants, interaction). For Robinson (2001) cognitive
complexity is resource directing (contextual support,
learners reasoning) and resource depleting ( attention,
planning time , prior knowledge) while Numan (2004)
determines complexity according to task relevance,
complexity, prior knowledge, learners cognitive
processing ability, assistance, grammatical complexity,
time and feedback. Although Robinson (2001)
distinguishes intra-learner variability (one learner
performing various tasks) from tasks difficulty, Ellis
(2003) acknowledges that the interplay among intralearner variability, the progressive escalation of task
complexity and the tasks difficulty facilitate L2
development.
The Task Based Learning Framework
For Numan (2004), TBLL follows a six-step-procedure
[Schemata building (relevant knowledge activation),
controlled practice (audiovisual introduction of language

[ ]
through situational modeling), authentic listening,
language focus (connect meaning and form), freer practice
(collaboration, meaning negotiation) and pedagogical task
introduction] which is drawn on the basis of scaffolding,
task dependency, recycling, active learning, integration,
production and reflection. Ellis (2003) creates his
framework of pre, main and post-task phases of focused or
unfocused tasks which are distinguished by authenticity,
learner-centredness, focus-on-form, and rejection of
traditional approaches. Willis (1996) pointing towards the
three main conditions for language learning ( exposure,
use , motivation) provides a Framework for TBLL which
appears in three phases, the Pre-Task, The Task Cycle and
the Language Focus.

The TBL Framework

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PRE TASK PHASE


Introduction to Topic and Task

TASK CYCLE
Task-Planning-Report

LANGUAGE FOCUS
Analysis- Practice

(Adapted from Willis 1996 p. 52)

The Pre-Task Phase

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Willis (1996) divides the Pre-Task Phase into three steps: a)
learners are introduced to the tasks topic and schemata
are activated through discussion or presentation of
illustrations, b) learners are provided with topic vocabulary
and are helped to become more familiar through activities
and c) learners become aware of what is expected of them
to do, the time frame and the expected outcome. The
third step illustrates the during the task phase, familiarizes
learners with the procedure and urges them to plan their
performance (Ellis, 2003). Depending on familiarity and
the cognitive demands of a task, preparation time is
essential as it is associated with naturalistic, lexically and
syntactically rich language use (Willis, 1996). Foster
(2009) claims that unless learners have a focus during the
Pre task phase, their output will be incidental,
unpredictable and individual hampering the following
phases.
The Task Cycle
The Task Cycle is divided in Task, Planning and Report.
During Task learners require certain linguistic and
cognitive abilities (Skehan, 2003) as they take risks and
use the language in an experimental and meaningful
manner to produce outcome though tasks which are
convergent (negotiate issues) or divergent (attribute
disagreement), closed (goal oriented) or open (less goal
oriented) (Willis, 1996). Learners are urged to exchange

[ ]
information (information gap activities), deduct
information (reasoning gap activities) and express
viewpoints (opinion gap activities) (Prabhu, 1987). During
planning, learners are reminded of the tasks objectives
and most importantly they are assisted in what and how
to report in class (Willis, 1996). This stage allows learners
to use language to a great extent so as to publicly present
what they have achieved in a more organized and
accurate way (Haston & Oakey, 2010). Report is
characterized by linguistic appropriateness during which
learners present outcomes in writing, verbally or even
audio- visually (Willis, 1996).
The Language focus Phase
The final phase of the Task Based Framework is the
explicit Focus on Language form and use (Willis, 1996)
and the counterbalance of acquisition and learning
(Haston & Oakey, 2010). The aim of this phase is to
provide learners with the opportunity to experiment with
language in real conditions and raise their awareness over
linguistic patterns (Willis, 1996). Schmidt (2010)
advocates that SLA is enhanced when learners language
processing system is directed to focus on form and
meaning and when they can distinguish and consciously
use linguistic patterns when necessary (Haston & Oakey,
2010). Pointing towards the ideational and the
interpersonal function of meaning, Halliday and

[ ]
Mathiessen (2004) affirm the variation in the function of
language and establish the belief that learners construct
meaning and acquire language through its use.

Misunserstandings surrounding Task Based


Language Learning
The Task
Drawing on an extensive range of sources, many authors
set out the different ways in which a Task is defined.
Skehan (1998) labeled the Task as an activity which
encompasses real life language, meaning, a goal and
output assessment and classifies them according to their
cognitive processing and familiarity, communicative stress
and code complexity. Widdowson (2003) disputes that the
characteristics Skehan (1998) ascribes to a task are
similar to those of conventional activities and questions
the goal and the real life language as unspecified. As for
meaning, Widdowson (2003) argues that Skehan (1998)
fails to clarify whether he signifies the pragmatic or the
semantic aspect of meaning. Ellis (2014) argues that
during the completion of a task, learners make use of both
their linguistic and non linguistic resources to
communicate their meaning and separates the task from a
conventional activity since a task requires interactional
authenticity congruent pragmatic and semantic input

[ ]
processing to attain communicative output (Ellis, 2009)
which is linked to the nature of the task and the
learners level of proficiency (R.Ellis, 2014). Seedhouse
(2005) questions the production of outcome asserting its
unpredictability as it depends on the nature of the task
and its application. Foster (2009) asserts that learners
accurate production varies according to the time they
have at their disposal to think and respond whereas Ellis
(2005) holds the view that the stage of planning is what
accommodates the complexity and accuracy of learners
outcome.
Grammar
Turning to grammar, Willis (1996) highlights the fact that
the focus on form and accuracy during the task cycle
impedes fluency while Swan (2005) claims that grammar
is outlawed. Sheen (2003) criticizes the convergence
between grammar and the way tasks language is chosen
and presented and opposes to the fact that corrective
feedback facilitates focus on form. Similarly, Doughty
(2001) disregards explicit focus on form as it may impede
the natural process of SLA. Ellis (2014) adopts a broader
perspective and argues that it is corrective feedback that
facilitates acquisition of grammatical features as it
captures learners attention and helps them develop their
grammatical competence. Samuda (2001) advocates that
when corrective feedback fails, teachers can turn to

[ ]
explicit and didactic strategies. Doughty and Long (2003)
claim that throughout task phases, learners either need to
focus on a grammatical feature in order to communicate
their meaning or make use of grammatical features in
order to plan and present their meaning accurately. Foster
(2009) offers an explanatory theory for the belief about
fluency and accuracy and upholds that collaborative tasks
and pre task planning account for more complex,
accurate and fluent language development which
unfortunately cannot be directly linked to L2 acquisition as
the results can only be evaluated over time.
Learners centredness vs. teachers centredness
The broad use of the term Task Based Learning is mainly
equated with the learner centredness of tasks (Ellis,
2014). Willis (1996) stipulates that learners, throughout
the task, apart from implementing strategies according to
their learning style ( Oxford, 2001), they have freedom
and responsibility to draw on their linguistic resources and
take risks in their use of language to negotiate meaning
and evaluate production ( Benson, 2001). Long (2010)
extols learner-centredness and justifies that through
collaboration learners affective filters are reduced,
motivation is increased and they get more opportunities to
use the language and improve their output production.
Regarding learners collaboration, Swan (2005) upholds
that the role of the teacher is narrowed to being a

[ ]
mediator and facilitator. Willis (1996) defines teachers as
facilitators whose multifaceted role is to coordinate
exposure and use of language during the task in an
encouraging manner and make sure that the whole
process is determined by judicious feedback and quality.
Shintani (2012) delineates teachers as navigators since
throughout the task, they need to keep time, ensure the
proper conduct of the task and the reach of goals,
administer all learners participation, assure collaboration,
intervene and aid in case of communication breakdown as
well as offer corrective feedback (Lyster, 2004). In this
perspective, Samuda (2001) equally highlights teachers
role as the one who motivates, supports and encourages
communication as well as evaluates learners and tasks
performance. Consequently, although Task based Learning
favours learners centredness, it can also be characterized
as teacher-centred due to the multifaceted role of the
teacher (R.Ellis, 2005).
Lower Level of English Proficiency Learners
Different theories exist in the literature regarding TBL and
Lower Level of English Proficiency Learners. Littlewood
(2007) and Swain (2005) emphasize that such learners will
be confronted with difficulties while taking part in a Task
completion. However, Ellis (2009) affirms that lower
proficiency learners must be engaged in input-providing
tasks instead of output-prompting. As noticed by Cook

[ ]
(2001), good implementation of the Task Based Approach
can integrate the use of L1 resources to assist scaffold
production in the target language in terms of task,
vocabulary and grammar interpretations. The
familiarization and repetition of a task Shintani (2012) as
well as pre-task planning (R.Ellis, 2005) can boost
learners confidence and increase the use of L2. Willis
(1996) maintains that TBL can facilitate SLA for lower
proficiency learners through vocabulary-written languageform focusing tasks. Van den Brdanden (2006) highlights
fluency and complexity over accuracy at basic proficiency
levels and emphasises that the complexity of a task needs
to be gradually increased based on parameters such as
world (approach to topic, visual support, linguistic
context), task ( communicative/ processing demands) and
linguistic input to facilitate interlanguage development
and automatisation.

Conclusion
The studies reviewed so far have revealed that Task-Based
Learning is a research-based approach to teaching a
second language in terms of form versus use, knowledge
versus skill, control versus freedom, artifice versus nature
(Swan, 2005). As research on second language acquisition
expands, TBL will continue to incorporate its findings in

[ ]
order to bridge the gap between real world and
pedagogical tasks, provide learners with new linguistic
items, overcome limited time frames and poor
environments as well as inadequate teacher training
(Swan, 2005). Thus, it is imperative that further research
is conducted and supplemented by concurrence between
researchers and educators (Skehan, 2003).

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