Addressing Problems in Task-based Language Teaching by Rod Ellis

This is the text from the PPT from Professor Rod Ellis' webinar titled Addressing Problems in Task-based Language Teaching organized by Dr. Linh Phung from Eduling International on October 21, 2022. (Published with permission).


Addressing Problems in Task-based Language Teaching

Rod Ellis

Curtin University

(Perth, Australia)

2016-Present


Anaheim University

Senior TESOL Professor

1998-Present


Screenshot of the Oct 21 Webinar

Definition

Task-based teaching views learning as taking place holistically and incidentally as learners perform tasks that involve listening, speaking, reading and writing?

Teachers do not teach language; rather they facilitate its development.

How does task-based teaching differ from traditional language teaching?

Task-based language teaching differs from traditional language teaching in two main ways:

  1. There is no attempt to teach specific bits and pieces of language directly. Learners learn naturally by performing tasks.

  2. This really follows from the first difference – a task-based syllabus just consists of a list of tasks; that is, there is no list of the grammatical structures or vocabulary to be taught.

A traditional lesson and a task-based lesson may have different objectives as illustrated in the example below.


Traditional lesson: A typical objective states the language to be taught – for example – ‘Students will be able to use the prepositions in, at, on correctly in different time expressions’.


Task-based lesson: A typical objective just states the outcome of the task that is to be achieved – for example, the objective for the Spot the Difference Task would be ‘Students will talk together find the five differences in two pictures when they cannot see each other’s picture’.


So in a task-based lesson there is no attempt to specify what language learners will learn. In fact, different students may end up learning different language as a result of performing the same task.


What is a task?

To decide whether an activity is a ‘task’ we need a clear definition of a task:

  1. The students’ primary focus must be on meaning. That is students must be trying to use language rather than to learn it.

  2. There must be some kind of gap. The gap motivates the exchange of information or opinions.

  3. The students must mainly rely on their own linguistic and non-linguistic resources to perform the task. That is, they must make do with whatever language they already have and other ways such as gesture to convey meaning.

  4. There is a communicative outcome. The task is completed when the outcome is achieved. Successful completion does not depend on using the language correctly.

Compare these two activities to see the differences between the two and what qualifies as a task.


In a task-based lesson there is no attempt to specify what language learners will learn. In fact, different students may end up learning different language as a result of performing the same task.


Focus on form

Incidental language acquisition requires that learners pay attention to form while they are performing a task. Teachers can facilitate attention to form in a number of different ways:

  • By highlighting features in the input of an input-based task.

  • By providing opportunities for learners to plan before they perform a production-based task.

  • Interactionally when learners experience problems in understanding or expressing themselves clearly or fail to use the L2 correctly.

Resistance

Sometimes teachers and students find task-based language teaching threatening because it is so different from the kind of teaching they are used to.

As a result they may resist adopting trying to do task-based language teaching.


Problems and solutions

Task-based teaching seems to be all about speaking but what about reading and writing?

To learn more, check out Dr. Ellis' new book

In fact, we communicate using all four language skills. There are many tasks that involve reading or writing and a lot of tasks integrate the use of all four language skills. In the Heart Transplant Task, for example, students have to read the information about the four people needing a transplant, talk to each other about who should get the transplant (involving speaking and listening) and could also be asked to write a report with their recommendation.


How can I do task-based teaching with beginner-level learners?

Some teachers think that learners have to know some English before they can do tasks. This belief originates in the assumption that tasks always involve speaking. But many tasks - such as the Map Task – only involve listening.

If the input in a task is made comprehensible, beginners will be able to pick up language. After they have acquired some language they can gravitate to output-based tasks. Thus, task-based teaching is feasible for beginners if input-based tasks are used.


How do I know what language learners have learned in task-based language teaching?

Teachers understandably want to know what students are learning but this is not easy especially when learning takes place incidentally.

Two suggestions:

  1. Where vocabulary is involved is to write up the key words needed to perform a task on the whiteboard before students do the task and ask them if they know them. Then, after performing the task, the teacher can show them the words again to check if they now know them.

  2. Grammatical structures are acquired very slowly and gradually and it is unlikely that students will acquire a particular structure from performing just one task. However, by observing how students do tasks over a period of time teachers will be able to see that there is progress in their communicative ability to use particular grammatical structures.

Where is the grammar in task-based teaching?

This question reflects teachers’ perception that task-based teaching neglects grammar. It is often motivated by teachers’ fear that it will not prepare their students for the kinds of high-stake traditional examinations that exist in many instructional contexts. In fact, though, although there are no grammar lessons in task-based teaching, there is plenty of grammar:

  • In guided strategic (pre-task) planning when learners can be shown how to use of specific structures.

  • By performing focused tasks.

  • Through focus-on-form techniques.

  • Through explicit instruction and grammar exercises in the post-task stage of a lesson if performance of the task shows this is needed.

What do I do if students just use their mother tongue?

Task-based teaching does not mean that students should never use their mother tongue. Using the L1 is often useful for students to work out how to do a task before they get started on the task. Teachers can make strategic use of the mother tongue to help students understand.

It is overuse of the mother tongue that is a potential problem. To avoid this, teachers should:

  1. Make sure the task is at the right level.

  2. Make plentiful use of input-based tasks as these make the students they process English.

  3. Give the students the opportunity to plan before they do as task

  4. Do a similar task with the students first.

How can I use tasks in a mixed ability class?

Some suggestions for coping with mixed-ability students:

  1. Prepare an easy and more difficult version of the same task and allocate the different versions to students according to their ability.

  2. Encourage students to request clarification if they do not understand. Write up expressions they can use for this on the whiteboard.

  3. Be prepared to use the students’ mother tongue to help out if necessary and do not insist that students always use the target language.

  4. Scaffold the performance of a task with the students varying the amount of scaffolding according to students’ individual needs.

  5. In mixed ability groups, make sure that one of the less proficient students is made responsible for reporting the outcome of the task to the whole class. This will force the less proficient students to engage actively in the task.

  6. Allow the less proficient students’ time to plan before they start a task. The more proficient students can go straight to the main-task phase.

  7. Give less proficient students the opportunity to repeat a task.

How do I do task-based teaching with a large class?

The management of large classes is a major problem irrespective of the teaching approach. The solution often suggested is small group work but this can be difficult to organize, especially in classrooms where desks are arranged in traditional rows and the groups cannot be easily monitored by the teacher.


Some suggestions:

You can conduct tasks in lockstep with the whole class. In the case of input-based tasks, this is required. But it is also possible with output-based information-gap tasks if the information is split between the students and the teacher.


Teachers might also benefit from using closed (as opposed to open) tasks as it is much easier to see if a task has been successfully accomplished and students can get feedback on how well they performed it.


Use pairs rather than small groups as they are easier to organize.


Are there any task-based course books I can use?

There are still very few task-based course books available but see Rod Ellis and Fujiko Sano Impact Intro published Asia Longman. However, traditional course books are likely to include some tasks. So teachers can use these. They can either just ignore the presentation and practice materials or make use of them only in the post-task stage if the students’ performance of the task shows they are needed. There are also a lot of ideas for tasks and actual tasks available on the web. Try googling ‘Task-based language teaching materials’. For example, Jane Willis has a very useful site at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/six-types-task-tbl


What do I do if my students resist doing tasks?

Some students used to traditional language teaching may wonder what the purpose of doing tasks is. For such students it is necessary to explain how task-based teaching works and why it is advantageous. In fact, many students find task-based language teaching motivating. This is especially the case in specific purpose courses based on real-world tasks. They will be able to see a direct connection between what they are doing in the classroom and their needs for the language in the world outside. Even students in a general language course are likely to find tasks interesting and so will be motivated to do them.


How can I do task-based teaching if I have to follow a structural syllabus and prepare students for a traditional test?

This is perhaps the key problem that teachers face. Many teachers are tied to a syllabus mandated by the Ministry of Education in their country. Their students are required to sit examinations that assess explicit knowledge in traditional multiple choice or fill-in-the blank tests. It is understandable, then, that teachers will choose to stick to their traditional way of teaching. However, a well-designed task-based course will equip students to perform well in such tests and need not exclude teaching based on a structural syllabus. The approach that I recommend in contexts where teachers are constrained in what and how to teach is a modular one.


A modular approach

In a modular course, then, task-based language teaching figures throughout but as the course progresses an increasing amount of time is devoted to structural teaching.


In this kind of modular course, incidental learning is given primacy but is supported by intentional learning. Students are encouraged to behave as communicators but recognition is given to the fact that they may want to also behave as learners. Such a course goes some way to addressing teachers’ concerns about task-based teaching – namely, doubts about the place of grammar and fears that it will not adequately prepare students for high-stake traditional examinations.


However, teachers may still have doubts about the lack of grammar at the beginner level. One way of addressing this might be to set traditional learning activities (e.g. memorizing new vocabulary; grammar exercises) as homework, which could be checked quickly in class the next day. To learn more about task-based language teaching, you may check out Dr. Ellis' new book.


You may play the recording of the webinar below.


Finally, Dr. Linh Phung, the host of the event shares about her new app called Eduling Speak, which connects learners to talk in pairs based on communicative tasks. The app can be downloaded here. She will also be presenting about promoting authentic language use with tasks with the US Department of State on February 15. Please feel free to follow her on Facebook to see more upcoming events.


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