An Introduction to Task-based Language Learning and Teaching

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Not too long ago I finished up a rather robust project for Extempore: reworking the importable tasks page. The driving force behind this endeavor was my newfound appreciation for task-based learning combined with a realization that Extempore would be the perfect host for such a project. After weeks of creating tasks, writing descriptions on how to use them, and getting them translated into five different languages, I’m proud to share them with all of you. Even for the non-teachers here at Extempore headquarters, these tasks have made an impact, as they now know better than to call them activities in front of me.

Indeed, the distinction between activities and tasks should not be ignored. Tasks inherently carry a clear purpose: the student has to use the target language to do something. They may be ordering food, giving advice based on a situation, or simply talking about themselves. Activities, on the other hand, emphasize the mechanics of language and often use the target language out of context, prescribing certain language patterns and only allowing for small amounts of language output (thanks to the wlclassroom blog for this!*). 

Why tasks?

It wasn’t long ago that I only really immersed myself in using tasks as part of my teaching repertoire. At ACTFL 2019 in Washington D.C., one of my favorite presentations was that of Anne Cummings Hlas, who presented on her AIM strategy, where in a given task, students can Analyze, Infer, or Make a decision in a given scenario. Hlas’s presentation inspired me to adjust my teaching practices to focus more on tasks, a decision which has positively impacted both myself and my students since then. This new mindset pushed me to create these tasks on Extempore, which finally led me to composing this subsequent blog post. (Another aside: I’ve also discovered the world of task-based language teaching and found that there’s even an organization dedicated to promoting this — pretty cool stuff.)

Of course, student task completion requires students to be first equipped with the necessary language. Language acquisition, as teachers know, requires comprehensible input and consistent repetition, and only with this can students then complete the tasks. However, this does not mean we have to wait to integrate tasks into our class. Instead, we can make tasks part of the acquisition process. Here are three simple task examples (based on the AIM model) that could be given immediately after comprehensible input. 

  1. For a unit on weather, have students invite a classmate to do something this weekend, citing the weather as a reason (whether good or bad) (Analyzing)
  2. For a unit on technology, have students analyze a friend’s recent tech purchases, saying what those purchases might reveal about the friend’s personality / tech habits (Inferring).
  3. For a unit on post-graduation life, provide students with a list of universities from the target culture / country and have students choose which institution they would attend and why (Making a decision).

A New Perspective

By integrating tasks into our daily classes, we provide two main benefits to our students. First, students see the language in context; they see how they can use the language in the real world. The second and much more subtle benefit is that we change our students’ perceptions of what’s important in language class. With a greater emphasis on tasks and using language to communicate, students’ focus will gradually shift from form (verb tenses, conjugations, noun and adjective agreement) to function. No longer will students see language as something to memorize and rehearse ad infinitum, but rather they will see its application first-hand. All they have to do is complete the task by communicating their message. And tasks can be completed even if they make linguistic mistakes. 

Now, this is not to say you have to throw away your flyswatters and whiteboards, but the next time you use those, think, what is the purpose behind this? What are my students getting out of this? Perhaps consider redesigning these activities into pedagogical tasks**, tasks that “describe what learners do in the classroom to activate and develop their language skills,” and have “ a connection, however tenuous, to corresponding real-world or target tasks” (Nunan 2010). More on pedagogical tasks in a later post. 

You might say well my students need to practice vocabulary! Construct a task that requires vocabulary practice. Instead of practicing singular words, why not phrases or pairs of words? But my students need to practice conjugations and verb tenses! Construct a task that requires that. This is especially true for homework assignments. Using the language to do something endows so much more meaning than simply practicing a vocabulary list. If anything, pair the two together. First practice the vocabulary, then go and USE IT!

Objectives Reworked

Tasks can also help guide our instruction. We all know the structure of a typical learning objective: students will be able to distinguish between the preterite and imperfect or students will talk about their hobbies. This is all well and good, but the objective itself lacks an application! How will students show they can do xyz? Back in 2018 I attended the Maryland Foreign Language Association’s (MFLA) annual fall conference, where, in a session hosted by Anne Arundel County language teacher Julie French, she introduced the authentic lesson cycle. In brief, my biggest takeaway from this session, though simple, completely changed my teaching style as a first-year teacher: include ‘by…’ after your objective. With this, you give context for your objectives; you add the how.

  • Students will distinguish between the preterite and imperfect by telling a story about their childhood.
  • Students will talk about their hobbies by introducing themselves to a friend. 

It’s no coincidence that these ‘by’ phrases take the form of real-world scenarios (i.e. tasks). Now, the ‘by’ phrase becomes the end goal, the main objective, and ours and our students’ focus shifts from form to function. The ‘by’ phrase now becomes our measurement for student learning. It is our assessment. 

Thus, even when it comes to assessing, tasks are the most authentic measure of proficiency that teachers have. Which is why I don’t give grammar tests anymore. Why should I, when I can provide a real world challenge to my students?

Get Real

When we are learners of the target language, upon using it in the target languaculture, we are tested every day, every minute. For novice learners, this can cause tremendous angst. But think about the sense of achievement and feelings of accomplishment you have when you first order food in the target language. It’s IMMENSE. A high score on a test can’t replace that, nor should it. If our goal is to prepare our students to speak in the real world, to build proficiency, then shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to imitate that real-world experience?

Yes, we need to practice grammar patterns, and yes, reviewing vocabulary is important, but we can still build that proficiency through tasks and other real-world scenarios. 

As I mentioned above, this applies to assessment as well. When it comes to assessing via tests versus assessing via tasks, we must consider 1) our goals and 2) the student’s perception of what is important. And it comes down to function over form. With a standard language-based assessment, the overarching emphasis is the form of the language — are verbs in the correct tense? Do they agree with the subject? What about nouns and adjectives? Spelling?

Shopping in the streets of Marseille, browsing a library in Vienna, buying a snack on the beaches of Rio, regardless of what language you are learning and where you are, there are no paper tests in the real world. You have but two challenges — communicate your message to your interlocutor and understand the messages you see and hear. Complete the task and you pass. Fail and get thrown into an awkward encounter of unorthodox gesticulating, scrambling to translate the most important words, or worst, giving up and walking away. Outside of language courses, no other discipline can assess students in such an authentic way. Teachers should be taking advantage of this fact as much as possible. 

Wrapping Up and a Brief Intro to Extempore’s Grab & Go Task Database

Much of my passion for task-based learning originates with (what I believe to be) the most important trait of a language learner: the ability to figure it out at all costs. It’s the beauty and curse of language learning. Alone, you have no help. But overcoming that sense of helplessness and “figuring it out” with whatever you have is precisely what builds confidence and proficiency in the language. Tasks are the easiest way for students to begin growing in this manner.

Extempore’s new Grab & Go Task Database allows language instructors to directly import 18 different tasks into their accounts in five different languages. Instructors can (and are encouraged to) modify these tasks to fit their students’ needs and proficiency levels, adjusting timing parameters and content as they see fit. Finally, the tasks have been designed to reach learners of all levels, from novice to advanced. Have your students choose where they’ll eat dinner tonight. Pressure them to choose a painting to hang in a friend’s house. Make them (yet again) talk about their plans after they graduate. Try them out today. 


*In this referenced blog, the author focuses on labeling activities as tasks or exercises. For the sake of consistency and clarity, I’ve separated tasks from both activities and exercises. 

**Hlas’s document contains both target tasks and pedagogical tasks.

References

Cabral, J. (2017, November 25). Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks; Task-Based Activities. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://wlclassroom.com/2017/05/08/taskbasedactivities/

Hlas, A. C. (2019). Teacher’s Toolbox: Designing Tasks For Interaction. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from docs.google.com/document/d/1fgrOECAGtn0wIrOakEEmMDIMN6HvG0Dito7yWqWMB_A/edit?q=actfl

Nunan, D. (2010) A Task-based Approach to Materials Development. Advances in Language and Literacy Studies, (1)2 135-160. http://doi.org/10.7575/aiac.alls.v.1n.2p.135

Grant Castner joined Extempore as Community Manager in August 2020. While managing social media and creating content with Extempore, he also teaches high-school level Chinese in Minnesota. An avid user of Extempore for language assessment, he’s always on the lookout for ways to improve his teaching practice. Have a question on how to adapt Extempore for your class? Just need help teaching? Contact Grant anytime at grant.castner@extemporeapp.com.