Book Review: Activities for Task-Based Learning

I recently read the book Activities for Task-Based Learning by Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon. I first heard about it from this episode of the Teacher Talking Time podcast, where you can listen to an interview with one of the authors about the book. I’ve been wanting to learn more about task-based language teaching, so the book was helpful in giving me a better understanding of it.

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Activities for Task-Based Learning provides a good overview of what TBLT (Task-Based Language Teaching) is and how it can be implemented in class. The book is divided into two parts—the first part briefly explains what TBLT is, and the second part contains descriptions of example tasks and the accompanying materials so teachers can easily use the tasks right away in their classrooms.

The authors start off by giving a definition of a task. They write: “The easiest way to define a task is that it is something that students do as part of their everyday lives, and for which they need the second language. Tasks should be purposeful, and engage your students in real communication, by which we mean that other participants in the tasks will have a genuine reason to listen to whoever is speaking” (p. 7).

 

Focus on Output

I’ve heard from many comprehension-based teachers that their biggest hesitation in using TBLT is the focus on having students produce a lot of output rather than receiving input. But I don’t think tasks necessarily have to involve a lot of student-produced output. The definition of task-based instruction as it is defined in this book (and, I think, as it is defined by most other advocates of TBLT) is broad enough to include a lot of input-based tasks. For example, having students listen to a story and respond in some way (by re-writing the story, writing their reaction to it, or even just drawing a picture of something from the story) could be considered a task since it requires students to engage in real communication and has a specific outcome.

However, it does seem that many of the advocates of TBLT emphasize student production of output. Activities for Task-Based Learning seems to follow in that same tradition, as most of the example tasks involve partner speaking activities, having students make presentations, etc. The authors do mention the importance of providing students with comprehensible input; however, they say, “exposure to the language is not sufficient to bring about a good command of the language (at native and near-native levels) and therefore must be balanced by opportunities for output” (p. 12). I also think it is beneficial to give students opportunities to produce output, especially at the higher levels. But I don’t think it’s possible (nor supported by SLA research) to force beginning-level students to produce a lot of output. I wish that the authors had addressed how tasks can be used with lower-level students who can’t yet produce much language.

For that reason, I would mostly only recommend this book to teachers of students who are at least at the low-intermediate level or higher. Teachers of lower-level students might still benefit from reading the book’s explanation of TBLT; however, I doubt that any of the example tasks could be implemented in beginning-level classes (perhaps with some extra scaffolding or modifications but probably not as exactly as they are presented in the book).

 

Explicit Instruction/Focus on Form

The authors of the book explain that TBLT prioritizes meaning over form. TBLT rejects the traditional PPP (Presentation, Practice, Produce) sequence of teaching grammar, in which students are explicitly taught a particular grammar “rule” and then engage in various practice activities. Instead, TBLT aims to engage students in meaningful communication. They say that “accuracy develops out of fluency” (p. 8)—in other words, students become more accurate in their language not by studying and practicing rules but instead by engaging in real communication.

However, the authors explain that they do think some explicit instruction is helpful. They emphasize the importance of implicit learning but also suggest that teachers use short periods of class time in which they draw attention to form. They write: “[Explicit] instruction in a language isn’t strictly necessary, but it is usually useful and can speed up the process. Explicit attention to language forms appears to help build implicit knowledge—by a process that is not yet wholly understood” (p. 143).

I tend to be skeptical of claims about the effectiveness of explicit instruction since I know that a lot of the research studies that are often used to support explicit instruction only test learners in very explicit ways (e.g., “Fill in the blanks with the correct past-tense verb”) or only test learners in the short term. For that reason, I wish that the authors had gone into more detail about the research studies they use to back up their claims. However, I understand that the purpose of this book is mostly to focus on how to use task-based teaching, not so much on the why behind it. They do list several other books and articles that teachers can read for more information on the rationale behind TBLT.

The authors discuss a few different types of focus on form that they recommend, such as recasts (when the teacher re-states what a student said, using the correct forms) or consciousness-raising (“drawing attention to items and patterns that students may otherwise miss”). They also suggest using error correction, such as by writing incorrect sentences on the board and having students correct them. Again, I wish that the authors had explained a little more of their rationale behind this idea, as I know there is controversy about whether error correction works over the long term and whether its benefits outweigh its drawbacks (see here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Overall, however, I certainly agree with the authors that the type of focus on form that they suggest is much more likely to work than a typical textbook/PPP approach. As the authors describe it, their approach is “reactive”—it responds to the language the students are using and is essentially a way to provide students with the language they want to use at that exact moment. This approach is drastically different from a typical textbook approach, where the grammatical structures to be learned are pre-determined by a textbook author and are often devoid of much meaningful context.

 

Conclusion

I have already used a few of the suggested tasks from this book, and I plan to try out at least a few others in the future. I recommend the book for teachers who want a quick introduction to task-based language teaching and who want some ready-to-go tasks to use with higher-level English learners. I don’t use tasks like these every day, but I do think several of the tasks described in the book can be useful and engaging to use occasionally with students.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Activities for Task-Based Learning

    1. I used their “Heroes” task, where students choose a person they admire and talk about that person with their classmates. And I’ve used some variations on their dictogloss task, where students listen to a text and then try to write it as best they can with a partner/group.

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  1. Pingback: Materials writing news and views, September 2019 | ELT Planning

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