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Task Based Learning

Category: Methodology

Dilemma. My lunchtime class has canceled. What shall I do: write something for TEFL Diary or relube the bearings on my old bike? (Or I could do some shopping or clean the house, but let's not talk about that). In any case, besides teaching English and riding bikes, I'm also an amateur bike mechanic. It keeps costs down and it's relaxing to do something with your hands beside waving board pens around.

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Anyway, I'm beginning to hear some distressing noises when I pedal my old bike, so it's time to put on my bike repairman hat. So how will I go about it? The usual M.O.

1) Skim through the appropriate chapter in my bike manual.
2) Attack the bike, but inevitably I'll come up against an unexpected problem.
3) Back to the manual, youtube videos, online sites, and figure out where I went wrong.
4) Finish the job, but this time do it right.

Let's look at those four steps again.

Step 1  preparation for the task.
Step 2 doing the task.
Step 3 seeing how the experts do it.
Step 4  doing the task again but better.

In English language teaching, TBL (Task-based learning) is basically the same.

Step 1  lead-in for the task
Step 2  the task
Step 3  students compare how they did it with how a native would do it, often via a listening.
Step 4  students repeat the task

You may wonder why we don't do step 3 first, that is, play a recording of natives doing the task before the students do it. If the students do it first, when they hear natives doing the same task, they listen more carefully to compare. Also since they're aware of their own shortcomings from when they did it, they listen more selectively to see if they can pick up language that will help them speak more effectively, or to confirm that they got something right; or wrong. Hopefully a lightbulb will go off in their heads and they'll say, “Oh yeah. I could have said it much better like that.”

Here's an example of an informal TBL lesson I recently had. I'm preparing some students for the FC exam and we were working on the speaking part. I gave them fotocopies of typical vocabulary for the two-way conversation section, explained a bit how it worked and set them to it. It was pretty bad, so I demonstrated it myself taking both roles. I could see the lightbulbs lighting up in their heads. They did it again and it was MUCH better.

It's true I could have demonstrated it myself beforehand, but my demonstration made a bigger impression because they were able to compare it with their performance. They really saw a need to improve and take on board how I was doing it and the language I was using.

Listenings rich in functional language lend themselves particularly well to TBL. For example,  in a book I use there's a listening in which one person asks another for advice about visiting a city. In this case, after doing the lead-in, you could have the students roleplay a visitor asking for advice on visiting the city they're currently in. The students do this task using whatever language resources they have available.

After that you can do the book as is: first the listening where native speakers have a similar conversation (using the comprehension questions in the book). Then you go to the tapescript and highlight useful language. This is an important stage because here they compare their output with the natives' and see how they can improve. Different students normally “notice” different things since obviously their knowledge of English isn't exactly the same. So it's important to spend some time on this stage. Finally they repeat the task, in this case using the fluency activity in the book where they ask each other for advice on places they've visited.

It really isn't hard to introduce an element of TBL into your classes. Hopefully it will help students
clearly see how to improve. If you want to find out more about TBL, you can google “task-based learning Willis” (Jane and Dave Willis are TBL gurus). Well, now it's my turn to do some task-based learning on that old bike of mine. Let's see if I can relube those bearings and go for a ride!

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