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Task-based language education:From theory to practice… and back again. Kris Van den Branden Katholieke Universiteit Leuven kris.vandenbranden@arts.kuleuven.be. TBLT on Google. Task: 275.000.000 hits Task-based: 1.320.000 hits Task-based language: 607.000 hits

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task based language education from theory to practice and back again

Task-based language education:From theory to practice… and back again

Kris Van den Branden

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven


tblt on google
TBLT on Google
  • Task: 275.000.000 hits
  • Task-based: 1.320.000 hits
  • Task-based language: 607.000 hits
  • Task-based language teaching: 311.000
  • Task-based language education: 320.000
task as a crucial concept in
“Task” as a crucial concept in…
  • Theories of language learning
  • SLA research
  • The theory and practice of language education
  • The assessment of language proficiency/skills
  • Real life
defining task
Defining “task”

“… by ‘task’ is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between. ‘Tasks’ are the things people will tell you they do if you ask them and they are not applied linguists” (Long, 1985: 89)

target tasks and pedagogic tasks
Target tasks and pedagogic tasks
  • Pedagogic tasks as increasingly complex approximations of target tasks (Long, 1996; Long and Norris, 2000)
  • Example: Following street directions
    • Listen to fragments of elaborated descriptions while tracing them on a very simple 2-D map.
    • Virtual reality map task. Using video from the target location and audio of the target discourse, complete a simulation of the target task.

(Long, 2007: 129)

target tasks and pedagogic tasks6
Target tasks and pedagogic tasks
  • Tasks should result in a kind of language use that resembles that in the outside world (Ellis, 2003)
    • Work with three other students. You are on a ship that is sinking. You have to swim to a nearby island. You have a waterproof container, but can only carry 20 kilos of items in it. Decide which of the following items you will take (Remember, you can’t take more than 20 kilos with you)
target tasks and pedagogic tasks7
Target tasks and pedagogic tasks
  • Tasks should give rise to a number of interactional and cognitive processes, believed to enhance language learning
    • Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1996: 451-452):

”... negotiation for meaning, and especially negotiation work that triggers interactional adjustments by the NS or the more competent interlocutor, facilitates acquisition because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selective attention, and output in productive ways”

---- Jigsaw tasks/Information gap tasks

target tasks and pedagogic tasks8
Target tasks and pedagogic tasks
  • Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1985, 1995): production of L2 output --- collaborative speaking and writing tasks, group work/pair work
  • Cognitive psychology (e.g. DeKeyser, 2001; Schmidt, 1998; Robinson, 2001; Skehan, 1998; Doughty and Williams, 1998): conscious noticing and analyzing L2 forms ----- input enhancement, focus on form, error correction, explicit teaching
methodological principles for tblt
Methodological principles for TBLT

1 Use tasks, not texts, as the unit of analysis

2 Promote learning by doing

3 Elaborate input

4 Provide rich input

5 Encourage inductive learning

6 Focus on form

7 Provide negative feedback

8 Respect learner syllabuses/develop-mental processes

9 Promote collaborative learning

10 Individualize instruction

(Doughty and Long, 2003)

two questions
Two questions
  • To what extent can we expect these cleverly designed tasks to elicit the same kind of interactional work and cognitive processing in authentic classrooms?
  • To what extent do these cleverly designed tasks really promote the students’ ability to use the target language outside the classroom?
teachers working with tasks
Teachers working with tasks

Language teachers are “active, thinking decision-makers who make instructional choices by drawing on complex, practically-oriented, personalized, and context-sensitive networks of knowledge, thoughts and beliefs” (Borg, 2003: 81)

putting principles to work
Putting principles to work…

3 Elaborate input

4 Provide rich input

Teachers reducing task complexity, avoiding to confront learners with challenges, with things they haven’t fully acquired yet

In task-supported teaching, “tasks are seen not as a means by which learners acquire new knowledge or restructure their interlanguages but simply as a way by which learners can activate their existing knowledge of the L2 by developing fluency” (Ellis, 2003: 30)

putting principles to work13
Putting principles to work

2 Promote learning by doing

8 Respect learner syllabuses/developmental processes

9 Promote cooperative/collaborative learning

Teachers’ need to maintain control

An example: Radio Tika task (cf. Berben, Van den Branden & Van Gorp, 2007)

radio tika
Radio Tika
  • Create a radio news bulletin, using Dutch (main medium of instruction) and other languages
  • 3 primary school teachers were videotaped
  • Grade 6, children aged 12, multilingual classes
  • Result: three different activities
radio tika 3 versions
Radio Tika: 3 versions


Topic control?

Explicit teaching?

Freedom for students

Teacher 1





Teacher 2





Teacher 3





putting principles to work16
Putting principles to work

6 Focus on form

7 Provide negative feedback

Poor integration of focus on form in meaningful activity

Inconsistent feedback and error correction behaviour

the same task
The same task?
  • Teachers reconstruct a given task, based on
    • Their cognitions on language education
    • Their personal needs, skills, and teaching style
    • The context in which they operate
    • Their perceptions of their students

= Turning tasks into personal task intentions (“intended tasks”)

task motivation d rnyei 2002
Task motivation (Dörnyei, 2002)
  • Task motivation is influenced by:
    • Learner characteristics
    • Features of the task
    • Learning environment
    • Learner’s task-related beliefs
      • Expectancy of successful task completion (“expected task”)
      • Personal goal setting (“intended task”)
a process oriented model of task motivation
A process-oriented model of task motivation

Preactional stage

- setting goals that are worthwhile to pursue

- perceiving the task as a reasonable challenge (goal can be reached, gap can be bridged)

Actional stage:

- maintaining task motivation through action-control processes

Postactional stage:

- evaluating past experiences

- determining future activities

(Dörnyei, 2002)

school effectiveness research
School effectiveness research

Teachers tailor their instructional practices to their perception of the academic level of the group of students.

“This refers to the concept of ‘didactic fit’: adjustment of curriculum, learning materials, method of instruction, effective learning time, assessment, etc. to the ability level of the class (Dar & Resh, 1986, 1994). In most classes, the content and pace of teaching are geared to the middle level of ability in that class. In lower classes, there is a more limited academic focus, poor use of instructional time and a reduced opportunity to learn…” ( De Fraine et al., 2002: 424)

overt and covert task activity
Overt and covert task activity
  • Underneath the actual verbal exchange lies a particularly strong current of highly personalised non-verbal mental activity: task intentions and assessments influence task activity, and vice versa
  • Task intentions, expectations and actions are fed by previous experiences and beliefs
  • One person’s task perceptions and actions can have a strong impact on interlocutors’ task perceptions and actions, and on the earning potential of the task
  • The need for classroom-based, process-oriented research to explore these issues
  • Teachers’ crucial role in TBLT
high quality interaction
Interactional support

Integrated in functional tasks

In line with student’s task intentions

Linked with students’ current behaviour, needs and level

Assigning active role to student and promoting active thinking


Learning is






Individually different

(De Corte et al, 2003)

High-quality interaction
making interactional decisions
Making interactional decisions

Teacher intuition estimating effect sizes:

If learner(s) exhibit behaviour X, and my reaction is Y, what will be the effect on:

- the process of task performance (estimate based on analysis of ongoing process)

- the product(s) coming out of task performance (based on comparison between task goals and current product)

- language learning (based on knowledge of curriculum goals (target tasks) and knowledge of how language learning comes about)

training teachers
Training teachers
  • Explicit teaching won’t suffice
  • A need for intensive and sustained support
    • Communication and support networks
    • Providing teacher aids
    • Creating favourable conditions
    • Promoting and supporting teachers’ professional development
teacher training
Teacher training
  • Task-based as well…
  • Training in real operating conditions
  • Alernating action and reflection
  • Cf. Van den Branden, 2006
cycle of reflection korthagen 1993
Cycle of reflection (Korthagen, 1993)
  • Classroom experience
  • Reflection (detailed analysis)
  • Raising essential aspects of current and previous classroom experiences to consciousness
  • Searching for alternatives
  • Trying new ideas out in new classroom experiences
different worlds
Different worlds?
  • Lack of empirical research
  • Task-based language assessment
  • Studies of SLA/FLA in naturalistic settings
    • Second language studies
    • Study abroad (foreign language students)
integrating the two worlds
Integrating the two worlds
  • Creating favourable conditions for real-world L2 use in the classroom and for building self-confidence
  • Training communication strategies
  • Assignments with native speakers
  • Integrated language learning, e.g.:
    • Vocational training
    • School-based training
    • Through the use of multimedia
  • “If task-based teaching is to make the shift from theory to practice it will be necessary to go beyond the psycholinguistic rationale (…) and to address the contextual factors that ultimately determine what materials and procedures teachers choose.” (Ellis, 2003: 337).
  • Towards a process-oriented approach to classroom-based research and teacher training
  • Focus on people, on how they interact during task performance, rather than on tasks alone
  • Berben, M., Van den Branden, K., & Van Gorp, K. (2007). “We’ll see what happens.” Tasks on paper and tasks in a multilingual classroom. In K. Van den Branden, K. Van Gorp & M. Verhelst (Eds.), Tasks in Action. Task-based language education from a classroom-based perspective (pp. 32-67). Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Borg, S. (2003). Teacher cognition in language teaching: A review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do. Language Teaching, 36, 81-109.
  • De Corte, E., Verschaffel, L., Entwhistle, N., & Van Merriënboer, J. (eds.) (2003). Powerful learning environments: Unravelling basic components and dimensions. Oxford: Pergamon.
  • De Fraine, B., J. Van Damme, & P. Onghena, (2002). Accountability of schools and teachers: what should be taken into account? In: European Educational Research Journal, 1. 403-428.
  • DeKeyser, R. (2001). Automaticity and automatization. In P. Robinson (ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 125-51). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dörnyei, Z. (2002). The motivational basis of language learning tasks. In P. Robinson (ed.), Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning (pp. 137-158). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Doughty, C., & Long, M. (2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 7, 50-80.
  • Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (1998). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Korthagen, F. (1993). Het logboek als middel om reflectie door a.s. leraren te bevorderen. VELON Tijdschrift, 15, 27-34
  • Long, M. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: Task-based language teaching. In K. Hylstenstam & M. Pienemann (eds.), Modelling and assessing second language acquisition (pp. 77-99). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Long, M. (1996), The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition, in W. Ritchie & T. Bhatia (eds.), Handbook of Language Acquisition. Vol. 2: Second Language Acquisition (pp. 413-468). New York: Academic Press.
  • Long, M. (2007). Problems in SLA. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Long, M., & Norris, J. (2000). Task-based teaching and assessment. In M. Byram (ed.), Encyclopedia of language teaching (pp. 597-603). London: Routledge.
references continued
References (continued)
  • Robinson, P. (ed.) (2001). Cognition and second language instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schmidt, R. (1998). The centrality of attention in SLA. In J. Brown (ed.), University of Hawai’i Working Papers in ESL, 16, 1-34. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i.
  • Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 3-32). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition (pp. 235-256). Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.
  • Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In: G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (eds.), Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H.G. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 125-144.
  • Van den Branden, K. (2006). Task-based language teaching: from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.