Task-based learning

Author: Martin Bygate


Tasks have a major role within language pedagogy, for educational as well as linguistic reasons. Courses studying task-based learning tend to explore the topic in terms of five major themes - the basis for using tasks; empirical research into tasks; in terms of socio-cultural and cognitive approaches; tasks and interpersonal engagements; tasks and tests; and task complexity. The entry summarises the range of teaching procedures that can be used to study the topic.

Table of contents


Pedagogy can be defined as systematic intervention to promote change in students' thinking, knowledge and behaviour. Clearly this requires activities designed to direct learners' attention to relevant areas of knowledge and behaviour, so leading them to review, add to, reorganise or exercise their current capacities. The idea that intended change can be achieved simply by describing the relevant abilities and bodies of knowledge and leaving learners to work out their own ways of memorising and using them has long been rejected. Furthermore, current views on the need for the curriculum to meet students' real world needs implies that classroom activities should reflect those needs. Tasks - defined as "pedagogic activities in which language is used to achieve non-linguistic outcomes but with the overall purpose of improving learners' language proficiency" - are, then, a particularly appropriate tool of pedagogic intervention.

Views on the nature of language offer a second strong theoretical reason for the interest in language learning tasks. Through much of the 20th century, linguists increasingly came to view language as a complex communication system, involving not only grammatical abilities, but a whole range of dimensions. These include: (1) those at the level of broad discourse structures; (2) the ability to adjust lexical and discoursal patterns to the social context; (3) the more local ability to formulate acceptable speech acts in an appropriate manner; and (4) the most specific level of acceptable lexico-grammatical and phonological realisations. Such a view highlights the multi-dimensional and integrated nature of language, resources at one level being used in conjunction with those at other levels. While language is always going to emerge as linear performance, that linearity is now seen as involving the interweaving of choices concerning each of the many levels of language use. In addition, a full account of language is seen as reflecting the fact that it is situated within socio-cognitive contexts - functioning both ideationally and interpersonally. Such a view places particular demands on language learning activities: it is not possible for activities to concentrate on a single dimension of language; some at least are needed which can simultaneously bring the different dimensions together. Linguistic and pedagogic thinking then converge in seeing communication tasks as a relevant development within language pedagogy. There is little doubt that the major issue in the area of task-based learning is the relationship between task design and language learning, the question being how knowledge about how tasks work can be used in improving their design and use.

The study of task-based learning is currently most likely to be structured around five main themes. The first concerns the pedagogical and historical bases for the use of tasks within the language curriculum, including the role of tasks within pedagogical theory, early projects in task-based language teaching, and a consideration of three main ways in which tasks can be used within the syllabus. (I) In task-based syllabuses, the syllabus is defined by a sequence of tasks, and tasks provide the central context for learning; (II) in task-referenced syllabuses, tasks are used principally to define the target teaching and learning outcomes; (III) in task-supported syllabuses, tasks serve only as one pedagogical tool among many, to achieve goals defined in other ways. The second main theme concerns empirical research into pedagogical tasks. This is likely to be divided into socio-cultural and cognitive approaches to the study of tasks. Cognitive approaches to the study of language learning tasks are then currently conveniently divided into four main subsections. (a) Tasks and language features, considering the impact of task selection on the students' use of particular features of discourse and the lexico-grammar. (b) Tasks and interaction patterns, focusing on the extent to which task design can impact on the ways in which students interact in the classroom. (c) Tasks and language processing, considering the ways in which tasks can influence the way in which learners focus on fluency, accuracy and complexity. (d) Tasks and task repetition, exploring ways in which variants on the same task can be used to exploit learners' familiarity with it, in order to extend their awareness and control of language. The third main theme is the extent to which interpersonal involvement and negotiation can impact on the quality of learning. A fourth theme is the use of tasks in tests, drawing on studies of task data to study the impact of task design on performance. The final theme, task complexity, is a section which draws together the material studied so far, with a view to considering ways in which differences in task complexity can be exploited pedagogically within schemes of work, through the syllabus and at different levels of proficiency.

The topic is most effectively taught through a combination of lectures; critical presentation and discussion of readings; data analysis; evaluation of task design based on transcripts, or task implementation, and course book and syllabus analysis.

Referencing this article

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  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008. http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.
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    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.