Since the 80s, there has been great focus on the importance of interaction as a key element for SLA. Rather than having students simply memorising sentences through drilling or by placing grammar as a central aspect of acquisition, interaction has been paramount for SLA. In great part of the 21st century, focus on form was almost absolute as teaching and learning model. Examples range from audiolingualism to PPP. They are ” based on the assumption that learning is additive, that we acquire one form, then move on to the next which is mastered in turn and so on. But language learning is much more complicated than this. “It is a complex process of formulating and checking hypothesis about language” (Willis, 2007, p177). The same author states that:
“If students are to learn how to communicate efficiently, it is vital for them to have more equal opportunities for interaction in the classroom” (1996, p 18).
Long (1983) suggests that “modified interaction is the necessary mechanism for making language comprehensible” (Spada, 2006, p150). Learners then, when interacting and working to reach mutual understanding, test their hypothesis about language and get positive or negative feedback from the interlocutor. In case feedback is positive, the structure was able to carry the intended meaning and will be part of the speakers` linguistic repertoire. However, in case the feedback is negative, i.e. the listener asks for clarification or demands further explanation, the speaker has to look for other linguistic resources to convey meaning, which demands interlanguage reformulation. This meaning negotiation is essential for language acquisition and it prompts speakers and learners to focus on the meaning that is being conveyed. Ellis states that “when there’s interaction, learners perform functions in the language that they could not perform by themselves” (2003, p 24). Vygotsky`s idea of scaffolding takes place when there is meaningful interaction in the classroom as one more experienced learner (peer teaching) can assist the other.
Interaction, then, allows learners to be central in the learning process. Another proeminent EFL author, Hedge, emphasises that “interaction pushes learners to produce more accurate and appropriate language, which, itself, provides input for other students” (2000 p 13). Learners choose the most appropriate language possible to express their ideas and thoughts. It also allows peer teaching as “an arrow can be drawn from “output” to “input” to show that what a learner says or writes can also serve as samples of language from which intake can be derived” (Ellis, 2003, 35). Moreover, “all studies have found that interactionally modified input assists comprehension” (Ellis, 2003, p 52).
When students are interacting, they are more exposed to the language than in a teacher-fronted, traditional class as “learners in a class that is divided into five groups get five times as many opportunities to talk as in full-class organization” (Ur, 1991, p 232.). Learners have to understand what their peers are uttering and make linguistic choices based on their peer’s speech. If learners know that in class they will be expected to make real use of the target language themselves, this leads them to devote more attention to what they hear and read, and to process the input more analytically, noticing useful features of language” (willis, 1996, p 13).
Thus, using themselves the language, students are able to recycle their linguistic resources, using language items when they are necessary and not only because the course syllabus, which, in more traditional settings, tend to dictate what students ought to produce. Willis also states that “through interaction, learners have the chance to acquire the range of discourse skills they need in order to manage their own conversations, and to control the level and kind of input they receive” (1996, p 13).
What is TBL (Task Based Lesson)?
Task based teaching is a method centred in the use of tasks which aims at having students focus on meaning rather than form in order to achieve a goal. In this view, form is second to meaning. Rather than having students focusing on grammar, the shift moves to what students do in real life i.e. using language to reach goals. Language then becomes a vehicle, not an objective per se.
Focus on meaning makes TBL different from other methods and approaches such as grammar translation and audiolingualism. This difference brings many advantages for learners. Focus on meaning can attest how learners perform in real-time communication. Furthermore, it helps learners structure and restructure their interlanguage. As Willis puts it, TBL “provides opportunities for both spontaneous and planned speaking and writing. It provides learners with the motivation to improve and build on whatever language they already have” (1996, p 1).
The lesson is centred on the accomplishment of a task. However, There’s disagreement among authors about what a task is. For the purpose of this text I use the idea of Tasks proposed Bygate, Skehan and Swain (2001), ” A task is an activity which requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain to an objective.” (Ellis, 2003, p 5). The aim of a task, for Jane Willis, “is to create a real purpose for language use and provide natural context for language study” (1996, p1)
The objective of the task must be related to real life ones i.e. doing a presentation, decide on which restaurant to go or what to buy for the company’s end of year party. The teacher does not have control over the language students are going to use. Therefore, students are pushed to the limits of their linguistic resources, promoting acquisition from the use of the language and from the input from their peers. This is in line with Ellis conclusions that “what a learner says or writes can also serve as samples of language from which intake is derived” (1997, p 35).
In a task-based lesson, students have their focus on using language to achieve an outcome. In order to do that they have to use language as means, in meaningful interactions. This is of great importance as “when learners are given the opportunity to engage in interaction, they are compelled to negotiate for meaning,that is, to express and clarify their intentions, thoughts, opinions etc., in a way that permits them to arrive at mutual understanding.” (Spada, 2006, p150).
According to Jane Willis, students are first primed for the task (pre-task phase). The teacher explores the topic with the group, highlighting important chunks of language or by showing how a native/proficient user of the language does a similar task. This can be done with an audio, an anecdote, a video or any useful reference of how the task can be done. This model is of great importance as learners will rely on that model to accomplish the task. However, the model is exactly what the name suggests. It can`t hinder students use of the language to a point that the learners can`t be free to use the language they have or feel more confident with.
Students then have the chance to do the task themselves (task stage). The teacher only monitors and takes notes of the language used. According to Willis, “in the privacy of a small group, with the teacher monitoring from a distance, learner are more likely to experiment and take risks with new language if the atmosphere is supportive” ( 1996, p 7). It is very important that the teacher does not interfere in that stage. Students must be prepared to do the task in the pre planning stage and as they get to the task stage, they must do it themselves, resorting to peer teaching, their interlanguage and the model provided previously. “So, instead of a teacher-initiated focus on form, we have learners exploring the language in response to a need to express required meanings” (Willis, 2007, p 24). This allows learners to explore their interlanguage and primes them for a focus on their learning gap later on, in a correction slot or a focus on form.
As learners accomplish the task (or in case they can’t accomplish it) they then plan a report telling others students how they did the task and what obstacles were found. It can be oral or written. Each group sends a student to represent the group and tell the whole class how they performed the task and they compare the results. Students also talk about their success in achieving their aims and the strategies they used.
A focus on language follows, which makes this a strong end task based lesson. As students have already focused on meaning, they are more prepared to focus on form. As students were made aware of their learning gap and how it hindered their communication, they feel the need of improving their language by focusing on the meaning, form and pronunciation of the target language in need.
This focus on form can be done as in a PPP (presentation, practice, production) lesson, without the need of a contextualisation stage (as students are already contextualised with the setting for the target language in a correction slot). The latter brings into the open the good and not appropriate language used Moreover, the production stage could be a task repetition. In this stage, grammar may be highlighted in its meaning, form, use and pronunciation. This is also in line with second language acquisition research as Hedge advocates that “a focus on grammar and the explicit learning of rules can facilitate and speed up the grammar acquisition process”. (2000, p 151). A focus on form can have a place in TBL but only secondary to meaning. As Ellis suggests, “Tasks, then, have to be designed in ways that will ensure a primary focus on meaning, but also allow for incidental attention to form” (2003, p 208). This is in agreement with Willis as “the basic characteristic of a task-based approach is that meaning is primary to form and comes before a focus on form. In a language focus stage students` language is analysed and discussed. It can be through a correction slot and a guided discovery chart (noticing hypothesis) or through elicitation of the target language and focus on meaning, form, pronunciation and use. A task repetition stage can follow as students can have another opportunity to do a similar task. This is also related to second language acquisition research as “several researchers have found that asking learners to repeat a task has a marked interactive effect” (Ellis 2003 p97).
In sum, a TBL lesson can be divided into three main stages: pre-task (introduction to the topic and task), task cycle (task, planning and report) and language focus (analysis and practice). A task repetition stage can also follow but it is not as essential as the other three. It doesn’t mean that it is not important. It only means that in a task based lesson focus on meaning is more important than focus on form. There are, however, many benefits for having a focus on form just after the focus on meaning since “several researchers have found that asking learners to repeat a task has a marked interactive effect” (Ellis, 2003, p 96). Learners then may cover their learning gap and restructure their interlanguage by noticing the features of the target language. This focus on form follows the task cycle, “they involve learners in a study of the language forms that were actually used or needed during the cycle (Willis, 1996, p 102).
A task based lesson allows students more time to interact and use language in a less restricted way, giving them more choices over which language they would use. As Ellis states, “the work plan does not specify what language the task participants should use but allows them to choose” (2003, p 9). Students` talking time is dramatically increased when learners do a task that demands them to work cooperatively. Task based lessons bring out students views about language and hypothesis about it into the classroom. It promotes meaningful interaction, group work, peer teaching, interlanguage reformulation and meaning negotiation.
It is important to emphasise that when learners are engaged in accomplishing tasks, they resort to a number of grammatical features, discourse markers and vocabulary that students may not be fully aware of but are willing to try in the classroom. Thus, by creating the necessary conditions for meaningful interaction, students are primed to notice their learning gap and language in need. Moreover, by having them interacting in small groups the necessary conditions for peer teaching and meaning negotiation are fostered.
The preparation stage allows students to brainstorm what they will say in the task phase. They, then, have the opportunity to make the task related to their lives. As Hedge says, “it has been claimed that personalisation practice makes language more memorable” (2000 p 274).
The task stage prompts students to share their experiences in a more natural and spontaneous way as they are now focused on accomplishing the task using the model to draw on. They then interact, clarify misunderstandings and negotiate meaning. The planning stage also encourages peer teaching which is crucial for group bonding and acquisition. Weaker students can benefit from stronger ones and the latter can reinforce their knowledge by providing input to their peers. The report stage is the moment when students focus the most on accuracy. As Willis states, “what is of vital importance is to acknowledge that students are offering them as the best they can achieve at that moment, given the linguistic resources available” (1996 p 58).
A correction slot is really welcome in the end of the lesson. As students noticed their learning gap and used the best of their linguistic repertoire. Good language may also be shown but students have to, in their groups, spot the appropriate language and correct the inappropriate ones. Again, opportunities for interaction are now recreated since students have to discuss about the language on the board, using metalanguage and resorting to themselves to make the necessary improvements on the language on the board.
TBL lessons can be adapted for lower levels or more advanced ones. Lower level learners are expected to use simpler grammatical constructions and vocabulary that is more restricted whereas more advanced learners will show a broader lexical repertoire and more advanced grammar. BE (business English) and ESP (English for specific purposes) may benefit from TBL. The former may be primed to talk about a difficult business negotiation and the latter about a difficult week at university or his/her area of expertise.
Ellis, Rod. (1997) Second Language Acquisition. 9th ed. Oxford University Press.
Ellis, Rod. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford University Press.
Hedge, Tricia. (2000)Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford University Press.
Spada, Nina, Lightbown, Patsy M. (2006) How Languages Are Learned.Oxford University Press:
Ur, Penny. (2011) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice of Theory. 19TH ed. Cambridge University Press.
Willis, Jane; Willis Dave. (2007) Doing task-based teaching. Oxford University Press.
Willis, Jane. (1996) A framework for task-based learning. 1st ed.Longman.