In the history of language teaching, there have been a number of theoretical models developed to guide teachers to the ideal method to help their students acquire, and learn a native or second language. Research into how students learn has shown that people learn in different ways, and thus different methods and types of activities are required to facilitate an immersive learning environment that allows each student to learn effectively. The main focus of this discussion will be about the Task Based Language Learning (TBLL) model, including its history and development, advantages and disadvantages, various theoretical components, etc.

The concept of TBLL grew out of an observation that students could learn language more effectively if the language was presented in the context of everyday, practical, and interesting tasks. Examples of such tasks could be going to see a doctor at a clinic or a hospital, conducting an interview, shopping at a supermarket, mailing a letter at the post office, checking in to a hotel, or boarding an aircraft at the airport. TBLL grew out of communicative language teaching, and is considered a subcategory of it. Instructors moved to TBLL for a number of reasons; one being that a task based curriculum is needed in order to make language truly communicative, in direct opposition to the pseudo-communication that a student receives from more traditional classroom activities derived from non-real world activities.

One of the key features of TBLL is that the student is the focal point of the lesson. This is contrary to what is usually the case in most teaching methodologies, where teachers are the focal point of the lesson. TBLL was made popular by N.S. Prabhu while he was working in Bangalore, India in the 1980's. He observed that his students could just as easily learn language through linguistic problems as they could with non-linguistic problems. [1] Prabhu also was of the belief that tasks were a way to tap into a learner's natural mechanisms for second language acquisition. [2] TBLL has allowed teachers and students to concentrate on how language is used to achieve understanding between people, and how language can be used to accomplish certain tasks. It is a major departure from the widely used PPP model, since it has moved the third stage (production) to the starting point of the lesson, instead of putting it at the end.

A typical TBLL lesson consists of a three step procedure which is as follows:

  1. The Pre Task
  2. The Task Cycle
  3. Language Focus

The pre-task consists of the teacher introducing the topic, and explaining the task to the class. The task cycle is made up of all the different parts of the task that were assigned to the class in the pre task; the students plan the task, gather the language and information to do it, and then produce the piece of writing or spoken performance. In the end phase, the language focus, the class analyzes the language they used in the task, making adjustments and revisions as necessary. [3]

Like almost anything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to Task Based Language Learning. The main advantage of TBLL that is most often cited by proponents of the model is that it is student centric. Although the teacher may present language in the pre-task, students have free rein to experiment with whatever grammar constructs and vocabulary they wish. This enables students to employ the language they already know as well as the new language being taught in that lesson, instead of only using just the ‘target language’ of the particular lesson. It is also highly likely that the students will be familiar with the tasks being used in the lesson, such as mailing a letter at the post office. Thus, the students will be more enriched and fulfilled in their language learning, and will be motivated to continue learning. Some other advantages are that TBLL allows for meaningful communication, and often provides for practical extra linguistic skill building.

When it comes to beginner level students, TBLL may not be the best method for teaching. This is because beginner level students need a substantial amount of comprehensible input to grasp the entirety of the language, and TBLL focuses on the output of the target language. Another perceived shortcoming often cited by critics, is that TBLL only focuses on certain uses of language, and neglects others, such as debate or discussion.

To fully understand what makes up the heart and soul of a task based language learning lesson, a framework of its characteristics needs to be outlined. D.Nusan identifies five characteristics of a TBLL lesson, they are:

  1. An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts (teaching materials) into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus not only on language, but also on the learning process itself.
  4. An enhancement of the learner's own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language with language activation outside the classroom. [4]

The preceding discussion talked about the elements make up a TBLL lesson in general. However, what are the elements that make up the core component of TBLL, the task? Rod Ellis outlined four characteristics that define a task, which are:

  1. A task involves a primary focus on (pragmatic) meaning.
  2. A task has some kind of ‘gap’
  3. The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome. [5]

As shown in the second characteristic of a task, every task has some kind of problem-solution equation that needs to be bridged; this is referred to as a ‘gap’ by N.S. Prabhu, who identified three kinds of gaps. The first one is called an information gap, which is a transfer of information from one person to another, from one place to another, or from one form to another. It generally calls for the decoding or encoding of information from or into language. One example of an information gap task is paired group-work, where each member of the pair has one half of the information, and must convey it to the other verbally. The second gap is known as the reasoning gap, which requires students to use given information to produce new information through inference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns. An example of this kind of activity is a ‘choose the best course of action’ exercise, where the students are given information about a stated problem, and must select the optimum solution. The last type is the opinion gap, which involves students giving their personal opinion, view, feelings, or attitude about a given topic. An example of an opinion activity is story completion or discussion of a social issue. [6]

In order to operate a TBLL classroom in the matter discussed above, a teacher will need appropriate activities to conduct their classes. The following discussion contains a number of examples for such activities.

Activities involving the direct use and handling of products of a culture, such as postcards, photographs, symbols, and images in song lyrics, can be very effective in the classroom. One such activity called Culture Composition developed by Tomalin and Stempleski (1998), has as its purpose the development of writing skills, as well as the recognition of cultural artifacts. The teacher hands out various pieces of regalia, collected from travels abroad to English speaking countries, such as bus or air tickets, receipts, coupons, money, and photographs. The items are mixed up and in random order. Students are put into groups of two or three. They identify each item, and then make up a story about their set of items. The groups present their stories to the rest of the class, each person in the group taking a turn to tell part of the story. As an item occurs in the story, it is shown to the class and placed on the table. When all groups have finished, the students write their own individual version of their story. For these types of activities which teach culture, a task oriented approach is suggested. Students work together in pairs or small groups to fine tune precise information. They share and discuss what they have discovered, and interpret the information within the context of the target culture and in comparison their own culture.

One way to focus students' attention on developing real world listening skills is through listening activities. This activity called Eavesdropping, developed by Porter and Roberts (1987), teaches strategies for listening. Students are told that they are guests at a party and that they can eavesdrop on conversations. They listen to short segments of real-world party conversations and complete a worksheet in which they note down what topic the people are talking about. They also indicate on the worksheet whether they are interested in the topic or not. Follow up activities could include eavesdropping in the real world settings where English is spoken, taking notes on what is heard and reporting back to the class.

Many creative approaches for using video in the classroom are given by Stempleski and Tomalin (1990). One idea is through silent viewing clips to let students consider what is going on, and guess what the speakers are doing and saying. Another approach would be for students to watch only the beginning of a video clip, and then they must predict what will happen next. Also, teachers could present a video clip through split viewing; half of the class sits with their back to the screen; the other half can see the screen; and both groups can hear. Pairs then come together after the split viewing, and recreate the story. In all activities like these, a task based approach is suggested. Teachers need to decide what, if any, language needs to be pre-taught. Students' attention should be focused on particular viewing tasks. The teacher should decide what particular language points are to be taught, what follow-up activities will be used, and what student worksheets need to be prepared. If possible, it is helpful to make transcripts of the dialogue from the video clip for review later with the students.

Another approach would be to set up a simulation of some real-world scenarios in which students familiarize themselves with the details through interaction with authentic materials. Then the students have to play a certain role in the scenario and communicate with others in a realistic manner while attempting to accomplish certain tasks.

The aim of analysis activities is to encourage learners to investigate language for themselves, and to form and test their own hypotheses about how language works. In the task-based cycle, the language data comes from the texts or transcripts of recordings used in the task cycle, or from samples of language they have read or heard in earlier lessons. Having already processed these texts and recordings for meaning, students will get far more out of their study of language form.

Analysis activities can be followed by quick bursts of oral or written practice, or dictionary reference work (see Willis & Willis, 1996 for specific ideas). Finally, students need time to note down useful words, phrases, and patterns into a language notebook. Regular revision of these will help vocabulary acquisition.

As the preceding discussion has shown, task based language learning was developed by using real world educational environmental observations about how people actually acquire a second language. Using genuine, every-day, and common errands as the vehicle for teaching language that can applied to the students' life, a task-based lesson can be extremely beneficial in building up a strong foundation for fluency in a second language. TBLL activities are particularly effective, because of the fact that they take into account that people have different learning styles, and thus need to have different types of stimuli to learn at the highest level possible. It also takes information which the student already knows, and allows the student to apply that information to the new second language. Despite all the positives of task based language learning there is still at least one drawback, that being due to the nature of TBLL using already existing knowledge to produce output of the target language; it is not the best choice of methods for beginner level students, who need a massive amount of input rather than output. We here at CIFLE fully endorse the task based language learning model, and encourage all teachers to use it in their classrooms.


  1. CIFLE (2012). A New Challenge: A Fresh Insight into TEE. Gongju: CIFLE Press.
  2. Doff, Adrian (1988). Teach English: A Training Course for Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Ellis, Rod (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics.
  4. Halliwell, Susan (1992). Teaching English in the Primary Classroom. Essex: Pearson Education.
  5. Harmer, Jeremy (2001). The Practice of English Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Essex: Pearson Education.
  6. Harmer, Jeremy (2007). How to Teach English. Essex: Pearson Education.
  7. Leaver, Betty Lou; Willis, Jane Rosemary (2004). Task-Based Instruction In Foreign Language Education: Practices and Programs. Georgetown University Press.
  8. Nunan, David (1989). Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Nunan, David (2004). Task Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Prabhu, N.S. (1987). Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] Jeremy Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching (Essex: Pearson Education, 2001), 86.

[2] Betty Lou Leaver and Jane Rosemary Willis, Task-Based Instruction In Foreign Language Education: Practices and Programs (Washington,D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004) , 7-8.

[3] Jeremy Harmer, How to Teach English (Essex: Pearson Education,2007), 51.

[4] David Nunan, Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 279.

[5] Rod Ellis, Task-based Language Learning and Teaching (Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics) .

[6] N.S. Prabhu, Second Language Pedagogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 46-48.

Hero image by the National Library of Ireland (public domain).