A task-based approach to reading | Module 1 Reflections


It’s the beginning of the second week on this Coursera MOOC offered by the University of London and I’m already slightly embarrassed at the gaps in my knowledge. Here are some latent assumptions I discovered I’d been carrying around. I …

  • associated TBA with group work
  • used TBA primarily for speaking or writing-based outcomes
  • referred to activities and tasks interchangeably as if they were the same thing.

I do know the distinction between tasks and activities and was able to identify it accurately in one of the reflection exercise (before they displayed the answer, I swear!) When I introspected, I realized that it might have something to do with the connotations of the words – activity & task- and how I presuppose my clients perceive them. I suspect they see activity as a filler, something frivolous and fun, that provides relief from learning rather than facilitating it. Task seems to have so much more gravitas.

Technically tasks are a type of activity that facilitate learning linked to core outcomes. So, what exactly makes a second language activity a pedagogic task?

Traditional classroom activities often involve decontexualized language use and often focus on a particular aspect of language such as grammar or vocabulary (Skehan, 1996)

In contrast, pedagogic tasks are characterised by four features.

  • meaning is primary
  • there is some communicative problem to solve
  • there is some sort of relationship with real-world activities
  • the assessment of task is in terms of a task outcome

With pedagogic tasks, our primary focus is on whether the communicative purpose has been achieved, not the quality of the language. For example, describing an illness to a doctor, telling a story based on pictures, listening to an academic lecturer, or writing a cover letter for a job application. The course facilitators suggest that we often incorrectly believe that tasks can only be used for oral outcomes and that in reality, tasks can cover all four skills.

Many typical classroom activities can be somewhat deceptive because they seem communicative and task-like on the surface. For example, a ‘you say, your partner says’ type template for having a conversation is not a task according to Rod Ellis because learners are only required to identify appropriate language to convey meaning which is already provided in the exercise. This activity doesn’t lead to a non-linguistic outcome and the focus is on grammar instead of meaning. There is also no communicative problem to solve.

However, exercises with purely linguistic outcomes could be adapted to incorporate the affordances of pedagogic tasks. The course illustrated this through the example of a restaurant role play using a menu. The existing activity gets Ss to use a structured dialogue to order some food. The only choice they have in the activity is the food they order. If there was no task input by way of dialogue and learners had to work with some constraints such as a limited budget or allergies, we may have the frame for a task where the emphasis is on meaning and problem solving. The language used during the task may then mirror an authentic conversation.  Another example of tweaking a communicative activity to make it more akin to a task is to ask Ss to prepare a summary of findings after a ‘find someone who’ activity in the form of a graph or a report. The course facilitator suggested that although this activity is partly focused on meaning, in execution, Ss tend to focus on the form – past perfect or question forms instead of engaging in real conversation.

Types of tasks 

I could only recall three types of tasks that I generally use: guided discovery tasks, structured sharing tasks, and application tasks – and I’m not even sure if the first two are technically tasks. The course, however, presented many, many more. They come in pairs and I’ve summarised them in this table:

Target tasks are those that people do in the real world e.g., writing an executive summary if you’re a business professional. Pedagogic tasks are graded versions of target tasks that language learners work on in a lesson e.g., filling out only the personal details section of a job application form (complete a target task with pedagogic objective).
One way tasks are those where one participant has all the information to be conveyed.

This individual does most of the talking or writing, e.g.,, one S talks to the other S where to place some items on a floor plan, as if instructing someone from a moving company

Two-way tasks require all the participants to participate equally for the communicative problem to be solved e.g., a spot the difference task.
Open tasks have no predetermined outcome that the Ss need to achieve e.g., Ss take random pictures and form a story sequence. Closed tasks require Ss need to reach a predetermined solution which is often the correct answer e.g., an objective ranking exercise.
Convergent tasks get Ss to to reach consensus about the task outcome e.g., how to allocate funding to community projects. Divergent tasks don’t require Ss to agree about the task solution e.g., learners discuss pros and cons of issues such as ways of tacking pollution.
Unfocused tasks do not have a predetermined language focus. Focused tasks are constructed to induce the use of particular linguistic constructions e.g., in a spot the difference exercises, Ss ask each other questions.
Input-based tasks do not require production. Learners are expected to primarily engage in listening and reading during task work e.g., listening to an airport announcement and reading for a project. Output based tasks require Ss to produce language, that is, to engage in either speaking or writing.

It seemed as if most of these distinctions were sourced from Rod Ellis. Although I wasn’t familiar with the nomenclature, I use all of these tasks types regularly except open and one-way tasks which I use very rarely. The focus of this MOOC is, as the name suggests, on input-based tasks.

I did find the repeated references to spot the difference and story sequencing activities odd. I don’t see how they mirror real world tasks or indeed fulfill the four part criteria that was shared early on in this module.

What role do tasks play in your teaching?

Tasks play a significant role in my curriculum design. I tend to build my lessons around tasks rather than content items. My approach is influenced by an elearning design methodology called Action Mapping by Cathy Moore which essentially involves visualizing the tasks (although Moore refers to them as activities) that would enable the learner to accomplish the course’s objectives. I then think about how I might want to scaffold the experience which I might attempt by designing and incorporating relevant activities.

The course suggests two approaches to how tasks could influence curriculum design.

In task-based syllabi, the basis of this syllabus is not linguistic constructions … it’s predominantly pedagogic tasks that drive syllabus design. In traditional language teaching, course content is usually specified in terms of linguistic items such as grammar, vocabulary, and functions. A grammatical syllabus for example, might be defined in terms of constructions, such as the present simple, present progressive, and so on.(In task-supported syllabi), tasks play a key role but are not the primary basis for organization. The syllabus may be guided by other elements such as grammar, functions, or lexis. The assessment is not or not entirely defined in terms of tasks.

How do you typically structure a task-based sequence?

I usually have some kind of exercise that activates topic schemata along with a model for how the task could potentially be carried out either in the form of a written or listening text or a video or a demonstration. Learners then carry out the task in a pairs and groups and report back through whole class feedback. Language work or skill-based feedback happens as a post-task stage.

The course in turn presents a fairly conventional Ellisian approach to a task-based sequence:

  • Pre-task stage: activities that enable the Ss to focus on both language and content. This could included language focused activities that introduce new language or recycle exisiting linguistic resource. They could also be content-focused activities which engage learners with the topic of the task. They could do this by rehearsing the same or similar task or observing the performance of a parallel task. The T might allow for planning time and might frame the task by explaining procedure, outcome or by providing background knowledge. The T could also introduce or mobilize task share event language (a fancy term for pre-teaching useful vocabulary).
  • During-task phase: Ss perform the task. The T could adopt a passive or active role.
  • Post-task phase: Ss repeat the task before their peers which might compel them to use a more formal register and more complex structures. Ss could also also be asked to report back to the class about their task outcome. The T may also choose to engage Ss in explicit language focus activities which are referred to as ‘focus on form’ activities by Michael Long. These could potentially target linguistic features that Ss found challenging.

Interestingly, Peter Skehan and Pauline Foster’s research suggests that informing students of such a post-task requirement prior to the performance of the task could induce more attention to form in the during-task phase.

The assignment from this week was to produce an information sheet on tasks and their benefits. Here’s mine:

Lastly, I’m really to happy to see that the course is presented (and perhaps also moderated) by NNESTs and quite impressed with the course overall. Thank you Sandy Millin for recommending it!

The course recommends the following sources for additional reading:

  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language teaching and learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Long, M. (2015). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Samuda, V., & Bygate, M. (2008). Tasks in second language learning. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. M. (Eds.) (2009). Task-based language teaching: A reader.Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

2 thoughts on “A task-based approach to reading | Module 1 Reflections

  1. Hi Adi,
    What a great series of reflections. Even though I’ve just finished the course (thanks for the mention!) and took my own notes throughout, I found this post really useful as a summary that I can return to again and again when thinking about tasks.


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