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The past decade has witnessed the advent of task-based instructional approaches in different names including problem-based learning, situated learning and case-based learning. Though varied in names, they all seem to have one thing in common; they get learners involved with tasks or problems as contrasted with more traditional topic-centered curriculum approaches. (Merrill, 2007). Proponents of task-based learning believe that learners involved with real-world problems form appropriate schema and mental models as they collaboratively solve problems and reflect on their experience. Task-based instructional approaches have been widely adopted across a wide variety of discipline areas including medical training, social work, design, and language learning. This paper will discuss the implication of the task-based approach to second language learning where the method has been increasingly adopted and tried in many language classrooms across the world in the recent past. In this paper, the impact of task-based language learning will be explored with special regard to adult learners whose distinctive characteristics make task-based approaches more plausible and beneficial.
Task-based instruction is a small, yet fast growing, trend in contemporary second language teaching. To give an example, the ERIC database shows over 120 articles on this issue since the beginning of this millennium. In order to discuss task-based learning properly, it is important to understand what the term 'task' means. Task has been defined by various researchers including Nunan (2004) who wrote that "a task is a piece of classroom work that involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language" (p.9). Earlier than Nunan, Jane Willis (1996) defined task as "an activity where the target language is used by the learner for a communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome" (p.23). While definitions vary somewhat among scholars, they all emphasize that pedagogical task involves "communicative language use where users' attention is focused on meaning rather than grammatical form" (Nunan, 2006, p.17).
Stemming from the constructivist theory of learning, task-based instruction has emerged in response to the limitations of the traditional PPP (presentation, practice and performance) paradigm (Ellis, 2003). While the PPP approach is relatively straightforward and well-structured to be easily understood by both students and beginner teachers, it has also been criticized considerably for the characteristic that it is far too teacher-oriented and over controlled. Furthermore, the trend of globalization has urged educators and governments to improve communicative competence among second language learners, and the PPP approach has not been effective in fulfilling the mission. Short, Harste & Burke argued that the behaviorist PPP approach in language instruction has been to set up desired goals independently of the learners or the situation, present language in a structured and linear fashion, then attempt to reinforce the content through non-contextualized practices. As a result, learners end up knowing about the language but not how to use it (as cited in Abdullah, 1998). As an alternative to the PPP paradigm, task-based lesson is designed around authentic and meaningful real-world tasks, which learners are asked to complete collaboratively as they interact among each other making use of all available language resources they own. The approach is based on the fundamental assumption that, as Jeon (2006) noted, language learning is a developmental process promoting communication and social interaction rather than a product acquired by practicing language items, and that "learners learn the target language more effectively when they are naturally exposed to meaningful task-based activities."(p.193)
Task-based approach is recognized as an effective means of developing students' language output and interaction. More student-centered learning environment helps learners exercise greater flexibility in using language, develop linguistic fluency, and allows for meaningful communication. Authentic tasks carefully drawn from real-world situations will keep learners engaged and motivated more easily, which will result in better learning. As Harrington, Oliver and Reeves (2003) have pointed out, more contextualized exercises, as contrasted with academic and decontextualized vacuum, will create a learning environment which will have learners immersed in problem solving within realistic situations. The approach ultimately help teachers bridge the gap between language practically used in real world and unnatural language used within the world of school.
In spite of growing evidence of success, task-based instruction shows some limitations as well. One of the most significant and frequently voiced criticisms is that the method is not as effective or appropriate to lower level language learners with limited prior linguistic knowledge as it is to higher level students. Due to the significant amount of cognitive burden it poses on learners, beginning language learners who are asked to complete a challenging task in the target language often find the situation frustrating and, as a result, develop resistance to the learning method. When asked to use all the language they can muster to express themselves, beginning language learners who are unfamiliar with the learning context may not feel comfortable or productive as if they are thrown to a deep sea when they cannot swim (Willis, 1996). In task-based learning classrooms, frustration is not only with learners but with teachers as well. In his survey conducted among English as Second Language (ESL) teachers in East Asian countries, Littlewood (2007) found out that key obstacles to adopting task-based instructional approach in their classrooms were; 1) difficulties getting unmotivated students participate in tasks that usually require a higher level of motivation and enthusiasm from learners, and 2) inability to manage classroom as students get easily distracted and become noisy as they engage in group interaction to complete tasks collaboratively.
While these difficulties tend to arise more conspicuously in classrooms involving younger students, adult learners may benefit more from task-based instruction. In general, adult learners demonstrate distinctive characteristics that set them apart from younger learners, and some of these learning characteristics make task-based approach more plausible and appropriate for adult learners. Knowles (1990) developed adult learning theory of Andragogy based on the following assumptions: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something, (2) Adults need to learn experientially, (3) Adults are life-centered (or task- or problem-centered) in their orientation to learning, (4) Adults become ready to learn when their life situation create a need to learn, (5) Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, and (6) Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors rather than external ones. According to these assumptions, adult learners are more motivated and more eager to learn than younger learners, have clearer goals and needs than younger learners who often might be learning a language only because it is required, and take control of their own learning. They are also oriented towards problem-solving learning and they learn best when knowledge is presented in real-life context. Obviously, constructivist task-based instructional approach and Andragogy share many aspects in common as they both emphasize ownership of the learning process by learners, experiential learning and a problem-solving approach to learning (Huang, 2002). Therefore, task-based approach can be seen as an ideal match for adult learners who in general are less likely to pose above mentioned concerns voiced by teachers.
As compared to traditional pedagogy, task-based instructional method demands increased competencies from teachers who will play a key role in making task-centered language learning successful. As a facilitator, teachers need to infuse the spirit of adventurism in the class to turn students into active learners who are willing to take a risk. It is also important that teachers allow learners time to make gradual adjustment to the unfamiliar learning method, provide necessary encouragement in the process, and build confidence (Curran, Deguent, Lund, Miletto, & Straeten, 2000). Effective teachers in the task-based learning environment should also be able to vary the level of tasks to accommodate the needs of beginner or lower level learners in their classrooms.
Effective language classroom instruction strategies require more than a simple understanding of the significance of communication skills. To help learners become active communicators, teachers should be able to employ instructional strategies that allow and support sufficient practicing of the language they have learned. Task-based instructional approach creates a learning environment where learners take control of their own learning and freely explore communicative skills focusing on tasks that are drawn from authentic real-world situations. Despite some limitations, task-based approach is still an attractive method in the field of language learning. The approach can be particularly useful in classrooms involving adult learners since their distinctive learning characteristics well match the constructivist elements of the task-based learning. With a wide variety of learning options such as distance learning readily available to today's adult learners, the number of classrooms involving adult learners has increased significantly in recent years. Although no single method fits all classrooms and learners in all contexts, task-based approach seems to be a highly viable option especially for adult language learners. Amidst more language classrooms moving away from traditional teacher-centered learning activities to student-centered learning environments, the responsibilities of instructors have become even greater in the instructional design process to devise adequate strategies to guide learners towards successful learning.