A syllabus is much more than simply a list of items to be taught. The syllabus reflects the syllabus writers beliefs about language and learning. Any researcher who goes into the literature of syllabus design, however, will recognise two major trends in designing syllabuses: 1) a product-based syllabus and 2) a process-based syllabus. White (1988) labels these syllabuses as Type A and Type B respectively. A product-based syllabus, or 'content syllabus' as it is sometimes called, focuses on what is to be learnt. The designer of such syllabus adopts some grammatical structures, some wordlists, or some functions as content aims that learners should have learnt by the end of the course. For this reason, this kind of syllabus is interventionist in nature (White, 1988). On the other hand, a process-based syllabus focuses on how content is to be learnt. The designer in this case adopts some tasks as content for his/her syllabus which aims at developing the process of communication and acquisition of language. Therefore, this syllabus is acquisitionist in nature. From the perspective of the proponents of process-based syllabus, the domination of the teacher in the product-based syllabus in choosing, sequencing, and presenting the material taught minimises the learners' independence and fails to prepare them for real-life communication. Candlin (1987: 16-17) criticises such syllabuses because 'targets for language learning are all too frequently set up externally to learners with little reference to the value of such targets in the general educational development of the learner'. Proponents of process-based syllabus claim that process-based syllabuses, on the contrary, aim to provide opportunities for real communication within the classroom through tasks and activities and so equip learners for real communication outside the classroom.
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Process-based syllabuses, however, can be subcategorised into process syllabus and procedural syllabus (White, 1988). While both syllabuses are identical in their focus on the method of learning rather than the content of learning, they are different in approaching this aim. The designers of process-based syllabuses are influenced by the psychological studies on language learners and, therefore, their syllabuses tend to be learner-centred. And because the designers of the procedural syllabuses are influenced by research in language acquisition, their syllabuses are usually described as learning-centred.
The main concern of this essay, however, is the procedural syllabus and more specifically the task-based syllabus. In section 2, there is an attempt to realise what a task-based syllabus is. The strengths as well as the weaknesses of the task-based syllabus will be explored in section 3. The aim of section 4 is to show the influence of certain theories and models of language and learning on the design of the task-based syllabus. And, finally, section 5 discusses the teaching situations which are best suited to this type of syllabus.
2. What is a task-based syllabus?
Unlike product-based syllabuses whose basic units of analysis are elements of the linguistic system (sounds, morphemes, grammar rules, words and collocations, functions), designers of task-based syllabuses 'do not chop up language into small pieces, but take holistic, functional and communicative 'tasks', rather than any specific linguistic item, as the basic unit for the design of educational activity' (Van den Branden 2006: 5). This fundamental difference between product-based syllabuses, or 'synthetic syllabuses' (Wilkins, 1976), and task-based syllabuses springs from the profound belief of the advocates of product-based syllabuses that 'what is taught is what is learnt' (Prabhu, 1984); an assumption which has been proven false in many teaching situations. Adopting 'task' as the basic unit of methodology and assessment, 'task-based syllabuses formulate operational language learning goals not so much in terms of which particular words or grammar rules the learners will need to acquire, but rather in terms of the purposes for which people are learning a language i.e. the tasks that learners will need to be able to perform'. (Van den Branden, 2006: 3).
An important question can be asked at this stage: What are the necessary features for any task to be encompassed in a task-based syllabus? The literature of SLA is opulent with various definitions of a task or, more specifically, a language task, however four main features can be elicited from the majority of these definitions. One important feature of a language task is that it should be connected with real-life (Long, 1985; Skehan, 1996; Willis J., 1996b; Ellis, 2003). Long (1985: 89) illustrates this in his definition,
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'[It is] a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus, examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, taking a hotel reservation, writing a cheque, finding a street destination and helping someone across a road. In other words, by 'task' is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life (my emphasis), at work, at play, and in between. 'Tasks' are the things people will tell you they do if you ask them and they are not applied linguists'.
A second feature of the language task is that it is done to achieve some outcome or to fulfil some goal (Prabhu, 1987; Breen, 1987). Prabhu (1987: 24), for example, defines a task as
'an activity which requires learners to arrive at an outcome (my emphasis) from given information through some process of thought and which allowed teachers to control and regulate that process'.
The third feature of a language task, which should be highlighted, is the completeness of the task (Nunan, 2004; Skehan, 1998). This is because a task is, in its very nature, not an open-ended activity. Take Nunan's definition (2004: 4), as an example: 'The task should also have a sense of completeness (my emphasis), being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right with a beginning, a middle and an end'.
Lastly, the focus of the task should be on meaning, not on form (Nunan, 1989; Bygate et al, 2001; Lee 2000). Nunan's definition (cited in Branden, 2006: 7), for example, explains that 'A piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is primarily focused on meaning rather than form' (my emphasis).
While focusing on how content is learnt and adopting language tasks as the basic units, then how does a task-based syllabus designer accommodate the role of the teacher and the learners to conform to such an ideology? In other words, do task-based syllabuses maintain the same teacher-learner relationship as presented in classical product-based syllabuses? In fact, neither product-based advocates nor process-based advocates can underestimate the effective role of the teacher in the educational process. However, product-based syllabuses portray the teacher as the predominant actor in the educational environment and neglect any potential role of the language learner. In classical teaching approaches, the teacher 'takes up a dominant role, whether with regard to selection, sequencing and presenting course content, regulating classroom interaction, evaluating task performance or other aspects of educational activity' (Van den Branden, 2006: 10). The process-based syllabuses, in contrast, present the teacher as the facilitator of the educational process. Their role 'shifts to motivating learners to engage in natural communicative behaviour, supporting them as they try to perform tasks and evaluating the process of task performance as much as the eventual outcome' (ibid.: 10).
In the same vein, the picture of the language learner shifts from being a container filled with a pre-selected content, as assumed by traditional approaches, to be the centre of the educational process in task-based language teaching (TBLT). Language learners are 'given a fair share of freedom and responsibility when it comes to negotiating course content, choosing linguistic forms from his own linguistic repertoire during task performance and evaluating task outcomes.' (ibid.: 10). However, the task-based syllabus remains a teacher-led syllabus since it is the teacher who is responsible for selecting and organizing the tasks and learners are able to carry out the tasks as they choose, making use of the language they already know. Task-based proponents claim that it is the degree of independence given to the language learner that makes the difference. Yet, it is important for the syllabus designer to perform a 'needs-analysis', which enables them to choose which tasks best suit which students.
Based on the discussion above, we can, now, offer a reasonable definition for the task-based syllabus. It is one which prioritises language acquisition through communication between learners, adopts language tasks which are chosen based on a 'needs-analysis' as its analysis unit, assigns the teacher the role of facilitator, and offers the language learner a sufficient freedom in choosing and performing tasks. Samuda & Bygate (2008: 58) defines TBLT, in which the task-based syllabus constitutes one element, as 'contexts where tasks are the central unit of instruction: they "drive" classroom activity, they define curriculum and syllabuses and they determine modes of assessment'.
3. Task-based syllabus: Strengths & Weaknesses
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The task-based syllabus has, like other types of syllabuses, a number of strengths as well as a number of weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses are utilised by task-based syllabus's proponents as well as opponents to support or criticise its rationality. To start with the points of strength, one can claim that:
3.1 Outside the classroom
A task-based syllabus implemented by teachers as advocated by designers will enable learners to use language smoothly outside the classroom. Taking language as a whole and adopting tasks, which focus on meaning and are connected with real life as the basic unit, make the task-based syllabus more advantageous than product-based syllabuses in preparing learners for real-life communication. Saudi Arabia, where I work, is a multinational country and if you want to integrate in this society, you need to have a strong command of English. My teenage students consider the English language as a facilitator to make new friends from other nationalities who live in Saudi Arabia.
3.2 Learner autonomy
The task-based syllabus is a syllabus that provides the learner with more independence and responsibility for his/her own learning. It also perceives the teacher as having a role as learning facilitator rather than having the role of imparting knowledge. Syllabus designers and teachers wish to create motivation and boost learners' self-confidence by giving such independence to language learners.
3.3 Learning outcomes
Many SLA researchers, contrary to the proponents of the product-based syllabus, believe that what is taught does not always correspond to what is learnt. This does not necessarily mean that the students learn 'less' than what the teacher taught them, on the contrary, they may leave the class having learned 'more' than what the teacher intended for that specific lesson. Cox (2005), for example, tested the claim that the language used in genuine tasks could not be predicted by comparing what learners produced with teachers' predictions of what they would produce after a given task. He found that many of the predicated items did not occur, which strengthens the arguments against product-based syllabuses. If the teacher insists on teaching pre-determined language items, they will gradually be disappointed because of failing to achieve the pre-defined objectives of the syllabus, and students will also feel a lack of confidence in acquiring the language. Instead, and from a TBLT perspective, the teacher can select and prepare a set of tasks, which provide the learners with more real opportunities to practice the target language. This realistic approach will have positive effects on both the teacher and the learners since it is ultimately the result, not the means, which matters.
3.4 False assumptions
As human beings, learners are expected to have some similarities apart from their cultural backgrounds. Nonetheless, there is, even within homogeneous cultures, some extent of variation. This variation may include: personal abilities, motivation, attitude, and others, which have a great influence on the process of learning languages. Product-based syllabuses and other traditional syllabuses, however, do not take these aspects of dissimilarity into consideration. They, erroneously, presume that if some content is taught to a group of students, then we will have the same outcome with all students. Task-based syllabus's designers, on the contrary, claim that their approach offers a comprehensive solution for this problem through presenting tasks and activities in which every learner will find something that suits their own abilities, needs, and interests.
On the other hand, the task-based syllabus has also been criticised in many ways. These could be grouped as:
3.5 Content-related issues
One of the most controversial content-related issues in designing the task-based syllabus is the use of authentic language. Firstly, this is because there is little empirical evidence demonstrating that the use of authentic language assists acquisition more than simplified language input. Widdowson (1979: 166) suggests, 'we do not begin with authenticity; authenticity is what learners should ultimately achieve: it represents their terminal behaviour'. It would appear that while the use of authentic text may be useful for proficient learners, it may not be suitable for low proficiency learners. Secondly, the complexity of such authentic language may in fact demotivate some learners who have difficulty in processing meaning. Thirdly, any teacher, who wants to use authentic language in their classroom has to spend a good deal of time in adapting such material and this is, as all teachers realise, not an easy job.
Other potential content-related problems of the task-based syllabus are highlighted in Van Avermaet and Gysen (2006). These are: specificity, complexity, and extrapolation (ibid.: 29). Regarding specificity, Van Avermaet and Gysen wonder to what extent a task-based syllabus's designer is able to balance the need for concrete and relevant tasks with the need to generalise in order to avoid what Van Avermaet and Gysen describe as 'endless lists' of tasks. The solution adopted by task-based syllabus designers is to cluster or group tasks with common characteristics together into 'task types' (Long, 1985). Thus, the task type 'ordering a meal' includes 'ordering a pizza' and 'ordering a four-course meal', despite the differences in register or vocabulary. As for the problem of complexity, or more specifically, task complexity, Van Avermaet and Gysen (2006) criticize the task-based syllabus in the way tasks are graded and sequenced. Long & Crookes (1992: 37) state that 'grading task difficulty and sequencing tasks both appear to be arbitrary processes, left partly to real-time impressionistic judgments by the classroom teacher.' However, some researchers, in order to overcome this problem, have identified criteria for defining and determining task complexity (Skehan, 1998; Long, 1985; and Duran and Ramaut, 2006). What these highlight, as well as the range of variables, is that complexity is not always determined by the task but by the learners themselves as Duran and Ramaut (2006: 73-74) argue, 'learners' motivation to do the task and persist, their personal knowledge of the world, the state of their interlanguage development and the way in which the teacher and the students set up meaningful interaction will very often overrule the syllabus designer's bold predictions.' Finally, in addressing extrapolation, Van Avermaet and Gysen wonder whether transfer between tasks is possible or not. They refer to the fact that it 'cannot be taken for granted that performance of one task implies that a person is able to perform a more or less similar task' (Van Avermaet and Gysen, 2006: 29).
3.6 Teacher-related issues
Teachers may be hostile to a task-based syllabus because it does not offer the comfort provided by grammar-based syllabuses (Edwards and Willis, 2005). Grammar-based syllabuses and other product-based syllabuses make teachers feel secure because teachers can easily deal with the pre-selected and prepared material without unwanted surprises, and this will, surely, enable them to control their classes better. The task-based syllabus, on the other hand, is considered by teachers, especially non-native ones, to be a risky and daunting experience.
3.7 Learner-related issues
The learners themselves may also not like this approach to language learning and may prefer a more product-based syllabus with more traditional student and teacher roles. Adult learners in particular may have expectations from past learning experiences about how their learning should be carried out. For this reason, a task-based syllabus may be particularly well suited to young learners who are unlikely to have any previous learning experiences with which to compare. Swan (2005) doesn't agree with this claim and asks how beginners who do not have basic grammar and structures can express themselves in English?
3.8 Educational institution-related issues
While the task-based syllabus may be suitable in Western cultures where it has developed, in many parts of the world there may be problems putting such a syllabus into practice in many other parts of the world. The educational institutions in many non-Western cultures may underestimate the educational value of the activities involved in the task-based syllabus and, even, sometimes consider them a source of noise. Moreover, these institutions prefer product-based syllabuses because they claim that by adopting such syllabuses we can design precise syllabuses with tangible goals and clear criteria of evaluation. Task-based syllabuses, these institutions believe, lack such 'accountability' (Skehan, 1998). Here in Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed such attitudes towards English by some of those who administer some educational institutions.
Despite these institutional restrictions in Saudi Arabia, students from grade 1 to grade 6 (ages of 6 to 12) are evaluated not by exams, but by an ongoing assessment and the Ministry of Education plans to extend this system to include students up to grade 11 in this assessment. So, by this system, teachers evaluate their students according to their performance throughout the entire year. This situation gives teachers the freedom to prepare and give students tasks that suit their needs without restricting them with rigid syllabuses.
4. The influence of language and learning theories and models on task- based syllabus
Like the designers of other types of syllabuses, task-based syllabuses' designers have been influenced by certain theories and models of language and language learning.
4.1 The nature of language
Proponents of the task-based syllabus have criticised the language to which learners have traditionally been exposed in second language teaching and the language produced in textbooks (Willis J., 1996a; Willis D., 1996). They claim that the language used does not reflect how language is actually used in real communication, that it is based on the course writer's intuition and is over-simplified. Moreover, traditional syllabuses have been attacked since they focus only on the sentence level production and depend on blocks of language in their design. Dave Willis (1996: 51) indicates, 'We know that language is a complex system which cannot be 'presented' to learners in a series of neat packages'.
Alternatively, proponents of task-based learning have adopted different approaches to language. One of these task-based approaches is Jane Willis's framework (1996a, 1996b). The focus here is on the use of naturally occurring language where learners are exposed to language taken from both spoken and written sources to ensure a balanced exposure. The selection of this language should reflect as far as possible the learner's needs (Willis, J. 1996a: 68). The influence of the work on discourse analysis, where patterns and cohesive devices can be identified above the sentence level, is revealed in Willis's work. This takes a top-down approach to language in which learners focus on the meaning of authentic language first and their attention is drawn to syntactical and lexical features of that language after they have processed it for meaning. Similarly, Long and Crookes (1992) adopt an approach in which students use the language of the target tasks in the classroom. Here, a specific needs analysis should be the first step in syllabus design.
4.2 The nature of language learning
The product-based syllabuses and other traditional syllabuses have also been attacked, by the advocates of task-based syllabuses and other process syllabuses, for their erroneous understanding of language competence and acquisition. In traditional syllabuses, language learning is presented as a linear process in which the teacher transmits their knowledge of the language to the learners as a package of linguistic blocks and the learners learn it at the same rate. SLA research, on the contrary, attests to the fact that these syllabuses may not reflect the way in which language is acquired. It is now acknowledged that language learning is a cyclical process in which the teacher has limited control. Skehan (1996) notices that task-based syllabus, as opposed to other traditional syllabuses, admits that learning is controlled by internal processes which make it difficult for teachers to expect which language items are acquired and when and how they are acquired.
In response to this, the task-based syllabus does not attempt to explain grammatical rules to learners; instead it allows learners to make generalizations and inferences about the target language system on the basis of the language to which they are exposed. Here, there is a clear influence of Krashen's theory of comprehensible input, later modified by Long's theory of a focus on form stating that for the cognitive processes of acquisition to take place, learners should consciously focus on meaning in interaction while unconsciously focusing on structures (Skehan 1996: 18-19).
5. Task-based syllabus's best suited teaching situations
Recognising that language acquisition is dependant on internal cognitive processes, task-based syllabus's designers argue that the role of teaching is to create an environment within which these cognitive processes can take place. Such an environment, as most task-based proponents argue, should firstly include an exposure to authentic language as we see in various sections in this essay. Jane Willis (1996b: 95-96) advocates that exposure to enriched, authentic but comprehensible language input coming from the teacher, as well as the students and other real-world sources, and which also meets learners' post-course language needs, is necessary if learners are to progress. Secondly, a focus on meaningful interaction or negotiated meaning allows cognitive processes to take place which lead to language acquisition. Thirdly, learner's motivation is essential to guarantee the success of any task-based teaching situation. For learners to process the language for meaning, it is important that they are sufficiently motivated to achieve success in task completion. (ibid.: 96).
A number of models have been proposed for implementing the task-based learning, of which Jane Willis's (1996b) is perhaps the most widely cited. Willis's model is drawn on research carried out by Labov (1972) which found that people adapt their language according to the setting; in public, we tend to prepare what we intend to say and use more formal language, while in private it is the opposite. Her model includes three phases (Willis J. 1996b: 56-58):
(a) The 'pre-task' is a phase in which the teacher introduces the topic and the task itself, as well as any relevant words or expressions.
(b) The 'task cycle' is a phase in which the teacher takes on the role of a monitor, while learners first carry out the task in small 'private' groups. Students are free to use whatever language they are able to, and accuracy is less important than fluency and meaning, which aims to help confidence-building. Here, the learners are encouraged to adapt their language to the private nature of the setting. The task cycle then includes a planning stage in which the groups prepare to talk publicly to the class.
(c) The 'language focus', or the 'public' phase, is the last step in which the task is presented to the class with a focus on fluency, meaning, and accuracy. The advantage of this procedure is that it limits the danger of 'fossilisation'.
It is impossible to discuss the task-based syllabus without contrasting it with the traditional product-based syllabuses. Consequently, while the main focus here is on the task-based syllabus, the layout of this essay is largely built on a comparison between product-based syllabuses and task-based syllabuses. The essential difference between these syllabuses comes from the way in which each syllabus realises the language acquisition process. While product-based syllabuses believe that learning is a linear process where all students learn at the same rate, task-based syllabuses, following recent findings in SLA, see learning as a complicated cyclical process, which cannot be controlled but can certainly be affected. Moreover, task-based syllabuses present the teacher-learner relationship in a new light where the teacher is presented as a facilitator, not a controller, and learners are given a great deal of independence and responsibility to play a part in any decision regarding their learning. Lastly, the nature of language used in classroom and textbooks is also a point of contention between the proponents of the task-based syllabus and the advocates of product-based syllabuses. While we find the designers of traditional product-based syllabuses adopting discrete linguistic elements as the basic unit for their syllabuses and use language which is under sentence level, task-based syllabus's designers use a more holistic approach by adopting tasks as the syllabus's basic unit and using authentic language which are above sentence level to help learners to use English outside the classroom effectively.