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In recent years increasing numbers of teachers, in all subjects, have been looking for ways to change the traditional forms of instruction in which knowledge is transmitted, in a one-way process, from a dominant teacher to a class of silent, obedient, “passive” learners. They have sought ways to make the classroom more “student-centred” and have investigated the different ways in which students can play more active roles in discovering and processing knowledge. Hong Kong is no exception to this trend. Both the Primary School Syllabus for English Language and the Secondary School Syllabus for English Language state that “teaching efficiency is improved when the learners and their learning are the focus of attention instead of the teacher and his/her teaching” (CDC, 1997, p. 13; 1999a, p. 4). The Secondary School Syllabus for the Use of English expresses the similar message that “learning is most effective when learners take an active role in the learning process” (CDC, 1999b, p. 51).
This desire to make learning more student-centred is reflected in widespread attempts, in different areas of the curriculum, to introduce approaches which engage students actively in the learning process. These approaches have been described under a variety of labels: “experiential learning”, “discovery learning”, “problem-based learning”, “co-operative learning”, the “activity-based approach”, and others. Underlying all of these approaches is a desire to involve students in some kind of purposeful interaction with information, objects and/or ideas, often in groups, in order to develop their skills and knowledge. In the field of language teaching, the approach which is currently best known in this respect is “task-based learning”. Again, this is a general trend to which Hong Kong is no exception. Thus, in each of the Syllabuses mentioned above, substantial sections are devoted to the principles and practice of task-based learning.
Task-based learning can be regarded as one particular approach to implementing the broader “communicative approach” and, as with the communicative approach in general, one of the features of task-based learning that often worries teachers is that it seems to have no place for the teaching of grammar. In Teaching Grammar and Spoken English: A Handbook for Hong Kong Schools (English Section of the Advisory Inspectorate, 1993), my own contribution attempted to show that grammar is as important in a communicative approach as in any other approach. This applies with equal force to task-based learning. The aim of task-based learning is to develop students’ ability to communicate and communication (except in its most simple forms) takes place through using the grammatical system of the language. Or in other words: ‘communicative competence’ can only exist on a foundation of ‘grammatical competence’.
The present article has five main sections. The first section looks at what is meant by the term ‘task’. The second looks at the continuum from ‘focusing on form’ to ‘focusing on meaning’. This continuum helps us to understand the distinction often made between ‘tasks’ and other kinds of activity (including ‘exercises’). The continuum is described and explored in more detail in the third (and longest) section, which provides a range of examples from different parts of it. The examples are related to the learning of grammar, since that is the topic of the article. Section 4 offers a way of looking at tasks in terms of how they contribute to the linguistic, cognitive and personality development of the students. The conclusion summarises some of the main aims and benefits of task-based learning by means of a mnemonic based on the word ‘task’ itself.
1. What is a task?
Confusion often arises in discussions of task-based learning because different teachers and writers use different definitions of the term ‘task’. Most people would probably agree, however, on the following basic characteristics of tasks:
Some Characteristics of Tasks
Tasks are activities in which students work purposefully towards an objective.
The objective may be one that they have set for themselves or one which has been set by the teacher.
Tasks may be carried out individually or (more often) in groups.
Tasks may be carried out in competition with others or (more often) in collaboration.
The outcome may be something concrete (e.g. a report or presentation) or something intangible (e.g. agreement or the solution to a problem).
The area of disagreement revolves around the relationship between tasks and communication. Some teachers and writers do not see this relationship as crucial. They define a language-learning task as including almost anything that students are asked (or choose) to do in the classroom, including formal learning activities such as grammar exercises and controlled practice activities, provided the objective of the activity is related to learning the language. This is the view, for example, of Williams and Burden (1997, p. 168):
A task is any activity that learners engage in to further the process of learning a language.
Many other teachers and writers use a more restricted definition. They exclude activities where the learners are focusing on formal aspects of the language (such as grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary) and reserve the term ‘task’ for activities in which the purpose is related to the communication of meanings (i.e. for what Nunan, 1989, p. 10, calls a “communicative task”). Willis (1996, p. 23) is one writer who adopts this definition:
In this book tasks are always activities where the target language is used by the learner for a communicative purpose (goal) in order to achieve an outcome.
It is this ‘communicative’ definition that is used in most public discussions about task-based learning in Hong Kong. Thus according to the Secondary School Syllabus for English Language referred to earlier, tasks should include these features:
Further Characteristics of Tasks in the Hong Kong Syllabuses
They involve communicative language use in which the learners’ attention is focused on meaning rather than linguistic structures.
They should be authentic and as close as possible to the real world and daily life experience of the learners.
They should involve learners in various activities in which they are required to negotiate meaning and make choices in what, when and how to learn.
(CDC, 1999a, p. 43)
Learning activities in which students “focus upon and practise specific elements of knowledge, skills and strategies needed for the task” (CDC, 1999a, p. 44) without a communicative purpose are called “exercises”. This distinction between tasks and exercises will be considered further in the next section.
2. Communication, Tasks and Exercises
As we have seen, one of the key features of a communicative task is that learners focus on communicating meanings rather than learning or practising forms. However it is not usually simply a question of learners focusing either on meaning or on form. More often, it is a matter of degree. For example, there are some activities in which the learner may focus mainly on the production of certain forms that are being practised, but he or she may still be using these forms to convey meanings to somebody. This would be the case in, for example, this “Questionnaire survey” activity (adapted from Byrne, 1986, pp. 70-71), in which the students need to use Can you â€¦ in order to find classmates who can do certain things:
Find someone who:
— can speak three languages
— can use a computer
— can make cakes
— can ride a bike
— can swim
In this activity, although the students have a communicative purpose (to find classsmates with particular skills), it is also clear that they are practising specific forms. At other times, the emphasis on communicating meanings may increase, but still not to the extent that the students pay no more attention to the forms they are producing (and which, indeed, they may just have been taught). This might be the case in this role play (adapted from Harmer, 1991, p. 136) if students are asked to perform it after learning different ways of making suggestions and expressing reasons. The situation is that the students have decided to have a meal to celebrate somebody’s birthday and now have to agree on the arrangements. Each student has one of the following role cards with instructions:
You want to have lunch in a restaurant. You should think of reasons why this is the best choice.
You want to have dinner in a restaurant. You should think of reasons why this is the best choice.
You want to have a lunch-time barbecue in one of the country parks. You should think of reasons why this is the best choice.
You want to have an evening barbecue on the roof of your block of flats. You should think of reasons why this is the best choice.
You are still undecided. You should listen to the others’ ideas, make comments and then agree with the suggestion you like best.
Since (as these examples illustrate) it is often impossible to draw a clear dividing line between activities where the focus is on form (‘exercises’ in the Hong Kong context) and activities where the focus is on meaning (‘tasks’), it is useful to think of a continuum with varying degrees of focus on form and/or meaning. Activities can then be classified according to where they lie along this continuum. In the diagram below, the continuum is divided into five sections. In each section, the shaded portion represents the degree of focus on meaning and the unshaded portion represents the degree of focus on form. The labels across the top describe the categories with reference to how they relate to the goal of language teaching, namely, communication:
Focus on form ¬ ® Focus on meaning
Pre-communicative language practice
Communicative language practice
Focus on form
Focus on meaning
This diagram shows the same continuum, but now each category is described and illustrated with examples of activities:
Focus on form
Focus on meaning
Pre-communicative language practice
Communicative language practice
Focusing on the structures of language, how they are formed and what they mean, e.g. through exercises, “discovery” and awareness-raising activities
Practising language with some attention to meaning but not communicating new messages to others, e.g. in “question-and-answer” practice
Practising language in a context where it communicates new information, e.g. in information gap activities or “personalised” questions
Using language to communicate in situations which elicit pre-learnt language but with some unpredictability, e.g. in structured role-play and simple problem-solving
Using language to communicate in situations where the meanings are unpredictable, e.g. in creative role-play, more complex problem-solving and discussion
The activities in the left-hand box are obviously ‘exercises’ as defined in the Hong Kong Syllabuses. Those in the right-hand box are obviously ‘tasks’. Those in the middle three boxes have features of both. In the Interim Report of the TOC Evaluation Project (Morris et al., 1996), the authors suggest that these ‘half-and-half’ activities have played an important role in helping Hong Kong teachers to gradually implement task-based learning and they propose placing them into a category of ‘exercise-tasks’:
Low degree of communicative purpose and contextualisation
of discrete items
High degree of communicative purpose and contextualisation
Focus on discrete items and/or skills
Purposefulness and contextualisation
This diagram shows how the five-part continuum from ‘focus on form’ to ‘focus on meaning’ fits the progression from ‘exercises’ through ‘exercise-tasks’ to ‘tasks’. In the next section we will return to the five-part continuum and give further examples from each of the categories.
3. From Non-Communicative Learning to Authentic Communication
This section will elaborate on the previous one by giving examples of activites from the five parts of the continuum from ‘focus on form’ to ‘focus on meaning’. In terms of the Hong Kong syllabuses, this corresponds also to a progression from clearly defined ‘exercises’ to clearly defined ‘tasks’, passing through a middle category of ‘exercise-tasks’.
It is in this category that there is the least element of communication. Here, for example, students are involved in ‘discovering’ a rule of grammar on the basis of examples:
In the examples below, look carefully at the position of the adverbs always, often, sometimes, usually, and never. What are the rules?
We are usually hungry when we come home.
John is always late.
His parents were often tired in the evening.
I am never sure whether this word is correct.
I sometimes go to the cinema on Fridays.
We never eat much in the morning.
Jane often arrives at school early.
They always come home late at night.
They have never written to me again.
You can always come and visit me.
I will never know why he did it.
Pat has often seen him with two dogs.
The students are then required to apply this rule to a new set of examples:
Put the adverbs into the right places in the sentences below.
We play football in the evening. (often)
I can catch the first bus in the morning. (never)
Jack and Jill are very happy. (always)
They visit me. (sometimes)
You write very good English. (usually)
They have been to Singapore. (often)
We drink tea for breakfast. (always)
You are cheerful. (usually)
John can keep a secret. (never)
He has refused to speak to me. (sometimes)
For more advanced learners, here is an activity in which they need to explore the use of the passive voice. We have also moved a little way along the form-to-meaning continuum in that, although the students will not actually be using the passive as a means of communication, the task requires them to pay attention to aspects of its meaning:
Here is an article from the South China Morning Post (19 January 1998).
Underline each verb that is in the passive and, if possible, convert the passive sentence into an active one.
Decide the possible reason why the writer used the passive rather than the active.
Can you draw any general conclusions about when a writer may prefer to use the passive rather than the active?
Reprinted with permission from SCMP.com Limited (www.scmp.com)
Three taken to hospital after travel office blaze
Please click the following URL to view the article:
After reporting back and discussing their findings, students may be asked to apply their knowledge of the passive to this task (adapted from Woods and McLeod, 1990, p. 87):
Rewrite the following text so that Nick is the focus of attention. When you use the passive, decide whether you still need to mention the ‘doer’ (with by â€¦). Be careful – not every verb will be turned into a passive.
The police followed Nick all day. They saw him leave his flat at 7.30 in the morning, take a bus to Regent Street and enter the airline office by a side door. He came out again at 1.00 and they tailed him to the language school where he usually worked. He stayed in the school until 8.00 that evening and then went with Maria in her car for a drink. At about 11.30 she drove him home. The police were still following him, but they had been exhausted by him.
Pre-Communicative Language Practice
In this category the focus is still on the practice of discrete items of language but, in order to produce the appropriate forms, the students have to pay attention to aspects of meaning. In the first activity (adapted from Harmer, 1987), they have to look at the table in order to see what Richard and Fiona ‘have to do’ and what they ‘would like to do’. The information could of course also be presented in the form of pictures.
With your partner, practise asking and answering questions about what Richard and Fiona have to do and what they would like to do.
Empty the bins
Answer the telephone
Go to evening school
Get a better job
Earn more money
Take holiday abroad
Marry her boss
The best known type of activity that belongs to this category is the familiar ‘question-and-answer practice’ in which students have to answer (and sometimes ask) questions about a situation, picture or topic. The answers are already known but students have to pay attention to meaning in order to produce them.
Students answer questions about a situation, picture or topic.
How many students are there in the class?
Are there more boys than girls?
Who is sitting next to Jane?
Is Jane behind John or in front of him?
Who is standing in front of the class?
Which lesson is this now?
At what time did the lesson begin?
What time is it now?
When will the lesson finish?
Do we have an English lesson every day?
Communicative Language Practice
The main difference between this category and the previous one is that there is now some kind of ‘information gap’, that is, the language conveys meanings that were not previously known to everybody. The question-and-answer practice just described would come into this category, if the questions elicit information that was previously unknown, e.g. what students did at the weekend or who their favourite singers are. In a task-based approach, however, the practice is more likely to be structured in some way so that there is a recognisable context, purpose and outcome. This structuring may be achieved in a variety of ways. For example, this activity in Byrne (1986, p. 62) uses a ‘guessing-game’ format:
The students ‘hide’ an object (or themselves) somewhere in a picture like the one below. They then take turns to find out where the object has been hidden by asking questions like: Is it on the bookcase? Is it under the TV? (etc.) Guessing can be limited by numbering certain positions in the picture.
Another common procedure is to use simple questionnaire surveys in which the information gap is created by the students’ own individual experiences and ideas. One example was the survey of students’ skills described earlier. Here is another:
Fill in this chart about your classmates’ preferences
Favorite male singer
Favorite female singer
Favorite TV actor or actress
Favorite TV series
Favorite place in Hong Kong
As a written follow-up, students may be asked (individually or in groups) to write a short report on what they have found out about their classmates’ preferences.
A further wide range of possibilities is offered by using pairs or sets of pictures which are similar in topic or context, but different in detail. Here is an example, from a handbook for Hong Kong schools (English Section of the Advisory Inspectorate, 1996), which is designed to practise the perfect tense:
At 3.00 Tom’s room was very untidy. Now it is 4.30 and he has tidied it. What has he done? (Each student has either Picture A or Picture B, and cannot see the other.)
Many more examples can be found in handbooks such as Byrne (1986), Littlewood (1981) and Ur (1988).
In the examples given so far, it has been possible to predict the exact language that is needed in order to perform the exercise or task. These activities therefore offer clear ways to practise specific areas of grammar. As we move to the next category along the continuum, we enter a domain in which the focus shifts further onto the communication of meanings. This means that, as we move further into this domain, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what language will be required and therefore to associate an activity with the practice of specific linguistic structures. It is, however, possible to structure the activity in such a way that it is likely to elicit a particular range of language and, above all, so that the teacher knows that the students are equipped with language to perform it. Thus, in this activity adapted from Ur (1988, p. 119), the students will need to make extensive use of the future tense:
The World Tomorrow
Students are asked to write down a list of changes they expect to see in the world by a date 50 years in the future. For example:
We will have a working day of four hours.
Every home will have a video telephone.
People will live to be 100 years old or more.
They may be told to write as many ideas as possible in the time given or they may be asked to write ideas for a particular topic-area (e.g. education, sport, fashion, technology, etc.).
The ideas are then read out and discussed. Those that most of the class agree with may be written up on the board.
In groups, students try to sort their predictions into ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ones.
Later, students may choose predictions that appeal to them and use them as the topic for a short essay.
Here is another example adapted from Ur (1988, p. 117), in which students will need to use the future tense together with ways of making suggestions and expressing opinions:
Map of Holiday Island
In the summer you and some classmates will have a week’s trip to Holiday Island. You meet in order to draw up an itinerary and program of activities. You want to include as many activities as possible. When you have agreed on your plans, write them out so that you can see whether you are likely to meet other groups from the class.
The map of Holiday Island shows some of the things you can do there.
As a written follow-up task, students may be asked to write a letter to a friend telling him or her about what they will do in the holidays and perhaps describing the island where they will go.
Another common way of creating contexts for structured communication is the use of role-play in which the students are given general instructions as to what views or ideas they should express but left to decide for themselves on the exact meanings and language. An example of this was the role-play described earlier, in which students had to decide on the arrangements for a birthday celebration meal.
One of the characteristics of ‘authentic communication’ is that the language that is used depends on the meanings that arise naturally in the course of communication. The teacher still ‘controls’ the activity, by creating a situation which he or she thinks is suitable, but has even less control than in ‘structured communication’ over the actual language that students will need. Students may need to activate any part of their language knowledge that is relevant to the meanings they want to understand or convey.
In authentic communication, then, the students are not asked to focus on individual parts of the grammar. Rather, they are asked to draw on the whole of the grammar that they have so far internalized and use it as a means for conveying whatever meanings may arise. There was also a strong element of this in structured communication, but there the students were more ‘protected’ from the unpredictable needs that arise in natural communication.
In authentic communication activities it is important to have a context and purposeful development towards an outcome. They are therefore often larger in scope than those discussed earlier. This is not necessarily the case, however, as we see from this example taken from Teach Your Teacher Music by N. Vidal (Alhambra Longman, Spain, 1996):
I love music!
How do you feel when you listen to music? Why do you like music? Discuss with your partner. Write down five reasons.
Here is an example from the Secondary School Syllabus for English Language (CDC, 1999a, pp. 220-221) which is larger in scope and also illustrates the principle of ‘task-dependency’, in which individual tasks are connected with each other to form a more extended task or project:
Module: Study, School Life and Work
Unit: Partâ€‘time Work?
Task: Making the Right Choice, Part 1
The following are 4 case studies of fellow students who wish to take up partâ€‘time work.
1. In groups of four, discuss whether they should take up partâ€‘time jobs and give reasons.
2. Suggest alternatives to each one of them. Instead of taking up partâ€‘time work, what else can they do to address their needs?
3. Each group will select a spokesperson to report their conclusions to the whole class. After listening to all the groups, the class will vote for the group with the best suggestions.
Case 1: Michael
Michael is tall and strong and spends a lot of time on sports activities in school. He lives very far away from school. His grades are average. He wants a partâ€‘time job so that he can buy more expensive sports equipment.
Case 2: Pansy
Pansy is very smart and is the best student of the form. She is quiet and shy. She wants to take up a partâ€‘time job to gain some work experience and develop more confidence when working with other people. She has strong computer skills.
Case 3: Nick
Nick’s father has been out of work for a long time and his mother may soon lose her job. Nick wants very much to earn some money for the family. His grades in school are not very good. He is polite and hardworking.
Case 4: Lucy
Lucy has average grades in school. She is the only child in the family and her parents are busy at work all the time. She feels bored at home. She wants to take up a partâ€‘time job because she thinks it may be fun. She loves music and plays the piano and violin.
Module: Study, School Life and Work
Unit: Partâ€‘time Work?
Task: Making the Right Choice, Part 2
The 4 people in Part 1 – Michael, Pansy, Nick, and Lucy â€‘â€‘ have read the following 8 advertisements for partâ€‘time work and have made the following choices (students have copies of the 8 advertisements):
Michael: Distributing leaflets
Pansy: Chinese Character Input
Nick: Poster Distribution
Lucy: Fish and Chips Shop
You think one of them has selected a job highly unsuitable for him/her. Write a letter of about 150 words to persuade him/her not to take up the job. You may consider the factors discussed in Part 1, such as:
his/her need for a partâ€‘time job
the working hours
effects on his/her health and studies
nature of the work
his/her personality and skills
alternatives which may address his/her problem
Here is a further example of a task that involves different kinds of speaking and writing. It is designed to draw on the interests and experiences of the students, and has been used successfully mainly with more advanced students:
Your Interests and Mine
Please sit in groups of 5 or 6 and place yourselves so that you can circulate pieces of paper.
At the top of a piece of paper (A4 or larger), write a topic that interests you. It can be a hobby, a sport, an activity you enjoy, a person, or indeed any other subject which you find interesting.
Pass the sheet of paper to the student on your left.
On the sheet of paper that you now have, write a question about the topic written at the top. Then pass the sheet to the student on your left.
Repeat the procedure described in 4. (Before you write a question on each sheet, look at the questions that have already been asked, so that the same questions are not repeated.)
When your own topic has come back to you, read all the questions and prepare a short presentation (maximum: 3 minutes) which includes all the information asked for. Organise the information in whatever way you think makes it most coherent and interesting. You may also want to include other information, e.g. in order to make the presentation flow more smoothly.
After your presentation there will be about 3 minutes for your classmates to talk with you about your interests.
Write a letter to the rest of the class in which you introduce yourself and tell them about your interests.
At the beginning of this section, two examples of ‘grammar discovery’ activities were given, one relating to the placement of adverbs and the other to the use of the passive. These were described as examples from the ‘form-focussed’ end of the form-to-meaning continuum (i.e. as ‘exercises’), because the students’ purpose was to discover grammar rules rather than communicate through grammar. If, however, the students are asked to discover the rule in groups and the language which they use is English, then the activity fulfils the criteria for a ‘task’: the discussion has a context, a communicative purpose and an outcome. Indeed, in the context of the English classroom, discovery tasks related to grammar are a natural component, comparable to discovery tasks in science and other so-called ‘content’ subjects.
To finish this section, here is an example of another task (often called ‘dictogloss’ or ‘grammar dictation’) in which students use English to explore English. Here, however, the task involves not discovering rules in language provided but using the grammatical resources of the group to reconstitute a text which has been dictated. The technique is desc
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