This is a report of a session conducted at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate in April 2006

A Different Ball Game                          Penny Ur 

Task-based instruction is not a useful model for instruction in mainstream schools (though it’s fine for motivated adults) 

 Definitions: Within a communicative approach - 

Task-Based Communicative – Communicative tasks, supplemented by time out for a focus on language 

Traditional Communicative – Grammar, Vocabulary and the four skills, supplemented by communicative activities 

Similarities: - exposure and engagement; activation of language in fluent, communicative language use; explicit focus on form 


Task-based                                                                                      Traditional 

Focus on form is reactive, incidental                           Focus on form is pro-active, central 

Communicative tasks are primary                               Communicative tasks are secondary 

Little or no focused practice of specific                       There is substantial practice of 
language items                                                            specific language items 

language forms (depending on which model
of TB learning is being adhered to) 

Lessons are mainly learner-centred                           Lessons are mainly teacher-led 


If you want to learn a language and you already have some knowledge, which model would you prefer? (TBL?) 

If you want to learn a language which you don’t know at all, which model would you opt for? (Traditional?) 

As a teacher, which do you use? 

Some general points 

Task-based instruction predominates in the literature but …………………… 
Traditional teaching predominates in classrooms worldwide. 

Lots of theoretical writings take it for granted that task-based instruction is the norm. 

What does research say? 

1   TBI – group interaction leads to acquisition (Lang[?] and Porter 1985) .. but TBI uses   
      minimal language (Seedhouse 1999) 

2   There is a natural order of acquisition (Pienemann 1984) 

3   Explicit Grammar Teaching (Ortega and Norris 2001) makes a difference – it helps to
     prevent fossilization and improves accuracy 

4   Explicit vocabulary teaching (Zahar et al 2001) – 1 word learnt for over 1000 words read.
     29 years to learn 2000 words – without explicit vocabulary teaching 

5   Immersion studies (Swain 2000) – explicit teaching is essential 

Why is TBI promoted in the literature? 

1   The research? 

2    Failure of traditional methods? What is the measuring stick of failure? Even if it has failed,
      we need to see why. What are the features and components that have been
      (un)successful? Why throw out everything? What can be improved? 

3    based on naturalistic acquisition processes? Fine for L1 children learners, or
      immersion immigrant programmes … but what about for learners getting just a 3-5 hours
      a week? 

4    It’s in line with the currently accepted communicative approach. It’s in line with the spirit of
      the time (zeitgeist) 

      a.    TBI is post-modernist in that it rejects structure and carefully-planned
             generalizations of language learning. Substitution of portfolios for testing. Dogme
      b.    Concern for the ‘marginalised’ population – the learner. TBI gives power to the
      c.    ‘Change’ is positive – “let’s change!” Why? What? 

      Thinkers and writers are more likely to be exposed to and influenced by these factors
       than are teachers. 


Why don’t many teachers adopt task-based instruction? 

1     Uninformed? .. but time, energy 

2     Lazy? See above! 

3     Conservative. Most teachers think ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ 

4     They want to be in control – but very often for the right reasons, not the wrong ones 

5     professional; teachers learn mainly from reflection on practice 


Traditional methods in the state-school EFL course 

  • Learners often have a low level of language (often beginners
  • Limited time – need for a pre-planned syllabus 
  • Limited time – focused practice activities 
  • Lack of learner motivation – need for teacher authority and initiative
  • Lower cognitive and metacognitive abilities of learners – need for teacher mediation in how to teach a language 

TBI, however, probably works in, for example, English for Academic Purposes students in higher education in an English-speaking country, or for Intermediate or Advanced levels. In these scenarios such learners: 

  • Have plenty of time 
  • Have higher cognitive abilities 
  • Can learn on their own
© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language