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
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
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: