Task-Based Learning  by Dave and Jane Willis
Aston University, UK

What is a Task?

By task, J. Willis means a goal-oriented activity with a clear purpose. Doing a communication task involves achieving an outcome, creating a final product that can be appreciated by other. Examples include compiling a list of reasons, features, or things that need doing under particular circumstances; comparing two pictures and/or texts to find the differences; and solving a problem or designing a brochure.

Tasks can be used as the central component of a three part framework: "pre-task," "task cycle," and "language focus." These components have been carefully designed to create four optimum conditions for language acquisition, and thus provide rich learning opportunities to suit different types of learners.

The following framework outlines the roles of the teacher and learners during a task-based learning (TBL) lesson. Note especially the degree of teacher control, and the opportunities for learner language use.


Task-Based Learning Framework

 Components of a TBL Framework



Teacher explores the topic with the class, highlights useful words and phrases, and helps learners understand task instructions and prepare. Learners may hear a recording of others doing a similar task, or read part of a text as a lead in to a task.






Students do the task, in pairs or small groups. Teacher monitors from a distance, encouraging all attempts at communication, not correcting. Since this situation has a "private" feel, students feel free to experiment. Mistakes don't matter.


Students prepare to report to the whole class (orally or in writing) how they did the task, what they decided or discovered. Since the report stage is public, students will naturally want to be accurate, so the teacher stands by to give language advice.


Some groups present their reports to the class, or exchange written reports, and compare results. Teacher acts as a chairperson, and then comments on the content of the reports.


Learners may now hear a recording of others doing a similar task and compare how they all did it. Or they may read a text similar in some way to the one they have written themselves, or related in topic to the task they have done.



Students examine and then discuss specific features of the text or transcript of the recording. They can enter new words, phrases and patterns in vocabulary books.


Teacher conducts practice of new words, phrases, and patterns occurring in the data, either during or after the Analysis

Sometime after completing this sequence, learners may benefit from doing a similar task with a different partner







Conditions for Learning

Learners get exposure at the pre-task stage, and a chance to recall things they know. The task cycle gives them speaking and writing exposure with opportunities for students to learn from each other.

The task cycle also gives students opportunities to use whatever language they have, both in private (where mistakes, hesitations, and approximate renderings do not matter so long as the meaning is clear) and in public (where there is a built-in desire to strive for accuracy of form and meaning, so as not to lose face).

Motivation (short term) is provided mainly by the need to achieve the objectives of the task and to report back on it. Success in doing this can increase longer term motivation. Motivation to listen to fluent speakers doing the task is strong too, because in attempting the task, learners will notice gaps in their own language, and will listen carefully to hear how fluent speakers express themselves.

A focus on form is beneficial in two phases in the framework. The planning stage between the private task and the public report promotes close attention to language form. As learners strive for accuracy, they try to organise their reports clearly and check words and patterns they are not sure of. In the final component, language analysis activities also provide a focus on form through consciousness-raising processes. Learners notice and reflect on language features, recycle the task language, go back over the text or recording and investigate new items, and practise pronouncing useful phrases.


Implication on teaching grammar


Language Analysis Activities

People have often been under the impression that task-based learning means "forget the grammar." This would not be a wise move.

The aim of analysis activities is to encourage learners to investigate language for themselves, and to form and test their own hypotheses about how language works. In the task-based cycle, the language data comes from the texts or transcripts of recordings used in the task cycle, or from samples of language they have read or heard in earlier lessons. Having already processed these texts and recordings for meaning, students will get far more out of their study of language form.

Analysis activities can be followed by quick bursts of oral or written practice, or dictionary reference work (see Willis & Willis, 1996 for specific ideas). Finally, students need time to note down useful words, phrases, and patterns into a language notebook. Regular revision of these will help vocabulary acquisition.


Designing Tasks to Promote Language Use

Any topic or theme can give rise to different types of tasks, which can be generated with the help of the typology TBL Task Design:



Typology for TBL Task Design


















Each type involves different cognitive processes. The top three types increase in cognitive complexity from left to right, but are generally cognitively less challenging than the three at the bottom. These may involve more complex cognitive operations or combinations of simpler task types.

Integrating grammar using a task-based model of instruction


Topic: How does upbringing affect attitudes?

Step 1

The teacher introduces the theme by telling a short anecdote about her school days, which demonstrates, for example, the relaxed approach to the dress-code operating in her school. She uses this story to check the meaning of easygoing and its opposite, strict.

Step 2

The teacher invites one or two learners to recount related experiences. She suggests that many people react against a strict upbringing by adopting very easygoing attitudes as parents, and vice versa. Since there is some argument about this, she suggests that the class conduct a survey, in which they canvass each other to see if there is any correlation between previous experience and present attitudes. She organises the class into pairs to prepare questions, which they write down.

Step 3

The teacher organises the pairs of students into groups of four, and asks them to try out their questions on each other, and to make a mental note of the answers. She monitors the interactions, noting down examples of student productions that could be improved, but she doesn't correct them at this point.

Step 4

The teacher asks the class to listen to a recording of some fluent English speakers chatting on the same theme. The conversation includes various examples of the language of coercion. The teacher asks some general gist questions about the conversation - for example, which of the speakers had a strict upbringing, which had an easygoing one? She then hands out a transcript of the recording, and replays the tape while they read.

Step 5

Students then study the transcript with a view to finding language that might be useful in the survey task, particularly language related to the notions of being strict and easygoing. They list these in two columns: adjectives and verbs. Students work in pairs on this task, and then the teacher elicits ideas on to the board. For example:




I was allowed…

He made me….

I won’t let them….


She then asks the class to complete the blank spaces after each verb, and to make generalisations about the grammar of the verbs. She also elicits the question forms of the verb structures: were you allowed to ... ? etc.

Step 6

The students then return to their survey task - but are first given a chance to redraft and refine their questions in pairs. They are then paired off with different students than the ones they were talking to earlier (in Step 3).

Step 7

The teacher then asks students, working in their original pairs, to prepare a report on their findings, with a view to answering the question: How does upbringing affect attitudes? Individual students are asked to present their report to the class. A general discussion ensues.



The lesson is a task-based one because, rather than being plotted around a pre-selected item of grammar, the purpose of the lesson is to achieve a task outcome: in this case, deciding how upbringing affects attitudes. While this may seem contrived - just as contrived, in fact, as pre-selecting a grammar item - it could be argued that the task focus encourages learners to take more creative risks with their language. They needn't restrict themselves to the teacher's grammar agenda; theoretically, they could choose any language from the sample text (Step 4). Finally, and most importantly, a task invests the lesson with an intrinsic interest, apart from a concern only for language. The language is simply a means, not an end in itself.

It should be clear that this task-based lesson shares many of the ingredients of the PPP lesson, but that the order is radically different: the major difference being that the production stage is brought to the front of the lesson (Steps 2 and 3) after an initial introduction to the theme (Step 1). The lesson starts in the deep end, as it were. The production stage acts as a trial run, where learners attempt to put into words the meanings they wish to express. The problems they have doing this should motivate them to look for solutions in the sample text (Step 4). That is, they have an incentive to use the text as a resource, and may be better primed for noticing features of the text than if they had just read it for the sake of reading it. The teacher's role is to guide students (Step 5) to notice features that she herself has diagnosed as being misused or underused in the trial run. Students are then ready, theoretically, to re-attempt the task (Step 6). As a final push towards accuracy, the report stage (Step 7), in which the students 'go public', imposes an element of formality that forces attention on to form.



TBL offers a change from the grammar practice routines through which many learners have previously failed to learn to communicate. It encourages learners to experiment with whatever English they can recall, to try things out without fear of failure and public correction, and to take active control of their own learning, both in and outside class.

For the teacher, the framework offers security and control. While it may be true that TBL is an adventure, it can be undertaken within the safety of an imaginatively designed playground.


References and Further Reading

Willis, J., & Willis, D. (1996). (Eds.). Challenge and change in language teaching. Oxford: Heinemann ELT.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, J. (1995). Focus on form in communicative language teaching: Research Findings and the classroom teacher. TESOL Journal, 4(4),12-16.

For more on applying a TBL approach, designing tasks, making recordings, and dealing with typical problem situations:

Willis, J. (1996). A framework for task-based learning. Harlow,U.K.: Longman Addison- Wesley.

For a fuller paper on the TBL framework, more on consciousness-raising activities, and many examples of teacher innovations:


Another example you`ll find at: http://cd.ed.gov.hk/kla_guide/EngHTML/exemplar/exe12.html