A Few Thoughts on Task-Based Instruction

I appreciate Belgar and Hunt’s (2002) attempts to integrate a task-based syllabus into the English as a Foreign Language curriculum of the Japanese university where they worked. No doubt, as the researchers pointed out, the students involved benefited from this alternative form of English instruction. The fact that the task required students to frequently negotiate meaning while using language for real-life (or near to real-life) communicative purposes probably served as a very useful complement to the more traditional instruction the students received in the other component of their program. Moreover, the students’ largely positive responses to the project undoubtedly contributed to their gains in English proficiency, given that such an enthusiastic reception to the tasks increased their levels of motivation and lowered their affective filters.

Nevertheless, despite the positive aspects of this instructional model and the tangible benefits the Japanese students obtained from it, I question whether this and other “non-interventionist” approaches (or completely analytic syllabi more generally) have a sizeable place in my current English language curriculum. This is not to say that task-based and project-based teaching play absolutely no roles in our programs. In fact, they do, although the tasks (e.g., problem-solving activities, debates, scavenger hunts, etc.) tend to have both pedagogical and practical elements to them and involve more teacher involvement than the model contemplated by Belgar and Hunt, in which the instructor is more observer or facilitator than pedagogue. As a means of adding flexibility to the curriculum and increasing active student participation in the lesson, task-based teaching is quite welcome in our instructional model and fits nicely into our synthetic functional-notional syllabus, in which students are encouraged to interact only in the target language and grammatical structures are imbedded within the language functions and notions around which the curriculum is organized. Thus, task-based and project-based work can certainly be used in measured doses to enhance and supplement our traditional ESL/EFL curriculum.

On the other hand, I do not believe that task and project-based instruction should replace the traditional curriculum, as has been suggested as one possible approach. For one, if the purpose of a program for English language learners is to completely recreate a naturalistic language learning environment, then unless the program is situated in a purely EFL context where students have no access to a community of native English speakers, learners may be better off spending the same amount of time (and presumably, much less money) simply acquiring the language naturalistically. In other words, why should we be charging students tuition and fees to experience a simulated version (viz., quasi-naturalistic task-based interaction) of the real thing, which they can get for free? In addition, the minimal focus on form typical of purely task-based and project-based teaching may lead to serious unintended consequences, such as the provoked fossilization Skehan warns of. Thus, one matter of concern in implementing task-based and project-based teaching in my current instructional context is ensuring that it does not supplant other critical curricular components. As we are already pinched for time (in the language classrooms I have stepped into, time seems to pass faster than the laws of physics should allow), I fear that an overreliance on one single instructional approach, regardless of how well students take to it, may do more harm than good. Furthermore, I have serious reservations about charging students to participate in programs that adopt a completely analytic syllabus, at least in most ESL contexts, as explained above. Validly and reliably measuring student achievement in a program built around a strictly analytic syllabus is another potential difficulty. So it seems that striking the right balance when combining task-based and project-based teaching with traditional language instruction while preserving the synthetic syllabus at the core of the program in which I work would be a serious challenge.

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