Task-based language learning applied to English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching.

By on February 16, 2011

Many language textbooks and other ESL learning materials are organized around grammar principles, teaching them in order of perceived usefulness or frequency.  However, research in second language acquisition over the past three decades has shown that focusing ESL instruction on learning grammatical forms does not lead to fluency in real language use (Lightbrown andSpada 1999; Doughty and Long 2003). Task-based language learning (TBLL) was developed to address this weakness in ESL learning. Nunan (1999) defines task-based language learning as “an approach to the design of language courses in which the point of departure is not an ordered list of linguistic items, but a collection of tasks” (p. 24).  This is closely related to communicative language teaching (CLT).

The focus of TBLL is on providing ESL learners with the language components and forms that they need in order to be able to accomplish particular real-world tasks. ESL Learners need to be able to greet others, introduce themselves, talk about their families and their interests, etc. A TBLL ESL curriculum will provide them with the tools and the practice that they need in order to perform these tasks in socially appropriate ways.

A second feature of TBLL is the use of communicative pedagogical tasks. That is, ESL learners do not go through repeated mechanical drills or respond to questions designed to display their knowledge about the structure of the language. Instead, TBLL focuses on providing experiences where ESL learners listen to multiple examples of authentic communication in a real social context, and then interact in order to solve problems and communicate ideas, needs, and desires.


The TALL system uses the TBLL approach. The TALL syllabus was designed to involve the learner in a set of general core language tasks. The core tasks were selected by examining a number of curricular resources including the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languagesʼ (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines, the Council of Europeʼs European Language Portfolio, and dozens of commercial textbooks for the teaching of ESL at various levels. Based on these sources, as well as each taskʼs usefulness to many different types of ESL learners in many different contexts, the tasks were assigned to a proficiency level from one to four.

Activities within each ESL lesson begin with having the learners observe others performing the task and then developing the vocabulary, phrases, etc., for the performance of the task. They culminate with multiple opportunities to perform the task in a variety of contexts.  Finally, ESL learners experience an integrated simulation involving the performance of several different tasks.

Adapted from “The TALL Language System: An Integrated, Research-Based Approach to ESL Instruction”, by Dr. C. Ray Graham, and Dr. Kent Parry, both of Brigham Young University. Used with permission.  To receive a free copy of the complete document, click here.

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