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Academics answer: What is task-based learning?

Academics answer: What is task-based learning?

Education is constantly evolving and introducing teachers to new or different techniques to employ in class. Here, Giorgio Iemmolo explains one of these techniques: the concept of task-based learning.

Learning a language is like learning to ride a bike or body surf: it takes commitment and a willingness to take risks. With practice, you’ll never forget; though of course, trial and error are key. You try, make mistakes, and learn from them. Maybe you can still remember the moment you took off after several days of clumsy peddling?

Learning a language takes practice, constant exercise, and exposure. But glueing your eyes and nose to a textbook? Well, that isn’t all it takes. Memorizing a myriad of grammatical and vocabulary items alone will not help you much if you don’t try and use them in real life. That’s why language teachers often ask their students to perform a task in class together. This is called “task-based” learning.

A quick guide to task-based learning

When using task-based learning, teachers ask their students to perform tasks that resemble authentic, “real-life” situations. This approach particularly challenges students who are used to a more traditional classroom, say, focussing on analyzing, practicing, and memorizing a few irregular verbs. Teachers and students who have always interacted in a traditional classroom may feel that style is the “best” approach. But think for a minute: what happens when students need to use the language in a real situation, say, when renting an apartment? Will knowing all the irregular forms of the past tense help them communicate clearly? Probably not: it’s knowing how to use them in context that helps. To achieve this, students need to practice, make mistakes, be corrected, and repeat. Performing a task is a good way to learn how to use language practically in a situation that is likely to actually take place!

Why try it in your class?

As with any other skill-learning process, students fall on a “risk-aversion continuum”: when confronted with a foreign language, some will dive straight in, while others want to be as accurate as possible when speaking. The latter group uses different strategies to communicate effectively, for example, gestures, descriptions, synonyms, and through practice they gather more language items they can use in the future. Task-based learning helps students do this because it forces them to do something in class that they would do (and probably have done!) in in their own language. It replaces the “traditional” classroom with real-life situations that allow them to answer or solve real problems. By mimicking a real-life situation, such as having a job interview or taking out a phone contract, learners can safely use all the resources they have at their disposal to meet their communicative needs. The teacher’s role is to prepare, guide, and support their class to help them understand and practice the language needed for the task. With their teacher’s support, learners can experiment and dive into their studies, while working on the correctness of the language used.

An alternative roadmap

To use a final metaphor, learning a language is like moving to a new city and getting to know it. At first, you become familiar with the city center and your neighborhood. Then you venture farther afield until all the sectors become connected with each other and you can travel confidently through the whole city. It’s no good staying at home all day because you don’t know how to navigate your city. Similarly, the most successful language learners are the ones who strive to get things right but are not afraid of stepping outside of their comfort zone and relishing new experiences. When practicing a language through tasks, students will strengthen their knowledge to the point where their use of the language, both in terms of fluency and accuracy, becomes automatic.

The “real world” is where students can put their study to good use. Task-based learning is a key strategy to giving your class ample opportunities for quality language practice. The added bonus? Students tend to relish these activities as well.

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