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Saturday, 7 November 2009


A. Introduction

At present, task-based syllabuses have not been widely implemented in language teaching. The problems are: the definition of tasks are so broad as to include almost anything that involves learners doing something, procedures for the design and selection of tasks remain unclear, and the excessive use of communicative tasks may encourage fluency at the expense of accuracy (Richard 2001:163).

In Indonesia, related to the implementation of Curriculum 2006 (Kurikulum Tingkat Satuan Pendidikan), task-based learning can be regarded as one particular approach to implementing the broader “communicative approach”. The aim of task-based learning is to develop student’s ability in communication.

The task-based syllabus is known based on work by Krahnke (1981,1982), Candlin and Murphy (1986), and Johnson (1982). The defining characteristic of task-based content is that it uses activities that the learners have to do for noninstructional purposes outside of the classroom as opportunities for language learning.

Tasks are distinct from other activities to the degree that they have a noninstructional purpose and measurable outcome. Tasks are way of bringing the real world into the classroom (Krahnke,1987).

There have been a lot of researchers and theories in the last twenty years on the use of tasks in language teaching, particularly tasks which involve interaction between learners (e.g., Breen, 1987; Prabhu, 1987; Nunan 1989).

As Willis (2004) points out, a number of crucial research findings change the course of EFL language teaching pedagogy in the 20th century. Due to the research findings, Finch (2006) concludes that as follows:

  1. Language learning, even in a classroom setting, seems to develop independently of instruction,
  2. Learners acquire language according to their own inbuilt internal syllabus regardless of the order in which they are exposed to particular structure and regardless of mother tongue influences,
  3. Teaching does not and cannot determine the way that the learner’s language will develop (citing Skehan, 1996),
  4. Learners do not necessary learn what teachers teach (citing Allwright, 1984),
  5. Learner do not first acquire language as a structural system and then learn how to use this system I communication, but rather actually discover the system itself in the process of learning how to communicate (citing Ellis, 2003, p.14)

In addition to the findings, psycho-linguistic and socio-linguistic researchs have shown that:

  1. Motivation is one of the key issues in language learning and that skills to motivate learners are crucial for language teachers (Dornyei, 2001, p. 1 citing in Finch, 2006),
  2. Collaboration is more effective than competition as a means of promoting effective learning (Kohn, 1992 citing in Finch 2006)
  3. Learners learn more in groups than individually, since cooperative social interaction produces new, elaborate, advanced psychological processes that are unavailable to the organism working in isolation (Vygotsky, 1989, p. 61 citing in Finch 2006).

This paper covers (1) the definition of task, (2) task components, (3) the characteristics of task-based syllabus (4) A framework for task-based course design, (5) Classifying tasks, (6) The thematic content of tasks, (7) Sequencing tasks, and (8) Constructing a task-based syllabus.

B. The Content

  1. The definition of task

Let us see some definition from some experts in task-based learning and teaching.

According to Long (1985):

A task is ‘a piece of work undertaken for oneself or others, freely or for some reward. Thus, examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a fair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, taking a hotel reservation, writing a cheque, finding a street destination, and helping someone across a road. In other words, by “task” is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between. “Tasks” are the things people will tell you they do if you ask them and they are not applied linguists’.

According to Nunan (1989):

A communicative task is ‘a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing, or interacting in the target language while their attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right’.

And according to Bygate, Skehan, and Swain (2001):

‘A task is an activity which requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain an object’.

1. Task Components

The definition of a language learning task requires specification of four components: the goals, the input (linguistic or otherwise), the activities derived from this input, and finally the roles implied for teacher and learners (Nunan 1989, p. 47).

Candlin (1987) cited in Nunan 1990:47) suggests that tasks should contain input, roles, settings, actions, monitoring, outcomes and feedback. Input refers to the data presented for learners to work on. Roles specify the relationship between participants in a task. Setting refers to the classroom and out-of-class arrangements entailed in the task. Actions are the procedures and sub-tasks to be performed by the learners. Outcomes are the goal of the task, and feedback refers to evaluation of the task.

Shavelson and Stern (1981) cited in Nunan 1990), who are concerned with general educational planning rather than TESOL planning in particular, suggest that task design should take into consideration the following elements:

- Content – the subject matter to be taught

- Materials – the things that learners can observe/manipulate

- Activities – the things the learners and teacher will be doing during the lesson

- Goals – the teacher’s general aim for the task (these are much more general and vague than objectives)

- Students – their abilities, needs and interests are important

- Social community – the class as a whole and it s sense of ‘groupness’

(Shavelson and stern 1981: 478)

Wright (1987 in Nunan 1990) suggests that tasks need minimally contain just two elements. These are input data which may be provided by materials, teachers or learners and initiating question which instructs learners on what to do with the data.

1. The characteristic of task-based syllabus

Looking at the characteristic of task-based syllabus, there are positive and negative characteristic. Positive characteristic: (1) task-based instruction is potentially very powerful and widely applicable, (2) suitable for learners of all ages and backgrounds, (3) addresses the crucial problem-directly, by using active and real tasks as learning activities, (4) ability to perform the instructional task is equivalent to the ability to use the language, so functional ability should be a natural outcome of the instructional experience, (5) task-based learning can be very effective when the learners are engaged in relatively similar out-of-class activities (social or academic), (6) task-based learning can be especially useful for learners who are not accustomed to more traditional type of classroom learning or who need to learn cognitive, cultural, and life skills along with the language.

While the negative characteristics are: (1) problems can easily arise with teachers, the instructional setting, or the students, (2) task-based learning requires resources beyond the text books, (3) because TBL is not what many students expected and want from a language, they may resist or object to this type of instruction, (4) evaluation of TBL can be difficult, however, it is easy to measure the language proficiency.

  1. A framework for task-based course design

The construction of a task-based syllabus requires a specification of the tasks to be included in the syllabus. To achieve this it is helpful to classify tasks in terms of their type, to determine their thematic content and then to sequence them using appropriate criteria for grading their level of difficulty for the learner. This will suffice in the preparation of a task-based syllabus consisting entirely of linguistically unfocused tasks. However, an optional element in the framework is a specification of the features of language, i.e. the forms and functions of language, to be incorporated into the design of the syllabus.

  1. Classifying tasks

Task classification is important for a number of reasons. First, it provides a basis for ensuring variety; syllabus designer can refer to the classification to ensure that they incorporate a range of task types into the course. Second, it can be used to identify the task types that match the specific needs or preferences of particular groups of learners. Third, it affords teachers a framework for experimenting with tasks in their classroom; they can systematically try out the different types of tasks to discover which tasks work for their students.

Pedagogic classification

Willis (1996) offers a somewhat different pedagogic classification of tasks based on an analysis of the kinds of tasks commonly found in text book materials. The types reflect the kind of operations learners are required to carry out in performing tasks:

  • Listing, i.e. where the completed outcome is a list
  • Ordering and sorting, i.e. tasks that involve sequencing, ranking, categorizing or classifying items.
  • Comparing, i.e. tasks that involve finding differences or similarities in information.
  • Problem-solving, i.e. tasks that demand intellectual activity as in puzzles or logic problems.
  • Sharing personal experiences, i.e. tasks that allow learners to talk freely about themselves and share experiences.
  • Creative tasks, i.e. projects, often involving several stages that can incorporate the various types of tasks above and can include the need to carry out some research.

Willis acknowledges that this classification is not exhaustive but argues that it will help to generate a variety of actual tasks.

Rhetorical classification

A rhetorical classification of tasks draws on theories of rhetoric that distinguish different discourse domain in terms of their structure and linguistic properties-narrative, instruction, description, reports, etc. Such a classification often underlies language courses for academic purposes (for example, Arnaudet 1984) and is often linked to the specific language functions that figure in academic written discourse, for example, definitions, classifications, giving examples. One advantage of adopting a rhetorical classification is that discourse domain has been shown to be a factor that influences both the negotiation of meaning and the quality of learner production. Another advantage is that it lends itself to the design of specific purpose courses, as learners’ needs can often be readily specified in terms of the specific domains they need to master.

An alternative, more theoretically satisfying approach to classifying tasks rhetorically is to utilize the concept of genre, defined by Swales (1990 in Ellis 2003:212) as ‘a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes’. Exemplars of a given genre not just a given structure and style but a communicative purpose. However, they can be more or less prototypical of genre. Examples of genres are recipes, political speeches, job application letters, good/bad news, medical consultations and radio-telephonic flight control messages. Swales shows how genre analysis can be used effectively to describe the types of discourse found in academic settings and provides an extended account of one such genre-the research article. He suggests that the ideal pedagogic vehicle for teaching genres is ‘task’.

Cognitive classification

A cognitive approach to classifying tasks is based the kind of cognitive operations different types of tasks involve. Prabhu (1982) distinguishes three general types of tasks based on the kind of cognitive activity involved:

  • Information-gap activity involves ‘a transfer of given information from one person to another-or from one form to another, or from one place to another-generally calling for the encoding or decoding of information from or into language.
  • Reasoning-gap activity involves ‘driving some new information from given information through process of inference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns’.
  • Opening-gap activity involves ‘identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation’.

Psycholinguistic classification

A psycholinguistic classification of tasks sets out to establish a typology of tasks in relation to their potential for language learning. The system is ‘psycholinguistic’ in the sense that is based on interactional categories that have been shown to affect the opportunities learners have to comprehend input, obtain feedback, and to modify their own output. The categories are:

  • Interactant relationship: this concerns who holds the information to be exchanged and who requests it and supplies it in order to achieve the task goals. It relates to the distinction between one-way and two-way tasks. This category is derived from research that indicates that when there is a mutual relationship of request and suppliance, negotiation, of meaning is more likely to occur.
  • Interaction requirement: this concerns whether the task requires participants to request and supply information or whether this is optional.
  • Goal orientation: this concerns whether the task requires the participants to agree on a single outcome or allows them to disagree.
  • Outcome options: this refers to the scope of the task outcomes available to the participants in meeting the task goals.

A General framework

From the above account of task classification, it is clear that there is currently no accepted single typology of tasks nor is there any consensus regarding the choice of organizing principle for constructing such a typology. At best then, task classification can be informed by a general framework based on a number of key dimensions of tasks. The following figure is an attempt at such a general framework. It draws on rhetorical, cognitive, and psycholinguistic typologies described above.

The thematic content of tasks

In Estaire and Zanon’s (1994) framework for developing a task-based unit of work, for example, ‘select theme or interest area’ is the starting point. Similarly, a key element in the preparation of the ‘final task’ of a unit is determining the ‘thematic aspects’ of the task.

The choice of theme will depend to a considerable extent on whether the pedagogic purpose of the task-based course is general proficiency or some specific use of the L2. In the case of the former, the guiding principles in the selection of content for task will be (1) topic familiarity and (2) intrinsic interest (3) topic relevancy by predicting the general situations that learners may later find themselves in.

Estaire and Zanon (1994) provide a ‘theme generator’. This is organized in terms of thematic areas that are close or remote to the learner. Estaire and Zanon offer a number of specific topics for each thematic area based on suggestions made by teachers they have worked with. For example, topics relating to ‘students’ include ‘birthdays’, ‘eating habits’, and ‘how the body works’. Of course, the themes/topics chosen for a particular group of learners will depend on both the students’ level of proficiency, i.e. close topics being more suitable for beginner learners and remote topics for more advance learners, and also on local cultural values and interests.

2. Sequencing tasks

The design of a syllabus requires the content be sequenced so as to facilitate maximum learning. In effect, this requires determining the complexity of individual tasks so that tasks can be matched to learners’ level of development.

Sequencing tasks faces several problems in particular grading criteria to be used. Widdowson (1990) notes that we do not possesses a sufficiently well-defined model of cognitive complexity to establish such criteria and concludes that task-based syllabuses thus face exactly the same problem as linguistic syllabuses-they cannot be modeled on the sequence of language acquisition.

There are three sets of factors which learners are able to perform different tasks. First, task complexity, as Robinson (2001: 29) comments:

Task complexity is the result of the attentional memory, reasoning, and other information processing demands imposed by the structure of the task on the language learner. These differences in information processing demands, resulting from design characteristics, are relatively fixed and invariant.

Task complexity can account for intra-learner variability, i.e. the variability evident when the same learner performs different tasks.

Second, task difficulty, Robinson identifies factors relating to learners as individuals, which can influence how easy or difficult a particular task is for different participants. Task difficulty accounts for inter-learner variability. And finally, the methodological procedures used to teach a task. These procedures can increase or ease the processing burden placed on the learner. They include the use of pre-task activity, for example, pre teaching the vocabulary needed to perform the task or carrying out a task similar to the main task with the assistance of the teacher, and planning time, i.e. giving students the opportunity to plan before they undertake task.

Factors relating to input

Input medium

With regard to input medium, information that is presented in written or pictorial form, which can be decoded in the learner’s own time, is likely to be easier to process than information that is provided orally, which requires online decoding. However, the validity of this claim will depend on the learner’s level of proficiency in the L2. Prabhu (1987 in Ellis 2003: 222) notes that the students in the Communicational Teaching Project (beginner learners in Indian secondary schools) found tasks with an oral input easier than tasks presented in writing. It can also be surmised that pictorial input will be easier than verbal input as it makes no demands on the learners’ linguistic resources. Tasks involving pictures and diagrams frequently figure in courses designed for learners of limited proficiency (for example, Prabhu 1987).

Code complexity

The code complexity of the input, i.e. its lexical and syntactical complexity, is also likely to influence the learner’s ability to comprehend. Input texts with high frequency vocabulary and a low level of subordination are easier to understand than texts with low frequency vocabulary and complex sentence structure.

Cognitive complexity

Cognitive complexity is as important as code complexity. This concerns the cognitive demands of processing the informational content of the input material. Brown et al. (1984) suggest that it involves two dimensions. First, there is the information type. This can be ‘static’ task, i.e. the information contains changing events and activities as in a video story, or ‘abstract’, i.e. tasks that present information that has to be used to form an opinion or justify a position. The second dimension referred to by Brown et al. concerns the amount of information to be processed-the number of different elements or relationships involved.

Context dependency

Robinson (1995) bases his claim that context-free input is more complex on the results of L1 and L2 studies that show ‘there and then’ reference to be developmentally later. Nunan (1989) also notes that texts supported by photographs, drawings, tables, and graphs are easier to understand.

Familiarity of information

‘familiarity of information’ relates to ‘task difficulty’ as much as to ‘task complexity’, as it concerns the relationship between the theme of the task and individual learner’s world knowledge. Prabhu (1987: 88 in Ellis 2003: 223) comments that ‘learners’ knowledge of the world can make tasks more or less difficult for them, depending on whether they are more or less familiar with purposes and constraints of the kind involved in the tasks’.

Factors relating to task conditions

Condition influencing the negotiation of meaning

Markee (1997: 98 in Ellis 2003: 224) notes that ‘some tasks are psycholinguistically more difficult to complete than others’. He bases this claims that indicates that one-way tasks promote less negotiation of meaning than two-way tasks.

Task demands

One condition that has received some attention is task demands, specifically whether the task imposes a single or a dual demand.

Discourse mode

Skehan (2001) proposes that dialogic tasks promote greater accuracy and complexity and monologic tasks greater fluency.

Factors relating to the process of performing a task

Reasoning needed

Of the three types of tasks that Prabhu (1987) describes that information-gap tasks proved the easiest and opinion-gap tasks the most difficult, with reasoning-gap tasks intermediate. In the case of reasoning tasks, Prabhu identifies the reasoning needed as a key factor determining complexity:

The ‘distance’ between the information provided and the information arrived at as outcome, i.e. the number of steps involved in the deduction, inference, or calculation, is a measure of relative difficulty of tasks.

Factors relating to task outcomes

Medium of the outcome

The medium of outcome is a potential factor influencing task complexity. Pictorial and written products may prove easier than oral products, especially if the latter involve a presentation of some kind. This will depend on the difficulty individual learners experience with the different media.

The scope of the outcome

There is no literature on the relative complexity of tasks with closed and open outcomes. Intuitively, tasks with closed outcomes will be easier in that the participants know there is a ‘right’ answer and thus can direct their efforts more purposefully, and perhaps more economically.

The discourse domain of the outcome

The degree of complexity of these discourse domains depend on the level of detail required in the product. Instructions, for example, can be more or less complex depending on the number and content of the specific directives.

Complexity of the outcome

Skehan (2001: 173) identifies complexity of outcome as an important factor in decision making tasks. He comments:

Some tasks require only straightforward outcomes, in which a simple decision has to be made. Others require multi-faceted judgements, in which the case or position a learners argues during a task can only be effective if it anticipates other possible outcomes, and other learners contributions.

The nature of the outcome impacts on the task performance, affecting the complexity of arguments that need to be made.

3. Constructing a task-based syllabus

The planning the task-based syllabus needs the following procedures:

  1. The starting points is the determination of the goal(s) of the course in terms of its pedagogic focus (general or specific purpose), skill focus (listening, speaking, reading, writing, learner training) and language focus (unfocused or focused)
  2. The designer then needs to make a broad choice of task types and specify the particular themes the tasks will deal with. The result of this stage is a list of tasks organized by theme and specified in terms of the general activity that the learners will be required to undertake.
  3. The third step would be to specify the nature of the tasks to be used in detail by selecting options relating to input, conditions, process, and outcomes. The selection would need to be motivated both by a consideration of the psycholinguistic value of the different options and by practical considerations relating to the specific teaching context.
  4. Finally, the tasks need to be sequenced.

C. Some related information from other resources

The followings are some research of the implementations of task-based.

Carless, D.R (2003), “Factors in the implementation of task-based teaching in primary schools”. His qualitative case study explains that within the Asia Pasific region, a number of attempts to introduce communicative or task-based approaches have often proven problematic, in South Korea (Li, 1998); in Hong Kong (Carless, 1999; Evans, 1996); in Japan (Browne and Wada, 1998; Gorsuch, 2001); in China (Hui, 1997; Liao, 2000); in Vietnam (Ellis, 1996; Kramsch and Sulivan, 1996); and Indonesia (Tomlinson, 1990).

Factors in implementation of task-based teachings are teachers’ understandings of tasks, their attitudes, the classroom time available for task-based teaching, teacher preparation of resources, influence of textbook and topics, and the language proficiency of pupils.

Bruton, A. (2006) “Description or Prescription for Task-Based Instruction? A Reply to Littlewood”. Bruton analyzed the Lttlewood (2004) proposal on the task-based approach. Liitlewood offers two dimensions, task involvement and task focus, on which to place activities in the classroom activities.

Finch, A. (2006) “Task-based supplementation: Achieving high school textbook goals through form-focused interaction”. The research showed that meaningful learning could occur, and could be perceived (by the students) to occur. The interactive format of the task-based supplementary activities, students became involved in the learning process, and benefited from an improved awareness of what they were learning and why they were learning it.

Cheng-jun W. (2006) “”Designing Communicative Task for College English Course”. Cheng-jun concluded that the communicative tasks design has been proved to be effective in teaching a foreign language in promoting the learners competence in using the language to do things they need to do. Communicative tasks design offers a change from the traditional teaching routines through which many learners have previously failed to communicative.

D. Conclusion

Task-based syllabus is a set of planning or set of instructional materials based the aims that have been established for a language program. Task-based syllabus can be used in teaching or learning the communicative purposes. It is organized around tasks that students will complete in the target language. A task is an activity or goal that is carried out using language such as finding a solution to a puzzle, reading a map and giving directions, or reading a set of instructions and assembling a toy (Richard 2001: 161).

A task-based syllabus, however, is one based on tasks that have been specially designed to facilitate second language learning and one in each tasks or activities are the basic unit of syllabus design. A number of second language acquisition theorists have proposed tasks as a basis for syllabus planning. Long and Crookes (1991, 43 in Richard 2001) claim that tasks: “provide a vehicle for the presentation of appropriate target language samples to learners – input which they will inevitably reshape via application of general cognitive processing capacities – and for the delivery of comprehension and production opportunities of negotiable difficulty.”


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Nunan, D. (1989) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridg University Press.

Richard, J.C. 2001. Curriculum Development in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge Language Education.

Allen, E.D. andValette, R.M. 1972. Classroom Techniques: Foreign Languages and English as a Second Language, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Richard, J.C. and Renandya, W.A. 2002. Methodology in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centered Curriculum; A study in second language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richard, J.C. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. 1997. Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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About the Author:

The writer is an English teacher of high school in Batam , Indonesia. (Teacher of SMAN 1 Batam)- Indonesia