Taking Task-Based Learning Online

On the 14th July we had the pleasure of presenting a plenary at English Australia’s EdTech Symposium. I think we were slightly surprised to be invited to present at a conference focused on tech – while neither of us are luddites, EdTech is not uppermost in our interests or practices. On reflection, this is perhaps why we were a good choice in some ways – like so many fellow professionals we are teachers who were by circumstance (the pandemic) thrust into moving our methods and approaches to online teaching. We therefore decided to talk about this – our plenary recapped on the benefits of task-based approaches, considered what is / is not a task, what the task cycle involves, before discussing and showing examples of the tricks and tools we have found useful in implementing TBL online.

The main challenge was covering ground in 45 minutes. This meant skirting over many areas and very much giving an overview. Neil and I took turns discussing various topics – this was a lot of fun, as it was nice to be able to listen and not be in the spotlight for the full 45 minutes. For simplicity, I’ll simply refer to us as “we” below rather than differentiating between who did / said what. Here is a link to the slides from the plenary. Top tip: go through it as a slideshow using the present option.


After brief introductions, we discussed the benefits of adopting a task-based approach.

We discussed the benefits of taking such an approach over more dominant synthetic, discrete-item led approaches such as PPP, identifying a number of potential advantages:

  • TBL centres the task and in doing so prioritises meaning-focused communication rather than relegating this to the end of the lesson (as PPP tends to do) – for anyone who identifies as a communicative language teacher, this is significant;
  • TBL is supported by SLA research in various ways – for example, learners appear to have a kind of “internal syllabus”, which is resistant to the grammar and vocabulary we explicitly base lessons around. As any language focus in a TBL lesson is reactive, rather than pre-determined, there is a better chance of aligning input with what the learners need and when they need it: teaching at the point of need;
  • related to this, as the focus on form in a TBL lesson comes later in the lesson sequence in response to need, it is potentially richer and more varied – there is no imperative to limit the input to, for example, a single structure;
  • tasks can mimic what students have to do outside of the classroom in (for instance) formal professional and educational situations through “target tasks” or more indirectly through engaging learners with the kind of functions that are essential to everyday communication;
  • when tasks are repeated, students have a chance to recycle / embed new language. Task repetition offers potential benefits to both accuracy and complexity of use.

We made the point that we do not consider ourselves to be TBL evangelists – we simply happen to think it is an effective method we wish was more widespread, especially among teachers who consider themselves to be operating under some form of CLT.

Characteristics of a Task:

We noted that TBL is a broad church: opinion on what precisely constitutes a task can vary – for instance, whether tasks should directly reflect real life needs, based upon rigorous needs analysis; or whether it is sufficient for the task to reflect types of discourse / functions we frequently engage in e.g. negotiating, debating, sharing and evaluating opinions. For us, the latter is both sufficient and more realistic in the teaching contexts we are most familiar with. Regardless of any differences, there is general agreement about some aspects of tasks:

  • a task should be concerned with meaning rather than form – learners should be engaged in trying to achieve something with language rather than focusing on trying to use a particular structure;
  • a corollary of this is that learners should be using their own language rather than specific forms prescribed by the teacher / exercise;
  • evaluation of the success of the task is based on the completion of a goal or achievement of a pre-determined outcome (rather than showing an ability to use a particular language item);
  • this outcome is typically based on a “gap” of some sort between interlocutors: a need to communicate, to speak and to listen. This may involve (for example) exchanging and comparing opinions or experiences, or sharing information that is not common to all participants. There is a need and desire to speak and listen.

We gave a simple example, represented below:

A does not fulfil the criteria for a task as it is concerned with use of a specific linguistic form and (presumably) the success of the activity is based on how well this language item is used.

B on the other hand more clearly meets the criteria: there is no prescription to use specific language, and the task is meaning-oriented, with learners doing something with the language. The doing is goal-oriented: the task, if properly scaffolded and pitched appropriately for the learners, involves negotiation and consensus-building (in that the learners need to agree on a schedule they are happy with, and then need to present this).

Types of Task:

We briefly looked at types of task. It is important to note there are many ways to taxonomise tasks – Jim Fuller / Sponge ELT has a thorough overview here (have a read of all of his TBL posts – they are very useful!). Our non-exhaustive list is based on Willis:

These are, presumably, the kind of things communicative language teachers do every week – hence the reminder at the bottom of the slide: the key point is that the actual task is the focal point of the lesson, not particular language points. These task types allow learners to engage in meaning-focused communication, and allow the teacher to address a range of emergent linguistic needs both during and after the task.

Overview of the Task Cycle:

We felt before looking at moving TBL online, it would be useful to review the task cycle. Followers of this blog will know we follow a simple “pre-task” “task” “post-task” cycle, with options to repeat the task after some reflection and fine-tuning of initial task performance. In our talk, as in our book, we used, with permission, a version of Jane Willis’s representation of how task-based lessons may unfold:

(Followers of the blog may also have noticed that there may be “subsidiary tasks” that occur before / after the main task – the framework is, as Willis herself put it, flexible, and the diagram above is the simplest representation of what might occur)

Pre-task: this is concerned with preparation for the main task, using the various tools and techniques a trained teacher would commonly use: visuals, personalisation, discussion to activate schema and generate interest, modelling of the main task (e.g. a recording, or the teacher giving an example), pre-teaching of some necessary lexis. You may wonder whether modelling and pre-teaching steals the task’s thunder i.e. does it not turn the main task into a more conformist, language-display exercise? The answer is that it shouldn’t but you need to be careful to make it clear that these are there to support task performance not to indicate how precisely it should be done and what language must necessarily be included.

Task: learners work to complete the main task – that is to say, exchange opinions, share information, negotiate, create and work their way towards achievement of the goal. This is typically done in small groups, who subsequently present their findings (content feedback) to the class. During the task, the teacher is present but stealthy, hovering and offering help when it is needed e.g. feeding in particular language at the point of need and / or taking notes for the subsequent language feedback. In addition, learners themselves will have the opportunity at points to focus on the language they are using, independently of the teacher.

Language Focus: as we outline in our book, the teacher can use different techniques here, including text-mining and sharing instances of language that were captured during the task phases. We believe quite strongly that focus on language can involve:

  • simple correction;
  • recasting / reformulating what learners say;
  • exploring language based upon something the teacher notices or the learners query;
  • sharing instances of excellent language use – peers can support each other.

(And then the task may be repeated – in the same lesson or in an upcoming lesson).

Taking the Task Cycle Online:

We then moved on to the chief point of the plenary – showing how this cycle could in our view be easily adapted to online teaching. We once again stressed the relatively low-tech nature of our teaching: the good news being that certain very common tools lend themselves wonderfully well to task-based lessons. We summarised this by talking through the following image indicating what tools we prefer to use and at what phases of the cycle:

Jamboard: our belief in the utility of this tool will come as no surprise to those who follow the blog. We outlined its usefulness for task-based lessons: it is fundamentally an interactive, collaborative whiteboard that can be used by all students and the teacher at the same time, whether in the main room or breakout rooms. As such, it is incredibly easy to use for the various things one may do in pre-task and task phases e.g. brainstorming, listing, grouping, selecting, ranking etc. It is very straightforward to enhance this by duplicating frames (i.e. slides), importing images, backgrounds and gifs; text can be added via the text-box or images, to provide easily accessible instructions or input. In short, it has good functionality for our purposes and offers some versatility without being at all overwhelming.

Breakout Rooms: we feel tasks are best done in a student-centred way, by which we mean students working more or less independently as they complete the task (once set-up and pre-task prep is complete). Breakout Rooms (BORs) provide students with the space to do so while allowing the teacher to monitor the rooms to troubleshoot, offer necessary language or collect data (on content and language) for feedback. Using this in conjunction with something like Jamboard or Google Docs (see below) means that the learners still have access to the task instructions / parameters of the task and gives the teacher an opportunity to visibly monitor progress (e.g. how their Jamboard frame or Doc is coming along).

Google Docs: as with Jamboard, this is a collaborative tool. Unlike Jamboard, it is ideally suited to tasks that involved a substantial amount of writing e.g. tasks that involve the creation of written text such as reviews, essays, reports or emails. See this task of ours for instance. The teacher can add comments synchronously as the students write, and the same comment feature can be used for peer feedback afterwards.

Chat: this is ideal for unobtrusively “nudging” learners while they are on task, feeding in ideas and language discreetly, and allowing learners to look and respond to this immediately or later depending on their preference. It can also be used for subsequent language feedback, though I tend to prefer using a google doc for this, as exemplified below.

Some Sample Tasks

We then went on to make things concrete by talking through three tasks we took online:

The sample tasks all use Jamboard, BORs and have the scope to use chat and Docs. We chose them in order from simplest to most complex (in terms of set up):

(here’s the link to Jamboard used in the plenary)

Language feedback / upgrades during Domestic Robot

Domestic Robot (frames 1-8): this is a well-known pyramid discussion that has learners brainstorm household chores and then select the ones they dislike the most i.e. the ones they want their new domestic robot to take care of. In frame 1, you can see the evidence of the brainstorming – we asked conference participants born in July to add ideas (or scrawls!). As a pyramid discussion, students first list a certain number of chores alone, before forming increasingly large groups while narrowing the list of chores the robot can take care of. We demonstrated how you can duplicate rooms, making as many as you need by clicking “expand frame bar” and then the three dot options for a frame before selecting duplicate. So, for instance, frames 2-5 are the initial rooms, before these are combined in frames 6 and 7. Frame 8 shows an image of chat feedback with upgrades to the language used.

A national banquet, ready to be presented

The National Banquet (frames 9-11): a full write-up of this is coming soon (including adaptations for multilingual classes). The idea is students consider dishes that best represent their country in order to plan a feast for a visitor. They then pool ideas and negotiate the best choices before presenting the banquet to other groups and voting on the best options. Frame 9 shows how you can lay out the context, instructions and goal for a task in a single frame (that students can refer back to). Frame 10 is the template, awaiting discussion and negotiation of what will be served at the banquet; frame 11 is one completed example. We also demonstrated how docs could be used for language feedback: the grid (page 1) can be used to capture non-standard instances of language; the teacher discusses one or two examples with the learners (page 2) before they use the comments feature to give their own “improvements”; these are curated and improved by the teacher as necessary before we have a final written record (page 3).

Getting ready to research destinations online

Post-pandemic Travel (frames 12-15): an earlier version of this task can be found in this post. Students imagine a world where they can travel without restriction, list criteria for selecting appropriate travel destinations (frame 12 e.g. cost, accessibility, accommodation options etc.), evaluate certain selected destinations – ideally attractive but not well-know to the group (frames 13/14) – rank these (frame 14), research them online (frame 15), and report back before re-ranking or choosing the preferred destination.

And that was pretty much all we had time for. Thank you to the organisers Sophie and Henno and to everyone who attended!

11 thoughts on “Taking Task-Based Learning Online

  1. catherinemcfarlane

    Hi Neil, that link doesn’t seem to work. You get an ‘oops that page can’t be found’ message. Great way to create more interest πŸ˜‰Β All the best,Catherine


  2. Rachel Tsateri

    What a plenary! I’m sure online teachers found this very useful. Love the combination of web tools you suggest! πŸ‘πŸ» Very practical and engaging!


  3. geoffjordan

    Congratulations! Very well organised; clear as a bell; incorporates many of the most important principles of TBLT; and I’m sure teachers will find it both inspiring & useful. A few things we disagree on:

    1. Some attempt to identify Target tasks helps.
    2. Rather than repeat tasks, pedagogic tasks can be designed as a sequence which gradually increase in their cognitive load as the approach a complete simulation of a target task.
    3. We think the use of what Long /2015) calls “elaborated” and “modified” multimodal texts is crucial.
    4. We think Willis’ 3 stage structure often leads to too much focus on forms.

    Keep up the good work!


      1. Neil Anderson

        And thanks for the list of contentious areas – it’s a good reminder I need to review what Long says about elaborated / modified texts, as well as the sequencing principle you mention (which makes absolute sense).


  4. Pingback: The ELT Digest: July 2021 | The ELT Workshop

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