Unit 1: Become motivated to implement TBLT


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Unit 1: Become motivated to implement TBLT

Unit objectives: By the end of unit 1, the participants will:

  • Get a clear understanding of what TBLT is
  • Identify differences between form focused language teaching and TBLT
  • Realize why TBLT is important in English classrooms in Sri Lanka

Section 1: Does TBLT differ from how you are teaching English to your students?

[Guiding Questions]

  • As you watch the video, note down the differences you see in the teaching in this video and how you teach English?
  • What are the language skills addressed?

[Watch] TBLT Classroom

[Questions for reflection]

  • In what aspects is TBLT different from your approach to language teaching?
  • Do you think this approach to language teaching will benefit your students?
  • Do you have resources to implement TBLT in your classroom?
  • What are the language skills emphasized in your class? If it’s only grammar and writing, how would you emphasize student’s attention on speaking, as well?
  • Will that be a challenge for students? How would you gradually introduce TBLT?

Section 2: What is TBLT?


Task-based Language Teaching

In 1976, Wilkins distinguished between two types of syllabi synthetic syllabi and analytic syllabi. Synthetic syllabi comprise linguistic units: grammar structures, vocabulary items, functions, etc. The units are usually ordered logically, in a sequence from linguistic simplicity to linguistic complexity. It is the learners’ responsibility to synthesize the linguistic units for the purpose of communication. Analytic syllabi, on the other hand, ‘…are organized in terms of the purposes for which people are learning language and the kinds of language performance that are necessary to meet those purposes’ (Wilkins 1979: 13). Content-based instruction employs an analytic syllabus. Rather than learning language items one by one in a specific sequence, learners work on relevant content texts and the language of the texts. Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research supports the use of analytic syllabi because such research shows that learners do not learn linguistic items one at a time. Instead, they include linguistic information from the language samples they work on, and they acquire language items only when they are ready to do so. A task-based syllabus falls into the category of an analytic syllabus. The syllabus is composed of tasks, not a sequence of linguistic items.

           Tasks are meaningful, and in doing them, students need to communicate. Tasks have a clear outcome so that the teacher and students know whether or not the communication has been successful. An example of a task in a task base syllabus is for students to plan an itinerary for a trip. Students work in small groups with a train schedule. They are given certain destinations to include, and they have to decide on the most direct route to travel by train-the one that will take the least amount of travel time. As the students seek to complete the task, they have to work to understand each other and to express their own thoughts. By so doing, they have to check to see if they have comprehended correctly, and at times, they have to seek clarification. This interaction and checking is thought to facilitate language acquisition (Long 1996; Gass 1997). As candling and Murphy note:

The central purpose we are concerned with is language learning, and tasks present this in the form of a problem-solving negotiation between knowledge that the learner holds and new knowledge. (Candlin and Murphy 1987:1)

Task based language teaching is another example of the strong version of the communicative approach, where language is acquired through the use. In other words, students acquire the language they need when they need it in order to accomplish the task that has been set before them.

           There is a difference between task-based syllabi and task based language teaching or TBLT. Task-syllabi have been criticized for the absence of grammatical items (Sheen 2003; Swan 2005). While it may be true that task-based syllabi, being analytic nature, do not expressly feature grammar structures, task based teaching or task-supported teaching (Ellis, 2003), in the minds of some methodologists does not exclude it. For instance, Loschky and Bley-Vroman, 1993) see value in engaging students in structure based communicative tasks, which are designed to have students automatize the use of a structure that they have already internalized. A structure based communicative task might involve making inferences about the identity of someone whose briefcase has been left in the back of a taxi (Riggenbach, Samuda, and Wisniewska, 2007). Completing such a task by identifying the owner is likely to necessitate the use of certain modal verbs and/ or adverbs of probability (‘It might be a woman.’ ‘She’s probably a businesswoman.’)

           Other methodologists claim that along with communicative tasks, there can be focused talks that do not call for speaking, but instead, are designed to raise learners’ consciousness with regard to specific linguistic items (Ellis, 2009). For instance, students might be asked to trace a path on a map of a town, following directions given by the teacher. In this way, students would receive comprehensible input involving imperatives, prepositions of location and direction, and the names of different buildings. Other communicative tasks can be designed in such a way that they encourage students to notice a particular target language feature, possible by means of input enhancement, such as using boldface type for a particular structure in a reading passage or input flooding, which means using particular vocabulary items or grammar structures with great frequency in the input. Such input enhancement techniques are thought to work well for structures that are not easily perceived, such as grammatical morphemes.

           Then, too, Ellis (2003) suggests that there are a number of ways in which grammar can be addressed as a follow-up to a communicative task, including direct explicit instruction and traditional practice-type exercises. Willis (1996) has also proposed a variety of such options for the post-task phase. Still others, while rejecting a role for such direct explicit instruction, claim that even within communicative tasks, some attention should be paid to linguistic form, through a focus on form, not a return to grammar drills and exercises, which is termed a focus on forms (Long, 1991). A focus on form might involve a teachers’ reformulating or recasting a student’s error or providing a brief explanation. It is said that focusing student’s attention on grammatical form in these ways can have a positive effect, provided that such attention is brief and reactive, in that it takes place when problems of grammatical inaccuracy arise (Long, 2009)

           Samuda and Bygate (2008) reach back into history even further than SLA research to find theoretical support for task-based language teaching. John Dewey (1913), who emphasized the need for experience, relevance, and ‘intelligent effort’ for effective learning. Dewey is generally considered to be the founder of constructivism. He rejected approaches that viewed learners as receptacles of the teacher’s knowledge and favored ones where students are actively involved in constructing their own knowledge through experience and problem solving.

[Questions for reflection]

  • Is your current approach to English language teaching synthetic syllabi or analytic syllabi?
  • What are the language skills your students practice in class?
  • How does your approach differ from a communicative approach like TBLT?
  • Do you agree with John Dewey (1913) as he emphasizes the need for experience, relevance, and ‘intelligent effort’ for effective learning? Why?
  • Do you think John Dewey’s approach to teaching is applicable in language teaching, as well?
  • According to what you read, do you think it can be seen in TBLT?

Section 3: Case study

Piyath is Sri Lankan. He is currently studying in the High School and he is an English Language Learner. He scores the highest for English in class. His is proficient in English academic writing and he is proficient in English grammar. Teachers and other students expect him to be proficient in speaking in English, as well. As they graduate from high school, they decide to throw a party. As they need to book a hall in a hotel and usually the manager speaks in English, everyone prefers Piyath taking the initiative in making the reservation. However, students are surprised to see that Piyath struggles in communicating in English with the manager.

[Questions for reflection]

  • Why do you think is Piyath proficient in writing but not in speaking?
  • Do you also assume that when a student is proficient in writing in English that student is also proficient in speaking? Why?
  • How can we help Piyath to improve speaking? Do you think we can use TBLT to improve Piyath’s speaking skills? How and why?
  • Have you ever encountered different proficiency levels of students in different skills? Why do you think is the reason?
  • Have you ever encountered different proficiency levels of students in different skills in your class? Why do you think is the reason?
  • Do you think TBLT is an effective language teaching approach to use in your classroom?


In this mini course record all your answers for writing tasks in one google document

Reflect on why most students in Sri Lanka have the ability to write in English but they lack communicative English skills. Is there’s a need to implement TBLT in your classroom? Write down the final thoughts.


Larsen-Freeman, D. & Anderson, M. (2011). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. (3rd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

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