Decoding Myths About TBLT: Views of a Leading Theorist

Last weekend was a milestone in my learning and teaching journey when I joined VietTESOL International Convention 2022. I met one of the giants in my field, Professor Rod Ellis, whom I have cited several times and never met in person. I have known him only through his publications on task-based language teaching (TBLT). With his over-50-year experience in the TEFL field, he was giving a talk about TBLT, focusing on suggesting input-based tasks for low-proficiency learners. Upon my reflection on the experience, this blog is dedicated to exploring and explaining three common misperceptions about TBLT. I suggest you have some background knowledge about TBLT before moving on. If this is your first-time exposure to TBLT, spending some time watching the following video is highly recommended.

Myth 1: TBLT is only applicable in teaching productive skills, i.e. speaking and writing

As the definition of a task suggests that a task should have communicative outcomes (Ellis, 2003), some may perceive TBLT as suitable only for speaking and writing classes. What Professor Ellis brought to the meeting was the opposite. Tasks can also be designed for reading and listening teaching. In such cases, tasks will make students demonstrate their understanding of the target language rather than producing it. 

These tasks are called input-based tasks. As the name suggests, these tasks focus primarily on receptive skills, requiring learners to comprehend the input, i.e. what they read or hear, and demonstrate their comprehension through the tasks. Multiple studies have examined the use of such reading and listening tasks. The kitchen task in the research by Ellis and his associates (1994) is an example. In this listening task, students are asked to listen to a set of directions and show their comprehension by putting the utensils in the correct place in the kitchen.

Materials used in the kitchen listening task (Ellis et al., 1994)

Though listen-and-do tasks can be more commonly seen, it is also feasible to have reading tasks in this way. Below is an example I take from the Fun for Starters book when students need to read the sentences and colour the monster.

An example of reading tasks for Starters students (Robinson & Saxby, 2016)

Myth 2: Tasks are only achievable for high-level learners

This second misassumption is related to the previous one in the sense that both stem from the idea of producing language to complete a task. This part will re-examine such a notion from two perspectives regarding learners’ language knowledge and cognitive development.

Learners at the initial stage of their language learning process must go through a silent period, just like babies keep silent until they first utter an intelligible sound. This does not mean they do not learn language. Instead, they learn it receptively, processing the language and storing information. Similar to how a baby may react non-verbally to something around, tasks for low-level learners, particularly complete beginners, should not ask them to produce the language but show how they have processed it through non-verbal media. Professor Rod Ellis even emphasized that for these low-proficiency learners, the PPP approach, which is now very prominent in the Vietnamese teaching context, is relatively less effective. I would say it is less suitable since students need to have enough language input before reaching the production stage – the last P. The example of Professor Rod Ellis has been adapted into the following picture. Students must listen to the teacher’s sentences and point to the correct picture.

An example of input-based tasks for beginner learners, adapted from Ellis’ talk.

Input-based tasks can be various and diverse. One of the criteria in designing and implementing a task (which I will go through more vigorously in a later post) is to determine the level of difficulty, also referred to as the complexity, of the task. Professor Rod Ellis illustrated this point through the example of the above task. A simpler version could be to focus merely on the colour of the hair, for example. It is easily seen that the first version requires a higher level of cognitive strategies when students hear the description.

Myth 3: Input-based tasks delay language production in learners

The concept of input-based tasks may lead some people to the misperception that these delay language production. In fact, one of the participants of the talk raised his concern that compared to the PPP approach, input-based tasks do not fulfil the role of the last P – production, and he exactly used the term “delay production”. Before concluding, Professor Ellis presented the following conversation when Shintani conducted the Help the zoo and the supermarket tasks in her classes. This task was in a series of lessons teaching Japanese children the concept of plural -s in English.

A conversation between the teacher and students in the Hep the zoo and the supermarket task (Shintani & Ellis, 2010)

Similarly, I found the following conversation transcript in Ellis et al. (1994), describing what happened during the kitchen task.

A conversation between the teacher and students from the Saitama Study (Ellis et al., 1994)

Obviously, the students in this class do not remain silent during the whole process. They ask questions (of course, in their own way, may not be in complete and grammatically correct sentences) throughout the class. The teacher does not give the task only. She gives students some support and she is basically communicating with them. For that reason, input-based tasks do not delay language production. However, language production is not the primary concern, especially when learners are at the initial stage of their language learning process.

Hopefully, this sharing blog can better your understanding of TBLT and, specifically, input-based tasks. What I can gain from the talk is not that TBLT is an optimal teaching practice and can outdo all other approaches but that TBLT is more applicable than I used to think. Coming up next will be some of my takeaways from the talk regarding how input-based tasks can be designed and implemented.

References

Cambridge University Press ELT. (2020, September 8). Rod Ellis – Using tasks in language teaching [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsBTQgE8uhw

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R., Tanaka, Y., & Yamazaki, A. (1994, September). Classroom interaction, comprehension, and the acquisition of L2 word meanings. Language Learning, 44(3), 449–491. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1994.tb01114.x

Robinson, A., & Saxby, K. (2016). Fun for Starters Student’s Book (4th ed.). Cambridge English.

Shintani, N., & Ellis, R. (2010, December). The incidental acquisition of English plural -s by Japanese children in comprehension-based and production-based lessons. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32(4), 607–637. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0272263110000288

3 thoughts on “Decoding Myths About TBLT: Views of a Leading Theorist

    1. Hi there, I’m so glad to see your comment on my reflections. As I have mentioned, beginners learners are like babies. They both do not have enough language in their mind to produce the target language. At the early stage of learning the language, they basically just process and take in the input. Therefore, it is not suitable to carry out PPP lessons which require them to produce language too early. Input-based tasks are a better alternative.

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