This is the first in a series of four articles which will explore how to integrate a task-based approach into a typical textbook to maximise learning opportunities for your learners and to save teacher preparation time.

Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL - methodology article - guest writers


In this first article I start by looking at what we mean by ‘task'. This will enable us to identify activities in our textbooks which have most of the characteristics of tasks. It will also enable us to identify activities which we can adjust and turn into tasks.

When is an activity not a task?
Task-based teaching is about creating opportunities for meaning-focused language use.

In other words, learners doing tasks will not just be

  • speaking to practise a new structure e.g. doing a drill or enacting a dialogue or asking and answering questions using the ‘new' patterns;
  • or writing to display their control of certain language items,

These are primarily form-focused activities, designed to practise language items that have been presented earlier. There is a place for form-focused activities in task-based learning (TBL), but activities such as these are not tasks.

Learners doing tasks (i.e. focusing on meanings) will be making free use of whatever English they can recall to express the things that they really want to say or write in the process of achieving the task goal.

What kind of activity is a task?
Willis and Willis (2007:12-14) offer the following criteria in the form of questions.

‘The more confidently you can answer yes to each of these questions, the more task-like the activity.

  1. Will the activity engage learners' interest?
  2. Is there a primary focus on meaning?
  3. Is there a goal or an outcome?
  4. Is success judged in terms of outcome?
  5. Is completion a priority?
  6. Does the activity relate to real world activities?'

Let us consider the task ‘Planning a class night out' in the light of these criteria.

  • I think the lesson would certainly engage my learners' interest, especially if they knew they would actually be going on the chosen night out, so a) is Yes.
  • Learners have strong preferences about nights out and would definitely be meaning what they say, so Yes to b).
  • The first outcome for each pair is their finished plan for the night out, (which must be complete before they tell the class about it so the class can vote on the best plan) and a second outcome might be the real-world night out, so a confident Yes to c), d), e) and f).

Next is an example of an activity designed for an adult class. Which of the questions a) to f) might you answer with a fairly confident Yes? How task-like do you think it would be, and why?


Think of the busiest day you have had recently. Work in pairs.

Tell your partner all the things you did.

  • Decide which of you had the busiest day, then tell the class about it.
  • Decide who in the whole class had the most hectic day (and say why.)
  • Finally, from memory, write a list of the things one person did on their busiest day, and, without revealing their name, read it out to the class (or display it on the wall) to see how many people can remember whose day it was.

Generally adults enjoy talking about (even bragging about) how busy they are/have been, so this would score a Yes for a), b) and f). The first goal is to compare their busiest days. The natural completion point for each learner is the end of their day - and the final outcome - the selection of the busiest person is also clear, so we can answer Yes quite confidently to the other questions. The final writing activity sets up an engaging memory challenge game with a clear outcome - to identify the person written about.

Both the above activities, then, would count as tasks, and both generate several kinds of genuine meaning-focused interaction amongst learners and teacher.

How can you upgrade a less task-like activity?
This activity comes at the end of a unit focusing on the language of past time:

Work in pairs. Talk about your grandparents.

  • Tell each other what you know about their past lives.
  • Use the phrases and patterns from the box above.


Think about this activity and apply the questions a) to f) above. Which questions would you answer with a Yes, and which would be Not sure or No? How could you adapt it to make it more task-like and get more Yes answers?


  • You might answer Yes to a) and f) with some degree of confidence. We do, in real life, occasionally talk about our grandparents and our memories of them. If the topic ‘Grandparents' does not engage all learners, let them choose instead an elderly person they knew well.
  • For b), the answer would probably be No, because the final instruction (Use the phrases and patterns from the box above) shows that this activity is intended largely to practise these particular ways of expressing past time presented earlier in the unit. Co-operative learners will be trying to make sentences about their grandparents not simply to give information but primarily to show mastery of the new forms. This is unlike natural language use. To make it more task-like, we could delete the final instruction, and do this activity early on in the unit, so learners are focusing more on meanings i.e. sharing their memories of their grandparents in a natural way rather than trying to incorporate particular language forms. Then the answer to b) would be Yes.
  • For c), d) and e) the answers are also likely to be No; there is no goal or purpose given for talking about grandparents and learners have no way of knowing when they have said enough to complete the activity, or whether indeed they have succeeded or not. Some learners might end up saying very little.

Adding a goal or outcome to make a task
For the ‘Grandparents' activity we need to add a goal to give the activity a purpose and make the outcome more specific so that learners know when they have completed the task. Some sample outcomes follow here and you could add one of these sets of instructions, depending on which outcome you think would best engage the learners in your class.

  1. Try to find out three things that your grandparents' and your partner's grandparents' lives had in common. What was the biggest difference between them?
  2. Or
  3. Decide which one of your partner's grandparents was / is the most interesting person and give two reasons why you think so. Then tell the class about him/her and vote to decide on the three most interesting grandparents in the class.
  4. Or
  5. Describe two early memories you have of one particular grandparent. Tell your group. Take notes when listening to each other.
    • Compare your memories - whose were the most interesting, most vivid, most amusing, saddest or strangest?
    • And/Or:
    • Compare your groups' memories and try to find ways to classify them (e.g. to do with food or meal-times? games? outings? being ill? negative / positive things?) Then report your categories to the class, with examples. Did you all have similar ways of classifying?

So there are several potential outcomes (and you might well think of others) that could be created out of this activity to make it more task-like. In fact each of these would make a different task.

If learners are clear what the outcome should be, and know the number of things to list or describe, they are more likely to engage with the task, speak with more confidence and know when they have completed it. Successful task achievement will greatly increase their satisfaction and motivation. When, after completing the task cycle, they look more closely at language forms used by others doing similar tasks, they will already be familiar with the contexts and have experienced the need for some of those forms.

In this article, we have looked at six characteristics of a task and analysed two activities that would count as tasks. We have also turned one less task-like activity into a task by moving it to near the beginning of the text-book unit, making it meaning-focused rather than form-focused, adding a definite outcome and making the instructions as precise as possible so the completion point is clear.

In my next article we will look at different types of task, and see which kinds are most often used in textbooks and how we can incorporate more task types into our teaching.

Further reflection

  1. Look at the three alternative sets of instructions (1 - 3.2) for the ‘Grandparents' activity above. Try to predict which of these (i.e. which outcome) would generate the most varied interaction patterns and the richest use of meaning-focused language amongst your learners.

  2. Look at a unit in your textbook. How many primarily form-focused activities are there? And how many primarily meaning-focused? Choose one that your learners might engage with and try to ‘upgrade' it to generate richer meaning focused interaction and become more task-like.

  3. Read Chapter 1 ‘The basis of a task-based approach' in Doing Task-based Teaching by Dave and Jane Willis OUP 2007.

If you are not sure what task-based teaching is all about, start by reading Richard Frost's article ‘A Task-based approach'.

Richard's article presents an excellent overview of a task-based learning approach (TBL) and highlights its advantages over the more traditional Present, Practice, Produce (PPP) approach. He has a link to a detailed lesson plan for the task ‘Planning a class night out'.

Dave and Jane Willis 2007 Doing Task-based Teaching OUP

Written by Jane Willis, Consultant, Writer, UK

Next article > Six types of task for TBL




Have any of you identified activities that could be tasks in your own text books - using the questions / criteria from this article?

If you would like my comments on one or two of them, please write the instructions for the activity here and say where it comes in the unit (i.e. what have learners just done before this activity?)

I am looking forward to receiving some activities to 'taskify'!


PS Please also give the name of your text-book and age of your learners. Thanks.

Hi Jane
Here is a task that I wrote and which gave me quite a few problems
The task was written for Business English students. Before doing the task they had to look at and evaluate tips on what makes a good business sales pitch.
They were also given a company to research on the internet by looking at the company website and some various other resources from CNN Money etc.
Then the task was this.
You will have two roles in this task.

1. You will present the company you have researched and try to convince other members of the group that they should invest in it.

2. You will listen to the other presentations and decide which ones you would like to invest in and how much you will invest in them.

You have a budget of $2,000,000

You can invest all of the money in one company, or you can divide the money as you like between the companies.

Make notes about your investments:

Company (s) invested in:

How much invested:

Key reason for investing:

I set the students up so that they worked in pairs to buy and sell and gave them a specific amount of time before they had to move on to a new partner (a bit like speed dating)
The main problem they had was dealing with the dual role / task of being both a seller and an investor. The obvious thing to have done would be to get them to take it in turns (half sell and half buy, then change over) but for some reason I thought this would be too repetitive.
Look forward to hearing your comments.
Nik Peachey | Learning Technology Consultant, Writer, Trainer
Visit my office in Second Life at:

Dear Nik, thanks for your problematic task.  Yes, I think you are right - the dual roles must have been too much for the learners (it would be for me too!) So let's look at it in terms of a task cycle...

Basically I think it is a good task - in fact it makes a whole task sequence: this is how I might do it. I don't know if this would suit YOUR sts - do tell me!  So how about this:

Out of class , learners as individuals do two tasks:

Priming task: Reading the tips on making a sales pitch

Reading task:  Researching a company with a view to persuading people to invest in it:

These are  both proper tasks in their own right.  Learners are reading for meaning, to learn something new and to  improve business skills, with a definite purpose in mind - the goal being to persuade others to invest.

IN class:

Planning time - teacher gives them 10-15  minutes to refine / rehearse their company presentations with a partner. They can ask the teacher about any language queries they have. 

Public presentation phase (like a Report in a Task-Planning- Report cycle)  

Each student has x minutes to sell his company to the whole group or half the group (dep on size) . Group take notes and can ask 2 or 3 questions. After 3 presentations, the audience group split into 3s or 4s and discuss which company so far  they would choose to invest in and why.  The 3 presenters get together and discuss how their presentations went and suggest improvements

Repeat - have another 3 sts present their companies to the group audience etc until all have presented and all speakers have evaluated. 

Decision-making task

Learners return to their first partners and decide together how they would each invest their cash and why.  They then formally report this decision to the whole group.

Feed-back and reflection

Learners spend 5 minutes writing a brief  evaluation of this whole process (this can be anonymous.)

What they liked best / found most useful / suggestions for next time....  

Give this in to you as teacher. OR they write on 'post-it notes' and display on the wall of the class room for others to read.


Rationale: more interaction and different types of discourse (private and public);  more chances to plan and reflect on their  performances; the 'partners' at start and finish give support too.


What do you think - would this work with YOUR group?






Hello Jane,I very much like Nik's task. I'd like to suggest a different way of organizing it. I think its difficulty does not lie so much in the dual role itself, but rather in the transition from the seller to the investor. Students simply can't be both at the same time. You solved the problem by splitting the group into the presenters and the audience and prevented it from being a mere passive receptor by the interposition of discussion breaks. The problem seems to be that, after all, the budget will be decided in pairs, so the cooperation with other pairs is not very natural. Nick's activity resembles Sarah Cunningham and Peter Moor's 'Ambrosia' task in Cutting Edge Intermediate, Module 9, p.96-97, except here the pitches are created and delivered by students themselves, which makes it more interesting and exciting. What I suggest is as follows:- The priming task and reading task stay the same.IN CLASS:- Students work in pairs, compare the companies prepared for homework and decide which one has a bigger potential for getting an investment.- Students prepare a presentation in pairs. They are going to present IN PAIRS as well (it is a real-life situation, many public talks are done in groups). This will save up presentation time, since sometimes it may feel a bit lengthy. If there are still too many pairs, a time limit can be set (say, 3 minutes)- Students present in pairs. The other students take notes. A chart similar to the 'Ambrosia' task may be prepared by the teacher for each student to fill in while listening to the talks, the columns being 'How much money do they ask?, 'What are the main reasons?', 'Further details', and 'My budget'.- Students work in pair. They compare their notes. Perhaps they don't remember something and (surely) they want to ask further questions. In pairs, students prepare a few more questions for each company.- The pairs split up: one of them is the 'Representative', the other the 'Scout'. 'Representatives' stay at their desks to answer questions about their company. The 'scouts' walk around the class asking the prepared questions. They write notes in the third ('Further details') column in the chart. They should be encouraged to ask some more to get as much info as possible to be able to decide about their budget. Since there are the same number of representatives and scouts, everybody should speak at the same time.- The scouts return back to their partners and report about the companies. Together they decide about their budget.- Students present their budgets. The winner is the one who get most of the money. This procedure seems rather smooth and the transition from the seller and buyer quite natural. Apart from organizing the notes, the chart also gives a nice visual overview of the procedure and directs the students. It involves many different types of discourse: public and private, and different types of cooperative work: comparing, sorting, deciding, creating, reporting etc. I have done a similar activity myself, called 'A machine fair'. After a lot of priming (video, vocab work etc.) students invented their machines and gave presentations. Then one of them stayed in their 'stall' and explained further details, while the other walked around asking questions. They also had a budget to buy machines. Alternatively, they voted for the best machine. Perhaps you'd like to comment on this,thank you,cheers,Lukas 

Dear Jane,

     I wonder if activity and task are completely different?

or they are two sides of a coin. In China, it is often believed that there is no difference between activity and task in the classroom, what do you think?

  If you are free, your reply will be appreciated!!!

A thousand thanks!!!!



Dear  Yibaoshu,

A good question - with a fairly simple answer. The term 'activity' is a general term referring to things students do in classrooms. So an activity could be anything - it may or may not be a task.   

- If an activity has a clearly defined goal, is meaning -focused and if it has most of the other characteristics listed in the beginning of this article, it will be a task.

- On the  other hand, an activity could be two students reading out a dialogue (practising pronuniation,  intonation or maybe even a grammar pattern or function),  or doing a grammar exercise.  Neither of these is meaning-focused interaction, neither has a goal other than completing the activity. If there is no outcome, then an activity is not a task. 

Sometimes people talk about communicative activities - these might be tasks - but apply the criteria in the article - how many questions can you answer Yes to? and check it out!

I hope this is clear. 



Dear Olga - a very good question and the answer is certainly no.

Not everything needs to be a task. Learners also need time to practise language forms for example:

- pronunciation of new words and phrases and grammar patterns (i.e. getting their tongues round phrases they find difficult to say),

- listing new words and phrases in vocabulary note-books and getting spellings right,

- practising intonation and stress e.g. in a dialogue or before reading out loud or presenting their reports to the class... or when rehearsing a story to tell to the class or another group.

- doing grammar consolidation exercises, or consciousness raising exercises.  

Al these activities focus on form, and there is research evidence to suggest that learners do benefit from this - if it is in the context of meaning.  The main thing is, learners also need lots of meaningful input and chances to use English for themselves (without which they are most unlikely to learn to use their English) and it is tasks and task sequences that give them the chance to do this.  So form focus activities are best done in the context of the task process - when learners are familiar with the meanings being expressed and have already met some of the forms in their input. 

Task-based learning simply means that tasks are central to the learning process - not that they are the only thing you should do in class...  Have a look at Dave Willis' second article on form-focus in task-based teaching - he clarifies this.

Thanks for the question! And do feel free to comment on or add to my response.



Olga - I had not meant to imply 'activities' are negative - just that sometimes text-books might offer activities that are look like they are meant to generate communicative interaction  but in fact rarely do; like a pair-work dialogue to complete  or a role-play that comes after a grammar presentation, where the main structure has to be said or practised as part of the activity.

Form focus activities are not negative either - they can be beneficial - but  they need to be part of a wider meanning based approach.

By the way, DAve Willis's  article I mentioned in my first reply is:  Form focus and recycling: getting grammar




This has reference to Jane Willis' replies to my questions about task-based teaching.


Hello Jane,

Thank you very much for your responses to my previous set of questions. You ended your reply with the sentence: “I hope this is helpful - please post other ways you have got your learners' feedback on tasks!” Let me respond to you with a long reply.

I teach the course Engineering English at an engineering college in Chennai, India. I can say I specialize in English for Science and Technology (EST) as I have been teaching EST courses since 1997 and my PhD research is on English for Engineering.

I give a number of tasks to students of engineering. Here I’d like to share with you one of the tasks that I had given to my first-year undergraduate students of engineering a few months ago and the effectiveness of the task in achieving the objectives set. Before that let me explain the context and in brief mention the area of my research.


Engineering English is a compulsory course for all the first-year students of engineering and technology studying at colleges affiliated to Anna University, Tamil Nadu, India. At the end of the third-year or at the beginning of the fourth-year, IT companies visit campuses to recruit candidates to their companies. Candidates with good communication skills and soft skills taste success and those who lack such skills become depressed and get frustrated. Very often recruiters complain that about 50 % of students do not have employability skills. When they mention the word ‘employability skills’ what actually they mean is ‘communication skills’. A number of educationists and HR managers have highlighted the importance of taking steps to enhance students’ communication skills. In this context, I started carrying out a research on evaluating the course and suggesting steps to modify the course based on the engineering students’ present and future language needs.


Visit an IT company and meet a HR manager or a few IT professionals. Talk to them about their job responsibilities and ask them who they talk to in English at the workplace and what language skills are important for them at work?

Your task is to identify their language needs, write a report to the teacher suggesting ways to modify the English language course to suit their present and future language needs.


The objectives of the task were:

- to enhance students’ speaking (interviewing) skills

- to develop their writing skills

- to expose them to the real world communication

- to identify the language needs of IT professionals

- to enable students to suggest activities and tasks to make the Engineering English course more effective

- to involve learners in the course design

List of language skills identified

The students identified a number of language skills IT professionals need to carry out their responsibilities effectively at the workplace.

- speaking politely

- using positive language

- distinguishing between formal and informal speech

- speaking convincingly

- reporting

- breaking the ice before trying to talk to strangers

- delegating

- asking questions and handling questions

- suggesting

- recommending

- clarifying

- persuading

- active listening

- writing reports

- giving an oral presentation

- speaking to a group

- etc.


The effectiveness of the task was evaluated and during the evaluation session students gave their feedback about the task.

- Most students found the task very meaningful and enjoyable though some of them had difficulty meeting people and interviewing them.

- They found the task meaningful.

- It said it instilled confidence in them.

- The task created awareness among students about the language needs of students.

- They identified the language needs of IT professionals and it motivated them to prepare themselves to the workplace.

- They gave some valuable suggestions to modify the course.


My questions:

Jane, I’d like to ask you to respond to these questions:

  1. What is your reaction to the task?
  2. If some students do not find a task 'interesting', is it not a task?
  3. How will you modify the task to involve maximum number of students?


Albert P'Rayan

Editor, ELTeCS ISL



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