Response to Frank in Mexico, who asks:

From grammar-based teaching to task-based teaching - how to help other teachers make the shift (and keep it going)?

Basically, the challenge with TBL is to help teachers understand that, in order to produce learners who really can use English for themselves, we need to shift the main focus of English lessons from grammar to meaning. This is not always easy.

Change is always threatening. Trying out new methods is high-risk – we naturally fear unknown situations – we worry what to do if our students ask questions we haven’t predicted or won’t co-operate in doing tasks. Planning new kinds of lessons takes more time, and time is one thing most teachers never have enough of. Change can also make us feel de-skilled, frustrated, ill at ease, or even bad tempered. According to Kuhn this is quite normal.’ (Woodward (1996). So, even if teachers have read about TBL in books or articles, or been introduced to TBL in training sessions, they will often find ways of avoiding change and making excuses – like the ones that Frank, a teacher-trainer in Mexico, quotes: TBL isn't effective in a 50 minute class’ or ‘Teacher fronted classrooms are pedagogically better.’

We could counter these excuses by saying:

- there are many types of task you can do in 10 or 15 minutes or even less time, which are meaning focused, which engage learners actively and are really worthwhile.


- it is quite possible to do teacher led tasks in class – in fact for beginners, teacher led tasks, like ‘Listen and do’, ‘Describe and Draw’ are standard. They give valuable exposure to spoken English and give learners a purpose for listening and interpreting meanings so as to compete the task.

But if teachers prefer their current approach, many will find other excuses to continue as they are teaching. Themes that re-occur include lack of time, student attitudes, over-use of L1, minimal responses, discipline, mixed level classes and so on. Ways of overcoming these potential difficulties are suggested in the last chapter of our latest book, Doing Task-based Teaching.

Before writing this book, Dave and I got feed-back from well over 30 practising teachers who had implemented TBL in their classrooms, and talked to several co-ordinators/project leaders who had successfully introduced whole TBL programmes in larger institutions in various countries overseas.

Below are some of their suggestions.

§ Ensure teachers understand the reasons for change, e.g. we want our learners to be able to interact in English by the time they leave school…; we want learners to enjoy their lessons more and become active participants and gain confidence in speaking.

§ Start from a familiar basis and introduce small changes, e.g. keep the text-books that teachers like, but add one or two tasks to each unit.

§ Involve teachers in the change and evaluation processes, e.g. working together in small groups to create and try out new tasks for each unit; thee tasks can then be evaluated, refined and used by others (thus building a spirit of co-operation and saving others time).

§ Make it as easy as possible for teachers to implement change; e.g. provide lesson plans for task-based lessons for each text book unit. (See Jason Moser’s account of implementing a task-based approach in a college of 700 students in Japan in Doing Task-based Teaching (2007) pages 182-183.)

§ Provide simple ways for teachers to share feed-back and create opportunities to share their experiences of their task-based lessons. Frank, a teacher trainer in Mexico, reports: I always said that a teacher's best resource is not me but another teacher or teachers. The importance of sharing and networking and building a sense of community is [] critical to the process of learning..

§ Provide inspiring and enthusiastic leadership. The projects (such as those reported above) that have implemented change most successfully seem to be those that have had strong and determined leadership, with lots of opportunities for feed-back from teachers and students. Leaders made sure that all teachers tried out all tasks and fed-back on them. Even dissenting teachers have been caught up in the process and have, after initial difficulties, found the process rewarding. (Moser – see above).

§ Encourage teachers to innovate in their lessons, for example to explore what happens if they repeat tasks or change task instructions a little. Encourage them to report their findings to each other and to teachers in their teachers’ clubs or share ideas on the web on sites like this one. (For more ideas, see Teachers Exploring Tasks (Edwards and Willis 2005)

It is often through talking to each other and watching colleagues innovate that we will accept change more readily. This is why it is important to allow time for teachers to meet and share experiences in school or college and why teachers’ clubs are such a good idea. (See Laxman’s and Frank’s suggestions on this site).


Further Reading:

Edwards, Corony and Jane Willis (2005) Teachers Exploring Tasks in ELT PalgraveMacmillan

Lopez, Juares (2004) ‘Introducing task-based instruction in Brazil: learning how to leap the hurdles’. In Leaver and Willis (Eds) 2004 Task-based Instruction in Foreign Language Education Georgetown University Press. This chapter describes how he and a colleague persevered with TBL despite teething problems. After one year, their language school become the most popular language school in the area.

Willis D and J. Willis (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching OUP – a practical guide to designing, creating and using tasks and task sequences, while still providing a focus on grammar and lexis in TBL.

Woodward, Tessa, (1996), ‘Paradigm Shift and the ELT profession’ in Willis Jane and Willis Dave Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (Heinemann Macmillan) for more on understanding change.


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