TBL and PBL: Two learner-centred approaches

Many newly qualified or inexperienced teachers tend to base their lesson planning on the traditional PPP approach (Presentation, Practice, Production) because it is reliable and it is a valid framework around which to base a series of classroom activities.

It is also usually the best way of covering all the lexical areas and grammar points in the course book or syllabus. All good and well. The problem is that PPP serves the teacher’s needs but it is debatable whether or not it fulfils the needs of the learner. 

The language presented and practiced does not take into account the particular needs of each learner; the language content is almost always dictated by the coursebook and/or syllabus. For this reason, many teachers, having experimented with the PPP approach turn to more learner-centred approaches where the needs of the learner are central to the lesson content. Two such approaches are TBL (Task-Based Learning) and PBL (Project-Based Learning).

What is TBL?

In task-based learning, the central focus of the lesson is the task itself, not a grammar point or a lexical area, and the objective is not to ‘learn the structure’ but to ‘complete the task’. Of course, to complete the task successfully students have to use the right language and communicate their ideas. The language, therefore becomes an instrument of communication, whose purpose is to help complete the task successfully. The students can use any language they need to reach their objective. Usually there is no ‘correct answer’ for a task outcome. Students decide on their own way of completing it, using the language they see fit.

Different teachers use TBL in different ways. Some integrate it into the existing syllabus, some use it to replace the syllabus altogether, some use it as an ‘extra’ to their traditional classroom activities. But generally, teachers using a TBL approach divide their task-based classes into three stages:

Stage 1: The pre-task. The teacher introduces the topic and familiarizes students with situations/lexical areas/texts (reading and listening)). This draws the students into the topic and brings up language that may be useful. The teacher then explains what the task is and sets up the activity.

Stage 2: Students perform the task in pairs or groups. They may then present their findings/conclusions to the rest of the class. In this stage, mistakes are not important; the teacher provides support and monitors. The learners focus on communication, perhaps at the expense of accuracy, but this will be dealt with in the next stage.

Stage 3: The teacher works on specific language points which come up in stage 2. (During the monitoring stage, most teachers make notes of common errors and students’ particular learning needs). Students reflect on the language needed to complete the task and how well they did. This is their opportunity to concentrate on accuracy and make sure they resolve any doubts or problems they had.

Tasks can be as simple as putting a list of animals in order from fastest to slowest and then trying to agree with a partner on the correct order. Or it could be something more complicated like a survey to find out which parts of town your classmates live in and how they get to school, ending in visual information presented in the form of pie charts and maps. Or it could be something really complicated like a role-play involving a meeting in the Town Hall of the different people affected by a new shopping centre development and the consequent demolition of a youth centre and old people’s home. Whatever the task, it should always have some kind of completion; and this completion should be central to the class - the language resulting naturally from the task and not the other way round.

The advantage of TBL over more traditional methods is that it allows students to focus on real communication before doing any serious language analysis. It focuses on students’ needs by putting them into authentic communicative situations and allowing them to use all their language resources to deal with them. This draws the learners’ attention to what they know how to do, what they don’t know how to do, and what they only half know. It makes learners aware of their needs and encourages them to take (some of the) responsibility for their own learning. TBL is good for mixed ability classes; a task can be completed successfully by a weaker or stronger student with more or less accuracy in language production. The important thing is that both learners have had the same communicative experience and are now aware of their own individual learning needs.

Another advantage of this approach is that learners are exposed to a wide variety of language and not just grammar. Collocations, lexical phrases and expressions, chunks of language, things that often escape the constraints of the traditional syllabus come up naturally in task-based lessons. But this can also be a disadvantage. One of the criticisms of TBL is this randomness. It doesn’t often fit in with the course book/syllabus, which tends to present language in neat packages. Some teachers (and learners) also find the move away from an explicit language focus difficult and anarchistic. Many teachers  also agree that it is not the best method to use with beginners, since they have very few language resources to draw on to be able to complete meaningful tasks successfully.

What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The PBL approach takes learner-centredness to a higher level. It shares many aspects with TBL, but if anything, it is even more ambitious. Whereas TBL makes a task the central focus of a lesson, PBL often makes a task the focus of a whole term or academic year.

Again, as with TBL, different teachers approach project work in different ways. Some use it as the basis for a whole year’s work; others dedicate a certain amount of time alongside the syllabus. Some use projects only on short courses or ‘intensives’. Others try to get their schools to base their whole curriculums on it. But there are generally considered to be four elements which are common to all project-based activities/classes/courses:

1. A central topic from which all the activities derive and which drives the project towards a final objective.

2. Access to means of investigation (the Internet has made this part of project work much easier) to collect, analyse and use information.

3. Plenty of opportunities for sharing ideas, collaborating and communicating. Interaction with other learners is fundamental to PBL.

4. A final product (often produced using new technologies available to us) in the form of posters, presentations, reports, videos, webpages, blogs and so on.

The role of the teacher and the learner in the PBL approach is very similar to the TBL approach. Learners are given freedom to go about solving problems or sharing information in the way they see fit. The teacher’s role is monitor and facilitator, setting up frameworks for communication, providing access to information and helping with language where necessary, and giving students opportunities to produce a final product or presentation. As with TBL, the teacher monitors interaction but doesn’t interrupt, dealing with language problems at another moment.

The advantages and disadvantages of PBL are similar to those of TBL, but the obvious attraction of project-based learning is the motivating element, especially for younger learners. Projects bring real life into the classroom; instead of learning about how plants grow (and all the language that goes with it), you actually grow the plant and see for yourself. It brings facts to life. The American educational theorist John Dewey wrote “education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself”.  Project work allows ‘life itself’ to form part of the classroom and provides hundreds of opportunities for learning. Apart from the fun element, project work involves real life communicative situations, (analyzing, deciding, editing, rejecting, organizing, delegating …) and often involves multi- disciplinary skills which can be brought from other subjects. All in all, it promotes a higher level of thinking than just learning vocabulary and structures.


Both TBL and PBL focus primarily on the achievement of realistic objectives, and then on the language that is needed to achieve those objectives.  They both treat language as an instrument to complete a given objective rather than an isolated grammar point or lexical set to learn and practise. They give plenty of opportunity for communication in authentic contexts and give the learner freedom to use the linguistic resources he/she has, and then reflect on what they learned or need to learn. Finally, as EFL teachers are eclectic by nature, teachers often use a combination of TBL, PBL and traditional techniques such as PPP. Some teachers use TBL and PBL as a small part of a more conventional approach and many teachers on 100% TBL/PBL courses resort to PP type activities when dealing with grammar or vocabulary problems. As always, the important thing is to use what works best for you and your learners.

Katherine Bilsborough


Submitted by Amanshakyzy on Thu, 02/22/2024 - 10:00

Great idea! Thank you!

Submitted by Okhe on Tue, 02/20/2024 - 17:48

I practice it with one of my students and it's working.

It's making me to plan for larger class when we resume for the mid term break.


Submitted by Sara I. Lopez on Tue, 01/30/2024 - 14:10

It's useful to revise the difference between TBL and PBL. Thanks for the links to Vicky Samuel and Cristina Cabal's work. Many times theoretical proposals become live when looking at their implementation.

Submitted by Flavi on Sat, 08/19/2023 - 01:05

I like both approaches, but my main concern is for students whose language proficiency and knowledge are basic. They often become frustrated and give up within the first 10 minutes.

Submitted by Esalmsalmon2023 on Wed, 08/02/2023 - 10:39


Submitted by Kiddo22 on Sun, 07/16/2023 - 21:45

This article has answered me questions I´ve been asking myself for years. Thank you.

Submitted by Nadia Shreen on Tue, 07/04/2023 - 06:33

Great ideas. Thank you

Submitted by helenmn on Wed, 01/24/2018 - 10:10

Thank you for the article and thanks everyone for the comments! I can call myself a regular user of TBL. I agree with the opinion that it can be used not so much with beginners, though you can perfectly do that too, especially at the stage when the basic vocabulary and grammar materials have been studied already, this will help students avoid hardships and blunders....I most work with students of intermediate - advanced level, and always the first stages are working with grammar and vocabulary material for students to feel easy about it and then we take many materials which are centered about the topic learnt and TBL is used at practically every lesson. With PBL it is a little bit another story. I would say that unlike TBL which is easy to integrate into any classroom, this approach is used to 70-80% out of the classroom and is not centered around the topics etc presupposed rigidly by the study plan. It is more an extra-curriculum activity and what they learn with you in class is just a basis to which many, many, many other new things have to be added in process. And if TBL can be used with any students within your classroom then to use PBL you should be sure that your students have interest in the problem the project deals with, so you are to start with ensuring their interest..... We have had with my students 2 big projects, 1 one which was my own invention (international progect) and I should say it is hard stuff:) it is like organizing your small business and being a manager of it...:) But it is worth it!!! esl-nikolaenkoelena.blogspot.com

Submitted by wmyartawan on Wed, 05/17/2017 - 03:51

Please, would you like to inform me about some other resources on project-based learning in ELT? Many thanks.

Submitted by Cath McLellan on Thu, 05/18/2017 - 13:47

In reply to by wmyartawan

Hi, You might find this blog post by Vicky Saumell useful - in it she looks at how to evaluate projects https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/vicky-saumell/vicky-saumell-using-rubrics-assess-projects This blog post by Cristina Cabal, one of our regular bloggers is also useful http://www.cristinacabal.com/?p=8720 I hope these help, Cath TE Team

Submitted by Ghazale on Sat, 02/20/2016 - 18:48

It was wonderful honey. And I think the combination of these two can be a useful teaching method.

Submitted by Ephrem Palathingal on Sat, 02/13/2016 - 15:09

May be I am not a class teacher but know to input language sense into a budding kid. His or her right side brain may not be ignited as well as that like a writer/poet child prodigy...that is inherited. Talking is the trick....I am on success path with my son daughter...Alan and Anne and now with grand kids Neil and Shawn.

Submitted by Hayden21 on Mon, 01/25/2016 - 12:15

this reason, many teachers, having experimented with the PPP approach turn to more learner-centered approaches where the needs of the learner are central

Submitted by English Too on Fri, 10/30/2015 - 10:46

There is certainly a case to be made for both approaches but as an ongoing method they fail on structured input. One cannot be certain that learners will actually have the requisite language or structures for successful task completion without such input. While both tick boxes for fluency and more natural communication, a course or syllabus based around the unexpected language that emerges will not help either teacher or student. In the extremely common case of large number of errors appearing, teachers cannot realistically just address them on the fly and will more than likely have to pencil in a more "traditional" lesson. The strength of PPP and its variants is that it is a clear process, it does work and its outcomes can be predicted. That's not to say that TBL, PBL or a whole range of other approaches work any less well but decisions need to be made on what work and not on what is most current.

Submitted by Jason S. M. Burns on Tue, 10/27/2015 - 02:06

Thanks , I found the article informative and interesting. I am in Asia doing teacher training and course development for adults; we found learner centered approaches to be well received , on paper, but local/new teachers generally went back to the ppp method as soon any perceived learner disengagement occurred. I have a video I made years back showing our version of TBL which may be of interest to some. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tigrA6Ig74 Thanks again TeachingEnglish :)

Submitted by royhanney on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 13:36

I really enjoyed reading this article and thought it presented the difference between Task-based and Project-based learning very clearly. My only concern, and it may be a pedantic one is that there is often a confusing use of PBL to describe Project-based and Problem-based learning. It must be said they are not the same and problem-based learning also differs from TBL. Confusing yes? Sometimes Problem-based learning is equated with Enquiry-based learning though again, I am not sure they are quite the same thing and they differ again from Experiential-based learning. I would be very interested to know if anyone has written on the use of Problem-based learning and ESL teaching. I think it shares many of the chractieristics in relation to the way in which learners develop language skills, grow as autonomous learners and enage in creative, critical thinking and problem solving. It is my feeling that actually good Project-based learning includes good Problem-based learning in that good projects are built around solving problems (same with TBL really). However, the way in which the two methods are commonly utilised in other subjects are very different. Though, I have yet to read of examples of Problem-based learning in ESL. Any thoughts?

Submitted by Bruno Levy on Sat, 11/16/2013 - 14:50

This article on TBL and PBL approaches is very clear. I studied them very briefly at college. However, I took a 2-week course about TBL a couple of years ago and I had forgotten lots of stuff already, and by reading your article I could remember many things I went over during the course. I thought PPP was a procedure/ way for a lesson to be delivered. Anyways, thank you for sharing this informative article with us all. ~hugs~ from Manaus, Brazil.

Submitted by Dulip on Wed, 10/30/2013 - 05:05

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't PPP (Presentation/Practice/Production) a lesson procedure? It enables the planning of a productive skills (speaking and writing) lesson as is the PWP (Pre-/While-/Post-) lesson format which is for the receptive skills (listening and reading). I do not see these procedures as techniques but formats for lesson plannning especially of help to for beginning teachers of ESL/EFL. Harmer (2004, 25) suggests the ESA (Engage/Study/Activate) "elements that need to be present in a language classroom to help students learn effectively." TBL and PBL could be techniques but I do not see them as formats of a lesson plan.

Like the others it's an approach to language exposure. TBL and PBL just take a different view of how language can be generated. Indeed they do look more like that final P- Practice section. Lesson plans themselves come in many shapes and sizes, and it is really a question of what works or is suitable to a a given class that should be their driver.

Submitted by guangjiaoyuan on Tue, 08/13/2013 - 07:37

A project is actually a longer task. I think the most important point is how a task or a project can be defined to have the relevant elements involved. I did see a real case where a Chinese teacher was trying to teach through task. The task was interesting in which learners were required to make some good food by using the provided materials. But the result was not so satisfactory in my eyes. The learners were all drawn to the tastes of the food that they seemed to forget what they should learn. Education is life, but we teachers are not paid by life.

Submitted by Marcos Viniciu… on Mon, 08/12/2013 - 22:31

but I have got some questions: 1. How could I use one of these approaches with very beginners? I teach in a public school in Brazil and most of the students are in this level. 2. Could TBL or PBL be applied in very large classes (40 students)? Thanks in advance for any comments.

For what I've understood, TBL is not suitable for beginners since they lack the language required. As regards PBL, well, I'd also like how to use it with my young learners in a primary school in Argentina. Unfortunately, I only meet them twice a week (40 minutes per class,) so I really find implementing it a little bit difficult. Anyway, as Marcus Vinicius says, any comments, suggestions will be more than welcomed!

In my experience it is possible to do both in large classes however.... You do need a suitable space and one ideally where the students can work in groups, in a circle, facing each other, with enogh space around them so they are not disturbed by other groups and to facilitate your ciruclation and participation in the group (when required). You need time to be able to facilitate activities and with large classes there is often, in a short 45 minute class for example, not enough time to communicate with each group in the class. You do need to monitor the groups closely, in ESL classes you need to ensure they are working as much as possible in the L2 language, plus you need to check they have understood the instructions (they may need reinforcing group by group), and you will need to be able to facilitate a range of responses to the brief/problem/topic/theme.

Submitted by Cicero Ferreira on Tue, 08/06/2013 - 15:26

Very nice article, especially for someone like me who's recently moved from a course whose backbone is structuralism.

Submitted by angelaolchini on Sun, 08/04/2013 - 14:00

Great article indeed. TBL are always appreciated by students, due to their learner-centred approach. It's true, however, that the risk of randomness mentioned in the article exists and in some cases is not manageable. Personally, when I plan a TBL lesson I consider the language area I want to teach, then I plan the lesson in such a way as to 'direct' the students towards a particular language area I selected. When ideas come out from the students, I just write the topics on board, then I give the appropriate language structure which, do some phonetic drill and let them discuss. Communication is always successful. Later on, I do some 'error check'. Believe it or not, students want to be corrected. Also, even when randomness can't be avoided, the Language the students learn on those occasions is likely to be used more by the students themselves in subsequent lessons!

Submitted by farah Ashraf on Sat, 07/27/2013 - 11:23

The article was enriching and delivered just the right amount of content that any professional English teacher would need.I further plan to use this approach and construct activities for teaching undergraduates oral communications skills. Could I request you if i could send you a copy of my plan for some advice.

Submitted by KhairunBC on Fri, 07/26/2013 - 22:35

I think both methods work particularly well with students who have studied together over a period of time and get on well both in and out of the classroom environment. This is what i have noticed from my experience, although I had never known i was applying TBL or PBL to my lesson planning! I've recently completed my CELTA and all of these different methodologies are fairly new to me.

Submitted by O.kalantar on Fri, 07/26/2013 - 06:53

Great article. But one of the problems i find in performing these methods is that they're extremely time taking specially in large classes. I often find my students motivated to present their task but never have had enough time to spend on both task presentation and cover my course book.

most of books have in every lesson a competence the st hould be able to do. You can adapt the content and plan a tbl class based on it. tbl classes are indeed time consuming but i tryly believe it is an excellent way the sts can use the language they need and ask for the language they want. I think books can help for new teachers while for an experienced teacher they may bore experienced teachers. I think teachers are not just tecahers, we need to guide sts and the problem with a book is that everyone can read and follow the instructions there. That's why I mentioned before to adapt. the book is only a resource and we have many resources everywhere.

Submitted by nabila lahreche on Thu, 07/25/2013 - 22:55

Before the article , I was a bit confused between the two approaches, but now things are clear for me. Thanks a lot

Submitted by amirdequan on Thu, 07/25/2013 - 21:04

I really liked the article thanks a bunch

Submitted by Anthony Ash on Thu, 07/25/2013 - 16:35

I love TBL and PBL and I was implementing TBL lessons during my CELTA course 2 years ago and I have used both ever since where appropriate. I have also used many other lesson formats including TTT, PPP and guided-discovery. I think a mix of all on a course is beneficial not only to the fact that it brings variety to the course but also it offers learners of different learning natures/styles to have an experience of a bit of everything. This article is great and I am going to tweet it now. However, something I was hoping to find but didn't was some concentrate examples of topics and lessons delivered using TBL, but then again I suppose that wasn't the purpose of the article. Check out the tweet at @ashowski

Submitted by ebriceno on Wed, 07/24/2013 - 15:47

Great article. I´d personally like to see a lesson plan in which the TBL is used so I could learn how to apply it the best. Please let me know if there exists such a thing so I could utilize it for my education. Thanks

Submitted by Paul Braddock on Thu, 07/25/2013 - 08:20

In reply to by ebriceno

Hi ebricino - thanks for the comment. You can find a task-based activity here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/activities/task-based-speaking



Submitted by maragent on Mon, 07/29/2013 - 18:16

In reply to by ebriceno

I agree completely. I would like to pilot a TBL class this upcoming semester, since I will have intermediate and upper intermediate students. I would love to see a lesson plan or some sort of syllabus that could make it clearer. Thanks!

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