Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL

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


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