This is the second 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.

Six types of task for TBL - methodology article - guest writers
Jane Willis, Consultant and Writer, UK

In this article we look at different types of task, and see which kinds are most often used in textbooks. I also suggest ways of adjusting them so that they stimulate more opportunities for meaning-focused interaction, and encourage learners to give longer responses. Finally I show how a graded set of tasks can be developed on a theme.

Identifying task-like activities

In my first article, Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL, we looked at six questions that gave us criteria to help us identify tasks and 'upgrade' potential task-like activities into tasks. So now we can identify activities in a textbook unit that could become tasks and form the basis of a task cycle with;

  • Pre-task activities,
  • Task - Planning - Report cycle,
  • Post-task activities as illustrated in the activity Planning a class night out.

However, tasks tend to come in various disguises. Some textbooks contain quite a few task-like activities, but very few use the word 'task' to describe them. They often come under section headings like: Speak out! Listening challenge, Think … then compare ideas, Reach a decision, With a partner …, In groups …, It's your turn, Questions and answers, Discuss ..., Tell your partner …, Writing, Reading or even under Grammar or Vocabulary.

For example, in Total English, a textbook for beginners, the activity 'Who is your favourite 20th Century icon? Tell your partner about the person.' comes at the end of a Grammar section on was / were which follows a reading activity.

There are several ways to turn this into a more rewarding task – as illustrated in Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL – and you can also build up a graded set of tasks around this theme, as illustrated below.

Three types of task

Activities like the following generally have the potential to become effective tasks:

Listing and/or brainstorming

You can list people, places, things, actions, reasons, everyday problems, things to do in various circumstances, etc.


  • (1) In pairs, agree on a list of four or five people who were famous in the 20th century and give at least one reason for including each person.
  • (2) Can you remember your partner's busiest day? On your own, make a list of all the things he/she did. Then check with your partner. Were there any things you forgot?

Ordering and sorting

This can be sequencing, ranking or classifying.


  • (3) In pairs, look at your list of famous people. Which people are most likely to remain popular and become 20th century icons? Rank them from most popular to least popular, and be prepared to justify your order to another pair.
  • (4) Look at the four pictures. They are mixed up. Work in pairs. Put the four pictures in a sequence so that they tell a story. Prepare to tell your story to another pair.


You can match captions / texts / recorded extracts to pictures, short notes or headlines to longer texts, e.g. news items, etc.


  • (5) Read the texts – each is about a famous person but the person is not named – and look at the photos. Match each text to a photo. Then talk to your partner, and say how you were able to match them. Prepare to tell the class how you did it.
  • (6) Read the four headlines A to D. Match two pieces of information (given in 1-8 below) to each headline. Explain to your partner how you did this. What clues did you find? Did you both use the same clues?

Do you have any tasks like these in your textbooks? Sometimes textbooks use listing, ordering and matching activities at the beginnings of units, to introduce or revise useful words and phrases to prepare for the main topics. The outcomes are usually clear (e.g. a completed list, a set of matched information). But although they give valuable exposure to relevant topic-based language in the form of reading texts or recordings, they rarely stimulate much learner interaction as they stand.

Stimulating more interaction

All the examples I have given above are based on activities from real textbooks, but in each case I have added a further step or two to stimulate additional meaning-focused language use.

  • In 1 and 3 learners are asked to give reasons for or justify their decision.
  • In 2, 5 and 6 they do the tasks individually then explain to their partner how they did them.
  • In 3, 4 and 5 they are asked to prepare to explain how they did the task or tell their story to another pair or to the whole class.

Three more task types

Comparing: finding similarities and differences

Comparison tasks can be based on two quite similar texts or pictures (a classic example is 'Spot the Differences') or places or events, etc., that learners have experience of. Learners can also compare their own work with that of another learner or another pair or group.


  • Compare your list of possible 20th century icons with your partner's list. Did you have any people in common? Tell each other why you chose them. How many reasons did you both think of? Finally, combine your two lists, but keep it to five people.
  • Tell your picture story to another pair and listen to theirs. Compare stories and make a list of the main similarities and differences.

You will by now have noticed that many of these tasks carry on the same themes as in previous tasks. It is possible to build up a set of tasks on the same theme, each one arising out of the previous one. This is an excellent way to build learners' confidence – once they are familiar with the basic vocabulary for the topic, they can then do a range of activities recycling the topic language and using it for different purposes in a set of tasks.


Textbooks often contain activities based on common problems – pollution, relationships, noisy neighbours and so on. But sometimes problem-solving tasks are over too quickly – learners agree on the first solution that comes to mind, using minimal language, e.g. 'Noisy neighbours? OK – so call police'. The instructions for the town centre traffic problem in the example below incorporate six or seven ways of generating richer interaction. Which of these ways might you use with your classes?


  • Think of a town centre where there is too much traffic. In pairs, think of three alternative solutions to this problem. List the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative. Then decide which alternative would be the cheapest one, the most innovative one and the most environmentally friendly one. Report your decisions to another pair / group / the class, and discuss with them which solution would be the best one to put forward to the local government.

More complex tasks like comparing and problem-solving sometimes involve processes found in simpler tasks, like listing – see previous examples. The task above involves listing and quite a lot of comparing and evaluating.

Sharing personal experiences and story telling

Activities where learners are asked to recount their personal experiences and tell stories are valuable because they give learners a chance to speak for longer and in a more sustained way. And it is something we often do in real life. However, as we saw from the 'Grandparents' activity in Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL, the instructions for activities where learners are encouraged to relate things from their personal lives are often rather vague and open-ended. In order to encourage richer interaction, we usually need to add a clear goal, make instructions more precise, and give clear completion points. See Criteria for identifying tasks for TBL which gives several ways to adjust activities like these.


So far we have identified and commented on six types of task that sometimes appear in textbooks or that can be adapted from task-like activities. We have seen that a set of tasks can be built up around one topic. We have looked at ways of stimulating richer learner interaction and giving more opportunities for genuine meaning-focused language use and maximising learner responses.

Other activities like quizzes, questionnaires and projects can also generate rich interaction if set up in such a way as to maximise learner participation. Tasks can also be based on reading and listening texts. For three examples of task-based lessons such as these that you can download, see

In my next article, I will show how we can exploit textbook material to help structure a task sequence, incorporating pre-task activities, a task-cycle, leading on to language focus and form focused work.


The tasks in this article are based on activities from:

  • Face2face Pre-intermediate by Chris Redstone & Gillie Cunningham (Cambridge University Press 2005)
  • Total English Starter by Jonathan Bygrave (Pearson Longman 2007)

Further reading

For more on task types, see Chapters 4 and 5 of Doing Task-based Teaching by Dave Willis & Jane Willis (Oxford University Press 2006)

Next article > From priming tasks and target tasks to language focus and grammar

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