TASKS: What? Why? How?

It’s not a BLT with extra tomato, it’s Task-Based Language Teaching.

First and foremost, I am in no way an expert on TBLT. What I have learned about tasks I have learned, mostly, from Bill VanPatten, and Claudia Fernández. So here, I am sharing my understanding, and my personal application of TBLT in my classroom.


TBLT provides opportunities in language classes for learners to experience, and take part in, communicative events. You may have heard BVP’s definition of communication before: “The expression, interpretation, and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. Communication is also purposeful“. I’m bolding this word “purposeful” because it is going to come back up.

VanPatten (2017) gives a few points on what makes a task a task rather than an exercise or activity.

An exercise doesn’t have a communicative purpose, and its only use is language practice. Think, fill in the blank activities or conjugation drills. These kinds of exercises can be done without really having to comprehend or process the language.

An activity, in BVP’s distinction, is something learners do that requires expression and interpretation of meaning, but doesn’t have a purpose. The example BVP gives is telling students to ask each other what they did over the weekend. They need to express, and potentially interpret language, however, it lacks purpose. What are learners doing WITH the information? If you’re like me, a lot of times that answer may be “nothing, they were just practicing talking about the weekend”.

Finally, a task in language classrooms requires communication (see the above definition) AND is purposeful, it results learning something about the people and the world around us. There needs to be a reason why students are using language beyond just “they’re practicing”. Rather than telling students “go tell someone about your weekend” we need to make it so they actually need to pay attention to what their partner is saying, so we can add the instruction “find out who had the busiest/least busy weekend”. This gives students a reason to listen, and pay attention to the input, and gives them a reason to share what they did. To find out if they were the busiest or least busy this past weekend! This would be an example of a psycho-social task. Students are using language to find out about the people around them. There are also cognitive-informational tasks in which students use language to learn about the world around them.


No matter the content area, students want to know that they aren’t doing busywork. They want to know why they are doing something in class.

Now, I know that by using a comprehension-based approach to language teaching, everything we do that involves input is purposeful in that it is building the mental representation of language in students’ heads. Sometimes, though, that isn’t a good enough reason for students to attend to the meaning of the input.

For that reason, I think students can be motivated by using tasks. If they KNOW they have a reason to pay attention to the input, or a reason to try to use language so that someone else can do something I think they may be more likely to engage with the language.

Tasks are also a way to organize your curriculum, and to backwards design. I’ve heard discussion of “How do tasks fit into a Comprehension-Based curriculum?” And I think it’s a pretty good combination, really.

We decide what the desired outcome of the task is and reflect on what vocabulary and language structures are needed. We use techniques to make sure language is comprehensible (see the CI umbrella below), and do activities or mini-tasks to prepare them for the task.

The Comprehensible Input Umbrella | La Clase de la Señora ...

How do I implement Task-Based Language Teaching?

This is the big question. And it’s a question that I’m still reflecting on and trying to better understand.

BVP discusses two types of tasks, Output oriented, and Input oriented.

In an Input-Oriented task, students do not HAVE to create with language. Going back to the example from before with who had the busiest weekend, you could give a list of things students may have done (I read a book, I watched TV, I went do dinner, I spent time with friends…), they check off the activities they did, you could put those statements in second person questions (Did you read a book this weekend? Did you watch TV this weekend?…) Students then could read those questions to a partner and then coming back as a class you could decide who was busiest.

That same task as an Output-Oriented task would rely on students to create the language rather than selecting from a list of potential activities.

Now I want to give you something to think about as you continue to look into TBLT, this comes from a revelation I had at ACTFL while talking with Claudia Fernández.

A task can be as simple as making a decision. Having students decide on something is a great way to give students a purpose for attending to meaning and using language in the classroom. A few weeks ago, we were doing some PQA (personalized questions and answers) about who had visited museums. I took this opportunity to have students decide, based on what their classmates said, who they would like to travel with, and which museums.

Another quick task that I have done recently, was after we finished watching a TV show in class, I had students go to the comment section of the trailer for the show, find a comment that they agreed with, shared out the comment, and we decided if we, in general, agreed with what the commenters were saying. This task came about from my discussion with Claudia as well. She pushed me, and asked what I was going to do with the show when we were done watching it. In my mind, looking at reviews, fan theories, news about sequels is just part of what I do when I watch a show, so it was an easy jump to say “Oh, of course I can have students do that. That is really meaningful. We enjoyed watching the show, we got a lot of input from it, and now we can use language to continue talking about it, and find out if people agree with us.

If you need more examples of tasks I suggest looking at “While We’re on the Topic” by BVP, Common Ground by Florencia Henshaw and Maris Hawkins, or this post from FluentU. Claudia Fernández has also written a task-based curriculum with Klett World Language

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