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Framework for Task-Based Learning

Framework for Task-Based Learning

Jane Willis
Longman, 1996
pp. vi + 183
ISBN: 0582-25973-8

¥ 3,700

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While the topic of "task-based" learning has been discussed in the literature throughout the '90s, and Task Based Learning (TBL) has become a regular topic at teachers conferences, only one "how to" teachers' book exists on the market. Jane Willis' A Framework for Task-based Learning is unique in this regard, one must scour academic literature and conference proceedings to find other discussions on the topic. But then, this title in the Longman Handbooks for English Teachers series is everything an experimenting teacher would want, so maybe the other ELT publishers just surrendered?

A Narrow Target
Admittedly, Task Based Learning is still a small, yet growing, trend in contemporary ELT. Task-based learning is based on several fundamental assumptions which are now popular themes in many "communicative approach" designs: we should critically assess both quantity and quality of student talking time; and that exposure to and experience in use of language, along with learner motivation, are perhaps more important than the language instruction itself.

Framework has been organized as Part A: Starting Points (chapter 1 about the best environment for language learning and chapter 2 to introduce the concept of tasks), Part B: Task-Based Learning (describing the designed "framework" and how it fits into texts ["a continuous piece of spoken or written language". p67], listening, and language focus), and Part C: Implementing Task-Based Learning. There are some nice appendices -- including "Five sample task-based lesson outlines" and the photocopiable "Top 200 words of Spoken English" and "Top 200 Words of Written English."

Each chapter begins with a "focus page" that includes interesting illustrations or short clippings, and concludes with nice and succinct summaries, assorted followup tasks, suggested readings, and notes. These notes are really useful -- those not read during the reading of the chapter (footnote style) really should be examined!

Willis does an excellent job of defining and describing her terms throughout the book. This eliminates the need for a glossary, though a more expansive index might be desirable. The book is designed as a handy guide for a teacher's first-initiation to task-based learning; though not so convenient as a desktop reference later on. Framework is highly practical, such as recommending a specific amount of time (e.g 2 minutes) for certain aspects of a task-based lesson.

Distinctions and Growth
As I read through the book, I found myself questioning or disagreeing with various statements or concepts. In parts this may be a result of rapid changes in teaching philosophy in ELT since the mid-1990s, and I wonder if Willis would still make the same arguments. In other areas these might be individual teaching preferences. In any case, it's nice to read a book that makes its position so clear.

Willis argues that output helps intake, particularly when students have an opportunity to think through their output (planning). This appears inconsistent with Krashen's claims that input always comes before output. The definition and description of "task," and the distinction Willis makes between her definition and some other scholars', are clear. Her examples are less so. The argument that the activity "Write four sentences describing the picture. Say them to your partner." has no communicative purpose (p.24) appears specious. Non-motivating, yes. Lacking a meaningful response, perhaps. But students who understand that they are writing for their partners are writing for a communicative purpose, no less than if writing for a guessing game.

The principal concern many teachers have with Willis' framework for a TBL lesson is the relegation of language instruction to the end of the lesson. Pre-task activities give the teacher a good opportunity to pre-test students abilities, and provide some level of pre-teaching through short modeling, elicitation of information, etc. But in this framework, students spend most of the class period "practicing" and "producing" before any detailed instruction is offered, which could result in deeper fossilization of incorrect language.

Asian Applications of TBL
Task-based learning seems particularly appropriate for our more-reticent Asian Learners of English (ALEs). Hong Kong's "Target Oriented Curriculum" for primary education is based on a foundation of task-based learning. Jane Willis, faculty in Aston University's distance MA program for ELT, will be coming to Korea TESOL's international conference this fall as part of an ongoing commitment to ELT in this part of the world.

TBL is more than "an activity every minute," it gives learners time to consider their work, and through this reflection, to grow. It also allows ALEs to use "their" English, and to buttress it with their native language where necessary. Once they become accustomed to this nontraditional learning style, students will work well within it. Though individual teachers may differ on the volume of TBL to be used, it seems clear that TBL has a proper place in Asian classrooms, and Willis' A Framework for Task-Based Learning is the recognized teacher's source.

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