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Doing task-based teaching by Dave Willis

Doing task-based teaching

By Dave Willis

1 Introduction

Ideas change and develop. When Jane wrote A Framework for Task-based Learning (J. Willis 1996), the rationale was set out in an earlier paper, Willis and Willis (1987). Both the paper and the book were the products of research, classroom experience and contact with colleagues, notably N.S Prabhu whose work (Prabhu 1987) has inspired so many of us. Between 1996 and 2006 we had thought a lot more about the role of language study in TBL (see D. Willis 2003) and about what TBL has to offer in classrooms in different parts of the world (see Edwards and Willis 2005). Jane’s 1996 book was built around the basic task à planning à report cycle (see below, section 4), but we felt that we needed to elaborate this. Many lessons or units are built on a series of tasks which lead on from one to the other, so we began to talk about the notion of a task sequence. Most of all we wanted teachers to be able to apply TBL in their own classroom. This is why our latest book, published by OUP in 2007 is called Doing Task-based Teaching, and it was this consideration which dictated the contents and layout of the book.

2 Teachers’ questions and ideas

We kept getting questions from teachers which obliged us to be clear about our approach. What exactly is a task? Can you use TBL with beginners? What about the grammar? How can I use tasks with my textbook? These are just four of the frequently asked questions about TBL which we have been getting at conferences and talks and via email. Engaging with these questions helps us to understand what is happening in classrooms, how teachers are engaging with TBL and what difficulties they perceive. It is also very important to recognise that there are a lot of misunderstandings about TBL in the ELT literature, in particular the belief that TBL does not concern itself with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary.

But we don’t only get questions. We had an email recently from Joshua Cohen, a teacher at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan, which began:

Many of my Japanese EFL university students believe the key to communicating successfully in English lies in mastering grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary words. Therefore, they spend huge amounts of time studying syntax and concentrating on hundred-dollar words. Although I greatly admire their pluck, I feel they are not making progress proportional to their efforts.

To help even the ‘linguistic’ score and to give my students a chance to engage in more meaningful language exchange I have introduced a series of tasks into my classroom. Following Willis’ (1996) framework, the tasks have the ultimate goal of collaborative and meaningful communication, however students are free to use any grammar or lexis they choose to achieve that goal.

Joshua’s TBLT programme is built around a series of ‘student generated mini-surveys’ or SGMS. After a teacher-led introduction to the idea of a survey followed by a worked example, learners work in groups to choose their own survey topics. Joshua gave us the example of a group who decided to find out about their classmates’ eating habits. They began by designing a questionnaire with items like:

1. Do you buy a school lunch or bring a lunch box?

2. What is your favorite menu in lunchroom? (Why?)

3. What is your don’t like menu in lunchroom? (Why?)

4. How much money do you spend your lunch a day?

5. About size, is it okay for you?

The work is divided out among members of the group. They carry out the survey and then get together to summarise the results and prepare a report to be given to the class, sometimes orally sometimes in writing. Here is a sample:

Many people (24) answered “curry” as their favorite food said its reason is that they like that taste on dish. Also is big size, cheap price, delicious taste. And many people did answer a Chinese noodles too. Reasons are cheap price, big size and taste. These points must be important for the staffs of a lunchroom. As for fish, many people (17) answered it as don’t like…

After the report it is time to look in detail at some of the language involved:

I play recordings of native speakers asking and answering survey questions. I ask learners to listen and match questions with answers or to write out questions for the answers they hear. This type of intensive listening practice exposes them to authentic language (Nunan, 2004), and provides a good segue into the final phase of the task, where we focus on linguistic elements.

There are so many good things about the way Joshua is doing task-based teaching. Learners have a lot of freedom to decide on the topic they want to research and how they want to go about it. This autonomy means that they are likely to engage with the task. They work in groups using whatever language they can to achieve their aims. There will be a lot of language work going on in the groups as they discuss how best to draw up their questionnaires and present their findings. Probably they will check things out using grammar books and dictionaries, and sometimes they will ask their teacher to help out. But all of this language work is prompted by their wish to achieve a communicative purpose. The focus throughout is on a meaningful outcome. Finally, when there is a focus on linguistic elements, (commonly called Focus on Form) learners are well primed for it. There is no need to provide an artificial context to demonstrate the meaning or function of language. Learners already have a precise context. In Joshua’s food survey, for example, learners have been looking for ways of expressing reasons. They are very ready to take on board phrases like The main reason is …; Other reasons are… and so on.

3 Why we wrote ‘Doing task-based teaching’

So there were basically three reasons why we wrote Doing Task-based Teaching:

  • We had researched and thought more about TBL and felt we had more to offer.
  • We were prompted by questions from teachers. It was clear that many teachers faced similar problems and had similar concerns and aspirations.
  • We were inspired by examples of good practice like Joshua’s.

When we began to plan the book we had a good idea of what we wanted to say. This was based partly on feedback gathered from teachers we met and talked to in countries around the world.  Where possible these informal discussions were supplemented by asking teachers to complete a short questionnaire listing the successes they achieved and the problems they encountered working with TBLT, and the questions they would like answered. We also gained many insights into TB classrooms worldwide through teachers who were following our Masters in TESOL programmes at Birmingham and Aston Universities and who researched aspects of TBL for their assignments (see Edwards and Willis 2005). In addition to this we sent out a request to teachers all over the world asking them to send us a description of tasks which had worked well for them, together with outline lesson plans of how they had used those tasks. We also asked them what advice they would give to colleagues hoping to work with TBL, and to report difficulties and problems, both those they had experienced themselves, and those they had discussed with colleagues.  Thirty three teachers responded and we wove in to our chapters many of their sample tasks and pieces of advice, as well as including sample lessons plans in an appendix.

4 A lesson plan

Here is a brief outline of just one of the lesson plans which we received. This was from Tim Marchand, a teacher at Smith’s School of English, Kyoto, Japan. It is a good illustration of what we mean by a task sequence, with both the questionnaire and the discussion going through the task à planning à report cycle:

Talking about families—how strict are/were your parents?[1]

1 Introductory questionnaire:

When you were a child:a)       Do you think your parents were strict or easy-going?b)       Did they allow you to stay out late at night?c)       Did they let you go on holiday on your own?d)       When you went out did you always have to tell them where you were going?

e)       Did you always have to do your homework before supper?

f)         Did your parents make you help about the house?

g)       What jobs did they make you do?

h)       Did you have to wash the car?

PREPARATION: Teacher makes sure that learners understand the questionnaire.

TASK: Learners work in groups to answer the questions.

PLANNING: Teacher tells learners that a spokesperson from each group will be asked to report the results of their discussion to the class as a whole. Learners are given time to help the spokesperson plan the report.

REPORT: Spokespersons for two or three of the groups deliver their reports. The other groups listen and make notes comparing the report with their own results.  Teacher leads a round-up discussion which will include contributions from groups which did not report.

2 Discussion: Whose parents were the strictest?

TASK: Learners work in groups to decide which of them had the strictest parents.

PLANNING: Teacher tells learners that a spokesperson from each group will be asked to report the results of their discussion to the class as a whole. Learners are given time to help the spokesperson plan the report.

REPORT: Spokespersons for two or three of the groups deliver their reports. The other groups listen and decide which parents were the strictest.  Teacher leads a round-up discussion which will include contributions from groups which did not report.  THIS IS VERY REPETITIVE OF LAST REPORT PARA.

3 Listening: Tim made recordings of some of his friends talking about how strict their parents were. For example:

My Dad is a quiet man really, so he didn’t really make me do much at home. He sometimes asked me to wash his car or cut the grass, but I was never forced to do it, and I could usually get some pocket money for it as well. I think my Mum was also pretty easy-going; she let me stay out late with my friends. As long as she knew where I was, she wouldn’t mind so much what I did.

4 Language practice:

For the form-focused work, the final stage in a task-based cycle, Tim devised activities to focus on expressions of permission and compulsion.

In the book, we wanted to encourage the kind of creativity displayed by teachers like Tim and Joshua so we tried to provide clear guidelines for devising a range of different types of tasks, planning task sequences and building them into workable lesson plans.

5 Bringing it all together

As you can see from these examples we have tried in the book to provide readers with procedures they can try out in the classroom, so that they can get a feel for TBL and how it works. We also used the information gleaned from our panel of teachers to help us anticipate and answer the questions teachers might have about TBL – questions like those listed in my second paragraph above. We have included a chapter on teaching grammar and vocabulary in a task-based approach, which draws a distinction between a focus on language, when learners work on grammar and vocabulary for themselves, and the more traditional teacher led focus on form. We have tried to make it easier for teachers to introduce TBT into their classrooms by showing how they can integrate TBT with their course book. There are guidelines on task design, including a chapter on tasks based on written and spoken texts. And for course designers there is a chapter on syllabus design showing how the can-do statements central to the Common European Framework can be fleshed out within a task-based framework. This chapter looks in detail at the notion of a pedagogic corpus which argues that learners learn from processing and analysing text, not from de-contextualised sentences designed to illustrate the grammar of the language.

We are still learning about task-based teaching, and we continue to hear from and interact with teachers all over the world. We would love to hear from you. You can contact us through our website www.willis-elt.co.uk where you can find lots more about TBL.


Edwards C. and J. Willis 2005 (eds.) Teachers Exploring Tasks in ELT. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan

Prabhu N.S 1987 Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Nunan D. 2004 Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Willis D. 2003 Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Willis D. and J. Willis 1987 ‘Varied activities for variable language.’ ELT Journal 41/1: 12-18

Willis D. and J. Willis 2007 Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford

University Press

Willis J. 1996 A Framework for Task-based Learning. Harlow: Longman Pearson Education

[1]You can find a more detailed description of this lesson in  Doing Task-based Teaching and on our website at:


Author’s Bio:
Dave Willis has been in ELT for more than forty years. Apart from the UK he has worked in Ghana, Cyprus, Iran and Singapore, including twenty years as a British Council officer. His last job was at the Centre for English Language Studies at Birmingham University, where he worked until 2000, mainly on MA TEFL/TESOL and Applied Linguistics programmes. He is now an Honorary Senior Research Fellow.
His last book, Doing Task-base Teaching was written with his wife, Jane, and published by OUP in 2007. His main area of interest is language description and the place of language study within a task-based approach – the subject of his book, Rules, Pattern and Words (CUP 2003).

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