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Task-based language teaching and learning

Reviewed by Stefano Maraessa, IH Mexico City

The Task-Based (TB from now on) approach has always intrigued me since I started my teaching career, therefore, when I was asked to review this book, I thought of it as an enormous opportunity to both deepen and further my understanding of the topic. And it did!

 Rod Ellis’ book covers many and different areas, from the relation between tasks and the four skills to second language acquisition (SLA) theories (with a particular focus on the sociocultural one), from designing TB courses to TB assessment.

 Although Ellis’ work is basically theoretical, it gives the reader a lot of practical advice to think about; it is based on a large amount of research (as the extensive bibliography can testify) and it provides plentiful of examples on how language researchers have helped teachers: e.g. how task repetition enhances acquisition, how it is extremely demanding on learners to focus on both meaning and form in listening comprehension tasks, how teachers have to necessarily deal with form (and not only meaning) in order to prevent fossilisation of errors, and so on.

 The first chapter starts by defining what a task is (and what is not) and after having speculated on other theorists’ opinions and criteria, the author provides his own definition, which I think it is worth citing in full:

 “A task is a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically in order to achieve an outcome that can be evaluated in terms of whether the correct or appropriate propositional content has been conveyed. To this end, it requires them to give primary attention to meaning and to make use of their own linguistic resources, although the design of the task may predispose them to choose particular forms. A task is intended to result in language use that bears a resemblance, direct or indirect, to the way language is used in the real world. Like other language activities, a task can engage productive or receptive, and oral or written skills, and also various cognitive processes.” [p. 16]

 As we can notice in the above definition, there are several points that need further clarification:

–        the role of learners

–        the importance of pragmatics

–        focused Vs. unfocused tasks

–        the strive for authentic use of language

–        the role that cognitive processes play in learning

 Each of these are therefore widely analysed in the first chapter in order to give a more thorough explanation of how they may modify or implement the outcomes of a given task.     

Another positive feature of this book is that the author always strives for being objective and descriptive (vs. prescriptive). Not only does he try to provide a clear overview of any given topic, basing his considerations on published literature, but also giving a comprehensive analysis of how TBL would deal with it without saying or implying that it would be the best option.           

I also need to mention the structure of the book and especially its chapters. They are extremely clear and easy to follow. Let’s consider the chapter about TB assessment as an example of what I am trying to say.

 After a general introduction, Ellis talks about “language assessment paradigms” in general and about different types of tests in particular. Then the author deals with “the components of a TB test” where he analyses the task design, implementation procedures and performance measures. Each of these is corroborated with plentiful research, studies and surveys giving it not only theoretical validity but also a practical one. The chapter then ends covering the topic of how to design a TB test and what issues need to be considered. A conclusion summarises the most important findings and themes of the chapter. There is always one at the end of each chapter making it easier to summarise and pinpoint the main ideas.

 If I have to point out a weakness of the book, I would say that sometimes the author draws his conclusions from a limited number of studies or on studies whose results are based on a restricted group of learners. However, the writer is also cautious in providing those findings and he advocates for further investigations.

 In conclusion, I would like to recommend this book to those teachers who want to find out more about TBA, either in general terms or simply in a specific area, i.e. you may just want to get acquainted with how TBA deals with listening comprehension tasks (chapter 2) or see how its methodology works (chapter 8). At the end of the book you can also find a glossary, which is a helpful resource you can always refer to.

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