You are on page 1of 6

Task-Based Learning: Cognitive Underpinnings


Over the past thirty years, proposals for task-based language teaching (TBLT) have drawn on a variety of claims about, and research into, the cognitive processes thought to promote successful second language acquisition (SLA). A brief overview of these will be given below. They reect a shift from a concern with how TBLT can facilitate comprehension of input, to how it can facilitate interaction and attention to output, and the development of increasingly target-like speech production. They also reect the progressively sophisticated knowledge that SLA research has provided concerning cognitive processes such as implicit, incidental, and explicit learning, and automatization of knowledge.

Cognitive Processes in Task-Based Learning

In his account of the theoretical motivation for the task-based procedural syllabus Prabhu (1987) argued that: task-based teaching operates with the concept that, while the conscious mind is working out some of the meaning-content, a subconscious part of the mind perceives, abstracts, or acquires (or re-creates as a cognitive structure) some of the linguistic structuring embodied in those entities, as a step in the development of an internal system of rules (pp. 701). Prabhus cognitive rationale for TBLT is thus compatible with Krashens (1982) claim that comprehensible input is necessary for learning, and that it promotes incidental learning of a tacit, implicit knowledge base. Long (1985) argued that the interaction that task work promotes is additionally important since it provides one way in which input can be made comprehensible, as well as a context for attending to problematic forms in the input and output during task work. Consequently, Pica, Kanagy and Falodun (1993) described a taxonomy of task characteristics in order to promote further research into which of these characteristics optimally promoted interaction work. Swain (1985) argued that attention to output produced during task performance could additionally facilitate SLA, since it provided a context for comparing the speakers performance with an interlocutors, and noticing gaps and mismatches between them, and for hypothesis testing about the formal means for expressing meanings and communicative intentions in the second language (L2). Skehan (1998) provided the rst detailed psycholinguistic rationale for the effects of some aspects of task demands on learning and performance, focusing in particular on the extent to which having time to plan a task led to increases in the accuracy, uency and complexity of speech produced, when compared to performance on tasks where planning time was not available. Robinson (2001) also provided a psycholinguistic rationale for how cognitive complexity can be increased along two broad dimensions of the demands made by tasks, and claimed that these would have distinct inuences on learning and performance. Increasing demands on resource-directing dimensions, he argued, directs learners attention to aspects of language used to structure increasingly complex concepts, facilitating awareness of how these concepts are differentially encoded in the L2, so prompting L2

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, Edited by Carol A. Chapelle. 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1143

task-based learning: cognitive underpinnings

development. Along these dimensions, initially implicit knowledge of the L1 conceptstructuring function of language (see Talmy, 2000) becomes gradually explicit, and available for change, following a natural developmental order reected in the sequencing decisions. In contrast, along resource-dispersing dimensions, increasing task demands has the effect of gradually removing processing support (such as planning time) for access to current interlanguage, and thus practice along them requires, and should encourage, faster and more automatic L2 access and use. Along these dimensions, therefore, improvements in performance will involve initially explicit knowledge becoming more automatized.

Design Characteristics Affecting the Cognitive Processing Demands of Tasks

Current research into the cognitive underpinnings of TBLT is focused on the effects that design characteristics of tasks have on the cognitive processes that facilitate L2 production and learning. Some of the design characteristics of tasks that have received the most attention from researchers are described below.

Planning Time
There have been many studies of how tasks can be made easier for second language learners by giving them time to plan what they will do or say in the L2 (Ellis, 2005). This is perhaps the area that has received the most attention by SLA researchers interested in tasks, and it has clear implications for effective pedagogic decision making. In general, the studies that have been done seem to show that having time to plan a task increases the accuracy, uency and complexity of learner language.

Single/Dual Tasks
Another dimension of task complexity that is similar to this is the singledual task dimension. It is much less complex to answer a phone call in the L2, than it is to answer a phone call and monitor a TV screen at the same time, to check the weather, or changes in exchange rates, for example (Robinson, Ting, & Urwin, 1995). The latter, dual task, disperses learner attention over a number of L2 stimuli. In general, tasks made complex on this dimension also lead to poorer accuracy, uency, and complexity of performance.

Intentional Reasoning
In contrast to the above dimensions of task complexity, other task characteristics may direct learners attention to the language needed to meet complex task demands. On these dimensions Robinson (2001) argued that increasing task complexity should lead to more accurate and complex learner language, over time. However, complex tasks on these dimensions also negatively affect uency. For example, in L2 English, tasks which require complex reasoning about the intentional states that motivate others to perform actions can be expected to draw heavily on the use of cognitive state terms for reference to other minds she suspected, realized, etc.and in so doing orient learner attention to the complement constructions accompanying them suspected that, wonders whether, promoting awareness of, and effort at, complex L2 English syntax (Robinson, 2007; Ishikawa, 2008).

Spatial Reasoning
Another example of resource-directing task demands are those tasks which require complex spatial reasoning, and articulation of this in describing how to move, and in what

task-based learning: cognitive underpinnings

manner, from point A to point E, by way of intermediary landmark points B, C, and D, etc. These can be expected to draw heavily on the use of constructions for describing motion events (Cadierno, 2008). Such tasks therefore have the potential to promote awareness of lexicalization patterns in L2 English for describing these motion events, in which motion and manner are typically conated on verbs (e.g., rushed) and paths are expressed outside the verb in satellites that conate a number of motion events (e.g., rushed out of the house, down the street and into the post ofce). English lexicalization patterns are different from those in Japanese, where motion and path tend to be conated on verbs, and manner encoded separately (e.g., isoide haitta). Consequently, Japanese makes much less use of event conation in reference to motion than English does. So a task requiring complex spatial reasoning (giving directions from a large map of an unknown area) may prompt Japanese L2 learners of English to revise their preferred ways of referring to motion, in line with English lexicalization patterns (Cadierno & Robinson, 2009).

In yet a different conceptual domain, tasks requiring reference to events happening now, in a shared context (here-and-now) orient learner attention to morphology for conveying tense and aspect in the present, compared to events requiring much more cognitively demanding reference to events happening elsewhere in time and space (there-and-then). There-and-then tasks require greater effort at conceptualization (since events are not visually available in a shared context) and greater demands on memory (Gilabert, 2007). One effect of performing tasks on this dimension is to draw learners attention to the morphological forms and phrases that can be used to refer to the present and the past in English, and these are needed to help them perform the tasks. The morphology for referring to the past in English is much later acquired by L2 learners than the morphology for referring to the present, so complex tasks may promote learner attention to, and use of, this later acquired past tense morphology. That is, in this and other cases of increasing the complexity of resource-directing demands of tasks, Robinsons cognition hypothesis (2001) predicts more noticing of L2 forms (Schmidt, 2001), more uptake and incorporation of them, as well as increasing accuracy and complexity of production on complex compared to simpler task versions.

Effects of Cumulative Increases in the Cognitive Demands of Tasks

To date, the effects of the design characteristics of tasks contributing to their cognitive complexity (as described above) have often been contrasted for their distinct effects on learning and performance. However, for TBLT a key issue is the cumulative effect of increasing the complexity of pedagogic task demands, so as to gradually approximate the full complexity of real-world, target-task performance (Long & Crookes, 1993). With this in mind, Robinson (2005) has made the following theoretical claims about the effects of cumulative inuences in the demands of tasks on cognitive processes thought to facilitate SLA. Some of these claims are the focus of current research, while others remain issues for future research.

The rst of these claims is that increasing the cognitive demands of tasks contributing to their relative complexity along resource-directing dimensions (e.g., from to + intentional reasoning demands) will push learners to greater accuracy and complexity of L2 production in order to meet the consequently greater functional/communicative demands they

task-based learning: cognitive underpinnings

place on the learner. That is, greater effort at conceptualization will lead learners to develop the L2 linguistic resources they have for expressing such conceptualizations. Some research ndings support this claim (Robinson, 2007; Ishikawa, 2008). Related to this rst claim is the prediction that increasing task demands will lead to a higher number of interactional episodes (e.g., language-related episodes, clarication requests, or recasts) which are known to push second language development. Some studies have provided evidence of such a claim (Robinson, 2007; Gilabert, Barn, & Llanes, 2009).

The second claim is that cognitively complex tasks promote heightened attention to and memory for input, so increasing learning from the input, and incorporation of forms made salient in the input. So, for example, there should be more uptake of oral recasts on complex tasks, compared to simpler tasks, or more use of written input provided to help learners perform tasks. Some research ndings support this claim (Revesz, 2009; Baralt, 2010).

Related to this, the third claim is that on complex tasks there will be longer-term retention of input provided (e.g., in the form of written prompts, or oral feedback) than on simpler tasks. There are currently no studies that have addressed this claim.

Fourth, the inherent repetition involved in performing simple to complex sequences will also lead to automaticity and efcient scheduling of the components of complex L2 target-task performance, compared to target tasks performed without the benet of such pedagogic task sequencing. This should be revealed in estimates of the uency with which target tasks are performed following a sequence of increasingly complex pedagogic tasks (as manifested by fewer incidents of self-repair, fewer hesitations, etc.), as well as in criterion-referenced measures of the extent of successful target-task performance. There are currently no studies that have addressed this claim.

Fifth, individual differences in affective and cognitive abilities contributing to perceptions of task difculty will increasingly differentiate learning and performance as tasks increase in complexity. This is likely to be an intense area of future research, since it can reveal much about the cognitive processing prerequisites for successful task-based learning and performance, and since it will ultimately be desirable to match individual proles in task aptitudes to those conditions of task performance that learners are best suited to, in order to optimally facilitate TBLT outcomes for learners. In line with this claim, Robinson (2007) found that greater output processing anxiety led to less complex speech production on complex tasks (with intentional reasoning demands), compared to those with lower output anxiety, but these differences in output processing anxiety had no effect on complexity of speech produced on simple tasks (without intentional reasoning demands). On the other hand, examining the same task complexity differential, Baralt (2010) found that individual differences in working memory capacity did not predict greater accuracy, uency or complexity in performance on complex versus simpler task versions. Robinson (2010) describes individual, task aptitude measures that could protably be used in future studies of this issue.

task-based learning: cognitive underpinnings

SEE ALSO: Attention, Noticing, and Awareness in Second Language Acquisition; Automatization, Skill Acquisition, and Practice in Second Language Acquisition; Incidental Learning in Second Language Acquisition; Instructed Second Language Acquisition

Baralt, M. (2010). Task complexity, the cognition hypothesis and interaction in CMC and FTF environments (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Georgetown University, Washington DC. Cadierno, T. (2008). Learning to talk about motion in a foreign language. In P. Robinson & N. C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition, (pp. 23975). New York, NY: Routledge. Cadierno, T., & Robinson, P. (2009). Language typology, task complexity and the development of L2 lexicalization patterns for describing motion events. Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 6, 24677. Ellis, R. (Ed.). (2005). Planning and second language task performance. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins. Gilabert, R. (2007). The simultaneous manipulation along the planning time and +/ Here-andNow dimensions: Effects on oral L2 production. In M. Garcia Mayo (Ed.), Investigating tasks in formal language learning, (pp. 4468). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Gilabert, R., Barn, J., & Llanes, M. A. (2009). Manipulating cognitive complexity across task types and its impact on learners interaction during task performance. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 47, 36795. Ishikawa, T. (2008). Task complexity, reasoning demands and second language speech production (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Aoyama Gakuin University, Department of English, Tokyo, Japan. Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press. Long, M. H. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: Task-based language teaching. In M. Pienemann & K. Hyltenstam (Eds.), Modelling and assessing second language acquisition (pp. 7799). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Long, M. H., & Crookes, G. (1993). Units of analysis in syllabus design: The case for task. In G. Crookes & S. Gass (Eds.), Tasks in a pedagogical context (pp. 954). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Pica, T., Kanagy, R., & Falodun, J. (1993). Choosing and using communication tasks for second language teaching and research. In G. Crookes & S. Gass (Eds.), Tasks in language learning: Integrating theory and practice (pp. 934). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Prabhu, N. S. (1987). Second language pedagogy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Revesz, A. (2009). Task complexity, focus on form, and second language development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 31, 43770. Robinson, P. (2001). Task complexity, cognitive resources, and syllabus design: A triadic framework for examining task inuences on SLA. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 285317). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Robinson, P. (2005). Cognitive complexity and task sequencing: A review of studies in a componential framework for second language task design. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 43, 132. Robinson, P. (2007). Task complexity, theory of mind, and intentional reasoning: Effects on speech production, interaction, uptake and perceptions of task difculty. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 45, 193214. Robinson, P. (2010). Situating and distributing cognition across task demands: The SSARC model of pedagogic task sequencing. In M. Putz & L. Sicola (Eds.), Cognitive processing in second language acquisition: Inside the learners mind (pp. 23965). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

task-based learning: cognitive underpinnings

Robinson, P., Ting, S., & Urwin, J. (1995). Investigating second language task complexity. RELC Journal, 26, 6279. Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 332). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 23553). Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Talmy, L. (2000). Towards a cognitive semantics, Vol. 1: Concept structuring systems. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Suggested Readings
Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Garcia Mayo, M. P. (Ed.). (2007). Investigating tasks in formal language learning. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2011). Task-based language learning. Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell. Samuda, V., & Bygate, M. (2008). Tasks in second language learning. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. (Eds.). (2009). Task-based language teaching: A reader. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.