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Key concepts in ELT

Nunan (1989: 10) defines task as 'a piece of
classroom work which involves learners in
comprehending, manipulating, producing or
interacting in the target language while their
attention is principally focused on meaning
rather than on form'. Task provides a purpose
for the use and learning of language other than
simply learning language items for their own sake.

The term 'task' came into deliberate use in

applied linguistics in the early 1980s. Today it is
a widely used concept both in second language
syllabus design and in second language acquisition
research (SLA). Because tasks promote
naturalistic learning and catalyse acquisitional
processes, particularly when combined with
group work, they provide a close fit with
communicative language teaching.
Tasks have been classified on pedagogic grounds,
i.e. in terms of their potential to effectively
structure classroom interaction processes and
generate negotiation, and on psycholinguistic
grounds, i.e. in terms of their potential to
stimulate internal processes of acquisition. A
distinction is also made between target or realworld tasks and classroom learning tasks.
One type of pedagogic task that has found a wide
variety of uses in language teaching is the
information gap task. An information gap is
created when each participant holds information
that the other does not already know, and must
exchange it in order to complete a task. 'Spot the
difference' is an example of this kind of task, in
which participants are given similar but slightly
different pictures, and without looking at each
other's pictures are asked to come to a consensus
about the differences between them.
Another communicatively productive task is the
problem-solving task, as, for example, when

Studies in SLA have proposed that some tasks are

more beneficial than others in learners' language
development. Thus, two-way tasks, where each
participant in an interaction has information to
transmit, are considered more effective than oneway tasks, where one participant has information
to give, and the other simply responds to that
information. Convergent tasks (where one answer
must be agreed upon) are found to generate more
language than divergent tasks (where different
viewpoints from participants are accepted).
Other considerations in varying levels of difficulty
and complexity in task construction involve the
incorporation of pre-task and post-task activities,
the provision of visual support, and the framing of
tasks for learners. Salient concerns for task design
have been the inclusion of authentic texts and
activities and the integration of the language skills.
Tasks of one sort or another have provided the
basis for three distinct syllabus types: process
(Breen 1984, 1987), procedural (Prabhu 1987),
and task (Long 1985).

ELT Journal Volume 52/3 July 1998 Oxford University Press 1998

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Within the varying definitions of task found in the

literature (Kumaravadivelu 1993), three recurrent
features stand out: task consists of specific goals or
outcomes, e.g. drawing a map or making a hotel
reservation; some input data, e.g. oral instructions
on how to draw the map or facsimile of hotel
advertisements; and one or more related activities
or procedures, e.g. deciding upon which hotel to
reserve based on the advertisements supplied.

participants are given clues and asked to

interpret them to solve a murder. Decisionmaking tasks are those in which participants are
expected to work towards one outcome from a
number of possible outcomes available to them.
Other tasks include jigsaw, role-plays and
simulations, oral discussions, and project work.
A problematic area in task design is finding clear
criteria for the selection and grading of tasks. This
is because several factors come into play in
determining task difficulty, including the
cognitive difficulty of the task, the amount of the
language which the learner is required to process
and produce, the psychological stress involved in
carrying out the task, time pressure, and the
amount and type of background knowledge
For example, a 'spot the difference' task which
only requires students to establish the presence or
absence of an (undescribed) object will clearly be
linguistically less demanding than one which
requires greater precision of description.
Similarly, a passage which contains headings and
sub-headings, photographs, drawings, tables,
graphs, and so on should be easier to process
than one in which there is no contextual support.

Despite the brief history of task-based syllabuses,

task-based teaching has been particularly
influential in generating quantities of stimulating
instructional material, and has radically changed
conceptions of what good teaching practice
involves from what it was twenty-five years ago.

Key concepts in ELT

The reviewer
Rani Rubdy is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at the
National University of Singapore, where she
teaches courses on language education and teaching ESP. Prior to this, she taught at the Central
Institute of English and Foreign Languages,
Hyderabad, India. Her current research interests
include teaching, classroom-based research, and
curriculum innovation.
E-mail: <>


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Breen, M. P. 1984. 'Process syllabus for the
language classroom'. ELT Documents 118:
Breen, M. P. 1987. 'Contemporary paradigms in
syllabus design: Part IF. Language Teaching.
July: 157-74.
Candlin, C. N. and D. F. Murphy. 1987. Language
Learning Tasks. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice Hall International.
Kumaravadivelu, B. 1993. 'The name of the task
and the task of naming: methodological aspects
of task-based pedagogy' in G. Crookes and S.
M. Gass (eds.). Tasks in a Pedagogical Context.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Long, M. 1985. 'A role for instruction in second

language acquisition: task-based language
teaching' in K. Hyltenstam and M. Pienemann
(eds.). Modelling and Assessing Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Nunan, D. 1989. Designing Tasks for a Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Prabhu, N. S. 1987. Second Language Pedagogy.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.