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Task Based Theories Of Language Learning English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4060 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Syllabus design is a field which deals with the selection and ordering of the learning content as well as rationalisation of its existence in that manner. Conventionally, an inventory of linguistic characteristics like grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary are taken to be unit of organisation in the syllabus. Changes in language learning and teaching theories had led to several changes in the focus of syllabus design, one of which is to turn content to an experiential body such as topics and themes replacing or in addition to linguistic units. The job of education specialists, head teachers and teachers is then to build up learning activities to assist the learning of the intended content through these sequences and selected material.

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In the recent years a wide variety of different syllabus models have been suggested, task-based approach, with its subtypes, is one of the most prominent. The focus of this paper is to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of task-based syllabus in relation to theories of language learning. Nunan (2004) claims that the organising principles for task-based syllabus are topics and themes in situations which represent a huge change from previously structure based functions and notions. The big shift in syllabus design from the selection and grading of content to the way they were presented made them more open to the influence from language learning and teaching methods. Kumaravadivelu (1991) also warns that the interaction between the learner, the task, and the task situation is not predictable. To add to the already complex issue, it is good to know that for some “the traditional distinction between syllabus design and methodology has become blurred” (Nunan, 1988:52). To begin with the discussion of task-based syllabus, key concepts should be defined first, followed by a explaining the background in their historical context of language learning and teaching approaches leading to task-based syllabus. Only then, we would be able to see the strengths and weaknesses and its relationship to language learning and teaching in a better light.

Key definitions

Defining what is meant by syllabus is important before beginning any discussion of the kind of syllabus. Syllabus is a personal choice of language teaching and learning which leads teachers and learners towards educational targets. In the modern sense of the word, a syllabus can be viewed as a “summary of the content to which learners will be exposed” (Yalden.1987: 87). Curriculum and syllabus have different meanings in the US and UK. Curriculum is used in the United States interchangeably with syllabus. However, in the British sense of the word, syllabus is used to address the content of a specific subject or course and curriculum is reserved for a more general pattern such as school or educational system and the totality of content (White, 1988:4). As for ‘task’, a variety of definitions have been given, one of which is Long’s (1985: 89) generic definition that refers to “the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play and in between”. The significance of having a non-linguistic outcome is highlighted in task based syllabus. Amongst all varying definitions however, Candlin’s (1987) definition of task is widely accepted and cited (cf. Van den Branden, 2006; Kumaravadivelu, 1993) which hold tasks as Ur (2001) pinpoint:

One of a set of differentiated, sequencable, problem-posing activities involving learners’ cognitive and communicative procedures applied to existing and new knowledge in the collective exploration and pursuance of foreseen or emergent goals within a social milieu. (Cited in Ur, 2001:37)

Simply, Krahnke (1987) defines task-based syllabus as a sequence of complex and purposeful tasks that the students carry out with the language they are learning which is the focus of this paper.

Historical context of task-based syllabus

Understanding the relationship between language learning and teaching theories and types of syllabus design is not possible without locating them in the historical context. Much of the 20th century, fairy until the middle of it, is under the influence of structural grammar, which later shifts the course into a totally new era of situations. Traditional approaches viewed language as a set of finite rule that can be taught in additive manner (Nunan, 1991). The limits of previous approaches guided the development of what is called situational approach to syllabus that is not based on grammatical units but based on learners needs. The name suggests that it is based upon a list of everyday situations that happen outside the classroom in which language is used. As a result, the learners can understand the meaning of unknown items from situating them in a relevant context.

Strength of this approach lies in the raising motivation as a result of placing learners, rather than subjects, at the centre (Wilkins, 1976: 16). This author also notes that all learners may not get their needs addressed in such a syllabus which is a disadvantage or limit of this approach. This weakness prompted the development of notional and communicative categories which had a significant impact on syllabus design.

Shifting to communicative approaches

The growing awareness of the limits of syllabus design approaches based on structure and situation and the advent of communicative approaches in language learning and teaching shifts the attention towards a new type of syllabus. The new syllabus have communicative orientation and is not limited to find the answer to questions that ask ‘how’ or ‘when’ and ‘where’ about the language used by learners. The interest turns to the content of communication through language (Brumfit and Johnson, 1979). The rationale for developing a syllabus and its main role shifts away from grammatical items and situational elements and focusing on form to the communicative purpose and focusing on the meaning of language. As an example, focus on notions and functions replace the former units and elements. A distinguishing feature from all the previous approaches is also to set up objectives based on the needs of the learners which have to be analysed by the a range of communication situations in which the learner has to face up to. Therefore, notional-functional syllabuses introduce needs analysis which has an explicit focus on the learner into their scheme. Despite this focus on needs analysis, critics of this approach still see this as an ineffective change which only replaces the old list with a new one and claim whether items to be covered in the syllabus are structural and situational or based on a new list made of notions and functions, there are still items to be covered (White 1988). A critic of this approach is highlighted by the point that “language functions do not usually occur in isolation” (White 1988:77) and that selection and grading of functions and notions is a much more complex issue. The complexity of the job of making a decision is obvious when you consider whether a certain function, for example persuading function, is easier or more difficult than another function, like approving.

What all the above-mentioned approaches to syllabus design have in common is that they all have an orientation towards product rather than process. This is exactly the point that all critics mention despite all the differences between structural, situational and functional-notional approaches. What can be a totally different break from the gradual procedure of these approaches is to abandon the idea that language can be learned step-by-step and it is the material that should be covered cumulatively. Another perspective at syllabus design is introduced through the development of process oriented approaches which work on the assumption that language can be learnt experientially.

Shifting to process orientation

Communicative approaches to language teaching inform the process oriented syllabuses or what also termed analytical approaches. In fact, they appear as a consequence of perceived failure of all product-oriented approaches, including functional- notional approach, to improve communicative language skills. This change of assumptions brought about a transformation at a deeper level than any previous approaches did. Language learning is viewed as a process rather than a product, and the focus is no longer only on what the student will have achieved on the end of any given language course, but also on the design of learning tasks and activities that they will carry out during that course. All this sets the scene for task based syllabus to fit in its place.

Task-Based Syllabuses and their types

With a little modification in giving priority to answer the question of ‘how’ over the question of ‘what’, procedural syllabus comes into existence. The pioneering work of Prabhu (1984, 1987) is an exemplary syllabus with procedural features. Linguistic items are not at the centre of attention and a pedagogical outlook giving importance to the learning or learner takes its place. Within such a framework the selection, ordering and grading of content is no longer significant for the syllabus designer.

If there are two broad orientations in syllabus design, they are synthetic and analytic, although they are not absolute categories (Wilkins, 1976). In a synthetic syllabus, the target language is divided into distinct linguistic items done in separate units.

Preconceived bits of material lead with a steady knowledge increase make learning task easier (Wilkins, 1976: 2). This is in stark contrast with analytic syllabus which is planned according to the aims of people who are learning language and the types of language activities required to fulfil those aims (Wilkins, 1976: 13).

An interesting classification of task-based syllabuses is provided by Long and Crookes (1992), in which the procedural syllabus, the process syllabus, and the task syllabus are introduced as the three types of task-based syllabus in the recent decades. These syllabuses are unique and at the same time stand out from most early syllabus types. This distinctiveness of character is because non linguistic elements are taken into account. It includes what is known about human learning in general and second language learning as opposed to elements like lexical, structural, notional, and functional. Furthermore, despite their significant distinctive points, all these three refuse to account for linguistic elements as the organising principles and relegate this role to the task. The author claims that the third approach, the task syllabus used mainly in task-based language teaching (TBLT), is very promising. Task-based syllabus works within what I term analytic orientation described in the previous paragraph, while its predecessor focus on synthetic orientation. As traditional language teaching methods face limits such as tiny support from educational bodies and no widely circulated training resources associated with them (Richards, 1984), the above mentioned three-prong classification of syllabus are more emphasised. In the following sections, they are investigated along with their strengths and weaknesses. These three proposals for task based syllabus are procedural syllabus, process syllabus and task-based language teaching.

Procedural Syllabuses

Inspired by innovative practices of Communicational Teaching Project (Prabhu, 1987), procedural syllabus established meaning through achievement of the task and breaks away from sole attention to form and the linguistic elements. Prabhu’s (1987, 1990) model of familiarizing task for learners through demonstrating and assessing its difficulty before fully implementing it informs this type of syllabus. Tasks in a procedural syllabus should both be practical and mentally demanding to attract student. Long and Crookes (1992) exemplify the tasks Prabhu (1987, 1990) provides in touch with communicative language teaching. However, they claim that they have a pedagogic focus but cannot be counted as analytic and tasks are prepared beforehand with little regard for the future needs of students. Prabhu’s novelty lies in the kind of input students received and withholding the explicit feedback on their errors (Prabhu, 1987).


Teachers and syllabus designers should notice the insights from Prabhu’s project as a typical procedural syllabus which is successful. It contributed to second language learning as a bold move to initiate exploring a task-based syllabus in action. Long and crookes (1992) describe it as an innovative, interesting and laudable program that was done under difficult conditions.

In task-based approach speaking skill is completed by exercise and inter-communication between speakers, and all tasks are meant to promote confidence in learners to employ the language in communication with an aim of fulfilling the tasks. These tasks are pertinent to the reality of everyday living to be valid for learners.


Apart from the main weakness of Prabhu’s work which is the lack of assessment in his design, procedural syllabuses have some general weaknesses. Firstly, the lack of needs analysis leaves task choice unverifiable. Secondly, task grading and ordering are decided subjectively by the teacher, a procedure which is not reliable. Finally, syllabus is unduly influenced by Krashen’s Comprehensible Input hypothesis instead of remaining open to other plausible models.

Process Syllabuses

This is the second proposal for task-based syllabus spearheaded by Breen and Candlin (1980). The domineering and rigid features of synthetic syllabuses may have contributed to development of this syllabus which has an educational basis and problem solving trend, so each person’s learning techniques are preferred over a given view of teaching as well as pre-determined material. The definition of task by Candlin which is mentioned in definition section of this paper is the related to this proposal. Breen and Candlin (1980) shift from language processes to the processes of learner and their inclination, stress that continuous negotiation and restructuring by teachers and learners are necessary in the classroom.

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The authors claim that typical teaching situation in a classroom, based on Process Syllabus, is around answering who acts or receives action and what is happening when, how, and for what learning purposes. White (1988) considers task based syllabus as a process syllabus that functions inside task based language teaching intended to enable the learners to also accomplish grammatical accuracy in their language productions deep in the subconscious layer in their minds. The success of the Prabhu’s (1987) work and project in implementing a similar syllabus, together with the increasing discontent with previous syllabi based on language structures set the scene for task based syllabus an expected outcome out of the tasks. Material are selected and graded based on cognitive. Nunan (1988) claims that Task Based Language Teaching is a crucial language teaching method in all studies of syllabus and curriculum design, not just task based syllabus. Task-based language teachings introduce challenge in all areas of the curriculum, specifically in evaluation and TBLT is not interpretable with traditional schemes. Given that TBLT is the best match in language teaching methods for implementing task-based syllabus, its pros and cons are interesting to consider.


Learning a language based on tasks is useful to the learners because focusing on the learner rather than material makes communication more meaningful, and usually develops skills in a hands-on experience. Despite the fact that the teacher may initiate interaction in specific form of language, the students have the absolute freedom to use their own choice of grammatical structures and vocabulary which provides them with the opportunity to use all the language they have learned and are just learning, instead of only the target language stated in the lesson plan (Harmer, 2001). Moreover, the familiarity of the tasks to the students like visiting the doctor, makes students to be more involved, which in turn could add to their motivation for learning a language.


Although Candlin and Breen consider process syllabus as a true proposal to task based syllabus, critics of the process syllabus (White, 1988) have several issues with it, such as its difficulty of assessing its value which is essential for effectiveness of any syllabus. It is also very demanding on both teachers and learners because implementing it requires advanced language ability. Another problem that might occur is when teacher and students live in societies which are not prepared to accept the totally new roles and power relationships definition of individuals involved in learning and teaching. A huge amount of learning material must be made available to implement this successfully. It is difficult to live up the requirements of this type of syllabus whereas it is easy to trust a course book in traditional syllabuses, however objectionable it may be. There are some problems, not because process syllabus is faulty but rather resulting from lack of facilities or low practicability of this proposal in particular contexts.

Possible problems stem from the observation that it may not be suitable for novice learners. If the main thrust of task-based language learning is on output, these learners have a disadvantage because they possibly spend a silent period to make up large amounts of comprehensible input before they begin to produce any significant language (Krashen, 2003). It may also be the case that most of the above-said learners only come into contact with particular forms of language or being left out of others, like forms used in discussions. Taking note of these points in designing may improve the actual task-based syllabus.

Task-Basked Language Teaching

Task based language teaching or TBLT for short is considered the third approach to course design assuming task as the unit of analysis and teaching (Long and Crookes, 1992). The underlying principles of TBLT take root in research on second language acquisition, principally research which compares instructed and un-instructed natural learning. Task based syllabus requires a complete restructuring of the role of teacher and student from what is commonly known as traditional structure based methods like audiolingual method. The idea of jug and mug is replaced by teacher- student negotiation and interaction in classroom situation and the role of syllabus designer decreases since no pre-determined task should take over communication (Kumaravadivelu, 1991:99). The role of teacher in task based syllabus design has also been emphasised in Stern (1984) who claims that:

The more we emphasize flexibility and negotiation of the curriculum the more important it is for us, as teachers, to have something to negotiate about, and, surely, as Brumfit, Widdowson, and Yalden have stressed, it is important for the teacher to define the parameters, to provide direction, and to have the resources at our disposal which make up ESL/EFL as learnable and worthwhile subject matter in general education (Stern, 1984:12).


Extensive research which has been done through decades (Long, 1985), which resulted in understanding that explicit teaching does not change or improve language development or learning strategies, yet despite all this it undoubtedly improve the speed of learning, and probably boost the learners’ final ability and level of achievement. These good points cannot be happening just because learners are exposed to more input, which is essential but inadequate for the main aspects of Second Language Acquisition. Rather, while nearly all existing handling of language as object is definitely disused because it is impractical to be used by learners at the same time it happens (Long and Crookes, 1992).


There are a number of challenges that task produce for the possible proposing a standard for grading and sequencing them. They include but do not exhaust the possibilities to the number of steps concerned, the number of resolutions for a challenge, the quantity of parties involved and the relevance of their unique elements, the placing of the task in time and space, the quantity and type of language required, the quantity that struggle for attention, and other academic features.

The tasks require rating and putting into an order which should be in touch with several pedagogic choices to go with their use. It is at this point that a number of the learning process negotiation insisted upon by Breen and Candlin can be carried over into TBLT, and it is precisely at this point that the previous research findings are most ready to lend a hand.

TBLT is notable because it is compatible with results from research on language learning. It is indeed a principled approach to selecting the proper content and an endeavor to integrate findings from classroom based research in important decision making about the blueprints of learning material and methodology. Despite all its merits, it is not free from its specific challenges, some of which are listed below.

If needs analysis is performed appropriately, the tasks selection step is reasonably simple. What often proves to be problematic is evaluating the difficulty of tasks and sequencing these tasks properly. Despite all the related research, empirical investigations that sustain these elements are not yet offered for a variety of anticipated parameters of task categorization and difficulty. These concepts have not yet been operationally defined. Recognition of applicable, learner friendly sequencing standard is still one of the traditional unanswered challenges in language teaching of all types. Still another caveat is the issue of finiteness, which causes problem for all elements we have discussed. Questions regarding the number of tasks and task types, questions as for the cut off where one task end and the next begin, questions pertaining to the levels of analysis, questions focusing on the quality of hierarchical relationships between one level and another.


Ur (2001) has mentioned that communicative language learning provides the best environment for implementing tasks. Task-based is not just related to communication. Nunan (2004) claims that task-based syllabus is also influenced by cognitive and even socio-cultural theories. To wrap up, the fundamentals of a communicative language teaching and learning theory is a close with task based syllabus in that knowledge of language is used to fulfil meaningful tasks which enhance learning.

In general, tasks such as information- and opinion-gap in a syllabus reflect language teaching methodologies where the learners observe the language subconsciously whilst consciously engaged with solving the problem presented by tasks.

Distinct from previous syllabuses, task-based syllabus permits a lot of natural reuse and recurrence of linguistic features such as grammatical and lexical points. This is because different tasks may require their use in slightly different senses, and these items occur several times in a wide-ranging series of contexts. This natural occurrence is perfect for second language acquisition since it provides learners with the opportunity to exercise their use in different contexts and extend their understanding of the items to a sophisticated level.

In sum, there are three aspects which are covered in the work and these are; firstly, the strengths and the weakness of task based syllabus based on the theories of language learning and teaching which involves the second component as well as the third aspect of situations where this syllabus is mostly suited to.


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