It’s time to talk about TBLT

I came home from work today and I cleaned up the kitchen. Why did I do it? I wanted to, the mess from my dinner party last night, still left in the washing-up basin, quite frankly, I found quite repulsive. I guess my housemate would have done it when he came home, but I did it of my own accord. What I just described was, according to Long (1985:), what is summerised as a task:

“a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward. Thus examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes… in other words, by ‘task’ is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play and in between”

However much one might like to dream, nobody gets their Intermediate evening class to do the washing up – I hope not anyway. Ellis (2003: 16) jumps in with a more specific definition of what a pedagogical task is:

“A task is a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically in order to achieve an outcome that cane be evaluated in terms of whether the correct of appropriate propositional content has been conveyed. To this end, it requires them to give primary attention to the meaing 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 activities, a task can engage productive or receptive, and oral or written skills and also various cognitive processes.”

In a recent seminar on TBLT, I asked participants to make a top-five list of their favourite restaurants in Berlin. The next task I gave them was to make a call to another participant and invite him or her to one of those restaurants, give a summary of the menu, make arrangements and give directions.

Would they do that in real life?
Was there a goal or outcome of the task?
Was their primary outcome the language they wanted to use or the aim of the task?
What were the main forms used to complete the task?

Funnily enough, in the first task lots of language was thrown up in the discussion relevant to the next task: “it’s a bit pricey, anything up to €20 a head”, “It’s closed on Mondays but you can go any other day of the week”, “It’s a kind of Thai-Vietnamese fusion”, “kofte, kebab, that kind of thing”, “you know that bridge near Kottbusser Tor, it’s near there, just down the road and on the left, next to the supermarket”. In the second task, participants reused the same forms again, with the small addition that they had to negotiate when was a good time to go out to dinner.

They were, I have to admit, all native speakers – so let’s face it, choosing the right linguistic forms wasn’t much of a challenge. Had they been learners, the negotiation of meaning would have occurred in the during task phase, as Lightbown and Spada Lightbown & Spada (2006: 150) write:

“When learners are given the opportunity to engage in interaction, they are compelled to ‘negotiate for meaning’… the negotiation leads learners to acquire the language forms – the words and the grammatical structures – that carry the meaning they are attending to”

But – and this is a pretty big but – even if you think you’re running a really tight ship, leaks can still occur and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that a well-designed task alone will smooth over all gaps in meaning; while learner are attending to meaning, breakdowns in understanding can occur.

The tasks were appropriate according to their aim: the first was intended to prime participants for the language forms to come by performing a similar task with the aim of brainstorming places to go for dinner and the second provided the outcome of making arrangements for dinner. I picked two boxes from the task cycle I drew up below:
Task-Based Teaching outline copyWhile reading around, I found that there were many different types of task cycle proposed by Nunan, Jane Willis and Ellis so I took elements of all of them and fused them together in attempt to try and make a more comprehensive map. I feel it’s important to note that TBLT works best when it exploits the right blend of component parts of the task cycle appropriate to the task, the level of the class, the materials (if) used external requirements on the course.

Of the parts in the task cycle, arguably the most important in terms of learners’ linguistic development is a Focus on Form. This idea differs from the Form-focused instruction found in PPP methodology in as much as it focuses on the salient forms that emerge from the task, i.e., those immediate to the learners’ communicative purpose. The advantage that this proposes is that by achieving a task that has a meaningful communicative purpose, while receiving (overt) support from their teacher in doing so, learners will retain language better. 

It’s quite right to say on the hand that if not correctly implemented, TBLT will swerve away from the well-intentioned rationale stated and veer dangerously towards pedagogical nothingness – an important consideration to bear in mind when designing a lesson. What this means is a TBLT lesson requires a lot of thought about the right tasks tailored to the learners’ communicative needs and a teacher equipped with the right tools to second-guess relevant forms and be prepared to clarify emergent language.

Doughty, C.,  & Williams J., Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition, Cambridge Applied linguistics, 1998

Ellis, R.,  (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N., How Languages are learned, Oxford University Press, 1996

Dogme Reality

Great to see the great Phil Wade posting again on the blog. For anyone who doesn’t know the man, he’s an ELT Jack of all traits now teaching freelance in Rèunion in the Indian Ocean.  This time, he’s going to talk about how even bending over backwards to make this personal and student centred, it can be like banging your head against the wall!

I remember having a short Twitter chat with Rob Haines who used to handle the Dogme discussion group about Dogme allegedly being the ‘golden bullet’ to cure all teaching woes. Well, it’s good and brings live to classes of students used to heads down work but it doesn’t always work.

This term I’ve had problems with discipline. Students have been chatting heavily in the L1, messing around and not participating by answering no questions or doing any pair work in
English. It’s been doing my head in as I enjoy ‘Dogme moments’, student choice for activities, working with their output and a general positive attitude.

Finally, I realised that some just don’t want to pass, it’s that simple. It sounds crazy to me but logical if they get to resit a class rather than do another either more difficult one. If they don’t get penalised for failing and graduate anyhow, well, I get it. It’s not the mentality that I wish for or expect but now I understand.

Thus, we’re talking zero student contributions except for turning up and sitting down.

I think we teachers beat ourselves up over getting students on track, keeping them so and pushing them. On the CELTA we learned to push them and to keep lessons snappy and were used to eager students with motivation. Take that away and it’s not the same ball game.

There has to be a point where we admit defeat and just let things go before they consume us. In my case, this may mean letting some L1 chat pass or cutting out pairwork. My official course objectives will still get met as they are for people to complete the course i.e. attend and do the exercises. They may pass the test but many may not and thus fail for the 2nd or 3rd time.

I say goodbye to Dogme hopes for this class and put aside my interesting ideas and student-based activities. Sad but the reality is that Dogme doesn’t work with everyone and in every situation. Sometimes it can be a real uphill struggle changing students attitudes and getting them to see the benefits, this can lead to complaints too and if your colleagues are sticklers for teacher-based lessons then you may even face a serious chat.

My Dogme approach will live to fight another day but as it’s now an integrated part of how I always teach, it means I must teach unnaturally. For me, doing all the interesting and responsive stuff is what I like and what teaching should be about.


“Be formless… shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend…”

Bruce Lee’s famous words, which I came across after some post-Way-of-the-Dragon research on the martial-arts master. These words have something profound to say to professionals intent on providing the best service possible. Good – better – best practice, however, conjures up a notion of the one perfect form for a teacher of a second language. On the contrary, Lee’s quote made me think that you are the form, the liquid form – not the Trevi Fountain of teaching – and you adapt to the cup, bottle, teapot, dirty old bucket full of mould (we’ve all had that class, right?). There seems to be, therefore, a mismatch somewhere between the notion of best practice and how it is achieved.


Last week I was asked the most important attribute of an ELT teacher, to which I immediately responded “flexibility”. There was no hesitation at all. Methods, approaches, language awareness, classroom management techniques – learnable. Flexibility – acquired on the way thanks to a combination of success and failure.

Failure: flunk, bomb, mess up, flunk – there’s so much negative stigma attached to this word. Just taking a look at the red pen the letter ‘F’ on the test on the right and let the memories come flowing back of that embarrassing arithmetic test in which you scored zero when you were thirteen. Calling out your mark, much lower than every other in the class, every week, was an absolute nightmare. Enough of my year-9 mathematics nightmares now.

There is negative stigma that doesn’t do justice the learning power of failure

Kathryn Schulz, in her talk ‘On Being Wrong’, differentiates between being wrong and realising that you are so, providing a really striking analogy of what it feels like: The Coyote chasing Road Runner off the mountain and the sudden realisation dawns on him mid stride that he’s about to drop hundreds of feet to the bottom of the abyss. Before, he runs off the edge in complete ignorance of what he’s just done, takes a few more strides and suddenly sees the ‘F’ staring him in the face, then falls. It’s about 1:08 in this video if 6 minutes of Looney Toons is too much for you.

Obviously, it’s not fun in any respect to realise that you’ve done something wrong. The double-edge sword is that firstly you cannot do anything about the mistake and secondly you often find out from someone else – losing face an having the risk of dwelling on it. Not necessarily a sword though, all of this. I’ll come to that a bit later.

I digress a little from the original point of flexibility. At this point I feel I should link the two strands; flexibility and failure. When you hit the bottom and brush yourself off after the Coyote-esque fall, to avoid yourself from doing the same thing over and over again, there comes a point when quiet reflection on your practice is necessary to avoid any future reoccurrence. In this way, failure feeds into flexibility as the protagonist; it is the reason why you end up resembling either the Trevi Fountain or the water it spurts out.

Let’s not get too hasty here though and assume making mistakes over and over again will result in flexibility. The Coyote, credit to him, experiments with a number of different methods to try and catch the pesky Road Runner. He doesn’t keep on making the same mistake over and over again (although that famous falling scene does have a habit of poking its nasty head up more than once, touché). To my mind, he is trying to be like water and should deserve a lot of credit for it; he’s only doomed to failure thanks to the script he has to follow. This might have some significance to teachers who have a script forced upon them by a third-party, too.

“Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend…”

How to be more like water: You put the teacher in a class and the teacher adapts to the class. Seems simple, 1+1 = 2, right? Trust me, this is NOT as simple as it sounds and it’s very likely that you’ll fall off that cliff once or twice. There are, thankfully, ways that can help you realise when you do in the hope that in future you see the cliff coming and take a detour.

  • Listen to your students and respond to their feedback, even if it involves doing things that don’t fit well with your teaching beliefs
  • Collect feedback on a regular basis; don’t be afraid the negative stuff – you’re water, you adapt
  • Is your classroom a cup, a bucket, a glass? Find out this stuff before and when your course starts
  • Use a variety of methods and approaches – even the ones that your not so used to or consider to be not as conducive to learning; if you’re students learn benefit, then why not?

Warning: bending over backwards too much can lead to back pain.


Just a note to finish on: The Coyote, who finds himself messing up all the time, at least tries a variety of different methods to achieve his goal. He’s wrong, he realises this; that doesn’t stop him from trying something new. Be like the Coyote, you’ll find the right method one day. The process will make you more like water, better adapted to take the form of the vessel.

Some afterthoughts

I would like to make a call to any teacher that has ever received a nasty comment from a student, some negative feedback on an observation, below-average marks from formal training: do you consider yourself more flexible as a consequence?

Secondly, how do you go about ensuring you don’t fall off the cliff when you are handed a new class? Does this always work?

Challenging Higher-Level Learners

It can be daunting to have a group of near proficient speakers in front of you; they’ve dedicated years to studying and perfecting their language. What’s more, you might find yourself faced with an advanced grammar-driven syllabus that your class would eat for breakfast. How do you make sure that they don’t finish the course feeling slightly short-changed? I’ve put together  in this post a few tips I’ve amassed over the past few years teaching advanced classes:

1. Get their hands on their own language

I bring my MP3 player to most lessons in case I’ve planned a discussion or a moment arises that’s suitable for recording the class. Of course, get their consent before recording – the first time can be a bit daunting. With the recording, you can play it back and correct as a class, transcribe it for a delayed error correction session or send it to your learners after class with a follow up activity. Either way, it gives your learners a great opportunity to get their hands on ‘their language’. At higher levels especially, motivation can be lower and there’s the temptation to become a bit complacent with their language. This added extra opens up a whole new dimension to working with what students provide you with.

You can also use this information for individual goal setting with learners or to give individual feedback on common errors or over-reliance on certain vocabulary/structures.

2. Take control of their own learning

I usually introduce my advanced classes to I teach them about collocation and colligation and set them tasks to research new vocabulary and find alternatives across formalities, examples (with their grammatical patterns, e.g. I’m coming down with a cold – preference for the continuous). You can dedicate time at the start of class to sharing the results of the research.

3. Explore new contexts and functions for their language

Maybe they’ve done the same simulations a hundred times before. Change the paradigms a little by playing the angry client, the pushy boss, the colleague with emotional problems – these will put their linguistic skills to the test as they try and negotiate their way through new and challenging contexts.

4. Practice with longer turns

The safe zone – a collection of short turns negotiated between two or more participants in a conversation – that’s what I call it. C1 and C2 levels can comfortably remain here for a long time without pushing themselves to the limit. On the other hand, how are they at taking a longer turn? Describing a process, talking someone through the challenges of their jobs, filling someone in on the events of the previous week? Your learners will have to dig deep to find the right discourse features, vocabulary and grammar to successfully complete longer-turn tasks and feedback on this will be all the more immediate.

5. Listening

Your class can converse like pros, but can they follow a longer conversations, news programmes or a presentation and give feedback? These tasks are much more cognitively cumbersome and will add an edge to classes. You can even link it in to the recordings of previous discussions or longer turns and make comparisons between their language a more proficient models.

What are your tricks to make sure lessons leave your learners feeling challenged and satisfied with the content of your lessons?

Correction and Timing

After a discussion in the comments section of Chiew’s Dogme Diaries, I felt that my thoughts on correction in second language learning were too many to post in another comment, so I am making a first video post as part of my previously-shelved return to blogging. The task is enormous and far too much to speak about in 9 short minutes of video. For every error there seems to be a theory and a whole load of procedural knowledge to add to it, so this is very much the tip of the iceberg!

After a little thought today I have decided to add a reflection template for teachers to use during lessons to use to identify, categorise and prioritise language learners produce. I use the four boxes to note down bits of language I hear or notes on areas of difficulty. In this stage, I decide whether to provide immediate feedback or to wait and exploit the language point in later feedback; if, on the other hand, there’s no immediate need to focus on it – third person ‘s’ or misplaced stress on appreciate for example – I have a record of these still on paper for the future.


“Without grammar, little can be conveyed; without lexis, nothing can be conveyed”, David Wilkins

Various teaching practice spring cleanings in the past three years have cleared out a lot of clutter from my grammar teaching and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying I avoid teaching grammar (after all, it’s part of the language; it would be unwise to leave out a whole area of language from its teaching), I definitely avoid aspects of it. 

Spring Cleaning

“Use ‘must’ for an internal obligation and ‘have to’ for an external one”

Disclaimer: These results are two random samples I took from the BNC corpus using ‘I must’ and ‘I have to’ – they are not a fully fledged study into the use of modality. 

I’m not so convinced, I must say (or I have to admit?). Furthermore, I don’t think rules like this help students to make personal decisions on what grammar best expresses their opinion. For instance, make a ‘to do’ list in your head, what’s the most common modal that turns up? I swing between the semi-modals ‘have got to’ and ‘have to’. Now think about if there’s more external than internal obligation for each of these. All answers please include the start and the end of the thought process and send them stamped to 25, languagemoments street, London, UK.

But I think I am safe in saying that I make up part of a large pool of language teachers who have arrived at the same conclusion.

Use present progressive for a future action that has already been arranged and decided and use going to + infinitive for an intention

I know this to be true. I have experienced it to be of little help to students. In my personal opinion, the use of adverbs makes much more difference to the meaning of these two structures.


I’m seeing a film tomorrow

I’m going to see a film tomorrow


I’m hopefully seeing that new film tomorrow

I’m probably going to see that new film tomorrow

Can we say therefore that explicit rule-based atomistic grammar instruction should pack its bags and make way for holistic lexico-grammatical instruction? I am certain that this equips students with the analytical tools to analyse meaning as it occurs in real life; lexicalised and in context.

On that note, it’s worth taking a look at ‘have to’ and ‘must’ again. You’ll see that there are some great chunks in the two extracts from the corpus: I have to say/I really must say/I must admit.

The power of language

Not only does the idea of atomistic rules not chime with me, but also the way in which they are written I believe really disempowers the student. How many times do you hear “I must use/I have to use” in your courses? Does this make your heart sink? It does mine. It sounds like the learner is completely dehumanised in the language learning process; where’s the opinion? What about “I can use present perfect when I do not consider the time period finished, e.g. I’ve seen so much while living in Berlin” – I still live there. Swap musts, have tos, we use, you use for I can use, if I say___, it means I think____.


I’m happy to say that they have very little place, if any, in my classroom. Shouldn’t language be introduced and practised in context? If so, then 12 different contexts, all different from each other, just for the purpose of practising a structure is not entirely conducive to this. What’s more, it’s a focus on form, not meaning. Any chance of focusing on meaning is dealt a serious blow from the constantly changing contexts. That said, I do give them for homework, woe betide me for bowing to student expectations.

I would be fascinated to know of any other grammar-teaching pet-peeves people have. Likewise, if someone wants to completely disagree with me, I’d welcome a bit of a grammar tussle.

Also, watch this space. I feel a number of skeletons coming on.

Apps n’ Dogme


Phil Wade 

To cut a long story short I’ve recently taught some 121 classes with ipads n’ apps. No books, copies, even handouts, just an ipad. Now, 

I’m not convinced about the ‘wonders of the ipad revolution’ as many seem to be. 1 ipad costs a lot of money for a teacher to buy and from my own experimentation not a lot works on them except specifically designed expensive apps. Another problem is that the student uses it and you can’t see what they’re doing.

In one place I work we have a couple of ipads and I have to use them but never seem to know how. Thus, with a TOEFL 121 and a Philosophy 121 I set about seeing what I could find that was ipad possible at 0 cost. Not easy if you don’t have a Mac or ipad trust me. 

A great FREE vocab app with several sections and useful questions. It’s available for Apple or Android.

“Photo taken from by @alice_m, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,”

I often use it as a warmer to check what my student knows and then to advise what to work on at home. It’s useful to kick off the lesson, also as a topic change or revision after another activity or even as a bit of fun to end the lesson. Simply select the topic based on the texts or listenings you’ve been using and away you go, instant vocab support.

TOEFL speaking

Another freebie but only for ios I think.

This has various questions and sample answers and lets you record your answers. It’s perfect for the first parts of the speaking. It can be used as a warmer, a whole speaking part 1 or 2 section or to end a class.

Where’s the dogme?

I like to think of each app as a tool that can be utilised in countless ways, just like a reading in a book. they are used as, well, readings, to introduce grammar, to contextualise vocab, to set a theme, to provide content for a discussion bla bla bla. So, why not the same for an app?

Now, imagine you have a 1 hour TOEFL ibt class. For anyone unfamiliar with the exam it is online and has all the usual skills. The 2 apps are inherently limited to vocab and speaking so I’m not going to lie and say make them into a TOEFL ibt reading or listening. No, for those bits just find and use online samples or Edulang’s TOEFL sim. The apps are flexible so can fit around what you are doing or be exploited on their own.

Getting back to the 1 hour. Now, I start off with the speaking app. I select a question, my student answers it while I record it then listen back and work on the mistakes and areas of improvement. Next, we look at another question and analyse the sample answer before doing another recording. To bring in the integrated aspect of the speaking section, I could either go TOEFL and show her a sample reading and play a listening from this part or just select similar material from the net. Again, I can use the app to record the student, play it back, discuss and then improve it.

Next, I could add a bit of vocab by choosing a similar category on the app, trying 10 questions then practising all the words, not just the correct ones in speaking style. After all, why not some listening? Like before, I can play a TOEFL listening online or choose a similar one from Google. The key with that is notetaking. I always check to see if my student is doing it well and then if there aren’t questions for the listening I can make up my own that are TOEFL style. A better approach is asking the student to think about what could be asked. Here we can go through question types.

So, 2 apps are quite handy but it’s also worth remembering you have internet access. I do tend to go on about early prep and laying the foundation at the start but in this course I did just that and collected loads of useful sites and put them on a Scoop. This means I can use them when I need.

Tip: At the start of the course I began building a Scoop which is my virtual resource board. I add to it when I can and keep a mental note of what’s there and how it could be used. In following lessons I pick out what I need (check that they work on your ipad please) but also am safe in the knowledge that I have the others ready for a if/when situation. Lately I’ve even started making my own Quizlets for revising language in the next lesson. They have a free app and even related ones, many of which are free:

“Photo taken from by @europeaantje, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,”

Phil, the idea of a scoop is a brilliant idea to support learning outside the classroom. I was discussing learning a new language only last night with a friend who admitted to not studying at all outside of lessons; it adds an extra platform for students to use that’s not tradition head-in-books studying. One part that stood out particularly to me was recording and playing back students’ spoken language. I think there’s a lot to be said for this to capture their language to work on, what’s more it’s a handy learning strategy for outside the classroom. Thanks for sharing some useful ideas on using apps, all of which seem to work with student needs and student language – Dale