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Task-Based Learning: What it can Do for ESL Students and why Repetition Makes it Even Better

in Teaching

The idea of task-based learning (TBL) is to create a ‘realistic’ learning environment in order to help language students prepare for real-life situations. While this in itself motivates learners to speak, studies suggest that immediate repetition of ‘real-world’ tasks may have further beneficial effects.

TBL: learning through meaning

Since its rise in popularity, task-based learning has become prominent in recent language teaching pedagogy. Unlike form-focused approaches, TBL places the communicative focus on meaning. Through language production, learners may notice ‘gaps’ between what they want to say and what is produced.

By detecting those disparities, students learn to give attention to the repair and replacement of the language for improvement on subsequent occasions.
The effect of this shows in language complexity, accuracy, and fluency (CAF).

Why speaking matters

Swain (1995) states that:

The activity of producing the target language may prompt second language learners to consciously recognize some of their linguistic problems.

(p. 126)

As Swain suggests, without output, speakers are unable to ‘practise’ the language and, in turn, notice discrepancies within their interlanguage system.

Furthermore, when gaps between what is said and what a learner wants to say are noticed, psycholinguistic processes are likely to be prompted to merge that newly acquired knowledge into the speaker’s interlanguage system.

This means that students who self-monitor their progress through speaking should improve automatically with practice.

But before we move on, what actually makes a valuable speaking ‘task’ in TBL?

Different types of ‘tasks’

Skehan (1998, p. 95) combines several definitions and takes the most prominent features to create an overarching definition:

a task is an activity in which:

  • meaning is primary
  • there is some sort of communication problem to solve
  • there is some sort of relationship to comparable real-world activities
  • task completion has some priority
  • the assessment of the task is in terms of outcome.”

Besides that, there is another type of ‘task’ claiming to replicate the meaning-oriented language of everyday situations. These tasks are called ‘pedagogical’ tasks.

Ellis (2003, p. 347) describes them as “designed to elicit communicative language use in the classroom, e.g. Spot-the-difference. They do not bear any resemblance to real-world tasks although they are intended to lead to patterns of language use similar to those found in the real world.”

Despite the meaningfulness of communication present in pedagogical tasks, the language that arises through them cannot be directly compared to the language a learner needs to complete tasks in the real world, as these are semantically and pragmatically different in nature.

TBL and repetition in language learning

So far, it is apparent that through interaction in meaning-focused, communicative tasks, learners engage in cognitive processes which seem to help monitor their language (Levelt, 1989, p. 460). Also, they help them notice language discrepancies in their interlanguage (Swain, 1995, p. 126).

Moreover, it seems that, through the repetition of a task, the cognitive work through prior conceptual processing is more accessible on subsequent occasions. This, in turn, most likely promotes language production and deeper acquisition.

If these assumptions are valid, repeated TBL could prove to be a useful tool to facilitate language learning. So how about some academic research to explore the effects of TBL and repetition on CAF (complexity / accuracy / fluency)?

The research methodology

In my study, I examined five non-native speaker (NNS) students enrolled in an English Language Teaching (ELT) programme. Each participant was to attempt one oral, monological task twice, with a ten-minute break between the two tasks. The task was identical on both occasions.

The task question was: “Can you tell me about your last holiday? Where you went, what you did, how you travelled there, and how you felt on the holiday.”


This section provides a series of bar charts that analyse the mean difference between the first and second task attempt and for each measure within each CAF construct.
In order to designate speakers’ individual utterances, the term AS-unit is used (analysis of speech-unit).





The results showed a marginal increase in accuracy and two measures of fluency, but these were found to be statistically insignificant when scrutinized again later.

However, the analysis does report an overall increase in accuracy and an overall decrease in complexity. This may support the validity of the data found in this study as it conforms to the notion of the trade-off effect between CAF constructs.

In contrast with the inferential data, the learners’ perception of task repetition turned out to be positive, insofar as gains in all CAF constructs and overall performance were reported.

This supports the idea that task repetition has a considerable effect on learners, although this study did not investigate into how or why this occurs.

Pedagogical implications and conclusion

Despite the data not showing significant differences between the attempts, improvements were recorded in the self-evaluation feedback. This could be because repeating a real-world task in the classroom, as opposed to a pedagogical task, may seem more worthwhile to students in terms of using time more effectively in class.

More importantly, the subjective increase in ability to complete a linguistic task in a second language could well lead to an increase in motivation and thus better learning of the target language.

As a conclusion, repeated TBL can indeed help promote learner motivation and confidence and make learners better students of a language, even if the objective data related to their performance do not support the subjective improvements immediately.


  • Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Massachusetts: MIT
  • Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook, & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics (pp. 125-145). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image: Gordon Johnson

The Importance of not Being Earnest: Why Play is Essential for Young Learners’ Brains

in Teaching

All of us were young learners once, and most will agree that it was an emotional experience. The joy when we first managed to keep our balance on a bike. The proud first laps we swam without water wings…but also the frustration about the math exercise that just wouldn’t add up and all the other things we couldn’t seem to get right. But what happens in the young learner’s brain, and how does it learn best?

Sponge vs. elaborate tool

Contrary to popular conceptions, childrens’ brains are not sponges merely waiting to absorb knowledge. In fact, the newborn’s brain is equipped with nearly all the neurons (nerve cells passing on information) that it needs within a lifetime.

In our early years, the brain creates a network of connections and pathways (aka synapses) between those neurons, enabling it to convey information to all the different areas. This helps us understand the world around us and interact with it in a meaningful way.

Surprisingly, once a large amount of connections has been built, the brain starts weeding out many of them again. It just keeps the ones that are actively being strengthened by practice and experience while dismissing the rest (see Meghan Fitz: “synapse formation” and “synapse pruning”).

One example for this is learning to ride a bicycle:

As children, we “fed” the neuronal pathways involved in the activity with physical experience (falling off, trying again) until the connections were strong enough for us to manage the task. Had we not constantly nurtured the synapses for riding a bike, they would have dissolved without us learning the skill.

Thus, brain function is more about practical application than memory storage (or rather, doing vs. passively taking in knowledge).

Healthy connections and the school system

As we see, the infant brain is not keen on information overload –  it wants to be able to work things out and connect the dots…quite literally! But how exactly does it do that?

Basically, there are three key factors which help young learners learn. These are:

  • Repetition
  • Sensory experience (movement and interaction)
  • Positive emotions related to the experience

In fact, science has shown that the different parts of the brain connect best through free play, because it combines all of the factors mentioned. Far from being a mere luxury, playing is an actual necessity for young learners’ mental, social and emotional development and wellbeing. In other words:

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

Diane Ackerman

Sadly, what happens in many classrooms is the opposite: sitting still instead of moving around, receiving knowledge instead of exploration, and being “right” or “wrong” instead of a joyful, non-judgemental discovery of what works and what doesn’t.

Apart from causing frustration and disappointment, this also means that a large amount of brain connections are lost because they are not properly nourished in school.

So what’s a teacher to do?

With all of the above in mind, is there a way for teachers to tend to their young learners’ needs while still delivering what is expected from them?

Here are some ideas for little tweaks that can make a difference without causing mayhem in the classroom.

  1. Promoting task-based learning that gives students something practical to do. This can be combined with physical activity and games which include standing up, walking around and other physical elements.
  2. Asking questions gets students involved and builds on their existing knowledge, thus increasing confidence and interest.
  3. A positive error culture in which students feel valued, even if they don’t get it right all the time. Teachers can gently point out mistakes and let other students help. Group work also enhances young learners’ social skills and team spirit.

When you’re really serious about having a fun class

Depending on the teacher’s interests and personality, it is possible to create an engaging, learner-friendly environment completely off the beaten track, as this example shows:

Allen had never prepared a lesson in his life. Every class of his was improvised theatre. He regarded grammar books as part of the teacher’s room decoration, useful only to prevent a hot cup of coffee from marking the polished desk. His students loved him and seemed to make amazingly good progress.

ELTABBer Paul about his colleague Allen, one of his biggest influences

Allen’s approach was to provide as much practical experience as possible. He’d take his students to supermarkets, where he would place random items (e.g. oranges) in their hands. Then, he’d ask them to name the objects or the price. His students got a lot out of his lessons, including some great stories to tell.

If you feel inspired to try some playful and educational activities with your students, you can find them at tinkergarten. You can filter your search by age group, length of activity and skill to be practised.

Are you a parent who wants to foster early literacy in a playful way? If yes, check out this article on why and how to teach your child how to read.

Finally, there is an inspiringly beautiful relation between a class of young learners and their teacher in the film “To be and to have” by Nicolas Philibert (please click on the image below to watch the trailer).

Oh, and by the way: Adult learners love to have fun, too!


View on the slums of Manila from the water
Photo: Richard Shaw

English for EduCharity: Giving Teacher Training in the Philippines

in Teaching

When Richard took a shot at teaching English 10 years back, little did he know where it would lead him one day. Here, he relates his summer experience of delivering a teacher training course for charity in the Philippines.

Adventure calling

It started with a phone call on my university graduation day in July 2015. A small team of teacher trainers were due to fly out to Manila the following month to deliver a two-week training course, but one of the trainers had to drop out because of passport issues.

The project was a collaboration between two Rotary clubs in the UK and the Philippines. Its objective was to improve the teaching quality of a school in Manila, which had been built from upcycled shipping containers in a previous project.

On the phone, I was asked whether I could fill in for the missing trainer and co-deliver the course (which had still yet to be written). I said I’d need a few days to think about it, as I would need to organise some things. Besides, I was concentrating on having a great day with my family following completing university.

Despite this, there was only one answer in my mind and I called the person back 20 minutes later saying to count me in.

Pulling together to make things work

Due to a breakdown in communication between us and the school, we had to work with very little information about where we were going, the teachers we’d be teaching, the types of courses they taught and what they were expecting from us.

Notwithstanding, we pooled our combined knowledge and experience together. Working as a team, we designed a training course that we thought made sense and was beneficial to the teachers in Manila.

The place of action

The school is situated in the district of Tondo and sits right on the foot of ‘Smokey Mountain’, a truly enormous landfill site. Its name comes from the noxious gas clouds that the waste creates and the size of the site.

This is home to around 25,000 people and is one of the most impoverished places in the world. The people there live in slums, and the family members, including the children (regardless of how young they are) pick through the landfill finding things to sell.

Some of the children that go to the school often fall asleep in class because they are so tired from foraging until the early hours of the morning. Attendance can vary from child to child due to family problems, including severe illness of a family member, domestic violence and sexual assault.

A challenging arrival

We arrived in Manila, jet-lagged and tired, but excited to meet the 28 teachers and the school staff members. There is no public transport infrastructure in Manila, so everyone travels by car. We got picked up by the school’s minibus driver and made our way from central Manila to Tondo.

This journey of only a few kilometres ranges from twenty minutes to three hours, depending on the traffic. The gradient of scenery also changes along the road – starting with the downtown buildings to shacks made from corrugated iron and wooden pallets.

When we arrived at the school, the most noticeable thing was the smell. Due to the location of the school next to a giant bin and the very warm and humid climate, the initial smell was almost too much to bear. Try sticking your head in the communal bins on a hot day, for eight hours.

Making necessary readjustments

We observed most of the 28 teachers over the next two days and got together to discuss the results. We came to the conclusion that most of the sessions we had thought would be relevant to the teachers were actually irrelevant. Also, we all saw where the teachers had gaps in their knowledge and technique, and where we could give more useful sessions in replacement for the ones that we took away.

This did mean though that we were now writing sessions in our accommodation’s lobby after arriving back from the school in preparation for the next day. Even more of a challenge when hot, tired, and still jet-lagged!

Once we had cracked that nut, it was relatively plain sailing from there. The training sessions were well-received by the teachers, and we felt like we were giving a lot more beneficial training – and ultimately having a lot more fun and rewarding experience.


Group of young teachers in Tondo, Manila
Smiling faces: members of the teaching staff in Tondo

Teacher problems: traditional roles

One observation, and one of our biggest challenges, was to break the teachers out of the classical teacher role: the teacher stands at the front of the class and tells the students the information. The teacher also writes on the blackboard and dictates which student should speak and when they should stop.

The more you’re doing as a teacher in the classroom, the less your students are doing.

This role, we strongly assumed, came from the teacher’s preconceived notions of what a teacher ‘should’ be like. It was most likely due to their past learning experiences, and/or having learned this during their teacher qualifications.

In subjects such as English and the subjects taught through the medium of English (see Content and Language Integrated Learning ‘CLIL’) a seemingly one-to-one information exchange from teacher to learner is not sufficient enough for language acquisition.

Facilitating rather than teaching

This is where a teacher could design a lesson in order for him/her to ‘take a back seat’ in the class and let the students take the reins in order to have as much (meaningful) practice of the language as they can.

You earn your pay check in the effective planning of the lesson and the progress of the students.

Initially, the teachers may feel that they are not in control, or are not doing enough in order to feel like they are earning their salary; but in fact, you earn your pay check in the effective planning of the lesson and the progress of the students.

In this more up-to-date model, the teacher can act as a facilitator rather than a teacher: helping students discover the language by creating situations and activities for meaningful practice and provide input when necessary, rather than ‘teaching’ the students contrived language.

[…] facilitate learning by giving more autonomy and responsibility to [the students] but being there when they make mistakes or have a question or get a little lost.

A little off topic, but I’d also like to take the opportunity here to say that, despite having almost nothing, living in the conditions described above, and what these people must have to go through on a daily basis, you couldn’t meet a happier bunch. They were so kind, so polite and helpful, and really couldn’t do enough for you.

They all had grins from ear to ear and lived life appreciating and celebrating what they do have, and not focussing on what they don’t have. Walking through the slums and working in this area was a little daunting for me at first. However, the people there made us all feel welcome.

Visiting again a year later

The teacher training team returned back a year later to run an evaluation on the teaching of the school. We saw a lot of familiar, friendly faces, and also some new ones.

It was great to see that the teachers had taken some of the training on board and have implemented a number of the ideas in their classes. A few teacher-led classes still remained of course, and a few old habits. But on the whole, the students seemed to be more involved in the process – and that for me was mission complete.

All in all, I am very thankful to be able to have had that experience in such a place. I will take the memories and the things that I learned with me for a long time.

Storytime! Funniest Teaching Moments

in ELTABB/Teaching
Photo: Ben White, unsplash

We asked teachers about their funniest experiences in class. Here’s what we got.

Clumsy Teacher

When I did my CELTA at the Berlin School of English in October 2016, one of the students asked me during the break what the word ‘clumsy’ meant. He seemed to understand the meaning, but was struggling to use it. As you all know, CELTA trainees have each 40-minute-slots to teach. It was my turn after the break. Although I was already an experienced teacher, I was very stressed being constantly observed and given feedback, by the lack of prep time and all the ‘lovely’ factors the intensive course provides. I totally messed up with tons of copies I made for the group – a bigger one, over 10 people. The lesson didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked, so I tried to play cool. While giving new instructions, I was backing off to the teachers desk, when suddenly I stumbled over the chair. I almost hit the floor and the handouts fell out of my hands in the best traditions of silent comedy movies. Jumping upright again, I cried out, “That’s what being clumsy is!”


Mr and Mrs Dictionary

It was a Monday morning the day new students arrive. Fresh faces. Starting the class, I introduced the new students and asked them to tell us a little about themselves. This went as normal, embarrassed students with a resentful look saying “I can’t believe he is doing this to me”, saying a few words and sitting down.

That was until we got to Gabriel, or Gabi, as he introduced himself. Ten minutes later, Gabi had given us a brief history of his 20 years on this planet using vocabulary that stunned me for a B2 class. Once I regained composure, I went on with the class, a vocabulary lesson covering idioms and phrasal verbs. Every time I tried to elicit a word, inevitably Gabi would raise his hand and say the word I was looking for. I thanked Gabi for making my job easy, “Thank you Mr Dictionary “. The class had a giggle as did Gabi. I spoke with Gabi after the class and asked him why he knew so much vocabulary. “I read the dictionary all the time”. In fact, he had one in his hand.

I had to move Gabi to the C1 class because by the end of the week I was convinced he was misplaced.

The following Monday, and again the class started as normal. Well that was until we got to Yasmin. Groundhog Day, but this time Yasmin spent ten minutes telling us about her 21 years on this earth and also her hopes for the future. Once again the variety of vocab shocked me. Once I had gotten over the sense of deja vu, I went on with the class. Things went in much the same way and by the end of the week I told Yasmin she would be going to the C1 class, because I thought she too had been misplaced. I also told Yasmin there was a guy called Gabi in the class she would get along with.

A few weeks later at a school pub night I saw Gabi and Yasmin walking in together holding hands. I greeted them, “Oh hello, Mr and Mrs Dictionary!”.

Unfortunately, Mr and Mrs Dictionary split up when Gabi returned to Brazil. I spoke with him a few weeks ago. He reads the thesaurus now.


“You bet!”

Last summer during a Business English lesson revising presentation skills, trying to focus on signposting language and body language while presenting the most recent projects our group had at work.

So, meet Vlad, a hipster-looking, extremely smart and witty co-founder of a gaming IT start-up in Kyiv. He would always be on time, ticking on his clock to everyone who was late in the group, even 30 seconds later. Vlad would always arrive with a fancy coffee or specially brewed tea in his hand. Sometimes on his electric gyro-scooter right through the glass doors of our Business English classroom. He likes to be in the focus and enjoys it. And here’s the time to present his project –  a “wheels of fortune”-like game-app they recently created for the US market.

I assigned the other girl, Valerie, a tender and feminine (but extremely competitive and passionate) sales assistant, to count the number of signposting and linking phrases Vlad would use during his 5-minute-long project presentation. They made a bet: he’d use 20. Yes, in 4 minutes. Yes, along with the presentation of his project.

And here he goes: Vlad actually built all his presentation around functional language, trying to underline each phrase with mimics and hyperbolized body language, to make sure Valerie counted each of those. When he used “and”, “but”, “also”, Valerie would not count it, showing vividly she wouldn’t bend her fingers for such “basic” linking words.

The guys were so artistic and so into it, we were all laughing and keeping our fingers crossed hoping Vlad would win this bet. Val is counting using her fingers so that everyone sees nobody’s cheating. The time is about to run out.  It’s 18 phrases counted and 30 seconds left… Everything’s at stake and he says: “That brings me to the end of my presentation.” – 19 phrases. “Greatest thanks for your attention” – 20 phrases!!! “The floor is yours, Val!” – The timer goes off.  “But, you’ve run out of fingers, Val!”


If you had fun reading this, check out Evan’s post and learn how not to be a muggle when teaching ESP to cosmeticians.

Teaching English with TED Talks: How to Create Compelling Materials for ESL Learners

in Teaching

TED talks offer free and engaging content for teaching and learning English. Teachers can use them to enhance their lessons and spark their students’ interest in language learning. Beate Ziebell explains why TED talks are great for boosting learner motivation and how to make them into actual learning resources.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) in the classroom

Motivation is one of the key factors for successful language learning. So here’s the good news: any learning material which is interesting for a student is intrinsically motivating. Ideally, the teaching material should be funny, entertaining, useful for the job or otherwise intriguing.

Learning English, and at the same time learning something new, hits two birds with one stone: studying the subject matter and the target language.

Examples for teaching English through a different subject could be:

  • Learning about history (children could learn about the mysterious world of the Sumerians or the Roman empire)
  • Learning a programming language (there are some funny and simple programming languages designed for kids)
  • Reading a funny or entertaining book (here, one could find books for almost every age), or study literature

Research confirms that CLIL is a compelling and effective method for learning a new language.

TED talks for your English lessons – teaching and learning with passion

TED talks are great resources for teachers looking for a CLIL-like approach to teaching ESL. The organization is non-profit and devoted to spreading ideas, mainly in the form of short, powerful speeches. There are TED talks about almost every topic – technology, science, design, health, the environment, personal growth and many others. Currently, over 3100 talks are available. Therefore, it is possible to find an inspiring talk for every individual student in class. Just check out the official TED website.

Which TED talks should teachers choose for teaching English?

When teaching English with TED talks, choose one which has a lot of vocabulary in it to help students learn as much as possible. You can suggest three TED talks to your students and let them choose.

Never mind if the talk contains difficult words, because almost all of them have transcripts in multiple languages. So, with the help of the transcript, learners will be able to grasp the meaning of difficult words quickly.

How to make a parallel text transcript from a TED talk

To make learning convenient and fast, create a parallel text transcript. Please make sure to do this only for personal use in the context of the classroom. See the TED talks usage policy for more information.

A parallel text transcript can be created following these steps:

  1. Open a Google Sheets document (or Excel/Open Calc). Here I will use Google Sheets since it is free and can be used wherever you are. But the how-to should be very similar for each of the programmes mentioned. Because some of the functionality of Google Docs/Sheets works only with Google Chrome, it is best to use the Chrome browser for this purpose.
  2. Copy the English transcript to column A. To this end, select the entire English transcript, click into the first cell of the Google Sheets document, and select ‘Copy’.
  3. For the column format, choose ‘Format/Text Wrapping/Wrap’.
  4. Copy the transcript of the mother tongue of your students into column B and select “Wrap”.
  5. Now adjust both widths of the columns so that it is comfortable to read. This can be done by clicking on the column header and choosing ‘Resize Column’.
  6. Additionally, select ‘Format/Align/Top’, so the text of each cell starts at the beginning of the cell.
  7. Now compare the columns. Do the languages match? Unfortunately, sometimes the transcripts are not well adjusted.
  8. Search for (Laughter/Lachen) as a reference point in the transcript. Insert needed cells. In my example, I needed to insert some cells and copy some text to it so that the languages matched. For a long text (“The surprising science of happiness”) this took 20 minutes.
  9. Adjust the column font and size to your liking. This can be done by selecting the entire column and changing the drop-down menu for font and size.
  10. Now you can convert the parallel text transcript to a PDF. Go to ‘File/Print/’. Choose ‘Portrait’ and ‘Next’ in the right-hand corner of the document. Now you can click on ‘Save as PDF’.  

How to adjust the speed of the talk and download its audio

Now, the students should listen to the talk multiple times and make sure they comprehend it. Note that you can adjust the speed of the talk. Hover with the mouse over the wheel of the talk. Then, you can speed up or slow down the video by clicking on the speed selectors.

In order to improve pronunciation and to remember the vocabulary, it is helpful to download the audio to your smartphone or MP3 player.

To achieve this:

  • Visit a talk page
  • Click the “Share” button
  • In the pop-up box that appears you have several options for sharing or downloading the file
  • Choose “Download audio”

Now the students can listen to the talk again and again during other activities and will memorize the new vocabulary without much effort.

Understanding the talk and listening to it multiple times can be a starting point for discussions in class and other activities. To make the most of your talks, you can use this free TED talk worksheet to make sure your students have understood the video.

Help with your TED talk and free content for your English lessons

Please contact me via if you have any questions regarding creating parallel text content. If you teach in Germany and would like some ready-to-use material, please visit my webpage ‘English for Kids’. The page contains a free bilingual book you can use in class, including the famous poem ‘The Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll and some chapters of the book ‘The Story of Mankind’.

If you found this article useful and would like to learn more about computerized teaching, take a look at this post on using corpus analysis tools in the classroom.

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