14b. City Lit

Task-Based Learning

Centre for Universal Skills – City Lit

This project asked how task-based learning (TBL) might effect an immersive, productive and motivating experience for learners and promote the most in-demand common work skills such as problem-solving, collaborating and analysing. What is task-based learning and how does it differ across hearing and Deaf learning, ESOL and English, higher and lower levels? Would task-based targets prove meaningful for learners and tutors alike and improve their involvement in recording and recognising progress and achievement in non-accredited courses (RARPA)?

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


The Centre for Universal Skills (US) aims to enable adults to develop the capabilities needed to participate, make progress and express themselves in a 21st century democracy. Our challenge is to develop a pedagogy aligned to this intent. We contended that a situated orientation meets this challenge, so that the task at hand draws learners in, demands they adopt a stance and frames the learning. Our focus on task-based learning was informed by a range of thinking and research, particularly Willis (1996) and Willis and Willis (2007). What does such an approach involve and how does it contrast with the presentation-practice-production (PPP) model? How would learning-targets, configured in a task-focused way, create a motivating experience for learners in contrast to more instrumentalised target-setting? Would such targets encourage learners to invest in and complete the tasks and enable them to relate their learning to wider purposes than solely linguistic ones?

Other Contextual Information

We investigated task-based learning (TBL) in two English classes for Deaf learners, Entry Level 3 and Level 2, and in Hearing classes for Pre-entry English and maths, Level 1 English, Entry Level 3, Level 1 and Level 2 ESOL and Cambridge Advanced. The classes were a mixture of online and face-to-face. Over 50 learners and eight tutors were involved.


Our approach mirrored a task-based learning experience: pre-task, task, evaluation and focus.

A) Pre-task. We discussed the principles of TBL, in particular performance before competence and meaning before form: what do these mean and how could they be materialised? However, in accordance with a TBL approach, discovering these answers was an aim of the project, to be achieved through the doing.

Tutors then decided whether they would focus on a task-based approach within the classroom or on task-based learning targets.

Some tutors also met with a more experienced tutor to discuss their ideas. This mentor was on-hand throughout the research to aid with reflections.

A Google Classroom was created for tutors to add their thoughts, film their reflections and add learners’ work.

B) The following tasks were worked on:

a) Entry Level 3 and Level 2 Deaf English classes:
• writing and sending a letter to an actual person, including visiting the post-office and engaging with a hearing non-BSL using employee
• creating live social media posts and commenting on each other’s posts
• fundraising for Children in Need including creating a YouTube video, setting up a crowdfunding page, redesigning the Pudsey Bear logo
• creating a chat show to evaluate task-based learning.

b) Pre-entry English and maths (hearing)
• taking photos of prices in shops and of receipts to use as a basis for maths work
• sending different messages to former teaching assistants, family members, friends and each other such as Christmas card messages, good luck messages, condolences
• independently writing and sending an email to a friend.

c) English for Life Level 1 (hearing)
• researching and writing a music review.

d) English Dialogue course (ESOL Level1- Level 2 hearing)
• writing and performing a play.

e) ESOL Entry Level 3, Level 1 and Level 2 (hearing)
• giving a presentation as part of their individual targets.

f) Cambridge English (hearing)
• individual tasks.

C) Final evaluation and focus on what has been learned
There was ongoing reflection by the tutors and, to a lesser extent, the learners. These were recorded in writing or video on the Google Classroom. Final surveys were also sent out to all participants and focus meetings held. The Deaf Level 2 learners created a chat show in which they reflected on their projects.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The most striking effect of the approach was the engagement and involvement of the learners. They became caught up and directed by the tasks: it was the tasks themselves that motivated and made demands of the learners calling them into being as learners and creators of the class. The most immediate jolting aspect of this approach took place in the Deaf English classes through the seemingly simple task of writing and posting a letter to someone. As the tutor said:

They all struggled to grasp that I was asking them to do something real and actually wanted them to write and post the letter.

a new Pudsey Bear logo to reflect deaf people

The learners would normally have had someone else do this for them. They were also struck by their need to role play communicating with a non-BSL using post-office worker. However, once thrown into the task, the learners found a way to communicate, particularly those who had struggled with the more abstract tasks of non-TBL classes. They began to develop strategies for communicating with hearing people. (See Appendix 2)

This strategy-building was also manifest in the Children in Need project. Within the fundraising, some learners set themselves the challenge of communicating with hearing strangers asking for directions without the aid of phones or writing, and of creating and editing a video of the process. The demands of the task overall effected a generative creativity – setting up a Just Giving webpage, creating a new Pudsey Bear logo to reflect deaf people, printing the logo on t-shirts to wear during the challenge, baking a Pudsey Bear cake, writing to the BBC and raising £395. Learners even extended the task to outside class time. One group spent a whole Sunday working with a videographer friend on their video, while another learner, usually reticent about homework, made a video of himself at work doing story-time with some hearing children whilst he used signs and no voice. He was amazed how well they could understand each other.

Similarly striking, if less dramatic, were the effects of task-oriented learning on the hearing

Our learner led bake sale.

Level 1 English learners, in particular how they engaged with each other’s work on music reviews on an extremely intimate level, open to each other’s comments and exchanging views.

The task-based targets were in many ways more challenging. Learners found it particularly difficult to move away from a solely linguistic focus such as “I need to improve my phrasal verbs.” However, when learners did contextualise, their tasks became enriched and purposeful such as researching and presenting ‘how to improve my English in four months’, ‘what I need to do in order to apply for an NHS apprenticeship’, and ‘how to become a stand-up comedian’. One learner translated her own poems into English, another sang a song in English, another joined a cycling club and another researched how to become a teaching assistant and found such a job. Learners needed to determine the steps they had to take to complete their tasks. (See Appendices 3.2, 3.3, 3.4)

Organisational Development

This project enabled us to explore in concrete detail what task-based learning entails. We have been working on this approach for three years. The pedagogical intent has become clear. However, this research was very much tutor-led, thrived on exchange and has effected a practical comprehension of how TBL is not the ‘production’ part of presentation-practice-production (PPP). The discourse of TBL is now much better instituted, allowing debate and discussion cross-centre.

Tutors have led a dissemination session and are well-placed to work with other tutors on how to develop this approach across the provision. A key aspect of the project has been how tutors in the hearing and Deaf area have collaborated and how enthusiastically most Deaf learners responded to tasks. Although TBL has been practised in the hearing classes for a while, this practice was far less prevalent in Deaf English and maths. Now, this provision can be seen to be leading the way.

Finally, an outcome of the project is likely to be a different way in which we carry out Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) at least on some courses, to enable a more organic approach. Tutors developed plans to reflect more readily a TBL pedagogy and we will move forward with these in 2022-23.

Learning from this project

The most important learning from the project is that task-based learning and target-setting are effective in enabling learners to develop the key life and work skills they need to participate and make progress in a democratic society. We learned that, when the task is right, learners will create and run with the activity, will learn, and will support each other through the task accomplishment. In so doing, learners will achieve well beyond the constraints of more traditional classroom ambitions and that it is not necessary to separate off linguistic elements from the context which demands their use.

In addition, we learned that a move away from the fixation on the ‘SMARTness’ of targets and a focus on the purposes of learners’ learning – the types of activities they need to do not as vehicles for language improvement but as ends in themselves – produced work that was interesting and engaging for learners and gave them a sense of achievement.

Most significantly, we discovered what the idea of TBL is and how it can work.

However, we also learned that we have a lot more to discover, investigate and discuss. Questions which have emerged from the research include:

  • How exactly are TBL classes set up so that the task is not solely a practice of, or a vehicle for, a language form but something that occasions discovery and learning? What is the balance between meaning and form? What is the role of staging?
  • Why might the same task produce a lot of work and creativity with one group but not with another?
  • How to set up classes so that learners can decide more readily on their task-based targets. What pre-task activities facilitate this and obviate the teacher’s telling or explaining what these types of tasks are?
  • How can learners more readily articulate their aims in terms of social practices rather than linguistic forms and how can they better join means to ends? (See Appendix 3.5)
  • How well does TBL work for pre-entry groups? What form if any should it take? (See Appendix 3.6).

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    The project reminded us to dig deeper to find out more about learners’ lives and what they want to achieve outside of the classroom. Rather than focusing on isolated language points, this project emphasised the need to think about the bigger picture and the purpose of the class. We discovered the value of frequent reference to the tasks and constant encouragement. Providing space for learners to discuss their aims openly raised their aspirations as they took encouragement from each other. Fostering peer support and developing common work-skills through TBL enabled different learners to respond in their own ways and participate accordingly.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    One of the key aspects of the project was how tutors shared their understandings, discoveries, surprises, plus points and negative points – such as how learners responded to being asked to do something outside the classroom, how learners could be motivated to complete their task-targets, how the original ILP did or did not lend itself to the task-based targets, etc. Just as learners took on responsibilities related to the tasks, so did tutors who went beyond what they might normally have done regarding evaluation of learning and recording learners’ progress.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    The project responded to this standard in two ways. Firstly, through learners’ setting of task-oriented goals and the steps needed to achieve them, they invested in their own learning to achieve meaningful goals. With certain learners there was far more investment in their targets than previously. However, the project also showed that responsibility for learning emerges best when the responsibility is shouldered and directed by the task itself so learners are not placed in a position of being (solely) responsible for their learning but are responding to the needs of the task. The key challenge is to establish a task which suitably involves the learner.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources and Reflections


Edwards, C., and J. Willis. (eds.)., (2005). Teachers Exploring Tasks in ELT. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.
Prabhu N.S., (1987). Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nunan D., (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Willis D., (2003). Rules, Patterns and Words: Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Willis D., and Willis, J., (1987). ‘Varied activities for variable language.’ ELT Journal 41/1: 12-18.
Willis D. and Willis, J., (2007). Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Willis J., (1996). A Framework for Task-based Learning. Harlow: Longman Pearson Education.