Task-based language teaching and Assessment

Task-based language teaching is an approach to instruction in which students develop their proficiency in a target language by using the language to complete various tasks; these tasks may be pedagogical in nature, in order to improve students’ knowledge or skill with respect to microskills such as vocabulary knowledge or the ability to use commas or semicolons in the correct manner. At other times, teachers introduce “real world” tasks in which students engage in activities resembling those they would engage in in natural social settings; ordering a meal in a restaurant, applying for a bank card, or reading directions for taking a particular cold medicine, for example.

No task activity is complete without some type of feedback from the teacher, whether it be in the form of comments given while walking around the classroom during a group task or more formal feedback such as written advice provided on a paragraph-writing assignment.

Different types of tasks can serve different purposes from an assessment perspective. LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) courses, in which teachers introduce language through general topics related to living in a new country (e.g., using public transit, finding a job), often make use of three types of tasks over the course of a module (general topic, covering about one month): skill-building (SB) activities, skill-using (SU) tasks, and assessment tasks (AT).

Skill-building activities, which can also be labeled “indirect”, focus on those skills which serve as building blocks to becoming proficient in what are known as the “macroskills” of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They would thus be featured early in any given module. With respect to speaking for example, a skill-building task for a lower-proficiency level class might be marking the correct stress on multi-syllabic words related to weather–”cloudy”, “thunderstorm”, “tornado”–while for an intermediate level class, an SB task might be in the form of a discourse-completion task in which learners choose the correct responses to questions asked during a job interview, for example. While such tasks do not involve authentic use of language on the part of learners, they are pedagogically highly useful, allowing for the teacher to conduct assessment for learning, providing feedback that serves to help learners build up the skills and knowledge areas needed for proficient use of the macroskills.

Skill-using tasks, presented later during a module, serve as a bridge between skill-building and assessment tasks. Unlike skill-building tasks, skill-using tasks are “direct”, providing learners an opportunity to engage in actual speaking, listening, reading, or writing. Unlike assessment tasks, however, they are pedagogical in nature, as they offer an opportunity to a teacher to provide support to learners as they “practice” speaking or listening, for example. For instance, learners doing a module on “finding a job” might practice a mock job interview, perhaps working with the script beforehand (depending on their proficiency level) and getting feedback on their performance from the teacher and, perhaps, one another. These tasks thus feature both assessment of learning, as learners demonstrate their application of underlying skills in carrying out these tasks, as well as assessment for learning, as teacher feedback provides information learners can apply for successfully completing the end-of-module assessment tasks.

Assessment tasks, in which learners take part in real-world speaking, listening, reading, and/or writing tasks, provide an opportunity for both learners and their teachers to gauge how well the learners have learned the skills practiced during the module. They are, as much as is possible in a classroom setting, intended to be authentic. While serving as assessment of learning from the teacher’s perspective, they can serve, like skill-building and skill-using tasks, as assessments for learning by those learners able to apply what they have learned during the module in their daily-life encounters outside the classroom.

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