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Foreign Language Teaching 101: the Content-Based and Task-Based Approaches


Foreign language teaching has changed throughout the years. In the previous era, teachers would enter the classroom and begin the transfer of information, while the role of the language students was also clearly defined: to listen, take notes, study, and eventually learn. However, through observation, studies, and experimentation, we discovered that language teaching is more complex in practice. It requires the educator attending the methods of presentation of the new information, while also providing the right circumstances for developing the competencies, skills, and abilities of the students. The following series will explore some of the methodology and aspects of language teaching while also looking at the different mediums used by educators and learners.

The Foreign Language Teaching 101 series is divided into six chapters:

The Content-Based and Task-Based Approaches

Image 1. Anderson, 2020. "Children in a Classroom".

The Content-Based approach, or Content-Based Instruction (CBI), has been described by Leaver and Stryker (1989) as a philosophy, a methodology, a syllabus design for a course, and a curriculum framework. Simply put, it is language education's "jack of all trades". Its main characteristic, however, is that language is taught through content. In other words, students study a discipline like biology, but materials and instruction are provided in the target language. CBI has its foundation in the principles of the communicative approach, which believes that language should be taught through communication. For the communicative approach, the main function of language is the successful exchange of information. In CBI, communication plays a central role, with some slight differences.

According to Richards and Rodgers (2014), the development and spread of CBI stem from a few somewhat connected factors. This begins with the increased migration of people and the various integration programs for immigrants. These programs must address the need for rapid development of new language proficiency. Secondly, the popularization of immersion courses and an immersive education where all school subjects are taught in the target language contrasts with standard education that offers only specialized courses with limited hours per week. The last factor is the increased value given to multilingualism in the European Union (EU), where a somewhat similar Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach arises. In the mid-1990s, the EU Commission published a paper with the main objective being the so-called "1+2 policy". This policy sought "competence in their mother tongue plus two community foreign languages" for EU citizens (Llinares, Morton, and Whittaker, 2012).

Image 2. Winger, 2020. "Kids gather around the 3D printer to learn and create".

The main features of CBI are the organization of the course being done according to the subject, not in relation to grammar points, language function, or communication needs; the materials used for instruction should be authentic, selected directly from those created for native speakers, not graded or adapted ones. Further, the focus should be on learning new information and understanding concepts, not form; and finally, the content should correspond to students’ needs and be suitable to their level of competence in the subject. Thus, the vocabulary and grammar of the language are taught ‘on the go’, while students work on grasping the content. When speaking about content in CBI, it must be pointed out that this is usually some kind of academic subject typical for elementary, middle, high school, or university levels. For example, literature, chemistry, and social studies. In the process of education, students develop their language skills in parallel, similar to the way this happens in the real world for native speakers. That being said, Dueñas (2004) remarks that any kind of content would be appropriate, as long as it corresponds to the interests, needs, and language level of the learners. A crucial factor in the learning process is also the teacher’s feedback and constant clarification. Students are encouraged to engage in lively classroom discussions and ask for explanations and additional content details at any time.

The goals of most CBI courses are to simultaneously develop target language competency, as well as subject mastery. This, of course, may vary according to the education level and the student's initial knowledge of the foreign language. However, the objectives of the CBI course generally exist in the following framework: to activate existing language knowledge; develop learning strategies and skills that could be applied in the future; cultivate academic skills to be used at higher education level; expand students’ understanding of foreign culture; and stimulate oral comprehension and production. In a CBI classroom, students are encouraged to take control of their education and become independent investigators of both the language and the subject being studied. They are motivated to collaborate and support each other in the learning process. This is because the acquisition of language is expected to happen both consciously through awareness activities, and intuitively. The student's role is therefore crucial and requires education to take a more learner-centered approach, than a teacher-centered one.

Image 3. CDC [Centers for Disease Control], 2020."Back To School. Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia primary school".

The CBI teacher has a challenging position, as they have to be skilled at both language tutoring and content teaching. Their role often demands performing students’ needs analyses, selecting and adapting authentic materials, and developing tailor-made communicative activities. Additionally, teachers need to have excellent classroom management skills and the ability to motivate students to stimulate their interest while promoting a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom.

Some of the challenges in this approach involve the demanding teacher’s role. Most language teachers are trained to teach the language as a skill, so they may not have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter. This may mean that educators using the CBI approach would need to broaden their own expertise in the subject in advance. In contrast, teachers from the native country who are put in the position to teach a CBI class may encounter problems adapting content materials to the student's level and catering to the student's language needs.

Image 4. Herrmann, 2019. "Location: Bucharest, Romania".

Like Content-Based Instruction (CBI), the Task-Based Approach (TBA) is also based on the Communicative approach. This is inherently true in the sense that communication activities involve real-life problems, which are essential for language learning, and motivate learners by equipping them with practical skills. Some of the first implementations of this approach were as part of a communicative curriculum in Malaysia and Bangalore. The TBA employs real-life tasks that require students to use the target language for their completion. They are supposed to focus on the successful conveyance of meaning, not on the language itself. Learning occurs through these activities, which allow learners to investigate language and eventually internalize it.

Since the central role in this approach is given to the ‘task’, it needs to be clearly described and examined. Nunan (2004) defines it as:

"a piece of classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right."

Image 5. @anderson1234, 2014. "Girl School Class Discussion".

Edwards & Willis (2005) add that it is essential for the task to have a purpose or a goal that learners need to accomplish and that a task can involve all four language skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Some examples of TBA tasks could be: creating a list of advice on how to study for an exam; finding the differences between the two maps; and selecting the most attractive of the three car deals.

According to Richards and Rodgers (2014), the theory underlying TBA is that learning is an internal process that is influenced by the student's inner world. Students must therefore grasp the meaning for themselves, and the teaching process can only facilitate that, rather than substantially influence it. This belief is closely connected with the idea of "noticing and bridging the gap". This states that once learners notice that they have difficulties conveying meaning, they will pay attention to the way native speakers express the desired meaning. This first step of "noticing" is followed by conceptualizing and integrating the "missing piece" into learners’ own language, thus "bridging the gap".

Image 6. Gillis, 2018. "Teamwork makes the dream work. Portland, USA".

Proponents of TBA claim that it is extremely versatile and can be applied to learners of all age groups and levels. However, the tasks used will vary greatly depending on the specifics of the students and their needs. In a course for young children, it would be difficult to find real-life tasks as this age group does not communicate much outside of their family and school. Therefore, some of the tasks would have to be pedagogical classroom activities, such as information-gap exercises, jigsaw puzzles, and opinion exchange tasks. The learners have a central place in the TBA classroom, and their various roles can be described as team members who participate in group work where collaboration, internal motivation, and ambition are essential to achieve the task goal. Observants are those where students not only focus on accomplishing the task, but also monitor the language of communication of their peers and learn from one another. Finally, adventurists who are not afraid to experiment with the language, guess, deduct, make mistakes, learn from them, and ask for clarification when needed.

The teacher’s role during TBA lessons is more secondary. They need to be able to stimulate students’ interest in the task and motivate participation. Teachers must be able to set up the task and give instructions in a clear and friendly way, then distance themselves and only observe the language used. Additionally, they have to be prepared to draw students’ attention to the targeted functional language, model it if necessary, and give them opportunities to notice and learn it. Finally, teachers must monitor students' performance and offer corrections, guidance, and support in an underwhelming, unobtrusive way.

Image 7. Nguyen Huy, 2021. "Restaurant Menu".

However, prior to entering the classroom, teachers have significant responsibilities encompassing the selection and preparation of the tasks, the pre-task activities, and the post-task language analyses and practices. The materials used for tasks and supporting activities are of extreme importance to TBA. They may include, but are not limited to, samples from media sources — newspaper articles, TV shows, websites, brochures, and pamphlets.

Some of the downsides of this approach include the demands it puts on both teachers, in their preparation for the lessons, and students, who have to adopt a more independent role as learners on the lookout for the new language.

Bibliographical References

Edwards, C. & Willis, J. (Eds.). (2005). Teachers Exploring Tasks in English Language Teaching. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.

Dueñas, M. (2004). "The Whats, Whys, Hows and Whos of Content-Based Instruction in Second Foreign Language Education". International Journal of English Studies (IJES). University of Murcia. 4 (1), 73-96.

Llinares, A., Morton, T., Whittaker, R. (2012). The Roles of Language in CLIL. Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Sanchez, A. (2009). "The Task-Based Approach in Language Teaching". International Journal of English Studies (IJES). University of Murcia, 4 (1), 39-71.

Stryker, S. B., & Leaver, B. L. (1997). Content-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education: Models and Methods. Georgetown University Press.

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Gery Ciftcioglu

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