Real Tasks Guide Long’s TBLT


TBLT stands ELT on its head doesn’t it? What’s a task, anyway? My posts on TBLT have led various people, many of them MA students, to ask me to clear up some misunderstandings. So here I offer bits and pieces from Mike Long’s 2016 article which I hope will clarify his version of TBLT. As usual, I’ve torn his well organised, well written article to shreds and, as usual, count more on his friendship than on his tolerance of academic sloppiness to forgive me for all its faults.

I haven’t put it all between quotation marks, but it’s all his work.

Long opposes coursebook-based product syllabuses. 

Research has shown that L2 grammatical development does not follow an order externally imposed by a teacher or textbook. Instead, learners traverse developmental sequences, often producing utterances reflecting learner-created non-target-like rules in the process. Part of the definition of ‘developmental sequence’ in SLA is that it consists of a fixed series of stages, none of which can be omitted. Evidence for the existence of developmental sequences is long-standing and robust (for review, see Ortega, 2009).

40 years of instructed SLA research and classroom studies have demonstrated that teachers cannot teach whatever they want, whenever they want if language learning is their goal. Stages in sequences cannot be skipped by presenting learners with full target-like grammatical structures and drilling them until they are “automatized.” In Pienemann’s terms, processability determines learnability, and learnability determines teachability (Pienemann, 1984).

Students play a decisive role in the language-learning process; their readiness to learn is not determined by the day of the week or the page in a textbook. As Skehan (2002, p. 294) notes, PPP and the skill-builders’ view is that language acquisition is teacher-driven, whereas, with support from decades of SLA research, TBLT views language acquisition as learner-driven.

Long’s version of TBLT

For Long, tasks are “the real-world communicative uses to which learners will put the L2 beyond the classroom — the things they will do in and through the L2.”

The real-world tasks may be required for academic purposes, e.g., locating a journal in a university library, writing a lab report, or attending a graduate-level economics lecture. They may be for vocational training purposes, e.g., in a noisy restaurant kitchen, preparing kitchen utensils and cooking ingredients at the direction of a master chef, attending a class for trainee computer technicians, or following written directions for the use of specialized automobile repair equipment. They may be for occupational purposes, either in the home country, e.g., while employed in the tourist industry, welcoming and checking in hotel guests, renting surf boards, or leading a guided tour, or overseas, e.g., while stationed at an embassy, interviewing visa applicants, issuing instructions to security personnel, or delivering an after-dinner speech. Whatever their main purpose and whether short- or long-term (including immigration to a new country), overseas stays will usually also involve a variety of “social survival” tasks, such as following street directions, using public transport, opening a bank account, renting an apartment, taking a driver’s test, visiting a doctor, or registering a child for school.

Identified in the first stage of a task-based needs analysis (Long 2005, 2015, pp. 85-168), these real-world communicative activities are target tasks for the learners concerned.

In the second stage of the NA, samples are gathered of spoken or written language use by native speakers engaged in the most critical and/or frequent of the target tasks. Modified elaborated (not linguistically simplified) versions of the samples subsequently become part of the task-based materials — the pedagogic tasks — produced for a course, and constitute the major source of new language for the learners, new language that is relevant for their target discourse domains.

Instructional materials for TBLT take the form of pedagogic tasks — initially simple, progressively more complex, approximations to the original target tasks. Multiple series of pedagogic tasks are sequenced for classroom use according to their intrinsic complexity — task complexity, not linguistic complexity (Long, 2015, pp. 223-247; Robinson, 2009, 2011). Each series culminates in the full target task or a simulation thereof, which serves as the exit task for a module. Collectively, the series of pedagogic tasks form a task syllabus. There is no linguistic syllabus, overt or covert, other than what Corder (1967) termed the internal “learner syllabus.”

The task syllabus is delivered in conformity with ten (putatively universal) methodological principles (MPs) for LT

  • MP1: Use task, not text, as the unit of analysis,
  • MP2: Promote learning by doing,
  • MP3: Elaborate input,
  • MP4: Provide rich input,
  • MP5: Encourage inductive “chunk” learning,
  • MP6: Focus on form,
  • MP7: Provide negative feedback,
  • MP8: Respect learner syllabi and developmental processes,
  • MP9: Promote cooperative collaborative learning, and
  • MP10: Individualize instruction.

The MPs are motivated by what SLA research has shown about how children and adults learn L2s successfully (Long, 2009, 2015, pp. 300-328), and independently, by principles from the philosophy of education (Long, 2015, pp. 63-83).

The MPs are realized at the local classroom level by pedagogic procedures (PPs). Selection of appropriate PPs from the many available in each case is best left to the teacher, usually the expert on local circumstances, assuming he or she is well trained and experienced. There are no universal or “best” PPs. Rather, choices should vary systematically to cater to individual learner differences (age, level of L1 or L2 literacy, working memory, aptitudes for implicit or explicit learning, etc.), type of linguistic feature (salient or non-salient, marked or unmarked, fragile or robust, etc.), and so on. To deal with persistent errors with a non-salient target language feature, such as intra-sentential clitics, a teacher of literate, analytically-oriented adults might choose a PP for providing explicit negative feedback (MP7), e.g., a simple pedagogic rule of thumb, but for a salient feature, such as adverb placement, one for providing implicit negative feedback, e.g., recasts or clarification requests, or on indirect negative evidence.

The whole approach is task-based throughout, and constitutes genuine task-based LT (TBLT).


Long is against “Hybrids”

 Long opposes the view of R. Ellis (1994, 2003, 2009) and others, who see TBLT in terms of what Long calls “a dual structural and task hybrid”. He quotes R.Ellis

  “ . . . task-based teaching need not be seen as an alternative to more traditional, form-focused approaches but can be used alongside them . . . (Long and Skehan view traditional structural teaching as theoretically indefensible while I see it as complementary to TBLT)” (R. Ellis, 2009, pp. 221 and 225).

and goes on to discuss Klapper (2003) who proposes a ‘hybrid model’ “which accepts the primacy of the communicative focus but reinstates declarative knowledge and practice at the appropriate point in the task cycle” (p. 40). He claims this is “the most effective way to make forms salient to students and thereby to speed up the acquisitional process” (p. 40). He is careful, however, to distinguish his proposal from conventional PPP:

“In such a model, there would be no structural syllabus independent of the task syllabus, rather the forms to be practiced would arise from the task context; but planning would be required to ensure grammatical structures were regularly revisited and recycled, especially those that were poorly represented in classroom input and task instruction.”  (Klapper, 2003, p. 40).

Long rejects this view. His TBLT rejects the assumption that performance of individual grammatical structures can be developed to native-like levels rooted in a separate explicit knowledge system via the massive practice required for automatization. It also rejects the view that the new underlying knowledge will morph into the separate implicit system.

Klapper’s proposal, like that of R. Ellis (1994, 2003, 2009), is for a hybrid model, one which may yet turn out to be correct but which some would see as fatally flawed because it seeks to meld two oppositional psycholinguistic positions. In my view, if there is a place for skill-acquisition theory in TBLT, it is for the use of task repetition to improve task performance, not performance of individual grammatical structures before their time.  


Incidental focus on form works

Swan writes that TBLT is often justified by the claim that “‘linguistic regularities’ are acquired through ‘noticing’, during communicative activity, and should therefore be addressed primarily by incidental ‘focus on form’ during task performance,” adding that “there is no compelling evidence for the validity of the model” (2005, p. 376).

Long points out that a considerable body of research has demonstrated that incidental focus on form works. Norris & Ortega’ (2000) statistical meta-analysis of 49 studies of the relative effectiveness of explicit and implicit instruction showed little advantage for explicit instruction. 11 of the original studies, plus 34 new ones reported in the following decade prompted a second statistical meta-analysis (Goo, Granena, Novella, & Yilmaz, 2015), which confirmed the earlier results. In addition, a large body of research — well over 60 studies — on recasts has shown that the implicit negative feedback they provide leads to substantial learning gains in grammar and vocabulary (for an excellent narrative review, see Goo & Mackey, 2013; and for two statistical meta-analyses, Li, 2010, and Mackey & Goo, 2007).

The results from a combined total of well over 140 empirical studies and several statistical meta-analyses of the issue to date in these two areas alone should suffice to meet critics’ demand for ‘compelling evidence.’ Meanwhile, nothing approaching the quality and scope of this body of empirical work exists in support of the favored PPP model.


Knowledge acquired incidentally is durable

Swan claims that few studies have demonstrated lasting retention and availability for spontaneous use of forms acquired incidentally (Swan, 2005, p. 379). The facts are these.

  • Results show that explicit procedures often do as well as, and sometimes slightly better than, incidental, on-line focus on form but usually only with simple linguistic targets, only on immediate post-tests, and only using discrete-point measures, and that improvements achieved that way tend to deteriorate over time (Doughty, 2003)
  • In contrast, while the jury is still out, results to date suggest that incidentally and/or implicitly learned L2 knowledge is more durable and tends to increase over time (probably because of the initial greater depth of processing involved). In a statistical meta-analysis of 33 studies, Li (2010) found a medium overall effect for oral corrective feedback, that the effect was maintained over time, and that while the immediate and short-term effect of explicit feedback was greater, the longer-term effect size for recasts (a prime example of ‘incidental, on-line focus on form’) was slightly larger than the short-term effect, more effective than explicit feedback on delayed post-tests, and more enduring, even increasing over time (2010, p. 343).


TBLT doesn’t neglect grammar

A number of critics (e.g., Swan, 2005; Widdowson, 2003) have alleged that TBLT pays insufficient attention to the teaching of grammar. While pedagogic tasks in genuine TBLT are not designed to teach particular grammatical structures, that does not mean that grammar is not taught. The difference is that attention to grammar (or phonology, lexis, collocations, pragmatics, etc.) is not carried out as a separate activity, as an end in itself (focus on forms), but during (and if necessary after, but not before) task work, as part of the methodology of TBLT.

A lot of grammar is learned from positive evidence, i.e., from repeated exposure to instances of target grammatical features and their authentic uses encountered primarily in task-based materials. Most problems are dealt with reactively, usually by the teacher, but also by other students, and if pedagogic tasks are designed cleverly enough, by corrective feedback loops in the tasks themselves. The reactive quality of MP6: Focus on form, and MP7: Provide negative feedback, means that the timing of attention to grammar is more likely to be developmentally appropriate and occur at the most propitious moment for the learner(s) concerned, not arbitrarily, when pre-determined by an unseen textbook writer. In sum, linguistic items are dealt with, and dealt with in a more scientifically defensible manner than by the traditional synthetic syllabus.

Long goes on to deal with other criticisms of his TBLT and I urge you to read the full article. The last part of his article deals with real issues that confront his proposals, which are

  • Task complexity criteria
  • Task-based assessment and the transferability of task-based abilities
  • In-service teacher education for TBLT


My guess is that most teachers reading this account will react by saying that it’s just not feasible to do the work needed to implement Long’s recommendations. How can most teachers possibly carry out the kind of needs analysis he recommends, and how can they then do the work required to produce the materials needed to elaborate the pedagogical tasks which flow from that needs analysis?

I sympathise, but on the other hand, how can we ignore the fact that ELT is largely ineffective, thanks to the way it’s run and done? If  Long’s closely argued case persuades us, surely we have to do something, not just say that the whole thing is unrealistic. It’s only unrealistic because of the way things are organised: the money spent on ELT is huge; does anybody seriously think that the industry can’t afford to do decent needs analyses or make different kinds of materials, or do different kinds of teacher training?


References cited above can be found in Long’s article:

Long, M. H. (2016). In defense of tasks and TBLT: Non-issues and real issues. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 36, pp. 5-33. . © Cambridge University Press, 2016

 Let me just recommend

Goo, J., Granena, G., Novella, M., & Yilmaz, Y. (2015). Implicit and explicit instruction in L2 learning: Norris and Ortega (2000) revisited and updated. In Rebuschat, P. (ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 443-482). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

9 thoughts on “Real Tasks Guide Long’s TBLT

  1. hi Geoff

    did not the Norris & Ortega(2000) study find explicit methods better than implicit methods?
    and what do you make of Sheen(2003), Focus on Form A myth in the making?


    1. Hi Mura,

      Yes they did, but it was, if I remember, a bad piece of work. Much too general bad research questions, …. Still, I’ll read it again if you rate it.

      I don’t think Sheen’s attempts to criticise Long’s work have much merit, personally.


    2. Hi again Mura,

      I just took a look at the Norris and Ortega 2000 report. It looked OK, but remember Doughty’s 2003 rider, Li 2010, and Goo et al.2015, all mentioned in my summary. And there’s this from Shin: Another Look at Norris and Ortega (2000)

      This paper suggests a critical reevaluation of the methodological procedures underlying the Norris and Ortega (2000) meta-analysis. I reexamined their procedures, and reassessed the 49 unique samples they used in their meta-analysis. In doing so, I identified three key methodological limitations with the study, pertaining, respectively, to (a) the data collection procedure, (b) the coding system, and (c) the statistical analysis. I argue that the lack of data quality inherent in the primary studies, the oversimplified coding scheme, and the inappropriate use of effect size statistics combine to compromise the validity of the conclusions Norris and Ortega have drawn from their meta-analysis. I subsequently provide alternative procedures which may yield a more empirically sound research synthesis, recommending, for future meta-analysts, the „best evidence synthesis‟ approach where conclusions are drawn from combining quantitative and qualitative analyses.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. HI Geoff

    Thanks for another well-written and argued post.

    Like you, I am uncomfortable with the course-book driven industry that, in my opinion sucks the life out of learners. After years of doing consulting work and working on both in-service and pre-service training contexts, I have recently returned to the classroom and have worked for several schools doing coverage work. It’s all a bit depressing to be honest, and I find it very hard to use the materials that are often irrelevant and far too prescriptive. I tend to be quite liberal in my use of the books, often abandoning it all together. But when I inevitable come back to the CB (I have to at least maintain the illusion that the syllabus is being covered), when I ask them to ‘open to page 7’, there is a palpable depression in the energy levels, punctuated by resigned sighs.

    The task-based model offers a compelling alternative as does Dogme and other ‘process-oriented’ organizational schemes and I agree that more resources could be allocated to exploring alternative ways of doing language learning in the classroom.

    Something that interest me is exploring what I believe to be a cognitive dissonance in the field. Perhaps I am wrong but I think there are many teachers, even those higher up the ELT food chain with some degree of agency to initiate change, who would agree that language learning is stochastic, non-linear, subject to backslides, etc. Yet, they continue to teach and support the status quo.

    What do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “My guess is that most teachers reading this account will react by saying that it’s just not feasible to do the work needed to implement Long’s recommendations. How can most teachers possibly carry out the kind of needs analysis he recommends, and how can they then do the work required to produce the materials needed to elaborate the pedagogical tasks which flow from that needs analysis?”

    I’m not saying any of this. What I am wondering is if there is a clear, real-world example (video, text) of TBLT in action. Sometimes its hard to parse MPs and PPs into practical teaching without a model. Do you know of any? I do needs analyses. I prepare my students for authentic, real-world tasks, and I make materials. But I’m not following TBLT. However, it doesn’t seem a far cry from impossibility. The thing standing in my way is lack of practice, and lack of good examples, esp. with adult learners.

    I will give Long’s article a read.

    Liked by 1 person

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