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My tips for task-based learning in Business English classes

Teaching Business English courseJason Reimer took our online Teaching Pronunciation course in March and our Teaching Business English course in June 2017 and is now teaching English to business professionals in Taiwan. In this blog post he offers some tips for ways to use task-based learning in your classes to help motivate your students and help them reach their language goals.

The main reason for writing about ways to use task-based learning in class is the extremely high level of engagement I have experienced with my learners using tasks that replicate tasks done in real life. I’ve been interested in task-based learning for quite a while, but it has always seemed to be a hit or miss thing. One day, I notice how involved my students got when they were using task based learning activities in my exhibition English class, so I decided to look at what made some tasks so successful, while others fall very flat.

To give you a bit of background, I’ll give you a brief profile of my learners. I teach at a post-graduate business English program in Taiwan. My learners are generally between 21-30 years old, with some even older than that. They are in this program to get further training in the world of international business.

The activity I was referring to that spurred this was a task where they needed to design a booth for a trade show. They had picked a product at the beginning of the term and since then had been building towards a mock exhibition held at the end of the term. While they would not be actually building a booth, it seemed valuable to get them some practice in this area to think about all the aspects they would need to think about to design an effective booth. The level of engagement that I witnessed was really high. It was so high in fact, that, when break time came, none of them actually took their break and continued to work on this task throughout the break.

As I mentioned above, not all my experience with a task based approach has been successful. On the contrary, I have had some tasks fail miserably. Here, I will go through some areas of task based learning that I think are important to consider using the above mentioned task as an example, some problems I’ve had in each area in the past and some suggestions on how to overcome them.

  1. It must be relatable to something the learners have done or that there is a realistic possibility they may have to do in the future.

The first, and, perhaps, most important, thing to consider is how the task relates to something the learners will have to undertake in the future. Using the above as an example, the task worked well, because most of the learners will work in an international company in the future and attending a trade show is very probable. While they may not be asked to design an actual booth, it is possible their input may be requested for booth design. Knowing what works and what doesn’t could be quite valuable.

One of the problems with task-based learning that I’ve had in the past is that learners didn’t see the connection between the task and it being something they may have to do in the future. One way to overcome this is to really talk to your students about their past experience as well as their future aspirations. I realize that, when designing tasks for an entire class, it’s very difficult to make it relevant to everyone. However, you can do your best to make it relevant for as many learners as possible. Before doing the task in class, the learners could even be consulted about how relevant it is to their past and probable future experiences, in order to get some feedback about the how successful the task may be.

  1. The task must be achievable

The task must be something that the learners are capable of achieving. With the activity above, I was lucky to have a group of motivated learners who have experience using computer software to create 3-D images. However, there were some that didn’t know how to use this type of software. As a result, we had to think of other ways to make the task achievable. Some groups ended up using images drawn by hand to show their booth design. I think that before a task is used in class, the ability of the learners to complete the task needs to be carefully considered.

I have, in the past, asked something of my learners to undertake something that was above their abilities, and I didn’t adequately prepare alternatives methods or extra support that would make the task achievable. Carefully considering alternative methods or ways of giving additional support for leaners to complete a task can help alleviate this problem.

  1. The task must be able to be completed in a reasonable amount of time

Tasks need to be designed in such a way as to ensure that they will not cause scheduling problems for other parts of a class or take up an unreasonable amount of time. Luckily for me, we had quite a flexible schedule for the Exhibition English class. As a result, timing was not too much of an issue. However, after giving the learners some time in class and making sure that the first few stages of the task were being completed accurately, the latter stages were assigned for homework. Time was set aside in subsequent classes for questions and group discussion about the task, but, largely, it was in their hands. This ensured that not too much class time was taken up by the task.

However, in a few other classes, I’ve had tasks go very long and cause scheduling problems for other things that needed to be covered in class. I think that making the scheduling for other aspects of a class flexible for the day that a task is to occur can be a good way to make that, if a task does go long, there are no serious repercussions. In addition to this, breaking down the task into smaller parts, as discussed below, can also allow a task to be spread out over multiple classes, or, at the very least, carried over to the next class if needed.

  1. The Task Should Be Divisible Into Smaller Easily Achievable Sections

The task must not only have a clear finish point, but it should also have finish points for various stages along the way. This way a task that seems daunting or unachievable can be broken down into more easily achievable steps. This has two benefits. First, student motivation will be increased if they feel they can achieve the individual steps of a task without getting overwhelmed by the overall goal. Second, it gives both the teacher and the student clear measuring points for the task. These can act as checks for the level of completion, the accuracy of completion as well as the timing of completion. This way, learners won’t be thrown off track, since there are easily identifiable stages that should be complete along the way.

For the booth design task, there were a few shorter stages for each part. For example, the first step was to decide what sort of features they would need at the booth, like display cases, demonstration areas or a meeting space for visitors. Then they would need to think about the traffic flow for their booth (where people would be able to enter and exit the booth), and place these features in a way that would allow an easy entrance and exit. Then, once the features were placed, then they could move on to think about the colors they were going to use for the booth, and so on.

In the past, not having the task broken up into smaller sections has caused some serious problems. I have had it led to students getting overwhelmed by the task, as well as had it cause students to do things out of order, which caused problems with achieving the task. By planning ahead and dividing things up in smaller, clearly defined stages, these problems can be avoided.

I think that by following the four steps above, task based learning can be used more effectively. The engagement I have witnessed from TBL is really encouraging and I would say that, when designed properly, it is higher than in any other type of activity. This in turn leads to deeper language learning and a high level of communicatively focused language use. In addition to the language aspect, they learners are also acquiring the skill that are required do something that could be a part of their future in the real world.

I hope you have found my tips for integrating task-based learning into your classroom useful!

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