A Task-Based Approach to Teaching English for Science and Technology

Gregory Hadley

Department of General Education

January 15, 2000



This report discusses the creation of language teaching materials that resulted from an analysis of the second language learning requirements of students at Nagaoka National College of Technology.  It was found that a task-based learning approach to teaching English for Science and Technology was helpful in meeting the immediate needs of the learners and provided the framework for fun and engaging classes.   


In 1998, a needs analysis of the language learning needs of students at Nagaoka National College of Technology (NNCT) was conducted.[1]  It found that the common future need for all the students was for the ability to read academic and technical materials in English.  A secondary need was for students to be able to write short notes or technical instructions in English.  Oral and aural skills were considered less important, due to the lack of opportunity of students to meet and communicate with non-Japanese on a daily or even monthly basis after graduation.  The immediate need for more than 75% of the students was to gain enough reading and vocabulary comprehension to transfer to a four-year university.  However, the findings of a vocabulary comprehension test developed from a list of the most frequent words that were taken from a corpus of academic and technical sources, suggested that a majority of the students at NNCT had only a rudimentary knowledge of the lexis needed to comprehend even the most basic reading materials. 


This paper will examine the approach taken by the author to answer these needs.  It was found that Task-Based Learning (TBL) provided a helpful framework for creating classes that were both interesting and able to address to the studentsf actual needs.  After defining the meaning of task for this paper, the task cycle developed by the author to meet the needs of his learners will be explained.  This will be followed by a description of a lesson that was used with both fourth and fifth year students at NNCT.  It is hoped that this paper will serve as a guide for EFL teachers at NNCT as they continue to work of providing quality and up-to-date language instruction to their learners.        

Definitions of Task-Based Learning

There have been numerous attempts in recent years to define the term task as it relates to TBL.   Willis defines a task as:


a goal-oriented activity in which learners use language to achieve a real outcomeclearners use whatever target language resources they have in order to solve a problem, do a puzzle, play a game, or share and compare experiences.[2]


Long interprets task-based learning as:


a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward.  Thus, examples of tasks include painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation -- in other words, by gtaskh is meant the hundred and one things people do in everyday life.[3]


Richards, Platt and Weber take a different view.  For them, a task is:


an activity or action which is carried out as the result of processing or understanding language (i.e. as a response).  For example, drawing a map while listening to an instruction and performing a commandcA task usually requires the teacher to specify what will be regarded as successful completion of the task.[4]

Skehan sees task-based learning as gcactivities which have meaning as their primary focuscA task-based approach sees the learning process as of learning through doing cit is by primarily engaging in meaning that the learnerfs system is encouraged to develop.h[5] 


This paper defines task along the lines of Willis and Skehan.  Task and Task-Based Learning in this paper is defined as a series of graded activities that require learners to work with the target language, with the purpose of preparing learners to meet the challenges of real-world functions.  Real world functions in this case, refers to the need of NNCTfs learners to better acquire academic and technical reading skills for transferring to a four-year university upon graduation.


It should be noted briefly that TBL does have potential weaknesses.  Apart from the difficulty of defining a task, there is also the danger that TBL will exhibit many of the problems found in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).[6]  This has led some to speculate that TBL may fall into disrepair as a teaching system within the next few years.[7]  Nevertheless, it was decided that a TBL approach would be the most expedient for the situation at NNCT.  At present, TBL is still the framework for numerous language textbooks and teaching materials; teachers and students alike are familiar with the process.  Besides, it would be easier to teach students using this approach instead of inventing a new one.  


The Task Cycle

There has been a great deal of discussion about the best way to implement tasks in the language classroom.  Arguably, the most influential person in defining the TBL task cycle has been Willis.[8]  Her scheme is very helpful in that it requires students to report publicly after going through several tasks.  However, her framework may be more applicable to teaching situations where students will have the opportunity to communicate orally in the target language (e.g. the EU, America or in an overseas program).  The students at NNCT, and other national technical junior colleges in Japan, are unaccustomed to speaking English in public, mainly because this skill has not been emphasized in their previous language classes.


It would take a considerable amount of the limited class time to prepare learners for the oral reporting phase of Willisf task cycle.  Moreover, the needs analysis for this school found that oral communication is not likely to be a real world need for most of these students.  Therefore, the task cycles found in Willis and Skehan have been modified for the specific needs of Japanese students of English for Science and Technology, namely, an emphasis upon reading and the building of vocabulary.[9]  The task cycle for this course can be seen in Figure 1. 

In the pre-task stage, the students are introduced to the topic through a consciousness-raising activity and a task that requires the students to recognize and/or decode the essential vocabulary for the lesson.  This vocabulary and the lesson topic were chosen for their high frequency in the 30 million-word KOSEN Corpus, which was developed by the author at NNCT.[10] 


During the task stage, the learners work with this vocabulary first in an information gap or group work activity that helps them to remember and establish their meanings; then the vocabulary is recirculated through a short reading task or other oral pairwork task that focuses on the topic.  In the post-task phase, the students are exposed to tasks that they may encounter later at the university level.  The students are given an article that more formally discusses the lesson topic.  This is followed by a short lecture given by a native speaker, again on a subject related to the topic.


Sample Lesson

The task cycle can be understood more easily by studying the sample lesson.  This lesson, which can be found in the appendix of this paper, was one of several that were used with the fourth and fifth year students at NNCT.  The creation stage for each lesson took approximately ninety minutes.  All of the linguistic material was drawn from authentic materials within the KOSEN Corpus, and created on a desktop computer using a word processing, a graphics package, and screen capturing programs.  Each lesson split the learners into two groups: Students A and Students B.  The rationale behind this was to require students to participate in different groups for different tasks.  In the pre-task consciousness raising activities, gAh students would be asked to work together with other gAh students, and gBh students together with other gBh students.  During the main task cycles, an gAh student was usually required to seek out and then work with another gBh student.

The pre-task stage of the lesson includes the Title, Task 1 and Task 2.  Normally, the teacher did not call attention to the title, although it usually contained information as to the lessonfs topic.  Often the title contained a double meaning that referred to some colloquial phrase.  gUp and Atomh is a pun for the idiomatic expression, gup and at eem,h which is a phrase often said to children by parents meaning, gWake up, itfs time to get started.h  In the case of the title, at eem (at them) sounds the same as atom, which suggests the topic of the lesson. 


In Task 1, the students are asked to look at the picture and suggest in English what each of the items might be.  After a couple of minutes, the students are asked to tell the teacher.  If they do not know, they are told the answer -- that all of the pictures are different models that have been proposed for the structure of the atom.  In Task 2, the students are then asked to decode the essential vocabulary from their native language into the target language.  There are several reasons for this type of task.  Years of classroom experience with Japanese learners of English has taught the author that the first strategy students will use is normally consult a dictionary to find out the meaning of the lexis in question.  Most will rarely try to infer the meaning of a lexical item from its place in a larger block of text.  A decoding task such as the type in Task 2 simply includes the learning practices of students within the lesson.  It encourages students who normally do little to participate in the lessons to bring their dictionaries to class.  This form of task also reduces the cognitive load on students as they struggle for an understanding of the essential vocabulary; it facilitates success in later tasks where use of the studentsf native language is not encouraged.


Task Three, the Bonus Task and Task 4 are all part of the main task cycle.  Task 3 is a simple information gap exercise.  In this activity, Student gAh has half of the vocabulary words on the crossword puzzle and half of the English definitions, while Student gBh has the other half.  Without showing the other their answers, the students are asked to speak to each other in English so that both may fill out the vocabulary words and definitions on their puzzles.  A sample dialog is provided to help students in the task, and to prevent them from reverting to their native language.  The Bonus Task then requires the students to work on word recognition, and to place these words into context through a simple cloze exercise.  They must then write the words on the simple figure of the atom.  In Task 4, Students gAh and gBh must again come together and practice a simple dialog about an issue related to the topic.  In most textbook dialogs, both parts can be seen and read by the students.  However, in many cases, students can simply read these dialogs aloud, with little effort made at comprehension.  In Task 4, the student only has half of the dialog.  He or she is required to look and listen to their partner.  The simulated conversation is placed in an academic setting, and draws from discourse analysis to teach students how to begin a conversation, ask questions and appropriately end a conversation with a teacher.  The conversation topic centers on understanding a technical graph that is related to the lesson topic by using the vocabulary introduced in the pre-tasks.    


In the post-task section of the lesson, the students are given an actual article (Task 5) that is drawn from the KOSEN corpus, and are asked to read it and answer the comprehension questions.  By this time, the students have accessed their background knowledge in the subject and worked with the vocabulary adequately enough to do this task with some confidence.  Afterwards, the learners will listen to the instructor give a short presentation on the lesson topic.  As students listen, they number technical graphs in the order they hear them discussed by the teacher.  If the lecture still proves too difficult for some students, a cloze exercise of the lecture text (not included in the appendix) can be given.  These students can then listen to the lecture while filling out the cloze assignment.  Understanding the graphs and the lecture content then becomes easily comprehensible for the vast majority of the students in the class.  The students are then reminded of the main vocabulary, important concepts related to the topic, and the lesson is concluded.       



It can be seen that, although the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing are addressed in the lesson, the main skill underlying the entire lesson is that of reading, with an emphasis on vocabulary building.  This is intentional, as the course was designed to answer the needs uncovered in the needs analysis conducted at the school.  Response of the students to the lesson material has been tolerably enthusiastic.  Part of their interest may stem for the understanding that such material may help them to meet their immediate need of transferring to a four-year university.  However, part of their participation may also result from seeing the enthusiasm of the author who created the materials, and following his lead.  The author moderates these technical and academic lessons with a regular infusion of English conversation games and other activities that allow them to enjoy asking each other questions about topics of perennial interest such as food, dating and hobbies.  As concluded in the needs analysis at NNCT, the native speaker most likely will not be able to equal the work of Japanese teachers of English, who are better equipped to give their students the skills the need to get to the next level of their educational career.  However, the native English teacher can supplement what the Japanese teacher of English is doing by regularly introducing students to important lexical and topical items related to their future university studies.  By making the lessons fun and engaging, it is possible that students will be more open to other aspects of second language study which are not considered as important, such as speaking in English with the teacher or traveling overseas on a social or study program.



More work will be required to develop additional materials along the lines described in this paper.  Further research into the studentsf response and impressions of this material is also needed.  It will be up to future language teachers at Nagaoka National College of Technology to carry this torch and to discover these and other issues related to this project.  Doing so will help to improve not only our learnersf educational prospects and openness to language study, but it will also keep teachers on task and committed to excellence in second language education.         


Up and Atom Student A

Up and Atom Student B

Up and Atom Lecture

Up and Atom Cloze



[1]              See the report by Hadley in this journal.

[2]  J. Willis, gA flexible framework for task-based learning,h in J. Willis and D. Willis (Eds.), Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, (Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching, 1996), p. 53.

[3]  M. Long, gA role for instruction in second language acquisitionh,  in K. Hyltenstam and M. Pienemann (Eds.), Modelling and Assessing Second Language Acquisition, (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1985), p. 89.

[4]  T. Richards, T. Platt, and H. Weber, A Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, (London: Longman), p. 289.

[5]  P. Skehan, gSecond language acquisition research and task-based instruction,h in J. Willis and D. Willis (Eds.), Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, (Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching, 1996), p. 20.

[6]  B. Kumaravadivelu, gThe name of the task and the task of naming: Methodological aspects of task-based pedagogy,h in G. Crookes and S.M. Gass (Eds.), Tasks in a Pedagogic Context: Integrating Theory and Practice, (Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, 1993) pp. 69-96.  Skehan, ibid. p. 22.  C. Chaudron, Second Language Classrooms: Research on Teaching and Learning, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[7]  G. Hadley, gReturning full circle: A survey of EFL syllabus designs for the new millenniumh, RELC Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2, (1998), pp. 50-71.

[8]  J. Willis, A Framework for Task-Based Learning, (Edinburgh Gate, Essex: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996).

[9]  Willis, ibid. Skehan, ibid.

[10] G. Hadley,  gGetting the Right Tools for the Job: Creating Corpora for Language Learning.h  Paper presented at the International Symposium on Computer Learner Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Learning. Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong, December 1998.