Sunday, May 12, 2013

Task Design Principles: A mash-up of TBLL and CLIL

In my previous post, I reviewed some definitions of task within the field of Second Language Learning (SLL) and, more specifically, along the lines of both Task-Based Language Learning (TBLL) and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

At the fourth meeting, we analysed some teaching sequences and talked about the factors influencing the choice of resources and the design of tasks. Among other things discussed, we came to the conclusion that we, as EFL teachers, need to make sure the subject content is relevant, interesting and cognitively challenging to learners through language input that is comprehensible and accessible.

In other words, we must customise tasks by meeting the students’ learning needs in terms of the ideational, interpersonal and textual metafunctions of language described by M. A. K. Halliday and in terms of Coyle, Hood and Marsh’s Language Triptych, a conceptual representation that analyses the connexions between cognitively demanding subject content, language learning and language using (2010: 36-38).

That is, tasks should exploit the language of learning (the language needed to access basic concepts and skills related to the theme; the language directly derived from the subject content), the language for learning (the language needed to operate in a foreign language environment; the language need to carry out tasks and communicate in the classroom, together with the language skills and metacognitive strategies to go on learning) and the language through learning (the language that emerges as the result of developing new knowledge and skills; continuously recycling and extending new language so that it becomes embedded in the learners’ repertoire).

Moreover, since there’s always a sociocultural component embedded in the resources chosen and the tasks designed, tasks must also help learners meet the challenges imposed by the features of our particular teaching context. When working at a state secondary school in Buenos Aires Province, among other aspects, we must take account of:

a) the learners’ representations of their culture and of their role as students,

b) the teachers’ representations of their culture and of their role as education professionals, c) the availability of educational resources (including graduate EFL teachers and graduate subject teachers),

d) the fact that we are teaching English as a foreign language at state secondary schools where CLIL is implemented as language-based projects (i.e. only English language teachers are in charge of these projects),

e) the fact that the curriculum design of secondary education is prescriptive and clearly establish the attainment goals, learning objectives, teaching objectives, contents, teaching methods, assessment tools and, in some subjects, the compulsory bibliography,

f) the fact that some students live in very poor conditions in shanty towns and have to work long hours before or after school,

g) the teachers’ working conditions (e.g. secondary teachers usually have to teach several large classes a week in order to make ends meet; sometimes they barely get to know and remember all the students they teach; there's not prep-time at state schools), and so on.

“… Task design needs to cater for scaffolded activity which engages and stimulates thinking in the learners, but which also offers opportunities for specific help to be available when needed from teachers, peers or support material (Coyle, Hood and Marsh, 2010: 99).”

Besides, we must make sure that the prior knowledge required by both the subject content and language is activated, or built up, and that enough cognitive/linguistic scaffolding is provided throughout the teaching sequences we plan. That is, in terms of language, there must be a balance between input-providing and output-prompting tasks because learners need to receive meaningful comprehensible input before they can be reasonably expected to produce anything (Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis). Then, learners also need to have some control over their interlanguage to become aware of the gap between the target language and their own current production (Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis).

According to Coyle, Hood and Marsh (2010: 98-101), some issues that have to be addressed when planning tasks are:
  • What type of tasks is the most cognitively relevant / meaningful / appropriate / engaging / motivating at different stages within the teaching sequence?
  • What type of information is required by the task? What type of text type is required? What type of comprehension processes is involved? Does the task ask for interpretation / inference / summary / analysis / comparison / evaluation of information?
  • What type of interaction pattern is required by the task at different stages? Does the task involve students working on their own, in pairs, in small groups or class-as-a-whole?
  • What type of scaffolding does the task require at different stages?
  • To what extent does the task allow learners to show they have understood the concepts?
  • To what extent are the task output formats customised to meet the learners’ educational needs?
  • To what extent do the outputs produced by the learners allow the learners to revisit what they have learnt and how they have done so?

Coyle, Hood and Marsh (2010: 41-42, 53-55) put forward the 4 C’s Framework to map the integration of content and language learning in four contextualised building blocks: content (progression in learning subject matter knowledge and developing skills and understanding), communication (interaction together with progression in learning to use the language and using the language to learn), cognition (engagement in higher-order thinking, understanding, problem-solving, and accepting challenges and reflecting on them) and culture (developing self and other awareness, identity and progressing towards intercultural understanding and global citizenship).

According to Coyle (2005: 4-5), the content is the starting point of the planning process and determines the learning route. He goes on to state that while the 4C’s framework provides a useful guide for the overall planning of a unit of work, the 3A’s Tool can be used for more detailed lesson planning. There is clearly some overlap between the framework and the tool. However, their suggested use is significantly different. The 3A’s tool operates in three stages and is used with specific content.

Stage 1: Analyse content for the language of learning. This involves systematic content analysis to identify key words (including specialised contextualised vocabulary), phrases, grammatical functions for concept formation and comprehension.

Stage 2: Add to content language for learning. This involves adding language experiences to the lesson plan for specific attention which enable the learner to operate effectively in a CLIL setting (including strategies for information processing and understanding a difficult spoken/written text, metacognitive strategies, classroom talk and discussion, strategies to cope with task demands, considering ways in which the learning will be scaffolded and so on).

Stage 3: Apply to content language through learning. This involves building on the language which emerges through the learning context in order to make sure that there is cognitive and cultural capital. This stage involves exploring how thinking skills have been incorporated into the lesson plan in order to advance learning. It uses emergent knowledge and skills to apply thinking skills and high level questioning, which also demands cultural awareness. Since language and thinking are explicitly related, this stage is also necessary to ensure that a translated transmission model of learning won’t evolve.

When planning a project, we could combine the elements of the 4 C’s Framework and the 3 A’s Tool with those of the Six-T’s Approach to Content-Based instruction designed by Fredricka Stoller and William Grabe. Thus, in this approach, we follow these steps:

  • First, we determine the most relevant, meaningful and interesting themes (central ideas that organise major curricular units of subject content) for the students we’re going to teach.
  • Second, we look for the most appropriate authentic spoken/written/multimedia texts.
  • Third, we carefully analyse the texts collected to spot the topics (the subunits of subject content which explore more specific aspects of the theme) discussed in each text. At this stage, we should use the 3A’s Tool.
  • Fourth, we establish the abstract concepts that work as cross-curricular linkages or threads. That is, we determine how the theme and topics are linked to other themes in order to create greater curricular coherence. 
  • Fifth, bearing in mind the features of different task types and the learners’ needs, we design tasks to teach content and language in an integrated fashion.
  • Finally, we plan topic and task transitions. That is, we organise the topics creating links across them and providing constructive entries for new topics within the same theme unit. Then, we put the tasks into a given order that both creates links across them and provides constructive entries for follow-up tasks within the same topic.

On the video below, Dr. Fredricka Stoller talks about the possibilities and benefits of introducing Project-Based Learning (PBL) through a 7-step process as well as the potential challenges a teacher may face.

Well, so far so good. I’ve been applying in practice the main principles of CBI, TBLL and project work for fifteen year and CLIL for about 5 years. Lately, I’ve noticed I’ve been developing my own way of putting all these ideas into practice in the particular teaching context where I work. Maybe, I should share my own interpretation of these principles in the following post. In the meantime, what do you think about all these ideas? In your specific teaching context, are these ideas relevant/useful? Are they easy to apply in practice? Why (not)?


Coyle, D. (2005). CLIL. Planning Tools for Teachers. Nottingham: University of Nottingham. Available at retrieved 04.05.2013

Coyle, D., P. Hood and D. Marsh. (2010). CLIL. Content and language Integrated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Snow, M. A. and D. M. Brinton (1997). The Content Based Classroom: Perspectives on Integrating Language and Content. UK: Pearson Education.