Task-based learning in business English training is a highly effective method but it can be a big ask. The key to success from the outset is managing expectations and explaining the way of working. The idea of ‘learning by doing’ may be new to some students – there may be those who have been accustomed to more traditional methods; there may be others who have different expectations of teachers. There may also be students who come from cultures where the role of the learner has been traditionally more passive, less outspoken.
During the training students may find themselves outside their comfort zone, and face disorientating dilemmas – they are being encouraged to carry out tasks using input and experience from their true self, yet their output may reflect their limited self. Their language errors will be exposed, and revisited and analysed, during the subsequent feedback stage. It is important therefore that students are well prepared so that they have the confidence and support to complete the tasks, and are also comfortable with the feedback and correction. They should never have to ask: ‘Why are we doing this?’
So at the start of any training course it is a good idea to set up an informal contract for working together that can be agreed by the teacher and the learner. This is not something written, nor is it something set in stone, it is just some flexible guidelines that remain ongoing and can be revisited and reappraised by both parties. There are ‘no rules of engagement’ as such, but here are some points that could be discussed with students:
A needs analysis is usually conducted at the start of a course, and this is an opportunity for business students to talk about what they need their English for and what they need to focus on. However, needs analysis should be an ongoing process throughout the course, because priorities may change as students discover strengths and weaknesses in their English that they may not have been aware of. The dynamic nature of task-based learning cycles, and the idea of a spiral curriculum that they embody, means that changing perceptions of needs can be catered for – and this should be pointed out to students at the outset.
Students should be acquainted with the idea of group work in class. Some may be familiar with the idea of language training as being interactive, whereas others may not. Explain that some activities involve the whole class as one group, while others require that small groups are formed. The groups will also get changed around to optimize speaking opportunities. Group dynamics are an essential part of language training for students just as they are a key challenge to classroom management for teachers.
It is important to point out the teacher’s role in task-based learning. Among other things this will include – introducing topics, facilitating discussion frameworks, setting up tasks, monitoring tasks, taking language notes, and giving language feedback. Once students become familiar with the role of the teacher in the process, and in the TBL cycle, they will feel that they are in a professional and supportive classroom. They can approach their own part in the process with the confidence and the motivation to succeed.
When students have completed a task they will want to know how they performed, and what they need to know in order to improve their performance. The feedback stage is at the heart of task-based learning, and normally takes place immediately after the task (so that correction is fresh, while the errors are still ‘warm’) although some points may lend themselves to further work as a worksheet or language clinic. I have always found that students like feedback and correction, once some basic rules have been explained and agreed. Feedback should be timely, supportive, challenging, solution-focused, and illuminated with clear examples. There is no real need to distinguish between positive and negative feedback, anything that helps students improve their English has value.
Another point worth raising with students is the dynamic nature of the TBL classroom. Some students may have been used to the static seating arrangements of a schoolroom or lecture hall. For example, from my own experience in German universities the room layout is very formal and linear, and students sit behind regimented rows of tables – it is quite difficult (at first) to get them to move! However, in TBL the scenarios are constantly changing and the classroom has to play host to meetings, interviews, telephoning, presentations and other things besides, so it needs to be a classroom that can ‘shape-shift’ when required. Sometimes good classroom management comes down to the quick and efficient moving of tables and chairs.
In addition to carrying out tasks and being involved in simulations, students may be asked to take part in critical moments training which requires them to do things suddenly and spontaneously. Again, this may be new to students and especially challenging to those who (perhaps for cultural or personal reasons) may be unsure about how to act when they find themselves ‘in the spotlight’. These exercises are effective for practising quick, informal exchanges and developing fluency in a range of situations. However they should not be brought into the course too early; better to introduce them once there is a good level of trust within the group.
Finally, it is useful to discuss with students what it means to be an independent learner, what is expected of them and what they can expect from the teacher in terms of support. Depending on their background and experience, some students will already have acquired the skills necessary to achieve learner autonomy while others may not. It is important to suggest ways in which task-based learning can fit into a broader approach to language development, especially in the absence of more traditional materials such as textbooks and coursebooks.
Once the informal contract for working together has been set up, the training can proceed within a mutually agreed framework that allows for consultation, discussion and tweaking along the way. In essence, it creates a professional and supportive atmosphere along the lines of the familiar adage: ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’.