George M Jacobs

SEAMEO Regional Language Centre

Elena Navas

Philippine Normal University, Isabela Campus



There has been a great deal of research and theorizing in the last approximately fifteen years on the use of tasks in language teaching, particularly tasks which involve interaction between learners (e.g., Breen, 1987; Crookes, 1986; Crookes & Gass, 1993; Long, in press; Nunan, 1989; Prabhu, 1987). Such task-based language teaching (TBLT) is believed to promote language acquisition by:

a. providing learners with opportunities to make the language input they receive more comprehensible,

b. furnishing contexts in which learners need to produce output which others can understand, and

c. making the classroom closer to real-life language situations.

Researchers and others working on TBLT have developed various ways of classifying tasks (Candlin, 1987; Nunan, 1989; Pica, et al., 1993). These classification systems include such distinctions as:

(1) Open vs closed (Crookes & Rulon, 1985)

(2) Convergent vs divergent (Duff, 1986)

(3) Two-way required information exchange vs one-way vs no-way (Doughty & Pica, 1986)

(4) Planned vs unplanned (Crookes, 1989; Foster & Skehan, 1996; Ortega, 1995)

(5) Here and now vs there and then (Robinson, et al., 1995)

The present study investigated the clarity of some of these task classifications for a group of 33 Filipino teachers of English as a Second Language working in the Philippines. The goal was to shed light on the usefulness of these classifications as intervention points to be included in language teacher education. Long and Crookes (1987, p. 178) defined "intervention points" as: "Classroom processes which teachers, materials designers or learners can manipulate in ways which theory or research in SLA (Second Language Acquisition) suggest are beneficial for language learning."

To have maximum impact on classroom practice, these intervention points, Long and Crookes stated, should optimally be low inference (i.e., clear and easily understandable). Otherwise, they will most likely be rejected by teachers or, if applied, often done so in a manner different from what the original theory or research indicated. An example of research into this issue is a study involving the professional development of second language teachers conducted by Brock (1986) in which the distinction between display and referetial questions was found to be easily understood and applied, i.e., low inference.


Three concepts from the literature on tasks were highlighted by Long (1990) as important variables in task design. These concepts are:

(1) Planned/unplanned: whether an activity provides time for learners to plan the language they will speak or write;

(2) Open/closed: whether learners believe there is one right answer or many possible right answers; and

(3) Required information exchange: whether students need to exchange information to complete the task, and, if so, if the information flows from only one group member or if all must contribute information.

Below, each concept is elaborated upon with examples, in the same words as were used in the handout distributed to participants in the study.


In activities with planning, students are given time alone to decide what to say before they interact with other members of their groups. In activities without planning, students immediately interact with the members of their group without time alone to plan what to say or the language to use to say it.

An example of an activity with planning would be one in which students are given a discussion topic and have 10 minutes to prepare what they will say before the discussion begins. An example of an activity without planning would be one in which students are asked to discuss a controversial issue but are given no time to plan what to say before they start to discuss with the other members of the group. Long (1990) suggested that providing opportunities to plan can increase the quantity and quality of the language learners generate.


Closed activities are ones for which students know there is a correct answer or small set of answers which the teacher (or some other person to whom their answer will be told) expects them to produce. Thus, the teacher can say that an answer is right or wrong. An example of a closed activity is one in which students are asked to identify referents after reading a text. Open activities, conversely, are those for which there is no one correct answer or answers; everyone can have their own opinion. An answer is neither right nor wrong; it depends on one's point of view or experience. An example of an open activity is one in which learners discuss their views on a controversial issue, e.g., censorship.

Long (1990) contended that when learners know there is only one or only a small set of possible correct outcomes, they are more likely to engage in negotiation of meaning (actions taken to be sure that communication has been successful) among their group members, because group members try to find the correct answer, rather than settling for any answer, and this tends to stimulate interaction. Negotiation of meaning is seen as important by Long and others because it increases the comprehensibility of the language students hear and the need for learners to produce language which others can comprehend (Swain, 1985). On the other hand, others, such as de Bono (1973), might argue that open tasks foster development of thinking skills and creativity.

Required Information Exchange

Required information exchange refers to whether the activity is constructed so that group members need to share information in order to complete the activity. If a group is asked to read a text and answer a set of comprehension questions, there is no information exchange required because each group member possesses a copy of the text and a copy of the questions: all the information they need. Each student can obtain the information they need alone without the others' help. So, one group member could complete the task alone if the other group members suddenly fell ill and left the room.

In other group activities information exchange is required, because an information gap exists in which not all group members hold the same information. There are two types of information gap activities: one-way and two-way. One-way occurs when one person holds information which other group member(s) do not have. An example of a one-way information exchange is one in which one person has a picture and describes it to their partner who tries to draw it. A two-way information gap occurs when each group member holds unique information, e.g., jigsaw activities. An example of jigsaw is when each member of a group receives a different part of the text. They need to tell each other the information in their unique piece of the text and then do a task which requires information from all the pieces.

Both one-way and two-way information exchange activities involve an information gap in that information must flow between group members in order for the activity to be completed. The difference lies in whether each group member needs to send as well as receive information in order to complete the activity.

The information involved in the gap can be of two kinds: supplied-to-the-learner and supplied-by-the-learner. Supplied-to-the-learner, the type usually discussed in the literature on information gap, is when the gap is created by giving one or more group members information which others do not have. An example could involve giving one person one version of a picture, giving another version of the same picture to their partner, and asking them to identify the differences between the two pictures. This activity is call Spot the Difference.

On the other hand, supplied-by-the-learner information gaps are those which exist because of unique information which learners already possess. Asking students to interview each other about their families would be an example of unique information which learners supply from knowledge they already possess. Long (1990), referring only to supplied-to-the-learner gaps, hypothesized that two-way are better than one-way for promoting negotiation of meaning and that both are better than when no information exchange is required.



Thirty-three in-service teachers of English in the Philippines participated in the study. They were attending a course on language instruction at the Philippine Normal University (PNU) in Manila. Of the participants, 10 taught at primary school, 16 at secondary, and seven at tertiary level. Twenty-seven held bachelor's degrees and six held masters degrees. All but three were female. They had signed up for the course during their summer holidays, during which many were pursuing advanced degrees at PNU. Participation in the study was voluntary, but no one declined.


The researchers first distributed an eight-page single-spaced handout to participants as part of a workshop by the first author on task-based language teaching. The handout had three sections. The first described the three categories of tasks, as presented above. The second section presented four activities, labeled them according to the three categories, and suggested how the tasks might be adapted, e.g., how a task with no required information exchange could be modified to involve two-way information exchange. The final section of the handout presented two more activities. Participants were asked, in groups, to label and modify these, following the model in the previous section of the handout.

During and after sections two and three, groups of participants were called on to discuss how they would label and modify the activities. Questions and discussion were encouraged throughout, and the interaction was lively. While groups worked together, the researchers listened in and assisted groups that needed help. Conducting the above activities took about two hours.

Participants were then given six activities (Appendix 1) taken exactly or slightly adapted from a secondary school English coursebook distributed by the Philippines Department of Education, Culture and Sports and widely used throughout the country. The activities were chosen to reflect a variety of task types. Participants were asked to label each of the activities as to whether it was planned or unplanned; closed or open; and no-way, one-way, or two-way required information exchange. Each person was supposed to write their own answer, but they could discuss with their groupmates. The researchers' own labeling of the activities as to task type follows each activity in Appendix 1.

Afterwards, participants were asked to complete a 4-item questionnaire. Item 1 asked about the extent to which participants had previously heard of TBLT. Items 2-4 asked participants to state their views on the usefulness of each of the three task classifications for their own teaching. Questionnaires were supplemented by interviews with six randomly selected participants.


Participants' labeling of the six activities according to the three task categories is presented in Table 1. Clearly, there was little unanimity among participants.

Table 1. Participant labeling of the six activities according to the three categories




1 25 8 11 22 5 8 20
2 6 27 15 18 9 12 12
3 16 17 11 22 9 7 17
4 8 25 23 10 4 8 21
5 19 14 11 22 5 5 23
6 5 28 10 23 14 7 12


Participants' previous familiarity with the term "task-based language teaching" and their views on the usefulness of the three task categories are presented in Table 2. Apparently, the term "task-based language teaching" was fairly new to most participants. Also, most participants seemed to feel that the categories were at least moderately useful in their teaching.


Table 2. Participant responses to the questionnaire on previous exposure to and the usefulness of task-based language teaching (on a 5-point Likert scale: 1 = never or not at all; 5 = many times or very)

Questionnaire Item 1 2 3 4 5
Before this week, I had heard the term "task-based language teaching" 11 7 11 3 1
The concept of planned/unplanned tasks is useful for my teaching 0 0 15 7 11
The concept closed/open tasks is useful for my teaching 0 3 11 7 11
The concept of information exchange tasks is useful

for my teaching.

0 2 9 10 12



Results of the labeling activity suggest that perhaps the three task categories used in the present study were not low-inference for the group of teachers involved, at least not as the categories were presented in this study. However, several other explanations for these results are possible. First, cognitive processing constraints may have been a factor, as participants had to learn three new concepts at once. This may have resulted in information overload, especially given the fact that most participants reported being at least relatively unfamiliar with task-based language teaching. Brock (1986) only taught one type of question in her study. Second, confusion may have resulted from the fact that new meanings were given to familiar terms. For instance, many participants initially understood "planning" to mean planning by the teacher, as pre-service and in-service teachers in the Philippines are expected to prepare detailed lesson plans. Third, participants read about, discussed, and saw examples of the task types, but they never actually experienced the different tasks as learners or teachers. Thus, the experiential element was missing (Wittrock, 1978).

A fourth reason for the lack of clarity among participants on the three task categories may have been that the two-hour presentation followed immediately by the labeling activity may have been too compressed a time. Perhaps, participants needed more opportunity to digest what had been presented. Fifth, the practice of transferring knowledge from one setting to another (Bransford, 1979), as was required of the participants in the study may have been different from the normal didactic approach to which these teachers were accustomed.

Finally, perhaps the categories just are not very clear. For instance, Gass and Varonis (1985) suggested that the one-way tasks used in their study were "less one-way" (p. 158) than those used by another researcher. They also noted that the many variables involved in any one task create "a murky picture of distinctions between one-way and two-way tasks" (p. 159). To do your own test of the clarity of the three task categories used in the present study, you, the reader, may wish to match your labeling of the activities in Appendix 1 with those of the researchers.

Regardless, interest in TBLT seems likely to remain high in foreign/second language teaching because it fits well with Communicative Language Teaching, the dominant paradigm in the field. This fit comes about because TBLT provides opportunities for purposeful communication among students. Indeed, many recent coursebook series clearly reflect the influence of work on tasks (e.g., Nunan, 1995), and research continues in this area (e.g., Skehan, in press).

Teachers, even those who do not create any of their own materials, need to inform themselves about the concepts which underlie instructional materials and activities (Richards, 1993). Thus, despite the relative failure of the researchers' effort at communicating three TBLT concepts to one particular group of teachers, the need to help teachers understand TBLT remains an important one. Indeed, the interviews conducted with participants suggested that they felt TBLT would help their teaching. They indicated a liking for the fact that tasks were done in groups and felt that TBLT offered them tools for more effectively organizing group activities.

In conclusion, more work needs to be done to help foreign/second language teachers understand TBLT. Such efforts can benefit from the lessons of the present study. Further, the overlapping work from the general field of education on cooperative learning (Holt, 1993; Jacobs, et al., 1995; Johnson, et al., 1993; Kagan, 1994; Olsen & Olsen, 1994; Slavin, 1990) should also be considered, as it offers valuable insights into how best to facilitate student-student interaction.


Bransford, J.D. (1979). Human cognition: Learning, understanding, and remembering. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Breen, M. (1987). Learner contributions to task design. In C.N. Candlin & D.F. Murray (Eds.), Language learning tasks (pp. 23-46). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brock, C.A. (1986). The effects of referential questions on ESL classroom discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 47-59.

Candlin, C.N. (1987). Towards task-based learning. In C.N. Candlin and D.F. Murphy (eds.), Language learning tasks (pp. 5-23). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Crookes, G. (1986). Task classification: A cross-discio;inary review. Technical Report No. 4, The Center for Second Language Classroom Research, Social Science Research Insititute, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Crookes, G. (1989). Planning and interlanguage variation. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11, 367-383.

Crookes, G. & Gass, S.M. (Eds.). (1993). Tasks in a pedagogical context. Integrating theory and practice. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Crookes, G. & Rulon, K. (1985). Incorporation of corrective feedback in native speaker/non-native speaker conversation. Technical Report No. 3, The Center for Second Language Classroom Research, Social Science Research Institute, Unviersity of Hawai'i at Manoa.

de Bono, E. (1973). Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step. New York: Harper & Row.

Doughty, C. & Pica, T. (1986). Information gap' tasks: Do they facilitate second language acquisition? TESOL Quarterly, 20, 305-325.

Duff, P. (1986). Another look at interlanguage talk: Taking task to task. In R. Day (ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 147-181). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Foster, P., & Skehan, P. (1996). The influence of plannish and task type on second language performance. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 299-324.

Gass, S.M., & Varonis, E.M. 1985. Task variation and nonnative/nonnative negotiation of meaning. In S. Gass and C. Madden (eds.), Input in second language acquisition, (pp. 149-161). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Holt, D.D. (ed.). (1993). Cooperative learning: A response to linguistic and cultural diversity. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Jacobs, G.M., Gan, S.L., & Ball, J. (1995). Learning cooperative learning via cooperative learning: A collection of lesson plans for teacher education on cooperative learning. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Holubec, E.J. (1993). Circles of learning (4th ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Kagan, S. (1994). Cooperative learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning.

Long, M.H. (1990). Task, group, and task-group interactions. In S. Anivan (Ed.), Language teaching methodology for the nineties (pp. 31-50). Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Long, M.H. (in press). Task-based language teaching. Oxford: Blackwell.

Long, M.H., & Crookes, G. 1987. Intervention points in second language classroom processes. In B.K. Das (Ed.), Patterns of classroom interaction in Southeast Asia (pp. 177-203). Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Nunan, D. (1989). Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. (1995). Atlas. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Olsen, J.W.-B., & Olsen, R.E.W.-B. (Eds.). (1994). Cooperative Learning Magazine, Special issue on language learning, vol. 14.

Ortega, L. (1995). Planning and second language oral performance. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Pica, T., Kanagy, R., & Falodun, J. (1993). Choosing and using communication tasks for second language instruction and research. In G. Crookes & S.M. Gass (Eds.), Tasks and language learning (pp. 9-33). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Prabhu, N.S. (1987). Second language pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J.C. (1993). The role of commercial materials in language teaching. RELC Journal, 24, 1-14.

Robinson, P., Ting, S.C-C., & Urwin, J. (1995). Investigating second language task complexity. RELC Journal, 26, 62-79.

Skehan, P. (in press). Assessing and using tasks. In W.E. Renandya & G.M. Jacobs (Eds.), Learners and language learning. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Slavin, R.E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles for comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass and C. Madden (eds.), Input in second language acquisition, (pp. 235-256). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Wittrock, M.C. (1978). The cognitive movement in psychology. Educational Psychologist, 13, 15-29.


APPENDIX 1 - Coursebook activities which participants rated

1. Work alone to complete this grid to show the arguments for and against the issue singled out in the selection. Then, in groups, decide on a single answer.

Issue Arguments in Favor Arguments Against
1. Abortion    
2. Euthanasia    
3. Playing up violence in the Mass Media    

Planned/unplanned: planned

Closed/open: open

No-way/one-way/two-way: no-way

2. In groups, decide if the following statements are true or false. Be ready to explain your answers.

a. Technology has become a powerful tool for international domination.

b. Transnational corporations are established in other countries mainly to give help.

Planned/unplanned: unplanned

Closed/open: open

No-way/one-way/two-way: no-way

3. Divide yourselves into groups. Each group is a committee of the National Economic Council. You have received a report on the drug TNCS. Each group needs to make plans to solve the issue and state their purposes clearly when presenting their plan to the rest of the class.

Planned/unplanned: unplanned

Closed/open: open

No-way/one-way/two-way: no-way

4. Play this expansion game. Divide yourselves into groups of five. The first student (S1) gives a basic sentence; the second (S2) repeats the sentence and adds an adverb of manner; the third (S3), an adverb of place; the fourth (S4), an adverb of time; and the fifth (S5), an adverb of reason.

Planned/unplanned: unplanned

Closed/open: open

No-way/one-way/two-way: two-way

5. In October, 1992, Quezon City will be the venue of a congress dedicated to the International Year of Peace. Delegates will come from a wide variety of organizations and discuss controversial issues.

Divide yourselves into groups. In each group, one of you will be a delegate from a labor organization, one from a women's organization, one from a student group, and one from a religious organization. Chose a topic, and with each person representing their organization's viewpoint, try to reach a consensus.

Planned/unplanned: unplanned

Closed/open: open

No-way/one-way/two-way: two-way

6. In groups, decide which of the opinions below are biased or prejudiced?

a. Filipinos who go to America are not patriotic.

b. It is a crime to be a Filipino in America.

Planned/unplanned: unplanned

Closed/open: closed

No-way/one-way/two-way: no-way