How do I best transition from a General English, PPP, exam and coursebook-based context to TBL?

Let’s start with some definitions. PPP stands for presentation-practice-production and was first introduced in the late 1970s! You present a grammar/vocabulary/structure element that you want students to learn, you give them some controlled practise, and then you provide a freer context for them to test out the element. Over 50 years later, schools that have their own “method” or “approach” often still demand that their staff adopt PPP.

TBL simply means task-based learning.

One of the main differences is that the PPP approach is also much more reliant on the teacher deciding for the students what is important/relevant to learn and guiding them through this material. In a TBL or dogme  (i.e. a materials-light approach) classroom, the learners and their language (and language needs) are placed more in the center, and guide the teacher to facilitate rather than control/test what is being learnt.

Exam courses and coursebooks

Exam courses – naturally – tend to test learners both on technique and language systems, and so can only be adapted with difficulty (if at all) to the TBL setting. However, I would say that both General and Business English learners would enjoy and benefit from the TBL approach for at least some (if perhaps not all) of their lessons. For General English classes, the task for a TBL lesson could be for example interviewing potential flatmates; for Business students, taking part in a job interview or negotiation. Most coursebooks nowadays (perhaps most notably Cutting Edge) include either task-based sequences or materials which can be used as a model for learners as they prepare to make a first attempt at the task. On the other hand, in a “traditional”, PPP-type class the roleplay would form the final P (production), in a TBL classroom the task is the starting point and learners’ production and questions arising from carrying it out form the basis of the (teacher-led) input phase.

While exam (and PPP) classes set the learners up with a predefined body of knowledge to be mastered, TBL allows learners to explore what they can already do in and with English, and then push their own language boundaries with the support of their teacher.

The main difference

The single biggest difference between the two approaches is therefore that of the teacher’s role(s) in the class: TBL demands that teachers be attentive and reactive to learners producing language that can be improved, polished, or corrected, as well as extremely flexible in picking up and working with emergent language. This flexibility also extends to the topics (both schematic and linguistic) learners might see as important to work on, which might not have much connection to the original theme of the lesson or task!

In terms of how best to transition between the two approaches: be open-minded, and learn both to listen to learners and tolerate their silence in the classroom. Students need time to think as they grapple with expressing what they want to say, which might take them more time than in a more closely modelled and scaffolded (i.e. supported with examples for the learners) PPP classroom. Silence doesn’t mean anyone’s failed. In terms of listening to learners, practise pulling out the most interesting of their emerging language points and building on them: collocations, connotations, register … it can go much further and deeper than in a standard textbook-based lesson.

Don’t chuck your coursebook!

I also wouldn’t throw the textbook out completely. There can often be valuable nuggets (an image, a reading text, an audio) than you can use as a jumping-off point for a TBL lesson, and these can save you preparation time (in terms of finding models for tasks, interview clips, etc), which can then be spent on brainstorming what language learners might need or come up with when carrying out their task.

Ultimately, TBL is great for communicatively-minded learners and can also give you an opportunity to get to know your class and their interests better – but for you as a teacher, it can be hard work, especially when you start off. However, the effort is more than worth it.

Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog:

Categories: Methodology