Wax On, Wax Off: 3 Task-based Language Teaching Activities for the Smart Sensei

What does the 1984 movie “Karate Kid” have to do with teaching languages?

A lot, as it turns out.

The movie is about Daniel, a bullied teenager who’s taken under the wings of a Japanese karate master, one Mr. Miyagi.

Daniel was psyched to begin his martial arts training. But to his surprise, it involved menial chores like sanding the floor, waxing the car and painting the fence of the old man. Daniel-san felt he was being conned by a power-tripping guy who had nothing better to do.

He was exasperated and was ready to give up, but then, in that beautifully decisive moment when the student was at the end of his rope, Mr. Miyagi showed Daniel-san the elegance of his methods. All that “wax on, wax off” nonsense actually made a lot of sense. It was actually karate practice!

You’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean. (But, just in the slimmest of cases, click here for a nice montage of what I’m talking about.)

Task-based Language Teaching is very much in the tradition of the “Karate Kid.”


Well, let’s find out.

The Complete Guide to Task-based Language Teaching with 3 Sample Activities

What Is Task-based Language Teaching?

Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) is a method of instruction where students are given specialized tasks.

Lessons come in the form of activities that engage their innate linguistic faculties and processes. So, instead of learning about the language and listening as the teacher points to foreign words on the blackboard, students are busily working on a task that can only be completed by actually using the target language.

For example, you could ask student-pairs to compose a nursery rhyme or nursery song about the concept of opposites. Instead of you explaining “hot” and “cold,” “big” and “small,” “long” and “short,” your students research these contrasts for themselves and discover what each word means. Given this task in a Spanish class, students could, for example, visit the library to get the meanings of words, look them up in dictionaries or simply Google them. The pair could discuss the different translations of the word “big” and decide which among extenso, grandísimo or grande should be used in their nursery rhyme.

The issue of discovery is very important in TBLT. Instead of a passive reception of lessons from the teacher, students are actively figuring out the target language, making mistakes, negotiating meaning and eventually getting it right.

TBTL is an indirect kind of immersion. If you think about it, the tasks easily mimic the daily tasks an expatriate may experience in a host country—like going to a Japanese convenience store where nobody speaks a word of English, asking for person’s number or even ordering pizza over the phone. All these experiences can be turned into role-playing tasks by the teacher so that despite not being in the target country, students can somehow experience for themselves the awkward, tongue-curling experience of using the target language.

This allows students to excel in situations where active usage of the language is required as well as in situations where they have to understand the language in writing or in video form.

But make no mistake about it, the teacher is still a vital part of this method. You still need to process the students’ experiences after the tasks are presented in front of the class. For example, you ask, “What words did you learn in this task?” You need to elicit and put front-and-center the lessons and insights that the students had while doing the activity. It will make them marvel to themselves, “Hey, I’ve learned this thing about French and didn’t even notice it!”

After the presentations, you’ll also have noticed some weaknesses in students’ understanding of the linguistic concepts involved. Scaffold those points by putting an emphasis on them during review discussions.

In Task-based Language Teaching, the teacher becomes not only a facilitator but an enhancer of language learning. (Here’s a 10-page PDF download by Cambridge for more information about TBLT.)

Next, we go deeper into TBLT by looking at the inherent advantages of such a method.

What Are the Advantages of Task-based Language Teaching?

TBLT Is Student-centered

Teachers like us often go into class with a definite lesson in mind, with goals and learning outcomes of each session bolded and bulleted in our minds.

We plan what we’re going to teach in class and therefore have a concrete idea of what students are supposed to learn. This is a teacher-centric situation where we set the parameters of the learning involved.

TBLT, on the other hand, is student-centered, meaning our wards are very much involved in determining what they will learn in any given task. Yes, we determine what needs to be done, but the students decide on how to approach the task and what linguistic processes they go through in order to complete it.

For example, in an intermediate/advanced German class, you ask student-pairs to interview a native speaker and submit a 200-word written summary of what they find out—in addition to an oral presentation. It seems a pretty straightforward task, but if you look closer into the process you’ll see that your students have a potent influence on where to take the assignment.

The pair can ask the native speaker questions that genuinely interest them. They can ask about Germany’s food, Oktoberfest, the soccer team, the German work ethic or they can go really personal and ask questions about the native speaker himself or herself, like why she studied music in university, why she loves dogs and why “Weekend at Bernie’s” is her favorite movie.

Did you notice that the tandems learn very different things just from these two lines of questioning? They’ll be discovering different families of vocabulary depending on where they take the task.

So, for the teacher who has a firm word list in her mind, this will be a little bit unnerving. Imagine a German class where students learn different types of vocabularies, at different paces and in different directions. (Isn’t this chaos a little bit ironic for the highly structured Germans?)

But it’s good for the students because they’re learning about aspects of the language that are personally relevant for them—vocabulary that they hope to use, aspects of a culture that truly make them appreciate it. They’ll be highly motivated to learn because they have a say in what they learn.

Just don’t think that teachers only facilitate the learning. Don’t simply move out of your students’ way. They still need you. Scaffold and bolster the learning. Enrich the experience they’ve had while performing the task.

By closely observing them navigate these tasks, you’ll know the subject areas and topics students have a hard time with. Tackle those subjects in a straight-up discussion, reviewing what went right and what went wrong, what was a better way of accomplishing the task. Always refer to student presentations as much as possible. Take advantage of the context that they already provide.

TBLT Presents the Target Language in Its Most Functional Form

As mentioned previously, TBLT is the target language in action. It’s not a list of 10 sentences written on the blackboard and grammatically analyzed for all their worth. It’s not students sitting the entire class away and heading out as soon as class is over. Listening passively is not a very good way to learn a language.

TBLT makes your students stand up and talk to their classmates. It makes them blurt out words, phrases and statements in front of the class. TBLT, instead of letting learners marvel at the language from a distance like a prized museum piece behind glass walls, lets your students work with the target language up close and personal—like in a petting zoo.

Task-based Language Teaching is a subset of the Communicative Approach.

The Communicative Approach believes that language is a system for the expression of meaning and information. So language, at its core, is interactive. Therefore, if we’re going to be successful in teaching language, we should create opportunities for our students to use the target language. We should create relevant context so that the need for the target language will naturally come out.

Assigning our students engaging tasks can be perfect vehicles for creating this context. For example, you can ask student pairs to role-play asking for directions to Gangnam district in Seoul, ordering at a McDonald’s in Rome, buying the ingredients for classic Paella in Madrid or asking for a beautiful girl’s number in Paris.

TBLT makes the language come alive with tasks that require learners to actually take a target language through its paces.

TBLT Is Innately Memorable and Intrinsically Motivational

You may have noticed that little emphasis is given to straight-up teaching of grammar rules.

TBLT believes that students won’t remember much grammar when it’s taught apart from context. The tasks given function to provide the much-needed context for the lessons that will make those grammar rules stick.

The virtue of TBLT is in the process—in the different activities and decisions that come into play as the students try to complete the task. Because they’re actively engaged, students gain the necessary experience that could serve as anchors for memory.

For example, let’s say you assign a role-playing task to a student pair and it involves getting a gift for one’s nephew. Just the process of creating the dialogue is already replete with potential language lessons, like words for which present to get (toy car, ball, action figure, sword, cap, bat, shoes, T-shirt, etc.) and qualities—what shape, color, style, price, etc. will this item be?

Even the humor and the mistakes involved while practicing the role-play can serve as memory anchors that will outlast any focused attention in a straight-up lecture. In the student’s head, he’ll always remember how an Italian spada (sword) almost got him in the eye when they were practicing with it.

Because they’re engaged in an activity, the students have more going for them in the memory department.

And because they’re engaged in the activity and have a say in the things they learn, students are more motivated to continue and not drop the class. The more you involve the students in the process, the more dedicated they are to the outcome.

Next, we look at three examples of tasks that you can give your students.

3 Highly Dynamic Activities for Task-based Language Teaching

1. Scavenger Hunt

Think of the Scavenger Hunt as one big task composed of many smaller tasks.

For example, you can divide the class into two or three groups and instruct them to find “Golden Keys” (or any object of your choice) around campus. Each key opens a box which contains a mini-task. The group that completes all tasks first will be declared the winner and given an awesome bounty or reward of your choice.

Unlike previous examples of tasks that require days of practice and longer periods of preparation, the tasks involved here can be completed on the spot. For example, you can give tasks like:

  • Arrange the written numbers from smallest to largest.
  • Identify the person described in a paragraph of the target language.
  • Bring a red, round object or a brown, square one.
  • Bring an object that matches the adjective.
  • Translate three sentences correctly.

2. The Interview

This task should be done in pairs.

One student will serve as the host or interviewer, the other will be the celebrity guest. This can be done impromptu for advanced classes, but for beginners you can give a day or two of prep where the students rehearse their Q & A. You can add spice to the task by giving key questions that the host should ask the guest. Questions like:

  • Who do you like in class?
  • Which Hollywood actor do you think you look like?
  • If a genie grants you three wishes, what will be your first wish?

3. Show and Tell

This task should be done individually and in front of the class. It will require some days of practice.

Ask students to share something personal about themselves. Popular choices would be:

  • “My Typical Day”
  • “My Ideal Mate”
  • “My Hobbies”
  • “My Pet Peeves”
  • “The Biggest Regret of My Life”
  • “The Happiest Day of My Life”
  • “The Real Reason I Want to Learn German/Italian/French/Spanish”
  • “Three Things You Don’t Know About Me”

The speech should be done in the target language, of course.


These are just three examples of tasks that you can take up in class.

Now that you know what Task-based Language Teaching is all about, there’s no limit to the number and type of activities you can create. As long as the tasks make your students interact with each other using the target language, then you’re on the right track.

Well, here’s a thought (and I suspect your mind is headed in this direction). Why don’t you use TBTL in your class this week? You’ll be glad you did.

Let us know how it goes!

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