Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog

1 Comment

Task-Based Instruction: The marriage of College and Career Readiness and English Language Proficiency

OPD3e_Image (1)Step Forward Series Director, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, identifies several task types that incorporate the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (CCRS) and the English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education(ELPS) as a preview of her CCR presentation at TESOL 2017 this month.

Taking Our Instruction to Task

The focus on 21st century college and career readiness (CCR) for adult English language learners has sent adult ESOL instructors scrambling to create (or locate) rigorous lessons that

  • include practice with complex text and its academic language (at the appropriate level),
  • require critical thinking and problem solving, and
  • provide direct instruction in language strategies.

Many of us need look no further than our texts to find the basis for meaningful tasks that help learners accomplish all the above. Task-based instruction (TBI), as discussed by N.S. Prahbu, David and Jane Willis, David Nunan, Rod Ellis and others, creates opportunities for learners to use authentic language and processes that result in a product or tangible outcome that learners first share and discuss, and then analyze in order to improve their accurate use of the language.

In the world outside our classroom, we do not use language skills in isolation. Both the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (2013) and the English Language Proficiency Standards (2016) show the intersections between skills. A well-designed task embodies this connection, creating a more robust use of language and greater relevance for the learner. In this blog, we will look at basic task design and provide three task types that integrate CCR skills.

A Basic Task Framework

Your preparation for the task includes gathering any essential task materials (e.g. links or tags for research, poster board and markers, sentence or paragraph frames for report backs, etc.) and determining what instructions are needed in addition to those in your textbook.

1) Present the task objective to the class and any essential information learners will need, (e.g. instruction vocabulary and/or background knowledge)

2) Next, show learners a model for–or example of–what they will produce (a list, a chart, a poster, a written report, a photo, etc.) including examples of the type of written work they will generate for their report on their task outcome(s). Note that the outcome of the task is not a right or wrong answer. A successful task will have divergent outcomes that take full advantage of each team’s prior knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and language skills.

3) Learners form pairs or teams and select (or are assigned) team roles. Task instructions are distributed to each pair or team or posted/projected for all learners to see. General comprehension is checked and time limits are set.

4) While learners work on the task, you are an observer and monitor. Once they complete it, they plan and rehearse a short report back on the work they did and their outcome(s), (e.g., the list, poster, conversation, advice letter, etc.). At this point in the process, you engage with the teams, supporting learners’ language needs as questions arise.

5) When it’s time for teams to report out, they can take turns presenting to the whole class or make simultaneous reports, with one or two members of each team traveling to other teams to make their presentation.

6) Briefly highlight each team’s success following their presentation or once all presentations are complete. Ask the class to provide feedback as well.

7) Once all presentations are complete, it’s time to help learners notice global and/or egregious errors that interfered with their collaboration or their report out. Provide practice or take home activities that correlate to the language challenges learners had during the task.

Developing a Task Repertoire

A task repertoire can make instructional planning much easier, but there are some important considerations. First, there is the issue of teacher intention versus learner interpretation (B. Kumaravadivelu, 1991) We can address this issue with

1) a learning objective or outcome that is written at the learners’ level and is accompanied by an example of the outcome;

2) clear instructions; and

3) a tracking tool to help learners monitor their progress towards the task objective, for example a checklist or rubric.

It’s also important to consider differentiation. Even in classes identified as “single level”, there can be distinct variations in language proficiency. Support learners’ varied needs by having them work in like-ability (same-ability) teams on the same basic task but with adaptations that make the task level-appropriate, e.g. scaffolding for lower-level learners and increasing the challenge for higher-level learners. Another option is to place learners in cross-ability (different-ability) teams, working on the same task but providing task roles that allow each team member to participate fully.

Authentic Team Chart (2) (1).png

The three task examples included with this blog are categorizing, dictocomp and problem solving. Most textbooks have the raw materials you can use to employ one or more of these task types in your lesson. (E.g. a set of vocabulary from a unit, a listening passage, a conversation, photo or text that poses a problem.) These tasks can be differentiated for the proficiency level of your learners and can help learners develop the skills they need to transition into college, career and community settings. For example, learners in each of these tasks “prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners” (CCR Speaking/Listening Standard 1) and “present information and supporting evidence such that a listener can follow the line of reasoning and organization.” (CCR Speaking/Listening Anchor Standard 4).  There are also opportunities for teams to “develop and strengthen their writing by planning, revising, editing, rewriting or trying a new approach” (CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5).

Download the three task examples here.

Developing a task repertoire that includes college and career readiness skill development is relatively painless when you can base your tasks on the practice activities in your textbook.

Are you attending TESOL 2017 this year? Join me on Wednesday 22 March at 10.30am to further explore how we can help our adult learners achieve their personal and profession goals using tasks to integrate the College and Career Readiness Standards in to our lessons. Find out more here.

For more educational resources to use in class visit the Oxford Picture Dictionary Third Edition Teacher’s Club website.


American Institutes for Research. (2016) English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education. Washington, D.C: AIR

Ellis, R. (2006)” The Methodology of Task-based Learning.” Asian EFL Journal, Volume 8, Number 3. Retrieved on February 1 from https://tinyurl.com/jstrko4

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1991). “Language learning tasks: Teacher intention and learner interpretation.” ELT Journal, 45, 98-107

Nunan, D. (1987) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimentel, S. (2013) College and Career Standards for Adult Education. Washington, D.C.: Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing Task Based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Something old, something new … Part 3

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the last one of a series of blogs on the topic.

For the revised Cambridge English: Proficiency. We have already delved into the Reading and Writing components, so today’s post consists of ideas on preparing the Listening and Speaking papers. Enjoy!

Approaching the Listening Paper

The Listening paper has not suffered great changes. It is only Part 4 that became a straightforward multiple matching task; there are 30 questions (instead of 28) to be answered during 40 minutes of recording.

This type of task presents students with the difficulty of solving two tasks at the same time, as both of them refer to the same recording. While listening to a speaker, they have to focus on several statements to figure out which one relates entirely to him/ her. What teachers have to stimulate in their students’ abilities is distributive attention. Here are some ideas for the classroom.

  • For slower students, in the beginning ask them to solve Task 1 the first time they listen and Task 2 the second time they do so. However, this way, they will have no opportunity to go back on their answers. It is, therefore, important to encourage “multi-tasking”, as the exam draws closer.
  • A useful activity might also be staging seemingly real-life social interactions, light conversations. While two students carry out the dialogue, another one has to match a list of several statements to either one of the two participants in the conversation. For a successful task, it is important that you prepare a specific outline of the conversation for the two students to follow. This way, you may manage to develop active listening in a friendly manner, and at the same time enhance distributive attention. As students master multitasking among statements regarding two participants in the conversation, enlarge the chatting crew to three and even four members. The benefits are two-fold: students improve both their speaking and their listening skills. Two birds, one stone!
  • Another idea would be to use the actual tape script. Assign the roles of each speaker to random members of your working group. They will become the team of ‘actors’, while the others will be called the team of ‘spectators’. Hand out the statements included in both tasks for the ‘spectators’ to become familiar with. Allow up to a minute for the ‘actors’ to get into character and to feel comfortable reading the script at a natural pace, as if they were using their own words. Each ‘actor’ takes the floor and delivers the speech, as the ‘spectators’ try to find a match for both Task 1 and Task 2 in the list of statements. This activity ensures that students are fully engaged in the listening process, they perceive it as real and lively and, most importantly, they understand that intonation and overall tone may also offer clues towards the statements that are best suited for each speaker.

Approaching the Speaking Paper

This part of the examination is the one that changed the least. It is shorter by three minutes, on account of reducing the individual stages.

The main difficulty usually encountered by candidates is speaking endurance. Nervousness may deter them from gathering their thoughts on the given topic and rendering a speech worthy of level C2. At this level, everything matters, from posture, to fluency, stress, suprasegmentals, variety and complexity in organization. Fortunately, students already have a comprehensive grasp of the English language, so the teacher’s job is to help them brush up on their spoken discourse.

  • Help students become aware! One way would be to record students, play the recording back and ask them to assess their own performance.
  • As follow-up, I recommend that students do the same thing at home, by using a device: the mobile phone. It may come as a shock to some students that the camera on their mobile phone might as well be their most objective assessor. By solving a Speaking task in front of the camera, not only do students become aware of their voice inflexions, pauses and facial expression, but they recreate an uncomfortable, rather stressful environment in which they must try to control their nervousness. Keep yourself in check!
  • Also, organising debates in class, in which arguing a viewpoint is essential, will most certainly increase students’ confidence in speaking publicly. Arguments make the discourse go round!
  • What has been tremendously successful among my students is staging talk-shows, in which all the guests need to approach the same matter from different angles, thus becoming aware of the variety of approaches they might use in the real Speaking test, in order to make their speech more complex.

This being written, let’s gather as many useful ideas as we can! Do you have any tips and tricks on preparing students for any of the papers and challenges of the Cambridge Proficiency?


Something old, something new… Part 2

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the second part of a series of blogs on the topic.

Let’s continue our stroll through the changes of the new and revised Cambridge English: Proficiency examination. I have tackled the issue of the reformed Reading and Use of English Paper in a previous post but what lies ahead regarding the Writing Paper?

Approaching the Writing Paper

Students will spend only one hour and a half, instead of two hours, on this paper due to the fact that the minimum word count will be reduced from 600 to 520. There will also be less variety, in that Part 1 will only be a compulsory discursive essay, while for the second part candidates may have to choose an article, a report, a letter or a review. Good news on this front, therefore, less text types to prepare for! Further on, I am going to focus on the newest type of task, which makes for Writing Part 1.

Writing Part 1 – what’s in two texts?

Thankfully, the Proficiency examination is usually not the first Cambridge English examination students have sat. This is the reason why they may already be very familiar with what is required of them.

Part 1 has always been the compulsory one, much like in figure skating – there are certain tricks the assessors must notice in the candidate’s performance.


The new Part 1 is a follow-up to that former Use of English task which dealt with summarising, organising information and evaluating its merits, as they are now offered by two texts of around 100 words each.

Naturally, candidates will need help pinpointing the essential information in a text and analysing it compellingly. Encourage them to use highlighters in order to stress out significant information, whether it is presented in a contrasting or complementary manner by the two given texts.

‘So, what makes an idea essential?’, your students might ask. Well, both texts are linked by a common topic, theme or subject. Whenever an idea is brought to the table by both of them, that is when students need to pay attention. The arguments may be divergent, of course, even if related to the same aspect and the dynamic between the two texts may not always be transparent. It is the students’ task to make connections, to identify the two ways in which an idea is presented.

‘What next?’, I hear students ask. Once they have broken the message of both texts down into main points and have found the connecting/contradicting viewpoint in between each pair of ideas, it is time to finally get down to the writing. What is extremely important for students in this part 1 is that they understand they must be first excellent readers and only afterwards excellent writers.

Teachers now face the challenge of having to train students to select the main pieces of information and to also use them successfully in their own written discourse.

  • Help students disintegrate a piece into its basics, into the main ideas and then reintegrate them into their own frame of thought.
  • Play detective games, where students must first identify the relevant information offered by the witnesses, then present the two sides of the story, only to conclude with their final pleading – the moment when they weigh both versions of the truth and give their own view and interpretation. There’s your piece! Now, write it down!
  • Individual or group projects are also useful in this respect; cut-outs offer the possibility of recycling what’s given into one’s own project.

Careful with the language! Accuracy and appropriateness are both of the essence. What is paramount, other than a high flexibility and versatility of language use is signposting its functions. A writing task will always ask students to comment, argue, recommend, suggest, persuade, and so on.

Make sure your students have the right tools at hand: language for making recommendations, for instance, or language for persuading. These are the “buffer”-words that will allow their writing piece to function. Concrete arguments and ideas are merely the material that revolves around the way this raw material is put to good use.

Obviously, there also needs to be diversity amongst this kind of preparatory statements. If you are trying to teach language for suggesting or recommending, set the scene for it. Ask students to picture themselves in a therapist’s office. What would they tell the therapist to make his/ her job more difficult and what would they reply, as therapists, to the requests of the patients? What would they recommend and, most importantly, how would they introduce the ideas and smoothen their way into communication?

And finally…

Writing Part 1 is challenging because of its very essence: focusing on both the WHAT  and the HOW. The greatest novelty in the revised Proficiency examination is the fact that there are two steps to solving the task: reading comprehension and relaying information in a discursive piece, while also analysing and interpreting.  It is, however, the chance for students to be personal, to weigh in their own thoughts, too. The candidate gets to feel like a true contributor to a matter of interest, therefore, as a final word of advice, ask your students to speak their mind and to think critically, with every opportunity you might have in class.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Speaking and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here. View the title on our online catalogue.


Something old, something new…

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the first part of a series of two blogs on the topic.

The time has come for those involved in the Cambridge English: Proficiency preparation process to face the latest challenge: preparation for the revised (and abridged) version of the examination which is to be released in January 2013. On celebrating its centenary, the Proficiency exam revolutionises tradition. Training students for such a prestigious certificate is never facile. However, the one aspect I admire in the new Cambridge English: Proficiency is that it seems to keep a much more logical and coherent transition from the Advanced level examination.

New in the revised Proficiency, paradoxically, are the very deeply rooted tasks of lower level Cambridge exams. Nevertheless the question remains: up to what extent and how are teachers and students expected to adapt? Vast as the field may be, in this blog I will focus mainly on the key changes and on what they entail in terms of exam preparation, and will introduce some guiding tips and ideas for teachers to employ in class.

Approaching the Reading and Use of English paper

Paper 1 – Reading and Use of English will consist of 7 parts, out of which the first four test candidates’ grammatical and vocabulary prowess, then the next 3 parts are dedicated to Reading items. There will be 53 questions to be solved in 90 minutes, so your students will need extra practice in managing time successfully, while still maintaining accuracy, attention and thoroughness.

The Reading Component

There is another element of surprise insofar as there are no similar tasks throughout this paper. Thus, reading comprehension tested through multiple choice items is now reduced to a single part, but multiple matching will be introduced to Proficiency. Does this sound familiar, by any chance? Anyone who has prepared students for the Cambridge Advanced will have felt their heart skip a beat. That’s right, multiple matching strikes again! Multiple matching The challenge of this task resides in the discipline and strategy one employs when solving it. The task presents candidates with a text divided into several sections. A list of 10 questions/ statements requires them to find the correlation to each one in a section of the text. Teachers ought to make students aware of the importance of a strategy which should be practised before the actual examination. There are a few stages to help with the task:

  • First, advise students to underline the key information in the 10 questions. Not all the words in the question are relevant and the danger they present is that they might even distract attention. Highlight significant concepts!
  • The next step would be to actually begin reading. It is not a matter of in-depth reading. Skimming should be enough and a close reading should be used only when in doubt between two sections.
  • Remind students that multiple matching does not also imply multiple reading. Their attention should be undivided. Recommend taking each section at a time in the attempt of answering as many questions as possible through a particular fragment, provided that the key words underlined in the questions have palpable contextually synonymic counterparts in the suspected section. No over-interpretation!

The Use of English Component

Of the 5 parts currently constituting the Use of English paper of C2 level only 3 will be kept: the open cloze, the multiple-choice cloze, and word formation. The gapped sentences are history! I expect that those of you who have prepared for the Cambridge Advanced feel the breeze of the revised Proficiency examination, which becomes less of a mathematical configuration (remember trying to find the one word that fits all three contexts?) and less of a poetic quest (students will be happy to know that comprehension questions are out of the way), but more of a test of skilful language use… which is why the key word transformations are back.

Key word transformations

The key to solving this type of task is the key word itself, which must remain intact, however structurally changed the original sentence may need to be. The challenge is two-fold: the meaning must remain the same as in the given sentence while, at the same time, the grammatical changes ought to be correct and natural. So how can you help students tackle this task?

  • Exposure to the language is a main aspect, since it develops flexibility in using it. Take every opportunity to show or elicit from students the various ways a statement may be rephrased in.
  • Practice makes perfect, it is generally argued and it is quite true here. Practising this kind of exam task will increase students’ dexterity in this respect.
  • Last, but not least, encourage students to challenge each other. Being given a certain sentence, a student could come up with a word to be used in rephrasing the given statement. This way, teachers are able to stimulate active processing. Essentially, the first student tries on the shoes of the test builder, by fully grasping the principles behind this type of exam item, while the other student takes on the responsibility of solving the puzzle.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Writing, Speaking, and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here.