Enhancing task-based language teaching (TBLT) through technology: some theoretical and practical perspectives

Dr. Jeroen Lievens
LUCA School of Arts, Belgium
Faculty of Industrial Engineering Sciences, KU Leuven, Belgium
Center for Language and Education, KU Leuven, Belgium

Urn-address: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-11


Information and communication technologies play an ever-increasing part in how 21st century students come to understand, experience and shape their relationship to the world. The practice of “task-based language teaching” (TBLT) offers a promising route to harnessing students’ affinity with Web 2.0 technologies as these technologies enable meaningful, multiliterate tasks and at the same, afford unprecedented ways for supporting students, and having them collaborate and interact with each other. This article provides some theoretical perspectives to task design as well as three practical examples of technology-mediated TBLT.


Generation Z students, born in 1995 or later, tend to identify their use of, or even dependency on, technology as the most distinctive feature of their generation (De Morgen 2014; JWT 2012). Research shows that students have adopted technological advances to the extent that they have significantly altered students’ living and learning patterns (Rosen 2010; Ito et al 2009), an evolution which presents higher education with a host of unforetold pedagogic possibilities, but questions too (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall 2012). One such question, especially relevant for teachers of language and communication, is how to address the new (hybrid) genres that have emerged along with new communication technologies and how to teach these new literacies (“multiliteracies”), which typically involve strategic insight into a multimodal rhetoric of communication (Thorne 2013; Cope & Kalantzis 2000; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996). Even though the use of digital media is native to contemporary students, it could be argued that (higher) education still has a crucial part to play in affording students reflective insight into the possibilities, methodics and mechanics of these new genres and literacies (Wysocki & Lynch 2007; Anstey & Bull 2006).

Task-based language teaching and technology

One particularly promising avenue for teaching to these new literacy needs is technology-mediated TBLT (Task Based Language Teaching). Over the last decade, TBLT has been gaining a lot of currency as a language teaching approach (Van den Branden, Bygate & Norris 2009; Van den Branden 2006). TBLT could be described as a Dewey-inspired “learning by doing” approach in which students are given a meaningful, challenging and often real-world task that requires language use to complete it. In TBLT, a task is defined as “an activity in which a person engages in order to attain an objective, and which necessitates the use of language” (Van den Branden 2006: p. 4). Because of the task design, the elements of language are reframed within an authentic communicative context, which draws the student out of the traditional repetitive or grammar-translation learning approach and into the domain of active literacy learning.

Task-based teaching, by its very nature, invites the use of new technologies: “Web 2.0 technologies create unprecedented environments in which students can engage in ‘doing things’ through technology-mediated transformation and creation processes rather than just reading about language and culture in textbooks or hearing about them from teachers” (Gonzalez-Lloret & Ortega 2014: p. 3). Yet, it is only since fairly recently that the implementation of technology in TBLT is being addressed and researched in a systematic way (Thomas & Reinders 2010).

Task design and technology: theory and practice

‘Doing things’ is, of course, an all too sketchy description of what a good task amounts to. The Center for Language and Education (CLE, KU Leuven) has identified the following TBLT guidelines. Task designers are advised to make sure:

  1. that the task is goal-oriented, and that the goal is meaningful for the students’ ensuing professional career;
  2. that the task supports the set goal;
  3. that the task necessitates real student-student and student-teacher interaction;
  4. that there is a learning gap, but also that the gap can be bridged through teacher support or need-based scaffolding;
  5. that the teacher provides process-oriented feedback;
  6. that the learning environment is rich with language;
  7. that students feel safe in the learning environment and that mistakes are seen as hotspots for learning.

Figure 1 represents the geometry of a powerful learning environment for task-based teaching and learning.

Figure 1: The three circles of a powerful learning environment (developed by CLE, KU Leuven).

The following three examples aim to demonstrate how information and communication technologies can be implemented to help realize these conditions. The examples are culled from educational development projects in which CLE partnered (OOF-projects funded by KU Leuven) and from personal, educational practice.

  1. In the OOF-project “Communicative skills for the 21st century” (2011-2013), Applied Psychology students were asked by real-word organizations and companies to develop health promotion campaigns. Students approached the task methodically by researching topic, target(s) and target group(s) and by developing, testing and publishing multimodal campaigns, blending new, online and print media.  Students were supported by a “route planner” and an online toolkit, both developed by a multidisciplinary team of communication specialists, graphic designers, ict professionals, language teachers and user-centered designers (Lievens & Frijns 2013).¹
  2. In the ongoing OOF-project “Touch Teach Learn” (2013-2015), teacher trainees are asked to report on their apprenticeship experiences through multimodal video reports rather than the traditional text-on-paper reports. The video reports are shared in closed Facebook and Toledo groups and feedbacked by peers and teachers. In this project, a classic genre – “the report” – is redefined and enhanced through new technologies. In focus group interviews, students indicated that they found that the multimodal report leads to better feedback and stronger self-reflective learning.
  3. In the first-year course “Research and communication”, industrial engineering students are asked to research whether communication skills are important for professional engineers, and if so, which? Results are gathered on a large scale through an online form taking application. Students analyze the results and write a paper with recommendations for the Engineering Faculty’s curriculum designers.  In this case, a classic academic genre is fitted within a task-based approach that is enabled through new technologies.

Each of these examples hopes to testify to the usefulness of task-based language teaching and to the role that technology can play in the design of the task and the learning environment.


Anstey, M. & Bull, G. (2006). Teaching and learning multiliteracies. Changing times, changing literacies. Kensington Gardens: Australian Literacy Educators Association.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (Eds). (2000). Multiliteracies. Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Oxon & New York: Routledge.

De Morgen (2014). Onderzoek naar de Nu Generatie, published in October.

Gonzalez-Lloret, M. & Ortega, L. (2014). Technology-mediated TBLT. Researching Technology and Tasks. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittani, M., Boyd, D., Cody, R., et al (2009). Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: Living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

JWT Intelligence (2012). Gen Z: Digital in their DNA. Retrieved from  https://www.jwt.com/en/worldwide/thinking/genzdigitalintheirdna/ on the 20th of October, 2014.

Kress, G. & Van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images. The grammar of visual design. Routledge.

Lievens, J. & Frijns, C. (2013). “Bee-com a 21st century communicator. A didactic toolkit for user-centered communication design in higher education”. Research on Communication and Media 2013, June. pp. 119-132.

Nussbaum-Beach, S. & Hall, L.R. (2012). The connected educator: Learning and leading in a digital age. Bloomington: IN: Solution Tree Press.

Rosen, L.D. (2010). Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the way they learn. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomas, M. & Reinders, H. (2010). Task-based language learning and teaching with technology. London, UK: Continuum.

Thorne, S.L. (2013). Digital Literacies. In M. Hawkins (Ed.), Framing languages and literacies: Socially situated views and perspectives (pp 193-219). New York, NY: Routledge.

Van den Branden, K. (Ed.). (2006). Task-based language education: from theory to practice. Cambridge, UK: CUP.

Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. (Eds). (2009). Task-based language teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wysocki, A.F. & Lynch, D.A. (2007). Compose, design, advocate. A Rhetoric for integrating written, visual and oral Communication. New York: Pearson Education.

¹ The website can be found here: https://associatie.kuleuven.be/np/beecom/. And this YouTube timelapse video documents a class of students interacting with a prototype of the toolkit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QLhdUmoZt8.


URN: http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-11