Is Planning Key to Task-Based Learning?

    Sarah Langridge proposes more research into the effect of combining learning by doing with on-line planning on communicative pressure situations

    There is a general assumption by researchers and educators that learning after performing an action—i.e., enactment—creates better memory of the action, as compared to reading about it, hearing about it, or observing someone else performing it. There is also evidence that enactment encoding leads to better memory for simple actions than does verbal learning (Engelkamp, 1998). In language learning, enactment has also been explicitly shown to help recall of phrases (Engelkamp and Cohen, 1991; Golly-Haring and Engelkamp, 2003; Hornstein and Mulligan, 2004). To bring enactment into the language classroom, task-based language teaching (TBLT) was introduced as a way for learners to practice language through real-life tasks, but does this type of practice help linguistic performance?

    Any linguistic performance in a second language (L2) puts competing demands and pressure on working memory, which is a limited-capacity system. Several studies have shown that giving L2 learners the opportunity to plan before they speak or write results in significant gains in fluency and complexity (Ortega, 1999; Wendel, 1997; Yuan and Ellis, 2003; Meraji, 2011). Planning time is hypothesized to be beneficial because otherwise when a task increases in complexity, focus on form is no longer the priority of the L2 speaker, and they abandon accuracy for focus on meaning (Skehan, 1998). If an L2 speaker focuses more on one aspect of performance, such as accuracy, the other dimensions may be reduced and suffer in their development (Kuiken and Vedder, 2007).

    There are two types of planning that can be used by the L2 learner, pretask planning and on-line planning. Pretask planning allows people to practice or prepare something before completing the task. On-line planning is “the process by which speakers attend carefully to the formulation stage during speech planning and engage in pre-production and post-production monitoring of their speech acts” (Yuan and Ellis, 2003, p. 6). Here, we’re asking whether or not implementing a learning-by-doing pedagogy would allow L2 learners to practice appropriate forms and understand language in context more thoroughly so that during cognitively demanding situations, like testing or real life, they are still able to focus on form and not abandon it for meaning. Since planning often leads to improvement in performance, some of the real-time processing load could be lessened by having practiced and prepared beforehand (Meraji, 2011).

    Spoken language is interesting to study because it is dynamic and fluid in nature, changing based on context, interlocutor relationship, and naturally while a nonnative speaker continues to learn the language. For these reasons, nonnative speakers rely heavily on on-line processing during oral communication, and so their complexity, accuracy, and fluency can fluctuate substantially when they are not under communicative pressure (Foster et al., 2000). To help reduce cognitive load and heighten familiarity, learning by doing may provide the additional practice L2 speakers need to perform better under pressure. The study outlined in this article aims to tackle the question of whether or not combining learning by doing with on-line planning has a positive effect during communicative pressure situations.

    Learning by Doing
    Learning by doing can be defined as performing an action in an educational context (Steffens et al., 2015). Educational leaders have embraced this with styles like TBLT and portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA), because of the general assumption that learning by doing creates better memories of an event or action.

    There are three types of memory that have been analyzed in relation to this type of learning: memory for actions, recognition, and free recall. Memory for actions forces participants to process task-relevant features and then recall the action words later; recognition generally requires participants to recognize words they have learned before; and free recall asks participants to list what they can remember without prompts (Steffens et al., 2015). One explanation for why memory for actions is so strong may be because enactment encoding provides additional memory markers (Engelkamp, 1998). Using a multimodel approach to learning can strengthen the established memory and aid longer-term retrieval as well (Steffens et al., 2015).

    Completing a classroom task that replicates a real-life situation provides L2 learners with a safe place to practice and to carry out pretask planning, as it is often classified in second language acquisition (SLA). When students are in the classroom and practicing the language, they are receiving feedback from the instructor and input from their environment and the people they are interacting with. In a typical classroom setting there may be a lot of learning by viewing and listening to the instructor, but learning by doing has been shown to improve memory for actions and recognition (Steffens et al., 2015; Engelkamp, 1998; Golly-Haring and Engelkamp, 2003). The other type of planning, and likely the most common in oral production, is termed on-line planning. On-line planning occurs in the moment, when people are forced to self-correct and choose words, possibly through translation. It has been shown that oral on-line planning increases accuracy and complexity of spoken language, but that it has little effect on fluency (Yuan and Ellis, 2003). It has also been shown that pretask planning improves fluency, as mentioned above (Ellis and Yuan, 2004). On-line planning happens as a person speaks, and fluency is often sacrificed (De Larios et al., 2001; Yuan and Ellis, 2003).

    However, what happens when we pair pretask planning—learning by doing—with on-line planning? Does this lead to positive effects in syntactic complexity, accuracy, and fluency? If students are given the opportunity to practice a task in class before evaluation, then, given previous research, they should increase in all three areas, with no given area disadvantaged.

    Syntactic Complexity
    Syntactic complexity considers the number of criteria a learner has to apply in order to reach the correct form. For example, if conjugation of the simple past tense in language A contains more steps to arrive at the correct form than language B, then the simple past tense is considered more complex to learn in language A. Another factor to consider in complexity is salience, or the frequency with which the form occurs, therefore influencing how difficult it may be to learn (Spada and Tomita, 2010). A learner’s first language also contributes to the difficulty in learning another language and the features it contains. Complexity can additionally be defined by a pedagogical perspective, as identified by teachers. A grammatical form may be evaluated as easy or difficult to learn by observing how long it takes learners to use the form correctly (Spada and Tomita, 2010). Most teachers consider forms that take students longer to be more difficult and may spend additional time reviewing them in the classroom.

    Syntactic complexity is usually measured on a scale in which sentence length and linguistic units used are analyzed. These units are not only measured individually but as a whole in the phrase they appear within, with a closer look at coordinating structures and subordinating clauses.

    Complexity from a linguistic perspective is determined by whether the language feature “has many or few transformations, is marked or unmarked, and is typologically similar or different from the first language” (Spada and Tomita, 2010, p. 267), and so the complexity of sentences produced may be directly linked to linguistic complexity and not related to salience, as argued by Daughty and Williams (1998).

    Accuracy can be the forgotten element of language production, as L2 learners prioritize meaning over form when new grammar is learned, their attentional limits are reached, or they are in a stressful environment. If learners are focusing more on other aspects of production, like complexity or fluency, then accuracy will suffer (Kuiken and Vedder, 2007). This concept is not foreign to teachers in a classroom, who often watch students “forget” something they already know when trying to apply a new rule. It is well accepted that prioritization of one aspect of language production will hinder the development of other areas (Kuiken and Vedder, 2007).

    Researchers in SLA generally want to know how task complexity affects accuracy because it is assumed that attentional resources are limited, so increasing task complexity reduces the resources allocated to focusing on form. Accuracy may be additionally challenging to measure in a test context, as the testing environment itself encourages people to focus on form and speakers will pay attention to their accuracy in order to score well on the test (Wigglesworth, 1997). In this case, researchers should consider other environments or ways to measure accuracy so that learners are not only focused on form at the time of production.

    Fluency refers to the flow someone has when producing a language. This flow may be steady and easy, as when two native speakers converse, or it may be broken and slow, like new learners communicating. Lower-level learners generally spend more time focusing on form (accuracy) and so fluency is sacrificed (De Larios et al., 2001), whereas more proficient learners do not have to dedicate as much thought to form and can therefore speak more fluently, so the natural rhythm of the target language is heard. It should be of no surprise, then, that when learners have a chance to plan before a production task, they are able to produce more fluent work with more cohesive ideas.

    SLA research on fluency has examined spoken fluency and written fluency, alongside pretask planning and what effects it has on fluency. Ellis and Yuan (2004) found that participants in the pretask planning group scored higher in fluency than the on-line planning and no planning groups. They found that their pretask planning group was able to prioritize their understanding of the pictures, organize their stories, and plan content before having to write and, in doing so, were able to focus on form during their writing time (Ellis and Yuan, 2004). Meraji (2011) found that fluency was also positively affected by planning when a task was instructional or argumentative.

    Crookes (1989) and Foster and Skehan (1996) have shown as well that pretask planning can have a positive effect on fluency for oral production, and from their study in 2003, Yuan and Ellis found that pretask planning led to greater output and a greater complexity in the speech produced.

    The Study
    Building on the work from Yuan and Ellis (2003) and Ellis (2009), the study proposes pretask planning as a time to actually complete a similar task before assessment and then the natural use of on-line planning during task performance. It is important that the pretask planning and on-line planning tasks are similar because another variable that lessens cognitive load is familiarity— Foster (2020) and Lynch and Maclean (2000) showed that pretask planning can take the form of task rehearsal or repetition. This study builds on Ellis’s (2009) work, in which speakers were shown to exploit on-line planning time the most in interactive tasks, and draws on concepts that have informed the use of PBLA in Canada. It requires students to practice a real-world task in the classroom and then perform a similar task during the evaluation. For example, if students practice answering interview questions, then the evaluation would be a mock job interview.

    Second language learners would have a chance to practice a task in class as part of a regular lesson and then be assessed on the same task at a later time. Given the advantages to learning by doing in memory recall, the psycholinguistic principles of improving recall in the central executive and examining how having performed a task previously modifies task performance at time of evaluation should also be considered.

    The researcher would work in coordination with second language teachers to develop tasks that could be used in their classrooms to help students practice real-world situations. A comparison of student syntactic complexity, accuracy, and fluency (CAF) between the practice of the task and the application (testing) of the task would be examined by the researcher to see if learning by doing, having the pretask planning time, had a positive or negative effect on CAF. It is anticipated that having planning time before a task will have a positive effect on all parts of CAF.

    Research Gap
    SLA research is still investigating which types of instruction aid which types of linguistic ability. Are there certain methodologies which better serve as delivery vehicles for certain language features? It is my hope that this research idea will provide a starting place for others to extend the results to listening, reading, and writing to continue better informing curriculums as to how to best approach material development and delivery. The findings of this study may also carry into instructor training, as a greater understanding of how learning by doing can help adult learners in their linguistic development is still needed in the field.

    Ultimately future studies, like the one outlined in this article, intend to support the use of pretask planning before performance by expanding on the research by Ellis (2009) and TBLT research. This paper was also written with the intention to remind educators of Doughty and Long’s (2003) call to researchers, which is to provide more evidence to develop functional foreign language curriculum without sacrificing any given dimension of the language and to harmonize the way languages are taught by revealing more about how they are learned.

    References available at

    Sarah Langridge, MEd, is an edtech development coordinator at Carleton University in Canada and an ESL instructor. Her research interests lie in improving adult education curriculums. She has an upcoming chapter in the Supercharger Ventures EdTech Book (2021). She can be reached at [email protected] or on LinkedIn.


    1. Refreshing article on what I’ve seen my students do as practice for in class oral assessments using their voice recorder app.


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