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Task-Based Learning: An Introduction to Drawing as a Tool for the Online Language Classroom

Task-Based Learning: An Introduction to Drawing as a Tool for the Online Language Classroom

Task-based learning: ways to create engaged online face-to-face learning

How can we keep our fatigued online learners engaged in our lessons? How can we create meaningful connections between us all? These were two questions that came up over and over again during the online teacher workshops that ELTcampus ran to help teachers face the new online teaching landscape during the early stages of the pandemic in March 2020.

As part of this year's CETA Symposium, I will be presenting online a hands-on... yes, hands-on workshop that I've developed after reflecting on my experiences earlier this year and drawing on task-based learning. The content is also born from running Artists in Schools projects, working with visual arts, working with community, and English language learning.


2020 Pandemic: The Lockdown Drawing Studio

At the beginning of the lockdown in the United Kingdom, when all our children were learning from home, I offered to give some drawing classes online to our local kids. I called it the Lockdown Drawing Studio. The lessons were drawing-based, but with the aim of leading the participants to look carefully at things.

It was emotional to see these kids online because I knew them all and my first feeling was "my babies". I wanted to connect with them. Our drawing sessions were drawing from the timeless act of a group of people coming together to do or make something together.


Drawing as Active Learning


Drawing is a way of not only making learning an active experience but also for creating your own student-centred visual content for the English language classroom. This serves as the springboard for teaching English around the experiences and expressions that students bring to the activity.


In this mini-workshop, we’ll look at:

  • drawing – what’s good about it but also what makes it so difficult.
  • some warm-up activities that you can use in the classroom to use drawing in a way that supports less confident drawers
  • a case study of how I would combine getting my learners drawing and expressing personal ideas and storytelling

Task-based Language Learning (TBLL)

Task-based learning forms the core of my practice as a teacher. I’ve spoken at length at conferences such as IATEFL and run workshops and the topic is dealt with in our ELTCampus courses for teaching young learners and teens. Connecting this learning approach to language learning is a simple next step.

As you'll know, my favourite TBL activity is the use of drawing in the language classroom. This is because I am also an artist and I have run an artists in schools programme. An artist in schools programme is where artists engage with a school. This is either to give workshops or to set up an artist's studio inside the school and invite students to participate in art-making alongside the artist. I have run both workshops and an artist's studio inside a school.

What is Task-Based Learning?

To answer this question, I want to give a cultural context to my ideas about task-based learning. As I said, TBL is a core practice for me as a teacher and also because “learning by doing” is how I myself learn. It’s the learning heritage that has been handed down to me and what I make use of as an artist.

I noticed the other day when I was picking my child up from school, that they had planted a flax bush by the school’s front entrance. This flax is a plant, not unlike linen. It’s a native of Aotearoa New Zealand, not of Cambridge, UK, where I live. I loved seeing the plant and right now it is flowering. It reminds me of home. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we call this plant “flax” by its Māori name: harakeke. Māori is the indigenous language of our land and our national treasure. As I looked at the flax plant, this harakeke, I scanned down to the base of the plant and I remembered how I had been taught, may years ago, to cut it. This was part of a traditional weaving course that I took when I was still at university doing my post-graduate.

To cut harakeke for weaving, one first has to say a karakia, to give thanks for the resource. Then you cut from the outside in to collect just enough for what you need. Then come the stripping and preparing of the leaves into what will become the warp and weft. Finally, you can sit down and start to weave. We started with basics and moved through to the more complex.

One weekend, we were finally ready to weave our first basket. We went to the meeting house, surrounded by the carvings and the ancestors of the people.

It was hard work. I couldn’t get the base of my kete (basket) right. My tutor would come by and say, “Start again Emma”. I couldn’t go to sleep that night until I had finished the first stage. All the while, we sat around together, talking, singing, and weaving. We supported each other until the last one had completed the first stage.

This process of learning and working on a task together provides a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Task-based learning is very, very old. But in many communities, this has all but disappeared.

What language happened around the learning of this task?

So, we move from task-based learning to task-based language learning. There are many facets of layers of TBLL (task-based language learning) that I consider important. The first four are the obvious ones for us as language teachers: The language we learn through doing a task or project, the context we use to embed the language in (in this case, the task) and the cognitive work that needs to be done for the task to happen successfully.

Added to that are intangible's that make being a teacher/coach/mentor/guide such a meaningful role in life. Let's take a look at what all these are:

CLIL and the "C"s

To borrow from CLIL methodology (content and language integrated learning), I will mention here the four“C”s to cover what we need to consider in terms of language learning within task-based learning:

The first two are culture and content:

We make the task (the content) meaningful to the people in the room–our students. We include their cultural perspective. Their context forms part of the task.

Knowing our students, their habits, dreams, beliefs, realities, and desires helps us to select meaningful tasks or to present a task in a way that it becomes meaningful to our students.

The third is cognition:

  • What kind of mental work will be done to successfully complete this task?
  • What do students need to remember how to do?
  • Will the task require them to make guesses, or hypothesise about something?
  • Will they be creating something new out of something they need to have already understood?

The fourth C is for communication:

When we know exactly what the content, the culture, and the context is as well as the cognitive activity we require in order to do the task, we can then plan the language that we need–both for us and our students.

What is the language we need to think about and plan for?

I’m sure the first thing you will think of is the target grammar. Will there be a lot of hypotheses? If so, our students will need to use conditional structures.

But that’s not all. We can teach chunks of highly frequent language that is going to be used during the task.

Then there is the language of the project or task itself. If we are talking about creating a storyline and drawing a comic strip we need the lexis of comics and drawing.

There will be the language for collaborating such as the functional language for asking opinions, inviting our partners to share ideas, interrupting each other, or question forms for asking for objects or information.

Then we need to think about the language that will arise as a result of the task –the conversation, the inquiry, and the unstructured learning that will take place. How can we capture that? How and when should we correct errors?

Finally, observe the interstice: the in-between spaces

From my experience of task-based learning through running drawing studio in a school, I’ve observed that there is also another layer to task-based learning that takes me back to my experiences of learning weaving and the traditional learning styles that my father and his ancestors experienced as people farming the land over centuries. If you observe carefully people engaged together in a task that is meaningful and important to them there are intangible elements that enrich that learning.

Firstly, I’ve observed the mutual support of each other, especially if the task is collaborative. This helps bond your students as people, it develops relationships, connection, empathy, and rapport.

I’ve also observed the calming or focusing benefits, especially when the task is something kinesthetic, like drawing or making and creating something together or alongside each other. When our hands are busy, we have something to focus our energy on and it helps us relax and talk. I’ve watched children, forty or more in my workshop, busy but calm, focused, and engaged because their bodies are engaged through making and drawing.

This has created an environment where talking and communication has happened naturally and comfortably. It reminded me of the night long ago, when we were all in the tribal meeting house together, weaving. Our hands were busy, but our minds were present. We talked, shared, laughed, and sang together. The elders who have taught us to come together and weave, make, create, embroider, build, and construct in community knew that this kind of learning also lent itself to building connection.

Find out more about Emma's arts practice here