The effect of task-based instruction on reading comprehension of Iranian EFL learners


Isfahan (Khorasgan) Branch, Islamic Azad University, Iran


Developing reading comprehension ability is an important aspect in acquisition of a language.
The  present  study  focused  on  improving  reading  comprehension  ability  through  Task-based
Instruction  (TBI).  TBI  is  a  methodology  that  develops  from  a  focus  on  classroom  tasks.  The
participants of the study were 135 Iranian female students at different levels selected from high
schools  in  Isfahan,  Iran,  through  a  quasi-experimental  design.  The  participants  were  divided
into four groups, two control groups (CGs) and two experimental groups (EGs). They received
a  pre-test,  the  instruction,  and  a  post-test.  The  participants  in  EGs  were  taught  through  TBI,
whereas  CGs  were  exposed  to  a  traditional  method.  The  comparison  between  CGs  and  EGs
were  made  through  paired  sample  t-tests.  The  results  revealed  that  the  students  in  EGs
outperformed  CGs.  The  difference  between  the  two  grades  was  also  investigated  by
independent sample t-test. The results showed that students at first-grade outperformed fourth-graders.  The  findings  suggest  that  using  flexible  and  interactive  tasks  in  English  classes
improves  reading  comprehension  ability  of  Iranian  EFL  learners.  This  study  may  have
pedagogical  implications  for  practitioners  in  the  field  and  for  syllabus  designers  to  include
appropriate tasks in English textbooks.


Main Subjects

The  role  of  reading  comprehension  ability
and  its  constituent  components  -  especially
vocabulary  in  Second/Foreign  Language
(SL/FL)  acquisition  -  has  long  been
neglected, but currently, it is again receiving
attention  in  the  language  teaching
curriculum. As Nunan (1999) claims, this  is
due  to  several  reasons,  including  the
influence  of  comprehension-based
approaches to the development of language,
the  role  of  applied  linguists,  and  the
development  of  computer-based  language
corpora. Developing reading comprehension
ability  is  an  important  aspect  in  acquisition
of a language.
Reading  is  a  dialogue  between  the  reader
and  the  writer  and  comprehension  is  a
procedure  through  which  a  reader  builds
meaning  from  the  text  using  his/her
knowledge,  experience,  and  the  information
from the text. Reading comprehension is the
ability  to  read  and  process  a  text  and
understand  its  meaning.  It  is  the  process  of
constructing  meaning  from  a  written  or
printed  text.  There  are  a  lot  of  approaches
and  methods  to  improve  reading
comprehension  of  SL/FL  learners.  Task-based  Instruction  (TBI)  as  an  application  of
communicative  approach  is  a  methodology
which  focuses  on  functional  tasks  and
invites  the  students  to  use  language  for  real
world.  It  “starts  with  a  task-based  needs
analysis  to  identify  the  target  tasks  for  a
particular groups of learners- what they need
to be able to do in the new language” (Long,
2015, p. 6).  
It  is  claimed  that  language  learning  will
result  from  creating  the  right  kinds  of
interactional processes in the classroom, and
the  best  way  is  using  specially  designed
instructional and functional tasks. Advocates
of  TBI  believe  that  communicative
competence  can  be  developed  through
engagement  of  learners  in  interactive  tasks.
TBI  makes  strong  claim  for  using  tasks  in
planning  teaching  and  also  in  classroom
teaching.  In  TBI,  students  employ  Target
Language  (TL)  to  do  tasks  which  are
meaningful and authentic.
Task,  as  an  activity  which  is  performed
through  using  language,  ends  in  a
predictable  product  to  which  learners  try  to
reach. Communicative task engages learners
in comprehending, employing, or producing
in TL while focusing on meaning rather than
on form.
Over  the  years,  different  approaches,
methods,  and  procedures  have  been
developed  to  help  learners  learn  English.  In
some  methods,  attention  is  on  teaching  and
teacher-centeredness  and  the  focus  on
grammar and vocabulary learning is at level
of making the drills possible. The traditional
methods focus on the idea that once students
learn  grammatical  structures,  they  acquire
vocabulary. Most of students and teachers in
Iran  know  that  vocabulary  is  important  for
reading  comprehension.  However,  most  of
the techniques teachers  use to teach  reading
comprehension  in  Iran  (especially  at  high
schools) are still traditional. Teachers mostly
focus  on  translation  of  units,  practice  of
grammar,  and  memorization  of  long  lists  of
vocabulary  items  and  their  meanings
without  concentration  on  authentic  tasks.
Only recently, some changes are being made
to  reform  methods  of  teaching  to  Iranian
high  school  learners.  Therefore,  this  study
was an attempt to examine the effect of task-based instruction on reading  comprehension
of Iranian EFL learners         
Literature review
Second  language  and  foreign  language
teachers  both  seek  to  find  the  means,
activities,  and  tasks  to  help  language
learners  achieve  their  goals  in  learning
languages. Thus, task holds a central role in
language  pedagogy  and  SL/FL  language
research  because  it  is  used  to  assess  what
learners can do in the L2.
The  definition  of  the  concept  of  task  can
predetermine  language  use.  As  Nunan
(2004) claims, the concept of task has made
its  way  in  syllabus  design,  classroom
teaching, and learner assessment. It has also
influenced pedagogical policies in ESL/EFL
classrooms.  Task  has  been  defined
differently  by  different  experts  in  the  field
(Lee,  2000;  Long,  1985;  Prabhu,  1987;
Skehan, 1996).  
Ellis  (2003)  claims  that  the  definitions  of
task  have  addressed  different  dimensions
such  as  (a)  the  scope  of  a  task,  (b)  the
perspective from which a task is viewed, (c)
its  authenticity,  (d)  linguistic  skills  required
to  perform  a  task,  (e)  psychological  and
cognitive processes involved in performance
of a task, and (f) the outcome of a task.  
Willis  (1996,  p.  23)  defines  task  as  “an
activity where the TL is  used by the learner
for  a  communicative  purpose  in  order  to
achieve  an  outcome.”  For  Richard  and
Rodgers  (2014), a task is an activity  carried
out  as  the  outcome  of  processing  or
understanding  language.  Tasks  may  end  in
production  of  language.  Using  different
tasks  can  make  language  teaching  more
There  are  different  types  of  tasks  which
could  be  employed  in  ESL/EFL  settings,
such as, jigsaw tasks, information-gap tasks, 
problem-solving  tasks,  decision-making
tasks,  opinion  exchange  task,  etc.  They  are
generally divided into pedagogical tasks and
real-world tasks. Nunan (1989) believes that
task is an activity which necessarily includes
language.  It  involves  learners  in
comprehending, manipulating, producing, or
interacting  in  TL  while  they  focus  on
meaning  rather  than  form.    For  Ellis  (2003,
p.16) a pedagogical task is “a work plan that
requires  learners  to  process  language
pragmatically  in  order  to  achieve  an
outcome  that  can  be  evaluated  in  terms  of
whether  the  correct  or  appropriate
propositional  content  has  been  conveyed.”
The  focus  is  on  meaning  even  if  the  design
of  the  task  affects  learners’  choice  of  a
particular form. A task can refer to receptive
skills  (listening  and  reading)  or  productive
skills  (speaking  and  writing).  Knowing  the
definition  and  the  dimensions  can
differentiate  TBI  from  traditional  teaching
TBI emphasizes on conveying meaning with
a proposed product where learners can learn
and  practice  the  forms  of  TL  while  paying
attention  to  meaning.  Tasks  are  activities
that  engage  the  participants  to  be  language
users because tasks improve learners’ ability
to communicate in real-world.    
As  Schmitt  (2008)  stated,  an  important  part
of mastering  a SL is learning  understanding
reading  passages.  L2  learners  need  a  lot  of
words  to  successfully  read  and  understand.
Vocabulary  is  a  powerful  carrier  of
comprehension.  However,  there  is  no
agreement  over  the  best  resources  of
vocabulary  learning/teaching.  In  line  with
new  developments  in  language  teaching
methodology,  some  researchers  (e.g.  De  La
Fuente,  2006;  Keating,  2008)  have  argued
that  integrating  tasks  in  reading  classes  can
increase  engagement  and  facilitate  learning
and teaching. As Nation (2001) claimed, L2
learners  usually  know  that  their  limitations
in  their  vocabulary  knowledge  affect  their
communication  skills,  especially  reading
comprehension  because  lexical  items  bear
the basic information for comprehension.  
To  increase  reading  comprehension  ability,
different teachers employ different methods,
ranging  from  traditional  ones  to  alternative,
communicative  one.  TBI  as  a  substitute
method  to  traditional  language  teaching
method  in  teaching  English  is  suggested
because  it  supports  a  method  in  which
functional  communicative  language  use  is
expected.  Ellis (2009) believes that TBI can
be  both  input-providing  and  output-prompting.  It  is  a  refinement  of  CLT  and
takes  a  fairly  strong  view  of  CLT  (Skehan,
1996).  It  can  be  regarded  as  an  opportunity
to  return  to  the  conceptual  foundations  of
CLT  (Samuda  &  Bygate,  2008).  In  TBI
learning  environment,  learners  are  open  to
choose  and  use  the  TL  to  accomplish
communicative  goals.  As  Carless  (2002,  p.
389) claims, TBI has become “an orthodoxy
in contemporary EFL teaching and in recent
years  has  been  exported  to  many  countries
around the globe.”
In the literature, two early programs within a
communicative  framework  have  used  TBI.
They  were  the  Malaysian  Communicational
Syllabus  (1975)  and  the  Bangalore  Project
(Prabhu,  1987).  Although  these  two
instructional  projects  and  programs  were
used  for  a  short  time,  they  got  significant
attention in language teaching community.  
In  a  sample  study  by  Nakamura  (2008),  the
researcher highlighted the use of TBI to help
develop  skills  in  demonstrating  learner
centered  communicative  and  interactive
lessons  to  Japanese  ELT  students.  Many
other  researchers  have  studied  the
integration  or  implementation  of  TBI  in
teaching  English,  ESP,  EAP,  or  reading
comprehension  (Chodkieiwicz,  2001;  Ellis,
2000;  Skehan,  1998;  Wallace,  2001;  Willis,
1996). Some of them have shown interest in
using authentic materials to improve reading
comprehension ability of the EFL learners.  
However, as Carless  (2012) claims, most of
the  contributions  on  TBI,  focus  on  young
adults,  mainly  in  university  settings.  He
claims  that  the  literature  on  TBI  in  relation
to schooling remains comparatively modest.
Three  noteworthy  research  studies  on
implementation  of  TBI  on  the  school  sector
in  Asian  contexts  are  Sasayama  and  Izumi
(2012)  with  Japanese  high  school  students,
Chan (2012) with primary school learners in
Hong  Kong,  and  Park  (2012)  who  focused
on data from a Korean secondary school.  
Sasayama and Izumi (2012) investigated the
effect  of  TBI  on  Japanese  high  school
students  through  an  experimental  design,
but, the main focus of the study was on task
complexity  and  pre-task  planning  on
learners’  oral  production.  Chan  (2012)
analyzed  20  lessons  in  Hong  Kong  primary
schools  facilitated  by  TBI  by  focusing  on
the  way  teachers  manage  the  linguistic,
cognitive,  and  interactional  demands  of
tasks. Park’s (2012) study highlighted the
relative  scarcity  of  research  on  TBI  at  high
schools and claimed that although TBI “has
attracted  considerable  attention  since  the
1980s, little research has been conducted on
its  actual  implementation  in  secondary  EFL
contexts” (p. 215). Through an experimental
design,  he  implemented  computer  assisted
TBI  in  Korean  secondary  EFL  context  and
concluded  that  TBI  can  be  effective  in
Korean  schools.  He  also  stated  that  both
teachers  and  students  found  task-based
lessons effective and motivating. In Iran, the
employment of TBI in teaching English has
also  been  investigated  by  some  researchers
on  topics  such  as  the  impact  of  TBI,  task
performance,  TBI  in  ESP  courses,
motivating  characteristics  of  tasks,  or
integration of TBI as an alternative approach
(Hayati  &  Jalilifar,  2010;  Hokmi,  2005;
Iranmehr,  Erfani,  &  Davari,  2011;
Poorahmadi,  2012).  Although  some  studies
have  been  conducted  on  TBI  in  Iran,  little
research  has  been  done  to  evaluate  actual
tasks in teaching English at high schools and
with school sector.
Due  to  the  scarcity  of  research  studies  in
Iran  especially  at  high  schools,  the  present
study  intended  to  examine  the  effect  of
integration  of  TBI  in  teaching  reading
comprehension  to  Iranian  high  school
students. In doing so, the following research
questions were posed:
1.  Are  there  any  differences  between
the  achievements  of  Iranian  female
high  school  students  taught  through
TBI  with  those  taught  by  traditional
2.  Are  there  any  significant  differences
between  the  achievements  of  junior
and  senior  Iranian  female  high
school learners taught through TBI?
The  present  study  was  a  quasi-experimental
research based on quantitative data gathered
from  administering  English  reading
comprehension  pre-tests  and  post-tests
during 2014-2015 in  Isfahan,  Iran. The data
were  collected  during  normal  class  time  in
English classes at high school.
The  population  of  the  study  were  Iranian
high  school  female  students.  The  sampling
was  based  on  availability  sampling.  The
participants  were  135  female  junior  and
senior  students  (67  first-graders,  and  68
fourth-graders)  studying  mathematics.  The
first-graders  were  13-15  and  the  fourth-
graders  were  17-18  years  old.  The  mean
scores of the two groups were used in order
to place them into two groups at  each level.
Each  grade  was  divided  into  two
experimental groups and two control groups
(EG1, and EG2; CG1, and CG2).  
Instruments: Pre-test and post-test
Before  the  treatment,  two  tests  on  reading
comprehension  ability  were  given  to  the
participants  in  both  CGs  and  EGs  as  the
research  pre-tests.  After  the  treatment,  two
post-tests  measured  their  reading
comprehension  ability.  Each  pre-test  and
post-test  consisted  of  four  passages  and  20
questions  which  were  administered  to  the
students  to  test  their  ability  in  reading
comprehension  at  two  levels  and  at  two
stages  before  and  after  the  treatment.  Both
pre-tests  and  post-tests  were  selected  from
supplementary  books  that  the  Ministry  of
Education had published for first and fourth
graders.  The  grades  were  calculated  out  of
20  for  both  pre-tests  and  post-tests  for  both
CGs and EGs.
EGs  received  a  treatment  consisting  of
different  tasks  such  as  group  discussion,
role play, interview, information gap, group
work,  mystery  task,  simulations,  and
journalist  task  while  the  CGs  received  only
traditional  teaching  activities  with  no  focus
on tasks or TBI. The tasks for the EGs were
borrowed  from  Ozonder  (2010)  with
modifications.  The  instructions  on
completing the tasks  were  given in detail to
the EGs (see Table1).

Data collection and analysis procedures
First, four intact classes of junior and senior
high  school  female  students  were  selected
and  divided  into  two  EGs  and  two  CGs.  
After  conducting  the  pre-tests,  the  EGs
received  treatment  based  on  TBI  and  the
tasks  were  given  to  them  in  order  to  teach
and  practice  reading  comprehension.  The
experiment  lasted  for  four  months;  while
CGs  received  the  materials  of  their
textbooks  in  a  traditional  way  through
reading,  translation  of  the  materials,  and

answering  non-task-based  reading
comprehension  questions,  the  EGs  received
TBI  and  completed  tasks  such  as  group
discussion, role play, interview, information
gap,  group  work,  mystery  task,  simulations,
and  journalist  task  (see  Table  1).  Teaching
time was divided into three phases: pre-task,
task,  and  post-task.  In  each  phase,  learners
received information on how to complete the
In order to analyze the data, paired sample t-tests  were  run  to  examine  whether  there
were  any  significant  differences  in  the
means of reading comprehension in CGs and
EGs for each grade. The independent sample
t-tests were also used to compare the means
of  post-tests  of  EGs  to  find  the  probable
differences  in  the  means  of  juniors  and
The students’ reading comprehension ability
before and after the treatment was examined
through pre-tests and post-tests, and the data
were  analyzed  in  terms  of  descriptive  and
inferential statistics.
To  guarantee that there  were no statistically
significant differences between the means of
CGs  and  EGs  on  the  pre-test,  a  paired
sample  t-test  was  run  at  the  very  beginning
of the experiment. Table 2 shows the results
of the inferential statistics employed.
As  presented  in  Table  2,  no  statistically
significant differences between the means of
CGs  and  EGs  were  observed.  In  other
words,  the  control  and  experimental  groups
were  homogeneous  in  terms  of  reading
comprehension ability before the treatment.  
To  determine  if  there  were  any  statistically
significant differences between the means of
CGs  and  EGs  on  the  post-tests,  a  paired
sample  t-test  was  run  after  the  treatment.
Table 3 presents the results of the inferential
statistics employed.
It  can  be  inferred  from  Table  3  that  there
were  statistically  significant  differences
between the means of CGs and EGs after the
treatment. In other words, the participants in
the EGs outperformed meaningfully those in
the CGs.  
Moreover,  the  results  of  the  descriptive
statistical  analyses  of  the  scores  of  the
participants  in  ECs  showed  that  the  mean
score of first-graders was higher than that of
fourth-graders.  Figure  1  depicts  this
To examine whether the difference observed
between  the  means  of  the  two  EGs  was
statistically  significant,  an  independent
sample  t-test  was  run.  Table  4  displays  the
results of the inferential statistics used.
As  Table  4  shows,  the  two  means  were
statistically  different.  In  other  words,  the
first-graders  outperformed  the  fourth-graders  in  terms  of  reading  comprehension
ability.  The  discussions  and  interpretations
of  the  results  of  the  study  will  be  presented
in the next section.

In  answering  the  questions  concerning  the
effect  of  TBI  on  reading  comprehension
ability  of  Iranian  high  school  female
students,  the  data  were  analyzed  through
statistical  procedures.  The  results  showed
that the role of task was an attention injector
for  Iranian  high  school  students.  They
became  involved  in  the  class  works  by
sharing  answers,  trying  to  participate,
paying  attention,  giving  answers,
encouraging  others  to  participate  in  the
activities  and  tasks,  participating  as
volunteers, working on the exercises, and so
The  results  of  the  study  also  revealed  that
the participants in the EGs, who were asked
to do the tasks, improved their performance.
The  student-to-student  interaction  while
performing  the  tasks  provided  opportunities
for  them  to  talk  about  vocabularies  and
monitor  the  language  they  used.  TBI
improved  their  interaction  skills  and
maximized their use of TL. During the tasks,
the  students  in  EGs  exchanged  their  ideas
and negotiated to learn their peers’ ideas,
attitudes,  or  beliefs  on  certain  issues,  and
became  familiar  with  a  lot  of  words  related
to  the  topic.  Of  course,  the  students  in  EGs
had  the  chance  to  receive  feedback  from
their  teacher  and  also  their  classmates.  The
existence  of  such  a  feedback  provided  a
more relaxing and less threatening condition
for them and created a collaborative learning
experience. Yet, the exercises in the CGs did
not stimulate the appropriate processes very
much  to  bring  the  EFL  learners  to  the  level
of  fully  learning  the  words.  They  did  not
receive  any  feedback  from  their  peers,  and
the  only  authority  for  judging  the  accuracy
of  exercises  was  the  teacher.  Therefore,  the
traditional approach was not very successful
in helping the students work collaboratively.  
The  first-graders  showed  a  statistically
significant difference partly due to their high
motivation levels. In other words, the juniors
performed  better  compared  to  the  seniors.
This  might  be  because  of  the  time  spent  on
activities. The fourth-graders were busy with
their  preparations  for  University  Entrance
Exam  because  it  was  the  most  important
exam during their studies and many of them
preferred  to  get  ready  for  this  exam  rather
than  get  a  good  score  in  their  final  exams.
Some  of  them  did  not  participate  in  class
with  as  much  ease  and  confidence  as  many
of the juniors. The composition and internal
structure  of  the  learner  group  among  first-graders  was  changing  the  class  atmosphere
to  a  great  extent  and  helping  the  students
feel  secure  and  comfortable  because  they
were  part  of  a  cohesive  group.  The  high
level  engagements  of  first-graders  made
greater  group  cohesiveness.  When  grade
differences  were  taken  into  consideration,
however,  fourth-graders  appeared  to  be
affected negatively by their anxiety.
The  results  of  this  study  are  in  line  with
Hokmi (2005) who claimed that teachers can
adapt teaching materials in such a way as to
create  a  situation  which  helps  meaningful
engagement of the learners, and, as a result,
successful  completion  of  the  tasks.  The
results  are  also  in  agreement  with  Iranmehr
et  al.  (2011)  who  supported  the
implementation  of  tasks  and  presented  the
significant  advantage  of  teaching  through
TBI. This study also supports the findings of
Poorahmadi  (2012)  who  believed  that  TBI
was  very  effective  in  improving  reading
comprehension  ability  of  Iranian  EFL
The  results  of  this  study  can  offer
pedagogical  implications  at  macro  and
micro  levels.  At  the  macro  level,  decision-makers,  policy-makers,  and  curriculum
developers  can  make  use  of  the  findings  of
this  research  in  designing  much  more
adequate and efficient syllabi which is more
adaptable  with  TBI,  and  more
communicative  approaches.  Implementation
of  TBI  as  an  alternative  teaching  method,
can  be  a  part  of  the  teacher  training  or  in-service programs.  
At  the  micro-level  and  in  practice,  the
research  results  could  benefit  the  teachers,
evaluators,  test-developers,  and  the  students
in  the  field  of  EFL  in  different  academic
contexts.  Practitioners  in  the  field  can
employ tasks and activities based on TBI to
teach  reading  comprehension,  its  different
aspects  and  components,  or  other  skills  to
Iranian  EFL  learners.  For  this  purpose,
language  teaching  programs  should
familiarize  teachers  with  TBI,  its  basic
principles  and  techniques,  and  its
implementation  within  current  approaches.
Teachers can also evaluate their students’
performances by using different tasks rather
than  traditional  paper-and-pencil  exams.
Moreover,  studies  like  the  present  one,  can
raise the awareness of the students about the
positive role and effects  of tasks  in learning
English, and can encourage them to demand
for  alternative  methods  from  their  teachers,
books, and educational system.  
The  results  of  the  present  study  hopefully
will  stimulate  teachers  to  alter  their  reading
classes  from  traditional  atmosphere  to  more
dynamic  and  communicative  situations.
Through  implementation  of  TBI,  they  can
facilitate  and  improving  reading
comprehension  of  Iranian  EFL  learners.  As
Basturkmen  (2006,  p.  125)  claimed,  TBI
“will provide room for the teacher to predict
the  learners’  potentiality  of  their  future
performance  in  their  professional,  academic
or  work  place  where  better  performance  is
considered respected.”  
In  addition  to  the  potential  pedagogical
benefits  from  this  study,  researchers  can
investigate  other  skills  such  as  listening,
pronunciation,  speaking  to  examine  the
possible  role  of  TBI.  Studying  TBI  in
learning  reading  comprehension  with  a
larger  number  of  participants  at  different
levels of proficiency over a longer period of
time,  and  emphasizing  qualitative  research
could  be  interesting  areas  for  further
research.  Because this study was conducted
with  a  limited  number  of  participants,  it  is
suggested  to  expand  the  replications  of  this
study  to  other  language  situations  such  as
guidance  schools,  universities,  or  institutes.
Triangulation  of  different  instruments  such
as interview, observation, and questionnaires
for  both  teachers  and  learners  can  also
provide better insights relating to the effects
of tasks and TBI.


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teaching  in  foreign  language
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implementation.  Amsterdam/
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