Task Analysis in Special Education: How to Deconstruct a Task

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Task analysis when teaching special needs - example of explicit learning visual


As educators, we often go through the process of deconstructing a task by breaking down a complex skill into smaller steps so that students are able to learn the skill gradually, and easily. This process is known as Task Analysis and is especially crucial when teaching students with special needs.

We typically learn in two ways, explicitly and implicitly. Explicit learning is the intentional experience of acquiring a skill or knowledge, while implicit learning is the process of learning without conscious and deliberate awareness, such as learning how to talk and eat. Our students with special needs benefit more from explicit teaching and learning because they often face challenges acquiring skills implicitly due to the need for contextual understanding, communication skills, and so on. 

For explicit teaching and learning to be effective, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the skill through task analysis.

Task Analysis involves a series of thought processes:

1. Goal Selection: Know exactly what it is that you want to teach

Be clear and specific about the goal or the skill that you want to teach. Avoid having too many sub-goals. 

  • Negative example: Play a complete song.
  • Positive example: Press keys on the piano by following the alphabets shown on a flashcard or music score.

2. Identify any prerequisite skills, if any 

In our earlier example of teaching the sequence of piano keys, some of the prerequisite skills will include:

  • Literacy skills of alphabets and/or colours
  • Matching skills of alphabets and/or colours
  • Visual referencing skills in top-down and/or left-right motion
  • Motor skill of only using one finger to press the key, or to imitate an action

Prerequisite skills are important because these skills help to make the learning more feasible and increase the possibility of successfully performing the new skill. 

3. Write a list of all the steps needed to complete the skill you want to teach

A skill can be completed in a single step, or in a series of sequential steps. It is thus helpful that we list down all the steps needed to complete the skill we want to teach. With this, the Task Analysis becomes more detailed and effective. Let’s take the above goal and list down the steps needed. 

Goal: Press keys on the piano by following the alphabets shown on a flashcard or music score.

The keys steps needed to complete this task are:

  1. Look up at the flashed alphabet.
  2. Process and retain the information in the learner’s working memory.
  3. Look down at the piano keys.
  4. Find the corresponding key by scanning past non-target keys.
  5. Identify and stop at the target key.
  6. Aim and press with one finger. 

4. Identify which steps your child can do and which he/she cannot yet do

The next step will be to know the current skill level of your learner by identifying which steps the learner can do, and which the learner cannot. Assume the learner has the following challenges:

  • Not consistent in visual referencing skill of looking up and down repeatedly.
  • Unable to focus and scan more than 4 keys at one time.
  • Often mistakes Letter G for C and vice versa. 

This means that this learner will have challenges in completing Steps 3, 4, and 5 in the above Task Analysis. 

5. Isolate any gap skills, if needed, and teach them first

The steps in which the learner cannot do or has challenges in are known as gap skills. After identifying the gap skills, take time to isolate the skills, teach them, and bridge them. This process takes time. For example, looking at the gap skills in the above example: 

  • Visual Referencing Skill: 

This is an abstract skill that takes time to build. It is unlikely that the learner can learn and master this in a couple of weeks. Therefore, to bridge this, the teacher should intentionally provide opportunities for top-down visual referencing across activities and settings, such as taking a toy from a shelf above and keeping them back on top, or sorting activities whereby one item is on top, and one is at the bottom. 

  • Working Memory Stamina

This is also another skill that takes time to build. Teaching it across settings and activities will be more effective and efficient. 

  • Often mistakes Letter G for C and vice versa. 

This is a skill that can be taught together with the target skill. Since the learner mistakes G for C and vice versa, and is unable to scan more than 4 keys at any one time, reduce the sequencing to CDEF or FGAB such that there is only either C or G in the target sequence. Once the learner is more confident, isolate C and G so that the learner learns to differentiate the two before the full sequence is introduced again. 

Once the gap skills are bridged, the likelihood of the learner performing the target skill will increase vastly.

6. Determine the strategy to be used when completing the target skill, with or without gap skills

At this stage, the learner might still have some gap skills to work on, but the teacher decides to move on to teaching the actual target skill. There are generally three strategies to use:

  1. Backward Chaining

As the name suggests, Backward Chaining involves the teacher helping the student complete all the steps in the front, leaving only the last step for the learner to do. This also means that the teacher focuses on the last step in the teaching process. The teacher then slowly moves to teach the step before the last until the learner is able to complete all the steps.

  1. Forward Chaining

This is the opposite of Backward Chaining. The teacher starts teaching from the first step and then moves on chronologically. 

  1. Total Chaining

This strategy involves the learner in all the steps and the teacher teaches all the steps to the learner with prompts. The learner is learning all the steps. 

It is common to have tried all three strategies before the teacher is able to decide which one works best, so do not be afraid to evaluate and change your mind halfway!

7. Develop a systematic teaching plan, implement, assess and evaluate the progress

After you decide on your teaching strategy, you can then plan and start the actual teaching. Do remember to assess and evaluate the learner’s progress regularly so as to make the learning effective!

Task Analysis may be a long and daunting process at the beginning. However, the more you do it, the better you get at it. In fact, we are practising the steps of Task Analysis as we write this article for you! Practice more and you will soon see how useful it is. 

Interested in more tips on teaching to children with special needs? You can read about the importance and features of a good classroom set-up here!

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