Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom

There are six ACTFL Core Practices that serve as guide for teachers as they teach toward increased foreign language proficiency in their classrooms. Once of the key core practices is designing communicative activities for students.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The wave of communicative language teaching began several years back when the language teaching community (linguists, teachers and students alike) took a hard look at the “best” practices of language teachers and came to the conclusion that these practices were not leading students toward being able to use the target language.  Much of the language teaching that was happening several decades back was focused on what students knew about the target language (i.e. verb conjugations, adjective forms, pronoun placement) and not what they were able to accomplish or do with the language that they were learning.  When it became clear that students were not able to communicate effectively using the target language it was clear that we needed to modify how we teach languages.  This was the birth of the concept of communicative language teaching.  Essentially it is an attempt to guide students toward an increased ability to communicate.

What is a Communicative Activity?

There are three concepts of communicative language teaching that set it apart form more traditional approaches:

  1. The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
  2. It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered.  Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
  3. The approach is focused on understanding the message being conveyed by students despite inaccuracy in language form as opposed to being focused on correct usage of language structures and only secondarily tending to the message.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Tips for Designing Communicative Activities

Her are a few tips and ideas to keep in mind as we design communicative activities.  Remember, communicative language teaching, or teaching that will guide students toward confidently communicating in the target language, is focused on the message, not practicing language structures out of context.

  • Active background knowledge  (pre-speaking activities) on the topic of the activity and/or choose a topic with which students are familiar.  When the focus is on communicating and building confidence we want students to be comfortable with the topic.  If they have the language proficiency, but lack content knowledge they will not communicate as much as they would if they were more familiar with the topic.
  • Use open-ended prompts and questions when designing an activity or task.  Prompts that are more finite will not allow for opportunities to engage with the topic and negotiate meaning.
  • Design prompts that require that pairs or groups of students must rely on and listen to each other.  If the prompt requires sharing an opinion, but not finding a commonality or difference with their speaking partner the task is more presentational in nature.
  • Create questions and prompts that require pairs and groups to collaborate and use the language to arrive at a product, not necessarily something physical that they will produce, but more finding a collaborative solution.
  • Be sure that the tasks students complete are at their proficiency level.  Know what their level is and the text type (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, paragraph).  Design a task that will require creating with language using these text types.  A prompt for intermediate low students that requires speaking in connected sentences will lead to a communication breakdown because the text type for their proficiency level is single, discrete sentences.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the Activity Communicative?

Of the three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, presentational) communicative language teaching lends itself best to interpersonal communication.  This mode is about active, real-time exchange of ideas and messages in a two-way (rather than one-way) exchange.  Often when teachers create activities that appear interpersonal they are actually more presentational.  Here are some questions to keep in mind to make sure that the activity that you are designing is actually interpersonal:

  • Is the activity student-centered, rather than teacher-centered?
  • Is the language spontaneous and unrehearsed, rather than prepared and practiced in advance?
  • Is the focus on conveying and understanding the message, rather than on correct language forms?
  • Is the communication a two-way exchange, rather than one-way, requiring response, reaction and spontaneous follow-up?
  • Do students have opportunities to negotiate meaning if they don’t fully understand, rather than understanding all vocabulary and language structures?
  • Do students have communication strategies that they can employ (language ladders, functional chunks, circumlocution)?

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Examples of Communicative Activities

Here are few examples of activity structures that, regardless of proficiency level or content, take into account the concepts of communicative language teaching outlined above:

  1. OWL (Organic World Language) Conversation Circle
  2. Info-Gap Activities
  3. Jigsaw Activities
  4. Picture Prompts
  5. Task-Based Activities

I created a PDF with one-page description of communicative activities along with a lesson template and an example lesson.  Download it HERE.

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