Category Archives: Speaking

Communicative Language Teaching Mindset Shift. That Was Then. This Is Now.

The field of language teaching is always on the move.  Every decade or so there is an innovative way to approach language teaching.  For a recap of the language teaching methodologies that have surfaced over the past century take a look at this post.  Over the past decade many foreign language teachers have embraced communicative language teaching, which focuses on authentic communication over language forms such as grammar structures.

That Was Then. This Is Now. Communicative Language Teaching Mindset Shift (French, Spanish)

To be clear, a certain level of accuracy of language is needed to convey a message that is comprehensible.  The difference from methodologies of the past is that previous approaches to language teaching focused almost solely on accuracy of language.  These days we see the value in focusing on the message, even when that means looking past some errors when the learner has not yet acquired the language structure.

There has been a significant shift in mindset along with the arrival of communicative language teaching.  Previous methodologies focused on what learners did wrong rather than on their progress.  The goal was complete accuracy in the past along with the belief that a speaker would not  be understood if the language was not completely correct.  We now accept that communication can happen despite occasional inaccuracy.  This is the base of the difference in mindset, or underlying tenets that support the approaches.

Here are four areas of this mindset shift that distinguish current communicative approaches from accuracy-centered approach of the past.

Objectives and Content:

  • Past: The teacher was the all-knowing possessor of knowledge and directed all content and objectives to ensure progress toward correct language.
  • Present: The teacher works in collaboration with students and there are shared learning objectives.  Content is driven by both the teacher and the student.

Communication:

  • Past: Typically communication was focused on the four traditional language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.  This usually meant that these skills were practiced in isolation and were not interconnected.
  • Present: The three modes of communication (presentational, interpretive, interpersonal) are now the focus.  They provide students with opportunities to do something with the four skills.

Performance:

  • Past: The focus was on what students knew about the language and its structures.  Practice of correct grammatical forms of the language were typically done in isolation and out of context.
  • Present: The focus is on what the learner is able to do or accomplish with the language.  This is always tied to context and students communicate authentically with the language despite occasional inaccuracy in language when the message is clear.

Assessment:

  • Past: Assessments determined the level of language accuracy and the teacher could easily and quickly point out what was incorrect, such as verb forms, noun gender, adjective agreement, etc.
  • Present: Assessments are performance-based.  Teachers use tools and strategies such as backwards design and Can-Do statements to guide students toward communication.

Where are you regarding your teaching mindset?  If you want to embrace communicative language teaching, take a look at the “present” mindset statements and see where you are.  It can take some time and a solid approach is always evolving.  It doesn’t have to happen this week.   Download this PDF with some questions to help keep your lesson planning in the “present.”

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks; Task-Based Activities

There are many different types of activities that we create for our foreign language students.  In the communicative language classroom there are two broad categories of activities: exercises and tasks.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What is a task?

  • A task requires the use of the target language in order to complete a task. The goal is the completion of the task, though the expectation is that the target language is being used to complete it.

What is an exercise?

  • Bill Van Patten describes “exercises” as activities that focus on language mechanics and often use language out of context.
  • “Tasks,” in contrast, are activities that have a product, goal, objective or outcome that require using the target language to achieve it, but are not focused on mechanics.

With tasks the goal is independent of language. Research overwhelmingly shows that language used in context is most beneficial to language acquisition. Tasks are an effective way of providing communicative activities to students.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the activity an exercise or a task?

Consider these aspects of activities when determining if it is an exercise or a task:

The Activity is an exercise if it…

  • focuses only correct examples of language.
  • uses language out of context.
  • focuses on producing small amounts of language.
  • doesn’t focus on meaningful communication.
  • dictates language structures and vocabulary.

The Activity is a task if it…

  • focuses on achieving communication.
  • focuses on meaningful use of language.
  • employs communication strategies.
  • does not use predictable language.
  • links language use to context.
  • does not dictate language structures.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com 

How do I design task?

  1. Choose a theme and a goal. Keep in mind particular vocabulary themes or language structures that you would like students to use and craft the activity accordingly.
  2. Explain the task and desired outcome.
  3. Pairs/groups engage in task. Teacher engages as necessary to keep task on track.
  4. Pairs/groups share out their goals with other groups or as a whole class.
  5. Teacher provides an individual extension activity.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Take a look at this SlideShare that explains the difference between exercises, activities and tasks.

Also have a look at this post with lots of task-based activities for the French and Spanish classroom.

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

Here 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.

  • Activate 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.

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate

At the novice level, students are speaking and writing with single words and lists initially, then move on to chunked phrases.  Here are some examples:

Novice Low/Mid:

  • green
  • apple, banana, orange
  • Josué
  • soccer, football
  • movies, restaurant

Novice High:

  • My favorite color is green
  • I like apples, bananas and oranges
  • My name is Josué
  • I play soccer and football
  • On the weekend I like to go to the movies and to a restaurant

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comAs students move up to the intermediate proficiency level they begin to create discrete sentences on their own that move beyond chunked phrases.  This tends to be the most challenging for students as they begin to create with language and are not relying on memorized phrases to chunk together.  Rather than changing the detail after a memorized phrase such as “my favorite ______ is _______” and “I like __________” they are moving on to changing subjects, using various propositions and varying their verb forms and tenses.  Teachers can help scaffold this process for students by assisting them in creating sentences.  Students are often challenged by how to add details to a sentence to make it their own, particularly when writing.

I have found that using question words with students is a simple and effective way to have students add details to their sentences that move from memorized, chunked phrases to discrete sentences that are created by the student.  The more they do this the more they will grow in confidence and begin to do it on their own when writing.

A simple reminder of question words as students  write about a topic will guide them toward writing discrete sentences that they create on their own and and will move solidly on to the intermediate low proficiency level. For example, if a student writes ” I like to swim.” suggest a few question words to help make the sentence a bit longer and more detailed.  With whom?  When?  Where?

This will move the sentence from “I like to swim” to “I like to swim with my friend Julie on Saturday at the community pool.”  The more students get accustomed to adding details this way the more they will do it on their own when speaking and writing.

Here are a few posts I’ve written that have some suggestions and resources for guiding students through this process of moving their speaking and writing from novice to intermediate.  Click on the images to see the posts.

Spanish & French Verb Tense and Sentence Writing Powerpoint Activities

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students-are-ring-in-foreign-language-proficiency

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How to Assess Proficiency and Give Number and Letter Grades

Most teachers are required to give number or letter grades in their foreign language classes.  Even though there is some level of autonomy regarding how this might be done, the reality is that at the end of the term, semester or year we have to provide one holistic grade.  This is often a challenge due to the sometimes ambiguous nature of communicative language teaching.  Our grading systems are based on a right/wrong approach to assessment.  It’s not easy to honor proficiency progress with a grading system that is set up this way.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comIt’s a simple fact that does not seem to be evolving any time soon…schools require teachers to give a letter or number grade when assessing students.  Along with this reality we as teachers want to provide students with useful feedback on their progress.  Collectively, the hope is to provide this much-needed feedback and assessment while following the grading protocol in our schools.  Ultimately we would like to combine both what is useful to our students with what is required of us professionally in a sustainable way.  Does this even seem possible?

I’ve been there.  Several years back as I began researching and deepening my understanding of ACTFL proficiency levels and communicative language teaching.  It soon became clear that the fluidity of proficiency levels did not integrate well into a concrete grading system.  Essentially, like most teachers, my grades at the end of the term were more a reflection of what students knew about the language than what they could do with the language. As I wrestled with this reality I worked to create a grading program that concretely assessed student proficiency levels while honoring the grading requirements in my school.

As you grapple with this issue, I suggest that you begin by familiarizing yourself with the ACTFL proficiency levels and the text types that are associated with each level.  These text types are the output that students produce.  Knowing what the student output will be is the first step in creating tasks that will assess students.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comOnce you know what the expected test type will be decide what thematic vocabulary you’d like to assess along with the anticipated language structures.  Once you know what the text type should be and you have a solid idea of what the anticipated vocabulary and structures are you can then create a prompt or task that students can complete and be assessed on.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comThis sort of backwards planning is essential.  If you begin with the prompt without considering the text type output or the vocabulary and structures the prompt is not likely to have the intended outcome.

Once you have the task ready to go, you will need a proficiency-based rubric to assess what the student is able to do.  It is essential to include all the elements that that are part of language proficiency.  In particular, text type, language control, vocabulary and strategy use.

How to include proficiency in a traditional grade. (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comYou can download three types of rubrics HERE.  These rubrics include a lesson plan template and are applicable to any proficiency level.  In addition, you will find assessment rubrics for presentational, interpretive and interpersonal communication.

Once you use these rubrics you will quickly see how efficiently you can assess proficiency and easily integrate the grade into your overall grades in your class.  Without them you will likely find yourself where I was a few years back…ready to embrace communicative language teaching, but unable to assess in a productive and sustainable way.

Language Proficiency Levels and Leveling up

I recently wrote a post about what communication specifically looks like at the various proficiency levels along with some tips for leveling up.  I put all the details together in this one graphic.

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What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels?

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comThe ACTFL Proficiency Levels and Performance Descriptors provide a very useful tool for seeing exactly what learners are able to communicate and produce at the various proficiency levels.  I put together a graphic to visualize the output a bit more concretely.

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The question always comes up about how students can move up in their proficiency level.  The ACTFL Text Types show the specific types of language that novice, intermediate and advanced learners produce.

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comReferencing the types of language that learners produce along with the descriptors of what learners are able to communicate we can provide a few suggestion for moving up sub-levels (low-mid-high) and levels (novice, intermediate, advanced).

To move up sub-levels in the novice proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comTo move up sub-levels in the intermediate proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comTo move up sub-levels in the advanced proficiency range:

What Does Language Look Like at the Various Proficiency Levels? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com