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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
Posted in Classroom Procedures, Listening, Reading, Speaking, Teaching Methodology and Research, Writing
Tagged ACTFL, communication, Foreigh Langauge, french, language learning, proficiency, spanish, teacher
There are six ACTFL Core Practices that serve as guide for teachers as they teach toward increased foreign language proficiency in their classrooms. One of the key core practices is designing communicative activities for students.
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:
- The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
- It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
- 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.
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.
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)?
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:
- OWL (Organic World Language) Conversation Circle
- Info-Gap Activities
- Jigsaw Activities
- Picture Prompts
- 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.
Posted in Activities and Games, Classroom Procedures, Speaking, Teaching Methodology and Research
Tagged ACTFL, communication, communicative, foreign language, french, language, language learning, proficiency, spanish, teacher, teaching
The ACTFL Proficiency Levels and Performance Descriptors provide a useful way of creating prompts and assessing student communication in the classroom.
Teachers are becoming more familiar with these proficiency levels and the text types associated with them.
The Performance Descriptors break proficiency down into several categories: Language Control, Vocabulary and Strategies. Depending on the task a cultural assessment may also be a part of this. Quite often the challenge is finding a way to concretely assess students in these categories.
When creating an assessment, the teacher should begin by going over exactly what language looks like at each proficiency level. By knowing the current proficiency level of students the teacher can create prompts that require speaking, listening, writing and reading that is possible for students to accomplish without going too far above or below their proficiency level. If you need a refresher on assessing proficiency levels and communication strategies take a look at these posts:
Begin planning each task with these questions:
- What is the current text type of students (proficiency level)?
- What are the language structures to be assessed?
- What is the vocabulary theme?
- What communication strategies are needed?
Then, based on this information, write a prompt that will allow students to speak, read, listen, write and communicate at a proficiency level that is appropriate to them. It’s important to follow this order so that the prompt is appropriate to the proficiency level.
You can download detailed rubrics that assess interpersonal, interpretive and presentational communication HERE. They include text type, language control, vocabulary and communication strategies and can be used on any topic or proficiency level.