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. ACTFL has compiled a significant amount of research to support the the effectiveness of communicative language teaching.
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
One of the ACTFL Core Practices is to teach with the Backwards Design Model. Backward Design is a teaching method that involves designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment. This teaching model lends itself very well to proficiency-based language teaching as it requires the teacher to focus on what students will ultimately be able to do with the language, rather than simply knowing about the language.
Traditional language teaching has often focused on learning and producing language structures and vocabulary through practice-type activities. When it comes time to assessment (or testing) it has typically been a matter of verifying what students can tell the teacher about the language, such as vocabulary lists or verb forms, rather than demonstrating what he or she is able to do with the language.
Backwards design planning and execution happens in three phases or stages.
1. Identify Desired Results
Consider these questions when identifying these goals and desired results for a foreign language unit or lesson.
- What will students do with the language?
- Does this goal only focus on what the students know about the language?
- What is the current proficiency level of the students? (novice mid, intermediate low, etc.)
- What is the text type that students can produce? (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, etc.)
- Is this goal specific?
- Can I create 2-3 can do statements to focus on this goal?
2. Determine Acceptable Evidence
Consider these questions when determining acceptable of language learning and progressing in proficiency.
- Are there opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in the three communication modes? (interpretative, presentational, interpersonal)
- Are the prompts at the appropriate proficiency level? (novice mid, intermediate low, etc.)
- Do the prompts focus on the text type of students at this proficiency level? (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, etc.)
- Is there opportunity for student choice?
- Do the assessments provide insight in to students’ ability to perform the can do statements articulated in the goals and desired outcomes?
- Are there opportunities for spontaneous language production?
3. Plan the Learning Experience and Instruction
Consider these questions when planning instruction to move students toward the desired outcome of the unit or lesson.
- What are the vocabulary themes necessary to reach the goals and desired outcomes?
- What are the language structures necessary to reach the goals and desired outcomes?
- What activities will provide opportunities to meet the goals and desired outcomes using the three communication modes? (interpretative, presentational, interpersonal)
- What tasks will provide students with opportunities to use the language to accomplish a goal that is independent of practicing the language structures and thematic vocabulary?
As students grow in proficiency beyond the novice level, where they are parroting language structures and chunks, they aspire to create with language and speak and write on their own. As teachers we need to provide opportunities for students to create with language. This can be an intimidating prospect for the novice high/intermediate low language learner. It is best, in my experience, to scaffold this language creation in a way that makes students feel confident that they are creating messages on their own, but at the same time not feeling too overwhelmed by the process.
To assist students in this process of moving toward creating their own sentences that move beyond memorized chunks of language I made these tactile sentence writing activities. They are set up to provide some scaffolding in terms of the types of sentences that writers create, while also ultimately leaving the content of the sentence up to the student.
There are two versions of these writing activities. The first version looks like this:
This is how it works. A pencil, a paperclip and a copy of the worksheet are needed to complete this activity. Students place the point of their pencil and a paperclip in the middle of each hexagon. They spin the paperclip by flicking it with a finger. Students write complete, detailed sentences based on the three responses to the spins. Each verb is followed by a question word. Students write an answer to the question word in their sentence.
The second version looks like this:
One die or three dice and a copy of the worksheet are needed to complete this activity. Students roll the die three times or roll three dice once. Students write complete, detailed sentences based on the three responses to the rolls. Each verb is followed by a question word. Students write an answer to the question word in their sentence.
You can download over 20 versions of these writing activities for French and Spanish by clicking on the links below: