How can I make sure my class is truly communicative?

Read this article by Paolo Ghidini, which explores a tool (the Communicative Score) that teachers can use to evaluate how communicative classroom activities really are.

Students in a classroom in PO

‘We use the communicative method’. How many times have you heard these words from a school, your institution or a potential employer? Probably countless. Since the eighties, so-called communicative language teaching (CLT) has rapidly taken the world by storm and is pretty much everywhere now; every school and institution in ELT swears by it. Leaving aside the definition, which can be very wide, it’s now accepted that there isn’t a single communicative method, but we should rather speak of communicative approaches. A while ago, I was recruited by a company to start as a director of studies in one of their schools, which, according to them, used ‘the’ communicative method. Once I dug into it, the ‘method’ consisted of reading aloud and repeating countless times particular phrases, before finally moving on to using them in role plays or set conversations. Communicative? Perhaps in some limited ways. But could they do more? 

Even in mainstream ELT, the reality is perhaps not as progressive and communication driven as we think. Look around you and think of the typical lessons you teach, or colleagues teach, or the kinds of lessons you plan for observations, to pass CELTA, etc. How much real communication happens there? 

What follows is an attempt to quantify how communicative activities (and, ultimately, lessons) are, and serves as a tool for experienced and new teachers alike to reflect on the kinds of activities we plan in our lessons. Meet the Communicative Score: 

It works in a very simple way. Take any activity, ask the questions. If the answer is 'yes', then award points, if the answer is 'no', then don't. As simple as that.

Is it two-way? Any activity that requires pair work or group work is a resounding ’yes’. Individual activities are a ‘no’ and don’t get awarded any points. 

Is it real-life-like? Would you really do something like that outside of the classroom context? As an example, discussing a topic, reading a review to decide whether you would go to a certain restaurant or role playing buying a train ticket are all activities that would get 2 points here. Most worksheets, gap filling, comprehension questions, reading a passage to identify the tenses used would not get any points. (I doubt in real life you listen to a conversation to answer a pre-determined set of questions!) 

Is it meaning or content focused? When the attention is on the content, communication generally assumes a deeper meaning and resonates much more than when the focus is on the language itself. ‘Read and tell your partner if you agree with the author’ is an example of a ‘yes’ here, while ‘Read and highlight the examples of comparative adjectives' is a ‘no’, not getting any points. 

Is it personalised and contextualised? In other words, is it relevant to the learners? Reading about car retail market research could be a ‘yes’ for a business English class, probably a ‘no’ for a group of teenagers. 

Is it real? Or better: are the learners themselves when doing this activity? Do they bring their own personality, opinions and life experience to it? A role play in which students impersonate various characters is not the same as having them bringing their own self to the activity. So, ‘no’ for the former, ‘yes’ for the latter. Bear in mind that activities in which personality or opinions aren’t relevant (i.e. answering comprehension questions, purely language work, quizzes, etc.) would count as ‘no’. 

Is it emotional? The final extra point is awarded if an activity brings up a strong emotional response in the participants. If you have ever seen the different level of engagement when learners are asked to share memories from their childhood versus when they are asked to discuss the latest tech gadget, you know exactly what I mean. I believe this has a stronger communicative value because it raises the stakes: the more valuable the information is, the more important it is to communicate effectively. 

All right. Now that we have looked at the tool, let’s use it to analyse an example activity. 

Lead-in: Students look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and are asked the location. Then in pairs they are asked to brainstorm as much as possible about Paris. 

Is it two-way? Yes – students work in pairs – 2pt. 

Is it real-life-like? No – no one sits down with another person and jots down whatever they know about Paris on a piece of paper – 0pt. 

Is it meaning or content focused? Yes – 2pt. 

Is it personalised and contextualised? Debatable. It depends on the students’ own interest in visiting Paris – 0 or 2pt. 

Is it real? No – students’ personalities or opinions are irrelevant here – 0pt. 

Is it emotional? No – very unlikely to provoke any kind of emotional response – 0pt. 

Total communicative score for the activity: 4/6 points out of 10. 

Can we do better? Can we achieve the same aim (to get students interested in the topic and activate schemata) and be more communicative at the same time? Let’s look at an alternative.

Lead-in: Students answer these questions in pairs – Have you ever been to Paris? How was it? If not, would you like to go? Why (not)?  

Is it two-way? Yes – 2pt. 

Is it real-life-like? Yes – we do discuss these things with people – 2pt. 

Is it meaning or content focused? Yes – 2pt. 

Is it personalised and contextualised? Yes – students are now in it, and, whether they like it or not, they are asked to express their opinion – 2pt. 

Is it real? Yes – students now bring their own life experience and opinions into the activity – 1pt. 

Is it emotional? This time it might be; maybe a student has had a particularly good or bad experience there, or feels strongly about wanting to go or not. We cannot predict with certainty, but we increase the chance of the activity being ‘emotionally charged’ – 0 or 1 pt. 

The total communicative score for the activity, all of a sudden, achieving the same aim, is 9/10 points out of 10. 

We could repeat the same experiment with all other stages of the lesson and easily identify where the activity is ‘lacking’ in terms of communication. The case I would like to make is that we can dramatically improve the communication score of our activities, often by just making minimal changes to them. The aim here shouldn’t be to get a 10/10 for the whole lesson but to cyclically look at our lesson plans and see whether we could add a little more communication here and there, by turning individual activities into pair work or group work, for example, or by making it more real-life-like, or more emotionally engaging.  

If we don’t want to simply ‘pay lip service to CLT’, as Thornbury famously wrote in an article in 1996 [1], perhaps we should rediscover the importance of real communication in the classroom. After all, as Allwright put it, back in 1979, ‘If communication is the aim, then it should be the major element of the process’ [2]. 

 

[1] S. Thornbury, “Paying lip-service to CLT, EA Journal Volume 14 No 1, 1996 

[2] R. L. Allwright, “Language learning through communication practice”, in Brunfit & Johnson (eds.) The communicative approach to language teaching. OUP, 1979. 

 

Paolo Ghidini currently works as Senior Teacher Young Learners for the British Council in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Originally from Italy, he has taught in Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Malta, Georgia and Tunisia. Starting his own personal language learning journey well into adulthood, he is a passionate advocate for communication and dialogue in education, heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, Neil Postman and Scott Thornbury. 

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