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Dissertation on Language

In this dissertation chapter on language, I will endeavor to: define Communicative Language Teaching; when and why it became an important approach in foreign language teaching; discuss attitudes to it; define communicative activities; discuss learner-directed activities and the teacher’s role; give examples of communicative activities and discuss the place of Communicative Language Teaching in my own teaching situation.

Put simply, the aim of Communicative Language Teaching is to help students move beyond mastering the structures in a foreign language to the point where they can use them to communicate meaningfully in real life situations. This assumes that people who learn the English language want to be able to communicate socially on an everyday basis with native or very able English language speakers. They will also want to be able to live normal lives if they are visiting, or living in, countries where English is the primary language.

The ‘communicative’ movement has been influential in teaching foreign languages since the early 1970s. It “grew out of dissatisfaction with the structuralism and situational methods of the 1960s.” (Nunan, 1990) Of course, the basic aim of any foreign language teaching has always been communicative ability, and this is widely used in, e.g. the audio-lingual method. However, the implications of this aim have been more thoroughly studied since the 1970s. The communicative approach makes teachers and students consider language in terms of the communicative functions it performs in real situations, as well as its structures( vocabulary and grammar). The emphasis in language teaching comes off mastering individual structures (although these are very useful in the bigger picture) and moves onto providing students with opportunities to use the language themselves to get things done.

There are different ideas as to how Communicative Language Teaching operates. Initially it was seen as a methodology but now British and American proponents “see it as an approach (and not a method) that aims to (a) make communicative competence the goal of language teaching and (b) develop procedures for the teaching of the four language skills that acknowledge the interdependence of language and communication.” (ELC Module 5, 2000) According to Howatt (1984), there are ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ versions of the communicative approach. He states that the ‘weak’ version is now more or less standard practice. (ELC Module 5, 2000). This is possibly still true in 2001. I believe this ‘weak’ version could reflect not only a philosophical belief, but also the teaching styles of some EFL teachers as well as the learning styles of some students. Drills and like activities leave the power in the teacher’ hands while communicative tasks give much more power and control to the student. On the other hand, there are students who much prefer an analytical or authoritative approach to learning. This is very true for many Chinese students who operate in a classroom situation where memorizing facts is the norm. It completely daunts many of them when they are asked to think for themselves in EFL classes, and they desperately make notes or ask analytical questions to assure themselves that what they are doing is correct. It takes time and patience to introduce a learner-centred curriculum in these situations, and it is extremely important that the students experience success at every stage.

There are several criteria that can be used to determine whether or not activities are communicative ones. Littlewood (1988) summarizes them under four headings:
1. “They provide whole-task practice” through various kinds of communicative activity with a real purpose, structured in order to suit the students’ level of ability. It is very important in a learner-centred classroom that the teacher discovers each student’s level of ability and builds on it.
2. “They improve motivation” so that the students have the desire and feel the need to communicate with others.
3. “They allow natural learning” which happens inside the students when the they are using language for communication.
4. “They can create a context which supports learning.” Positive personal relationships can develop among students and between the students and teacher in the classroom. In turn this creates an environment that supports learning.

Rod Ellis (ELC Module 5, 2000) stresses that “content not form” is important as students must be focussed on what they are saying and not how they are saying it. He also talks about the importance of students being allowed the freedom to improvise (and this is what happens in real situations). He adds that there should be “no teacher intervention” either in the teacher correcting or evaluating (although he says some evaluation of the final product could take place when the activity is over) and that there should be “no materials control” so that the choice of language rests completely with the learners.

In true communicative activities, the teacher sets up a situation and then the students take responsibility for carrying it through to its conclusion. This learner-directed activity approach is very difficult for many learners. In most Hong Kong schools, students are instructed what to do and how to do it, therefore a teacher here would have to be very sensitive to the insecurity and anxiety that they would feel. In cases like this, it would be important to ease the students gradually into this new way of learning language, and gradually increase the type of activity as their confidence, understanding, and desire for independence grew. The teacher would need to ensure that the students understood exactly what was required of them, perhaps by modelling the activity first of all with some members of the class, and select activities that made small demands on their abilities to perform. The teacher also has an important but less dominant role to play in communicative activities. He/she is there to guide and encourage where necessary, and offer psychological support for the students. If the students find themselves unable to continue or complete a task, the teacher can offer advice, provide additional language, or settle arguments. It is also important that the teacher discourages the use of the mother tongue. This is an extremely valuable time for the teacher to assess the students’ performances so that future planning can take into account their successes and ‘failures’. While doing these things, it is very important that the teacher maintains an attitude of having no direct role in the activity.

There are two main types of communicative activities – functional communication activities and social interaction activities:
Functional communication activities increase the ability to find language that will convey an intended meaning effectively in a specific situation. The students use language they know to get their meaning over even if it is not grammatically accurate. How successful students are can be measured according to whether they cope with the communicative demands of the immediate situation. Functional communication activities are about the teacher structuring situations so that students have to solve a problem or overcome an information gap.

According to Littlewood (1988) there are four main groups:
1. “Sharing information with restricted cooperation”, in which one learner possesses information that another learner must discover by asking questions, e.g. identifying pictures, discovering identical pairs, discovering sequences or locations, discovering missing information, features or secrets.
2. “Sharing information with unrestricted cooperation”, in which learners use language for describing, suggesting, asking for clarification and helping each other – constructing like models by following instructions, discovering differences in almost identical pictures, following directions on identical maps are good examples of activities.
3. “Sharing and processing information”, in which learners must not only share information but also discuss or evaluate it thus going beyond surface facts in order to analyse, explain and evaluate them. Learners be able to negotiate or disagree without giving offense at this level – reconstructing story-sequences and pooling information to solve a problem are examples of these activities.
4. “Processing information”, which dispenses with the need to share information as learners have access to all the facts they need. Almost any problem-solving situation can be used at this level and they can be based on everyday situations or some imaginary situation that all the group has to contribute to.

Social interaction activities increase the ability to take account of the social meaning as well as the functional meaning of different language forms. The students use language which is not only functionally correct but is also appropriate to the social situation they are in – they must pay greater attention to the social context in which the activity takes place. Simulation and role-playing are important techniques for creating situations and relationships within the confines of the classroom. How successful the students are here, is evaluated in terms not only of functional effectiveness but also in terms of the social acceptability of the forms that are used. It should be noted that the students themselves can determine the exact importance of the social factors during an activity. Littlewood (1988) states that the classroom can be used as a social context and that the structure and skills that a foreign language student acquires during classroom interactions can be later transferred to other kinds of situations.

He explains four approaches:
1. “Using the foreign language for classroom management”, which involves lessons being introduced and ended, activities being organised and solving practical problems as they arise, all in the foreign language. This provides a rich source of communicative needs in the EFL classroom. It is important not to use the mother tongue at this time or the foreign language is devalued in the learners’ eyes.
2. “Using the foreign language as a teaching medium” – there are many ways to achieve this. At my own school, where the teaching medium is English, the Chinese students who have no English whatsoever have two 1hr sessions each day with a specialist ESL teacher and the rest of their teaching, e.g. maths, art, PE, is conducted in English. Once the ESL teacher deems that they have enough of a grasp of English, they come back to the grade classroom fulltime where they struggle for a while. This system is working well although it has put much more strain on the classroom teachers as well. Last year we had two immersion classes, and this left those students with a sense of inferiority and a lack of social contact with their individual grades.
3. “Conversation or discussion sessions” which perform an important function in helping communicative ability. These have to be structured carefully so that the teacher does not dominate, and simple things like the classroom layout being changed can introduce an informal aspect. It is important that the teacher provides material or instructions that help sustain these sessions without him/her taking over. Any part that the teachers does take should be on an equal basis as the learners.
4. “Basing dialogues and role-plays on school experience” has many uses. One, in particular, explores the problems that the learners have inside and outside the classroom

Simulation and role-playing create many more varied forms of interaction that EFL teachers can use. Again the teacher must know the students’ level of ability but these valuable forms of interaction can push the students to extend their abilities while keeping in mind that it is communication that is important not just the practice of language. The teacher can work through from performing memorized dialogues to improvisation. Debates are also fun and the students need to be able to use different strategies to achieve their aims here.

At all stages the teacher can be evaluating to see how future planning needs to be adapted for further lessons. One of the pluses of communicative language teaching is that the teacher is given many opportunities to sit back and evaluate students’ progress. Errors can be seen as part of evaluation, and students need to be encouraged to see that errors are natural and just mean that something else has to be tried.

I have found it a challenge to decide if communicative language teaching has a place in my teaching in Hong Kong. I am in a situation where I teach in English at an international school and use the Heinemann English 1 programme. I know this text does not suit my students’ needs but the text was decided upon when entry to the school required a much higher level of English and there were more native English speakers at the school. The case now is that I have one student whose reading age matches his chronological age and the rest of my year seven students’ R.A.s range from 10yrs down to 6 yrs. As a group they lack confidence in themselves and are painfully afraid of making errors in front of their peers. I have great difficulty in getting them to discuss or predict during class. Departing from the textbook is difficult as their parents are required to purchase the text, and Chinese parents tend to tick off each chapter as we “work” through it.

I asked very experienced EFL teachers at other schools in Hong Kong about communicative language activities, and they were firmly of the opinion that the whole approach does not work here. One of them mentioned the well established requirement of memorisation in Chinese schools. Another teacher said that during the 1990s, the need for Chinese students to learn English to satisfy their entertainment needs had all but disappeared. English is now seen as a tool for business alone. It would be interesting to canvass more EFL teachers and find if these are common views. A third teacher was firmly of the opinion that it was “the only way to go” but required lots of introductory work.

I think in small ways I can introduce more of the activities I have learned about – the ‘weak’ option – but I am going to recommend that my school looks closely at our current school population and at the English textbooks we are using. I am sure the ESL teachers would support a change in textbooks even if they did not personally support the communicative language approach. A small beginning if it happens but I hope it would have a ripple effect.

I have always believed that meaning is uppermost in all aspects of language. This study has pushed me to see that language teaching must be about communicating in real social situations as well, and so I feel I have taken another step forward. While I recognise that the approach does not suit all teachers or students, I acknowledge that communicative language teaching gives students more opportunity to be responsible for their own learning, in a non-threatening environment. It places the teacher in the role of facilitator, writing their own learner-centred curriculum and ensuring that students experience success in all lessons. This makes for more work on the teacher’s part but ought to result in greater satisfaction on the part of both teacher and student.

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