Algorithms for Communicative Activities

When language learners fail to communicate, their messages create problems. When they communicate successfully, their messages solve problems. As language teachers, we want to help learners solve the problem of getting and sending messages. To do this, in our classes, we need clear goals that produce clear outcomes that motivate and promote meaningful communication.

For one solution, we can use communicative algorithms (or message algorithms). An algorithm is generally a “mathematical recipe.” It sets rules or processes in calculations or problem solving operations. Outside of computers and mathematics, an algorithm is simply a set of steps that we use to do a task.

For language teaching, a communicative algorithm is different from a basic classroom activity, which may have only a few variations. With a communicative algorithm, we can generate many or even an unlimited number of activities based on a few principles.

For an activity to be algorithmic, it must:  

  1. Cause real communication to happen. This is the communicative principle (CP).
  2. Be based on meaningful themes. This is the meaningful theme (MT).

Thus, CP + MT gives us our algorithm. For example, students read a story about health. That’s the meaningful theme. Then students are presented with a problem. Jim is overweight. He needs to do something about his health. In groups, students suggest 5 things Jim can do to improve his health. Students must communicate to solve the problem. This is the communicative principle.

The idea of communicative algorithms is a metaphor. It’s something that many teachers already do. But both young and experienced teachers may find the metaphor helpful. We can use it to plan and create many new communicative activities, and we can use communicative algorithms to make templates and work flow for creating new activities.

Framework for Communicative Algorithms

Let’s look at some examples of communicative algorithms. For a framework, let’s say that we will use each algorithm in a class based on content themes and not a grammatical syllabus. When we focus on language form and grammar, we will do so in the context of content themes. This is language form for communication, not form for form’s sake.

Let’s also say that content and stories are graded to match student level. That is, for Deep Reading (intensive reading) students should know 90% of the words in the text. For readability to enjoy stories, students should know 95%-98% of the words in a text, and for fluency or speed activities, students basically need to know 100% of the words (and grammar patterns) in a text.

We can plan our communicative algorithms across a whole language course using Nation’s (2013) “Four Strands.” That is, we plan language courses with a balance of activities with (A) Meaningful Input, (B) Meaningful Output, (C) Language Focus, and (D) Fluency Development.

The four strands give us framework for planning a balanced language course. We can also benefit from having a theory of language teaching in mind. The simplest and most elegant theory of language teaching is Krashen’s input hypothesis, which says, “We acquire languages by understanding messages.”

Krashen’s theory has generated many successful teaching methods, including Total Physical Response, The Natural Approach, and Extensive Reading. However, others have suggested corrections to Krashen’s theory, including they the Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1995), the Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt, 1990), and the Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1996). See the section on Unified Theories for how we can combine these ideas in to one big idea.

This big idea of a unified theory includes input, output, noticing, and interacting (i.e., the negotiation of meaning). Here’s a short version: “We acquire languages by understanding, sending, noticing structure in, and negotiating the meaning of messages.” Nevertheless, we can see that input is central because noticing and negotiating cannot happen without input, and even output creates auto-input (Ellis, 1997).

The Classroom Context

For context, let’s assume we are teaching EFL in Japan. Our class has 10, first-year university students, and their level is lower-intermediate. To show the following communicative algorithms, we will use stories from the extensive reading website The first story is “A Coach for Life.” It’s about John Wooden, who is one of the greatest coaches of all time, and who helped prepare his players not only for sports, but also for life. The second story is “Six Keys to a Healthy Life,” which gives six ideas for living well.

Key Words:

Algorithm: アルゴリズム, 演算手順

Hypothesis: 仮説

Metaphor: 隠喩

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.