7 – Teaching Through Communication

One day a woman decided to take a walk. As she walked along, she saw a man with a monkey. The woman asked the man, “Hey, where did you get that monkey?”

The man replied, “I found him in the street. Why do you ask?” The woman answered, “Well.. you should take that monkey to the zoo.” And the man said, “You are right. That’s a good idea!”

The next day, the woman went for a walk again. And again she saw the man with the monkey. She said, “Hey, you were going to take the monkey to the zoo.” The man replied, “I did! And he really enjoyed it. So today, I’m going to take him to the movies.”

In this story, the punch line plays with two meanings. In the first meaning, the woman wants the man to take the monkey to the zoo. She assumes that monkeys should live in zoos. But the man thinks his monkey will enjoy visiting the zoo, and the next day the monkey will enjoy going to the movies!

The joke shows a communication failure. The man fails to understand the woman’s message. Somestimes language fails, but it often serves us well for communicating messages in the real world. In the world of language teaching, teachers can often focus — not on messages — but on grammar. But we do have an approach that emphasizes the sending and receiving of meaningful messages.

Communicative Language Teaching
We call this approach Communicative Language Teaching or CLT for short. CLT is not really a method. Rather, we can see it as a set of principles or theories that guide teaching. We can summarize these principles in one general theory. “We acquire language by sending and receiving messages.”

With Communicative Language Teaching, learners do tasks and activities that cause them to communicate. The activities require or simulate real communication. As a bad example, the following dialogs do not require communication.

Partner A: How many children do you have?
Partner B: We have 18 children. What about you?
Partner A: We have one child.

Partner A: Where are you from?
Partner B: I’m from New York. And you?
Partner A: I’m from Nairobi.

In this case, the learners practice fake conversations. Both partners do not have any children, and they are not from New York or Nairobi. Thus, they are not communicating real messages to each other, and we say that these dialogs are not communicative.

When we evaluate activities for real communication, we need to ask these kinds of questions. Does this activity require real communication? Will this activity serve a communicative purpose?Will students communicate meaningful messages when they do this? For example, we might change the above dialogs as follows:

Partner A: Do you have any children?
Partner B: ______________. What about you?
Partner A: __________________.

Partner A: Where are you from?
Partner B: I’m ___________. And you?
Partner A: I’m ______________.

To learn the above structure, beginners may need to study the non-communicative examples above. But ideally, they move to the examples where they really communicate. We may find it hard sometimes to make traditional dialogs communicative. But teachers can use many other kinds of communicative activities, such as: Information Gap, Choice, or Role Play Activities.  

Information Gap
With Information Gap activities, Partner A knows something that Partner B does not know. Partner A must communicate this knowledge to Partner B. For example, Partner A sees a picture that Partner B cannot see. Partner A describes the picture. Partner B draws it. When the teacher sees that most students are finished, she says, “Time up!” Then Partner B looks at the picture. Next partners switch places.

Students do not need to be good at drawing to do this activity, and teachers can hand out pictures to students. She can also project a picture on the screen. Partner B sits with his back to the screen, and Partner A faces the screen.

Choice Activities
With Choice Activities, students choose what to say and how to say it. One famous Choice Activity is the self-guided interview. Each student writes down five questions that they want to answer. To repeat, they write questions — not for asking — but for answering. As students write their questions, the teacher can help them with grammar. When students have they questions ready, they find a partner. Then they exchange papers. And they take turns answering the questions that they wrote. Clearly, this activity requires real communication, and students choose what they talk about.

Role Play
In Role Play Activities, students have a clearly defined role to play. The role takes place in a specific situation, and students  usually practice a communicative function. These functions include things like making a promise, giving an apology, accepting an apology, expressing gratitude, and responding to expressions of gratitude, etc.

Here is an example Role Play Activity. The Roles: boss and worker. The Situation: the worker is 2 hours late for work. Communicative Function: (1) The worker apologizes to his boss and promises not to be late again. (2) The worker apologizes to his co-worker and promises not to be late again.

Correction and Negotiation
Learners make mistakes. And all teachers face this question: How do I correct mistakes? This is a big topic, and it requires a whole chapter to cover the many ways teachers correct mistakes. But we do have a basic principle: When students prepare for communication, they may focus on grammar. And the teacher may want to correct their mistakes. But when students actually communicate, the teacher may not want to correct their mistakes. (After all, we don’t usually correct each other’s mistakes during communication.) During the communication activity, the teacher may make notes of mistakes, and point them out to the class after the activity.

When students communicate, they may say things like: “What do you mean?” “Could you repeat that?” “What does X mean?” We call this aspect of communication “the negotiation of meaning” (Long, 1996). And it is an important part of communicative language teaching. As they communicate, learners give each other feedback. In order to do this, teachers may want to teach students a number of feedback phrases that students can use.

In short, language teachers do not have a clear definition of communicative language teaching. However, we do have a clear principle: We acquire language by sending and receiving meaningful messages. We can let this principle guide our lesson planning. And if we do, we can help our students acquire language by helping them to communicate.

7-Communicative Language Teaching RFS

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

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