The Communicative Language Teaching approach to teaching English has been around for long enough for us to take it for granted and assume that most teachers are on the same page when it comes to the ‘communicative’ aspect of the approach.
In response to my previous blog on communication skills, I received several emails and social media posts praising me for prioritising communication skills because ‘fluency practice is important for language learning’. While there are some overlaps between the two concepts, it surprised me to see how many equated communication skills with fluency, and it got me thinking about what ‘communicative’ in ‘Communicative Language Teaching’ might meant to different people.
To untangle these different concepts, let us look at some key definitions and explore how these areas are often focused on in the Communicative Language Teaching classroom.
A focus on accuracy is a focus on the correctness of one’s use of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Here are some examples:
- Is the student using the right tense and right verb forms? (e.g. We don’t say ‘She has did it already,’ we say ‘She has done it already.’)
- Are they choosing the right vocabulary to express what they need to say? (e.g. We don’t normally say ‘He is vast,’ we say ‘He is fat/big.’)
- Do the collocations work? Are the right prepositions being used? (e.g. We don’t normally say ‘I will make a photo on you,’ we say ‘I will take a photo of you.’)
- Is the word order correct? (e.g. We don’t normally say ‘Always he does this,’ we say ‘He always does this.’)
- Is the student pronouncing the word correctly? Is the stress put in the right place? (e.g. We don’t normally say ‘badminton’ but we say ‘BADminton’)
Many English language exams pay a lot of attention to accurate use of language, and accuracy is no doubt important especially in written communication, e.g. emails, reports, essays, etc., as lexico-grammatical mistakes stand out more when written down. Inaccurate writing can cause misunderstandings and be seen to reflect carelessness, a lack of attention to detail, and general incompetence.
Focusing on Accuracy in the classroom
Aside from grammar explanations, lexical definitions, concept checks, and drills, teachers often use controlled practice activities to help students work on their accuracy. These are activities that enable repeated practice of the target language, with little variation and minimum amount of free speaking. Teachers will correct mistakes made either on the spot or after the activity. For example:
A fluent speaker is one who is able to speak without unnecessary pauses and hesitations between their words or sentences. They are comfortable with the language and are able to efficiently choose the words and grammar structures needed to express themselves. The speech of a fluent speaker is smooth and clear. While most tend to use the term ‘fluency’ to describe someone’s speaking ability, some teachers talk of ‘written fluency’ – the ability to write with ease and with a flow that is not disrupted by hesitations or the need to search for the right words or phrases to use. This is a difficult one to define as even professional writers might have days when they are just ‘not feeling the flow’.
In many online posts about fluency, there is mention of the fact that the fluent speaker might speak with the odd mistake and that this is accepted. However, if we were to strictly consider the concept of ‘fluency’, the lack of accuracy could be present but is not a criteria. Fluent speakers can lack accuracy and accurate speakers can lack fluency. But fluent speakers can be accurate as well. The two are by no means mutually exclusive.
Focusing on Fluency in the classroom
Freer practice activities allow students to practise speaking fluently without hesitation. They can take place in the form of a group project or task where English is the medium by which they negotiate meaning among themselves. In many coursebooks however, freer practice activities tend to occur after the controlled practice activities, keeping to the theme of the lesson and offering more practice of the target language, but allowing for more variation and expression. For example:
Notice that the teacher was available to feed in vocabulary that students needed but does not jump in to correct inaccurate language as the focus is on fluency.
Perhaps because this is one of the last stages on the lesson, or perhaps because it is not a grammar-heavy accuracy-driven stage, the freer practice task is often the one that gets cut when the teacher runs short of time. This is symptomatic of the way many of us still see accuracy (in particular, grammatical accuracy) as the key focus of the language classroom. But accuracy is not always crucial to good communication, as we can see below.
Communicative competence is often talked about as a subset of fluency, but is in fact not the same. A term first coined by Hymes (1966), communicative competence (as an alternative to Chomsky’s 1965 linguistic competence) refers to the ability to make use of words and rules, the appropriacy of language, cohesion and coherence and communicative strategies to be understood (Canale and Swaine, 1980).
To put it simply, it is the ability to choose the right words and structures appropriately to suit the situation and context so as to communicate what we need to say effectively. The focal point here is the speaker’s intended message and how well they are able to get their interlocutors to understand this message. Accuracy is important insofar as the message is not miscommunicated. Fluency is important insofar as the speaker can be understood by their interlocutors. This article describes communicative competence as the correlation between fluency and accuracy and further explains the different competence areas that make up communicative competence.
Focusing on communicative competence in the classroom
In order for students to practise getting their messages across, they need to be put in interactions where there is genuine motivation to express themselves and to get others to understand them. The students need to not just be speaking to practise a particular piece of language but they need to be speaking because they want to say something of importance to them.
I once had a student who was placed in an A2 Elementary level class and was adamant that her English was so bad that she couldn’t hold a conversation in English. However, when I started to show an interest in the part of Germany she was from and asked questions about its history, she was so compelled to tell me about her experiences as a child before the Berlin Wall came down that she overcame all lexical and grammatical obstacles and managed to hold a sociopolitical conversation with me on the topic. When I pointed out how communicatively competent she’d been, she beamed with such pride and confidence, unable to believe what she had accomplished.
The use of tasks and projects are also a good way of developing students’ communicative competence and so are freer speaking tasks (like the free practice activity above). However, it is important to note that unlike freer practice, there isn’t always target language to focus on. And teachers should feel comfortable to feed in necessary language and correct students’ accuracy (both during and after the task) when it is clear that the accuracy issues are getting in the way of understanding.
Communication skills can include the ability to speak clearly and express oneself using the appropriate lexico-grammar and intelligible pronunciation. But it also encompasses many other areas of communication: non-verbal communication, the ability to be clear and concise, the ability to detect and resolve misunderstandings or non-understanding, active listening skills, intercultural skills, interpersonal skills e.g. influencing skills, trust-building skills, conflict management skills, etc. (Chong, 2018)
One can, of course, be extremely accurate and fluent in English, but might not have the communication skills needed to manage a team, give a presentation to an international audience, or negotiate a deal.
Focusing on communicative skills in the classroom
Over the recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the need to focus on soft skills such as communicative skills in the classroom so that we can help our learners become more effective communicators, and not just expert English users with a strong grasp of its lexis and grammar.
To help our students develop better communication skills, we need to allow our students chances to observe, reflect and become more aware of how they communicate and how others might communicate. We need to also give them opportunities to practise their communication skills through the use of group tasks and projects (like those mentioned above).
While accuracy and fluency are both important concepts for the language classroom, we need to be aware that language learning is not simply about the dichotomous relationship between the two. While it’s easy to classify all speaking and communication skills under the heading of ‘fluency’, to do so would be an inaccurate representation of the complexities of communicating in a foreign language as there is much more to speaking than smoothness and the eradication of hesitation.
Canale, Michael; Swain, Merrill (1980). ‘Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing’. Applied Linguistics. 1 (1): 1–47.
Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
Chong, Chia Suan (2018) Successful International Communication, Brighton: Pavilion Publishing.
Hymes, Dell (1966). ‘Two types of linguistic relativity’ In Bright, W. Sociolinguistics. The Hague: Mouton. pp. 114–158.
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