Teaching English Communicatively
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in the Limelight
Vol. 1, No. 1
October 1992

Teaching English Communicatively

Mirjam Heller

What do we want to achieve in foreign language teaching and how do we achieve what we want? These questions should always be considered when teaching a foreign language. Why do people learn a foreign language in the first place and what do they do with it?

Indeed, the reasons for wanting to learn a foreign language can vary and we should always keep the learners' needs in mind. People learn a language e.g. for their work, out of interest or simply because they have to in school. Also the use they will make of the foreign language may differ; maybe people only need to be able to understand written texts for their study. Very often, learners have to be able to communicate in the foreign language.

What exactly do we mean by the term communication? Many people seem to think that communicating in a foreign language only means speaking i.e. a conversation between two or more people. This, however, is only one way of communicating. People can communicate by writing too which, inevitably, involves reading. In fact, all the skills can be involved in communication. People hardly ever just read or just speak; usually something else precedes, follows or runs parallel to it, e.g. when people talk to each other, they also have to listen. When people read a newspaper article they may want to discuss it with somebody else. When people write letters this is usually in response to something else: e.g. a letter from somebody else, a newspaper advertisement or an article in a magazine. In each of these cases there is a two-way process going on; somebody want to get a message across, want to find out information, want to get things done or wants to socialize. In other words, communication takes place.

If we have determined that language is, above all, a means of communication, then why do we often put so much emphasis on structure or on only one skill at a time. Especially in secondary school, focus tends to be entirely on grammar, also in higher education. However, it is surprising to see how many students have to (and can!) analyse sentences up and until the most complicated labels for different sentence elements. As soon as it comes to really using the language however, they are often at a loss.

It can be argued that grammar is, to a certain extent, needed, especially at higher levels. Maybe this is particularly true for Indonesians who learn English since the native language is so different in structure from English. The use of the verb 'to be' is a well-known example in this respect. But, especially at low levels, if we focus entirely on grammatical correctness, students may become reluctant to use the language for fear of making mistakes. If, on the other hand, we focus on using the language from the very first beginning, this will give the students more confidence. Even though mistakes will be made, at least they try to get the message across, they try to make themselves understood.

The question of how important structure is arises here. When do learners need to know about structure? And if they know all about structure, does it make them more independent, i.e. can they really apply rules in other contexts? The example mentioned earlier, the of students who do know how to label certain sentence elements but who cannot produce any English themselves, illustrates the fact that just teaching grammar in itself is not exactly effective. Apart from this, textbooks often contain very artificial sentences which are hardly used in real life situations. If we want to teach structure, we should at least provide a realistic context and relate it to communicative situations. The best thing to do is probably to integrate all different aspects of language. It is all right then to introduce and explain grammatical rules as you go along, just make sure grammar does not stand by itself; do not teach grammar simply for the sake of grammar.

Now let us take a closer look at communicative language teaching in itself. How can we create communicative situations in the classroom and at the same time make these situations resemble real life? A classroom is, of course, not a rich linguistic environment: it can never replace a learning situation in which the learner is surrounded by native speakers and is forced to use the foreign language all the time. But since it is not feasible to send all our students abroad to learn English we have to make most of the classroom situation. Wheat we have to do then is to provide students with a linguistic and situational context. A situational context means that activities/exercises are presented in such a way that students can imagine them to be realistic activities.

Communication involves information gaps and opinion gaps. An information gap exists when someone knows something which the other does not know. An opinion gap means that there is a difference of opinion between two or more people. Communication then is filling an information gap or solving an opinion gap. This can also be realized within the classroom. A few examples of communicative activities are:

  • Describing people; students work in pairs, one has pictures of six people in front of him/her, the other has the description of three people. They have to imagine that they have to meet three pen pals (whom they have not seen before) at the airport. One describes the people, the other chooses the right pictures.
  • Describing a route; both have a map of a certain town, one tells the way from A to B, the other tries to find out where this goes to or which route is followed.
  • Putting jumbled sentences in the right order, individually, in pairs or in groups, e.g. a story, directions for use or a recipe can be used for this.
  • Guessing games: one describes an object or a person, the others guess who/what is meant.
  • Writing a letter to the editor in response to an article they have read in a magazine.
  • Matching exercises: e.g. letters on a problem page with the right answers or newspaper articles with the right headlines.
  • Gap filling: e.g. leave our certain words or leave out the middle or last bit of a text which the students then have to provide.
  • Letter writing: a correspondence between your students and students from another country can be initiated.
There are many more examples of communicative activities and games, both at elementary level and at advanced level. In all of these, a certain language item-grammatical and/or functional-is practised in a more or less realistic situation. Students are much more actively involved in such activities and will, therefore, remember things more easily.

Indeed, quite some teacher-input is required, especially when new material has to be made (time-consuming) or when the students work in pairs or groups. At the same time, however, the teacher is put in a less-centered position: the students do not just listen and absorb but they have to be really active. Once students have got used to group-work and pair-work (mind you: not all communicative activities involve group- or pair-work) learning will become much more effective.

Communicative language teaching, sometimes combined with some traditional language teaching, has proved successful in many cases. It requires some courage maybe and definitely some perseverance on the teacher's side. It is worth a serious try, though!

Mirjam Heller, lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, Universitas 17 Agustus 1945 Surabaya.

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