5 Reasons You Should Consider Competency-based Language Teaching in Your Classroom

Why don’t we focus on communication before we focus on language? 

It may sound confusing and counterintuitive at first, but this is the basis for the competency-based language teaching (CBLT) approach.

Those of us who work with CBLT methods are keen to recognize that language is, first and foremost, a means to communicate.

On some level, language is purely functional, so teachers can effectively focus on their students’ use of the language rather than their technical knowledge of it. Students will learn how to carry out useful tasks—like upgrading a cellphone contract, shopping and interacting with clients—without necessarily learning all of the underlying grammar rules.

Language is a means to an end, and CBLT is unique in that it emphasizes the end over the means. It encourages students to start learning by doing—and it is rooted in the belief that students should take the leap and build their wings on the way down.

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What Is Competency-based Language Teaching All About?

CBLT, though now a buzzword in the field of teaching, had humble beginnings. It emerged in the 1970s as a crash course method because of its focus on giving learners the essentials first.

The pillars of this method include:

  • Active learning
  • Real-world application
  • Long-term retention
  • Competency-based assessment

A traditional CBLT course begins with an assessment of the student’s current speaking level as well as his or her goals and needs. The teacher uses this information to tailor the curriculum to the student’s profile. If your student is an IT professional, you will first focus on the skills that he or she will need to get through an average day at work. You do not start at the traditional beginning with fundamentals. You start with what the student needs now.

This approach is great for one-on-one teaching, but what about the rest of us with average-sized classes and deadlines to follow? The good news is that you do not need to adopt CBLT 100% of the time for it to be effective. You can choose to incorporate it occasionally to spice up your classes and give your students a new challenge.

Here is an overview of everything you need to know to infuse your curriculum with a healthy dose of competency-based learning strategies. Doing so can help bring a lethargic classroom back to life by reminding students why they wanted to learn the language in the first place: To communicate!

5 Truths You Need to Know About Competency-based Language Teaching

1. CBLT Keeps You on Your Toes with Active Learning

CBLT’s biggest claim to fame is perhaps its focus on active learning, rather than passive learning.

Here is an example to elaborate. You have taken the bus to work every single day for the past year. You enjoy the ride and watch the scenery go by. One day the bus never shows up and you are forced to take your car. You are driving along without a problem until you come to a fork in the road and you realize that you are not exactly sure which way to go.

You were not even aware that you didn’t know the way to work until you tried. Your knowledge of the route was passive, not active, because you were never the one driving.

When you ask one of your students if they know how to order a coffee in a foreign language, chances are the answer will be an automatic “yes.” It is not until they attempt to do so that they become aware of the areas in which they need to improve. It is sometimes hard for us to judge what we know and do not know. This is why real-world role plays are common exercises in a CBLT classroom. If you already use them then—surprise!—you have already got a soft spot for competency-based learning.

CBLT exercises are:

1. Systematic. There’s a specific goal in mind (i.e. to teach a student when to use “that” versus when to use “which” when describing people or things).

2. Repetitive. Students learn by doing, not by memorizing the rules, so repetition is essential.

3. Measurable. The success of the exercise is easy to measure. If a student has grasped the lesson and can apply the new skill, then it was successful and you can move on to the next exercise.

CBLT works hand-in-hand with a “mosaic” approach to lessons, meaning that the language can be broken down and taught as subcomponents. These pieces can be prioritized and taught separately, then assembled later. Each exercise has a purpose and imparts a skill.

A teacher does not move on to the next exercise until the student has mastered that skill. In this methodical way, the teacher is promoting active learning. These pieces can be taught in any order because they are not based on grammatical knowledge. The syllabus is easy to tailor when you are not rigidly focused on the successive building blocks of basic grammar.

One of the great things about using CBLT is that you do not need to worry or wonder if your students are grasping what you are trying to teach. You can see it in black and white by having them actively demonstrate each new skill.

2. CBLT Keeps It Real

Teachers of the CBLT method aim to give students the words and language forms they need to function in their lives. The language is never taught in isolation. Again, adopting CBLT 100% of the time might not be realistic for the environment you are teaching in, but you can still add some of its strategies to your playbook.

It is common for a language teacher to use newspapers or other real-world materials in the classroom. CBLT will have you take it one step further and bring in real-world texts that are relevant to the students’ lives.

Let’s say you have a student who is learning a language in order to apply for a job in hospitality. You could bring an article about a new hotel opening up in Paris. After helping him understand the article, have him compare past hotels he has worked in with the hotel mentioned in the article. Ask him what kind of hotel he wants to work in and why. Later, reformat this conversation as a job interview and ask him similar questions in an even more realistic setting.

Remember to follow the checklist we mentioned before:

1. It is systematic. The goals are to teach new vocabulary related to hospitality and to have the student discuss past work experience.

2. It is repetitive. As the teacher you will repeatedly introduce the new vocabulary that the student initially struggled with. When you do the mock job interview he or she will have to use these new words.

3. It is measurable. Before moving on, the student will be able to discuss his job experience in an interview setting using new vocabulary words.

By encouraging your students to speak and try to accomplish tasks, you are preventing them from learning the language in a vacuum. It is not something abstract. It is a tool that helps them make friends, get a job, connect and be heard.

They will be so busy using the relevant words they have learned, speaking fluently but not perfectly, that much of the rest of the language will be acquired through foreign language conversations with newfound friends.

With CBLT, teachers keep in mind that the language is first and foremost the learner’s tool. There is no preset curriculum because only the student knows what he or she needs to learn. Check in frequently to see if there is any language skill students are missing and need immediately.

On the first day of class, you can conduct an exercise in which students define their language goals for the course and for the year. After discussing and comparing these goals, you will have a clearer idea of how to shape your syllabus.

3. CBLT Is In It for the Long Haul

I have a piece of paper in the back of my desk drawer that’s signed by my university dean claiming that I am fluent in Spanish. It is true, my Spanish is decent, assuming I don’t actually have to speak it. I’m guessing I’m not alone here.

CBLT strives to avoid this phenomenon by emphasizing “feel” over memorization. Tests and dictations have their place, but it is good to avoid a curriculum entirely based on memorization. What matters is the students’ ability to use the language, not their ability to memorize the rules. Much like a native speaker, the learner will be able to sense if a sentence is grammatically correct or not without knowing the underlying concepts.

According to an article in The Atlantic, memorization is the learning of “an isolated fact through deliberate effort” and tends to “bypass real conceptual learning.” Memorization is not bad. It can be helpful. The difference here is in intention. According to CBLT, memorization should be the byproduct of application, not vice versa.

CBLT is successful when it comes to long-term learning because it only cares about competency. It claims that a student should take as much time as he or she needs to master a skill before moving onto the next one. I think we can all agree that this would be ideal, but it is not realistic for those of us who need to stick to prescribed timelines. It is also tough for us to tailor syllabi to individual needs when we have 15 students per class.

Here are some tricks to help you apply CBLT within these constraints:

  • 70-30. Decrease teacher talking time. Try to aim for students to speak 70% of the time and you to speak only 30%. This will ensure that they are getting more time to master their speaking exercises. You will not need more than 30% to present the basic framework of the exercises and grammar points.
  • Strategic grouping. Split the class up into groups based on interests, occupation or desired occupation. Themes could be: business, IT, human resources and hospitality, depending on your students. This will help them learn new vocabulary from each other in a field relevant to them.
  • Review day. Always save a day or two at the end of the course to review areas in which students are not fully comfortable. Conduct this class in rapid-fire fashion, with lots of repetition and speaking. Get through as many of the selected problem areas as possible.

Teachers without the luxury of unlimited time and resources can stick to a syllabus while still using CBLT tricks to give students a somewhat tailored experience.

4. CBLT Challenges Tradition

CBLT is concerned with what students can do with a language, not what they know about it.

Despite the wide recognition of CBLT as an effective method, some still see it as the flowery lovechild of a hippy generation set on equality and individuality. Today’s education system is big on assessing and measuring. When learning de-emphasizes the importance of graded, written tests, it is bound to attract some suspicion.

CBLT is seen as a threat to this system because it is less concerned with pen-and-paper tests and more concerned with how a student functions using their new skills in the real world. It considers test scores irrelevant and says that competency is all that matters.

Instead of typical written tests, CBLT assessment generally requires students to demonstrate their ability to achieve performance-based objectives, i.e. to politely negotiate a raise or to explain to someone how to drive to their house.

We do not need to adopt this method exclusively for it to be effective. Many teachers incorporate a demonstration section without giving up the pen-and-paper portion. Others have the flexibility to instruct a class entirely via CBLT.

Whatever your preferences or constraints, consider flirting with CBLT testing methods and then go from there. Even if you cannot use its results officially, you can include it anyway to obtain some valuable feedback about your teaching.

There is a misconception that CBLT and traditional assessments are mutually exclusive. Although they come from different schools of thought, both assessment methods can be combined. Assessing a class’s progress through tests does not undermine the CBLT approach, although for a CBLT classroom the results are not the be-all end-all.

5. CBLT Has a Bright Future

Views towards CBLT are slowly but surely changing. More than 350 institutions are now offering or will soon offer competency-based academic degrees. So long live the lovechild!

One argument is that by measuring knowledge rather than time spent studying, the school systems will become more efficient and ultimately save money…and we all know money speaks.

Excelsior is one such institution following this approach, claiming that “you cannot determine whether someone is competent unless you can determine their ability to demonstrate whatever knowledge they have in as real a situation as you can.”

As this trend continues to grow in academics it will surely shape how language is taught. CBLT’s biggest selling points continue to be its efficiency and its effectiveness, essentials in a world where time and money are of the essence. As the global community gets smaller with technology and as migrant populations expand, there will be an increasing need for speedy language learning.

Keep your eye on CBLT as it further transforms from an upstream rebel into a mainstream player. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about this flourishing school of thought and can find some tidbits to take back to the classroom with you.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: 

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