Would Tiger Woods be any good at golf if he never actually practiced his swing hundreds of thousands of times?
Would Michael Jordan be MJ if he never spent thousands of hours practicing, hitting and missing those shots?
Would native speakers learn their language if they never actually opened their mouths to practice it?
The communicative approach to language teaching believes that in order to learn a language, one has to practice using it to communicate meaning to others. Language learners gotta keep on talking. They gotta keep on telling people their stories, jokes and opinions.
So we’ve got five activities for you that will do just that for your students—keep them talking.
Instead of you shhhh-ing them when they get louder and rowdier, you’ll let them talk each other’s ears off in a highly productive way.
But wait a minute, what exactly is communicative approach to language teaching?
I thought you’d never ask.
What Is the Communicative Approach?
In the 1960s and ’70s there was a growing suspicion surrounding the efficacy of the grammar-translation approach to teaching language.
This approach was of the mind that language has building blocks, and you combine these building blocks in order to come up with meaningful communication. There are specific rules (a.k.a. grammar and syntax) on how these blocks are combined.
Students learn by being drilled on the different rubrics of the language. But educators, particularly in Britain, were beginning to ask, “If the end goal of language is communication, then why am I spending 45 minutes of each class teaching my students about every verb tense on the face of the earth? And while I’m talking non-stop, why are my students not even opening their mouths to practice the language?”
Europe, at this time, was becoming increasingly integrated, with people traveling to many other nearby countries, prompting the mass learning of languages. Students were asking, “I just wanna know where the bathroom is! I don’t need to know these thirteen tenses of one Spanish verb cold to do that!” Or “What good to me is knowing 30 Italian translations of the different vegetables when I never go to the market.”
The communicative approach was born in this milieu, out of the need to go back to the fundamental reason for language, why we want to learn a second or third language—to be able to communicate.
All the rest of learning is noise—bells and whistles. Nice to know, but it can sometimes get in the way of actually acquiring the language.
So in the communicative approach, a lot of talking is done by the students as they start practicing what it’s like to actually have the words roll off of their tongues. They don’t just sit in class and listen as a teacher lists every exception to a grammar rule.
Students interact with each other—awkwardness, grammar mistakes and all. Guided by their teacher, they engage in role playing, pretending to talk about last night’s game, haggling the prices of stuff, recalling the plot to the latest blockbuster—all real-world situations where there’s a need to communicate meaning.
This is very different from walking to the blackboard, holding a piece of chalk and writing the Russian translation for the word “dog.”
With the communicative approach, interaction becomes both the Method and the Goal of teaching.
In the next section, we learn five activities that will involve exactly that—interaction, communication, transmission of meaning. They’ll coax your students out of their shells and into the road of language acquisition.
5 Outspoken Activities for Highly Communicative Language Teaching
1. Next Level Role Plays
Role playing is an important communicative activity. It allows your students to practice the target language in a safe environment where mistakes are no big deal. They’ll get a feel for what it’s like wielding the language in different situations and contexts.
This is the difference between you talking about a “hammer”—how to hold it, the different parts and uses—and your students actually “swinging the hammer around,” pounding the walls or aiming for the nail.
Assign scenes to student pairs – (this will maximize their speaking time). The scenes can be anything, but make it relevant for your wards. If you have a class of business professionals, make it about a meeting or a sales situation, for example. If your class is composed of high school students, try a mess hall or a dorm room situation. A 30-second dialogue is already enough.
The complexity of the dialogues will depend on whether your students are beginners or advanced learners. With advanced learners, you can probably just assign the students roles or a situation and let them have a go at it. Your role then will be to provide live commentary and correction.
For beginners, it will be a lot different.
You’ll have to give each pair their lines. Write the whole dialogue on a piece of paper. Write the lines in the target language first, followed by their English translations. This will be very helpful in letting beginners know what the dialogue is all about.
Send the pairs off to practice on their own.
Visit each pair in their practices and monitor their progress. It’s very important that you explain the context of the dialogue. What’s the motivation for the characters? Why are they acting that way?
Listen to the practice and check their pronunciation. If you can suggest gestures and props for the scene, so much the better.
After a day or two of practice, let the pairs present in front of the class. This is one is very important because it’s a chance for the whole class to learn from the scenes of the other pairs. You need to be very active in explaining what the scene is all about. If it’s two best friends talking, then explain why they were talking informally, for example.
Let the pair present the dialogue twice or thrice and provide live commentary and corrections on the second go. Explain the scene to the class. This is very important because meaning of our communications are vested in the contexts and the roles that we play.
Language is meaningful only in context. This is one of the emphases of the communicative approach.
2. The Talk Show Interview
Here, students will experience what it’s like being the host of a talk show or being the guest answering questions in front of a live studio audience.
Again, let the students work in pairs. The host student prepares five questions and writes them on a piece of paper. This question list will be given ahead of time to the celebrity student so they can prepare an answer for them. Instruct the “celebrity” students to give answers in complete sentences. Three sentences for beginners should be just right.
Reminder: Go around the classroom to make sure the questions are worded correctly and are in their proper format.
Give the pair a day to rehearse their Q&A segment.
The next day, if possible, have an “interview set” arranged in front of the class to help students get in character.
Let the pairs present their segment. For the benefit of the whole class, you can do a live commentary or translation as they go along.
So, for example, if one of the questions in a Spanish class is, “¿Cuáles son tus pasatiempos?” (What are your hobbies?), you can interpose and maybe say, “Pasatiempos, class, she’s asking about his hobbies now.”
If the other student answers with “Me gusta jugar al futbol.” (I love to play football.), you can then tell the class, “So, Stephen loves to play football, right? Please, continue.” But don’t be overbearing to the point of distraction—pick your spots right.
In an advanced class, you can probably have an impromptu question from the “audience.”
Maybe not immediately the day after, but reserve a session for when the students switch roles and the “host” becomes the “celebrity” guest and will be responding to questions this time.
Have students draw from rolled sheets of paper containing names of different objects. Their job, using the target language, is to describe and give plenty of hints so that the class can discover what the object is.
Unlike Charades, in Objectified, students are allowed—in fact, they’re required—to speak. They can say whatever they want, short of naming the object. They can gesture away, they can use the full repertoire of body language in order to shine the spotlight on the correct answer. Give each student two minutes to work the room and see what happens.
The student who guesses the correct word gets some brownie points. The student who’s able to communicate the correct answer gets double brownie points.
Imagine your intermediate level Japanese language student walking into a corner store in Japan to ask the shop owner if they’re selling ice cream. They’ll use all of their relevant vocabulary to describe the ice cream. they’ll gesture like crazy just so the owner can understand. They’re trying to communicate meaning the best way they can, using what they already know.
This is very much what happens in Objectified. The student in front is trying to pass meaningful information to the whole class. Don’t worry if their grammar is less than perfect. Never mind that their sentences aren’t polished. As long as they’re able to pass along meaningful information, then they’re engaging in the communicative approach to learning a new language. Their grammar will get better in time.
4. What I YouTubed Last Weekend
Notice how students, in their spare time, click that “share” button quite often? They pass onto others some interesting, funny, inspirational and awesome videos. It gives them great pleasure to let their friends see what they’ve seen. They want their friends get the same laugh, feel the same tug to the heart or the same jaw-dropping experience.
Why not take advantage of this entrenched social-technological dynamic and do the “sharing” inside the classroom? Let your students tell about the most awesome thing they’ve seen on YouTube over the weekend. The only catch is that they should do this in the target language. Encourage your students to also relate their feelings, insights and opinions about what they’ve seen.
This is essentially a reporting activity, where students will stand in front of the class (or perhaps remain seated at their desks) to tell all about the most memorable video they saw over the weekend. Afterwards, you can let them watch the videos in class if there’s time. For an added challenge, put them on in a mixed up order and have the class identify which video was presented by which student previously.
While they’re speaking, don’t interrupt or correct them. It’s perfectly normal if they struggle with grammar and syntax. It’s all part of the process of learning a new language anyway. One learns a language by talking it, albeit imperfectly. This is still miles better than only opening one’s mouth after one has perfected all the grammar rules.
5. News Reporting
Here students perform anchor duties and tell the news using the target language.
In news reporting, there’s an economy of words used. It’s laser focused for getting the information across. Telling the news is akin to telling a story, and training your wards using this technique will give them the opportunity to practice talking about events and dishing out information. It’s like being in the center of a gossip huddle. And just like the previous activity, this is done individually.
Let the students choose a topic of their liking. They could choose to report on sports, politics, business, showbiz, lifestyle—anything they might see reported on TV. But unlike their favorite CNN anchors, they won’t be reading from a script. They’ll have to commit their piece to memory really tell a story! A 30-second clip would be more than enough.
So, the first thing they’ll need to do is compose their piece on a sheet of paper. Depending on their skill level, they could start by writing the story in English, then translating it to the target language. Ask for a copy of their story so you can polish it a little more and return a corrected draft.
After a few days of practice, let the students do their thing in front of the class.
Listen to them and follow with the copy of the story in your hand. But consider that only as a guide. Truth is, they don’t really need to memorize the script word for word, so don’t jump on every miss, don’t get your nose bent on every mistake. Don’t even think of the grade that you’re going to give the student. Watch, smile and be supportive.
The important thing for each of these activities is really just to let the students know that, in spite of any awkward pauses, they can survive using the target language—and that in spite of the mistakes and the misses, they’ll still be appreciated by the teacher and the whole class when they take their seats.
When you get to this point of teaching where students don’t look at their mistakes like monsters in the closet, when students know they can butcher the target language, make mistakes and learn along the way, you mimic in your class how the native speakers, as toddlers, flunked their way to success in their own language.
Through the non-threatening reactions of their primary caregivers—they pushed on to become the fluent native Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish native speakers that they are today.
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