Have you ever heard of a language class mutiny?
Well, it almost happened in one particular class.
Let me tell you a tale of two teachers.
The reason for the near-uprising had nothing to do with the teacher’s qualifications or her knowledge of the subject.
It was because of her teaching method, which left the energy in the classroom as low as the floor.
This was especially true when it came time for speaking practice and classroom conversations—the students were nervous, shy and reluctant to utter sentences. It was a struggle to even get words out.
But when their teacher had to leave for a week to attend a conference, she left them with a dynamic substitute teacher.
Wow, how that class changed during that week. An outsider observing the students would have thought that someone had spiked their water bottles with caffeine. Needless to say, when the class’ permanent teacher returned, the students were not as happy.
What was the difference between the teaching methods of these two educators? One focused on accuracy and the other focused on fluency. The substitute teacher’s method would fall under what is known as communicative language teaching (CLT), which prioritizes competent communication in the target language over rule-based grammar or translation to the native language.
Want to learn more about how CLT works and avoid a possible mutiny in your classroom? Then keep on reading.
What Is Communicative Language Teaching?
CLT developed in the late 60s and 70s, due in part to frustration with existing teaching approaches, which some felt were too focused on the structures and rules of language. They felt that language education should focus instead on the function of language (i.e. communication).
Many scholars across the U.K. and the U.S. started to study and propose new methods for teaching “communicative competence;” one significant development was the Council of Europe’s support of this new approach to language teaching.
Today, different educators may view or use CLT differently (largely because different educators define “communication” differently), but in essence, CLT puts the highest priority on students’ ability to effectively communicate in the target language. So, as with the substitute teacher above, the idea is to get students talking, sharing ideas and engaging authentically with the target language, not just mastering grammar rules.
Below, we will take a look at how CLT activities can be used in the classroom, and how they are different from “accuracy” activities.
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The Difference Between Accuracy Activities and Communication-based Activities
To see the difference between the two methods, we will look at a sample class from both teachers.
Activities Focusing on Accuracy
The class’ real teacher focused her lessons on accuracy. Her lessons went something like what you are about to read below.
Teacher: Hello class. Today we are going to talk about the present continuous. We use it to talk about things that are happening now. We form it by using the present form of the verb “to be” plus the “ing” form of the verb. For example, I am talking to you now. I am writing on the whiteboard now [as she writes on the whiteboard]. Here are some cards. [The teacher gives a card to each student.] Look at the card and tell me what you are doing.
Student A: I am washing my car.
Student B: I am watching TV.
Student C: I ride my bike.
Teacher: You mean you are riding your bike.
Student C: Yes, sorry. I am riding my bike.
Teacher [after everyone has finished]: Good. Now open your book and turn to page 24. Take a few minutes to answer the questions in exercise one.
Afterward, the class members take turns giving their answers and the teacher corrects them when necessary.
Now, after practicing using the present continuous in this manner for 50 minutes, students are going to know how to form it. They are going to be accurate, but has any meaningful conversation taken place? Students have practiced the language out of the context in which native speakers use it. They also had no real choice but to use the present continuous.
Students come out of lessons like these saying that they know how to use class speak, but they are lost when trying to converse with native speakers outside of the classroom.
Compare that to the following example.
Activities Focusing on Communication
Substitute Teacher: Ann, what am I doing? [The teacher picks up a book and starts reading it.]
Student A: You are reading a book.
The teacher nods and motions for Ann to do something. She does, and the student next to her says what she is doing. After all of the students have participated in this activity, the teacher explains the present continuous to them. Rather than explaining the grammar rules in full, she elicits as much information from the students as possible based on the previous activity.
Then, she gives them a task to complete that involves communicating with one another:
Substitute Teacher: Now, each of you has a problem. You need to call another student to ask him or her to help you. The student you call has to say what they are doing that stops them from helping you. If their excuse makes sense, you move on and call another student. If not, that student has to help you. Students cannot repeat activities. If they do, then they will have to help you.
The first student “calls” another student.
Student A: Hi, Student B. I need someone to look after my daughter. Can you help me?
Student B: No. I cannot because I am writing a report at work.
Student A: Hi, Student C. I need someone to look after my daughter. Can you help me?
Student C: No. I cannot because I am sleeping.
Student A: You are not sleeping. You are talking to me.
This lesson gets students communicating with one another in a natural way. Native English speakers call one another every day and ask them what they are doing. Or they call for help and if the other party cannot help, they usually say why. What makes this activity even better is that the students do not have a script. There is no way to predict what they are going to say.
Students leave a class like this feeling equipped to tell people what they are doing. They will be able to more readily identify this structure when they read or listen to the language, perhaps while watching an authentic video in the target language. For that I recommend FluentU.
This natural way of communicating means students cannot wait to come to class to see what they are going to learn, in context, the next day.
Dynamic Communicative Language Teaching Lesson Plan Ideas That Will Keep Your Students Talking
Before we explore our sample lesson plan, we will take a look at some of the different types of activities you can incorporate into your own CLT lessons.
Typical Communicative Language Teaching Activities
Information Gap Activities
The substitute teacher mentioned above used an information gap activity to get the students talking. The person with the problem had to gather information to find out why people could not help them. This is a common type of activity to get students talking, because that is the point of communication—to exchange information.
The task does not have to be free form, nor does it have to be structured exactly like the substitute teacher’s activity above. Essentially, to create one of these activities, you just need to give students an objective that can only be completed by communicating with one another.
Classic versions of this activity involve giving pairs of students texts or pictures that are each missing different details, so they can work together to fill in all the—you guessed it—information gaps.
“Spot the difference” activities with pictures are also a common information gap activity, particularly with beginner students. For more advanced students, you can create an information scavenger hunt, with a list of questions that Group A needs to solve by talking with Group B. Here are some example scavenger hunt questions to get you started:
- “What are some locations that Group B students have traveled to?”
- “How many Group B students have pets?”
- “What are some things that Group B students have in common?
Games, Games, Games
Games are another activity that are fantastic for getting students talking. As you likely already realize, there are tons of games out there either designed specifically for the classroom or that can be adapted to your curriculum. Here are some factors to keep in mind when choosing a game that will promote communication in your classroom:
- Required input: Does this game require input from multiple people (think team word games like Taboo), or just one person at a time? Typically the former works best for traditional classrooms, but there are some cases where the latter might be helpful, like if you are working with a small class of adult students.
And of course, remember that the latter type of game can often be adapted as a team game.
- Communication prompts: This one is actually pretty common sense. You want games that prompt open-ended communication, not yes or no answers. If there is a game that involves both (such as 20 Questions) just make sure you are the one doing the yes/no-ing.
- Adaptability: Especially if you are working with younger students, it is important to choose games that are adaptable to a wide range of experiences and learning styles. For example, trivia games (unless they are very basic) typically will not work well because students can only participate if they have the right base of knowledge to draw from.
Icebreaker games are often more effective because communication hinges simply on students’ own experiences and ideas.
One of the difficulties of communicative language teaching is that, by de-prioritizing grammar rules, it can be difficult to teach the nuances of grammar. This can be especially problematic for students who will eventually need to be able to write correctly in the target language. Nonsense paragraphs can help overcome this roadblock.
Whereas the above activities encourage target language communication, this activity reverse engineers communication, so to speak. Students are given a paragraph made up largely of nonsense words—their task is to identify what parts of speech those nonsense words represent.
This type of activity is flexible but works better for early-intermediate students and up, who already have a base knowledge in target language vocabulary and grammar. I have even seen it used in English classes for native English speaking students. You may find it useful to highlight the nonsense words so your students can concentrate on the task at hand.
You can certainly make up your own nonsense text, but a popular one among educators that is already written for you is Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Here is the famous poem in English, and there are delightful translations into dozens of languages available here.
Provide students with the nonsense paragraphs and then split them into pairs or groups. Ask them to identify all the words that represent objects, all the verbs that represent some kind of action and all the descriptor words. After they have done this, you can ask them to re-write the nonsense paragraph, replacing the nonsense words with real target language words, and see how often they are able to use the right parts of speech.
Ultimately, the idea is to use communication as a vehicle for teaching grammar constructions, rather than teaching grammar rules in isolation.
Sample Communicative Language Teaching Lesson Plan
Interviews are versatile and effective for getting ESL students to communicate with one another. This lesson culminates in English interviews that students will conduct in pairs.
The lesson plan below is designed for a beginner classroom that is learning how to form questions in the target language. However, this lesson can be adapted to serve as a vehicle for a wide range of other topics and objectives.
For example: Working with adult students new to the country? Focus specifically on job interview questions. Working with advanced French literature students? Have them formulate/answer questions that demonstrate their knowledge of a book your class just finished. Working with intermediate students? Require that they the use, say, the subjunctive a certain number of times in their interviews.
- Students can formulate questions in the target language.
- Students can understand basic question constructions in the target language and respond appropriately.
1. Lesson Introduction
Write a basic question on the board, and then pose the question to two or more students. When a student answers with correct grammar, indicate as such and write the response on the board. Repeat with a range of question-answer constructions. Here are some sample questions/answers to get you started:
- “What time is it?” “It is 8 a.m.”
- “How old are you?” “I am 14.”
- “What is the weather like today?” “It is sunny.”
Next, say that you can tell the class your birthday if someone will ask it. When a student is able to correctly formulate the question “When is your birthday?” write it on the board. Continue prompting questions about yourself (“What is your middle name?” “Where were you born?” etc.) from students like this a few more times.
Now it is time to present the interview task to students. Explain that they just had a successful interview with you, and next they are going to interview one another. Ask students to take out a piece of paper and divide them into pairs.
2. Activity: Interviews
Student pairs will now take turns asking each other interview questions about their lives. They can borrow some questions from the lesson introduction, but they should also come up with several of their own. Depending on your class size and the time you have available, you can rotate students to new interview partners at regular intervals.
While conducting their interviews, students should write down the answers that they learn from their interviewees. They do not necessarily have to write down their own questions at this stage, since they will be coming up with those largely on the fly.
Throughout the interview activity, walk around your classroom and listen to how your students are doing. If you hear a question or response delivered incorrectly, step in and ask the student if they would like to try rephrasing or if the other student can identify the mistake.
3. Interview Notes
After the interview activity, leave some time for students to complete their notes on the interviews. They should take out a new piece of paper and use their notes to reconstruct the questions that they had asked, and the responses they received. (They should write all answers correctly to the best of their ability, rather than transcribing exactly what their interviewee said.)
These completed notes should then be handed in for assessment.
You want to make sure your students know good grammar, but it is also important to realize that they need to use what they learn in context if they are going to speak outside of the classroom. Give this ability to your students and you will have smooth sailing throughout the duration of the course.
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