Communicative Language Teaching by Lina Gordyshevskaya

by Lina Gordyshevskaya

Bio: Lina Gordyshevskaya graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2015 earning an MA with honors in Scandinavian Studies. She obtained a TEFL certificate in 2015 and a CELTA in 2016.

Throughout her career, she has taught YL (young learners), teenagers, and adults of various levels in different contexts. Currently, she teaches EAP (discussion) at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and loves her job. She writes regularly for her blog, Side Notes on ELT.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is self-explanatory: the underlying idea here is to develop learners’ communicative competence and provide them with an opportunity to communicate in their target language. CLT should be as student-centered as possible, and all new words and structures have to be contextualised (learnt in the context). Finally, the focus should be on fluency (how fast and effortlessly students speak) rather than on accuracy (how accurate their grammar and word choices are).

Now, in Japanese schools, students rarely have a chance to communicate in English since it is believed there that language learning is about grammar and vocabulary. While these two are undoubtedly essential components, it is obvious that language learning loses its meaning if learners have no chance to communicate in their target language.

What do Japanese students do in a typical English lesson? They keep silent and listen to the teacher. English grammar is explained in Japanese, and students end up doing endless grammar exercises (so-called grammar drills) and translations between their mother tongue and English. Accuracy is the only virtue cherished by Japanese schools. Students also have to memorise an impressive amount of English word lists taken out of context. The primary goal is to prepare them for the end-of-year exam, which typically consists of reading and listening (both of which are receptive skills). Therefore, communication is out of scope. Its value is diminished since a speaking component is not in the test, so why would they need to spend their time on it?

However, the huge number of so-called eikaiwas (English conversation schools) demonstrates the flaw of English school education: recent graduates realise that without being able to communicate in English, their grammar and vocabulary knowledge is almost useless to employers. The high demand for communicative lessons among working people is the reason why Japanese schools try to implement some communicative lessons with the help of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs).

So what do you have to do? How can you implement CLT in your lessons?

First of all, I would recommend starting with tuning your students into thinking what communication is. They need to understand its importance. Ask them to brainstorm this word in groups and see what they come up with. Most likely, they will talk about various features of effective communication (e.g., eye contact, clarity, etc.) – that is a good start! Tell them about other features they might not mention as developing a conversation by asking follow-up questions and the need to check to understand (“Do you understand?”). It is hardly possible to teach your students how to be effective communicators without explaining what effective communication is. Since we are trying to follow the principles of CLT here, making students brainstorming the topic in groups could be an excellent way to create the need for interaction and teamwork.

Okay, your students understand now how to carry successful and effective communication. What is next? There is only one thing you can do: give them an opportunity to try it out! Make them communicate and let them learn from their mistakes. Let them develop and progress. Below is the list of some communicative activities you can use with your students. All of them are suitable for older elementary school, junior high school, high school, and university students.

1. Any kind of pair work. Ask your students to discuss something in pairs. Typically, pair work creates less tension since it is more intimate than group work. However, you have to be careful when pairing students up since if a talkative student is paired with a shy student the latter one will most likely end up keeping quiet. I often use pair work at the beginning of a lesson when I want to tune my students into thinking about today’s topic. For example, when we discussed social pressure, I asked them to talk in pairs and discuss how they would define ‘pressure’.

2. Any kind of group work. This is the same as pair work but can help students to develop their teamwork skills. My favourite kind of group work is a discussion. However, keep in mind that before asking students to discuss something in groups you need to prepare them for this kind of task. Ensure they understand the topic, give them an opportunity to exchange opinions in pairs first to generate some ideas and rehearse before the big task.

3. Concentric circles. Suitable for classes of 10+. Students stand in two circles, inner and outer. They have to discuss some questions or ideas. After each round, students in the outer circles make one step left; therefore, each student in the inner circle gets a new partner. It is also a type of pair work, but in this case, students have a chance to discuss the questions or ideas with different partners that might help them to widen their understanding of the topic.

4. Lines. Same as concentric circles, but in lines.

5. Fluency Activity. If you want to add some time pressure, consider trying out the so-called 3-2-1 Fluency Activity. It can be done both in circles and lines. The idea is that each round is shorter than the previous one: 3 minutes -> 2 minutes -> 1 minute. Students take roles of speakers and listeners. Speakers have to repeat the same ideas in each round, but faster each time. Listeners only have to listen and react (i.e., “yeah”, “I see”, “mhm”, etc.). After the speakers complete the 1-minute round, change the roles and repeat the procedure.

6. Gallery Walk (aka Stations). Can be done both in pairs and groups. The ideas are to prepare some posters with the questions you want your students to discuss. Put these posters on the walls or desks. Students walk around and discuss the questions. They have the freedom to stay at each station for as long as they want and move in any direction.

7. Role-play. I am not a big fan of role-playing and have hardly implemented it in my lessons, but it is a good thing to do if you have to work with some dialogues. However, it depends on the students. Japanese students are generally a bit reserved and might not be keen on acting. Although if you do it in pairs without asking each pair to perform in front of the class, they might feel less pressure.

8. Brainstorming. Brainstorming can be very student-centred and communicative! I have some groups that enjoy this kind of activity, so we always devote some time to it. Typically, I ask them to come to the whiteboard, give each student a marker, and then they write down everything that comes to their minds discussing it meanwhile. They might ask each other about the exact meaning of their ideas, develop each other’s ideas by adding more examples, etc. The only thing I have to do is just to stand behind their backs and watch how the whiteboard is getting covered with dozens of interesting ideas. However, if you have to teach big groups (8+ students), doing this activity as a whole class is not going to work. In this case, divide students into groups and give each group a blank A4 sheet.

9. Reporting. Another CLT-style thing to do is to ask your students to report to you after they finish the task. However, Japanese students tend to feel shy when put under the spotlight, so I found reporting not being as successful as I wished. I have some groups where it started working after some time, but the majority of groups still finds it challenging and stressful.

10. EFL/ESL Games. If you are teaching elementary or junior high school students, pay specific attention to various EFL/ESL games. One of my favourites is the board game with conversation topics. You can find a template online. Fill some cells with conversation topics (e.g., “favourite musician”, “ideal summer vacation”, etc.). Students play in groups; they have to roll a dice and move their tokens. The group that gets to the Finish cell first wins. Make sure to add some unexpected elements (e.g., “roll dice – go back”, “miss a turn”, etc.). You can adjust the topics to your students’ age and level.

11. Resource Packs. Finally, you can always find many other communicative activities in various activity books or so-called resource packs. For example, Discussions A-Z series can be a good source of multiple topics. It is graded so you can select the appropriate level. Other helpful sources are 700 Classroom Activities, 60 Activities and Games for Pairwork, Conversation Inspirations, Speaking Extra, Instant Discussions, Timesaver series (e.g., Speaking Activities, Personality Quizzes, etc.), and many others.

I hope these guidelines help you to make your classroom as communicative as possible. Keep in mind that communication, like any other skill, needs to be practised and developed. Be ready to face difficulties both at the beginning and on the way, but do not let them discourage you. Support your students and be enthusiastic – they will appreciate it. Many of my students appear to be anxious and stressed in the first weeks of the course, but as they progress, they start feeling more relaxed, and the necessity to communicate in English stops scaring them. Being there for them is one of the crucial parts of our jobs as teachers, as well as ensuring that they leave our classroom feeling that they can communicate in English.

Good luck!

          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

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