Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Through the lens of communicativeness

I can't do much about the fact that some things stick in my mind and others don't. Blog posts by Kevin Stein fall into the former category. It seems like ages but it was only yesterday when I came across his post called Are these communicative language teaching activities? I love bloggers who explicitly ask for comments. The thing is that I can't help wanting to comment on everything I like, which sometimes makes me feel I'm pushing in too much, so I don't consider myself to be such a nuisance when I'm (though not directly) asked to air my views. Thus after reading Kevin's post, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to participate in the discussion on communicativeness (because I'm truly communicative). When I look back at my comment, I think it appears a little immature but I was so excited by the activities Kevin had described that I had to react spontaneously. For example, one of the things I realized while reading was the fact that I'm a fan of communicative drills (during these activities students respond to a prompt using the grammar point under consideration, but providing their own content). Not that I use them often but I enjoyed them as a student and I remember they worked fine for me.

Anyway, I was happy to see that I was not the only one who enjoyed Kevin's post and felt the need to leave a reply. Guess what! Just a few lines below my comment, Scott Thornbury summarizes the criteria for communicativeness. I think I won't belabour a point if I mention them here again. I'd like to keep them somewhere safe so that I can refer to them later if need be:

A communicative task is:
purposeful: Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake.
 • reciprocal: To achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak.
 • negotiated: Following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other.
 • synchronous: The exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time.
 • unpredictable: Neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable.
 • heterogeneous: Participants can use any communicative means at their disposal. In other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.
 • contingent: The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc.) in which they are uttered.
 • engaging: The speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

At first I was shocked by the length of the list of criteria which are supposed to characterize a communicative activity. But I decided to follow Kevin's example and look at a popular activity we do in class through the lens of 'communicativeness'. I usually judge activities based on their purposefulness and effectiveness. Honestly, I take it for granted that my activities are communicative, but are they really? Here's one of my favourite techniques called 'running dictation', which I find motivating, enjoyable and meaningful. I'm attaching a short video to demonstrate what we actually do (I'm publishing it here with written consent from the students' parents). I'm going to try to analyze it to see how communicative the whole thing is, keeping Scott's criteria in mind.

Aims of the activity:

By the end of the activity, the students will have practised chunking language I need them to focus on (a bit of, a slice of, a lot of ...)
They will have revised some 'food' vocabulary they came across in the previous lesson (lettuce, cucumber..).
They will have practised spelling and pronunciation of vocabulary related to food.

Instructions:

Ss work in pairs. Student A is located opposite Student B. They are about 5 metres apart. I select a paragraph from the coursebook. Student A memorizes as much as s/he can and then runs to Student B to dictate what s/he has remembered. Student B writes the sentences down on a piece of paper.

Stage 1: dictation
Student A tries to remember a chunk of the text, runs to Student B and dictates what s/he's memorized. Student B writes down exactly what s/he hears, but s/he can adjust the sentence if necessary, i.e if it sounds grammatically incorrect or if it doesn't make sense.

Stage 2: reversing roles
When Student A has dictated the whole paragraph to Student B, they reverse roles. But now Student B reads what s/he has written (chunk by chunk) and runs back to Student A, who compares what s/he hears against the text in the book. Any corrections are allowed at this stage.

Stage 2: checking answers
The texts (the original and the written one) are placed next to each other and compared by both students collaboratively. The ultimate goal of the game: the fastest pair with the fewest errors wins.



How communicative is the activity?

The activity is definitely
+ purposeful: Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal: they need to transform the written word into its spoken form and 'carry it over' to their partners.
+ reciprocal: The speakers need to pronounce the language clearly to be understood. The writers need to listen carefully. The video shows that some writers occasionally finish the chunks for the speakers - they virtually predict the ending. This is something we do naturally in communication if have enough context or remember a fact from the past.
+ negotiated: The listeners need to make adjustments if they feel they misunderstood or if the speaker didn't say the sentence correctly.
+ engaging: The speakers need to speak clearly to make the job easier for the writers, who then have to write as quickly as possible in order to win the game. Watching the video, I can tell from the students' expressions that they are fully engaged in the activity and eager to complete the task.

I'm not quite sure if the activity is
? synchronous: The exchange is a little delayed (it takes some time to memorize a chunk and take it over to the partner). However, this is desirable in terms of language learning. The delayed output forces the speakers to concentrate on what they say.
? contingent: The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another (the text is coherent and cohesive), but as the students are not creating their own content, this argument sounds somewhat irrelevant.

The activity isn't
- unpredictable: The process may not be entirely predictable but the outcome and the language used in the exchange are given.
- heterogeneous: Participants are definitely restricted to the use of pre-specified grammar and lexical items. In effect, they are just repeating a pre-selected piece of text.

Judging by the list above, I can see that although the activity is not entirely communicative, the communicative aspects prevail. However, the video reveals a few drawbacks related to methodology, such as the fact that by dictating the same text, the speakers are forced to whisper because they don't want to help the other pairs (I'm not convinced that students practise pronunciation properly if they whisper). Next time I may distribute different texts, for example.

To conclude, I believe that running dictation has its place in communicative ELT, for the benefits I described above, even though it might not be considered a pure communicative activity.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Hana,
    (Do I comment too often? I wonder that too.)
    When I read Kevin's post originally (and your comment and all the others) I was intrigued by this question of communicativeness and all the interpretations of what it means.
    Reading your post today (what took me so long to find it?) I realize that I have my own beliefs around communicativeness and I should explore them. I think I would have evaluated the running dictations I do in my own class differently. (Actually my boss banned them because they end up being much too noisy.)
    I also started to wonder how important it is, in my context specifically, to have classes full of communicative activities? Or to have activities that meet all those criteria. Part of me is rebelling against the idea that's been planted in my head that "if it's not communicative that's bad."
    Thanks for giving me so much to think about!

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  2. First of all, Anne, thanks for all your thoughtful comments. I'm explicitly asking you to comment whenever you wish :-)) I suppose you can evaluate any activity in a million ways. This was just an attempt to look at what we do from a slightly different perspective. I think Scott Thornbury's criteria for communicativeness are really tough to meet. You can always meet a few of them but all of them? I'm not convinced. But they can serve a checklist, and when you later analyze an activity, you may discover that it could become more communicative and meaningful if you change a detail. I can't wait to read about your own explorations. Keep in touch.

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  3. Hi Hana,

    Thanks for the link and kind words regarding my post. Scott mentions in a follow up comment that his list isn't prescriptive, just a way to get teachers to think a bit more about what "communicative" entails. And as you mention here in the comments, I think his criteria is great for looking at an activity and making small/meaningful changes to make the activity more communicative. In fact, it's also just as good for making an activity less communicative. Sometimes I want my students to focus on form and be really aware of the structure of the language they are using (maybe I'm strange that way) and in that case, going back through an activity and getting rid of some of the steps which add to their cognitive load (how hard they are thinking and how much pressure they are feeling) can also be a pretty worthwhile exercise. For example, giving students a few seconds to formulate an answer before speaking might make an activity asynchronous (potentially less communicative) but that's just what I might want if form is most important.

    Like Anne, I'm very much feeling that the idea of "communicative" as good is pretty much played out in my classroom. What I want is a range of activities which leads to the widest range of learning possible. And thanks to your blog post, running dictation (which I haven't used in ages) is one of those dusty activities which I can now give a second look.

    Kevin

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  4. Hi Kevin,

    First of all, I'd like to say that your post was really inspiring and after reading it, I immediately wanted to respond in some way. But back to your comment; I totally agree with what you say about the role of accuracy. I also believe that the need to focus on form may sometimes 'force' us to use less communicative activities but that doesn't mean we are bad teachers. When I think about it now, I would prefer looking at activities through the lens of 'meaningfulness' rather than 'communicativeness'. The question is: are purely communicative activities always meaningful? If we set meaningful (communicative) objectives and these are met at the end of the lesson (or semester), there's no reason to discredit a purposeful drilling exercise, for example. But if all the teacher does is drills and if the main and only focus is on form (and this still happens nowadays), then it's time to raise eyebrows.
    Anyway, this is a very interesting subject worth pondering.

    Hana

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