Replicating real-life communication in the classroom

It is cbigstock-Communications-607298ertainly worth remembering that production of the target language is not necessarily synonymous with communication. For communication genuinely to happen, it would be wise to try and recreate the kind of conditions that cause communication to happen in everyday life outside the classroom. Thornbury (1996) believes that in general terms a communicative classroom is one in which the characteristics of everyday communication can be found. He breaks this down into four main points:

Referential questions

These are questions to which the person asking – in this case, the teacher – does not know the answer. They are genuine questions similar to those asked by people in other contexts external to the classroom. Such questions provide students with the opportunity to give real and potentially long turn answers which constitute genuine communication. Referential questions can be contrasted with display questions, questions to which the teacher already knows the answer. Teachers ask these questions to check understanding or to elicit answers they want. They want the student to ‘display’ that he or she knows the correct grammatical construction, vocabulary or pronunciation. Whilst display questions are a common feature of language classrooms, they are not typical of everyday communication. In real life, when we ask someone a question we normally do not already know the answer, otherwise, why would we ask it? The main idea is that a greater proportion of referential questions will go a long way towards creating conditions in which students can actually communicate in the classroom, whereas an overreliance on display questions will not. A greater proportion of referential questions equals a more authentic classroom in which there are opportunities for learners to communicate something.

Content feedback

If teacher feedback is largely restricted to form, then why should the student feel motivated to communicate? If only form matters then any contribution is valid as long as it is grammatically and lexically correct and is pronounced well. Clearly, this is not the case, and if students are to feel motivated to communicate, teachers should focus to a greater degree on what is being said, not merely how it is being said. Such content feedback should lead to further communication. Imagine how the following dialogue would make the student feel.

Teacher: Marta, tell me something about your weekend.

Marta: My dog die on Saturday.

Teacher: My dog die? No, remember the past form, my dog died

Marta: My dog died on Saturday.

Teacher: Good! David, tell me something about your weekend.

This is an old language teacher joke and a little exaggerated, but the point is that here the content is much more important than the form and the teacher should give it the importance it deserves. Marta was communicating something very important to her, but communication was ignored and form was given all the attention.

Wait time

When answering a question we may all need a moment to think and formulate a response. This is even truer when speaking in a foreign language. Students are more likely to be able to respond if given a few more seconds to respond before the teacher quickly reformulates the question, asks another student, gives clues or answers the question themselves. Failure to do this may cause some students to miss opportunities to engage in communication. Teachers often feel uncomfortable in silence, but we should try to wait at least five seconds and often more so that learners have time to think about what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Imagine the frustration you might feel in the following situation.

Teacher: Beatriz, which country would you most like to visit? (2 second wait) No? Ok, Jesús, which country would you most like to visit?

Jesús: How do you say Nueva Zelanda?

Teacher: New Zealand

Jesús: New Zealand.

Teacher: Why do you want to go to New Zealand Jesús?

Jesús: Because…

Poor Beatriz did not
really get a chance to think, much less actually communicate. Her opportunity was quickly taken away by the teacher and now it has gone. Jesús has a chance, but that is not much consolation for Beatriz.

Student-initiated talk

Learners should sometimes be asking questions and not only answering them. Communication should start sometimes with the learners not only with the teacher. If this is not the case then perhaps the class is too teacher-centred and not communicative enough. Clearly, allowing learners to take the initiative and talk about what they would like to talk about promotes communication.

In summary a communicative classroom is one in which students are given time to respond to referential questions, are invited to initiate communication and receive feedback on the content of what they say. A classroom in which these criteria are seldom met is probably not communicative, something which would have serious consequences in a CLIL context.

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