Reply to Alex’ post – what is communicative teaching?

Talk about Pandora’s box!! It’s like asking a politician what he’ll do for us.

OK, communicative approach….

With a teaching certificate, you must have taken a course in learning psychology. The issues in teaching come down to how people learn. There are huge divisions in the field in areas like math, reading, native language proficiency, foreign language proficiency, and elementary education.

One approach thinks we learn by being rewarded and punished for doing things. Tight control is required, control over content, students, teachers, the whole thing. There is an underlying assumption that there is a set body of knowledge which must be transmitted to the next generation. The teacher is the authority. Teaching is seen as the transmission of a predetermined set of principles and facts. You might imagine a model of a hunter teaching the time-tested skills of hunting to his son while the mother teaches plant use to her daughter.

Another approach sees learning as a process and a very complex one at that. Learning occurs in the interaction among all people in the child’s life and it is not one way. This makes for a somewhat unpredictable course and outcomes will not necessarily be that same for all students. IOW, it is messy. The teacher must be open to questions, willing to admit he doesn’t know something, and focused on the individual student rather than the curriculum.

The terms “traditional” and “progressive” are unfortunate for 2 reasons: they are both positive in tone rather than neutral as they should be for such a discussion. Second, most of this transmission model is not traditional at all but the product of the needs of an industrialized economy for workers who could follow instructions and work in concert on tasks assigned by someone else. This was essential for the factory to work and the military to function in the modern world of the 19th century.

The progressive movement attempted to tap the creative and intellectual endowment of children rather than grooming them for someone else’s use.

Communicative teaching functions on the unproved assumption that people learn a language by using it. This is the hypothesis Krashen laid out in the early 80s. Much has been made of Krashen’s reliance on Chomsky’s theories but while that may be true, Chomsky never addressed second language acquisition. What critics of Krashen say is that learning L2 is not the same as learning L1. Having read and talked to Krashen, I can’t recall any where he says this. On the contrary, he deals with L2 acquisition as a special process.

Enjoy this quote:

“The method used in this book is not new and has been successfully followed by thousands of students. It was discovered many years ago by experiment and research that a thorough and workable command of a foreign language is not learned by long and arduous memorization of the grammatical rules of a language. Modern educational science now follows the far more efficient method presented in these pages.”

No, it’s not from a current textbook inspired by Krashen; it’s from a 1952 New Spanish Self Taught. It’s the old Language Phone method put out by Funk & Wagnalls. The book contains a fair amount of grammar but the preface goes on to list some telling criticisms of classroom instruction of the day. It’s really worth reading.

And it was this environment that spawned the dissatisfaction with grammar-driven courses. The underlying problem is that we do not learn a language by conscious memorization and learning of rules. Imagine being given a list of rules for conducting discouse in another culture. Even if you know the language, you realize you need to grasp how people relate to each other in a conversation: how do you initiate one? How do you end one? Can you overlap another’s utterance without giving offense? How much time can lapse between a question and its answer? (here in AZ we often have Native American students in our classes whose ’wait time’ is considerably longer than the Anglo’s or Black’s and the teacher is liable to move on to another student). There are dozens if not hundreds of rules that a linguist might ferret out but we don’t learn to communicate in our own or another culture by learning all those rules. We learn by interacting with people in the culture, observing, participating.

So it is with L2. We may start off with visual cues, gestures, common sense, and so on as we build vocabulary, then sentence formation, and so on. Giving students grammar rules is helpful only when they are already communicating and the rule then helps clarify.

Krashen also introduced the hypothesis he calls the affective filter. He posits that the part of the brain that lays down the patterns of language, the grammar, cannot operate fully when the mind is preoccupied with anxiety. Therefore, the traditionalist approach of threatening punishments like low grades, loss of status, etc. interferes with the acquistion process. That makes it doubly difficult for the communicative teacher who may be seen as soft and easy b/c he does not “scowl until December” and all the other punitive and demanding things teachers are encouraged to be in order to win the students’ respect. Students who acquire language do so in an unconscious way so they do not realize they are learning. They write the class off in the same way many teachers do when they demand in a threatening tone that the student conjugate a verb. If the student hesitates, he’s told he “doesn’t know his grammar” and is dismissed. So the communicative teacher has to really have the courage of his convictions to continue to run his class as a nurturing environment full of encouragement and even – God forfend – fun. (You see, anything that is fun or that feels good is deemed unhealthy and worthless by the ’rigor’ crowd).

As is obvious, Krashen was not the first to introduce these notions he calls hypotheses (there are 5 of them), but he put them all together in a package that at least some people understand (it’s amazing how many people even on flteach consistently demonstrate in their comments that they do not understand communicative approaches or Krashen). Nor was he the only one pushing this approach. Others have usefully criticized his hypotheses and pushed beyond them to the benefit of the field (I can give you a list of names like Ellis, VanPatten, Daughty, Lee, Terrell, etc.)

The short answer to your question is: yes, lots of COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT is required for the student to build an internal model of L2 which, until he reaches proficiency, is called Interlanguage, which must not be criticized i.e. no red marks on papers, no interrupting with “Now what conjugation is that verb?”. You want the student to comprehend and express as much L2 as possible b/c the brain is using that material to build an internal model of L2. That’s what we can’t prove other than by observation. Opponents of communicative teaching deny both the conclusions reached by observation and assure us that explicit grammar instruction alone is necessary and sufficient to produce proficiency in L2.

Obviously, few teachers fall into either camp wholly, and most use a mixture of the approaches, few going to the extreme non-interventionist model (progressive) or the grammar/translation method (traditional).

I’ve left out the cognitive code approach which dominates the field now, although it’s swiftly losing ground to the communicative approach.

Hope that helped.

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