Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching
Volume 2 (2011) Issue 1 (PDF)
pp. 111 - 127
The Importance of Learners’ Ability to Communicate in English and the Implementation of the Communicative Approach in the Polish Context of Language Teaching
Andrzej Cirocki (Gdansk, Poland)
The communicative approach (CA), revolving around the theory of language as communication, focuses on developing communicative competence (CC), which, in turn, is a complex phenomenon consisting of grammatical, sociolinguistic, strategic, and discourse competences. From this, it follows that foreign language (FL) instruction not only faces challenging tasks, but also requires diverse techniques to enable language learners to achieve various learning outcomes specified in the syllabus. In consequence, this article concentrates on two aspects: What is meant by the ability to communicate? and How should teachers develop their students’ ability to communicate in a foreign language?. The awareness of both facets is bound to help EFL teachers to understand how to approach communicative language teaching (CLT) in their classrooms, simultaneously encouraging them to explore and reflect on their own ideology and practices in language instruction. Despite the fact that the article refers to the Polish EFL context, its practical and comprehensive implications are universal in their nature, and thus easily applicable to other language education frameworks.
Key words: communicative approach, the ability to communicate, communicative competence
The Communicative Approach arrived in Poland relatively late, especially when compared to Western Europe, reaching its climax in the 1990s and thriving ever since. A very significant phenomenon as well as a remarkable contribution to its successful expansion was the fact that Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. It was then that the Polish education system was required to comply with EU standards, and foreign language teacher / student exchange programmes were introduced, all contributing to a new perspective on language education and its new trends. Additionally, it was then that CLT principles were intensively put into effect, one of them focusing on the idea that “the primary function of language is to allow interaction and communication” (Richards & Rogers 2001: 161). Today, in retrospect, making use of professional literature published in Poland (Dakowska 2005), we can affirm that developing communicative competence in the EFL context is common practice. However, its importance, as well as the support to be given to learners to achieve it, will be revealed in the discussion which follows.
2 The Ability to Communicate
2.1 Implications and Justification
In the first place, the notion of the ability to communicate should be clarified since it is, more often than not, inaccurately equated with the proper use of grammar rules in speaking only. However, according to Hymes (1971), communication involves knowing not only the language code, but also what to say to whom, and how to put it appropriately in a particular context. Furthermore, language speakers are presumed to possess social and cultural knowledge, which enables them to apply and interpret linguistic forms. Linguistic knowledge, as Saville-Troike (2003) observes, which constitutes one of the components of communicative competence, focuses on the phonology, grammar and lexicon of a language. Nevertheless, these items only form one part of the components in a code applied for communication. The other part comprises paralinguistic and non-verbal phenomena, which are established by social convention in each speech community, as well as knowledge of the entire range of variants in the component parts of the linguistic code, which are responsible for transmitting social and referential information (Saville-Troike 2003).
What is more, never does transmitting information take place through one mode i.e., speaking, only. For instance, it is common knowledge that in face-to-face interactions, listening often involves a considerable amount of talking, whereas in written communication, it is reading which is necessary. As can be seen, the ability to communicate is a complex phenomenon involving, apart from the language code itself, all language skills, the successful employment of which enables human beings to share thoughts and feelings, as well as to learn from the experiences of others (Samovar, Porter, & McDaniel 2009).
After the clarification of the notion of the ability to communicate, it now seems fitting to relate the importance of its development to the context of English language teaching in Poland. Foreign language teachers in Poland are trained to not only perceive communication in the complex sense presented above, but also to encourage their students to properly develop the ability to communicate if they want to succeed in accomplishing authentic communication goals in the target language. So, apart from pure linguistic knowledge, Polish students are taught how to take part in verbal communication, consequently being both senders and addressees of information (Dakowska 2005). In addition, students are encouraged to be creative, imaginative, and resourceful when negotiating meaning, simultaneously taking other persons’ perspectives into account.
Apart from the technical aspects of the communication process, there are political, economic, educational, and social reasons why teaching the ability to communicate in English is important in Poland. After Poland joined the European Union, there have existed more opportunities for employment in international companies or foreign countries, provided applicants have a decent command of English. These chances often imply a higher salary and better chances of promotion. For students, this means that they may have easier access to better universities and to various scholarships. In short, a good command of English may directly determine a person’s social status and power.
2.2. Developing the Ability to Communicate
The preceding discussion stresses that the ability to communicate effectively in English has now become part of EFL classroom procedure in Poland. Hence, it seems appropriate to present a practical approach as to what measures Polish EFL teachers should take to assist their students to attain it.
Following Wray (1995), teachers should apply an integrated approach to teaching where all language skills complement one another. In consequence, the tasks students experience in the course of their studies should vary, ranging from scrambled texts, jig-saw listening tasks, role-plays, and letter writing to cloze tests, transformations, and crosswords.
Teachers should be aware that students’ personal engagement, team collaboration and both verbal as well as non-verbal communication can be mutually developed by regular employment of communication games in the classroom. As Burden (2000) and Mahapatra (2004) note, communication games, first and foremost, force purposeful interaction. Also, they provide opportunities to practise or drill complex grammatical patterns (Benya & Muller 1988) as well as various language functions and to create meaningful contexts for new lexical items (Wright, Betteridge, & Buckley 2006). In addition, games encourage students to practise all language skills, simultaneously involving them in meaningful problem-solving situations. It is clear, therefore, that games seek to reduce barriers to communication and assist learners in experiencing the target language rather than just studying it (Wright, Betteridge, & Buckley 2006).
The ability to communicate can also be developed online, provided that EFL teachers have constant access to computers and the Internet. The idea of a virtual classroom enables students to train synchronous communication, which is also defined as direct communication taking place in real time (Meskill 2002). As a result, computer-mediated communication should be regularly practised in situations when teachers ask students to do problem-solving projects. Therefore, students should be systematically encouraged to approach both in- and out-of-class tasks through virtual tools such as Skype, chat rooms, video-conferencing or discussion forums within the context of one or more schools, even one or more countries. As recent research reveals (Beatty 2003; Hampel & Barber 2003; White 2003), computer-mediated communication projects promote meaningful contexts in which the focus on language form can be easily moved to actual language use (Meskill & Krassimira 2000). In addition, virtual classrooms nurture authentic and spontaneous interactions (Hampel & Barber 2003, White 2003), providing social contexts for communication (Hiltz 1994). Given this evidence, online communication should be employed in the language classroom on a regular basis and, in the long run, lead to international exchanges due to which EFL students’ intercultural knowledge and awareness could be increased.
Moreover, teachers should supply their students with different types of texts, ranging from everyday dialogues to graded readers or contemporary young literature. Everyday exchanges are vital since they concentrate on conversational language, allowing learners “to study the structure and order of social interactions” as well as observe various speech reductions (Tanaka 2004: 5). Literature, on the other hand, as Lazar (1993) argues, allows new language to be processed and, in consequence, interpreted in meaningful contexts. Additionally, literature furnishes “a wide range of styles, registers, and text-types at various levels of difficulty” (Duff & Maley 1990: 6).. Bearing all this in mind, teachers should invite their students to literature circles or discussion clubs in which student-led debates advance learners’ comprehension through social interaction around texts.
The target-language culture should constitute an indispensable element of EFL teaching, for, as Samovar and Porter (1982) reveal, culture is the basis for communication. They further point out that culture not only determines the process of communication, but also the conditions under which messages are or are not sent or interpreted (Samovar & Porter 1982). In addition to this, cross-cultural interaction is unavoidable in present-day society, since economic growth, trade and the culture of certain countries depend on their relationships with other countries. As a result, teachers should familiarize their students with aspects of both “small c culture” and “large C culture” (Chastain 1988: 203), the former focusing on the life of the target language population, the latter stressing the role of authentic materials, which provide language learners with a myriad of cultural details (Chastain 1988).
Finally, in order to help Polish students to deal with challenging communication situations, teachers should follow Tarone’s (1980) and Oxford’s (1990) advice and teach them how to be strategic users of the target language. This, in turn, means that teachers should show them how to operate communication strategies so as to repair communication breakdowns in the most economical way possible (Tarone 1980) as well as how to make learning easier and more effective (Oxford 1990). In order to help EFL students to successfully carry out various communication tasks, instructors should teach them techniques like circumlocution, rephrasing, asking for clarification, as well as applying fillers and hesitation devices.
3 The Study
On the background of these ideas about how teachers could introduce CLT in their classrooms, the author investigated what EFL learners can say about their learning experiences. For this reason, quantitative research was carried out in 17 secondary schools in Poland at the beginning of 2010. The study sought to examine how CLT was used in Polish state schools and whether Polish EFL students enjoyed being taught in this way. The student questionnaire consisted of 15 questions (both closed and open) and was given to 238 Year-3 students from different administrative districts in Poland. The teacher-researcher had contacted the EFL teachers working in these schools via email and asked them to administer the questionnaire on his behalf.
Secondary education lasts for three years in Poland. Students are obliged to learn two modern languages, among which the most frequently taught are: English, German, French, Russian and Spanish. However, in some schools, some paths include Latin as a compulsory subject. Thus some students have to learn three languages. In general, Polish secondary school students learn two modern languages for two or three years, which means they finish their courses after the second or third year. The language the students learn for three years is usually chosen for the Matura examination, which can be taken at two levels: basic and extended. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages developed by the Council of Europe, the former is placed between levels A2 and B1, whereas the latter matches level B2.
3.2 The Findings: Presentation and Discussion
The analysis reveals that in Year 1, 63 % of the student population enjoyed their English classes. However, students’ attitude changed, decreasing to 52 % in Year 2 and 33 % in Year 3:
Table 1. Positive attitude towards English classes
Figure 1. Positive attitudes towards English classes
The results demonstrate that 63 % of the students described language education in Year 1 as quite interesting since their courses were based on attractive general English textbooks (e.g. Enterprise, New English File, New Headway, and Upstream). These textbooks enabled students to practise all language skills, as well as grammar, and vocabulary. Besides, from time to time, their teachers supplemented the course books with other materials such as short stories / tales, newspaper / magazine texts, songs, and films. However, the results also show that 37 % of the students did not like language classes in Year 1. As one of the open questions in the questionnaire reveals, 34 % of the students found that learning English was difficult, 27 % of the students claimed that their teachers put them under stress, and 2 % described their lessons as boring.
Table 2. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 1
Figure 2. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 1
In Year 2 52 % of the students expressed a positive attitude towards their English lessons, whereas 48 % students expressed disapproval. The main reason for the latter was the monotonous examination tasks introduced in the second semester. Other reasons for disliking English classes were the same as in Year 1, with the percentage rates decreasing from 36 %, to 23 %, and 10 %, respectively:
Table 3. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 2
Figure 3. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 1 and Year 2
However, by Year 3, 67 % of the students had a negative attitude towards their English lessons. In the open question about the reasons why students did not like their English classes, 44 % indicated that their lessons were boring because of the repetitive and monotonous tasks used in class. 40 % of the students complained about being given the same Matura examination format in each lesson, 34 % complained abut the stressful atmosphere during lessons, and 31 % found they were given too many mock examinations:
Table 4. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 3
Figure 4. Reasons for disliking English classes in Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3
As the results further reveal, teachers completely change their teaching methods (as if they had forgotten what their teaching was like with Year 1 students), and the idea of course book theme-based classes is overtaken by teaching Matura examination strategies in which students are habitually provided with examination papers to complete. How does this relate to communicative language teaching?
The backwash effect, which is now mainly present in the EFL classroom in Year 3 in Polish secondary schools, makes both teaching and learning adopt a new form, e.g. as far as speaking skills are concerned. During the oral part of the basic level Matura examination, examinees are asked to act out three everyday situations (together with their examiners). In the first one, they ask for information, in the second, they report an event, and in the third, they demonstrate negotiation skills. The original idea of this kind of task is very interesting and everything would be fine if students were allowed to practise these situations on their own - in pairs or small groups - to make their conversations as natural as possible. However, as the research displays, all these activities are fully controlled by teachers because, very often, it is the teacher who is one of the interactants. So, having a group of 15 students in the classroom, one student and the teacher – or, less frequently, two students - act out a particular situation, whereas all the others sit idle and observe. It is extremely difficult to offer a rational explanation for such a state of affairs, unless the teacher thinks it is a good listening practice for the rest of the class. However, if this is the case, an authentic recording will undoubtedly be a better choice.
The reading and listening comprehension components of lessons follow the Matura examination procedure as well. Students are asked to answer true / false statements or multiple-choice questions. Once the reading or listening comprehension task has been done, students are provided with a new exercise. Despite the fact that the extended Matura examination texts tend to be interesting, teachers generally do not extend the tasks as they clash with the examination procedures. Why not prepare a set of questions (e.g. factual-referential, cause-effect, inference, opinion, interpretation,) to encourage students to think critically and have them speak in a way they would in real life? Does brief group discussion put the Matura examination results at risk? Would this discussion not be a good practice for handling unexpected questions from the Matura examiners?
According to the research, the writing-skills practice is also frowned upon by students. Basic-level Matura students are expected to write short texts such as emails, postcards or letters, whereas extended-level students have to demonstrate the ability to write an article, a short story, an argumentative essay or a review. Again, the idea of studying different genres is very appealing and should be practised in the classroom, but the process must not be discouraging nor negative. The research reveals that 62 % (including 21 % of the basic-level Matura respondents) of the student population criticise the neglect of grammatical accuracy and the lack of pragmatics in writing at the Matura basic level.
As long as students are communicative, they score points. However, we may wonder how this relates to authentic language use among native speakers. What is more, teachers working with basic Matura students do not teach them the genres from the extended Matura level, as they believe that this is a waste of time and that there is no justification for doing so since these forms will not be tested during the examination. Additionally, students at particular levels practise the same genre for a few lessons in a row and once they have learnt it, they move on to a new genre which again lasts a few lessons. What is difficult to understand is why teachers apply such drastic methods. Do we apply such a radical procedure to learn how to write a letter in our L1, and then, consequently, write 10 or 15 letters to memorise how to write them?
In light of the above, it can be inferred that the situation is quite serious and that some grave mistakes have been made. In an attempt to find out who is responsible for this situation, we can state that it is difficult to point to the culprit, as, on the one hand, the blame lies with school principals, parents and external examiners who tell teachers to properly prepare their students for the examination. On the other hand, teachers are not without guilt, either: Especially teachers possess the appropriate knowledge about language learning and acquisition and certainly know better than school authorities and parents how to teach and what methods or techniques to apply to make their students succeed. It therefore has to be recognised that teachers, to a large degree, bear responsibility for the present situation, since they are, more often than not, too comfortable and indifferent to openly state that the system possesses flaws.
3.3 Implications for FL Methodology and Teacher Education
The main aim of this study was to find out what CLT is like in Polish state schools and whether Polish EFL students enjoy their English courses. The outcomes of the study appear to be of great significance for the following three reasons:
- The research outcomes indicate that CLT in secondary schools suffers from serious defects. As can be seen, towards the end of secondary school education, English language teaching and learning change into the practice of examination techniques, which invokes feelings of displeasure, indignation and anger on the part of the learners. Therefore, teachers should reconsider their teaching methods and, consequently, restructure them so that they reflect the personal, intellectual and social purposes for which language is naturally employed. Teachers should remember that EFL instruction should engage students in the learning process and allow them to explore ideas through varied experiences, simultaneously developing their higher-order thinking skills. Test-based classes, in contrast, promote low-level knowledge and skills and neglect student-centred practices.
- The research results reveal that the Matura examination is not a very effective means of measuring communicative competence. Therefore, serious modifications in the form of the examination are needed. First of all, the examination should not be so easily predictable (e.g. e-mail, postcard, informal letter or formal letter at the basic level) and should not contain so many true / false or multiple-choice tasks, which do not test students’ ability to organise and present ideas in coherent and cohesive texts. Also, they allow students to make tentative guesses or to cheat readily. Hence, the examination should be based on more creative tasks which would require Polish students to apply both declarative and procedural types of knowledge.
- The research outcomes show that the method of preparing students for the Matura examination should be changed. Students disapprove of monotonously practising examination techniques and repetitious tasks. They want to use regular course books, not volumes of examination papers, so that they can concentrate more on the target language and culture, as well as purposeful communication. Hence, teachers should think about implementing attractive forms of in-class and out-of-class work (e.g. collaborative projects, elements of drama, role-plays, extensive reading, creative writing, small group discussions, language games or storytelling) in which students can express functions which satisfy their own communication needs, simultaneously developing both communicative and intercultural competences. Exam strategies and techniques, on the other hand, should constitute part of the hidden curriculum.
In conclusion, it must be admitted that developing communicative competence in the EFL classroom is a vital and challenging task. The entire process requires teachers to instruct learners to be able to carry out linguistic interaction in the target language, as well as to share the social meanings of the linguistic forms so that they succeed in establishing social relationships. Therefore, decent communicative competence instruction requires proper techniques which combine grammatical, sociolinguistic, strategic and discourse competences. It is true that instruction is inextricably connected with assessment, and, thus, various types of examinations. However, teachers must realise that under no circumstances must the practice of Matura examination strategies violate proper communicative language instruction. To meet all these requirements is hardly ever easy, but should not discourage teachers as
[…] there will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling or stepping stones; it all depends on how we use them (Author unknown, as cited in Fiore & Whitaker, 2005: 149).
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Dr. Andrzej Cirocki
Institute of English
University of Gdańsk
55 Wita Stwosza Street