Communicative aim

A communicative aim in a Trinity assessed class is not the same thing as a communicative aim in real life. In real life, we might communicate with each other to get something off our chest, or to check each other out, to find areas we share interests in or perhaps just to shoot the breeze before we get down to business, without actually “communicating towards an outcome”. Yet that latter, very narrow definition of communication is what we have learned forms the heart of the lesson.

The rationale is that language learners need a concrete reason to use English, so we have to design a task for them to do that. I’m feeling the pressure, as the class I teach can communicate most easily using Spanish (though they’re multilingual in that some have Catalan as their mother tongue). And they use it too much in class. As we design our lessons, we have to include one main communicative activity that aims for a believable and concrete outcome in some way related to what the learners need to apply outside class. In that activity they have to be using language that we have defined as our lesson aims, and have taught and had them practice in that particular lesson. There has to be evidence for their intake. But it feels audiolingual and behavioristic, actually.

We can’t simulate real life transactions in class, so there’s always an element of something being forced, which is why I tend to avoid communicative didactics in this narrow sense. I do lots of information gap activities, sure, as well as authentic communication and simulations, but I’m just not too keen on roleplay. Yet now I have to play the communicative EFL game, or I’ll fail the teaching part of this exam.

For Friday the students have requested talking about the weather. I can have them describe all sorts of weather moving up towards the heart of the lesson (I might use paintings, and have them describe the weather there and then. I’ll also have them describe the weather on a beautiful day on their last vacation, and on a bad-weather day they remember very clearly.) But it’s not enough. So I’ve been kicking around a few lesson ideas:

I’d thought of having them “call a friend” in advance of a weekend trip, and ask them about the weather there, and then pack their suitcase accordingly. In the classroom setup, that would amount to pairwork, with one person being “it” and drawing a card containing information about a place, and having to formulate a brief weather report on the current weather, and then the other person recounting what they’ll put in their suitcase. But that feels like a lesson out of a 1970s or ’80s coursebook, and reminds me of the teaching I had to do at Wall Street Institute. I burned out after six months.

A second slightly feverish idea I had was having them solve a murder mystery based on forensic evidence influenced by the weather, which would certainly be working toward an outcome, but would not exactly be very applicable. Plus, I just can’t fit in my MD in forensics before Friday. Did I mention “feverish”?

Another way to solve this might be to set the scene where they’re going on a last minute holiday, and they have to make up their mind at the airport based on the current weather report (which they research and report separately). This scenario would have the added advantage of putting them under time pressure (which is important in any fluency activity). Perhaps I could actually stand them in line and give them the “weather report” info as they stand there in line, and then call them “to the ticket counter” when they’re “up”.

I can think of so many nice activities that are not communicative:
Labelling pictures
doing a personal weather report (the weather mirrors my state of mind)
a gapped dictation describing the weather to set the scene
a sorting task differentiating between excerpts from a travel guide and a personal description of the weather right now
I’d like to film them doing a weather report, but there are 22 of them, and 60 minutes is incredibly short. And when do we have time to watch the film?

Anyway, I can’t just have them talk about the weather the way we normally do, with the aim of using the language later to break the ice and tune in to each other in a real encounter. Weather is a wonderful metaphor for feelings, and right now mine are stormy.

PS: Mike from our course has summarized the formula: “The ppp with a communicative approach worked. Remember ‘activities that are truly communicative, according to Morrow (in Johnson and Morrow 1981) have three features: information gaps, choice, and feedback.’
Three activities with correction error slots is all we have time for.”

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

5 thoughts on “Communicative aim”

  1. Good luck on Friday!

    Role playing exercises are not our style, but we do what we must do to pass teaching exams and collect important pieces of paper.

    Your idea of individualized weather reports could work – if you could videotape the students and upload the videos somewhere for students to watch and write self-evaluations as homework. This method would solve part of your time problem. It sounds, however, like you don’t have access to this type of resource (blackboard, moodle, etc). Perhaps you could have pairs work together on the weather report, reducing the time by half.

    Perhaps you could also zoom out a bit. Why does the weather matter? You could have students prepare a “do and taboo” list for various weather conditions. (What will you do? What will wear? What are some of the dangers? What must you avoid doing? Explain.) You could also assign different weather conditions for different student groups since time remains a core concern.

    You will, I trust, find the dark clouds of doubt disappear as the stormy weather passes.

  2. Thanks so much, Eric! I’ll go and have a coffee and think these through. A fellow diploma candidate referred me to a summary of the communicative approach (see my PS above), so I recognize that the “do and taboo” approach would work very well in combination with an information gap activity – so, for example, one student has information about the temperature and the wind, and the other about humidity and precipitation, and together they have to decide what clothes and activities would be appropriate, e.g. for a party. I could film their team reports. Thanks for the great ideas.

  3. Lulu is hilarious. She’s given me another teaching idea: Create a weather report about bad weather, but make it sound good. Target lexis: softening and intensifying adverbs (tricky one, because of the specific collocations).

  4. What I ended up doing as the communicative heart of the lesson was what Duncan had suggested: Just ask them to describe the weather in their favorite place in the best season to be there, with two different people, and to think about the places their partners were telling them about and whether they would like to go there. It worked quite well, and I could have extended it even further, and given the feedback more space.
    I think authenticity is key, and the challenge we teachers face is keeping it authetic in the classroom, and making sure the activity is purposeful then and there. If they are motivated to speak, and if the challenge is not too great, and if the group has formed as such, things should work.
    I have two more assessed lessons. It’s exhausting, but incredibly interesting.

  5. What about asking them to find extracts from various books describing weather and compare it with the hero’s mood? They are either in contrast or similar)

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