C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: 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;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: 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.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism –  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!


Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.