Learning Engagement: Communicative Approach

As I wind down the year 2020, dissecting and interpreting my experiences and lessons learned, I find myself thinking about what lies ahead and how I can most competently embrace it.

How will my fellow EFL instructors continue or begin their semesters in 2021? What is their plan? How much autonomy will be given to their methods, and how much support will be offered for success? Those questions will be answered by the institutions, but in the meantime, what could good distance or hybrid communicative teaching look like?

Young adults holding colorful speech bubbles

Perhaps the hardest aspect of distance education for the EFL classroom is achieving authentic communication. There is first a lot of technical acclimation and preparation for what is to come. Then there is the presentation of the concept/language. But this is, hopefully, where the magic of communicative modes can begin that language acquisition process.

There are three Modes of Communication for the language classroom.

  • Interpersonal
  • Interpretative
  • Presentational

We all use them when we listen and read, speak and write, and combinations on certain occasions. Let’s look at them individually and in the virtual classroom.

This is what conversations, social media interactions and debates and the like are. These are necessarily two-way communication, where we negotiate spontaneous input and create meaning along the way.

For the virtual classroom, this is probably best illustrated by, you guessed it, break out rooms. For low levels, instructions and the measure of success or completion need to be explicit and perhaps demonstrated before breaking out so that they waste no time communicating in the target language. The purpose of breakout rooms is to give everyone a better chance to be heard and participate, so instructors need to put into place mechanisms to encourage this.

But social media or synchronous writing such as texting or instant messaging are also valid means of interpersonal communication. I frequently used the chat window in my live sessions to check comprehension and get the attention of students. Voice and text can be a powerful combination when done right. But other means of getting this authentic, simultaneous communication is to set up a separate chat, like student hours (best not to call it office or teacher hours) in a group Telegram or WhatsApp session.

This is what reading, listening or viewing/watching alone are, and is one-way communication. You are taking in information and interpreting its meaning without negotiation. You’re taking in context clues, prior experience and knowledge, culture, all of your lived experience to understand what is being presented to you. There is a pre-decided intent, and usually, a correct or incorrect interpretation.

For the virtual classroom, it’s my opinion that we limit the amount of this mode during live sessions and save it for pre- or post-work, and assessment. For example, reading an article or watching a video about something before the live class, and then discussing it in the breakout room or taking a quiz or responding to questions. If there is a lecture, students should take (guided?) notes and do think-pair-share or Q&A. It is important to remember that whatever input we assign needs to have a response. Student response is how we measure learning. In other words, although interpretive communication is one-way in that the student isn’t able to directly address the speaker/writer, instructors must make it two-way, giving students the chance to demonstrate their understanding as authentically as possible. Perhaps…with a presentation.

Writing and speaking are one-way communication modes where students create their own meaning without exchange or input (in a specific sense). This is done with an audience in mind, so there is still a lot of context and experience that the student digs into to create this communication.

There is so much that can be done in a virtual classroom that’s presentational. Students can tell stories, make a presentation, do a skit, or write a script, short paragraph, article or make an advertisement. As language teachers, “all we want” is amazing production. After all, this is the response I spoke of earlier, how we measure learning. Popular means of getting this presentational mode are Flipgrid videos, Breakout Rooms, Pear Deck, wikis and other social media outlets. With low level learners, again, very specific and narrow guidelines will help production happen. Also, pair or group work is a good way to foster encouragement but also accountability (a whole other article). The more advanced students are, the more autonomy they should have, and the more they should produce. And, really, that increased production should foster interpersonal modes throughout the semester.

Maybe it’s a little odd to break down Communicative Teaching into these three modes.

Interpersonal = Interpretative + Presentational, so what’s the big deal?

Awareness. Balance.

Just as in life, as we sought comfort, stability, the familiar in this past year, some of us, or maybe most of us, also needed to find awareness and balance. Hopefully, maybe, we became more aware of something, and therefore established better balance in that area. The same can go for instruction and learning. When we’re aware of the modes, we can ensure balance in our instruction and their learning. Perhaps in previous virtual live lessons there was too much interpretative learning and now you have ideas to increase the presentational. Or maybe you relied too much on presentational and they had little chance to absorb and interpret all that information their peers were making. This is also a good chance to rethink assessments, and whether previous assessments were balance in these areas.

We can become more intentional and purposeful when we increase our awareness and seek balance. I hope to do this as both a person and as a teacher.