When we insert teaching methodologies into our classroom activities, only way to answer the question 'Which theoretical proposal holds the greatest promise for improving language learning in classroom settings?' is through research which specifically investigates relationships between teaching and learning.
Both formal and informal researches are needed. Formal research involves careful control of the factors which may affect learning. It often uses large numbers of teachers and learners in order to try to limit the possibility that the unusual behaviour of one or two individuals might create a misleading impression about what one would expect in general. Researchers doing this kind of work must sometimes sacrifice naturalness in order to ensure that only those factors under investigation are different in the groups being compared.
Informal research often involves small numbers, perhaps only one class with one teacher, and the emphasis here is not on what is most general but rather on what is particular about this group or this teacher. While formal research may add strength to theoretical proposals, informal research, including that carried out by teachers in their own classrooms, is also essential. It is hardly necessary to tell experienced teachers that what 'works' in one context may fail in another.
In the section below, we will examine five proposals relating to this issue, provide examples from classroom interaction to illustrate how the proposals get translated into classroom practice, and discuss how the findings from some of the formal research in SLA fit them. For each proposal, a few relevant studies will be presented, discussed, and compared with one another. The labels we have given these proposals are:
- Get it right from the beginning
- Say what you mean and mean what you say
- Just listen
- Teach what is teachable
- Get it right in the end
- The principle getting right from the beginning
The 'Get it right from the beginning' proposal for second language teaching best describes the underlying theory behind the teaching practices. Teachers avoid letting beginning learners speak freely because this would allow them to make errors. The errors, it is said, could become habits. So it is better to prevent these bad habits before they happen.
Pure repetition. The students have no reason to get involved or to think about what they are saying. Indeed, some students who have no idea what the sentences mean will successfully repeat them anyway, while their minds wander off to other things.
Recently, some researchers and educators have reacted to the trend toward communicative language teaching and have revived the concern that allowing learners too much 'freedom' without correction and explicit instruction will lead to early fossilization of errors. Once again we hear the call for making sure learners 'get it right from the beginning'.
Unfortunately, little research has been carried out to test the hypothesis that an early and exclusive emphasis on form will, in the long run, lead to higher levels of linguistic performance and knowledge than an early and exclusive emphasis on meaning. The widespread adoption of communicative language teaching in recent years has meant that researchers in some settings have not been able to find classrooms which are exclusively form-oriented in order to make direct comparisons with classrooms that are exclusively meaning-oriented.
The researchers compared aspects of the learners' acquisition of English grammatical morphemes (such as plural –s and the progressive -ing) with the 'natural' order of acquisition by uninstructed second language learners. The results indicated several differences between the 'natural order' and the order in which these classroom learners produced them. The findings also suggested that the type of instruction provided, a regular diet of isolated pattern practice drills, contributed to the alterations in the learners' natural interlanguage development. For example, while learners were able to produce a particular form (for example, the -ing form) with a high degree of accuracy during the time that their instruction focused on it, the same form was produced with considerably less accuracy (and frequency) when it was no longer being practice in class.
Tests to measure learners' linguistic and communicative abilities were administered before and after instruction to see if there were any significant differences between groups on these measures. The tests of 'linguistic competence' included a variety of grammar tests, teachers' evaluations of speaking skills, and course grades. The tests of'communicative competence' included measures of fluency and of the ability to understand and transmit information in a variety of tasks, which included: (1) discussion with a native speaker of Native language, (2) interviewing a native speaker of Native language, (3) the reporting of facts about oneself or one's recent activities, and (4) a description of ongoing activities.
The complete set of materials utilized as the language learning progresses include:
A set of colored wooden rods. A set of wall charts containing words of a "functional" vocabulary and some additional ones; a pointer for use with the charts in Visual Dictation A color coded phonic chart(s). Tapes or discs, as required; films Drawings and pictures, and a set of accompanying worksheets Transparencies, three texts, a Book of Stories, worksheets.
The Communicative Approach
What is communicative competence?
- Communicative competence is the progressive acquisition of the ability to use a language to achieve one's communicative purpose.
- Communicative competence involves the negotiation of meaning between meaning between two or more persons sharing the same symbolic system.
- Communicative competence applies to both spoken and written language.
- Communicative competence is context specific based on the situation, the role of the participants and the appropriate choices of register and style. For example: The variation of language used by persons in different jobs or professions can be either formal or informal. The use of jargon or slang may or may not be appropriate.
- Communicative competence represents a shift in focus from the grammatical to the communicative properties of the language; i.e. the functions of language and the process of discourse.
- Communicative competence requires the mastery of the production and comprehension of communicative acts or speech acts that are relevant to the needs of the L2 learner.
Characteristics of the Communicative Classroom
- The classroom is devoted primarily to activities that foster acquisition of L2. Learning activities involving practice and drill are assigned as homework. — The instructor does not correct speech errors directly.
- Students are allowed to respond in the target language, their native language, or a mixture of the two.
- The focus of all learning and speaking activities is on the interchange of a message that the acquirer understands and wishes to transmit, i.e. meaningful communication.
- The students receive comprehensible input in a low-anxiety environment and are personally involved in class activities. Comprehensible input has the following major components:
- a context
- gestures and other body language cues
- a message to be comprehended
- a knowledge of the meaning of key lexical items in the utterance
Stages of language acquisition in the communicative approach
- Comprehension or pre-production
- Total physical response
- Answer with names-objects, students, pictures
- Early speech production
- Yes-no questions
- Either-or questions
- Single/two-word answers
- Open-ended questions
- Open dialogs
- Speech emerges
- Games and recreational activities
- Content activities
- Humanistic-affective activities
- Information-problem-solving activities
The results revealed no significant differences between groups on the linguistic competence measures. However, the 'communicative group' scored significantly higher than the other two groups on the four communicative tests developed for the study.
This group was compared to a control group which received only the grammar course. The researchers reported that beginner and intermediate level ESL learners engaging in communicative activities in addition to their regular, required grammar course made greater improvements in accent, vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension than did learners who received only the required grammar course. Somewhat unexpectedly, the area of greatest improvement for the group getting 'real world' communicative practice was in grammatical accuracy.
It is important to emphasize that in other words, these studies offer support for the hypothesis that meaning-based instruction is advantageous, form-based instruction is not.