These ten guidelines will help you make communicative language teaching and learner-centered instruction part of your own instructional approach.
- Take your students’ goals, interests, and existing knowledge seriously
- Provide appropriate input
- Use language in authentic ways
- Provide context and make cultural connections
- Design activities with a realistic purpose
- Encourage collaboration
- Use an integrated approach
- Address grammar consciously
- Adjust feedback/error correction to the situation
- Travel with your students; don’t drag them along behind
Why are your students in your classroom? What do they want to be able to do with the language? Find out, and incorporate those goals and interests into your curriculum design and lesson planning. When you encourage your students to identify for themselves what they want to know and be able to do, and then help them work toward those goals, you give them an answer to the “so what” question:
“I’ve studied Italian for the past two years.”
“So now when I travel to Italy with my family this summer and meet my grandmother for the first time, I’ll be able to talk to her.”
What do your students already know about the language and the culture? What are they able to do? Teaching is most effective when it builds on the knowledge and strengths that students already have. View your students as cups that are half full, not cups that are half empty. Focus on what is already there and seek to increase it, rather than focusing on what is missing and seeking to remedy it.
Make sure your students understand the learning goals that inform every classroom activity.
Input is the language to which students are exposed: teacher talk, listening activities, reading passages, and the language heard and read outside of class. Input gives learners the material they need to develop their ability to use the language on their own.
Language input has two forms. Finely tuned input
- Is matched to learners’ current comprehension level and connected to what they already know
- Focuses on conscious learning of a specific point: the pronunciation of a word, the contrast in the uses of two verb tenses, new vocabulary, useful social formulas
- Is controlled by the instructor or textbook author
- Is used in the presentation stage of a lesson
Roughly tuned input
- Is more complex than learners’ current proficiency and stretches the boundaries of their current knowledge
- Focuses on authentic use of language in listening or reading passages
- Is used “as is,” with minimal alteration by the instructor or textbook author
- Is used in the activity stage of the lesson
Roughly tuned input challenges student to use listening and reading strategies to aid comprehension. When selecting authentic materials for use as roughly tuned input, look for listening and reading selections that are one level of proficiency higher than students’ current level. This will ensure that students will be challenged by the material without being overwhelmed by its difficulty.
In order to learn a language, instead of merely learning about it, students need as much as possible to hear and read the language as native speakers use it. Instructors can make this happen in two ways.
Teacher talk: Always try to use the language as naturally as possible when you are talking to students. Slowing down may seem to make the message more comprehensible, but it also distorts the subtle shifts in pronunciation that occur in naturally paced speech.
- Speak at a normal rate
- Use vocabulary and sentence structures with which students are familiar
- State the same idea in different ways to aid comprehension
Materials: Give students authentic reading material from newspapers, magazines, and other print sources. To make them accessible,
- Review them carefully to ensure that the reading level is appropriate
- Introduce relevant vocabulary and grammatical structures in advance
- Provide context by describing the content and typical formats for the type of material (for example, arrival and departure times for travel schedules)
Advertisements, travel brochures, packaging, and street signs contain short statements that students at lower levels can manage. The World Wide Web is a rich resource for authentic materials. Reading authentic materials motivates students at all levels because it gives them the sense that they really are able to use the language.
Context includes knowledge of
- the topic or content
- the vocabulary and language structures in which the content is usually presented
- the social and cultural expectations associated with the content
Languages are cognitive systems, but they also express ideas and transmit cultural values. When you are discussing language use with your students, it is important to include information on the social, cultural, and historical context that certain language forms carry for native speakers. Often these explanations include reference to what a native speaker would hear or say, and why.
To help students have an authentic experience of understanding and using language, prepare them by raising their awareness of the context in which it occurs.
- Ask them what they know about the topic
- Ask what they can predict from the title or heading of a reading selection or the opening line of a listening selection
- Review the vocabulary (including idiomatic expressions) and sentence structures that are usually found in that type of material
- Review relevant social and cultural expectations
Culture is expressed and transmitted through magazines and newspapers, radio and television programs, movies, and the internet. Using media as authentic materials in the classroom can expand students’ perspectives and generate interesting discussions about the relationships between language and culture.
In many activities that occur in language classrooms, student communication has just one purpose: to demonstrate mastery of some aspect of language use to the teacher. This is a valid use of language in contexts where such demonstrations are needed, such as assessment. However, this purpose for communicating exists nowhere in the world outside of the language classroom. If students are to learn to use the language in real world situations, they must have real world purposes—preferably purposes that they themselves have identified—for using it in classroom activities.
Ordinarily, communication has a purpose: to convey information. In real life, people use language to perform tasks such as solving problems, developing plans, and working together to complete projects. The use of similar task-based activities in the classroom is an excellent way to encourage students to use the language. Tasks may involve solving a word problem, making a set of instructions, creating a video, preparing a presentation, or developing an action plan. In these classroom activities, students use the language to fill an information gap by getting answers or expanding a partial understanding.
Whenever possible, ask students to work in pairs or small groups. Give students structure in the form of a defined task and outcome. This structure will allow students to collaborate as they develop a work plan, discuss the substance of the task, and report the outcome. They will thus use language in a variety of ways and learn from each other.
Effective collaborative activities have three characteristics.
- Communication gap: Each student has relevant information that the others don’t have
- Task orientation: The activity has a defined outcome, such as a presentation that students will then make to others or a video for others to view and comment on.
- Time limit: Students have a pre-set amount of time to complete the task
Integration has two forms. Mode integration is the combination of listening, speaking, reading, and writing in an activity. By asking students to use two or more modes, instructors create activities that imitate real world language use.
Content integration is bringing content from students’ fields of study into the language curriculum. University students often find it instructive to read, discuss, and write about material whose content they already know, because their knowledge of the topic helps them understand and use the language. They are able to scaffold: to build on existing knowledge as they increase their language proficiency. For students who plan to study and/or work in a field that will require them to use the language they are learning, integration of content can be a powerful motivator.
Older students in particular may need and appreciate direct instruction in points of grammar that are related to classroom activities. These students often have knowledge of the rules associated with standard use of their native language (metalinguistic knowledge) and can benefit from developing similar knowledge in the target language and discussing similarities and differences.
Discuss points of grammar in the contexts where they arise. Asking students to think through a rule in the context of an effort to express themselves clearly is a more effective way of helping them internalize the rule than teaching the rule in isolation.
There are two types of grammar rules to address when using authentic materials:
- Prescriptive rules: State how the language “should” or “must” be used; define what is “correct.” These are the rules that are taught in language textbooks.
- Descriptive rules: State how the language is actually used by fluent speakers. The degree to which descriptive rules differ from prescriptive rules depends on the setting (casual/formal use of language), the topic, and the backgrounds of the speakers.
In the parts of a lesson that focus on form (see Planning a Lesson), direct and immediate feedback is needed and expected. Encourage students to self-correct by waiting after they have spoken or by asking them to try again.
- Paraphrase a student’s utterances, modeling the correct forms
- Ask students to clarify their utterances, providing paraphrases of their own
Avoid giving students the correct forms every time. Gradually teaching them to depend less on you and more on themselves is what language teaching is all about.
In the parts of a lesson that focus on communication activities, allow talk to flow without interrupting to make corrections. When students address you, react to the content of their utterances, not just the form. Your response is a useful comprehension check for students, and on the affective level it shows that you are listening to what they say. Make note of recurring errors you hear so that you can address them with the whole group in the feedback session later.
It takes a long time, and a lot of repetition, to learn a language. Be prepared to cycle back to give students repeated practice with any and all aspects of language and culture, as needed. Use observation and informal assessment frequently so you know how your students are doing and when they need repetition or review. Build regular student self-assessment into your plans, so that students themselves can inform you of their needs.