The Emperor has no Clothes!

Who is the Emperor? Go to a typical training course for future language teachers and you will meet him. Pair-work is king and Communicative Activities are the Emperor of all. A clever teacher, we are told, organizes classes so that students teach each other to speak the language. All the teacher has to do is to stroll around the room and look friendly, or even just sit back and watch. Communicative teachers are laughing all the way to the bank to cash their checks. Their students are talking! They are communicating! They may even be enjoying themselves! What more could you ask for?

Well, let’s take on the role of the innocent little boy who doesn’t see the invisible clothes and ask a pertinent question. Are communicative activities the most efficient method of aiding students to progress in their acquisition of a new language? The clever tailors told everyone that their lovely cloth could not be seen by idiots. Who wants to be an idiot, even if you can’t see the cloth? So everyone in the empire raved about the beautiful cloth and the Emperor’s beautiful new clothes. But can we actually see the progress our students make?

What do we tell our students? We tell them that everyone can progress in the communicative classroom, unless you’re a complete idiot. All you have to do is talk when the teacher tells you to talk. What’s so hard about that? If you can’t see the progress, well, you must be some kind of idiot.

For people who have already acquired a good level of language and who need to develop their social skills, to get over their shyness and their reluctance to take risks, communicative tasks are fine. But do they actually help students’ language proficiency? Dare we ask how listening to someone make the same mistakes as you make can help you to improve? How can hearing the same errors repeatedly help you not to make them?

I remember first reading about communicative activities. It was way back when I had just moved to France and was beginning to explore the idea of teaching English as a career. I read an article in Time magazine that described a Dutch teacher. He wrote a debate topic on the board, greeted his students in English as they came into the room, put them in groups and they began discussing the topic while he strolled around the room, occasionally helping with vocabulary or structures as needed. It sounded wonderful and I was going to do that.

Of course the article didn’t mention that in the Netherlands television is not dubbed, so most Dutch kids learn to speak English with Sesame Street. When I tried to get my native French speakers in the lycée to do the same thing, it was a colossal flop. My groups sat and stared at each other or discussed the topic … in French. I decided that it was due to the traditional French school system and the perfectionist mentality it generated. I kept trying, telling my students that it was all right if they made mistakes, but I never managed to prevent them switching to French as soon as I turned my back. Even students who liked my style of teaching and wanted to play the game would get so involved in the topic and what they wanted to say that they would switch to French. I heard highly motivated adult students producing an output so flawed that I doubt anyone benefitted from the exercise. I can see the exercise working better in classes where students do not share a language, or in advanced classes but that does not solve the problem of the low quality input students are receiving.

Of course the teacher is there to do some discreet correcting and explaining. Doesn’t that help? Well, there are some impressive studies out there that claim that error correction is either neutral or harmful, reinforcing the very mistakes that it’s designed to eliminate.1 Error correction is often like telling someone not to think of the word green. Immediately they see green everywhere. Have you ever noticed that pointing out a mistake seems to lead to students making the mistake more often than before?

When we point out and correct student errors, we are speaking to what Stephen Krashen calls the “monitor”. This is the little voice in our mind that tries to decide what verb ending we need in the present tense for the third person singular form. A monitor is useful, as Krashen explains, if we have the time to refer to it and if we know the grammatical rule which is applicable. When writing, a monitor can be a helpful editor. When speaking, it’s a hindrance when we need to know and put into practice sixty-four grammatical applications in order to order our crêpes. Acquired language bypasses the monitor. If the student has received high quality input his spontaneous output will be more accurate than language produced by a monitor that doesn’t know all the rules.

Is the Emperor naked? Are communicative activities in general totally useless? To answer the question, we must first ask the essential question that so many teachers and teacher training programs have conveniently ignored. How do people actually acquire the ability to speak a second language?

I won’t beat around the bush. I have been teaching English to French speakers in Canada, Cameroon, France and Switzerland for almost fifty years, and I’ve been asking myself that question all those years. When I learned of Stephen Krashen’s theories and heard him speak, I compared his ideas with my own professional experience. And I said, Yes! It’s true that the man is charming and a brilliant speaker, but he is also, in my opinion, absolutely right. He published Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning in 1981, and since then no one has proven him wrong. A great many people have tried to ignore him, but that’s not the same thing.

In a nutshell, Krashen says people acquire a second language when they receive compelling, comprehensible messages in that language. Let’s say it again. People acquire a second language when they listen to and read compelling comprehensible messages in that language.

So what is wrong with communicative activities? If the students are enjoying themselves, aren’t they getting the comprehensible input that Krashen advocates?

The input they are receiving may be compelling and it may also be comprehensible, but it is very low quality input and the language they acquire will reflect the poor and flawed input which they received. In the communicative classroom, the person best qualified to furnish high quality input is the person that today’s training instructors want to keep quiet, the teacher.

Those who practice communicative methods point a finger at “teacher-centered” classes and the “Sage on the Stage.” Do I want to return to the middle-ages model of the teacher as lecturer? Of course not.

Why do we seem destined to go from one extreme to the other? In the fifties and early sixties, a language class was basically a translation class and 80-90% of what was spoken in the classroom was the students’ native language. Then there was a very positive evolution in the direction of immersion classes and it became a sin to use translation, with the unrealistic goal of making 100% of the language spoken in the classroom the target language. Perhaps it’s not necessary to throw the baby out with the bath. Perhaps we can use the target language 90-95% or more of the time, and still use the native language to clarify ambiguities when necessary without feeling guilty about it.

In the same manner, legacy methods did have the teacher giving lectures which students might or might not comprehend. Communicative methods were a healthy reaction to the teacher’s monopolizing the class while students remained silent, but there is another path, that of an on-going conversation between teacher and students.

So what does a comprehensible input classroom look like? It is student centered because students and their interests are the topic being discussed. Students participate freely by sharing their ideas, opinions and personal stories. The teacher furnishes high quality output by reaffirming student statements, offering them a model to express their ideas. The teacher is not on a stage but sitting at the table with the students, not so much guiding the discussion as constantly putting into words what the students are trying to express.

A typical discussion with beginners might go like this:

Teacher: Do you have a pet, Mathis?

Mathis: Yes, a dog.

Teacher: You have a dog. Mathis has a dog. I have three cats. Mathis, do you have a big dog or a small dog?

Mathis: A big dog.

Teacher: Mathis has a big dog. Jean, do you have a dog? (Jean nods his head.) So Mathis and Jean have dogs, but I don’t have a dog, I have three cats. Marie, do you have a pet?

Marie: I have two horses.

Teacher: Wow! Do you ride your horses?

Is this compelling? It may not be to you, but it is to Mathis, Jean and Marie, because we’re talking about them and their pets. It’s also compelling to the teacher as she learns more about her students and discovers that Pierre has a boa constrictor. The students are not required to produce complete sentences but participate in the conversation exactly as they would in a normal discussion. The teacher, by reformulating their production, constantly furnishes them with a correct model that eventually allows them to speak spontaneously and accurately without the crippling interference of a monitor.

TPRS is an extremely effective method of implementing comprehensible input and helping students to acquire a second language. Stephen Krashen, having followed its development and experienced it as a student of Mandarin and other languages, has pronounced it the most effective method that he knows of. I discovered it in 2004 and began using it the following year. I saw my students progress as never before and I began enjoying my classes more and more. Nothing motivates like success and I discovered that successful students are motivated students and motivated students are successful students. It’s a virtuous upward spiral.

What is wrong with communicative activities in the language classroom? Nothing, if high quality input is being furnished to students by a teacher who speaks the language fluently and gives them a model they can follow. However, if the teacher believes that students learn to speak by speaking and shuts up so that learners can monopolize the lesson, the students will take far longer to acquire accurate language. And there is a strong possibility that students who practice communicative activities without the opportunity to hear accurate, good quality input from native or near native speakers will reproduce the flawed input they receive. The Emperor has no clothes!

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