What’s Wrong with Communicative Activities?

I recently saw a comment on Twitter by someone who wanted to know why they had heard “communicative” used as a derogatory term by TPRS teachers. I remember when I first came across a book of communicative activities and I thought it was wonderful. I had experienced traditional (memorize the vocabulary and memorize the grammar rules) teaching methods, language lab exercises and the Natural Approach in its early days. The one that worked best for me personally was the Natural Approach, but I was highly motivated and eager. I could see many students in my class who just switched off because they couldn’t understand the teacher.

As a new teacher, I thought Communicative Activities would be interesting for my students and an effective way to get them to practice the language. I started using pairwork and group discussions, gap activities, debates, anything and everything to get my students talking to each other.

Well, let’s be honest. I was disappointed in my students. Even the “nice” (eager to learn, highly motivated kids like I had been) ones did not keep up talking in the target language when I walked away from them. I thought that such activities must be wonderful in language schools in England where the students don’t share a language, but in France my students were doing the exercises, but using more French than English.

I reasoned with them, I sharpened my classroom management skills, I used positive reinforcement, etc., but I found myself using such activities less and less, because I honestly couldn’t see much learning going on. Even when students did try to do the task, their TL output made me cringe. I noted the worst mistakes and worked on them with the class, but I kept hearing them, and it seemed that other students were more likely to pick up the mistakes rather than the corrections.

Now that I’ve learned about and adopted TPRS/CI, I don’t set my students up to fail. I design my classes to give them high quality Compelling Comprehensible Input and I don’t ask them to do anything that they are not comfortable doing. I know, having seen my students progress rapidly, that when they have had adequate good quality input, they will produce language that is correct and they will do it spontaneously, naturally.

TPRS detractors talk about our “aversion” to output. I wish they could sit in on one of my classes as we discuss a film, a chapter from a book, what the students did over the weekend, the news, whatever. We are having a conversation, and it is a true conversation, not an artificially contrived situation. The students are engaged and forget that we are speaking a different language. They have things to say, and they say them. If someone struggles, I help out, if they want to know how to say something, I tell them, but we are focusing on the subject under discussion, not on the language. If something comes out garbled, I repeat what I’ve understood, so everyone hears the correct structures that are needed.

I have no aversion to output whatever. On the contrary, my students’ output makes my day. I do have a very strong aversion to forcing them to say things that they have not yet acquired.

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