Have you ever tried to use a communicative grammar activity in class only to have it flop?
Have you ever stood helplessly by as students look blankly at each other and then commence to talk with one another in their native languages?
I have. It is an unpleasant feeling to watch your students have an unsuccessful experience in the language that they are trying to learn, especially when you chose the activity. I admit, too, that after such an experience I’ve thought that communicative activities just don’t work.
Fortunately, I have discovered that communicative grammar activities DO work, that students enjoy them immensely, and they have an impact on language learning. Communicative activities in general encourage students to learn in creative and meaningful ways while promoting fluency (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). I have also discovered that HOW the language teacher executes the activity is just as important as the activity itself. I hope that these suggestions will help you as you plan to use communicative grammar activities in your own classrooms.
First of all, it is important that communicative grammar activities are positioned properly in the overall grammar lesson. (see Fig 1). One mistake that I made was to have my students attempt to do a communicative grammar activity too soon. Ur (1988) suggests that there are four parts to grammar lessons: Presentation, isolation and explanation, practice and test. However, the “practice” step can be broken down further into three additional steps which build upon each other (Ur, 1988).
The first type of practice activities should be devoted only to the form of the grammar being taught. This gives a chance for students to understand the rules. The next type of practice activities allows students to focus on form plus the meaning of the grammar point. Last are the communicative grammar activities which allow for freer expression by students while still utilizing the taught forms.
As you can see, there is a lot of work to be orchestrated by the instructor before attempting these activities.
Before launching into a communicative activity, it is important to model the activity properly. It is not enough to merely tell your students what to do, you need to show them how to execute the task. For example, if the task is to practice question forms and I’ve given my students a list of questions to ask three other students and a place to take notes, I would model the activity by having a student join me up in front of the class while I ask him some of the questions and record the answers. Then I ask another student to join me and so forth.
It is also important to show your students what they aren’t supposed to do. To use the above example, it is tempting for students to form a group of four students with one person answering the questions and the three others recording the answers. This severely limits the amount of language practice the activity was designed for. And if you don’t want students to look at each other’s papers, such as in an information gap activity, mime holding your paper close to your chest so students understand that they are to talk and listen and not read.
During the communicative grammar activity, it is important to circulate around the room. The purpose for this is two-fold. First, you want to make sure that all students are participating fully in the activity and that they are not facing any difficulties. Sometimes students are stuck on the meaning of a word and this is preventing them from completing the activity. Your attentiveness can help them get unstuck and proceed. It is also a good opportunity to listen in on how students are using the grammar being practiced. If you hear a lot of errors, note them down and address them when the activity has finished.
Finally, it is important to not give up if your first forays with communicative grammar activities are not as successful as you hoped. Our students come from a variety of educational backgrounds. If they have had negative English language learning experiences, they bring those instances with them into our classrooms. Some students may be reticent to speak because errors brought punishment, belittlement or embarrassment. Others may have just been conditioned to take high-stakes language exams and have had little opportunity to actually communicate in English. In his excellent book on student motivation, Dörnyei (2001) describes different strategies that teachers can utilize to overcome these difficulties. These include making sure that language tasks can be completed successfully by students, that the activities themselves are fun and relevant, and that the teacher makes the classroom environment as comfortable as possible for students.
I will never forget the first time I conducted a successful communicative grammar practice activity. The classroom atmosphere changed completely. My students were smiling and laughing, grateful for a chance to move around and actively communicate with each other instead of just being passive listeners. I was thrilled because they were getting vital practice in an enjoyable and meaningful way. I was also pleased with myself because I hadn’t quit trying to make this moment possible. Yes, successful communicative grammar activities require a lot of thought and planning on the part of the teacher, but the dividends are gold. May you and your students experience many of these golden moments.
References and Further Reading
Dörnyei, Z. 2001. Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jacobi, M. 2010. Grammar Practice. Brattleboro, Vermont: Pro Lingua Associates.
Lewis, M. & Hill, J. 1985. Practical Techniques. Independence, Kentucky: Cengage Learning.
Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ur, P. (1988). Grammar practice activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nancy Schoenfeld shares her recommendations for making communicative grammar activities successful in the classroom. Nancy is an English language instructor at Kuwait University, where she strives to make learning enjoyable for her students. She is also a series consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, and developed the Communicative Grammar worksheets that are available for every unit.