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Developing Learner Communicative Competence

Communicative competence is a concept set forth by Dell Hymes (1966). The idea behind his concept is that (English) language is not to be learned within a vacuum. In other words, language is used for communication, and as such, it must follow conventions. Hymes divided those conventions into competencies and they cover a broad range of communication elements: grammatical (or linguistic) competence, discourse competence, strategic competence, and sociolinguistic competence.

This OnTESOL Graduate blog discusses each competency as it relates to speaking skills, what that means for teachers, and how you can approach them in your ESL classes.

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Grammatical or Linguistic Competence

Grammatical or linguistic competence refers to the technical aspect of English that includes structure, lexis, and pronunciation.

Linguistic competency is foundational and our students can improve in this area. Indeed, most students I’ve met realize they need to improve in this area. However, grammatical competence is not the end all-be all of the English language. Having sufficient mastery of structure, vocabulary, and clarity is great, but if learners don’t know how to deliver these points, the buck stops there.

Discourse Competence

Discourse competence is basically a mastery of the language that permits learners to communicate in different settings. I like to refer to it as the ability to go beyond one or two-word responses into coherent and cohesive statements.

As many teachers may be familiar with in their conversation classes, some students give very short responses to conversational questions. For example, the teacher asks: What did you do this weekend? And the student answers: Sleep. See friends. Watch a movie. One or two-word answers give an impression of shortness (irritability) or a lack of interest. But, without discourse competence, that maybe be exactly what they are projecting.

So, how do we, as teachers help develop this competence? One way is to take them through real-world dialogues and show them what they can say. We can start with basic introductions for example. Then, work into simple small talk and situational communication as needed.

When learners are routinely able to string more than a couple of words or so together into coherent communications in various contexts, they will have achieved some form of discourse competence. But it doesn’t stop there, we need to ensure that they have this competence in all areas they are targeting for their use of English.

Strategic Competence

Strategic competence refers to the speaker’s ability to recover from communication breakdowns. This is one of the more fascinating areas of language teaching in my opinion. So often learners are under the impression they must always give a perfect answer.

I’m not sure where they get that impression. But I’m pretty sure they picked it up during the course of their language learning experiences. Perhaps teachers were too demanding, or they were trying to save face. Nevertheless, there are times when a learner may need to ask someone to repeat something or ask for clarification. They may also need to use gestures to facilitate communication or even change their voice pitch. Whatever the case may be, we all need to do that at some point. The challenge is that many of our learners are not familiar with how to do it. That’s where we as teachers come in.

By teaching that it’s alright to say, “pardon,” for example, we equip them to help themselves understand something. We are helping them develop strategic competence. Or when we teach them to ask someone, “would you mind repeating that—I didn’t quite catch that,” they learn that sometimes people don’t understand each other. We can even teach them how they can end an introduction with something like, “that’s a little bit about me, thanks.”

Sociolinguistic Competence

Sociolinguistic competence relates to the learner’s ability to use English that matches the social context they are in. For example, in pretty much most English-speaking cultures, it’s not acceptable to address a minister with “hey dude.”

Sociolinguistic competence requires an understanding of the target language culture, what things should be talked about, and what should not be, what is considered courteous, the use of certain words, and even avoiding taboo topics. If they were to communicate words or ideas outside of what the culture deems appropriate, they may risk offense. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the learner would give a negative impression.

If the learner wants to spend time in the USA, for example, he’d need to know what polite, acceptable, and politically correct speech are. In my conversation classes, I teach students to do these things. Instead of saying, “what” for example if they didn’t understand something, they learn a more polite way such as, “pardon.” By teaching or modeling to your students what acceptable communication is, you’ll be helping them develop sociolinguistic competence.

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