The Communicative Approach is a common TESOL method used for teaching English in natural, meaningful, and purposeful ways. In this way, the ESL lesson becomes a medium for communication rather than an academic subject. And why not? Learning a new language is meant to teach students how to communicate.
ESL lessons utilizing the Communicative Approach will revolve around communicative objectives. As such, teachers don’t control the lesson as much as they facilitate language acquisition.
What’s The Communicative Approach All About?
So, how do we incorporate the Communicative Approach into our lessons? Just think of what people typically communicate, and you’ll be right on target. For example, people introduce themselves all the time. People use language to make friends; talk to strangers at a bus stop or at the airport while waiting for their flight to board. They go to school and interact with classmates, the registrar, and teachers. In addition, they exchange ideas with colleagues and supervisors on the job. They eat out, buy medicine, go to the grocery store, make and take phone calls, write emails, watch movies, listen to podcasts, and so on.
ESL lessons can focus on meaningful communicative tasks such as chatting with a colleague in the break room about what they watched on TV the night before, where they intend to travel this summer, or their thoughts on the new boss. Using the Communicative Approach means teaching ESL lessons that incorporate the appropriate vocabulary, expressions, grammar, and activities that might come up. That’s also another reason why Authentic Material is an essential element of communicative lessons when possible.
Another aspect of a communicative classroom is helping learners help themselves. There’s an old saying that goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We can apply that here. As teachers, we don’t want to teach learners ‘about’ English, but we want to teach them how to ‘use’ English. By doing so, we prepare them for real situations outside the classroom.
Practical Application of the Communicative Approach
The Communicative Approach needs to match the level of students. If they don’t understand the teacher or the objectives of the lesson, they will quickly get frustrated and lose interest. Below you will find examples of Communicative Approach activities used with different ESL levels. You will learn how to develop and plan full lessons during the TESOL course with OnTESOL.
Communicative drills simply mean statements or questions and replies that are systematic.
Dialogues provide structure for communication in everyday settings. As learners improve and gain more confidence, you can have them branch out from the dialogues to personalizing some of the wording.
Working in pairs, groups, or teams can help less confident learners develop more confidence. The more confident students can model the language and assist them in reduced-threat environments.
Since writing is a part of communication, why not assign writing tasks for beginners. You can do them in class where they have guidance and can be monitored. Or, you can give them work to do at home where they can take their time. It’s your call.
This simply means giving learners various contexts with which to practice the language. For example, today’s lesson is on ordering at a restaurant. Tomorrow’s lesson: Enrolling in the local fitness center. Context helps learners connect the dots so to speak.
General conversations allow intermediate class members to talk about relatively common topics such as what they did yesterday, their family, favorite movies, their favorite foods, etc. Since these are topics they’re familiar with, they’ll have a certain amount of confidence that can be built on via scaffolding.
Read and Speak
You can provide appropriately-leveled reading materials for your students. Have them read. Then, ask comprehension questions; from there, get into conversation questions. The idea is that they have the reading material accessible to refer to for their responses.
Role-playing for common subjects is an excellent resource for providing intermediate-level students with a framework for communicating their thoughts. It also teaches them the ins and outs of using English in different contexts.
Again, writing assignments can be leveled up for intermediate learners. You can ask them to summarize what they read. You can ask them to write emails addressing basic topics (they’re not ready yet for too much detail).
Debates challenge advanced level learners to dig deeper for their opinions about various topics. But, we don’t advise pushing learners to debate from a side they don’t agree with.
Simple discussions of more in-depth ideas can develop English skills in advanced learners. For example, instead of something simple like favorite movies, which is more suited for intermediate levels, you can get them talking or writing about the elements of a movie (e.g. setting, plot, characters, special effects, soundtrack, stunts, etc.) and describe the movie according to its elements.
In-Class Writing Activities
Challenge advanced students to write in-class assignments. This gets them thinking on the fly and is like a jolt toward improving their ability to express themselves.
This is one of my favorites. Ask or assign class members a news segment to read, listen to, or watch. Then ask them to report on it the next day to a small group. This gets them talking as if they were sharing news with a colleague or friend.
Read and Paraphrase
You can have advanced learners read texts and challenge them to paraphrase what they just read – as if they were sharing it with a friend over a cup of coffee.
The Communicative Approach will make your lessons and classrooms interactive instead of academic in nature. It offers learners opportunities to use English in meaningful ways and prepares ESL students for the outside world, which is our ideal goal as teachers.
Further reading: Stages of a Communicative Approach Lesson Plan