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Topic 14 – Methods and techniques aimed at the acquisition of communication skills. Specific methodological foundations for teaching English.

1. This essay deals with methods and techniques aimed at acquisition of communicative competence, and specific methodological foundations for teaching English as a foreign language.

Since our topic deals with methods and techniques aimed at acquisition of communicative competence, before we go any further we will first define these basic concepts.

A method of language teaching refers to a strict and well-defined set of teaching practices based on a particular theory of language and language learning.

Methodology in language teaching is a notion that links theory and practice. The term “methodology” can be used in both an abstract and a concrete sense: we can talk about communicative methodology, as well as about the methodology used by a particular teacher, a particular school, etc.

We can also distinguish between methods and approaches. Methods are fixed teaching systems with prescribed techniques and practices, and approaches are language teaching philosophies that can be interpreted and applied in a variety of different ways in the classroom. This distinction is probably best seen as a continuum ranging from highly prescribed methods to loosely described approaches.

Techniques are more like PROCEDURES. A technique normally refers to specific a procedures that implements a method or an approach. For example, a game may be a technique used to learn and practise vocabulary. Sometimes se use TPR in English class to practice vocabulary items, and this case we are using TPR as a technique, because using the TPR method AS A METHOD, would imply that we adopt TPR methodology to tech English, which would imply, for example, that our students do not engage in communication among themselves because that kind of procedure is not used in the TPR method.

In the long search for the best way of teaching a foreign language, many new approaches and methods have been devised, and some of them are widely recognized because of their influential role in the history FL teaching. For example, the grammar-translation method, the natural method, the direct method, or the audio-lingual method.

In the last few decades there has been an increasing interest in Communicative Language Teaching or CLT, which is an approach –rather than a method– used in teaching second and foreign languages, with a strong emphasis on interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of learning a language.

2. The heading or title of this essay (or topic, theme) mentions the notion of “communicative competence” so before we go any further we will explain what that is. Communicative competence is a linguistic term which not only refers to a student’s ability to apply and use grammatical rules, but also to form correct utterances, and know how to use these utterances appropriately. The term was coined by Dell Hymes in 1966. Hymes distinguished FOUR ASPECTS of his CC: systematic potential, appropiacy, occurrence and feasibility

SYSTEMATIC POTENTIAL means that the native speaker possesses a system that has a potential for creating a lot of language. This is similar to Chomsky ‘s linguistic competence. APPROPIACY means the native speaker knows what language is appropriate in a given situation. His choice is based on the following variables: SETTING, PARTICIPANT, PURPOSE, CHANNEL and TOPIC OCURRENCE is the short form for “frequency of occurrence” and means that the native speaker knows how often something is said in a language and acts accordingly. FEASIBILITY means the native speaker knows whether something is possible in a language or not.

Other authors have established other components of Communicative Competence. The best known model of Communicative Competence is Canale and Swains’ model (1980) which has been adopted by the Spanish national syllabus for foreign languages. This model consists of five subcompetences:


GRAMMAR C.: the ability to put into practice the linguistic units according to the rules of use established in the linguistic system

DISCOURSE C: the ability to use different types of discourse and organize them according to the communicative situation and the speakers involved in it.

SOCIOLINGUISTIC C: the ability to adequate the utterances to the specific context, in according with the accepted usage of the determined linguistic community.

STRATEGIC C: the ability to define, correct or in general, make adjustments, in the communicative situation.

SOCIOCULTURAL C: which has to be understood as a certain awareness of the social and cultural context in which the foreign language is used.


The method, or rather (o más bien), the approach that is considered most useful and suitable for the attainment of Communicative competence is CLT, or Communicative Language Teaching, which I will briefly describe.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), as mentioned previously, is an approach that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of learning a language.

Historically, CLT has been seen as a response to the Audio-Lingual Method, and as an extension or development of the Notional-Functional Syllabus. We shall look at these two methods briefly

The Audio-Lingual Method

The Audio-Lingual Method arose as a direct result of the need for foreign language proficiency in listening and speaking skills during and after World War II. It is closely tied to behaviorism, and thus made drilling, repetition, and habit-formation central elements of instruction. In the classroom, lessons were often organized by grammatical structure and presented through short dialogs. Often, students listened repeatedly to recordings of conversations and focused on accurately mimicking the pronunciation and grammatical structures in these dialogs.

Critics of ALM asserted that this over-emphasis on repetition and accuracy ultimately did not help students achieve communicative competence in the target language. They looked for new ways to present and organize language instruction, and advocated the notional functional syllabus, and eventually CLT as the most effective way to teach second and foreign languages.

The Notional Functional Syllabus

A notional-functional syllabus is more a way of organizing a language learning curriculum than a method or an approach to teaching. In a notional-functional syllabus, instruction is organized not in terms of grammatical structure as had often been done with the ALM, but in terms of “notions” and “functions.” In this model, a “notion” is a particular context in which people communicate, and a “function” is a specific purpose for a speaker in a given context. As an example, the “notion” or context shopping requires numerous language functions including asking about prices or features of a product and bargaining. Similarly, the notion party would require numerous functions like introductions and greetings and discussing interests and hobbies.

Proponents of the notional-functional syllabus claimed that it addressed the deficiencies they found in the ALM by helping students develop their ability to effectively communicate in a variety of real-life contexts.

Overview of CLT

As an extension of the notional-functional syllabus, CLT also places great emphasis on helping students use the target language in a variety of contexts and places great emphasis on learning language functions. Unlike the ALM, its primary focus is on helping learners create meaning rather than helping them develop perfectly grammatical structures or acquire native-like pronunciation. This means that successfully learning a foreign language is assessed in terms of how well learners have developed their communicative competence, which can loosely be defined as their ability to apply knowledge of both formal and sociolinguistic aspects of a language with adequate proficiency to communicate.

CLT is usually characterized as a broad approach to teaching, rather than as a teaching method with a clearly defined set of classroom practices. As such, it is most often defined as a list of general principles or features. One of the most recognized of these lists is David Nunan’s (1991) five features of CLT:

  1. An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus, not only on language but also on the learning process itself.
  4. An enhancement of the learner’s own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language learning with language activities outside the classroom.

In the classroom, CLT often takes the form of pair and group work requiring negotiation and cooperation between learners, fluency-based activities that encourage learners to develop their confidence, role-plays in which students practice and develop language functions, as well as judicious use of grammar and pronunciation focused activities.

Classroom activities used in CLT include: pair work, role play, interviews, information gap, surveys and different types of games such as Bingo Chinese whispers, etc.


From a different perspective, we might say that three different theories of language and language acquisition influence or define current (or present) approaches and methods in language teaching: The Structural view, the Notional-Functional view and the Interactional views are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in the methodology embraced by the Spanish National Curriculum for Foreign Languages, which is basically the CLT or Communicative Language Teaching approach. We will look at each of these three views:

The structural view holds the view that language is a system of structurally related elements. The target of language learning is seen as the mastery of the units of the system ( phonological, grammatical and lexical). The audio-lingual method, which is based on repetition of structures, and drills to practice those structures takes this particular view. The criticism made to this view is that speech is standardised and pupils turn into parrots who can reproduce many things but never create anything new or spontaneous. Pupils became better and better at pattern practice but were unable to use the patterns fluently in natural speech situations.

The notional-functional view, which started with D.A. Wilkins, embraces any strategy of language teaching that starts with an initial analysis of the learner’s need to express meaning. Under this view, meaning is understood as function, i.e. the social purpose of the utterance in a given setting. Examples of such functions are: asking for and giving personal information, expressing likes and dislikes, expressing habits and routines, etc. The criticism made to this view is that language use can be so personal that students’ communicative needs can be difficult to predict. No notional/functional syllabus designer could predict, for example, that a child would want to tell a teacher that ‘her guinea pig died with its legs crossed’. In other words, language users are real people – not just robots in situations. The positive aspect of the notional-functional method is that it has communicative capacity as its starting point.

The third view is the interactional view. It sees language as a vehicle for the realization of interpersonal relations and for performance of social transactions between individuals. If we take the interactional view to the extreme we have the methodology known as Community Language Learning originated by Charles Curran who was a therapist.

5 Communicative language teaching uses or integrates different aspects of the 3 views mentioned.

From the structural view it takes, for example, the idea that REPETITION of structures, vocabulary, etc, leads to internalisation of those structures, vocabulary, etc., which is something especially true when the students are children.

From the notional-functional view, we take for example, an initial analysis of the learner’s need to express meaning. Also the teaching of functions such as asking for and giving personal information, expressing likes and dislikes, expressing habits and routines, etc.

From the interactional view, we take the idea that students should intereact in a meaningful way, and not just as mere “practice”. An example of this would be the three PPPs approach. This technique (por tanto tambien se puede poner como ejemplo de “technique” en la primera página del tema) has three stages: Presentation-Practice-Production. The production Stage corresponds to the “meaningful intereaction” postulated by the interactional view.

6. We will now very briefly mention types of learning associated with the CLT Approach

Interactive Learning:  This concept stresses the dual roles of “receiver” and “sender” in any communicative situation.  Interaction creates the “negotiation between interlocutors” which in turn produces meaning (semantics).  The concept of interactive learning entails that there will be a lot of pair and group work in the classroom.

Learner-centered Learning involves giving over some “power” in the language learning process to the learners themselves.  It also favours students’ personal creativity, as well as taking into account their learning needs and objectives.

Cooperative Learning stresses the concept of team and teamwork and emphasizes cooperation as opposed to competition.  Students share information and help, and achieve their learning goals as a group.

Content-based Learning sees language as a tool or medium for acquiring knowledge about other things. An important factor in this kind of learning is that the content itself determines what language items need to be learned or mastered, not the other way around.  The idea of bilingual schools in which students learn different subject in English is an example of this type of learning.

Task-based Learning equates the idea of a “learning task” to a language learning technique in itself.  Typical tasks are : problem solving activities and projects. The task should have a clear objective, appropriate content, a working/application procedure, and a set range of outcomes.

As a conclusion, I would say that as teachers of English in primary education, in our teaching practice we need to foster communication, as we are not simply teaching a language, but HOW TO COMMUNICATE in that language. Our approach is therefore, the CLT approach, which is the one favoured by the Spanish national curriculum for FL-teaching. We have to pay attention to the 5 subcompetences of communicative competence. And we have to take into account different types of learning associated with the CLT approach, such as cooperative learning, learner-centered-learning, task-based learning and even content-based learning by relating English to other subjects whenever possible.

FL Teaching Methodological Principles

Foreign Language learning principles are generally sorted (divided) into three sub-groupings: Cognitive Principles, Affective Principals and Linguistic Principles.  Principles are seen as theory derived from research, to which teachers need to match classroom practices.  I will make a brief outline of the principles that fall into each grouping:

Cognitive Principles

-> Automaticity: This principal refers to subconcious processing of language.

-> Meaningful Learning: This can be contrasted to Rote Learning or learning by memorisation, and is thought to lead to better long term retention;

-> Anticipation of Rewards: Learners are driven to act by the anticipation of rewards;

-> Intrinsic Motivation: The most potent learning “rewards” are intrinsically motivated within the learner;

-> Strategic Investment: The time and learning strategies learners invest into the language learning process.

Affective Principles

-> Language Ego: Learning a new language involves developing a new mode of thinking – a new language “ego”;

-> Self-Confidence: Success in learning something can be equated to the belief in learners that they can learn it;

-> Risk-Taking: Taking risks and experimenting “beyond” what is certain creates better long-term retention;

-> Language-Culture Connection: Learning a language also involves learning about cultural values and thinking.

Linguistic Principles

-> Native Language Effect: A learner’s native language creates both facilitating and interfering effects on learning;

-> Interlanguage: At least some of the learner’s development in a new language can be seen as systematic;

-> Communicative Competence: Fluency and use are just as important as accuracy and usage – instruction needs to be aimed at organizational, pragmatic and strategic competence as well as psychomotor skills.

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