Down with communicative approach

Jamie Hall started an interesting discussion:

I have been teaching in Japan for 6 years. Currently, I am a EFL teacher-trainer/ EFL instructor. I came to Japan a big proponent of the communicative approach but now I just don’t know if it is the appropriate approach for the students I teach. I read a book by a professor at Keio University. He is a Japanese teacher of German writing about foreign language learning in Japan. He wrote that Japanese students are just not the kinds of students who will speak out in class. Thus, the communicative approach is ineffective. His experience has been as an evaluator of Japanese students’ foreign language ability is that the students who have undergone a communicative approach to foreign language learning that he has evaluated learned next to nothing in their classes.

But then seemed to go offline. So I’m posting here and hoping he’ll re-appear.
Here’s my take: 1) OK, Japanese students won’t speak OUT in class. That’s because of Japanese group protocol. It doesn’t mean they won’t SPEAK. Soooooo, have them speak without being put on the spot. One way is to break them into small groups each working on different (or similar) tasks. Break up the group! Coz that’s when they feel all eyes are on me! and it makes them freeze. (There’s a lot more to it, but that’ll take a longer post).
2) How does the teacher of German KNOW they don’t learn anything from the communicative approach? Like, ask them to stand up in class and say something in German? Why might that not be a good idea, let alone a good way to evaluate them? OK, I don’t KNOW how the teacher evaluated students, but that’s the point. Without knowing that, it’s impossible to say if the teacher’s judgement was correct or not.
3) Japanese students won’t speak out in class, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to speak a foreign language! There are plenty who manage it.
The problem is the class! Because of Japanese group dynamics a class of more than 5 students is a very bad format in which to teach people to learn to speak a foreign language. The most effective way I found is to break the whole class into pairs and have them practice acting out a scripted dialogue. Everyone is speaking at the same time, no-one’s on the spot. With good coaching, they can go 90 minutes like that.
So why have classes at all? Ah, that takes us into another fascinating direction. Here’s something I read recently about the matter: Against School

One thought on “Down with communicative approach”

  1. Hello Marco Polo,
    I apologize for the hiatus, but now I am back. I am happy to meet someone else in Japan. I would like to respond to a couple of your comments:
    I agree with you that students will speak in small groups and that group work can get students to speak. However, students have to be told EXACTLY what do to and each member of the group has to be given very DETAILED instructions. When I do group work in class, groups usually consist of a Recorder/reporter, facilitator, and time keeper. Students will speak out in class if they are designated a speaking role such as reporter. This kind of group work is effective if students are on good terms with each other but does not work as well for me when I teach large classes (50 students)consisting of students from different university departments who do not know each other well. Perhaps, if I tried more ice breaking activities, group work would be more effective. Then again, with the larger classes, students are more likely to skip class. So, one week a group will work well together but when they get a new member they don’t work well together again.
    For students who are at the beginner/ lower intermediate/ “false-beginner” level of English highly structured group and rehearsed discussion is the only way to go in larger classes. I guess what I was lamenting in my Down with the Communicative Approach Blog is students’ unwillingness to engage in impromtu discussion and use communication strategies to negotiate meaning when they are in trouble. This is a lot to ask of beginners, but I was primarily referring to university English majors with over 10 years experience studying English.
    You wrote that Japanese students won’t speak out in class because of Japanese group protocol and I half agree with you on this one. My experience working in Japan is that students are put on the spot quite often. For example, I went on a “Rural Teacher Training Field Trip” with teacher trainee students from my university and individual students were repeatedly called out to give their opinion in front of groups of over 50 people. I have attended plenty of education forums that opened the floor to students, and the students had questions and comments. I would like my students to do the same thing in English in my class: Engage in impromptu discussion (unrehearsed discussion) with the teacher or with their classmates. The reason is that they are at a stage in their learning where they are capable of taking on such a challenge.

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