Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Communicative competence in a digital world

(the following is part of a TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw1.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

I am lucky enough to have taught esl/efl in two distinct revolutions. The first was the communicative revolution, which was in full flower when I began teaching in the 1980's (Leverett 2008); the second is the digital revolution, in which young people, including perhaps our own children, spend hours in Facebook, on chat and IM, often using a language that is only vaguely familiar to us, while we, back in the classroom, struggle to make anything relevant to our students, so that they don't doze off from the sheer one-sidedness of it all.

You might be surprised that I'd even try to tie these two worlds together, but that is indeed what I'm doing. I have been arguing for years that we teachers should be communicating with our students in the media they can expect to be using in their future- and these start with online writing media such as chat, weblogs, etc. This is not so much because they are new, and interesting, and different, but because our students will need to be able to use them. But it only occurred to me recently that I could borrow arguments from history- recent history- to support my case. The expression "communicative comptetence," as it was used when I began teaching, was representative of an entire movement in language teaching, one that was particularly strong in Asia and in general in places where people had studied grammar and vocabulary for years and years, without being able to function well in oral situations. The argument, then, boiled down to this: all the grammar in the world won't help you, if you can't get past "fine, thank you" to carry on a conversation for more than two minutes. Communicative teaching brought back the primacy of the oral realm: it all started with conversation, so a learner can and must learn the basics of simple face-to-face communication, early on in the process; all other fluencies come from that.

The communicative revolution changed language teaching permanently, as it caught on and became almost law in many programs and teaching environments. Teachers were to encourage pair and group work; encourage all conversational speaking among beginners; limit "teacher talk", or the tendency, often encouraged by students, for the teacher to ramble on about whatever subject he/she deemed useful, while students did nothing but attempt to receive it. Communicative theory demanded that students develop strategies to communicate in small groups and pairs, and that they practice these regularly, and that this was a much more proper use of class time than, say, "teacher talk", as their progress should be measured in terms of their general fluency in small conversational situations, as opposed to, for example, a grammar test score, or a better listening TOEFL score.

As the world was, and still is to some degree, full of people who valued test scores more than actual small-group speaking success, this upheaval caused some stress and consternation in classrooms worldwide. But the revolution was thorough; today its demands survive, and language teaching is considered more than just grammar and vocabulary, rote memory and/or translation, word for word, from one grammar into another. The expectation remains: to learn a language you must know not only the grammar and the vocabulary, but also the rules of social discourse, the intonations, functional requirements, and smaller skills that make us competent in oral situations where one responds to even non-language cues, because they too are considered part of "competence." But while communicative theory, in a larger analysis of language teaching trends, could be seen as a return to the primacy of oral interaction, I have begun to see it in a different light. Its fundamental law is the following: all of the grammar and vocabulary in the world won't do you any good, if you fail to master the medium that you are using to communicate with it. If you are using face-to-face oral conversation as a medium, then you must martial your skills so that you can take what grammar and vocabulary you have at your disposal, and put them somewhere where you can reach them, in an instant's notice, at the point in a conversation where you need them.

My point is that the fundamental law, the requirement of mastery of the medium, has not changed. A corollary, namely that a teacher must know more than just the grammar and vocabulary of a language, to succeed in teaching it, also has not changed. What has changed is the media themselves, that people can now expect to be at the center of their communicating needs, as they graduate from universities worldwide and step into the worlds of business, policy, or perhaps law school.

Lankshear and Knobel (2003) once stated that it was not necessarily true that we should pay attention to what our students are doing:
It does not follow that because some practice is widely engaged in outside of school that it should be addressed, or even taken account of, within school. -par. 2
This was in the process of saying that we should in fact be incorporating new media into our pedagogy for principled reasons which they spell out. I will only make a few points about emerging technologies and leave them, as I've found that virtually whatever is said in this regard is outdated quickly. First, there is no question that emerging technologies are at the center of social life for the young people who will be moving into mainstream society shortly. Second, it is inconceivable that business and media would not move into technologies that would offer them advantages in a competitive world; and, third, almost everyone who wants any advantage in the competitive markets of the present, including job markets, will be looking at emerging technologies to provide them.

In this light the opposing point of view, namely that English teachers are to spend their time teaching English alone, and that what happens online or in different environments is fundamentally separate from the language itself, can be framed as echoing the tired and defeated resistance to communicative theory. Can language be separated from the cultural context it is being used in? Is language alone sufficient- such that we can consider the medium it is being used in to be irrelevant, or at least a separate problem? I don't think so. I believe that emerging technology has pushed much of modern communication into a cultural realm that must be mastered on its own terms, much as oral "conversation" had to be mastered and adapted to, as a crucial, and early, step toward fluency. The difference is obvious: in this case, we teachers are ourselves playing catch-up, unfamiliar, at least partly, with the culture that dictates, shapes and informs the exchanges.

We do not really know what the future will hold for our students. But we can make a number of guesses, based on what we can see today as we teach. You may not agree with all of my predictions, but I hope that, after reading them, you will at least challenge yourself to admit that the very definition of communicative competence must be changed to adapt to the skills that will be necessary in the immediate future. Whatever this set of skills may look like, it will certainly be different from the skills we were challenged to teach in the 1980's, and which, for hundreds of years before that, virtually defined "fluency" to mean the fluidity of a person who, being orally competent, mastered the ability to say things in enough ways to always get his/her point across effectively. Today's "fluent" language user will need to use the keyboard fluently, and be familiar with uploading, downloading, chatting, and general mastery of the online writing environment. Online writing will be to the new world what oral efficacy used to be: the gateway to acquaintanceship; the forerunner of both sincere friendship and serious business; the first step in almost all important encounters; and finally, the home of the infamous "first impression." Not putting our students into online writing environments will be viewed as similar to teaching someone English in their native language, and never giving them a chance to try to speak English with anyone who was actually using the language for a meaningful purpose.

In a wider sense, people functioning well in society will have to master not only the technical keyboard aspects of computer, chat and writing fluency, but more important be able to find their way around social networking sites, online reputation systems, Blackboard, e-mail, online learning environments with videocams, and more, which will in general be standard parts of learning and business environments.

The world is changing rapidly, and with this our views of how media are to be used, what they are most useful for, and what constitutes "polite" and "successful" behavior in these environments, must also change. For example, while online chat may today be associated with the young, the informal, even the seedier elements of life, it can't stay that way; it's too useful to not be picked up by more mainstream elements of society, including business and government. But chat is not all I would like my students to experience and come to master. Ideally, I'd like to look at all of the technology that will be common soon: videocams, satellite cell-phone access, etc., and see if I could integrate them into writing classes. My students, by and large, recognize the fact that they will have to master these environments; I encounter less resistance now, in teaching online skills, than I did in the 1980's, trying to get small pairs of people to speak in real conversations in a corner of a classroom. But there are other differences in the revolutions as well. In this one, chances are very good that at least some of my students are chatting already; are more familiar with web-cams than I am, or, at the very least, have developed some technological competence, independent of their ability to actually use English successfully in the environment. In fact, there is usually a range of technological competence in my class, which I can observe the minute we get online to do anything; and, furthermore, I am usually not at the top of anyone's list for being the person most likely to know the answer to questions of how to manipulate an online environment. I am not a master of technology by any regard; I'm simply a veteran teacher who has recognized the increasing role of online writing in today's world- and is therefore unable to graduate esl/efl students into it, without demonstrable experience using it.

Unlike the first revolution I lived through, however, I can no longer wing it, or pretend that, being a native speaker of the language, I essentially have the skills I need to consider myself "competent" in a modern communicative situation. I don't. I do travel, though; I try new things; I learn what I can, and I pass them along, if possible. In this general vein, I offer this presentation, the latest in a series, which deals with preparing today's students for this new world we are stepping into, and what this entails, from a teacher's point of view.


Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2003). Planning pedagogy for i-mode: From flogging to blogging via wi-fi. IFTE Conference, Melbourne, July. Available http://www.geocities.com/c.lankshear/ifte2003.html. Accessed 2-08.

Leverett, T. (2008, Feb.) Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. From After Krashen, Reboot. Unpublished manuscript. http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/teachers/pd/k2me1.html.

Leverett, T. (2007). Kinds of fluency, from Student weblogging for fluency, integration, and skills, Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA, Mar.

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