Do I teach communicatively?

Ideas are infectious. They spread quickly like viruses. This time I've been infected by Anna Loseva's idea to answer a simple question: Do I teach communicatively? I once attempted to ponder this issue but back then I only concentrated on one single activity, which I dissected using Scott Thornbury's technique. But I was caught off guard when I asked myself: Do I teach communicatively? I don't think I've ever asked myself this question. It's not like Was this particular activity communicative? It's much more; it's reflecting on my teaching philosophy. It's shedding light on my deepest beliefs. But as Anna points out, beliefs aren't always identical with one's actions. And I understand what she means because I face the same problem. I think I know what is right but I don't always do the right things. I know French fries are not healthy for me but I still love them. What's worse; I let my sons eat them!

Anyway, let's get back to the original topic of this post. Do I teach communicatively? Communicative teaching emphasizes interaction, which is the means as well as the ultimate goal. Yes, there's a lot of interaction going on in my classes. But does that mean that I teach communicatively? I'm not sure. I need to analyze a bit first. Here's a list of principles proposed by Doughty and Long (2003) which serve as a guideline for implementing CLT.

1. Use tasks as an organizational principle

2. Promote learning by doing. 

3. Input needs to be rich 

4. Input needs to be meaningful, comprehensible and elaborated. 

5. Promote cooperative and collaborative learning

6. Focus on form

7. Provide error corrective feedback 

8. Recognize and respect affective factors of learning

I'm going to look at each of the communicative principles through the lens of my own teaching. Or vice versa, I'm going to look at my teaching through the lens of these communicative principles.

The task principle: I think I do use tasks but if you ask me what a task is, I need to have a think. Is it a specific piece of work required to be done as part of one's duties? Or is it the learner's effort to comprehend, manipulate and produce the target language? One way or another, I can claim that I use tasks as the organizational principle of my lessons. As a matter of fact, I can't picture a lesson which wouldn't be ruled by this principle (unless the students fall asleep or pay absolutely no attention). Even at a lecture the audience has some task to do, be it only following the lecturer carefully or taking notes.

The learning by doing principle: As far as learning by doing is concerned, don't we always learn by doing? To be able to answer this question, it's necessary to specify what we mean by doing. Even when I sit silently, just listening to the teacher, I kind of learn by doing - I'm making mental connections to my previous experience, I'm re-organizing and re-constructing my schemata; I'm putting new pieces of an imaginary jigsaw puzzle in the right place. Or I can literally be working with these pieces trying to figure out the correct word order of a sentence, for example. In both cases I learn by doing.

The richness of input principle: Input needs to be rich. Yes, I agree but too often do I feel restricted by the limitations of the classroom and the time allocated to my lessons. Yes, students need to be exposed to a plethora of language items and contexts but the real context is always the same - the classroom environment. Honestly, I'm not overly concerned about the authenticity of language learning. To be more precise, I believe learners can learn a lot using invented materials and coursebooks. But I certainly do my best to provide the learners with variety, even though it's a very limited kind of variety. However, it's the learners who finally need to make the final move; they need to go and find the different contexts outside the classroom. Luckily, it's never been more feasible than now with all the online sources and opportunities an L2 learner has nowadays.

The meaningfulness and comprehensibility of input principle: Who decides if the input is meaningful? I'd say it's always the learner, not the teacher. For me as a teacher, it's difficult to judge what is meaningful for my students. I think I know what might be meaningful for them but I don't know exactly what's going on in their little heads. There are things which I find totally meaningless but to my students they make perfect sense. On the other hand, making input comprehensible is something I can achieve, and I have the means to find out if I succeeded. For example, I can ask comprehension questions or I gain hard evidence when my students complete a task.

The cooperation and collaboration principle: I believe that cooperation must be taught and learnt - I don't think it's a natural feature of human nature. Not all human beings are selfless and willing to work collaboratively because they feel that a success of a group is less valuable than an achievement of an individual. One of my duties as a teacher is to demonstrate that under certain circumstances a group can achieve more that an individual, especially in language learning. In fact, communication and interaction are inherently collaborative in nature, so avoiding them in the classroom would make no sense.

The focus on form principle: I'd say that unlike in L1 acquisition, in order to learn a language in the classroom environment it's the form that must be made salient. However, it's the connection between form and meaning that is crucial. Teaching functional language is one of the ways of connecting meaning and form. Exposing learners to collocations and chunks of the language is more important than helping them understand grammar torn out of context.

The error and corrective feedback principle: I strongly believe in the power of corrective feedback, no matter whether it's teacher > student feedback or peer correction. There are circumstances when correction is totally inappropriate, as some say, but as L2 learners are generally aware of the fact that they are in the classroom in order to learn the language, they may infer and understand that it's the teacher's task to provide feedback, either explicitly or implicitly. Thus there's no need to feel offended.

The recognition of affective factors principle: Finally, it's clear to me that the overall atmosphere in the class will be relaxed if my students feel at ease. I can't say I have some evidence proving that they will learn more if anxiety is kept at a minimal level. But honestly, I don't need any direct proof of that anyway. I'm obviously not going to stress my students out just because I think they may learn more vocabulary. But this is a feature of my personality, not just a belief.

Having said what I have said, I may tentatively claim that I do teach communicatively. What I can never answer, though, is whether my teaching could be more communicative or if other teachers teach more communicatively than I do. In other words, is my teaching communicative enough in comparison with other teachers? Could this ever be measured? If not, how can I become a better teacher? I don't think it would be helpful to analyze each activity I introduce in the classroom because it's not just about activities. It's about the overall approach and the ultimate goals of instruction and education the teacher keeps in mind. It's definitely a complex issue that needs a lot of constant reflection.