Originally uploaded by Johannes de Jong_
Recently, I have been interviewing several ESL teachers and teacher trainers and I find I had to rethink a few matters with regard to teaching oral language. Since the 80s it has been politically correct to describe oneself as a ‘communicative teacher’ during job interviews. Every ESL teacher knows that. The communicative approach states that tasks should provide the learners language to use in order to communicate meanings without focusing on accuracy. In other words, fluency is encouraged as fluency leads to creativity and the independence of a language learner. A central issue with this approach comes from asking the question: How can accuracy and fluency come together? Any answer to that question involves the instructor deciding on a range of discourse skills taught to a particular audience. For example first graders who are playground-fluent in language may need a discourse emphasis on accuracy in an academic context relevant to their maturity level. Adults may need more discourse tasks having to do with fluency and integrating such skills into what they have learned in grammatical drilling (if that is the way that they had learned a little English abroad).
In just thinking about these issues and reading contemporary research one finds that answers to these issues are not entirely clear. An issue that still confounds researchers, for example, is whether tasks which concentrate on a particular feature of language are more effective in language development than those which allow the learners to express themselves in whatever way they wish. One can find research which supports either case. Whenever I note that issues are expressed in such generalities that almost any answer to a question can find some research in support for it, I tend to grow suspicious.
When I start from the point of view of a learner, I notice the following thoughts appear to have merit:
1. A range of different types of interaction require practice.
2. Oral tasks should differ from written tasks in general.
3. It is true that improvising needs practice, but this should be done around some content.
4. Communication skills should be practiced in concert with self-editing.
5. The language has to be integrated between accuracy, complexity, and fluency. This integration varies according to learner needs and abilities.
The study of discourse is the study of language independent of the notion of a sentence. Usually this means a length of speech longer than a sentence but not necessarily. The sign ‘no smoking’ is a matter of discourse if we ask to whom is it addressed. How do we know what it means and other such questions? In other words the social context is examined for the language chosen by the native speaker. Choosing tasks within this context can balance accuracy and complexity with fluency.
The emergence of discourse analysis has shown that contextual dimensions should be brought into language study and language use may be explained without reference to syntactic rules of sentences. In other words, if teaching is to be ‘communicative’ then we (as teachers) should attend to how communication actually takes place. We have to wonder how sentence-based grammar teaching actually squares with holding a conversation. As teachers, we also have to ascertain how much of first-language discourse ability transfers to the second language and how much we must teach. Then we can choose our tasks to fit our audience and the integration needed will have a chance to occur.
In other words the basic issue of integrating accuracy with fluency opens up a whole new line of research into truly taking the active discourse quite seriously.
– Dr. Paul Schneider, Director of Teacher Education Programs, WAL