Reading and Writing Communicatively: Six Challenges Addressed

 

Mariah J. Fairley

English Language Resource Center

Al-Azhar University, Cairo

and

Heba Fathelbab

Canadian International College, Cairo

 

 

Abstract

Although Communicative Language Teaching, with its strong grounding in theory and research, has become the favored approach to second language teaching, belief in its efficacy is often not matched by practice.  In CLT reading and writing classrooms, instructors are faced with a number of challenges in implementing the approach. This article discusses six of these most common challenges: lack of enthusiasm, slow finishers, unengaged audience, lack of materials, unequal student participation, and lack of student investment. As practice-based techniques to address these challenges are presented, several principles of CLT are also highlighted, to help teachers address other problems that may arise in their CLT reading and writing classrooms. The article aims to empower teachers to try the approach and succeed.

 

Key words: CLT, communicative language teaching, cooperative learning, group work, reading, writing

 

Introduction

 

CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) has come to be the favored approach to language teaching since its emergence in the late 1970’s (Brown, 2001; Savignon, 2001). Brown (2001) defines CLT by several characteristics: communicative competence as the focus of classroom goals; teaching techniques designed to focus on pragmatic, authentic, and functional language uses; the greater importance of fluency than accuracy in order to allow students’ engagement in meaningful language use; student focus on the learning process; and teacher’s role as that of a facilitator.  Informed by research accumulated over the past several decades on how learners learn language, CLT, with its emphasis on meaningful interaction, often in the form of group work, has emerged as the increasingly favored approach for a number of convincing reasons. First, it engenders a more meaningful learning process because it allows students to work with authentic texts, to negotiate meaning for a real purpose, and to construct their interlanguage together in simulated situations similar to real life (Brown, 2001; Long, 1991; Savignon, 1987; Schmidt, 1990; Swain, 1995). As students work together, pool knowledge, and share ideas, their communicative competence increases, along with their confidence (Bejarano, 1987; Hymes, 1971). Thus, the learning process becomes more motivating (Brown & Hudson, 1998), because students are able to measure their progress in terms of real English communication skills. Another important outcome of CLT is that students develop not only individual, but also social skills such as collaboration, active listening, and giving constructive criticism (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2007). Further, CLT’s student-centered focus gives the instructor a chance to better monitor the students and tend to their needs, in the role of facilitator, guide, and mentor (Vygotsky, 1978). Finally, the approach provides flexibility in teaching different proficiency levels (Lou, Abrami & Spence, 2000).

These aforementioned reasons provide ample support for adopting the CLT approach. However, belief in and commitment to the principles of CLT are not always matched by practice (DelliCarpini, 2009). Sato & Kleinsasser (1999) noted an inconsistency between teachers’ perception of CLT and their classroom practice, an inconsistency which may be linked to a number of challenges that face the CLT teacher in implementing the approach in the reading and writing classroom (Anderson, 1993; Nunan, 1993). These inconsistencies if left unaddressed, can easily become the deciding factors in a teacher’s choosing to avoid CLT implementation altogether. This article aims to address six of these challenges.

 

Challenge 1: Unenthused Group Readers and Writers

 

Initially, many students may not be convinced of the benefits of CLT group reading or writing. This may be due to the fact that some students prefer working individually rather than in groups or pairs (Savignon, 2001), perhaps because they do not see the communicative benefits, which in turn may lead to a lack of enthusiasm for CLT reading and writing activities. Therefore, before launching students into a well-prepared CLT reading or writing lesson, it may be important to give them the opportunity to discuss how they feel about  enhancing their communicative competence through group work, and what benefits they think can come from group activities (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2007). This can be done as a think-pair-share activity (Kagan, 1994). Students individually write down two or three ideas on the benefits of group work for reading and writing. Then, in pairs, they discuss similarities and differences to their answers. Finally, in a whole class discussion, the teacher can elicit and list on the board one idea from each pair. Pairs are not allowed to say the same idea as another pair, which encourages them to listen. Next, volunteer pairs can be invited to lead a class discussion on one challenge they face in working in groups to improve reading and writing. The teacher can conclude by discussing solutions to the challenges and how CLT activities might address these concerns. Later, when students are introduced to a group reading or writing activity, the purpose of the activity can be discussed. By taking the time to make the purpose clear, students are more likely to be engaged in the activity’ (Pavlenko & Norton, 2007).

 

Challenge 2: One Group Finishes Before Another

 

The class has been divided into groups, and the reading text has been divided into parts, or jigsawed, so that each group must summarize their own separate section (Slavin, 1996). However, two groups finish their summaries much more quickly than the others. This is a common occurrence, even when a time limit is given for completion. Every class has a range of abilities; some students may read more slowly, and others may read and comprehend more quickly. To circumvent this problem, one solution is to provide extra questions for the faster groups to answer. In this way, groups that finish quickly remain engaged, and are additionally challenged according to their abilities (Lou, Abrami & Spence, 2000; Roberts, 2007). Another solution is to group students into mixed ability teams, so that faster finishers can slow down to help the slower finishers in their group (Kagan, 1994).

 

Challenge 3: Unengaged Audience

 

The first stage of the jigsaw reading activity has been completed, so that every group has summarized a section of the text and each member of the group is ready to “teach” the section to a new group. New groups are formed, so that each group is comprised of one or two “experts” on each section of the text. Each group member is then in charge of explaining one section of the text to the others. However, as students begin the activity, the teacher notices that nobody is paying much attention. There is a lack of engagement from the listeners, and the groups soon find themselves off-task. This is often because the students do not understand the purpose of listening to their peers. One way to solve this problem is to make sure that students have been provided with a reason for learning the information from the members of the other groups (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2007). For example, if students will have to complete a comprehension exercise based on all of the sections of the text, they will more likely feel a need to listen to each other and learn the material. Another reason for disengagement may be due to one speaker’s monopolizing the speaking time. To ensure that one student does not monopolize the speaking time and end up boring the other students in the group, a strict time limit can be set, with the teacher ringing a bell and calling out “switch,” every two minutes, for example. When students are provided with a time limit, and a purpose for learning the material, they are more likely to remain engaged and on-task.

 

Challenge 4: Lack of Materials

 

Although many teachers like the idea of having students read in groups, CLT materials for reading and writing are often lacking or underdeveloped in their textbooks. Since teachers are also often overworked, they may not find the time to prepare materials for a group reading or writing activity that will only take part of a lesson. As a result, some teachers may find themselves asking students to complete text-book reading exercises individually. It can be frustrating to spend so much time creating materials for an activity that will only take half an hour of class time. One way to avoid this frustration is to maximize the use of materials (Brown, 2001). For example, if a teacher has prepared a reading on the run activity, the steps involved have been quite time-consuming, so the teacher needs to maximize the time spent on the activity. First, an appropriate text has to be identified, cut up into about seven sections and stuck around the room, and questions have to be prepared, cut up and labeled by number, along with an answer key to the questions. The activity itself takes about half an hour: in teams, one member is the secretary, one is the “question grabber”, and the others are “runners”. Question grabbers take one question from a chair located in the center of the room and take it back to their groups. Runners then go around the room to find the answer to the grabbed question. Once the answer is located, runners dictate the answer to the secretary, who writes it down on an answer sheet. The question grabber returns the question and grabs another, and the process is repeated. The first group to complete all the questions correctly wins. This is usually a very lively and engaging activity to help students learn the sub-skill of scanning for specific information. Instead of putting these materials away at the end of this activity, however, the teacher can go on to exploit them further for any number of other purposes. For example, students could work to order the text pieces in the correct sequence to focus on organizational cues, which could lead into a language focus on transitions. The teacher could then provide the original full text and ask students to identify the thesis statement, topic sentences, and supporting details, for a focus on text structure. This text could then be used as a model text for students to write a similar text, or as a springboard for a debate or discussion activity. In this way, one set of reading materials can be exploited for several different activities, which will allow students to work with the material for a much longer time, and additionally create a more cohesive, integrated set of lessons.

 

Challenge 5: ‘Workhorse’ and ‘Freeloader’ Syndrome

 

In groups, students have been asked to write a group paragraph on a topic chosen by students as interesting and relevant to them. However, when the activity begins, one student in each group ends up writing the whole paragraph, while other group members chat amongst themselves. Asking them to work together has yielded no response. One reason for lack of equal participation in the task is that some students do not have ideas. Another is that some students lack the skills or confidence to write. Therefore, the most able student ends up writing the paragraph. To solve this problem, the task could have universal participation as a built-in element, so that all students must participate in order to complete the task successfully (Gillies, 2003; Slavin, 1996). Class brainstorming in groups with universal participation is one illustration of this solution. For example, Student 1 in each group is directed to write a topic sentence. This topic sentence is based only on the contributions of others in the group, not on the contributions of student 1. Groups then pass their topic sentences to the next group. In the next stage, Student 2 in each group writes one piece of supporting evidence for the new topic sentence, after eliciting input from the group. Groups pass their papers to the next group. Student 3 then writes a second piece of supporting evidence, in the same way. The process continues until each group has contributed one idea to each topic sentence in the class and all students in each group have had a turn to write. This comprises the activity of class brainstorming. Having students brainstorm ideas for every paragraph in each group can help to familiarize students with several different topics, and additionally prepare them to evaluate each others’ paragraphs in a follow-up group editing activity. The second stage can now begin, of group writing of the paragraph. Each group works with the topic sentence and pieces of evidence on the paper they have, along with a set of evaluation criteria. Again, students take turns writing, so that each student writes a sentence in a different color pen while other group members instruct him/her what to write. This can be done on mini-white boards or flip-charts so that the whole class can see all of the completed paragraphs. In this way all of the students will have contributed ideas for each paragraph, and written part of a group paragraph.

 

Challenge 6: “Peer Editing is Useless – I Need Teacher Feedback”

 

Peer-editing can be a very good way to get students to work together to improve their writing. Brown & Hudson (1998) provide a comprehensive discussion of its benefits, including: allowing students to become directly involved in the feedback process, encouraging a more independent learning experience; increasing motivation due to student involvement; and finally, provision of   immediate feedback. As a result, students not only benefit from the ideas of their peers, but they also get more practice focusing on the features of good writing as they identify problems in the writing of their peers. In opting to implement a group editing activity, teachers ask groups to exchange their paragraphs and edit them. However, as they begin the peer-editing activity, some students begin muttering about how useless the activity is, and most of the students do not appear to be taking the activity seriously. This may be because they do not believe that they as students are qualified to edit each others’ writing. Students therefore often write general, vague comments like “good job” or “needs improvement.” The activity is clearly not achieving the desired aims. One way to tackle this problem is to lead a brief discussion on the merits of peer-editing (Maifair, 1999). If they understand its global aims more clearly, students are more likely to complete the activity with real effort. Another important requirement when introducing peer-editing activities is to provide a structured set of criteria on which the peer-editors must focus (Hafernik, 1983). For example, students can be given a worksheet or checklist that lists several criteria they must address, such as the effectiveness of the thesis statement, or concluding sentences of body paragraphs. In doing this, it is a good idea to remind students that the purpose of the activity is to help improve the writing of their peers, so they must make at least two or three concrete suggestions to achieve this aim. After completing the worksheet, group editors can engage in conferencing with the group writers, whereby they have to discuss the group writing based on the completed worksheet. Discussing the merits of peer-editing and structuring the activity in this way can help to make the activity more beneficial for both writers and editors.

 

Conclusion

 

CLT has clearly been shown to have several advantages over traditional language teaching approaches or methods, but at the same time presents a number of challenges which may feel insurmountable. Rather than allowing these challenges to dissuade teachers from using the approach, this article has sought to encourage them, by demonstrating some practical solutions to these challenges. In the presentation of these solutions, emphasis was placed on the CLT principles that inspired them, such as communicative competence, fluency and accuracy, focus on real world contexts, strategic investment, and learner autonomy. Thus, the article has aimed to show not only that the six presented challenges to teaching reading and writing communicatively have solutions, but that other challenges may also be met through a better understanding and implementation of CLT principles. 

 

 

References

 

Anderson, J. (1993). Is a communicative approach practical for teaching English in China? 
            Pros and cons. System 21(4), 471-480.

 

Bejarano, Y. (1987). A cooperative small-group methodology in the language classroom, 
            TESOL Quarterly
, 21(3).

 

Brown, H.D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language 
            pedagogy. San Francisco State University: Pearson Longman.

 

Brown, J.D. & Hudson, Thom (1998). The alternatives in language assessment. TESOL 
            Quarterly
, 32, 653-675.

 

DelliCarpini, M. (2009). Enhancing cooperative learning in TESOL teacher education, ELT 
            Journal
, 63(1), 42-50.

 

Gillies, R.M. (2003). Structuring cooperative group work in classrooms, International 
            Journal of Educational Research
, 39, 35-49.

 

Hafernik, J.J. (1984). The how and why of peer editing in the ESL writing class, CATESOL 
            Papers
, 10, 48-58.

 

Hymes, D. (1971). Sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking. In E. Ardener (Ed.), 
            Social anthropology and language
(pp 47-94). London: Routledge.

 

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., Smith, K. (2007). The state of cooperative learning in 
            postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 15-
            29.

 

Long, M. (1991).  Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology.  In 
            K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in 
            cross-cultural perspectives
(pp 39-52).  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

 

Lou, Y., Abrami, P.C., Spence, J.C. (2000). Effects of within-class grouping on student 
            achievement: An exploratory model, Journal of Educational Research, 94(2), 
            101-112.

 

Maifair, L.L. (1999). Painless peer editing, Instructor-Intermediate, 108(7).

 

Nunan, D. (1993). From learning-centeredness to learner-centeredness. Applied Language 
            Learning
, 4(1), 1-18.

 

Pavlenko, A., Norton, B. (2007). Imagined communities, identity and English language 
            learning. In J. Cummins, C. Davison, A. Pavlenko & B. Norton (Eds.), 
            International Handbook of English Language Teaching, Springer International 
            Handbooks of Education
15(1), 589-600.

 

Roberts, M. (2007). Teaching in the multilevel classroom. Retrieved December, 2010 from 
            www.pearsonlongman.com/ae/download/adulted/multilevel_monograph.pdf

 

Sato, K. & Kleinsasser, R.C. (1999). Communicative language teaching (CLT): Practical 
            understandings. The Modern Language Journal 83(4), 494-517.

 

Savignon, S. (1987). Communicative language teaching. In S. Savignon (Ed.), Theory into 
            practice
(pp 235-242). London: Routledge.

 

Savignon, S. (2001). Communicative language teaching for the Twenty-first century. In M. 
            Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (pp 13-
            28). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

 

Schmidt, R. (1990).  The role of consciousness in second language learning.  Applied 
            Linguistics
, 11, 129-158.

 

Slavin, R.E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, 
            what we need to know, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.

 

Swain, M. (1995).  Three functions of output in second language learning.  In G. Cook & B. 
            Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in 
            honour of H.G. Widdowson
(pp 125-144).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological 
            processes.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

Mariah J. Fairley is an instructor at Al-Azhar University. She is interested in collaborative and constructivist learning, and research on social factors affecting learning in the EFL classroom. She can be reached at mariahjfairley@gmail.com.

 

Heba Fathelbab received her Masters degree in TEFL from AUC. She has been teaching EFL for almost 10 years in both Egypt and Canada. Her research interests include student perception of their EFL teachers.