Thursday, February 22, 2007

Student feelings about the Communicative Approach

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

Ming-Shen Li's study is not wrong but only looks at one aspect of the problem. Students who are used to one way of teaching find it difficult to change. Grammar translation and the dissection and analysis of intensive reading can be comforting because they lead to more content based teaching. Grammar facts are quantifiable. Things can be memorised. Chinese students start intensive rote learning at a very early age and it is dunned into them that this is the way to learn. So this is the way they learn English and it is also the way they are taught English (generalisation but fair enough).

There was the same resistance to communicative methodology in the west in the 70's but not quite so strong as we were never quite so much into rote learning in our general education. Though one might look at the blind alley of audio-lingual pigeon drills and see how it held back EFL teaching in the USA. In general, Chinese students are comfortable with rote learning and traditional methods but it is not an effective way to learn a language and most students end up with a knowledge often language that they are unable to put to effective use except in passing the TOEFL test.

All sorts of reasons are advanced as to why Communicative methodology is not suitable out here. "We are Asians, our method is best for us". But of course the traditional method is not Chinese or Asian, it is, if anything, a rather old western import. There was no large scale language learning in China in the past. It was discouraged for cultural and political reasons.
In my own experience, my Chinese students enjoy learning a language rather than a set of rules.

I know this because of the anonymous feedback I get from the end of semester course questionnaires. So why didn't the subjects of Ming-Shen Li's survey like communicative teaching? Sorry, I know it sounds big headed, but if you want to teach communicatively you have to be good.

Anyone can wander in with a grammar book and a set of exercises with answers and keep the class busy, but communicative teaching is deceptively difficult. It has tended to be confused with conversation classes and there has been a feeling that any native speaker can teach communicative English. This has been detrimental to the teaching of English in China. Native speaker teachers have not been chosen well and have been constrained in what they can do.

Read Alan Maley in Valdes, Culture Bound. Look at the comments of Native Speaker Teachers on the NET scheme in Hong Kong. Look at the way Chinese Universities judge the qualifications of native speaker teachers.

Basically, teaching for communication and through communication, if done at all decently, is going to give better results than teaching about the language and teaching for straight jacket examinations. Stay communicative. Teach grammar for communication or whatever but the communicative tradition is so wide and eclectic that you have plenty of options.

It has been felt that it places too much emphasis on transmitting and receiving information but that was largely because the other aspects of communication - language play, word play etc. were ignored. They are still communication and can still figure in communicative teaching. Grammar too needs to be taught. You need it to communicate effectively. But teach it for communication, not for memorisation.

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