Lesson 1: Defining Communication

Communication or Practice?

The difference between communication and practice.

Duration: 03:19


In my experience as a teacher trainer, I've found that beginning teachers often confuse oral practice with real communication -- what I'm calling real communication. So you can have an active classroom with people speaking a lot, but that doesn't mean that they are actually communicating. They can be just practicing orally. And I think it's important to start off this module defining communication and looking at a checklist of defining features we'll be referring to throughout the module.

The first place to start is really with the notion of control. When the teacher has control of the activity, it's a guided practice activity. When the learner is in control, it's going to be real communication. And by that I mean, when the teacher stands in front of the classroom and tells you why you are doing what you are doing and how to negotiate every part of the activity, that's teacher-controlled, that's practice. But, learners have to be given some kind of freedom to make their own choices online as communication unfolds.

Another way of thinking about it is how authentic or real-life the activity is. If you are a teachers and ask, "What color is my shirt?," that's a pretty unusual question -- its a question that's found actually within the classroom but that's not usually found outside the classroom. So your goal as a teacher is to just prompt somebody to use a piece of language. Like, "What color is my shirt?" "Your shirt is red."

The next criterion would be the analytic/synthetic continuum. And again, this is a continuum -- it's not just an either/or. Analytic means analyzing things into its constituent parts, or more simply put, one thing at a time. In the classroom this means that you are typically focusing on one grammar point such as a singular/plural distinction in nouns or conjugation in verbs. But when you communicate, you have to put the singular/plural, conjugation, pronunciation -- you have to put it all together, so it's synthesizing many parts into one whole, holistic. The analytic/synthetic continuum maps onto what you might think of as an open/closed continuum. So that practice activities are typically one right answer, there is one right way to perform the activity. Whereas communication, you can answer a question in many different ways.

And finally, the focus of the activity is a good way of discerning the difference between a guided practice and a communicative task. If you're focusing on getting the form right -- the grammatical form right -- you're doing practice. If you're focused on getting your message through, then you're doing communication. Now, fluency also means that you are trying to automatize a lot of these routines, because language has these chunks or pre-fabricated sequences. So you are trying to get your message through, but you're also trying to speed things up a little bit. So those are all good defining features to help you determine what communication is and we'll be referring to this checklist throughout the module.

It is important for teachers to understand the different types of oral activities in foreign language teaching as well as the different goals of activities. Unfortunately, teachers often confuse oral practice with oral communication. In general, the goal of guided practice activities is to improve accuracy, whereas the goal of communicative activities is to improve fluency. While guided practice activities have their place in beginning foreign language teaching, they are no replacement for actual communication.

This table distinguishes the defining features of guided practice from those of communication.

Guided Practice Communicative Task
teacher-controlled learner-controlled
pedagogical real life, authentic
(one thing at a time)
(many things at once)
(one right answer)
(no single answer)
focus on accuracy focus on fluency