As an English teacher, for the past few years I have taught thousands of students of all ages from language schools to secondary schools. I have observed a common problem in the EFL classroom here in Spain: the lack and neglect of developing communicative competence. Most children begin to learn English from kindergarten, however, after more than ten years of studying many of them still aren’t able to communicate in English in real settings. Why is that? What’s wrong with our EFL classroom? And what do I propose to do about it? When I was studying a master’s of education in León, specializing in English pedagogy, I did my practicum in a local secondary school for three months. One day during the development of a lesson that focused on past simple, after instruction, the teacher and practicum tutor asked the students to tell her what they had done the day before. When one of them began to talk, she interrupted and said, “I don’t care what you did yesterday. Just tell me in past simple.” (Let me remark that it was actually said in Spanish.) I was astonished. If the content of speech could be overlooked, then what would be the purpose of communication? What is the point of uttering something in past simple? What is it for students to learn grammar in its own right? I have witnessed similar situations where the teacher kept interrupting and correcting grammatical mistakes, words and pronunciation while students spoke, making it seem as though what only matters is to be absolutely accurate in the language. Now you see what is happening in our EFL classroom. But learning a foreign language doesn’t have to be this way. We all know it doesn’t work like this.
If we understand that language is a means for communication, language teaching should aim at helping learners be able to communicate in that language, which justifies the need for developing communicative competence in the EFL classroom.
To develop communicative competence, teachers need to put students in real settings to train them to use language for a wide range of purposes and functions. I advocate communicative language teaching approach (CLT) in the EFL classroom. With this approach, attention is shifted to apply the knowledge and skills to use grammar and other aspects of language appropriately for different communicative purposes: making requests, giving advice, describing wishes and needs, etc. Grammar is no longer the starting point of foreign language learning, instead, communication is. Activities for this approach include task completion, information gathering, opinion sharing and role-plays. Language errors are tolerated because completing the activity, namely fluency, is no less important than accuracy of the language. To develop communicative competence in the EFL classroom, first of all, a teaching unit should be established. Most textbook units are meaningful and interesting to students, for instance, food, health, sports, movies, music, etc. A travel unit for example, can be organized in a way that has meaning and explores speech acts related to it: to talk about plans and intentions, to ask for (tourist) information, to buy a coach/train ticket and so on. After establishing the unit, teaching materials are to be gathered. A unit should be based on up-to-date teaching materials, which can come from prestigious publishing houses such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan Education amongst others, as well as other current, relevant materials from mass media. Textbooks ensure the unit is be instructive and feasible, while materials from mass media, like from the Internet, make it possible to simulate communication in real life. The advantage of certain online resources is that they are taken from real life instances, like asking for information. While teaching and studying my master’s in education, I have intended to find out one of the aspects of the nature of language: communication, which is at the core of language learning. If we bear in mind that to be able to communicate in a foreign language is the ultimate goal that learners should achieve, we will all agree that de-contextualized grammar drills are absolutely meaningless, as they do not serve the purpose of communication. So if you find your children are not learning English at school, just ask them exactly what they do in class, how they are taught, and if they’re given any real-life situations and scenarios. And let communication start.