What does Communicative Language Teaching look like at Hamlin?

Communicative Language Teaching or el Enfoque Comunicativo is a language teaching methodology that emphasizes the importance of building meaningful communication through the use of highly contextualized, authentic scenarios that parallel a language learner’s everyday life experiences. (Richards, 2009)

If you are a first grader at Hamlin enjoying recess, your communication with peers might be filled with a simple hand game like Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum In a Dish, or as you see in this short clip, a Spanish version of this traditional game.

While Communicative Language Teaching gained momentum in the early 1970s, traditional perspectives of a language classroom experience still permeate our thinking today. Our own recollection of past language classroom experiences might include a language teacher who positioned herself at the locus of the class and created a highly controlled learning environment where students mimicked textbook sentences, memorized dialogues, or filled in cloze paragraphs with the present tense verb conjugations. Accuracy reigned as the desired outcome for all language learners.

With the CLT model, errors are seen as opportunities for growth. Perfectionism stands as the most dangerous obstacle to fluency and one’s own creative production of personalized language.

“You need to make 10.4 million errors before you are fluent. How many have you added to your total today?”
-Kirsten Gustavson, current SS teacher and past French Teacher

We would never expect a toddler just learning to speak to produce a seven word long sentence, employing all the proper pronouns and all verbs in their correct irregular past tense forms. Yet when we hear a young 3-year-old child ask, “Us take the bus?” there is no doubt that she has successfully communicated. Errors like this show that a learner is willing to take a risk, to experiment and to explore what she knows about the language. This in-between language is defined as Interlingua (Selinker,1972). The process of reaching advanced proficiency or level 3 takes an estimated 600 hours of class-time and the practice involves making plenty of mistakes along the road! (Foreign Service Institute)

Let’s compare two lessons, both involving teaching the language function of how to buy a gift at a store.

Example A
Students listen to an audio recording of a textbook dialogue between a saleswoman and a client. Once completed, they answer comprehension questions about vocabulary and grammar from the dialogue. For homework, they memorize the dialogue and present to the class the following day.

Example B from 8th grade Honors Spanish Class at Hamlin:
Students first discuss strategies for how to barter in an open-air market. They list both what the salesperson might say as well as what the buyer will say. Before they take on the role of either salesperson or client, they receive a list of goods-the salesperson has suggested prices and the client does not. He only has a fixed budget. The objective is not the perfect recreation of a memorized script, but rather an improvisation of a negotiation between the two individuals in this highly contextualized and exciting real life setting.

In this information gap exercise, it becomes necessary to communicate no matter what to achieve the goal of making the largest profit or spending the least amount of money, depending on which character you are acting out. Students are forced to try what they know, experiment with the language and focus on a meaningful, relevant interpersonal exchange. Undoubtedly, errors will abound. Yet this highly energized practice of the language increases the student’s motivation, confidence and ability to speak with fluency. Grammar presents itself in the form of making comparisons, using descriptive adjectives, superlatives, and of course a necessary review of numbers to discuss cost of items. Feedback on errors is saved until the end of the exercise when the teacher then shares what she has heard during the bartering exchanges.

Real world, authentic communication is at the heart of each lesson. In addition to information gap exercises like the one above, other classic CLT examples include pair interviews, draw-what-I-say activities, home or neighborhood tours, find-someone-who surveys and a plethora of role-plays.

Here is a link to a short video called “¿Quién soy?” or Who am I? In this clip of a student role-playing a farmer, the language function being practiced is how to describe a person of a specific profession.

Look at the following three examples with the common goal of building cultural competency.

Example A: students write a research report on a Latin American country and present findings to the class via a PowerPoint slide show

Example B Folletos: 7th grade Hamlin students create their own Youth Travel program that focuses on being a traveler, not a tourist. They design a brochure for a customized summer trip to a Spanish-speaking country, explaining activities, points of cultural interest, how they will spend their budget, community service projects and destination highlights.

iBook example #1: click photo to download full book

Example C Entrevistas: 8th grade Honors students at Hamlin interview native speakers about their home country, their transitions to the US and the challenges they faced. They synthesize all material into an iBook Author presentation, including photos and sound bytes from live interviews.

This interview project offers students the opportunity to stretch their language learning outside the walls of the classroom in an authentic, meaningful way. They see the need to learn Spanish in order to communicate with communities beyond just their classmates. More and more, we are urging our students to explore new communities, but also see their own community with a fresh perspective.

Ultimately, at Hamlin we strive to create authentic learning environments where our girls grow into confident and comfortable language learners who have the tools necessary to engage with the world.