I was talking to a teacher the other day. He had just completed his CELTA course with a grade B although he had already been teaching for a couple of years beforehand. A nice chap all in all, and very enthusiastic.
I am not sure how, but after the initial chit-chat which broke the ice, we got on to talking about ‘communicativeness’. He had a pretty sure idea what it was all about. Controlled practice was ‘uncommunicative’. Not only this, but controlled practice was also mechanical and largely meaningless. On the other hand, freer practice was not only ‘communicative‘ but also promoted fluency and was meaningful communication.
This seems to be the impression that he had taken away with him from the CELTA course he had just participated in. It seemed eerily reminiscent of the dichotomy displayed in a very well-known teaching methodology textbook, as shown below:
Anyway, it got me thinking about how useful such a ‘simplified’ representations are and what the consequences for teaching might be. To a certain extent, I can see the usefulness in such a taxonomy. It certainly makes the concepts involved transparently clear. However, it seems to me that the drawbacks certainly outweigh the advantages.
Firstly, it fits very nicely into the presentation-practice-production (PPP) approach to teaching. Indeed, the B grade teacher described a lesson as moving along a continuum from uncommunicative, mechanical and meaningless practice towards an explosive communicatively meaningful practice activity at the end. Although courseboooks have improved greatly over the past few years in adopting alternative approaches to lessons, the PPP approach still reigns supreme.
More importantly, in my opinion, is that this division between what makes activities non-communicative and what makes them communicative, gives the false impression that controlled practice activities should not be, or cannot be, either communicative or meaningful, which is actually the case in many coursebooks.
However, it is up to teaachers to try and make controlled practice as communicative and meaningful as possible. As this will not only motivate learners to communicate but also lead to more learning taking place.
So, the starting point, I think, is to debunk this false dichotomy right at the beginning in pre-service training courses such as CELTA. For although such simplifications may make concepts easier for trainee teachers to digest, we are doing them and our students a disservice when it comes to future teaching and learning.
(Harmer, J. 2007, The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson Longman)