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Communicative competence emphasizes that language is communication first and foremost, and the goal is precisely to prepare learners to be able to communicate. The notion of language needs contends that language teaching must be closely linked to the learner for whom it is intended and to the context in which it is delivered.
This shift in perspective paved the way for the communicative approach. Earlier visions of language teaching held that the end goal was grammatical competence or lexical competence. With the communicative approach, the goal of language teaching became communicative competence, which became central to pedagogical practices.
Not only did the goal of teaching change, the role of the teacher changed as well. It was no accident that the word approach was now used to articulate this new vision of language teaching. An approach is far less structured than a method and gives the teacher far greater latitude. The teacher is no longer someone who simply follows and applies a set of strict rules designed by experts; he or she is expected to draw on principles and techniques to prepare activities and design learning that is adapted to the needs of learners.
If the goal of language teaching is to ensure that the learner is able to communicate in this language, sending messages and accomplishing speech acts, the usage of language in the classroom must serve this purpose. Rather than endlessly repeating with the aim of memorizing or dissecting the language, particularly its grammatical structures, students must use the target language in meaningful ways to communicate a message either orally or writing. Using the target language to communicate is what provides opportunities for modelling in the classroom and prepares students for communication outside the classroom.
Grammar is only one component of “communicative competence.” Indeed, knowledge of the rules and structures of grammar and of the vocabulary is a “necessary, yet insufficient condition for communication” (Germain, 1993, p. 203; our translation). In order to communicate effectively, one must know not only how a language works, but also what parts of the language to use and when. These vary depending on the situation, the context, the listener, and the communication intention. For example, we speak very differently to members of our family, friends, co-workers, and strangers.
As mentioned above, the fact that some expressions can be used to convey very different messages adds to the complexity of language.
Use of the communicative approach aims to bring real life into the classroom. Teaching/learning is organized around real-life situations, as demonstrated by the chapter headings in the textbooks that are used in this approach.The idea is to suggest situations that make possible to use language to transmit information, implying certain choices of what needs to be said and how to say it. Situations conducive to an exchange with other speakers are also suggested.
With the communicative approach, the vision of vocabulary and vocabulary teaching/learning changes as well. There is a shift away from memorizing lists of words and toward the context in which the communication is taking place. The supports selected and studied are not created artificially for the classroom in order to present the structures that the students are required to assimilate.
Priority is given to authentic materials; supports are purposefully selected from real-life sources (newspaper articles, radio programs, advertising, excerpts from books, video clips, and so forth), above all to reflect the meaning and themes being covered. Vocabulary is introduced not in a rigid progression, but rather following a spiral approach as these authentic documents are studied.
With the communicative approach, the learner’s role changes, and so does the teacher’s. The learner not only becomes a communicator engaged in the negotiation of meaning, but also takes greater responsibility for his or her learning. The teacher is by turns “a ‘model,’ a ‘facilitator,’ an ‘organizer’ of activities in the classroom, an ‘advisor,’ an ‘analyst’ of the needs and interests of learners, a ‘co-communicator,’ etc.” (Germain, 1993, p. 206; our translation). In this new relationship, classroom activities are organized differently. Pairs and work groups become common and important. Instead of being the person who “masters” or “possesses” knowledge, the teacher is the person who fosters, encourages, and orchestrates the work of the students, who are now referred to as “learners” to reflect their new responsibility and autonomy in the process of acquiring language. Learning is now described as “learner-centred” and “learner-focused”; the group dynamic becomes a key factor in support of communication and learning.