Achieving Communicative Competence and Grammatical Awareness 
in an EFL Class at Universidad de Sonora


José Luis Moreno Vega
Departamento de Lenguas Extranjeras 
Universidad de Sonora
Tecnológico de Monterrey.
Campus Sonora Norte

Resumen

This article will describe two different perspectives toward teaching English as a foreign language to adults at Universidad de Sonora. During their daily work, teachers ask themselves important questions regarding which methodology best suites their students’ needs. These are related to communicating fluently in the L2 and being able to read and write in the target language as well as polishing the use grammar skills. It is important for the EFL instructor to know how to help students accomplish the expected objectives. Thus, the English teacher needs to be aware of the methodologies will help learners develop certain specific skills. This article will provide the reader with information about the strengths and weaknesses of the communicative approach and focus on form.

Key Words: Communicative Competence, Grammatical Awareness, Methodologies, Fluency, Acuracy, Strenghts, Weaknesses

The purpose of this article is to view the different options which are available in foreign language teaching in order to provide students at Universidad de Sonora (UNISON) with the desired qualities for them to become proficient English speakers. The Foreign Language Department at UNISON is in charge of teaching, among other languages, English to university students and to people from the local community. The minimum age required to enter these courses is fifteen, but most of the students whom I teach range from twenty to twenty-five.

It is important for me as an EFL teacher to know what the literature has to say about certain aspects regarding teaching foreign languages. In this case, my concern is about how students acquire their grammar skills and their communicative competence. Therefore, this article will present different focuses that English teachers can choose whenever they are planning their lessons.

There are several questions that arise when teaching a foreign language to adults at Universidad de Sonora. For example: Is it necessary to teach the grammar rules explicitly, or will the students learn them naturally after being exposed to a sufficient amount of input in the target language? What are the difficulties that EFL students in Mexico experience after being taught through a communicative approach? What disadvantages do EFL instructors find when they implement a method that emphasizes grammar accuracy and neglects communication?

In the Foreign Language Department at Universidad de Sonora, adult students have different background learning experiences. Therefore, some students feel that they need to learn the grammar rules in order for them to speak accurately in the target language. Other students are not really worried about receiving explicit instruction about the grammar patterns, but instead their concern is being able to understand and communicate in the L2. EFL instructors face a challenging decision when teaching in this scenario. 

The Strengths of the Communicative Approach

The notion of focusing on the meaning and communication, rather than on grammatical structures coincides with Krashen’s Monitor Model. Krashen (1994 as cited in Shujen S., 2000:4) explains that not necessarily because students learn a grammatical language form, will they then internalize it automatically and use it in a conversation with native speakers. For example, intermediate level students who are learning English at Universidad de Sonora sometimes forget to use the simple past form of the verbs when they tell a story. Even though the teacher has given students formal instruction on how to use the simple past tense, and learners have proven through classroom assessment that they understand how this language pattern works, they are still sometimes not capable of using the Simple Past structure in a real conversation. As a result, students will produce utterances such as: “Last weekend I go to the beach.” However, once they are corrected by the teacher or their peers, they will immediately remember the correct past form of verb “go”. Therefore, they show that they can express how the pattern functions, but they have not yet reached a level of proficiency in which they can use it to communicate.

Teachers who think that communication is the main purpose of teaching a language base their teaching in the belief that students learn to use the grammar patterns of a language without formal instruction on the form. They support their methodology by expressing that they do not want their students to be able to explain the language rules, but instead they want them to know how to use these language patterns in real communication. Moreover, EFL teachers who base their teaching on the communicative approach believe that teaching grammar explicitly will not make students use the target grammatical structure. These instructors also think that it is possible for students to acquire grammatical forms of the L2 by focusing on meaning, instead of placing their attention on the form.

Nevertheless, there are some adult learners that want and expect the teacher to explain the grammar structures in order for them to learn and use these structures later in a real situation. Schmidt, (1995 as cited in Combs,  2004:3) states that in order for students to learn a language accurately, they need to be aware of the language forms. According to this perspective, students will continue to make grammar mistakes if they do not deliberately think about the grammar rules.

 The Disadvantages of Implementing a Communicative

Approach in EFL Classes at UNISON

In the Foreign Language Department at Universidad de Sonora, just as in other universities in Mexico, students’ exposure to English is limited and the number of students per group is sometimes excessive. Students receive five hours of instruction per week, and most classes have a minimum of thirty students. Therefore, when the teacher’s objective is to make students use the target language accurately and meaningfully through the communicative approach, the teacher has to present the target pattern and vocabulary several times in a real context. This procedure takes more time than simply explaining the grammar rules to the students. Similarly, Earl Stevick (1982) mentions that having students acquire the patterns of a foreign language only through real communicative exposure sounds logical, but it would take too much time from the class, and there is no guarantee that learners will actually be able to use the target structures correctly afterwards. Therefore, expecting students to be able to understand the patterns of language only through implicit exposure requires more class time than what most language courses in public universities can offer. As a result, there are many students who can communicate in English, but are not capable of speaking accurately.

Diane Larsen-Freeman explains that most EFL students do not learn how the grammatical structures of the L2 work unless they are given direct instruction from the teacher. She adds that it is even less probable that students will discover grammar rules by themselves if there is very little exposure to the target language (Larsen-Freeman, 2003). This is particularly true in the case of the EFL program at UNISON where most students are only exposed to the L2 during the English lessons, and do not receive any comprehensible input outside of class.  

The Weaknesses of Methods that Emphasize

Grammar Accuracy over Communication Skills

 Teachers who have used methods that emphasize mostly on grammar accuracy believe that if students can master the structures of the target language, they will make a connection between the form and the vocabulary that they have acquired within the class, and as a result, they will be able to speak the target language. However, as Rivers (1983:118) mentions, in many circumstances students are not capable of using the grammar forms in a real conversation. This is partly because some students quit studying the L2 at a time when they are aware of the forms of the target language, but still do not have the sufficient vocabulary to convey meaning.

In my practice as an EFL teacher I am concerned about how my students can accomplish the comprehension of a grammatical pattern more effectively. It is logical to believe that by providing the learners with an explanation of how the Present Perfect tense is built, for example, they will be able to understand it quickly. However, Stevick (1982) states that just because students learn a particular structural concept faster through the explicit instruction of grammar, it does not mean that the learners will be able to internalize this particular feature and use it in real communication in the long run. This leaves every teacher with a very important decision to make: Do I want my students to be able to rapidly understand and describe how the patterns of English work at the expense of developing other skills? This choice would most likely not be beneficial in any case, since students will forget the learned rules before they can even use them. Another question would be: Do I expect them to discover these structures as they are exposed to real communication? This would require much more classroom practice time and creativity from the teacher.

Achieving Balance between Communicative Skills and Accuracy in English

Both the communicative approach and Grammar based methods have their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is an appropriate decision for EFL teachers to maintain a balance between the two methods when planning their lessons. Díaz-Rico (2004:265) explains that teachers who value both creative, communicative use of language and the correct use of grammar rules in their English classes, are most likely to have successful English learners who enjoy using the target language. According to Mac Whinney (1997 as cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2003), it is beneficial for students when teachers explain the grammar rules and also provide learners with enough practice.

 

My Own Experience in Balancing Communicative

Skills and Grammar Correctness

 

There are several ways in which the EFL teacher can focus on both communicative skills and grammatical accuracy. The following are some examples of activities which are embedded in context and promote grammar awareness. In other words, grammar rules are not taught in isolation, nor communicative activities are performed without concern of structure correctness.

An example is the use of communicative drills in the classroom. In my own experience as a Foreign Language teacher at UNISON, I have found drilling practice to be a useful tool for students to acquire target grammar rules. Both young adults and older students in this setting enjoy these tasks because they become more confident about using the L2 after they have already spoken to their classmates. Moreover, whenever I have my students perform an activity in which repetition of a grammatical pattern is required, I have them do so in a communicative way. For example, instead of having students repeat a set of isolated sentences that follow a specific pattern, I first introduce a topic, and then I have them drill by asking a set of questions about this particular topic to a classmate. This way, students are practicing a grammatical structure, but they are also communicating and focusing on meaning.

Although mechanical drills do not promote communication or real language use in the classroom, Krashen (1981) suggests that meaningful or communicative drills could be very useful for students to become proficient in the use of a particular language structure while communicating in a real setting. This means that providing students with activities that require repetition is not a negative choice as long as students are aware that the purpose of the task is to convey accurate messages that have real meaning and not just to produce isolated grammatically correct utterances.

Some other examples of meaningful activities that I use with adult EFL learners are the following:

Activity 1: have you ever?

Students are given a set of questions in the Present Perfect. These are related to extraordinary activities that learners might or might not have done in their lives. For example: have you ever eaten raw fish? Students are given a few minutes to walk around the class and find classmates who answer affirmatively or negatively to these questions. The learners are encouraged to answer with complete sentences or at least short answers: Yes, I have… No, I haven’t. This task helps EFL students because they focus on forming the questions and Yes/No short answers correctly while communicating with their classmates.

         

Activity 2: guess who?

This game consists of giving each student a picture of someone famous. Students are not supposed to let anybody else see it. Then each person in the class will place the picture on the back of the student who is sitting in front of them. Next, students stand up and have to ask questions to their peers to find out who they are. Example: Am I tall? This game helps students practice asking and answering Yes/No questions in the present while engaging in real communication. While students participate in this activity, they have to be aware of both the grammar forms that they use and the meaning of these utterances.

 

Implementing Activities that Focus on Grammar Accuracy and Communication

 By using communicative activities and focusing on grammar accuracy, I have had positive results with my students. More specifically, I have tried this with my beginner, intermediate and advanced students, and in each of these groups I have seen progress. For example, with my beginner students, I have noticed that at first it is challenging for them to speak to a classmate and even to respond with short answers. However, after the first two or three weeks they seem to understand the procedures, and then they are not as reluctant to complete the communicative tasks. Some of them even start using English for classroom language such as: “Can you repeat please?” or “I don’t understand”.

Beginner English language learners at UNISON sometimes do not feel confident about talking in English because they feel that they do not speak correctly. When my students are working in pairs or in groups in speaking activities I use this opportunity to monitor their output by walking around the classroom and listening to them. I do this by writing a list of common mistakes that students make without them noticing that their mistakes are being analyzed. Then at the end of the activity, I can give students explicit instruction on how to use a specific pattern correctly. By doing this, I do not distract students’ attention from communication and meaning, and I also avoid embarrassing any student for making mistakes

Therefore, by providing them with corrective feedback embedded in context, I can make them aware of their own mistakes. However, I try not to give too much corrective feedback during one single lesson because it could prevent students from participating.

The intermediate students are usually more likely to produce short utterances or to respond by using complete sentences. I have noticed that they specifically enjoy speaking activities in which they have to talk about themselves. For example, while reviewing family members, professions and verb tenses, most students enjoy an activity which requires them to bring pictures of their family and describe each of their relatives. I have observed their reaction while they perform this task, and I have noticed that they seem to stop worrying about making mistakes. Nevertheless, they are aware that the activity requires grammar precision, and so they have to try to speak accurately.

With my advanced students, I have used activities in which they have to solve problems in groups. This gives them an opportunity to discuss different possible solutions. By doing so, students have to use a specific grammar rule such as the use of modal verbs, and by doing this repeatedly,  they practice communication for a real purpose. These students also enjoy tasks where they have to share their opinion about a controversial issue. This is a great way for them to express their opinion and also to defend their own ideas. For example, on Fridays I bring a topic about something that is happening around the world. Then I show my students two different perspectives about this topic, and I ask them to raise their hand if they agree or disagree with me. Those that agree form a team, and those that disagree form another team. Then the two teams participate in a debate.

Something that I noticed while teaching my last summer course is that having students work in pairs and correct each other’s mistakes is a very effective way for them to become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. When my students engage in a speaking activity, I ask them to politely correct any grammar mistakes that they hear from their partner. As they do this, I walk through the classroom, and I realize that it actually works because they feel more comfortable being corrected by a classmate than by the teacher.

As an EFL teacher, it is my duty to promote student communication in the classroom, so I encourage my students to express their ideas in English in spite of any errors that they may convey. Nevertheless, it is also important that they become aware of grammar rules, so I try to provide them with the necessary feedback in a way that is not threatening. Focusing on both and communicative competence and on grammar accuracy has helped my students improve their English language proficiency.

 

References

Combs, C. (2004) What Cognitive Processes are Triggered by Input Enhancement? Teachers’ College, Columbia University Working  Papers in TESOL and Applied Linguistics, Vol. 4. (Special Issue) p.1- 12 Retrieved from: http://journal.tc-library.org/index.php/tesol/article/viewArticle/68

Díaz-Rico, L. (2004) Teaching english learners. Strategies and methods. San Bernardino, CA. Pearson Education

Krashen, S. (1981) Second language acquisition and second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching language. From grammar to   grammaring. Ann Arbor: Thomson-Heinle

Rivers, W. (1983) Communicating naturally in a second language. Theory and practice in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

Shujen, S. (2000) Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: EFL College Learners’ Attitudes Toward Error Correction. Retrieved from: http://universityofarizona.worldcat.org.ezproxy1.library.arizona.edu/title/focus-on-form-in-the-foreign-language-classroom-efl-college-learners-attitudes-toward-error-correction/oclc/45616361&referer=brief_results

Stevick, E. (1982) Teaching and learning languages. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press