Sunday, 5 January 2014

Radar charts and communicative competence

Update: After a short delay, the BELTA Bulletin was published on 29 April 2014 and it looks absolutely fantastic. Vicky Loras and the rest of the team can be very proud. I have a lengthy train journey from Düsseldorf to the Hague tomorrow morning and am looking forward to reading it from cover to cover.

At the end of November last year, I co-wrote a short article for the inargural BELTA Bulletin, published this month, on using radar charts to represent learners' communicative competence. The article was put together quickly, but I think the underlying idea is clear. You can find out more about joining BELTA here.

Radar Charts and communicative competence

by Rob Szabó and Pete Rutherford

The notion of communicative competence was first popularised by Dell Hymes in the 1960s. The central idea was that the real-world use of a language involves far more than just structural accuracy. Hymes proposed four initial dimensions of communicative competence, which have since been amended by various linguists. Celce-Murcia (2007) produced a model including six dimensions.

Sociocultural competence - awareness of the cultural restrictions on language use
Strategic competence - the ability to compensate for breakdowns in communication and to enhance language learning
Linguistic competence - knowledge of grammar, the sound system, morphology and syntax
Formulaic competence - knowledge of collocation, idioms and lexical frames
Interactional competence - paralinguistic knowledge - pausing, silence, eye-contact, proxemics

The model was laid out in a geometric design with discourse competence as a central concept, with the other competences radiating outwards.

The current situation with student language levels for use by human resource departments, pedagogical directors and trainers is that they generally only represent performance on structural tests and a brief interview. Depending on the language school, the student will be recorded as having a certain level on a linear scale (e.g. a numerical system, or the Common European Framework of Reference.)

One practical issue with representing students’ language levels in this fashion can be demonstrated with the following example of two students, both judged to be at a B2 on the Common European Framework, but who differ enormously in terms of the balance of their skills.

Student 1

Performs particularly well on structural tests, having paid attention in German secondary school English lessons, and driven by a low tolerance for error and a high standard of rigour. However, this student struggles to communicate with English-speaking people. He battles to follow smalltalk and socialising situations and has a poor record of achievement in intercultural situations at work. His boss has decided to keep him in a back-office position - a decision that may affect his future within the company.

Student 2

Performs at a mediocre level on structural tests, having learned English mostly on holiday and from computer games. His output is fluent, but full of errors and tends to be informal and eccentrically idiomatic. He is often asked by colleagues to handle telephone conversations with foreign people, but his boss is wary of giving him more official responsibility.

How should these students be evaluated? And how can we transfer this information simply and quickly to the HR department, the pedagogical supervisor and the trainer? The answer might lie in visual representations of data.

An advantage of using a radar chart to represent a student’s communicative competence, instead of the traditional linear method, would be that it allows personnel managers, pedagogical directors and trainers to evaluate both a student’s communicative ability and to compare students’ communicative strengths and weaknesses quickly and easily. It would help shift the focus from structural accuracy to a more holistic view of communication and language training, which could affect fundamental aspects of a training programme (testing, class constitution, content delivery etc.) and would ideally result in more targeted and effective training.


Celce-MurciaM. 2007. “Rethinking the role of communicative competence language teaching” in Hall, JK, 2012. Teaching and Researching Language and Culture. Pearson Education. 


Evan Frendo said...

Excellent post Pete - thank you


Maria Pia Nardecchia said...

Thank you for the article, very interesting. I am going to study and apply the radar chart ( the word "radar" sounds familiar to me because I teach English at a Nautical high school in Italy ). If you do not mind, would you , please suggest examples of written assessment?
Thank you in advance.
Maria Pia