The second issue of the BELTA Bulletin was published in early October last year. Once again James Taylor, Vicky Loras and the BELTA editorial team have done a stellar job. In it, as part of a regular column called "On the Radar", Rob Szabó and I responded to Gareth Humphrey's critique of the short article we wrote for the inaugural BELTA Bulletin. As the winter edition has now been published and distributed to BELTA members, I am free to share our October column with you.
Conversations about communicative competence and radar charts
Since the article was published in April 2014, we have received a great deal of feedback from psychologists, education managers, human resources professionals and experienced trainers. In this column, we will be responding to this feedback, selecting particularly relevant criticism for assessment and response.
This issue’s column takes the form of a Q&A session with Gareth Humphrey, the Director of Studies at Marcus Evans Linguarama Düsseldorf.
Gareth Humphrey: The five competences are familiar to anyone who has studied TESOL/Applied linguistics. To less experienced trainers, however, they are quite complex concepts. For most course participants on in-company courses, managers, and even training officers, they are (unfortunately) meaningless. The terminology used needs to be made more accessible for these important stakeholders in the training process. This does, however, raise the question of how this can be done without losing the meaning of the various terms used, which have been the subject of lengthy and rigorous academic debate.
Our response: This is an important point and a critical hurdle to overcome if we want this system to be adopted seriously. One of the problems facing applied linguistics as a field is that there is often little interface between ivory tower academics and the teaching coalface. Complex and alien terminology is sure to drive potential users away. In our initial article we were more concerned with the visual representation of a number of aspects of communicative competence than with the nuts and bolts of what was being represented. Our objective was the creation of a workable, testable and usable model. We are sure that rigorous academics will find a number of deficiencies in our first attempts.
Over the last few months, we have been tinkering with the terminology and definitions. One experimental application which has been received positively is asking HR professionals to rephrase and adapt our definitions to their own contexts and then use these modified models to evaluate themselves and their peers. This has been effective at raising awareness of the competences and factors that contribute to successful business communication while familiarising them with some potentially daunting terminology.
We feel that the degree of accuracy could be established on a case-by-case basis. Absolute precision might not be required for many purposes (e.g. grouping, awareness raising, encouraging learner autonomy). A base model would provide a standard which could then be adapted as needed.
2. Showing progress
Gareth: Despite my considerable reservations about the pedagogical and academic validity of numerical levels systems, we have to be able to show progress to training officers, who in turn have to show that they are getting return on investment in language training. That is the commercial reality of in-company training. It is therefore important that the radar diagrams are linked to the CEFR levels system, especially given that increasing numbers of companies are using this system to assess progress and to define employee targets and job descriptions.
It is also important that progress can be demonstrated clearly on the diagram. Course participants, managers and training officers need to be able to see quickly and easily how their employees have developed, and how the improvement of individual competences relates to overall progress in “discourse competence”. This concept also needs to be clearly defined.
Our response: Radar charts are simply visual representations of numerical measures. One that we think can contribute to a more nuanced and flexible demonstration of progress. Using five variables or competences as we did in the original article gives greater scope to show progress and justify training than a single figure or descriptor such as B1 or “intermediate”. For example, a learner who has made no significant improvement in her linguistic and formulaic ability might have developed strategically and socioculturally. Additionally, organisations and individuals could set goals for individual competences. A deeper, comprehensive concept of what the trainer will deliver and the expected outcomes could fundamentally shift the discussion about progress and foster greater partnership between language training providers and their clients. Ideally, this partnership would be one where both goals and metrics are negotiated and agreed between all stakeholders in advance. We agree that producing a base model that links to regional or international standards such as the CEFR is critical and are working on this currently.
We foresee radar charts being used in a variety of ways to show progress. The desired and current performance of an individual can be overlaid and the shortfall measured. Charts could even be animated to change over time to demonstrate ongoing progress. Algorithms could generate clusters of most-improved learners or communication skills within a department or company. A chart can be weighted toward certain competences (by reorienting the axes or rescaling the variables) depending on the needs and priorities of a company or learner, resulting in an individual representation of communicative competence and progress. Another aspect of the charts that we are investigating is whether the area of a learner's chart can be used as a rough score for her overall communicative competence.
Also, thanks for pointing out an important omission. The definition of discourse competence was indeed missing in the original article. Discourse competence is another dimension in Celce-Murcia’s model of communicative competence and is encapsulated well by Erica K. Schroeder: “Discourse competence is defined as the ability to understand and produce the range of spoken, written and visual texts that are characteristics of a language.” We should have been clearer on that point. There are a number of models of communicative competence and our system in the article is an adapted working model, put together for demonstrative purposes.
3. Teacher training
Gareth: I have reservations about the ability of trainers to evaluate some of the more “soft skill” elements covered by the competences, and certainly am not sure that we all have the skills required to train these. Formulaic and linguistic competence are, broadly speaking, those covered in CELTA and Delta courses. Strategic competence is something that I think many, but not all trainers are aware of. Interactional competence requires a level of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills that not every trainer has (and is incredibly difficult to develop, in both trainers and learners). Sociocultural competence also is hugely dependent upon a trainer’s own experience and knowledge. Even Delta or M.A. courses do not necessarily develop trainers’ abilities to teach such transferable skills, and very few published TEFL materials cover or even refer to these concepts.
Your suggestion therefore goes beyond presenting our current understanding of a student’s “level” in a new way. As you say yourselves, it changes the paradigm of what we are aiming to teach. This would have serious implications for both the content and format of trainer education and development - trainers would need to learn about the background of the various competences, how they can be developed in the classroom, and how they should be assessed in a transparent, standardised manner. This is a huge challenge for language schools and training institutions.”
Our response: We believe this shift is already happening. The modern business English trainer is required to improve a variety of skills in her everyday work. This is simply not uniform and standardised at the moment, but takes place in a hugely variable manner. Shifting the paradigm to a more holistic view of what communication entails provides exciting opportunities for all stakeholders. A clearer focus on business outcomes rather than purely linguistic ones should make the product that trainers and training organisations offer significantly more valuable than it currently is. Trainers will be forced to adapt; something which we see as a positive development in our field.
SLAEncyclopediaF10. 2010. “Discourse Competence (Michael Canale & Merrill Swain)”. [ONLINE] Available at: http://slaencyclopediaf10.wikispaces.com/Discourse+Competence+%28Michael+Canale+%26+Merrill+Swain%29. [Accessed 29 June 14].
Celce-Murcia, M. 2007. “Rethinking the role of communicative competence language teaching” in Hall, JK, 2012. Teaching and Researching Language and Culture. Pearson Education.