Communicative Activities?

I am working on input session materials for teachers, and the current module is speaking. One of the sessions discusses characteristics of communicative tasks. While reading on the topic, I re-read Scott Thornbury’s list of criteria (quoting it here as I will be referring to them later in the post)

Reference: C is for Communicative on Scott Thornbury’s blog (2010) 

In brackets (in blue) I was putting simplified definitions, or synonyms, that might work better for new(er) teachers.

Criteria for ‘communicativeness’

purposeful: Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake.
reciprocal (interactive): To achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak.
negotiated: speakers need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other.
synchronous (real time): the spoken exchange usually takes place in real time.
unpredictable: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable.
heterogeneous (free to use any language): participants can use any communicative means at their disposal, not being restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.
contingent (authentic, relevant): The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc.) in which they are uttered.
engaging (personalized): the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How can we use these criteria work? Why are they needed? I was inspired to explore this question in more depth after (re-) reading my PLN’s blog posts written by Kevin (reflecting on a series of warmers in one particular week of teaching) and Hana (analyzing a running dictation activity) in 2014.

Today I would like to ‘test drive’ an idea for a session where teachers analyze a specific activity using the eight criteria above and adapt/adjust it so that more of such criteria were met.

I am taking Information Gap activities for this experiment. I am doing it because in such activities, as we know, two (or more) speakers have different parts of information making up a whole. This, by definition, provokes communication (or interaction, as we will see below). I would like to see if Information Gap activities are ‘communicative by default’.

Another reason for using this type of activities is that (in my opinion, and based on my experience), such activities can be designed for practically any stage of a lesson. I am thinking ‘presentation-practice-use’ (PPU) or ‘language analysis and practice’ (TBLT) or Test-Teach-Test, or… (ok, you see the point) Also, I simply love thinking about them and writing about them (as this earlier post shows)

Following Kevin and Hana’s idea, I am selecting one activity to think about.


Students work in 4 groups (A, B, C and D), and each group receives one picture. Students are told that each group has one picture from a story, and that their task is to be ready to describe their part of the story (the picture, that is) with as much detail as possible. At this stage students can use dictionaries to look up words, and can be encouraged to take notes of those words for future ‘peer teaching’. They can also practice/rehearse their description to ensure clarity, fluency and confidence. [Note: tell students that each of them need to have the vocabulary notes, etc., as the groups are going to be ‘separated’ for the coming stage) Teacher can be helping at this stage by answering questions and providing language assistance, when needed.

Teacher takes away the pictures [Note: students might have already taken photos of the pictures on their smart phones by this stage, but they can still be reminded not to show them while they are doing the task in the next activity]

Students are working in new groups where there is a student from each of the earlier story-telling teams (A+B+C+D). They describe their pictures, listen to the other descriptions, take notes and ask questions, if needed. They may also ‘peer teach’ each other using the vocabulary notes they had taken in the previous groups. By the end of this stage, each group should have their version of a complete story. Teacher can be monitoring here and taking notes of language inaccuracies (or good language use) for later feedback. [Note: there isn’t any ‘correct’ order as such, unless readers point out otherwise, and so creative/humorous/unexpected solutions can be accepted, or even encouraged!]


Teacher shows all the four pictures on a slide/screen and students decide on the ‘correct’ order of the story.

[If time allows, students can still work with the second group and make comments ‘You didn’t tell me that ________’ or ‘You forgot to mention _________’ about some details in the pictures]

A follow up task can be drawing a missing picture, for example, or creating a different ‘ending’ to the story.

This stage can also be used for delayed language feedback based on the group activity just before. Students can reflect on the lesson and its level of engagement, challenge, learning outcome, etc.

Finally, and most likely as optional homework, students can complete the story in writing.

How ‘Communicative’ is this activity?

purposeful? Yes

There is communicative goal for students to find out the plot of the complete story.

reciprocal? (interactive?) Yes

Students may choose to interact with each other in the first group (to gain confidence) and need to talk to each other in the second group (to find out the others’ descriptions)

negotiated? Yes

Depending on the level of students, they would need to make themselves clear in describing the pictures and clarifying unknown vocabulary, if necessary

synchronous? (real time?): Yes and No?

Technically, speakers are communicating in the time of the lesson, but the activity asks them to take turns and re-tell/describe what’s in the picture.

unpredictable? Yes

This is especially true for the second round of group work where the members from the other groups will be trying to understand what’s in the picture

heterogeneous? (free to use any language?) Yes and No

Related to the above and being unpredictable due to the free choice of language to express themselves. The ‘no’ part comes from the assumption that students are still restricted by the language level they have, and/or the course syllabus or course book they are using.

contingent (authentic, relevant): Yes

It links to the need to be clear about the description and perhaps relating to the same characters mentioned by the previous speaker. Their descriptions will be related to the cultural background (fairy-tales) they heard and read as children, or read/tell their own kids.

engaging (personalized): Yes and No

Students may be (should be!) motivated and curious to find out what the others have in their pictures and what makes a story. The ‘no’ comes from being unsure how interesting this type of task can be for a learner, especially adults.

My thoughts …

  1. The list of criteria can be used to analyze an activity in the planning stage (before a lesson) but would turn into a more useful tool if used as a reflective tool (after the activity is applied in the classroom). Doing it in a planning stage involved some guessing, as you see above.
  1. As mentioned by Kevin and Hana (and Scott, I think) the list isn’t prescriptive but can be seen as a way to encourage teachers to think more about what “communicative” entails.

and questions (to myself and readers):

  1. Do you agree with my evaluation of the activity according to the criteria listed?
  2. How many criteria need to be met so that an activity could be called labelled ‘communicative’?
  3. The list mostly describes the final communicative task (aka Fluent Use stage activity) but could it possibly be applied to the earlier activities in a lesson (aka practice)?
  4. Are there any ELT activities ‘communicative by default’?

Acknowledgement: these pictures were created by a former participant on one of the courses I ran for her practice teaching lesson. Thank you Maria for your permission to use them!

Thank you for reading! 🙂

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
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3 Responses to Communicative Activities?

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Zhenya. Thanks for the mention and for reminding me of what I wrote ages ago. 🙂
    I know you only focus on speaking in your research and indeed, speaking is what I mostly associate with communicativeness. However, it recently occurred to me that doing an online personality test, for example, (which means merely reading a set of vaguely related statements and clicking the options) is actually more communicative than, say, a running dictation. Or, at least, it’s definitely more authentic and task-based simply because that’s what we would naturally do outside the classroom. A side note: I’ve never been quite sure to what extent task-based equals communicative but I think they do overlap, which makes things even more confusing for me.
    Anyway, I see why you have some doubts about the degree of engagement. But I’d say that adults may like the activity and find it useful just because they know why they are doing it. You can’t trick them anyway – they know why they are in the classroom and they are not likely to forget it. But once they feel they are learning something, it’s likely to be enjoyable. So I’d say that practicality may sometimes be more important than the degree of communicativeness.
    I also considered the ‘heterogeneousness’, and I’ve come to a similar conclusion Also, I agree that the list of criteria is useful if used as a reflective tool rather than a planning tool. However, as reflection is a cyclic process, the outcome automatically becomes (or should become) a springboard and a catalyst for the future lessons.


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Oh, I inadvertently hit the ‘Post Comment’ button in the middle of my comment but now that I’ve re-read it, I think it makes sense so let’s keep it this way. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Zhenya says:

        Hi Hana

        Thank you for the comment (yes, makes perfect sense, and is thought-provoking, as usual)

        I totally agree with the point of providing authentic task types (as in your examples with completing and discussing a personality test). I personally like to distinguish between role plays and simulations (the latter focusing on the roles students would possibly play in the real life). Re task-based and communicative: in simple words, choosing real-life relevant/authentic tasks for students to experience (=communicate) and learn from would would make it CLT. In the ideal world, the tasks would come from the students’ needs, not a course book, syllabus, etc. (all inspired by reading M.Long’s book very recently, and all is based on adult learners, if I remember correctly)

        I think this point links very well to the question about the criteria for a communicative activity, especially if we consider an ‘activity’ as that in the practice part, too (in TBLT it follows ‘analysis’ based on the emerging language from the task…) In other words: are the 8 criteria only about the tasks, or they are also about smaller activities we choose for warmers, practice, drills, post-text discussions, etc.? While typing this, I formulated a new question: if we take Bloom’s Taxonomy task types and apply them for the EFL classroom, would each task type meet the criteria for communicative-ness? I think I need more thinking time here 🙂 And research!

        Finally, completely agree with the idea that ‘practicality may sometimes be more important than the degree of communicativeness’. I guess here we are talking about interactive activities (as running dictation would be) but without real-life meaning to students?

        I obviously have more questions then answers, as usual!

        Liked by 1 person

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