The Perils Of Junk Communication by Mark Wilson

What is meaningful?

Consider the following oral activity:

Why do birds have wings?                            So that they can fly.
Why do we eat with knives and forks?         So that we don’t get our fingers dirty.

Why do we brush our teeth?
Why do we have traffic lights?
Why do we cut our hair?
Why do we lock things?
Why do cars have brakes?               etc.

From the viewpoint of orthodox communicative methodology, the activity above would be criticised on the grounds that as everybody already knows the answers, there is no motivation to ask and answer – they are simply "display questions". It is more meaningful, it is argued, to use questions which are genuinely interesting or which prompt unpredictable responses, such asWhy do people build fences around their gardens?
orWhy do people ask celebrities for their autographs? or Why do governments have spies?
This argument is a sound one as far as it goes – the latter types of question are undoubtedly “more meaningful” to most people. Yet I have never been convinced by the implication that the “unmeaningful” type of practice is somehow worth less, or even worthless, and that we must prioritise genuine communication above all else. To my mind, genuine communication as a worthy and orientating goal does not rule out "non-genuine" stretches on the road towards it.
For all its eventual benefits, “more meaningful practice” usually entails two major practical classroom problems. Firstly, it usually requires a delay for students to mull the question over, and this adversely affects pace and hence attention levels. Secondly, learners often lack the vocabulary to respond as they really want to.
The advantage for the learner of “unmeaningful” practice is that there is very clear immediate right/wrong feedback, and that the restricted use of form, and the careful selection of questions so as elicit a limited range of possible responses, provide what we might call a good “assimilation zone”. Once the form has been more or less assimilated, then it becomes useful to pass on to more meaningful practice – but not before. If teachers try to force the pace, then we end up all too often with stumbling, hesitant, inadequate production which frustrates and embarrasses the learner. It is junk communication.
I should confess perhaps that this is not the result of my extensive study of the literature; it is simply what I have seen in classrooms over more than twenty years.
For me, the “unmeaningful / meaningful” dichotomy is spurious. It fails to acknowledge that denotational and referential meaning do not hold the monopoly on meaningfulness for the learner at the moment of first engaging with unfamiliar language forms. For the learner, the immediate meaningfulness of what they are engaged in may have less to do with its communicative usefulness than with its purely formal aspects. For the student of language (by which I mean “one who has chosen to study it”), the meaningfulness of a tricky new form lies in what it is, and not yet what it does. It has meaning as artefact, not yet as medium. It means something for me, the student, to get to grips with it uncommunicatively – then, when I’ve done that, I’ll start using it (the same applies, for example, for a guitarist learning new chords).
Granted, to provide only the “unmeaningful” type of practice would be insufficient. But to ignore it altogether and attempt to plough straight on through to real communicativeness is a recipe for something just as bad. Practice in which the “meaningful” aspect is afforded undue prominence yields awkward, error-strewn, unsatisfying student output. Junk communication.

There is an assumption that the following kind of classroom communication is to be looked down upon because it is not genuine:

(Prompt 1) When we got back our house had been burgled
(Expected Response) Oh! That must have been a shock / awful  or You must have felt terrible, etc.
(Prompt 2)But fortunately they hadn’t stolen anything really important
((Expected Response) Oh, that must have been a relief, etc.

...whereas this is genuine, and therefore in the communicative classroom, more “pedagogically correct”:

T: What did you do at the weekend?
S: Nothing special.
T: Didn’t you go anywhere?
S: I met with my friends.
T: And what did you do?
S: We went for a walk and (suddenly remembering a handy chunk) things like that.

In the first instance, there is of course an important sense in which the exchanges are not genuine. But in a classroom where students accept that they are there to study and learn a language, it does have an instrumental or ludic genuineness – “we are playing this little game so that we get used to using this little bit of language”. To deny that this type of genuineness exists seems to me almost perverse. It’s like saying that practising penalties is not a genuine act of football.

Norms and deviations - how wrong can you be?

In our globalised world, English is increasingly used as a lingua franca amongst non-native speakers, or amongst people from places with different local varieties of English, each with their own conventions of use and usage. The rise of the internet has meant a sudden and mighty surge in the rate at which English is evolving. Given this context, there is understandable and laudable reluctance, widespread in the ELT global community, to perpetrate or collude with any form of “linguistic imperialism” whereby language forms which are widely accepted in one part of the world, or within a given community of use (wherever they may be located geographically), are somehow regarded as “substandard”.
Yet this presents us with a problem. How elastic can a language be?

All teachers owe it to their students to provide them with a – not necessarily the – norm, from which it is the learners themselves who should be allowed to decide how far they shall deviate, and not teachers who decide in advance to accept all forms of deviation as valid so long as they serve their communicative purpose. Teachers should always provide information as to what, in the particular norm within which they are operating, is regarded as “norm-al”.
It is not a question of making value-judgements as to what is correct or incorrect, but of presenting facts as to which forms would most likely be used by the linguistic community that we are taking as a reference point. It is fact, not opinion.
If learners are producing language which contains accumulated instances of “deviant” forms then there will come a point – impossible to locate precisely, impossible to know in advance – where intended meaning becomes obscured or open to misinterpretation.
Take the following genuine spoken example, from an FCE student whose first language is Spanish:
I do the gymnastic since I have ten year.
How acceptable is this, and according to what criteria? Are we to judge it on the grounds of communicative effectiveness and (assuming that its place within the surrounding discourse makes its meaning clear) say “oh well, fair enough then”? Perhaps we wish to promote spoken fluency by taking some notion of “tolerable comprehensibility” as our field of acceptability, and only interrupting or correcting that which blatantly oversteps its boundaries.
The problem is, though, that if you get a group of non-native speakers of English, each of whose spoken proficiency in the language has only ever been honed to the requirements of “tolerable comprehensibility”, then the fuzzy edges of that field of acceptability will prove to be fertile ground for misunderstanding, and worse still, for unnoticed misunderstanding. When you get people thinking they are understanding each other when in fact they are not, the results might (if you’re lucky) simply be comic. On the other hand they might be pretty damned serious.
So please let’s not throw out attention to a norm as a reference point; let’s not equate a degree of “focus on accuracy” with some kind of retrograde uptightness, or worse still with cultural imperialism. Paradoxically, there is in fact a huge amount of cultural imperialism implicit in much ELT practice anyway – the imposition, upon learners not culturally predisposed towards it, of well-meaning liberal thought, involving the public expression of feelings and opinions - to an extent which is anathema to the very principles upon which such practices are supposedly based. Let me impose my liberalism upon you, you know it makes sense.


I am not trying to turn the clock back, but to turn it forward to a “post-communicative” era in which the pre-communicative, form-assimilating stages of a lesson, transparently focusing on adherence to a given norm, are once more given due value. This new age will not have dawned until major coursebooks are unafraid to incorporate once more the kind of teacher-prompted oral practice drills which once, admittedly, claimed too central a place, and yet which have become so unjustly and unjustifiably unfashionable. I believe most language learners need these every bit as much as the communicative activities which help to activate meaningfully what has been assimilated. Junk communication is certainly better than no communication - and in a target-language environment it may well be all students need as a launchpad - but for many language learners in their L1 environment, the scaffolding of controlled oral practice is immensely helpful.


Mark Wilson is a DOS and teacher trainer at International House, San Sebastián. He previously worked in the UK, Indonesia, India and the Dominican Republic.

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