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Exploring Strategic Competence
by Sarn Rich
- 3

Teaching - Why?

We know that communication strategies are useful because native speakers use them so much to help interaction and communication to proceed more smoothly. The Radio 4 gameshow 'Just a Minute' in which contestants attempt to speak for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation (i.e. obvious fillers or avoidance strategies) demonstrates how difficult it is to manage without. The vast number of synonyms for 'thing' or 'stuff indicates how often we find ourselves lost for words. Having relatively fewer linguistic resources to hand, learners naturally have even more to gain from communication strategies than native speakers. And just as there are learners whose strategic competence is far greater than their grammatical competence (like the Uzbek woman mentioned earlier), so the reverse is sometimes true, and I have known many learners whose general communicative competence has been enhanced with attention paid to this area.

A second reason to teach communication strategies is their overlap with learning strategies. In their respective lists O'Malley et al. (1985:582-584, in Brown 1994:116-117) mention 'cooperation' and 'question for clarification' under the heading 'socioaffective strategies,' and Rebecca Oxford approximation, circumlocution, word coinage, switching to mother tongue, mime and gesture, getting help, avoidance and message adjustment under 'compensation strategies'. Each of these implies a willingness on the part of the learner to admit uncertainty and to take risks. Though communication strategies can be misused in the classroom (with overuse of dictionaries, for example) and could encourage fossilization if progress in other competences looks superfluous, on balance these concerns are outweighed by the potential benefits to the learning process.


There is considerable overlap between communication and conversational strategies, and all may be taught either indirectly 'as the product of engaging learners in conversational interaction' (Richards 1990:76 in Dornyei and Thurrell 1994:4 1), or directly, 'providing the learners with specific language input' (Dornyei and Thurrell 1994:4 1)

Given the preeminence of grammatical competence in most curricula and coursebooks it is unlikely that the indirect approach will provide learners with the material to develop communication strategies. For example few coursebook listenings feature fillers. Unless the learner is exposed to authentic L2 outside the classroom the teacher will have to use authentic recordings to provide any chance of fillers 'being acquired.

Dornyei and Thurrell suggest three elements to a direct approach:

'- adding specific language input

- Increasing the role of consciousness raising

- sequencing communicative tasks systematically' (ibid:47) Consciousness raising refers to fostering learners' awareness of how language works (Rutherford and Smith 1985, cited ibid:47), but in the case of communication strategies might also be applied to teachers' own examination of how we use language, particularly the sociocultural aspects to our use and teaching of fillers and non-linguistic devices.

In 1989 Tarone and Yule remarked 'There are few, if any, materials available at present which teach learners how to use communication strategies.' (1989:114-5 in Dornyei and Thurrell 1991:19). Matters have since improved.

In 'Conversation and Dialogues in Action' Dornyei and Thurrell (1992) introduce ten activities in section 2: 'Conversation Strategies.' Apart from one which practises what Labov (1972) called 'evaluation' (generally making one's narrative more interesting to the listener), these deal with fillers, various co-operative strategies,2 paraphrase, mime and avoidance strategies (going off the point or bringing conversation round to a particular topic). Each includes a useful 'Input box' of conversational phrases and a 'Teacher's diary' containing questions to guide reflection, including reference to sociocultural considerations.

The section is most satisf~ring when it includes the target language in genuine communicative activities. For example, fillers are used when trying to think of answers to difficult questions (though a weakness here is that until we reach the Teacher's diary at the end all the listed fillers are treated as if they were interchangeable - see above). (Other activities to practice the use of fillers are in Dornyei and Thurrell 1994:19-20 and in Nolasco and Arthur 1987:53-54). A couple of other activities (those dealing with paraphrase and asking for help when lacking vocabulary) are relatively disappointing in this respect as both involve learners acting out known dialogues, while pretending not to remember certain words for which they devise descriptions or approximations. Though these give useful practice and provide realistic contexts, since the words are already known to all parties involved, the descriptions and approximations the learners come up with do not serve any genuinely communicative purpose.

Paraphrase and approximation can be practised communicatively in the game called Taboo: players take turns to pick a card and elicit the word written upon it by describing, approximating and talking about associations (However, though this would provide a communicative point for these target strategies, it lacks an authentic context to exemplify when we might use them.).

Nolasco and Arthur (1987) suggest several feedback tasks suitable for drawing learners' attention to communication strategies.


Communication strategies are a vital part of a native speaker's repertoire. It seems only fair to pass them on to learners at all levels of interlanguage. As well as expanding their communicative competence learners are likely thereby to gain in confidence and to develop their learning strategies.

The development of strategic competence appears to be largely a matter of overcoming affective and sociocultural rather than cognitive or psycholinguistic difficulties. A significant factor in this is arguably the very primacy that has traditionally been granted grammatical competence in our understanding of language in the classroom.

As teachers, then, we must be resourceful and sensitive in relation to learners' attitudes to language learning and the proper place of strategic competence within it, and learners feelings about expressing uncertainty and the use of fillers and non-linguistic devices. There is scope in this area for research not only into native English speakers' use of communication strategies, but also into attitudes and assumptions which prevail in other cultures.


1. A longer discussion of why this should be so is unfortunately outside the scope of this essay. Conceivably one small factor in its perpetuation in the traditional classroom is the fact that communication strategies are generally not a feature of classical Greek and Latin.

2. Asking for repetition or clarification, checking that one's interlocutor understands and is listening, reformulating messages and asking for help when lacking vocabulary.

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