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Teaching Useable Language
by Steve Schackne

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A Brief Summary

Useable language is a specific chunk of language designed to carry out a particular function, perform a situational task, or solve a problem. It may include grammar, sentence patterns, vocabulary, and any other language or communicative elements to carry out the task or solve the problem. The learner must be motivated and have an immediate need to perform a specific task. A useable language lesson should be communicative, realistic, and be quickly internalized. To that end, it ought to include the following:

- focus on meaning or content
- a variety of language options
- minimal teacher intervention
- minimal materials control
- information gap
- roughly-tuned input
- relatively immediate real-life use for mapping
- contextualization
- portability

A Brief Scenario

A middle-aged Chinese executive comes to you in a semi-agitated state. He has to purchase a Chicago to New York round trip airline ticket from a travel agency in Chicago. The businessman's English is lower intermediate. He knows you could purchase the ticket for him, but he wants to do it himself because he will have to buy several such tickets over the coming months.

Terminology (up to 50 items): United, American, Northwest, US Air, departure, arrival, destination, connection, gate, terminal, window, aisle, upgrade, book, first class, business class, economy class, coach, check-in, leave, depart, Midway, O'hare, Laguardia, JFK, Newark, ________, _____________, _____________, ______________, _________ ,__________, _______________, ______________, _________________, ____________, _________, _____________, _____________, ________, ________, _____________, _____________, ____________, ________,

Sample Patterns:

I would like to fly to New York on….
I need to fly to New York on….
I would like to book a ticket to New York on….

I would like to purchase a ticket from Chicago to New York on….
(buy) (roundtrip ticket)

I need to leave on….
(come back)
I would like to leave on….
(would prefer to) to leave on..

There is a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date) at (time) arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).

I (we) have a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date) at (time)
Arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).

There is a (airline) flight (number) departing Chicago on (date) at (time)
(leaving) (O'hare)
in the morning, arriving at Laguardia on (date) at (time) in the morning.
(afternoon) (JFK) (afternoon)
(evening) (evening)

Return flight (leaves) New York on (date) at (time).
(leaving) (name of airport)

That's fine….
I would prefer….
I would rather….

Would you like to book a hotel

Do you need to arrange….

Is there anything else…?

Notice, most of the key language (in parentheses) is content, conveying meaning-these terms are nested in a variety of relatively commonplace grammatical patterns. The student will be paying attention to the semantic permutations, not the underlying grammar. The exact progression of the conversation can not be predicted, but with the key concepts we can construct realistic, communicative practice.

A logical activity would be a simulation or role play with the student trying to purchase a ticket. The role play should be repeated several times, first with minor non-semantic variations:

- I have a flight leaving….
- We have a flight leaving….
- There is a flight departing….

Later, the role play should be repeated with semantic variations:

- Yes, we have three flights leaving on Thursday afternoon
- No, we are all booked up on Thursday. Could you leave Friday?

Remember, these simulations are not strictly scripted. The information gap lies in the variation of possible responses which are limited by the situation-only so many airlines offer so many flights on any given day-and the responses they can trigger. The principle is the same across languages, functions, and situations--we could use the scenario of a hungry backpacker wanting to eat at a noodle stand in Xiamen, China. A successful completion of the task helps to map the language, thereby promoting repeated success for both the businessman and the backpacker.

Parting Statement

A useable language approach is not a magic bullet for language acquisition. To be sure, it can not always be successful. Many language specialists are, moreover, skeptical of its piecemeal, laser-beam focus. Whole language and integration of skills approaches still enjoy currency in many quarters. There are, however, several pluses useable language can tout. First, it's based on solid theory as elucidated by many of the most respected second language acquisition experts in the language teaching field. Second, it aims squarely at a positive communicative result, something that is often missing in traditional institutional programs. Finally, it addresses the current practical demands of busy individuals who need to communicate for a specific, practical purpose.


Allwright, R. "Language Learning Through Communication Practice" ELT Documents 76/3 1977b.

Harmer, J. "What is Communicative?" ELT Journal 36/3 1982.

Harmer, J. Krashen's Input Hypothesis and the Teaching of EFL" World Language English 3/1 1983.

Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching, New Edition, Longman 2000.

Krashen, S. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning Pergamon Press 1981.

Krashen, S. The Input Hypothesis Longman, 1984.

Krashen, S and Terrell, T. The Natural Approach Pergamon Press, 1982.

Prabhu, N.S. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford University Press, 1987

Schackne, S. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but not Always in the Classroom" Journal of Language and Linguistics 1/2 2002.


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.
He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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