Learning Paths




Luciano Mariani




Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy - Volume XX, Number 1, June 1994




1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to examine how strategic competence - the ability to solve communication problems despite an inadequate command of the linguistic and sociocultural code - can contribute to the development of an overall communicative competence. I will start by placing the concept of strategic competence within the more general framework of interlanguage development. Then I will describe two basic types of communication strategies (reduction and achievement strategies) and give examples of both, concentrating particularly on the use of achievement strategies at the discourse level. Next, I will discuss some problems in the development of strategic competence in the classroom, and finally I will describe a possible approach to strategy training through an examination of sample activities and materials.


2. Strategic competence in interlanguage development

Any person who is not a mother-tongue speaker or a true bilingual must necessarily rely on some incomplete and imperfect competence - this corresponds to the present stage in his or her interlanguage system (Fig. 1).


















Each of us, and each of our students, could be placed somewhere along a line between the two extremes of an ideal zero competence and an ideal native speaker competence. If we are still in the process of learning a language, we are moving along this line, we are gradually approaching a native speaker competence by successive approximations. Why do I say ideal competence? Because I think that in practice there is no absolute zero competence — you can at least rely on some form of non-verbal communication and, more importantly, there is no absolute native speaker competence — just think of how often, in L1 communication, we cannot find the words to say something and have to adjust our message, or to ask our interlocutor to help us, or to use synonyms or general words to make ourselves understood. I think that one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in language teaching is the fact that we rarely teach, or even allow, our students to use the kind of strategic devices (or communication strategies) that even nati speakers are often forced to use. We are still very much concerned with exact communication - something which perhaps does not even exist.


3. A typology of communication strategies

We said that strategic competence is the ability to cope with unexpected problems, when no ready-made solutions are available. What kind of problems can a speaker meet? Fig. 2 shows a diagram which is adapted from a well-known study by Faerch and Kasper (1983).


















Basically, we could say that in oral interaction we have some kind of communicative goal and we set out to make a plan and execute it. If we meet a problem, that is, if our command of the linguistic and sociocultural code is not adequate, we have two basic choices. On one hand, we can avoid the problem by adopting a reduction strategy: in other words, we keep our message within our communicative resources, we avoid the risk, we adjust our ends to our means — in this way we change our goal. On the other hand, we can decide to keep our goal but develop an alternative plan, we adopt an achievement strategy, we take the risk and expand our communicative resources, we adjust our means to our ends.

Fig. 3 shows some examples of reduction or avoidance strategies.






Reduction strategies can affect

• content:

- topic avoidance

- message abandonment

- meaning replacement

modality (e.g. politeness makers)

speech acts











Reduction strategies can affect the content of our communicative goal: we are all familiar with the essential strategy of avoiding a topic we do not feel confident to talk about. Sometimes, for instance, when I am abroad and have the choice between buying a ticket at a ticket office or from an automatic vending machine, I often choose the machine, I avoid taking the risk of not understanding figures, times or names of places. Also, I think we have all had the experience of abandoning our message, or rounding it off quickly, because we felt it was going to involve us in all sorts of problems with grammar or vocabulary. And the reason why a non-native speaker can sometimes sound vague is possibly the fact that he or she is replacing the original meaning, the original goal, with a simpler message. Suppose I wished to say that l’ve been made redundant, I get dole money, but that’s barely enough to carry on, let alone going on holiday. I may find this too difficult to explain and therefore may come up with somethg like I can’t go on holiday because I haven’t got enough money. I still manage to get some meaning across, but a lot of my original plan is lost and I may sound vague.

Reduction strategies can also affect modality (for example I may miss out markers of politeness and fail to observe the rules of social distance) or whole speech acts: for instance, if I cannot use pre-topics in opening a telephone conversation, I may do without such starters as Are you busy? orAm I ringing at a bad time? which are sometimes useful and necessary. Of course such failures are not always serious, but they may lead to false perceptions on the listener’s part.

Reduction or avoidance strategies are difficult to spot, and are an obvious and essential part of a learner’s instinctive repertoire. However, we want our students to widen their resources, to take risks, to actively expand their competence, so we shall probably be more interested in achievement or expansion strategies.

One useful first distinction I would like to make here is between strategies at the word or sentence level, and strategies at the discourse level. It is important to make this distinction because when considering achievement strategies, one almost automatically thinks of, for example, ways of expressing the meaning of a word when the exact term is not available. In fact, as we shall see, some of the most interesting things happen in the actual interaction that goes on between people.

Let us first look at some examples of strategies at the word and sentence level (Fig. 4).






Achievement strategies at word / sentence level


• borrowing (code switching)

• "foreignizing"

• literal translation

• interlanguage-based

- generalization

- paraphrase

- restructuring (self-repair)






Fig. 4





One of the simplest things one can do when faced with a problem in a foreign language is, of course, to borrow words from the L1: we know that monolingual classes, such as the ones that we teach in, often use this easy way out. Also, some of our students are very good at "foreignizing" Italian words, pronouncing a word as if it belonged to English, or even adjusting its form to take account of typical morphological features of English. And we could all quote examples of literal translation, when "case popolari" become "popular houses" and false friends lead to all sorts of unusual and often funny utterances.

However, achievement strategies become much more interesting when they are based on the learner’s actual interlanguage, that is, when learners try to use their present knowledge and skills and stretch them, so to say, to their limits. It is this active use of one’s limited resources that I think we should be particularly concerned with. The first area of strategies has to do with generalization and approximation: if you don’t know a word, you can fall back on general words, like thing or stuff; you can use superordinates, like flower instead of daffodil; you can use synonyms and antonyms, like not deep to mean shallow. Of course, generalizing implies a disregard for restrictions on word meaning and word usage, and can therefore be dangerous: this is a problem we shall soon get back to.

Another area of strategies involves the use of paraphrase. Paraphrase can consist of definitions and descriptions, examples and circumlocutions: as an example, consider the following transcript from a research I recently carried out. A non-native speaker (NNS) was trying to describe an object to a native speaker. Try to guess what object she was referring to. She said:

NNS: Well it ~ er uhm ... how would you say, it‘s a piece of furniture which is just near your bed, er where er a bedlamp is staying on it and where I can put my books for example, my jewellery and all my things …

She was obviously referring to a bedside table. Notice that in her description she started off with a definition, using a general word like piece and a superordinate like furniture: It’s a piece of furniture ..., but then she went on mentioning the position of the object: ... which is just near your bed ... She added a typical context: ... where a bedlamp is staying on it ... and the function of the object: ... where I can put my books, for example, my jewellery and all my things …

Let me give you another example from the same research. In this case, the same non-native speaker desperately tried to make herself understood when a native speaker asked her the meaning of a very problematic Italian term. Try to guess what she was referring to. She said:

NNS: Oh well, it's a bit difficult to explain, let me think, well it ...it used to be, I suppose, a sort of a religious holiday, and it is still now, but it ~ uhm it‘s a hol it's a very special holiday during the summer, itsjust er mid-August, let's say and, well normally Italian people well they have during during this day, it' a sort of a celebration of the summer, let's say before the summer goes away, ends up…

She was trying to explain what Italians mean by "ferragosto" a very difficult task indeed. Notice that achievement strategies, by their very nature, call for restructuring skills: we often need to reformulate what we have just said, we often need to adopt self-repair devices. This is what our non-native speaker did when she started off a sentence with ... well, normally, Italian people but then she was unable to continue and tried again with ... well, they have during during this day … She finally gave up and reformulated her description: ... it’s a sort of celebration of the summer, let’s say …

Let us now look at achievement strategies at the discourse level, that is, ways of coping with problems across sentences and across talking turns (Fig. 5).




Achievement strategies at the discourse level


e.g. problems in

• opening and closing a conversation

• keeping a conversation going

• expressing feelings and attitudes

• managing interaction (handling a topic or discussion)

• negotiating meanings and intentions









The problems that learners can meet at the discourse level are possibly endless, since they cover the general ability to manage the interaction. Moreover, as we know, managing interactions is a very complex affair which calls into play not just strategic and pragmatic skills, but sociolinguistic and sociocultural conventions as well. Fig. 5lists some examples of very general areas which I think are among the most problematic for our students.

Let us consider, for instance, negotiating meanings and intentions. Here we find a whole range of strategies which are sometimes called cooperative strategies because they involve not just the speaker on his or her own (as was the case with the strategies we examined in the previous paragraphs), but a joint effort between two or more people. In other words, the participants in an interaction share an attempt to agree on a meaning in situations where they cannot share the same level of knowledge and skill. This, of course, is an alternative interpretation of communication strategies, a sociolinguistic, rather than psycholinguistic, view.

The most straightforward examples of cooperative strategies are the various ways to get help from the speaker. This appeal for assistance can be direct, as when you say Sorry, what did you say? or Look, l’ve bought this ...oh, how do you call it?, or indirect, as when you say I can ‘t say that in English. These appeals for assistance are often the first step in a joint effort on both sides to come to a satisfactory agreement on a meaning, and can imply several talking turns. Consider the following example of a non-native speaker (NNS) trying to explain to a native speaker (NS) that her brother had just got ... well, try to guess what she was referring to. She said:

NNS: Well, my brother has just begun taking driving lessons, you know, and he‘s just got er... how would you call that... a sort of a document by which he ‘s allowed to drive with a person with the driving licence beside him.

NS: Yes.

NNS: Yes.

NS: Er.. he ‘s a learner driver.

NNS: I see. Would you call that document learner driver? Would you.. would you …

NS: No, you would call it a provisional licence.

NNS: Oh, that'sit.

The non-native speaker was obviously referring to what is called "il foglio rosa" in Italian. Notice that the non-native speaker first established the context: ... Well, my brother has just begun taking driving lessons, you know, ... but soon experienced a problem: ... and he‘s just got er ... She immediately and explicitly signalled that she needed help: ... how would you call that ... although she tried to provide a definition: ... a sort of a document by which he ‘s allowed to drive with a person with the driving licence beside him ... The native speaker came to her rescue by stating what she had understood that far: ... he‘s a learner driver... The non-native speaker wasn’t really convinced: I see. Would you call that document learner driver? ... and, again, asked for more help:would you ... would you ... The native speaker was now able to provide the exact term: ... No, you would call it a provisional licence.

Cooperative strategies include other forms of mutual assistance. For example, if someone says Look at the sign. It’s an urban clearway area. you can check that you have understood by saying Does that mean you can‘t park here? or I’m not quite with you. You mean you can‘t park here? In this way you prompt the other person to confirm what you have understood. Of course you can do this in a number of other ways, for example, if somebody saysDon ‘t forget to change at Clapham Junction. you can repeat the main information: Change at Clapham Junction, which will prompt the other person to say something like That’s right. or Precisely. You may also need to check that the other person has understood you: If you say I think this one is a through train. you can add something like Got it? or Are you with me? or Do you see what I mean? What is important to notice in all these examples is not so much the use of fixed phrases, but rather the interactive way in which people can try to solve their problems together.


4. Some issues in developing strategic competence in the classroom

Let us now turn our attention to the question of whether we, as teachers, can do something to develop strategic competence in the classroom, rather than just leaving it to take care of itself. (By "doing something" I mean devising specific materials and activities.) Strategic competence is rarely given explicit and systematic treatment in our coursebooks, and one may wonder whether it is really worth adding an extra dimension to an EFL syllabus. This is why I would like to offer some preliminary points for discussion, that is

- is it possible to make communication strategies part of an EFL syllabus?

- is it useful to train students in the use of strategies?

- is it desirable, on wider pedagogic grounds, to do so?


4.1. Is it possible to make communication strategies part of an EFL syllabus?

First of all, is it possible to identify and describe communication strategies in the same way as is often done with vocabulary, grammar or functions? Can strategies be singled out from stretches of discourse? We have already looked at several examples of strategies, but that does not yet prove that we can build a coherent strategy syllabus.

There is a further word of warning I wish to sound in this respect. Describing communication strategies, especially at the discourse level, cannot mean producing a set of rules for their correct or appropriate use. We know that giving — and especially applying - rules is tricky enough even for apparently straightforward areas such as morphology and syntax. For example, the distinction between he, she and it is superficially simple, but what would a beginner student think when hearing somebody saying Congratulations! It’s a girl, and it‘s just like its mother! or, at a service station, hearing someone say to the assistant Fillher up!, meaning Fillup the car tank with petrol of course. And what about subtle differences in the use of tenses, for example I'll come to the office tomorrow vs I'll be coming to the office tomorrow? The problem is, even with morphology and syntax we cannot separate language use from its actual context and purpose so we can expect even more problems at the level of discourse. If we wish to identify and describe communication strategies, therefore, we must give up the idea of being prescriptive and giving rules, and limit ourselves to a descriptive approach: in other words, we can try to discover possible patterns and regularities between and across sentences, but we must treat these as probable, frequent behaviour in a given context, not as fixed, abstract norms.


4.2. Is it useful to train students in the use of strategies?

By "training" in this case I mean focusing the students’ attention on specific strategies, making them aware of why they are important, how they work and when they may come in useful, and also asking the students to practise the strategies in guided activities. Is this useful, or should we just provide activities where students are left free to practise and experience strategy use as they think it appropriate?

In a way, this takes us back to the more general question of what role formal instruction and reflection on language play in the development of communicative competence. We know that so far we can’t rely on any conclusive evidence in this respect, that is, explicit training does not automatically guarantee high communicative competence. Qn the other hand, there is no conclusive evidence, either, that ignoring formal instruction and reflection on language is a more successful approach. What I think we can safely say, and this reminds me of my own experience as a language learner, is that if we become more aware of certain language features, we stand a better chance of noticing these features in the language input we are exposed to; in other words, we may become more receptive to them, and can therefore hope to acquire them in an implicit way, and to gradually make them part of our own active repertoire.

Incidentally, we can also add that analysis and reflection are key features of some learning styles, as much as intuition and practical communication are of others. By providing our students with opportunities for using a variety of learning styles, we will be doing something for both our convergent, analytical learners on one side and for our divergent, memory-oriented learners on the other.

Of course not all communication strategies may be worth bringing to the students’ attention. We have already made the point that achievement, not avoidance, strategies can favour hypothesis formation and therefore learning: in other words, if learners stretch their resources to their fullest potential in order to reach their goal, their interlanguage can profit from being put to the test of real performance. However, once again, not all achievement strategies can be singild out for analysis and practice in the same way. It is relatively easy to teach ways of asking for clarification or keeping a conversation going; it is not so easy to teach turn-taking or topic-change procedures; I think it is even more difficult to teach ways of restructuring one’s utterances or using paraphrase to describe a difficult concept. So I wouid like to suggest that not all areas of strategic competence lend themselves equally well to specific practice in guided activities, and some are therefore perhaps best left to the studentsown initiative, as they happen to need them in free interaction tasks.


4.3. Is it desirable, on wider pedagogic grounds, to train students in strategy use?

We know that each of us, and each of our students, has his or her own individual interaction patterns and preferred verbal behaviour. Just look at how different students handle a simple information gap exercise, for example, where they have to describe a picture to their partner. Some pairs will take turns in speaking more or less on an equal basis; in other pairs, one student may lead the interaction, for example by asking most of the questions. Some students may choose to concentrate on a general description first, and to leave details till later; others may want to get a precise description of each detail right from the start. (This, of course, is just another example of individual differences: people have different learning styles, which in turn imply the use of different communication strategies.) If this is how people behave in actual interactions, we can hardly force them into a straightjacket of pre-selected strategies. Besides, the choice of a strategy is often unconscious and unintentional, and depds very much on the nature of the task, the nature of the problem, and the level of language proficiency.

This clearly points to a wider pedagogic issue. Most of us would agree that we should encourage spontaneity, creativity and originality in language use. The problem is, are these important aims achieved only through simple exposure to the language? In other words, should we leave everything to chance? And is the alternative to this only a strict control over language, an approach in which we pre-determine and pre-select the ways in which language should be used by our students? Especially when we are working at the discourse level, we know this would reduce interaction to the application of mechanical rules ... it would mean killing interaction itself.

There is a further danger in all this. For example, if we insist on the use of general words to make up for more specific terms, we may soon find that at least some of our students will tend to choose "the easy way out": if they know both daffodil and flower, but choose to use flower, they will stop developing their linguistic competence. We would then be encouraging fossilization, which would mean blocking the possibility of further learning and development of the interlanguage system.

Is a third way possible? Can we save the spontaneity of interaction while at the same time helping our students, especially those who most need it, to acquire a wider range of interaction patterns? Can we do this without running the risk of "over-teaching" strategies? I think that at the very least we would not really wish to directly "teach" how to cope with communication problems - we would rather want to lead our students to discover, discuss and develop their own strategies for doing so.


5. Towards an approach to strategy training

We can now try to think of what a possible approach to strategy training might look like (Fig. 6).







Fig 6




We might envisage a cyclical approach which would basically alternate experience and observation. Students could start from a receptive stage: they could be exposed to actual examples of language use in which communication strategies play a clear and significant role. Then they could be led to become aware of the use of strategies through a stage of exploration and discussion. This would be followed by a stage of practice and performance, where students could try out the strategies for themselves. And finally, they could discuss their own performance, evaluate their strategic use, and possibly compare it with a native speaker’s. This would set the whole cycle in motion again. (A similar approach is suggested in the new Council of Europe Threshold Level: see van Ek and Trim 1990.)

Let us consider some practical examples (taken from Mariani 1993). Suppose we wished to focus on ways of keeping a conversation going. We could ask our students to listen to or watch two conversations, say between a woman and a man, and discuss in which conversation the woman sounds more interested and willing to talk (Fig. 7).









A. Listen to two conversations. In which conversation does the woman sound more interested and willing to talk?

B. Compare the tapescripts of the two conversations on page 000. Note the ways in which the woman shows that she is interested in the conversation.


Conversation 1

MAN: Well, what would you like?

WOMAN: Er ... a glass of sherry for me, thanks.

MAN: Right. I'll have a beer. Just wait here.


MAN: Here you are. Cheers!

WOMAN: Cheers!

MAN: Well, how did the party go?

WOMAN: Oh, very well.

MAN: Did Jane turn up in the end?

WOMAN: Oh, yes. she did.

MAN: She’s better now, isn’t she?

WOMAN: Mm ... much better.

MAN: I'm sorry I couldn’t make it but …

WOMAN: Oh, that’s all right.

MAN: I had a problem with my boss …

WOMAN: I see.

MAN: She wouldn't let me go before seven o’clock.


MAN: And when I left the office it was really too late ... I mean, I thought by the time I get to Susan’s …

WOMAN: Yes, I see.

MAN: ... but anyway, I'm pleased to hear that everything went well. You know, you can never say ... (fade out)


Conversation 2

MAN: ... and we’ve got another problem too. You know we wanted so fly io France next August …

WOMAN: Yes ... you meant to leave the car at home for once.

MAN: Exactly. Well, I called at British Airways yesterday.

WOMAN: Did you?

MAN: Yes ... and they told me all the flights are fully booked. You can imagine how I felt.

WOMAN: Gosh, yes!

MAN: And apparently it’ll be difficult to book the ferry too.

WOMAN: I bet it will. It’s bound to belike that in August.

MAN: Yes ... the problem is, we’ve booked this hotel in Paris, and we’ve just got to be there by the twelfth.

WOMAN: Oh, what a nuisance! Have you phoned the ferry company yet?

MAN: No, not yet.

WOMAN: Mm, you’d better hurry up.

MAN: Yes ... the children would be very disappointed if we couldn’t go. You know, I wanted to take them to Eurodisney.

WOMAN: Oh, really?

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: I’ve heard it's very expensive.

MAN: Yes, I know.

WOMAN: How much will you have so pay to get in? Have you got any idea?

MAN: I reckon it’ll be around £25. A bit less for the children, I hope.

WOMAN: Mm, that’s a lot. Oh well, I suppose it's worth seeing once in a lifetime.












We would of course want to ask our students why they think that the woman sounds more interested in one of the conversations, what evidence is there, and we may elicit simple intuitive things like the actual amount of talking that she does, the fact that her talking turns are as long as the man’s, if not occasionally longer, and her lively tone of voice. However, we need to elicit more specific strategies for keeping a conversation going, so, depending on the level of our class, we may also want to give them the tapescript and ask them to note the more specific ways in which the woman shows that she is willing to talk. Group work, followed by a short plenary discussion, would be ideal here. Together with our students, we would then discover some very interesting things. For example, we would discover that you can keep a conversation going

- by rephrasing and re-elaborating your interlocutor’s statements;

- by making sympathetic comments to increase empathy;

- by asking questions, both "full" and "short" (like Did you? Won’t she?);

- by using exclamations to show emotional involvement;

- by introducing new topics, or new aspects of the same topic, to encourage your interlocutor to go on talking;

- by using a rising (or falling/rising) intonation to express politeness and interest.

If we used a video, we could of course also discuss mime and gestures, facial expressions, physical distance, use of the context, and the like.

So this is clearly a stage of observation and exploration. The students’ main task is to discuss and evaluate the use of strategies as these appear to work in the recorded materials. In other words, students are led to discover the "rules", so to say, of discourse, by inferring them from actual contexts of use. We will also find that a comparison with the L1 is useful here, especially in terms of exploring which behaviours are typical of different cultures and age groups: for example, how long can you keep a conversation going by simply being silent? How much empathy do you need to show in order to signal that you are willing to talk? How often, and how well do we actually use such strategies in our L1? Is the frequency of strategy use different in English? We might also want to find out if adolescents differ from adults in this respect, and if so, why, and how. These are all interesting questions, which in themselves would provide ample scope for cross-cultural research and interdisciplinary work.

This exploratory stage would thus help to raise unconscious, automatic ways of behaving to consciousness. The next stage would involve practising the strategies in guided tasks and then integrating them in freer production activities. As an example of guided strategy training, consider Fig. 8.








A. Match each question on the left with an appropriate response on the right.




1. Do you like living in Paris?

2. Are you going to Kate’s party tonight?

3. Where shall we go this year?

4. How did you like the film?

5. Would you like to watch the match?

6. Are you still in touch with Julie?

7. Did you spend your holidays in France as usual?

8. Do you play any sports?




A. No, I'm afraid I haven't seen her for months. You know, things have changed since last summer.

B. Well, the city's certainlyvery beautiful, but there are problems too.

C. I often go jogging. What about you?

D. I don't think so. Are you?

E. It depends. Who’s playing?

F. No, we didn’t, after all we went through the last time we went to Norrnandy.

G. I liked it very much. Didn’t you?

H. Mm, I don't know ... maybe Scotland?




B. B’s responses help to keep the conversation going. Can you say how?

C. What do you think A said after B’s response in each case?

D. Listen to the tape and note how the speakers developed the same conversations.








Fig. 8




This is an exercise in which you have a list of questions on the left and a list of responses, in scrambled order, on the right. Students have to match each question with an appropriate response, for example, A says Do you like living in Paris? and B answers Well, the city’s certainly very beautiful, but there are problems too. Then students have to say how they think B's responses help to keep the conversation going. In the Paris case, for instance, B makes a remark (but there are problems too) that is meant to arouse A’s curiosity and so to prompt A to ask a further, more specific question. We can actually ask students to guess what A might say after B's response. For instance, A could say Really? What kind of problems?, which in turn would stimulate B to provide a more detailed explanation of the problems. Students could finally listen to a possible version of the conversations on tape.

Another example of a guided training activity is shown in Fig. 9.








A girl is telling her boyfriendabout her last holiday. Fill in his side of the conversation. Then compare your version with the one recorded on the tape.

GIRL: ... and in the end we decided to hire a car.

BOY: …..

GIRL: No, not very expensive ... actually, it’s quite cheap if there arethree orfour of you to share the cost.

BOY: …..

GIRL: So the first day we drove to the beach. Never again!

BOY: …..

GIRL: It was dirty ... and crowded. There were masses of people. We couldn't fìnd a place to sit down!

BOY: …..

GIRL: Yes, and it spoils all the fun. Anyway, we were lucky enough to find a smaller beach the next day. Still rather crowded, but at least you could lie down.

BOY: …..

GIRL: Well, I tried a couple of times ... but the sailboard was so difficult to control — I think I need more training. You know, Paul's very good at it.

BOY: …..

GJRL: Yes, he told me his brother taught him when they were in Spain last year.








Fig. 9




In this "open dialogue" students have to fill in one side of the conversation, the one where one of the participants is clearly encouraging the other to go on talking. Students could fill in the open dialogue individually or in pairs, and could then compare their version with their partners and finally with a recorded version.

In the next stage, students can be asked to try out their strategies by involving themselves in freer interaction tasks. As a simple introductory activity, consider Fig. 10.








Work in pairs. Student A asks one of the following questions. Student B answers it, at the same time prompting A to go on talking. Then change roles.

1. Do you like reading?

2. Are you thirsty?

3. Did you come back by bus?

4. Could you buy me a magazine?

5. Can you ski?








Fig. 10




Students can be asked to work in pairs, with student A asking a question, or making an introductory remark, and student B responding and at the same time prompting A to go on talking. We could set a time limit, saying "right, try to carry on your conversation for at least one minute".

Then, of course, we have all sorts of games, role-plays and simulations to encourage students to use their strategies in the context of interactive situations. However, they would have to be problem-oriented tasks, open-ended both in terms of language and strategies, and in terms of the actual outcome of the activity. In other words, students should be left free not only to choose their communicative goals, but also to change them, if necessary, during the activity itself. One such roleplay, or scenario, as Robert J. Di Pietro (1987) would call it, is shown in Fig. 11.








  • Work in groups of four. Two of you will rehearse Role A and two Role B.

 One person in each pair will roleplay the conversation. The other person in each pair will listen and be ready to help his/her partner.

 The conversation should end in a definite way (e.g. a decision to stop talking, an invitation to have a drink together, an exchange of telephone numbers, etc.)





 You get into a train compartment and see a person you happened to meet a long time ago. You remember he/she was a nice person and want to talk to him/her. Be[ore you start talking, decide the circumstances in which you met the person — try to be as precise as possible and he ready io help him/ her recall you. According to his/her reactions. you will have to decide whether to continue or end the conversation.


 You are travelling on a train and are very busy studying for a difficult exam. A person gets into your compartment and starts talking to you. As you listen to him/her, you will have to decide whether or not to engage in the conversation. Think of ways to come out of the conversation in case you should decide to do so.








Fig. 11




This is a fairly common role-play exercise, but the important point in this case is that it comes after a series of specific training activities in the use of strategies, so that students should come to it better equipped with ways of coping with problems.

 The product of our students’ activities could then be used for valuable feedback and "debriefing". For example, if we record or video record students’ performance, we can then use the recording to discuss and evaluate their own use of communication strategies. Or we could ask students to fill in a questionnaire to evaluate how strategic competence has helped them to carry out a certain task. Notice that communication strategies are explicit, open behaviours, and so they offer a valuable key to our students’ hidden cognitive behaviours. This will obviously be very useful for us as teachers, but will also give our students the feeling that they can in some way increase their control over language use, the feeling that they can play an active role, that they can make choices and be a bit more responsible for what they say and how they say it.


 6. Conclusion

 I will finish by summarising the basic advantages implied in this approach to strategic competence.

 First, communication strategies are also, in my view, indirect learning strategies: they help learners to remain in conversation, and so provide them with more input, more opportunities for checking and validating their hypotheses, and therefore more chances to develop their interlanguage systems. Besides, communication strategies may lead to more successful performance, and, as we know, the content of successful performance gets stored more easily in memory, and thus has a positive impact on learning.

 Second, by allowing learners to remain in conversation, communication strategies help them, on the productive side, to get some useful feedback on their own performance, and on the receptive side, to exercise some kind of control over their intake, for example, by enabling them to prompt their interlocutor to modify his or her utterances. In other words, strategic competence promotes learners’ self-monitoring function or executive control.

 Third, communication strategies train learners in the flexibility they need to cope with the unexpected and the unpredictable. At the same time, they help students get used to non-exact communication, which is perhaps the real nature of all communication. In this way, they help to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside reality, between formal and informal learning.

 Finally, communication strategies encourage risk-taking and individual initiative and this is certainly a step towards linguistic and cognitive autonomy.

 Let me finally quote Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, who fully appreciated the value of intercultural strategic communication. She once wrote (quoted in Saiz 1990):

 We don’t need to teach foreign people to speak like natives. We need to make natives believe foreigners can speak like them. In this way foreigners can talk to natives, and then they learn.



 Bialystok, E. Communication Strategies. A Psychological Analysis of Second-Language Use. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

 Bygate, M. Speaking. Oxford: University Press, 1987.

 Di Pietro, Robert J. Strategic Interaction. Cambridge: University Press, 1987.

 van Ek, J.A., Trim, J.L.M. Threshold Level 1990. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1990.

 Faerch, F., Kasper, G. "Plans and Strategies in Foreign Language Communication" in Faerch, F., Kasper, G. Strategies in Interlanguage Communication. Harlow: Longman 1983, pp. 20-60.

 Keiler, E., Warner, Sylvia T. Conversation Gambits. Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1988.

 Levine, Deena R., Baxter, J., McNulty, P. The Culture Puzzle. Englewood Ciiffs: Prentice Hall Regents, 1987.

 Mariani, L. Choices Intermediate. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1993.

 Saiz, M. "Communication Strategies" . English Teaching Forum, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, October 1990, pp. 23-25.

 Tarone, E., Yule, G. Focus on the Language Learner. Oxford: University Press, 1989.





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