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Foreign Language Teaching 101: The Competence-Based Approach


Foreign language teaching has changed throughout the years. In the previous era, teachers would enter the classroom and begin the transfer of information, while the role of the language students was also clearly defined; to listen, take notes, study, and eventually learn. However, through observation, studies, and experimentation, we discovered that language teaching is more complex in practice. It requires the educator attending the methods of presentation of the new information, while also providing the right circumstances for developing the competencies, skills, and abilities of the students. The following series will explore some of the methodology and aspects of language teaching while also looking at the different mediums used by educators and learners.

The Foreign Language Teaching 101 series is divided into six chapters:

The Competence-Based Approach

The Competence-Based Approach (CBA) evolved from Competency-Based Education, a popular trend in the United States in the 1970s. The Center for Applied Linguistics (1983) regards the CBA as the most significant development in adult language education theory to date. This approach demonstrates that the language learning process has begun to be viewed as a skill or performance-related activity, similar to other abilities humans can develop, such as dancing, calculating, drawing, and so on. With this approach, educators depart significantly from the notion that learning a language entails primarily memorizing grammar formulas and new word lists.

The CBA focuses on the outcomes of language education. And as such, it is adapted to the needs of the students and teaches them basic skills that could be applied in everyday life. As the name suggests, the CBA is oriented toward developing certain competencies in the target language. Those could be very different depending on the students' needs and objectives. Additionally, since different students learn at different paces and with different styles, i.e, audio, visual, kinesthetic, read/write, or multimodal learning, this approach can be easily adapted to individual requirements.

Image 1. ImgaAntenna, 2018. n.d.

One of the key features of the CBA is that it begins with a needs analysis of the students. Setting attainable goals is impossible without first knowing what needs to be accomplished. This means that before setting target competencies and/or enrolling students in appropriate language programs, curriculum developers, syllabus writers, and teachers must conduct needs assessments. However, the most important feature of CBA is its practical, real-world application. In CBA courses, emphasis is given to what students will be able to achieve at the end of the education period. In its practicality, this approach resembles the communicative approach because both approaches focus on teaching the functions of language. This empowers students to operate in specific and general settings and circumstances. As Richards and Rodgers (2014) point out, CBA assumes that language form, i.e. grammatical structure, can be inferred from language function. This is to say that certain types of language are used in certain situations. For example, when discussing our most recent summer vacation, we are likely to use the Past Simple Tense; and when making requests, we are likely to use an interrogative construction beginning with "could" or "may." Making these assumptions about language form assists CBA course developers in composing competence statements, grouping them, and organizing the teaching material into lessons and units.

The CBA theory holds that language is best learned as a set of skills. In addition, a skill is defined as an "integrated set of behaviors learned through practice" (Richards and Rodgers, 2014). As a result, it is assumed that language is learned through practice. A lot of practice develops the individual components of the skills and the more skills a student acquires the more proficient they become in the target language. Language practice happens as various opportunities are presented to the students to use the language and receive feedback or corrections from the teacher and from each other.

Image 2. Carstens-Peters, 2017. n.d.

Today, most educational and language test centers around the world have organized their language programs in alignment with the CBA. A syllabus for such a program would be focused not on what students need to learn at a certain stage of their education. Instead, it would be focused on what they can do with that knowledge. This determines not only the syllabus but also the used materials, the assessment, the classroom interactions, and teachers' feedback. An example of this could be a short course teaching "Telephone language skills". The following are the goals that students must achieve by the end of this program:

"Students should be able to:

  • Introduce themselves coherently and accurately on the phone

  • Dictate a phone number

  • State the reason for the call

  • Ask to speak with someone/Transfer a call

  • Arrange an appointment/Suggest times, dates, places

  • Ask for clarification/Clarify information

  • Leave/take a message for someone

  • Deal with difficulties on the phone

  • End the call politely”.

Through authentic resources for higher levels and graded materials for lower ones, such a program would simultaneously enhance oral, reading, and writing skills. Activities in the classroom could involve role-playing scenarios from ordinary life and gap-filling exercises using real-world examples. The wide range of educational activities, including reading, listening, pictures, and other activities, must be noted. Students with different learning styles should be accommodated. In the process of learning a functional language, students are also introduced to the forms needed to reproduce accurately these functions. For instance, "This is George speaking", and not "I am George", or "May I speak with Patricia, please?", and not "Do you have Patricia?". Additionally, students get exposed to the various appropriate registers – formal/business language or informal/friendly ("Please hold the line" vs. "Hang on") – used in different settings.

Image 3. Amano, 2017. n.d.

Students that study CBA become more independent as a result. They have control over their learning as they are aware of their goals and have the tools necessary to accomplish them. Along the way of the course, students can also evaluate their progress. A lot of instructional materials help students accomplish this by providing "can do" phrases at the start or end of the lessons or modules. Being in control means being able to take responsibility for your learning. Successful learners have been described by Rubin (1975) as individuals who are willing to experiment with the language and guess meanings from context; they are eager communicators, who want to get their message across and understand their counterpart; they are not afraid to appear foolish or playful, act childishly and approach every novel subject with curiosity. Learners also should self-monitor their speech and be aware of others, use every opportunity to practice, and adjust their mistakes according to the teacher's feedback and correction.

The work of educators begins before they enter the CBA classroom. They must develop needs assessment materials, interview prospective students, and choose the best set of competencies for students' needs and goals. Teachers must be able to modify, create, or assemble appropriate materials as the course unfolds because the CBA is adaptive to learners' styles and achievements. Furthermore, educators should be able to conduct assessments at the beginning, the end, and on an ongoing basis. Finally, teachers are regarded as mentors who guide students. They help students become acquainted with learning strategies by modeling the language for them and assisting them in the learning process.

Image 4. Cagle, 2018. n.d.

A typical CBA class is divided into several distinct sections. A warm-up exercise is frequently conducted at the beginning of class to reawaken students' memories and get them ready to think and speak in the target language. The topic is then briefly introduced by the teacher or the students themselves. The lesson's goals are introduced to the class during this phase. After that, the target language is demonstrated via text, a comic strip, an audio or video recording, etc. The teacher models the target language for the students while also clarifying any recently learned structures or meanings as the students observe them being used in the specific context. At this stage, the teacher may choose to make a reference to previously covered material. This helps learners create assumptions about the versatility of the language. Depending on the level and complexity of the lesson's topic, the teacher may continue the session with a less structured, communicative activity. Students then are encouraged to experiment and apply the new knowledge in pair or group work, while monitoring and helping each other. The final stage is self-evaluation where students judge their comprehension and ability to use the new material.

The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) is the most widespread example of the Competence-Based approach. CEFR has been accepted in more than 40 countries, some of which are very distant from the European Union, such as Mexico and China. It was introduced in 2001 and in the following 20 years, it has proven an advantageous and valuable tool in language education worldwide. Many language tests, like the TOEIC and IELTS, are aligned with the ‘can-do’ statements defined in the CEFR.

Nevertheless, there are significant drawbacks to using CBA in every type of organization and environment. There are some schools where pupils are not used to being in charge of their own education. As students' responsibility is pivotal to the success of this approach this can be problematic. But with some instruction and proof that the procedure works, pupils can learn to take charge of their learning. be avoided. Mixed ability classes, where students with a wide range of language skills are grouped, may also have drawbacks. Prior to creating classes, a thorough needs analysis and skills assessment could prevent this kind of issue. Similarly, a drawback presents extremely large or overcrowded classes where group work is difficult to organize and monitor. And last but not least on the list of flaws of this approach is the need for reflection time which could vary significantly from learner to learner. Depending on the student's abilities, they might complete the competencies at varying speeds. These results in varying success on their ongoing and final assessments, and for educators, it may constitute underachievement.

Image 5. Eliason, 2018. n.d.

Despite its critics, the CBA is here to stay. Moreover, it is spreading to other emerging subdivisions of language education, such as English for Healthcare. Skills assessments developed in the last years in Australia and the UK have successfully applied this approach to the needs of the workforce in this field.

Bibliographical References

Burtoff, M., Crandall, J. A., Moore, A.L. & Woodcock, S (the Language and Orientation Resource Center). (1983). "From the Classroom to the Workplace: Teaching ESL to Adults". Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Rubin, J. (1975). "What the 'good language learner' can teach us". TESOL Quarterly, 9 (1), 41- 51.

n. a. (2022). "Results & Assessment". Occupational English Test (OET) Website.

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Gery Ciftcioglu

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