Negotiation of Meaning: Is it Different in CI Instruction?

From our friends (really…they used to be a good interpreting client of mine when I lived in Taipei!) at the British Council, a definition and some examples of “negotiation of meaning”, a popular language teaching buzzword. Does it apply to CI-based instruction? (British Council information in italics below.)

Negotiation of meaning is a process that speakers go through to reach a clear understanding of each other.

So far so good. We certainly do go through a process to get to understand what we are saying to one another in the CI or TPRS classroom.

: Asking for clarification, rephrasing, and confirming what you think you have understood are all strategies for the negotiation of meaning.

All excellent examples of ways to negotiate meaning, and all things that go on constantly in a CI classroom. Rephrasing, maybe not so much, if vocabulary is being sheltered while structure isn’t, but then I’m thinking of the very low levels of instruction. At levels past, say, second year, I would expect that more use of the target language to define target language meanings would be possible, so that rephrasing would be a viable strategy.

In the classroom
: Information gap activities such as jigsaw readings or listenings, group story building, spot the difference and communicative crosswords are examples of activities that give learners the opportunity to develop their communicative competence through negotiation of meaning as they share information.

Uh-oh. “Information gap activities”. Whenever I see the word “activity” in the context of a foreign language classroom, I groan. “Activities” are artificial events staged by the teacher during which “output” happens (but usually not very well, and usually before it’s going to happen naturally). “Activities” involve not only scripting the language, but also artificially setting up groups of students to “interact” with each other (although why students would ever bother to ask many of the questions involved in the typical textbook-type information gap activity is beyond me). So we have Tommy and Tina, who don’t really know or particularly like each other, each dutifully reading questions off a page and writing down the answers (while the teacher is looking; when she’s not, Tommy and Tina are sensibly using their shared native language to write down the answers. There, we’re done.)

There are plenty of information gaps in TPRS teaching, but they’re genuine gaps, not constructed ones. Every time a teacher asks a story or fishes for a detail about a conversation going on in class, there’s an information gap. Since the students are actively involved in building the “text” (in the linguistic sense) during class, they want to know the answer. The answer is not likely to be a dry fact (like Tommy and Tina up there, asking about the capitals of Spanish-speaking countries and their altitudes, oh such good numbers practice and culture, too! 😉  ) but rather something that is intimately linked to them. It’s either about them or created by them, so they care.

Jigsaw readings and “listenings”? More pairwork. So as not to kill more electrons, I’ll just say that I’ve revealed my true feelings about most pairwork quite recently, so I won’t go into it here.

But now the real question comes out: how does negotiating meaning help students to improve their communicative competence?

We would assume that most students of a reasonable age function in the culture of their native language. For an American high school student, I think we can assume that the concept of asking for clarification is not entirely foreign. The only question in a FL class is “how do I say that in French?” And that once more harks back to the idea that you don’t learn how to say things in French by saying them; you learn by hearing and reading them (for beginners) and by recombining the elements you have acquired using the structure you have internalized (when that happens).

So it seems once more that, just as the question should be asked about what input leads to acquisition most efficiently, we should also be considering what sort of information gaps are beneficial to acquisition and which are not (though they may have other beneficial effects, involving confidence and so forth, just as output activities can.) There are lots of things that can be done. Which ones should, within our limited time?

What would that definition and list of suggested “activities” look like were the British Council subscribing to CI rather than Rules and Output teaching?

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