The communicative approach to language learning stresses the need for meaningful communication, emphasizing that if students have a genuine reason or motivation to talk then they will learn to use the language more effectively. This article looks at how the notion of a gap between speakers can be used to provide a reason for communication. Finding ways to create gaps between students, gaps which need closing, creates speaking opportunities and prompts the creation of new activities.
What is a gap?
In this context, gap may be taken to mean difference. If there are two students, A and B, and if A has some information which B does not, and possibly vice-versa, then there is a difference or gap between the two students. A task which requires B to find out the information that A has (i.e. a task which closes the gap) will provide a reason for communication.
Types of gap
The information gap
This is the classic gap exploited by the communicative approach. Student A had some information, perhaps concerning the prices of food. Student B needs to know these prices, and so asks A questions to find the information.
The information gap is ideally suited to pair and small group work and usually relies upon pre-prepared information cards.
The experience gap
All students in classes have had different experiences in their lives - so this is immediately a gap. In some classes this gap is very marked. For example, a multi-lingual adult class in the UK provides great difference between the backgrounds of the students. A mono-lingual primary class will obviously show less difference. The experience gap is easily exploited in questionnaires - particularly those that aim to practice past forms
The opinion gap
Most people have differing opinions, feelings and reactions to situations, events and propositions. Finding out about someone's feelings and opinions is all about closing the gap between people. The increase in personalized activities that is evident in many textbooks is testament to the value of this gap.
The knowledge gap
Students know different things about the world. This gap can be exploited in brainstorms and general knowledge style quizzes.
Increasing student talking time
The description of the different gaps is by no means exhaustive, although I think they are the most powerful for the classroom. The intention here is to raise the profile of the gap, so that as teachers we can try to increase the amount of speaking which serves a purpose, to close a gap.
Teachers often ask 'how can I get my students talking in class?' and 'how can I increase the amount of time students spend talking?'. Creating, finding and exploiting gaps is one way to do this.
I am not necessarily talking here about the main speaking practice activity within a lesson. I am suggesting ways to raise the overall quantity of speaking throughout a lesson. This is best illustrated through examples.
When checking an exercise in class, the teacher can read out the correct answers, and then deal with any queries. However, this could be a wasted opportunity. If half the class are given one half of the answers (perhaps on a slip of paper, or perhaps from the board, while the others look away), and the other half of the class are given the remaining answers, then the students must talk to each other to check their work. This can be particularly effective when dealing with reading comprehension activities, as student A can ask the question to B, listen to the answer and then give the correct one. The teacher can still deal with queries afterwards. Even the simple act of asking students to check their answers in pairs before going through the exercise as a class exploits a gap, they don't know what the other has written.
Vocabulary based speaking activities
Following extensive vocabulary study, why not come up with a simple activity that allows students to use the vocabulary when speaking.
It is often possible to think of questions that either use the vocabulary items from the lesson, or whose answers would seem to demand them. To answer these questions students should draw on their opinions and experience.
For example, following work on 'word formation - affixation' can you think of questions that use some of the items studied?
What is the most romantic thing you have done?
When did you last take a photograph?
Which industries are important in your country?
These questions may be presented in a skeleton form, or with the base word provided e.g.
When did you last take a _________ (PHOTOGRAPHY)?
Students then interview each other.
Personalized introductions to topics
Exploiting the experience or opinion gap is a good way to lead in to a topic. For example, if the topic area is jobs, students can tell each other about the jobs the members of their family have. Or, students can rank jobs according to certain criteria (would like to do, usefulness to society) and then compare their decisions with other students.
Such exercises usually don't require any materials and need not last a long time. The intention is to create plenty of opportunities for meaningful communication and to develop a familiarity with speaking amongst the students.
By keeping the notion of a gap between students in mind, it is easy to come up with speaking activities that promote meaningful communication. These activities often require very little preparation but can increase the total amount of student talking time in any lesson. In my own teaching, I find the gap to be a prompt or spur to thinking up productive speaking practice.