The Effectiveness of Communicative Language Teaching

ABCi: Theoretical framework and theory of change

Jason Anderson, 2017

The Bilingual Classroom Initiative (ABCi), set up by the English Teacher Training College in 2011, was developed to support English language learning in schools across Austria as a non-profit initiative. While there are a number of partnership types involved in the ABCi, the most common ones typically involve the provision of 
Project Weeks (referred to as ‘Projects’ below) to Austrian primary and secondary schools linked to NMS curriculum requirements. The description of the theoretical background underpinning the ABCi that follows focuses on observations of such Projects made during a consultancy visit to see the ABCi in action as a visiting teacher educator in 2016.

The approach to education implicit in the ABCi can be seen to be broadly compatible with:

  1. notions of best practice in primary and secondary education worldwide;
  2. research on effective methodology and learner motivation in language learning, and;
  3. Austrian Ministry of Education (MoE) curriculum requirements.

Furthermore, through analysis of this theoretical framework, an implicit Theory of Change can be extracted from the principles and practices of the ABCi. I expand on each of these 4 themes below.

  • ABCi and Best Practice in Primary and Secondary Education

“Students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference to their learning.  And teachers who command this credibility are most likely to make the difference.”

(Hattie 2012)

In the largest ever collection of evidence-based research into what works to improve learning in school environments, Hattie (2009) drew together research from over 800 meta-analyses on millions of learners in mainstream education. His research indicated strongly that teachers make the most significant impact upon educational outcomes when compared to other influences (e.g. school, family, students, etc.). Hattie noted that good teachers are passionate about helping the students to learn, they forge strong relationships with their students, and critically, they are viewed by the students as being credible. All of these key criteria of good teachers are very much in evidence within the ABCi programme. Having witnessed first-hand the passion that ABCi teachers show for their work and the sadness of their learners who were seen to shed a tear when they had to say goodbye to them, it was evident not only that strong relationships had been forged, but also that the students viewed their teachers with great credibility, perhaps due both to the relevance of ABCi activities to the learners’ needs and interests, and to the role of the teachers themselves as intercultural ambassadors for Anglophone countries.

Correspondence between the ABCi approach and notions of best practice in mainstream education  extends beyond relationships between teachers and learners to aspects of methodology and teaching strategies. Evidence supporting the effectiveness of project-based learning (e.g. Kokotsaki et al. 2016) was likely a factor influencing the inclusion of project-based learning within the Austrian NMS curriculum. The ABCi builds on this through projects that not only meet national curriculum requirements, but also involve a range of aspects of best practice in mainstream education, including cooperative learning, problem-solving teaching, creativity programs, the inclusion of play, peer tutoring, and the use of advanced organisers to make learning explicit to learners, all of which rank highly in Hattie’s (2009, 2012) review, and are evident in the activities, layout and teachers’ notes of the ABCi Project Trainer Handbooks and their use in the classroom. Examples of this observed include a cooperative group activity in which an information gap was created between pairs of learners who had to work together to solve a language-based problem, and teachers encouraging peer tutoring during the final preparation of drama productions – learners worked in groups of 3 to provide feedback on how they had performed their roles and suggestions for improvement. Play activities typically involve both cooperative (within teams) and competitive (between teams) interactions, where learners are able to discuss how they would play the game effectively, all with an English language learning/using focus. 

  • ABCi and research on effective methodology and learner motivation in language learning

The approach to English language learning used in the ABCi Projects draws on a range of approaches and methodologies broadly considered to constitute best practice in contemporary language learning and teaching, especially for primary and secondary learners. This includes Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), Task-based Learning (TBL) and Total Physical Response (TPR) within a communicative language teaching (CLT) framework. Since the 1990s, a number of authorities in language teaching (e.g. Widdowson 1990, Kumaravadivelu 1994, Ur 2011) have argued for what Widdowson has called ‘principled eclecticism’ (p.50) and Kumaravadivelu a ‘postmethod condition’ that ‘enables practitioners to generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative practices’ (1994: 29), primarily in an attempt to avoid the methodological vicissitudes of prior decades. By combining aspects of several established and respected approaches, the ABCi fits well within this broader notion of principled eclecticism, adaptive to the contextual needs of the learners, the schools, the Austrian national curriculum and the practices of learners’ main class teachers who typically use coursebooks based on a communicative approach (e.g. Puchta and Stranks, 2010), thereby complementing the learning they have already experienced.

CLIL lessons form a key feature of the ABCi approach. In periods 3 and 4 on each day of Projects, learners are taught subject specific lessons (e.g. history, environmental science, etc.) through English, yet with support that enables them to focus on both the English and the content of the lesson (e.g. vocabulary learning, speaking practice activities, etc.). The key philosophy behind CLIL is that language can be acquired naturally through the instruction of other subjects in English provided that the language learning needs are balanced with those of subject learning. As Baetman Beardsmore (2002) notes, referring specifically to the European context, CLIL

represents a response to one of the major problems in language education, namely that students are led to appreciate the immediate pertinence of the effort to acquire and use a 2nd or 3rd language while studying something else (p. 26).

Early research conducted in CLIL classrooms in secondary contexts (analogous with those of ABCi) evidenced impressive achievement gains in learners’ second language proficiency, without impacting negatively on content learning (e.g. Gajo and Serra 2000), gains that are supported in other studies covered in the research review by Dalton-Puffer (2008). This has led to CLIL programs being implemented widely across Europe (De Bot 2002). While CLIL is very much in the ascendancy, especially in upper primary and secondary contexts across Europe and the world, it should be noted that several more recent CLIL studies have presented more mixed findings (e.g. Lasagabaster and Doiz 2015, Roquet and Perez-Vidal 2015), so, an eclectic combination, rather than a reliance on CLIL alone to foster English language learning, as the ABCi has chosen, is likely to be a prudent combination.   

TBL (also called Task-based Language Teaching or Task-based Instruction) has been a prominent movement (rather than a single approach) within communicative language teaching since the 1980s. TBL is centred around the notion of the ‘task’, which is typically defined as an activity that is meaning-focused, involving a need to communicate, a clearly defined outcome and the need for learners to rely on their own resources in order to complete the activity (Ellis 2009: 223). While it is not without its critics (e.g. Swan 2005), TBL is respected and promoted by some of the most prominent researchers in second language acquisition studies, including Rod Ellis, Peter Skehan and Michael Long. In their review of the evidence of studies into second language acquisition, Willis and Willis (2009: 5) note that “there is overwhelming evidence that learners need to engage with meaning if they are to develop a grammatical system”, something agreed with by Ellis (2008). Such an engagement with meaning is evident in a number of the tasks used in the ABCi material, involving learners in problem-solving, information gap, ranking and brainstorming tasks. This is exemplified through how the development of the drama pieces involves shorter, meaningful tasks in the afternoons on each day of a project (e.g. on one day learners begin developing their characters by deciding on their features and mannerisms; on another learners must come up with a start, a middle and an end to their shared story). More importantly, because ABCi teachers typically do not speak the language of their learners, this engagement with meaning that is so critical to language learning becomes obligatory for learners during the Projects, creating a genuine need to communicate in English. This is very much evident during the many TPR (Total Physical Response) activities, when learners are required to sing a song and perform specific actions as they do, involving the whole body in the learning process. I observed several of these used effectively for energisers and motivators at key stages during lessons. The fact that the students were very familiar with them showed that they were regularly used in the Projects.

By combining aspects of CLIL, TBL and TPR within a broadly communicative framework, the ABCi not only enables learners to develop linguistic competence in English as the target language, but also to develop the social skills required for meaningful interaction with peers and teachers, and to allow for the meaningful exchange of cultural knowledge and awareness through the involvement of sporting activities, cultural occasions, music and other arts from the countries of participating teachers.

A second, and potentially more powerful, area of research evidence supporting the ABCi is the growing body of research into learner motivation in language learning, especially by Zoltan Dörnyei, who notes: “Motivation has been widely accepted by both teachers and researchers as one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning” (1998: 117). Importantly, in a major study from 2005, Csizér and Dörnyei identified integrativeness to be the single most important aspect of motivation influencing success in language learning in school environments. They define integrativeness as “a positive outlook on the L2 and its culture, to the extent that learners scoring high on this factor may want to integrate themselves into the L2 culture and become similar to the L2 speakers” (2005: 20). This is of significance to the ABCi because, perhaps one of the greatest challenges that upper primary and secondary school language teachers face is fostering learner motivation among students who are required to study a language as part of the curriculum, rather than out of choice, a challenge that many of us can relate to personally from our own limited progress in learning foreign languages at secondary school level. While opportunities for intrinsic motivation that arise from the pleasure of using the language or playing a game in the language are potentially open to all teachers, integrativeness is a much greater challenge, especially when the teacher shares the same first language and nationality with the learners. Because of the different cultural and linguistic backgrounds between the ABCi teachers and Austrian primary and secondary learners, both the act of communicating and the sharing of cultural information from target language communities is capable of fostering greater integrative motivation among learners. The ABCi program exploits this intercultural information gap effectively, encouraging ABCi teachers to share traditions, phatic practices, sports, hobbies and songs from a wide diversity of English language cultures, thereby creating greater potential for connections across cultural boundaries alongside the development of intercultural competence itself. To put this more briefly, the more the learners relate to, and take interest in the background, language and culture – ‘languaculture’ (Agar 1994) – of their teachers, the more their integrativeness is likely to develop, which will cultivate a sustained desire to learn English after the Project has concluded. This sense of integrativeness was very much in evidence on the last day of the project when each class performed for peers and parents. As well as the drama presentation, each had a flavour of the home country culture of the teacher they had studied with, with one performing an American song, another included British references in their performance, etc. It is also present in the opportunities for learning about teachers’ countries (e.g. the wildlife of Canada, rap music in the USA) and country-specific sports (e.g. Gaelic football, ultimate frisbee) that learners learn to play.

  • ABCi and Austrian MoE curricular requirements

For any approach to language learning to work within a state school educational system, it must be compatible with the curricular requirements of that system. The ABCi is innovative in this regard, as it was developed specifically to meet the requirements of the Austrian NMS Curriculum to include ‘project-centred teaching’ in school syllabi, and has evolved within this role both to support and to extend the learning that happens within primary and secondary classrooms.

Project-based learning is supported by evidence at both primary and secondary level testifying the importance of learner autonomy, constructive investigation, goal setting, collaboration and reflection within real-world practices (e.g. Kokotsaki et al. 2016). Nonetheless, when initially introduced in Austria in 2001, ‘project-centred teaching’ presented a significant challenge for Austrian teachers of English. Faced with the requirement to conduct English language projects and receiving little support in their design and development, many schools simply opted to re-describe extant optional school trips (e.g. to the UK) as ‘projects’. Such trips are costly, and their inclusion in the syllabus often led to heated discussions at parent-teacher meetings, with parents concerned as to whether this is the most cost-effective way to achieve the intended objectives of such projects. Seeing this challenge, the founders of the English Teacher Training College developed the ABCi specifically to offer an alternative that would both meet the requirements of the curriculum, and the needs of the teachers and parents for a convenient, cost-effective solution, simply by bringing the target-language culture (through the ABCi teachers) to the students, rather than attempting to take the students to the culture. As such, it is little surprise that the ABCi meets the requirements of the MoE guideline document on project-centred teaching (Tipps zur Umsetzung mit Erlasstext, BmBWK 2001) well. As well as involving learners in other aspects of language learning, ABCi Projects typically involve classes developing dramatic performances that are performed in English to an audience of family members, peers from their school and community leaders at the end of the week. These theatrical projects fit well to the goals of project-centred learning, and in the process of creating, developing and performing the mini-plays, learners are involved in many, if not all of the following benefits of project-based learning, taken from the Tipps zur Umsetzung mit Erlasstext (BmBWK 2001: 1), shown in the left-hand column of table 1 below, with examples from the Projects in the right-hand column:

Table 1:
 Exemplification of how the ABCi Projects involve key benefits of project-centred teaching taken from the Tipps zur Umsetzung mit Erlasstext (BmBWK 2001).

Further, because the performances take place in English with the support and sometimes involvement of their teachers, they serve to engage the local community with the Projects, English language learning and the cultural exchange spirit of the ABCi.


  • An initial theory of change for the ABCi

Developing a theory of change is a complex process that necessarily requires participation of key stakeholders. Here I propose a tentative initial framework for further development through which the ABCi Project initiative may help stakeholders within the Austrian education system (learners, parents, teachers and the MoE) to achieve the following envisaged long-term outcome:

Austrian children leaving school with greater bilingual competence and confidence in their own knowledge and understanding of English language and culture.

Both this envisaged outcome, and the interventions, preconditions and indicators specified below will necessarily need refining and revision through an iterative process as recommended in the Aspen Institute’s ‘Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change’ (Anderson, n.d.). The Change Pathway illustrated builds on the theoretical framework above through which it is hypothesised that the ABCi contributes positively to the specified outcome.

Figure 1 shows the envisaged Change Pathway in which the ABCi Projects play a pivotal role as a catalyst in sparking the flame of interest in English languaculture, the (integrative) motivation to learn, and the confidence to communicate, that when combined with learning from the ABCi Virtual Classroom and their mainstream learning (which will play a vital role in supporting and then building on the ABCi-as-catalyst) will lead to the desired outcome.

Figure 1: Change Pathway showing how ABCi Projects work in tandem with mainstream learning.

  • References

Agar, M. (1994). Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Anderson, A. A. (n.d.). The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change: A Practical Guide to Theory Development. New York: The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.

Baetens Beardsmore, H. (2002). The Significance of CLIL/EMILE. In D. Marsh (Ed.), CLIL/EMILE – The European Dimension: Actions, Trends and Foresight Potential, 24-26. Finlandia: University of Jyväskylä.

BmBWK (2001). Ordinance governing the principles of project-centred teaching, Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft und Kultur.

Csizer, K. and Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The internal structure of language learning motivation and its relationship with language choice and learning effort. The Modern Language Journal 89(1): 19–36.

Dalton-Puffer, C. (2008). Outcomes and processes in Content and Language Integrated Learning: Current research from Europe. In W. Delanoy & L. Volkmann (Eds), Future Perspectives for English Language Teaching, 139–157. Heidelberg: Winter.

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Dörnyei, Z. (1998). Motivation in second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 31(3): 117-135.

Ellis, R. (2008). Principles of instructed second language acquisition. CAL Digest. Washington, DC: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: Sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19(3): 221–246.

Gajo, L. and Serra, C. (2000). Acquisition des langues et des disciplines dans l’enseignement bilingue: l’exemple des mathématiques. Etudes de linguistique appliquée, 120.

Hattie, J. (2009).  Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning. London: Routledge.

Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V. and Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools 19(3): 267-277.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1): 27–48.

Lasagabaster, D. and Doiz, A. (2015). A longitudinal study on the impact of CLIL on affective factors. Applied Linguistics [advance access: doi:10.1093/applin/amv059]: 1-26.  

Puchta, H. & Stranks, J. (2010). More! Student’s Book 1. Cambridge, CUP.

Roquet, H. and Perez-Vidal, C. (2015). Do productive skills improve in content and language integrated learning contexts? The case of writing. Applied Linguistics [advance access: doi:10.1093/applin/amv050]: 1-24.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by hypothesis: The case of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26(3): 376-401.

Ur, P. (2011). Grammar teaching: Research, theory and practice. In Hinkel, E. (Ed.). Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning Volume 2 (507-522). New York: Routledge.

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