How communicatively adequate are my students?

Last Updated on

Communicative adequacy refers to a persons’ ability to successfully communicate in a real-life situation. Within the context of foreign language education, communicative adequacy is the primary goal of instruction: we want our students to express themselves, in speaking or writing, in a way that native speakers of the target language will understand.

Communicative success in a real-life setting in the target language depends much on how the learners’ speech or writing is perceived by native speakers who are not used to learner language. In other words, the best way to judge the extent to which our students can effectively communicate in the target language is to see whether they can get their message across to native speakers who don’t teach the language. And that excludes us, the instructors.

Then, how can we best assess the communicative adequacy of our students’ oral or written skills? Fortunately for us, research that uses non-instructor native speakers as judges of successful language use in real-life contexts is gaining momentum. Several linguistic features of learners’ classroom-based performances have been found to correlate with communicative adequacy. In other words, we can pay attention to certain aspects of the language that our students produce in class to ascertain success if they were to use the language with native speakers outside of the classroom.

In the case of oral skills, here are the elements of our students’ production that we can focus on when listening for communicative adequacy:

  • For Revesz, Ekiert and Torgersen (2014), the strongest predictor of adequacy was the frequency of filled pauses (or how many times learners say um, eh, ah), which is a measure of fluency.
  • For De Jong et al. (2012), the degree of vocabulary knowledge and the correctness of sentence intonation were the best indicators of communicatively adequate speech.
  • Iwashita et al. (2008) also found that vocabulary knowledge, as well as speech rate, another measure of fluency, had the strongest relationship to speaking proficiency.

Although grammatical accuracy and syntactic complexity (subordination, for example) were also related to communicative adequacy in the studies mentioned, their impact was only moderate compared to the other features.

These findings have important implications for our assessment practices when it comes to oral performance. When grading oral exams, or providing feedback on oral presentations, we pay much attention to grammatical accuracy (are those verb endings correct? Is gender agreement present?) and the use of advanced structures (are they incorporating the subjunctive?), but it turns out that native speakers who are not teachers of the language are not focusing as much on those things. Rather, they seem to be more attuned to fluency, pronunciation, or vocabulary richness when judging non-native speech as communicatively adequate.

Just to finish, of course communicative success in real-life also depends much on learners’ effective use of pragmatic cues and sociolinguistic knowledge. That’s a topic for another blog, though.

De Jong, N., M. Steinel, A. Florijn, R. Schoonen, & J. Hulstijn. (2012). Facets of speaking proficiency. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 34(1), 5-34.

Iwashita, N., A. Brown, T. McNamara, & S. O’Hagan. (2008). Assessed levels of second language speaking proficiency: How distinct? Applied Linguistics, 29(1), 24-49.

Revesz, A., M. Ekiert, & E. Torgersen. (2014). The effects of complexity, accuracy, and fluency on communicative adequacy in oral task performance. Applied Linguistics, 37(6), 828-848.