Helping learners to get their message across

By Tatsiana Khudayerka

Quite often when learners face linguistic problems they fail to attempt to solve them due to insufficient knowledge of available strategies. The article focuses on various communication strategies and ways of helping students be better at them.

Speaking is often considered by learners simply as practice of grammar and lexis they have learnt. However, spontaneity of speaking affects the speaker’s ability to plan and organise their message and requires a decent level of communicative competence. Dörnyei and Thurrell point out that strategic competence is an important part of communication in both L1 and L2; however, it is vital for foreign language speakers, because its lack ‘may account for situations when students with a firm knowledge of grammar and a wide range of vocabulary are unable to carry out their communicative intent’ (1991 p.17).

Communicative Competence

Communicative competence consists of three component competencies: grammatical (knowledge of the language code), sociolinguistic (sociocultural rules and rules of discourse), and strategic, which is defined as ‘verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be called into action to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to performance variables or to insufficient competence’ (Canale and Swain 1980 p.30).

Strategic competence is achieved by using communication strategies and activated when a speaker is unable to express what he wants to say, because he lacks necessary linguistic resources. Communication strategies include two main types of strategies: achievement, or compensatory strategies and reduction, or avoidance strategies (Faerch and Kasper 1983; Bygate 2015; Dornyei and Scott 1997). Both these types aim to compensate for a problem of expression.
We use achievement strategies when we try to solve a communicative problem by attempting to find different ways of conveying the message and thus compensating for the language gap (Bygate 2015 p.42). There are three main categories of communication strategies (2015 pp.43–44):

Guessing strategy, which includes:

  • Foreignizing, i.e. using an L1 word by adjusting it to L2 phonologically and/or morphologically (e.g., adding it to a L2 suffix). For example, Russian ‘shashlik’ for English ‘barbeque’.
  • Word coinage refers to the strategy when a learner replaces an L2 word with a created L2 item, based on his knowledge of rules (e.g., footballist for footballer).
  • Code-switching, or language switch refers to a situation when a learner uses the L1/L3 word or expression with L1/L3 pronunciation in L2 speech, e.g. French Voila! (Dornyei&Scott 1997 p.189).
  • Literal translation means translating literally a lexical item/structure from L1 to L2. For example, a Belarusian speaker may say ‘for whom how’ instead of ‘to each his own’.

Paraphrase involves using the knowledge of the language to find an alternative way to express the idea. It includes:

  1. Circumlocution, which means describing or exemplifying the object or action, e.g. ‘It becomes a gas’ instead of ‘evaporate’.
  2. Approximation, or using a lexical item, which expresses the target lexical item as closely as possible, i.e. shares semantic features with the target word. For example, ‘shoes’ instead of ‘loafers’.
  3. Using general words, i.e. extending a general, empty lexical item to contexts where specific words are lacking (e.g., the overuse of thing, stuff, make, etc.) (Dornyei&Scott 1997 p.188).

The above-mentioned strategies can be described as non-cooperative, since the learner tries to solve the problem by employing their own resources. When a strategy involves the learner’s appeal for help to their interlocutor, it is called co-operative (Dornyei&Thurrell 1991 p.18).

Co-operative Strategies

Faerch and Kasper note that ‘although problems in interaction are necessarily shared problems and can be solved by joint efforts […] it is up to a speaker to decide whether to attempt a solution himself or to signal his problems to his interlocutor and attempt to get the problem solved on a cooperative basis’ (1983 p.67). If a learner faces a communicative problem and feels that they need help, they make use of the cooperative communication strategy of ‘appeal’. Appeal for help can be direct or indirect.

  • Direct appeal means asking the interlocutor an explicit question concerning a gap in L2 knowledge, e.g. It’s a kind of race, in which er.. they run and jump over those things. What’s the name?

A speaker can also provide a syntactic frame to elicit the correct word (Bygate 2015 p.46).

S1: His face is covered with hair. He’s wearing a moustache and a...

S2: A beard.

Willems specifies the components of co-operative strategy. A speaker may request:

  1. repetition if he hasn’t heard or understood the interlocutor, e.g. Pardon? What?
  2. clarification in order to get the explanation of an unknown lexical item, by asking a clarification question, e.g. What do you mean?; echoing a word with a question intonation; using statements, e.g. I don’t understand or imperatives, e.g. Repeat please.
  3. confirmation to see if he has understood the interlocutor correctly, e.g. Do you mean..?

  • Indirect appeal refers to trying to elicit help from the interlocutor indirectly by using verbal or non-verbal means, e.g. I don’t know the name (rising intonation, pause, eye contact, etc.) (Dornyei&Scott 1997 p. 191).

Further Communication Strategies

Apart from the strategies mentioned above, Faerch and Kasper (1980), Bialystok (1990), Tarone and Yule (1989) emphasize the importance of the following communication strategies:

Nonverbal strategies are employed when a learner replaces a lexical item or an action with mime, gesture, facial expression and sound imitation or accompanies a verbal strategy with a visual illustration. (Dornyei&Scott 1997 p. 190).

Time-gaining strategies involve knowledge of fillers and hesitation devices. These are vital because they let the speaker gain time to think and fill pauses when a communication difficulty occurs (Dornyei & Thurrell 1991 p.19). The most frequent native English fillers and ‘prefabricated’ responses are well, er, ah, uhm, of course, so, actually, well, etc.

Reduction strategies are activated when a speaker has poor linguistic or strategic competence and therefore can make a deliberate decision not to speak or alter the original message:

  • Topic avoidance, or message reduction refers to reducing the message by avoiding problematic language, e.g. conditionals, or topics or leaving out some relevant information through lack of vocabulary.
  • Message abandonment refers to the situation when a learner begins to talk about something, but leaves the message unfinished if he comes across a linguistic obstacle, e.g. It’s an insect er.. a big one, with wings…er.. It’s like a big grasshopper… well, never mind.
  • Meaning replacement, or substituting the original message with a new one, because a speaker is not capable of executing it. (Faerch and Kasper, 1983 p.44).

In the Classroom

My teaching experience shows that lower-level students encounter several major problems, i.e. insufficient knowledge of fillers and hesitation devices, lack of paraphrasing strategies and reluctance to use co-operative strategies. What can we do in the classroom to have learners employ achievement strategies?

Using Audio
In order to raise learners’ awareness of fillers and hesitation devices a teacher chooses a recorded authentic conversation. Students are given a task sheet with common fillers. They listen to the dialogue and tick the fillers they hear. Afterwards they discuss, which fillers are used and why it is important to use them in speech. Alternatively, a teacher records two conversations with and without fillers. Students listen and discuss which one sounds more authentic and why. A teacher then might give them a script and get the students to make it sound more natural by adding necessary fillers.

Making a Game
A ‘Taboo’ game works well to encourage the usage of circumlocution and approximation as an alternative way of describing and object/idea. A learner should explain the word to their partner(s), using some prefabricated chunks, e.g. It’s a thing..., It’s a kind of…, You do it when…, etc. After the game, the teacher elicits the strategies they used to win, e.g. giving a definition of an item, explaining what it looks like, paraphrasing, etc. Alternatively, the students replay the game and come up with as many definitions of the word as they can. Both tasks provide a variety of structures to accomplish the task and compensate for a lack of knowledge.

Working with Dialogue Practice
To develop learners’ strategy to ask for help from a communication partner a teacher selects a dialogue that they know, picks out the most important content words and writes them in the form of a skeleton next to the name of the character, e.g. John: failed exam. The teacher then boards the dialogue and pre-teaches/elicits the questions that the students can ask if they have forgotten/don’t know the word and boards them too, e.g. What do you call it? What’s the word for?

The students look at the skeleton and practice reconstructing the dialogue. As a real task they act out the dialogue again and Speaker A decides which words s/he doesn’t remember and therefore has to elicit from Speaker B, by appealing for help. After the first round the students change roles and repeat the task. The activity helps students notice that both partners contribute to achieving a communicative goal.

I strongly believe that strategy training exercises have real measurable benefits for L2 learners. They train them to be flexible and able to cope with unpredictable nature of spoken interaction.

Author's Bio: Tatsiana has been an English teacher at IH Minsk since 2007. Her academic background includes an MA in Education from Belarusian State Pedagogical University, and the Cambridge Delta (2016). She has taught a variety of levels and courses. Her professional interests include motivating students and helping them become autonomous learners, teaching Business English and CPD.


Bialystok, E. (1990). Communication Strategies. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bygate, M. (2015). Speaking. Oxford: OUP.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing. Applied Linguistics, 1/1: 1 – 47.

Dornyei, Z. and Scott, M. (1997). Communication Strategies in a Second Language: Definitions and Taxonomies. Language Learning, 47/1: 173 – 210.

Dornyei, Z. and Thurrell, S. (1991). Strategic Competence and How to Teach It. ELT Journal, 45/1: 16 – 23.

Faerch, C. and Kasper, G. (1983). Strategies in Interlanguage Communication. London: Longman.

Tarone, E. and Yule, G. (1989). Focus on the Language Learner. Oxford: OUP.