Enhancing Instruction with Authentic Communication

Students are often asked to use language in school--but they don’t really need to.  They often give answers to questions that other students and the teacher already know. All too often, students are being “tested” rather than being challenged to communicate important, needed, and complex ideas to others....So, how can we enhance the communication of any activity in any discipline in any lesson? To begin, we look for and build up three features of authentic communication. For example, let’s say my initial idea for a lesson activity is having students listen to me read an article aloud about Columbus and then answer comprehension questions in pairs. How can I bulk this up with communicativeness? I can strengthen the following features:  
building of idea(s)

In the activity, students use language to do something meaningful and engaging (beyond just to answer questions or get points); the activity (or something similar to it) prepares students to use language for academic purposes.

In a listening activity, for example, I might tell students, instead of just writing down what they listen to for points, to take notes that they will use in order to prepare for a roundtable discussion to decide whether or not Columbus Day should be celebrated.
Clarifying & Supporting
are Needed & Pushed

In order to build up meaningful ideas, students need to clarify language and support ideas  with evidence, examples, and reasoning. If clarifying and supporting are not needed (e.g., just do a quickwrite that the teacher glances at), then they won't happen. These skills should be "pushed" by aspects of the activity, peers, and/or teacher.

For example, in pair-shares and peer editing of articles on Columbus, students need to get different perspectives and evidence from others; and the teacher requires students to ask at least one clarify and support question in each pair-share and during peer editing of their article drafts

Designing & Leveraging Information gaps

In the activity, students get or give information that they want, need, and don’t have.  For example, if all students read the same story and answer questions about it in small groups or whole class, many will know the answers and not need to put extra effort into speaking or listening.

Instead, I might have students read different texts about Columbus and create podcasts based on several prompts. There are now more information gaps to cross, in which students need to clarify their ideas to others, using language on deeper levels.

Attention to Language
In the activity, there is extra support and feedback focused on improving how language is used to serve the purpose of communication. This includes modeling, practicing, giving feedback, and/or scaffolding (e.g., using visuals, teaching grammar or vocabulary, re-reading, re-listening, having students paraphrase, etc.). For example, I listen to students’ initial podcasts and think about the speaking abilities of my students and what they need to work on. I have noticed recently that students don’t highlight the introduction of new ideas with langauge that tends to mark these things. So I use a sample text, I read the first part aloud and show it up front for all to see, then I read the rest aloud text with the text covered up. I highlight language such as “A major reason for… Another reason for…. Is …, The second possible effect of….” and how this helps listeners to organize ideas and notes.