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October 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Useful Techniques for Developing Communicative Competence at the Primary Level

Klaudia Pauliková is a doctoral student at the UKF University in Nitra. She is interested in creative and purposeful methods and techniques, which help making the teaching process of foreign languages  attractive and successful. She has been researching the development of communicative competence at primary schools for several years. Her current professional interests are finding the most effective teaching techniques and activities, which help the learners of English become successful in using the foreign language in real communicative situations outside the classroom. She enjoys working with innovative teachers and most up to date materials, which help her in understanding the needs and requirements of education in the modern, global world.  Email:,



The modern age of foreign language education is greatly influenced by the global world. Education as such reflects the present-day needs and requirements of the society and flexibly adapts to the changes that are happening worldwide. The demand on language users nowadays is much higher than it has ever been before, as the fundamental language teaching policy of numerous countries worldwide is to reach “communicative competence” in at least one or two foreign languages (Tandlichová, 2008). We are obliged to use the global language on almost all the existential levels. It does not serve us anymore if we are only able to read and translate texts. The modern world requires multiple competencies and skills – from simple communication through knowledge of ICT to specific technical terms, naturally, all in the target language. 

The modern trends in teaching are based on learning theories. These are then “promoted and supported by governmental backing in the form of reports and education acts” (Field, 2004, p. 3). Based on these, curriculums then form frameworks and guidelines, which portray the main objectives of education. What is important, however, they only rarely give step by step directions on teaching methodology itself (Harmer, 2012). As there are no strict rules on what methodology to follow, it is mainly up to teachers to decide which approaches and methods they regard as the most efficient (Richards and Rodgers, 2014; Kováčiková and Gajdáčová-Veselá, 2016).

The fundamental objective of modern foreign language education is to provide learners with knowledge they can take use of in the real world outside their classrooms (ŠPU, n.d.). It is crucial to become aware of and respect the diversity of cultures, which demands teachers to train their learners for becoming able to use language efficiently in intercultural measures (Reid, 2014). Learners have to become fully-fledged in using the language, which means learning how to use language effectively in various social contexts and functioning well in real communicative environment (Council of Europe, 2001). Therefore, in terms of teaching languages, developing communicative competence becomes as important as any other aspect of language. More specifically, it is marked as the building block of communicative language teaching, because it involves both the accurate use of communicative skills and the knowledge and understanding of culture and all its aspects (Peterwagner, 2005). Communicative competence has become one of the fundamental factors in It has become the key factor to successful language acquisition and now is present in almost all national and international curriculums and syllabuses as one of the main objectives of teaching.


What is exactly Communicative Competence?

Throughout the rough 50 years of its existence, the meaning and understanding of the phenomenon has slightly changed. Different concepts and models have been developed, which all portray communicative competence in its complexity. Hymes (1972) was the first one to coin the term communicative competence, when he referred to language knowledge as much more than plain knowledge of grammar. Canale and Swain (1980) refer to the phenomenon as the combination of essential knowledge and skill to use language for communication. Their concept consists of three groups of knowledge – grammatical rules, social communication, and utterances in discourse. Skill is understood as the ability to communicate in real situations. Out of this concept the authors formed their model, which consisted of grammatical, strategic, and sociolinguistic competence. Canale (1983) later emphasises the need of including a discourse element to the whole, as according to him successful communication without discourse competence would be extremely difficult to be achieved. Bachman (1990), on the other hand, defines communicative competence with regards to evaluation and testing. According to him, it comprises two main components-organizational competence and pragmatic competence. Organizational competence engages abilities for regulating the formal structure of language – grammatical competence and textual competence. Grammatical competence includes vocabulary, morphology, syntax and phonology. The textual competence stands for the ability to join utterances in order to form a spoken or written text. This includes cohesion and rhetoric organization. Pragmatic competence is understood as the ability to use language with regards to the users of language and the context of communicative situation, which includes the person, ideas, feelings and objects (ibid.). Bachman and Palmer (1996) later emphasise the need of communicative competence involving metagognitive strategies as well. These stand for setting goals, planning, and assessment in utterances. Celce-Murcia et. al (1995), in addition to the existing components of communicative competence, suggest that there is a need of thinking of functional language, as well. Their actional competence means ability “in conveying and understanding communicative intent, that is, matching actional intent with linguistic form based on the knowledge of an inventory of verbal schemata that carry illocutionary force (speech acts and speech act sets)” (Celce-Murcia et. al, 1995, p.17). Celce- Murcia (2008) later proposes her refined understanding of communicative competence. She considers discourse competence to be the centre of communication, whereas sociocultural competence (pragmatic knowledge), interactional competence (language functions and non-verbal means of language), linguistic competence (language systems), and formulaic competence (automatized use of phrases, idioms, etc) stand around it. She emphasises that strategic competence for solving issues and compensating for errors is an ever present inventory, which is ready to be used anytime. Usó-Juan and Martínez-Flor (2006), however remark that communicative competence is dependant on a balanced development of the four communicative skills – listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Their understanding of the phenomenon comprises linguistic competence, strategic competence, intercultural competence, and pragmatic competence as leading to successful discourse (discourse competence), which is closely interconnected with the four communicative skills. The most recent understanding is depicted by Littlewood (2011), who perceives communicative competence as comprising five elements – linguistic competence (grammar, vocabulary, phonology, and semantics), discourse competence (participating in discourse), pragmatic competence (using language in real situations), sociolinguistic competence (using language appropriately in different situations), and sociocultural competence (cultural knowledge).

Although the concepts of the many authors may differ, the main objective to produce a language user capable of succeeding in any communication is shared by all of them. They all refer to a linguistic element – linguistic or grammatical competence as one of the most important components of communicative competence. Another common feature is the discourse element. Although it is referred to by different names (discourse competence or textual competence), its presence within communicative competence (especially in the more recent models) is fundamental. Sociolinguistic or sociocultural competence is also key to becoming communicatively competent. It is vital to be able to use sociocultural rules and rules of discourse correctly in communication. As well as these, functional language use is also viewed as very important. Despite being referred to as pragmatic competence or actional competence, language functions form an inseparable part of communicative competence. Lastly, strategic competence, as the ability to deal with problems with verbal and non-verbal strategies, is also seen as crucial to developing communicative competence. To summarize this information, we can say that communicatively competent users of language know lexis, phonology, morphology and syntax and have an ability to use language appropriately in social and cultural contexts. They can use functional language in discourse and are able to deal with different situations in communicative environment. Lastly, they are able to take turns and produce unified texts.


Communicative Competence at the primary level

If we want to define communicative competence at the primary level, it is wise to understand the specific features of the level itself in the first place. We generally identify primary education with proficiency level A1 according to the CEFR. The reference document defines the user of this particular level as being able to “...understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help” (Council of Europe, 2001, p. 24). If wishing to understand the peculiarities of communicative competence at this level, along with the CEFR it is crucial to take a deep look into the Breakthrough Manuscript (Trim, 2001) as well, which is an extension document designed specifically for the purposes of enriching the CEFR at the proficiency level A1. This document gives detailed specifications on all the aspects of learning English. Lastly, naturally, a National Curriculum (in this case the one of Slovakia) is also important to be considered.

Pauliková (2019) in her study gives a detailed overview on the individual components of communicative competence in these documents, and her investigation and comparison reveals that at the level A1 we are speaking of three main groups of competences to be developed – linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence, and pragmatic competence. Within linguistic competence learners should master lexical competence, more specifically a particular range of single words and word expressions. As well as that, they should develop grammatical competence in terms of sentence production, use of phrases and word forms, naturally, all within their scope of knowledge. They should also master phonological and orthoepic competence, i.e. to use sounds of the language and pronunciation of written forms correctly. Lastly, they should develop orthographic competence, which means ability to spell words correctly with accurate punctuation (ibid.).

Within sociolinguistic competence learners should master using and understanding language in various cultural contexts. They should know how to use simple greetings, introductions, addressing, and politeness phrases such as please, thank you, and sorry. They also should understand some forms of expletives (ibid.).

Within pragmatic competence, lastly, learners should develop two sub-competences. Firstly, they should master functional competence, which means using language functions correctly. These include imparting and seeking information, expressing attitudes, suasion, socializing, structuring discourse, and repairing communication within their scope of knowledge. Secondly, learners should develop discourse competence, i.e. to produce meaningful stretches of sentences and maintain conversations by turn-taking. Provided that they master all these, they become completely communicatively competent at the proficiency level A1 (ibid.).


Teaching techniques

As the previous lines depict, every part of communicative competence is very specific and places different requirements on learners. There are plenty teaching techniques and activities, which can be used for developing these parts either individually, or grouped together. We do like to assume that if teachers provide enough opportunities for their learners to practice all the components of communicative competence in their classes, there is a high chance of them succeeding in the world beyond the artificial classroom conditions, as well.

1. Linguistic Competence

We do know that linguistic competence is one of the fundamental building blocks of overall language knowledge. Due to this fact, it seems very easy to look for teaching techniques that could work to develop this competence, as the market is full of books and guidelines for teaching it effectively.

Lexical Competence

As for instruction with young learners, Harmer (2012) suggests associating words and phrases with either sounds, pictures, or both. Scrivener (2011) adds using mimics, gestures, drawings, descriptions, dramatisations, stories, or dictionary work as excellent techniques for presenting new lexical items. There are also multiple ways for practicing vocabulary either individually, in pairs, in groups, or as whole class activities. Gap filling, drilling, matching activities, crosswords, word searches, games, songs, putting words to correct columns, even work with dictionaries are great resources that provide endless possibilities for the learners to practice language (ibid.). Use of technologies is also one of the resources that may help in practicing vocabulary (Harmer, 2012). According to Poláková and Klímová (2019), one of the effective ways for developing lexical knowledge is use of mobile applications, as they are part of the learners’ everyday lives. Involving drama, further, motivates the learners, creates supportive intellectual and emotional environments, and promotes long-term retention of the vocabulary (Demircioglu, 2010). To become lexically competent, however, learners need to produce the language as well. That involves various activities for speaking and writing, as well as the knowledge of other competences (Kováčiková and Gajdáčová-Veselá, 2016).

Grammatical Competence

Council of Europe (2001) suggests exposing young learners to new grammatical structures inductively by authentic texts or demonstrations. They recommend presenting grammar by adding new elements into their language classes, using tables or forms followed by explanations, or demonstrating new language. Activities for developing grammar include drills with different variations for making them interesting enough, written exercises, and dialogues of various kinds (Scrivener, 2011). Rinvolucri and Davis (1995) propose various competitive, collaborative, and drama games, as well as awareness activities as excellent resources for grammar practice. Netto-Shek (2009) divides such activities into word-grammar and sentence-grammar activities, which both have different aims and objectives. Council of Europe (2001) proposes gap filling, sentence constructions, multiple choice activities, category substitutions, translations, question-answer activities, or grammar focused fluency activities as resourceful techniques for practicing grammatical structures.

Phonological and Orthoepic Competence

For developing phonological and orthoepic competence, the most important perhaps is to provide learners with opportunities to hear language pronounced correctly (Homolová, 2016).  Gower (1995) explains that it is vital to deal with the sounds that the mother tongue of learners does not contain. That may be done by using gestures for teaching voiced and voiceless consonants, mouthing (use of lips, teeth, and tongue in an exaggerated way), emphasising certain syllables or using visuals (ibid.). The practice of pronunciation should be included in model dialogues, which enable the learners to acquire it naturally (Homolová, 2016). Reid (2016, p. 22) explains that young learners “should be exposed to authentic spoken utterances, encouraged to imitate the teacher, audio-recorded native speakers, video-recorded native speakers, read aloud phonetically weighted texts, practice ear-training,   phonetic drilling, imitation, tongue twisters, explicit teaching, etc. Clapping, clicking, tapping, gestures and mirrors can be also used in teaching pronunciation.” She lists several techniques for practicing pronunciation. These include listening and repeating (which can be done by using various materials such as CDs, interactive boards or resources on the internet), drilling (repetition drills, transformation drills, substitution drills, chain drills, jazz chants), minimal pairs, ear training, tongue twisters, reading aloud, recording learners’ pronunciation, sound colour charts (replacing phonemic alphabet), and others (ibid.).

Orthographic Competence

The last component of linguistic competence consists of the ability to spell correctly and use correct punctuation and spacing in the target language. Correct spelling is important and quite difficult for the learners. The reason is that “the correspondence between the sound of a word and the way it is spelt is not always obvious” (Harmer, 2015, p. 362). For that reason, teachers should first include a variety of reading activities into the teaching process. That enables learners to notice the language and helps to improve their spelling. Olshtain (2013) recommends practicing spelling by giving learners simple tasks connected to letters. Another technique is copying texts (Harmer, 2015).  Council of Europe (2001) suggests several techniques for developing orthographic competence. These include memorisation of the elements of alphabet, practicing writing, practicing dictation, memorising word forms, or exposing the learners to various kinds of written texts.  

2. Sociolinguistic Competence

Mizne (1997) clarifies that one of the main components of sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of culture. Therefore, when considering developing sociolinguistic competence, teachers need to start teaching culture to their students. Reid (2014) proposes a collection of recommended methods and techniques for teaching culture that are based on CEFR. These include role plays, games, simulations, discussions, negotiations, explanations, illustrations, and creating portfolios. According to Byram et al (2002), one of the most efficient ways of teaching culture is using authentic materials. As well as these, Reid (2015) lists several more techniques. Using comparison method requires the learners to compare cultural differences between their own and a different culture. In cultural assimilation the learners need to find solution to a misunderstanding. Cultural capsule deals with two cultural aspects described in comparison with the use of visual aids. Drama involves acting out scenes. In cultural island pictures, posters, and other materials are collected in order to attract learners’ attention and evoke a cultural atmosphere. Reformulation involves retelling a story with a partner, whereas TPR serves for non-verbal communication. Prediction, lastly, stands for finishing stories, being curious about topics, evoking questions about cultures, et cetera (ibid.). 

3. Pragmatic Competence

Pragmatic competence refers to the ability to use language in speech or writing in a communicative environment. For a balanced development of communicative competence as a whole, pragmatic language is also important to be taken into consideration. Pragmatic competence comprises two main components: functional competence and discourse competence.  

Functional Competence

Council of Europe (2001) suggests developing functional competence by a progressive increase in the complexity of functional range of texts as well as by increasing requirement on the learners to produce functional language. Further, they suggest setting practical tasks and activities that promote functional language use and also explicit teaching and exercising of functions (ibid.). Interactional function of language use (Brown and Yule, 1983) requires implementing practice and production of a language in pair and group work (Richards, 2006).  Celce-Murcia (2008) suggests using a variety of activities that are required to be learner centred and interactive: simulating phone calls and writing emails in the target language, making interviews, summarising the gist of a discourse with a partner, role-playing speech act sets, or writing (advertisements, class newsletters, et cetera). Free speaking activities, such as situation games, dramatisations or discussions and debates (Kováčiková and Gajdáčová-Veselá, 2016) may also fulfil the need of practicing functional language provided that they are planned and prepared with the objective of practicing language functions.  

Discourse  Competence

According to Council of Europe (2001), discourse competence should be facilitated by a progressive increase of complexity of discourse structure, setting tasks that adhere to verbal exchange patterns, and explicit teaching of discourse structure. Harmer (2012) emphasises the importance of modelling conversations to learners especially at low proficiency levels. However, it is important to understand the difference between accuracy and fluency based pragmatic language use, as very often the tasks are restricted to practice of linguistic structures, whereas free communication tends to be completely forgotten. Accuracy based activities do not require meaningful communication and focus on correct use of language, whereas fluency based activities reflect natural, meaningful language, which is not predictable (Richards, 2006). Thornbury (2005) suggests various pairing and grouping techniques for emphasising natural interaction between learners, which assist in achieving autonomy and automaticity in using the target language. Pair and group work increase fluency and motivation of the learners, and support acquiring and producing a greater amount of language (Richards, 2006). Precision dialogues are proposed by Thornbury (2005) as excellent for practicing both appropriacy of linguistic structures and acquiring the ability to take turns. He also proposes several techniques for presentations and talks, which are considered to be excellent preparation for real life speaking with longer stretches of sentences. In show-and-tell, for instance, learners talk about and answers questions about objects or images in two to three minutes in front of the whole classroom.  Information-gap activities, jigsaws, surveys and various games develop learners’ ability to interact in situations that are similar to those in real life naturally. Role-plays, simulations, drama, and story-telling techniques help in simulating the language of the real world with longer stretches of sentences. Moreover, they assist in acquiring the ability to produce language freely, as well as to take turns. Discussions and debates can depict free, spontaneous language use, or be guided (ibid.). In addition to these, task completion activities (such as puzzles, games, or map reading), opinion sharing, or information transfer activities help learners in improving conversation abilities, as they are forced to use their own language resources to fulfil tasks (Richards, 2006). Various written tasks, portfolios, or diaries (which can be also completed outside the classroom) are viewed as excellent techniques for developing learners written production abilities (Thornbury, 2005). 



One of the greatest advantages of the modern era is that there are numerous approaches, techniques and activities to choose from when teaching languages. Since there is no strict guideline for the best working methodology to be used, teachers are free to select the ones working best for their classes. The teaching process itself should be manifold with a great number of resources for reaching the teaching objectives. The same applies for the development of communicative competence. We have to be well aware of the fact that if we want our pupils to develop communicative competence at its best, it is fundamental to create an environment rich in stimuli and opportunities to practice language. Course books provide a good source of information and activities, but it is wise to opt for additional materials complementing the teaching process as well, so that we can make it as effective as possible. Provided that pupils are offered a well organized and prepared teaching plan with a balanced division between teaching techniques and activities for the individual components of communicative competence, in no doubt their chances of success are maximised.



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Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

  • Useful Techniques for Developing Communicative Competence at the Primary Level
    Klaudia Pauliková, Slovakia

  • Developing Intercultural Communicative Competences With Young Learners? Yes, Of Course
    Eva Reid, Slovakia