Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Revisiting the Communicative Event

Another post-Cologne article...

During the workshop, we talked some about customizing training.  But following the discussions within some of the groups, there seemed to be some uncertainty over communicative events.  In general, I thought this idea had spread so far through conferences and blog posts that most trainers understood.  Or maybe it is just so ingrained in my training that I can't see training without it.

Let's look quickly at customization.  We can customize a course/lesson at several levels.

A slide I didn't use in Cologne, but probably should have.
At the top level is the skill (e.g. write a report, lead a meeting).  I don't really see this as customization.  Sure, we can give the skills various priorities and/or remove a skill completely, but this is still course book territory.

Below that is a skill to perform a certain function.  For presentations, that might be to persuade, introduce, report, etc.  Most course books have taken lessons to this level and include different sections for different types of meetings.  This is nice but we're really counting on the fact that the course book author hit the nail on the head.

My default level of customization is on the specific event, which includes contextual information (but is still largely content neutral).  For example, writing emails to request information, making a telephone call to confirm arrangements, etc.

Finally, I will customize to what I call the 'ESP' level which includes content.  This is usually accompanied by more corpus analysis.

If you look through the levels, the assessment criteria change considerably from one level to the next.  Moving to each level requires that the participants have more uniform needs.  My general rule is to customize to the lowest level, and approach the next level outside of the group.  If the client isn't willing to pay for the next level, I stop.

Defining performance objectives

This has a huge impact on defining performance objectives.  If you are designing a course, only write the can-do statements to the appropriate level.  For large groups (hundreds of participants), I typically stop at the second level.  For groups which share a job function or field, I can often get to high frequency events.

The difference between a communicative event and an English situation

I am guilty of often using the terms 'situation' and 'event' interchangeably, but they are decidedly different.  A situation includes one or more communicative events.

For example, a presentation may include several communicative events.

Slide 1 - Inform management on status of a project
Slide 2 - Report on research
Slide 3 - Compare alternatives
Slide 4 - Propose a solution

This presentation may be accompanied by...
- defending an idea
- asking questions of speculation
- responding to factual questions
- eliciting opinions
- adding additional comments to presented information
- summarize an agreed decision
- delegate tasks

These generally look like a classical list of functions from a course book.  The contextual information makes them communicative events.  How many people are in the meeting and who are they?  How much time do you have?  What types of interference (or 'noise') are present?  These factors affect communication style, register, etc.

The same is also true for things like emails.  In well written emails, each paragraph performs a different function.  How you organize those paragraphs and the wording you use depends on the context.

As you can see, we are starting to enter the world of communication skills here.

Does a description of the situation give you the communicative events?

Yes and no.  I still use the needs analysis form I mentioned at BESIG Stuttgart (blog post), but it takes some further questioning and analysis to get to the communicative events.  I typically do this by asking a series of questions to describe the 'steps' of the situation.  I may draw a diagram of the situation on the board and ask about the participants, objectives, etc.

Back to sourcing materials... this is where getting a look at artifacts can be really helpful.  Without question, some background in business really helps in 'visualizing' a situation and dissecting it into its various communicative events.

I have found that there is considerable overlap among communicative events.  This is true among different fields, job descriptions and channel (email, telephone, meeting, etc.).  The interlocutors are generally the same (i.e. the learner communicates with a certain group) and the purpose of the communication is often similar.  For example, adding a comment to a pdf report written by a colleague is often identical to adding a verbal comment in a meeting.  However, if the report/presentation is by a manager or someone external to the company, the language changes.

Is there a list of communicative events?

Not yet.  If there were, it would probably look like a matrix.


We can assume that there are a definite number of functions.  We can also assume that there are definite number of contextual combinations.  Theoretically then, there is a relatively fixed number of communicative events.  It may then be possible to somehow create a database which takes contextual information and matches it with the purpose of communication to spit out the best possible language.

But that is all theory... in my next post we'll look at "Training for the Real World".

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