Communication Strategies and Young Learners

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Sean Reid, Alpha English

Hello colleagues, we hope you all have had a nice summer vacation, and are now fully geared up to learn some new skills to serve your students even better than before. In this issue, Sean Reid, an experienced teacher of young learners and a school owner, illustrates his innovative approach in promoting elementary school students’ communication strategies while having them engage in communicative tasks. We hope you enjoy reading this highly stimulating article, and share your own thoughts on this topic on our JALT–TYL Facebook page. We are eager to hear from you.

In 2013, I was tasked with implementing an English curriculum for a new elementary school in rural Japan.  Before developing the first-grade curriculum, I decided on the following overall goals:

  1. To increase student output by emphasizing student-student interactions, consisting of the exchange of information unknown to one of the speakers.
  2. To increase the students’ communicative competence and remove myself from the peer-peer interactions, allowing the students to adapt communication strategies to rectify communication breakdowns.

I then decided to monitor the students’ use and awareness of communication strategies. This was to ensure that their opportunities for interaction continued to increase, and to examine the effectiveness of the strategy instruction that I provided them with.

In this article, I will explain why I believed that strategic instruction could benefit my young learners. Then, I will detail my methodology and some of my findings from developing this curriculum.

Theoretical Background

In order to understand the benefits of communication strategies, we must first understand the concept of strategic competence. According to Savignon (2002), communicative competence comprises four components including sociocultural, strategic, discourse, and grammatical competence (p. 8). Savignon (1997) also says, “Strategic competence is present at all levels of proficiency although its importance in relation to the other components diminishes as knowledge of grammatical, sociolinguistic, and discourse rules increases” (p. 49). In other words, the awareness and use of strategic competence has a bigger impact on beginner learners.

Communication Strategies are essentially devices that the students can use to clarify meaning in conversations, for both speaker and listener. By using these strategies, students can negotiate for meaning with their interlocutors in times of difficulty and continue a conversation without using L1, or requiring assistance from a teacher. This independence increases the students’ confidence and helps them to receive modified input, essential to the language acquisition process.

The following communication strategies were simple enough for young beginners to grasp and likely to be effective in allowing them to communicate independently despite limited English ability:

  • Requests for repetition—essentially using the utterance “pardon?”
  • Confirmation checks—repeating the speaker’s utterance with a questioning intonation in order to confirm whether they heard it correctly.

Teaching of Communication Strategies

The curriculum was designed by first setting thematic units which were then matched with increasingly difficult language goals. A final unit information-exchange task was designed to evaluate progress and make revisions to the curriculum accordingly. Once this final information exchange activity was designed, the unit was scaffolded with each class introducing a new language goal, leading students step by step towards being able to produce the required language for the final task. Each lesson would end with the students moving around the room to participate in an information-exchange task based on the day’s language goal.
These tasks were communicative in nature and task-based, requiring the students to solicit information that was unknown to them from their peers. The students were told not to speak Japanese during information-exchange activities and were expected to use communication strategies to repair any communication breakdowns. The strategies were taught by frequently modelling their use ahead of peer-peer conversations. At no point was the rationale explained; nor were they referred to as communication strategies. By exposing the students to these strategies by way of modelling, they were forced to think about their purpose, and how they should be adopted.

Monitoring Student Use and the Awareness of Communication Strategies

Video recordings were taken of the students interacting in unscripted pair conversations throughout the school year, and qualitative and quantitative data was extrapolated from the transcripts.

In addition, open-ended questions on surveys in the students’ L1 were used to compile information on students’ awareness of how they were able to apply communication strategies to repair communication breakdowns. The rationale for this data collection was to establish a correlation between students’ increasing awareness of communication strategies and their actual use of them in information-exchange activities. Their awareness of these strategies from a starting point of zero is represented in Figure 1 below. It is important to keep in mind that no references or prompts referring to communication strategies were included on the questionnaire. Student answers translated from Japanese referring to communication strategies included, “I say pardon to my friend” or “I ask a question to check what they said.”

Examples of Communication Strategies in Information-Exchange Tasks

In Transcription 1, extracted from a grade 1 class in February 2014, Atsushi has difficulty hearing Haruaki’s question and uses the strategy “pardon?” three times. He first replies with a request for repetition in his first language, “hah”, before quickly replacing it with “pardon?” This clearly suggests that he is using “pardon?” as a genuine means of asking for repetition. The urgency with which he repeats it also suggests that he is genuinely concerned about not being able to hear his partner’s question.

Transcription 1: Food information-exchange activity Haruaki and Atsushi

4:48-Haruaki: Hello.

Atsushi: Hello.

Haruaki: Do you like milk? (quietly)

Atsushi: Hah? Pardon?

Haruaki: Do you like milk? (quietly)

Atsushi: Pardon?...Pardon?

Haruaki: (louder) Do you like milk?

Atsushi: Milk?... Yes, I do.

Haruaki: Yes, I do?

Atsushi: Yes.

Haruaki: Why?

Atsushi: It’s…healthy.

Haruaki: Okay.

Source: Video of Class 2-B February 19, 2014

The conversation below is from video of a grade 1 class in October. We can see Sachi used confirmation checks to confirm her partner’s response. In her first use of a confirmation check she genuinely misheard the question and used this communication strategy, which ultimately resulted in her partner correcting the communication breakdown. She then used the same technique again to confirm that her understanding of the corrected version of the question was correct. Had she not used a confirmation check here, she would likely have answered a question different from the one she was asked.

Transcription 2: Can You? information-exchange activity Suzy and Sachi

Suzy: Can you skip? (quiet voice)

Sachi: Ski?

Suzy: No. Skip.

Sachi: Skip?

Suzy: Yes.

Sachi: Yes, I can.

Source: Video of class 1-1A October 15, 2013


Initially, students would look to me for support during communication breakdowns, but I was careful not to intervene, forcing the students to think about how they could best continue the conversation themselves. The students’ use and reported awareness of communication strategies (evidenced in video transcriptions and questionnaire data respectively) began at zero in the beginning of the year, and increased gradually through the course of the year until they were using them frequently and comfortably. This allowed them to have lengthy conversations without any L1 usage or assistance from the teacher.  In fact, data comparing teacher and student talk-time demonstrated that from the middle of Term Two onwards, the grade 1 elementary school students were speaking more than their teacher, with student-student interactions making up 64% percent of 45-minute classes in the third term.

The Teaching of More Complex Communication Strategies

Inspired by these results, I continued to teach new communication strategies to the students as they progressed through elementary school. Table 1 shows how the strategies were introduced over time.


Table 1. Chronological Order of Strategies Introduced






Request for Repetition




Confirmation Check


You don’t like pasta?




That’s great!


Expressing Agreement/Disagreement


Me too!


Follow-up Questions


What did you do there?


Requesting a Translation


How do you say ____ in English?


Requesting Thinking Time


Hmm. Let’s see…




You went to a movie.


Providing and Requesting Examples



For example, carrots, lettuce…




It’s a kind of food that we eat on New Year’s Day.

This order was determined by difficulty along with how they correspond to the students’ emerging language competence and their suitability to assist in completing the information-exchange tasks. From the sixth strategy (requesting a translation) onwards, the strategies were explained in addition to being modelled. I provided the students with examples of how strategies could be used to successfully complete the information exchange tasks as well as other possible uses in the real world.  This switch in protocol occurred as it appeared that at this age and stage of their language progression, the students could understand the concept of strategies and think critically about when and how to employ them.

By grade 5, students could have 5-minute pair conversations on a random topic with few pauses. They effortlessly navigated difficulties in communication and continued speaking until the time ran out. As the conversations became more advanced, many breakdowns in communication occurred due to one student using vocabulary that was unfamiliar to their partner. This was rectified with the introduction of circumlocution, where a speaker explains the meaning of the word or phrase in English.

Circumlocution proved to be by far the most difficult strategy for the students to grasp. I soon realized that the strategy of circumlocution could not be taught effectively without breaking it down into sub-strategies. These sub-strategies consist of describing the appearance of the thing, its use, where it can be found, when it can be seen, and so on. With one of these sub-strategies as an anchor, the listener has a specific context to visualize while listening to a description that will help them begin to negotiate meaning. It also provides the speakers with a starting point for explanation, as they cycle through the various sub-strategies in their head before selecting an appropriate one and elaborating on it. For example, if the listener did not understand the word “food stand” when their partner used it to describe what they did over the summer, they could inquire, “What does food stand mean?”. The partner could reply with “Oh, you can see them at Japanese festivals, they are places that sell food.” This technique proved extremely effective in allowing students to negotiate meaning independently when an unknown word occurred.


After implementing a program of working through the 10 communication strategies and providing students with opportunities to first practice and then test their usage of the various strategies, the students’ strategic competence significantly increased. This resulted in increased confidence and overall communicative competence as the students shared information in pairs unassisted, and without the use of L1, for upwards of eight minutes, with topics ranging from what they did on the weekend, to the climate or culture of foreign countries.  I would strongly recommend strategy instruction from the earliest stages to any teacher hoping to foster communication and communicative competence in their classrooms.


Savignon, S. (1997). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Savignon, S. (2002). Communicative language teaching: Linguistic theory and classroom practice. In S. Savignon (Ed.), Interpreting communicative language teaching, 1-27.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sean Reid has a Master’s in TESOL from the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and Bachelor of Education degree from the University of British Columbia, Canada.  He has taught and designed EFL curriculum consisting of all original materials from first grade elementary school to second year high school.  Curriculum that he has created has been appraised as being superior to many of the top private school English programs in Japan, with the majority of the students receiving Eiken level 3 or higher before finishing elementary school. He has given several well-received presentations and workshops throughout Japan focusing on the implementation of a Communicative Language Teaching-Based approach to teaching and Communication Strategies.  He is also the owner of Alpha English, a company providing English programs to students with special needs.