Redefining Communicative Competence and Redesigning ELT in the 21st Century

Jun Liu will moderate the James E. Alatis Plenary, presented by Drs. Lourdes Ortega and Michael Byram, titled “Redefining Communicative Competence and Redesigning ELT in the 21st Century,” at the TESOL 2015 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8 am, Thursday, 26 March 2015.

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In the James E. Alatis plenary at TESOL 2015, which features for the first time an interactive format, the moderator (Jun Liu) and the presenters (Michael Byram, Lourdes Ortega) discuss the educational contents for communicative competence in the 21st century. They agree communicative competence cannot simply be limited to the traditional instrumentality goals that motivated the well-known ELT focus on communication in the 1980s. Byram will argue for the importance of intercultural language teaching, or teaching inspired by educational values and goals that utilize as a cornerstone his proposed notion of criticality, drawing on intercultural education and citizenship education. Ortega will highlight that other dimensions to being communicatively competent in an L2 are also important, and particularly in English as a second language, related to the project of supporting students’ empowerment and the improvement of their social worlds, fueled by their imagination, their desires, and their awareness of the inseparability of language from power and identity struggles.

Byram will argue that educational values can provide meaningful, relevant goals for a new notion of communicative competence as criticality (Byram, 2008, 2012), or the capacity for reflection and evaluation of our own and others’ values, beliefs, and behaviors (“cultures”). He will invite us to imagine students who are never to use their English—or any other L2—in practice, and ask: What would be the value of teaching and learning languages then? In what sense, if any, would communicative competence be a goal relevant to teachers and students working together in many contexts where students study English for mandatory purposes or because of parental or societal pressure, without any real immediate need or intention to claim any use of English outside their studies? Criticality would be a central goal, and one that can be cultivated by engaging in intercultural language teaching.

The first stage is defining objectives related to criticality which would be feasible for language teachers in a given context. The second stage is implementing these objectives and purposes so they can be fulfilled in practice. This has been done in development projects, large and small, that he has been involved in. Refinements will also be needed at a third stage, which has been defined theoretically and is now being implemented in projects with teachers. At its best, Byram will argue, intercultural and citizenship education for criticality leads learners to become actively, critically involved in “action in the world.”

Ortega will argue that teachers’ efforts at helping students develop the ability to communicate well in English in the 21st century must go beyond supporting their capacity to use English for the transaction of information or the attainment of grades, jobs, or education. ELT classrooms must also support students to be seen, heard, and judged in desirable ways in their actual and imagined social worlds. Can they claim the right to speak (as Norton Peirce, 1995, called it) when they use English? Can they exercise the power to impose meanings (as Bourdieu, 1977, called it)? Their ability to do these things will never depend just on knowledge of language norms, the size of their vocabularies, the accuracy of their grammar and pronunciation, or the depth of their cultural knowledge—even if, of course, all these other things will help.

Learning to claim the right to speak and impose meanings in their nonnative English presupposes an awareness of both world Englishes and unequal Englishes (Tupas, 2015) and of linguicism (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2015). Strategies must also be offered that help our students disrupt and productively exploit to their advantage the experiences of otherness and oppression that come with being placed by others hierarchically (materially and/or symbolically) as a novice, a foreigner, an outside member, or a nonnative speaker. Likewise, a redesigned ELT pedagogy must also illuminate language as identity choices and communication as power struggles, and teachers and students must work together to raise action-enabling awareness of both.

How do we meet this tall order of criticality and empowerment? As part of the “deep-dive” follow-up session, Liu, Byram, and Ortega will analyze with their audiences further examples, offering big and small pedagogical practices that can help the diverse communities of TESOL rise to the challenge of meeting these contemporary goals for communicative competence, redefined in theory and redesigned in ELT practice.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Byram, M. S. (2008). From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship: Essays and reflection. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. S. (2012). Conceptualizing intercultural (communicative) competence and intercultural citizenship. In J. Jackson (Ed.), Routledge handbook of language and intercultural communication (pp. 85–97). Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 9–31.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2015). Linguicism. In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), The encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Tupas, R. (Ed.). (2015). Unequal Englishes: The politics of Englishes today. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.


Jun Liu is professor of applied linguistics and associate provost at Georgia State University. He is a past president of TESOL and a member of the TIRF Board of Trustees.

Dr. Lourdes Ortega is professor at Georgetown University. She has worked with language teachers and doctoral students since 2000 in Hawaii, Georgia, Arizona, and Washington DC.

Dr. Michael Byram is professor emeritus at Durham University, United Kingdom, and guest professor at Luxembourg University. He has been adviser to the Council of Europe Language Policy Division and is now working on guidelines for intercultural education.

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