Linguistic Skills and Communicative Abilities

Este material presenta las diferencias que existen entre las competencias lingüísticas y las habilidades comunicativas, la manera en que interactúan y el valor de cada una de ellas.

According to Widdowson

the concept of linguistic skill can be associated with training in the sense that there has to be some kind of specifiable type of performance that has to be mastered. 
In the literature, skill translates as destreza. Hence, skill mastery requires specific practice.

What does this mean?

Let's give an example from a context other than that of foreign language teaching.

When we learn how to drive a car, there are a number of skills that we have to learn in order to become efficient drivers. For one thing, we must be able to recognise the position of the five gears so that we can choose the right one at the right moment. Part of this skill is also remembering to press the clutch to be able to engage (first) gear, or ruin the whole thing.

When we have mastered this, does it mean that we've learnt how to drive? Does it mean we can go off into the traffic? Into a road? Oh, no! Those of us who have learnt how to drive know this very well much to our cost.

We need an awful number of other skills like the one we've just outlined to be able to control the unexpected: the traffic itself, other drivers' reactions, the geography of the place, and many other variables.

To the extent that we have managed to master all these skills individually, have learnt the place of each in the overall task of driving; if we have been relieved of the awesome task of remembering that it's necessary to first press the clutch to be able to engage any gear, and also press the clutch if we break the car to a halt, then we'll be ready to look at the ongoing traffic. And be good drivers.

The immediate conclusion is that skills are necessary to complete a whole (communicative) task. But, same as in the example on driving, a communicative task requires a number of (linguistic) skills coming together, integrated, articulated with each other, feeding on each other, and rendering a (communicative) ability.

There's nothing wrong about isolating a certain linguistic skill and give learners practice in it. If a group of learners cannot hear the difference between bean and bin, it is necessary for the teacher to give them practice in the identification of these two vowels, especially because there's no equivalent contrast in Spanish. But note that this practice on its own won't enable learners to succeed in communication, though, no doubt, handling the distinction will make their lives easier.

Or take the headache of a first, second, third year of English: the -s for third person singular, Simple Present Tense. We may give learners isolated practice for them to choose which of the personal pronouns require the -s. This kind of practice may go fine while it's going on, but what happens when the learner is put into a more demanding situation that requires the solving of some problem? How many third person -s' s do we normally get? None?

In this light, let's have a look at a very frequent type of classroom drill, repetition.

Chorus repetition, group repetition, individual repetition are frequent strategies used in the classroom. Are they conducive to communication? No, not really, but they constitute an initial step towards the implementation of a certain linguistic form in short-term memory. What is short-term memory? It's the kind of memory that allows us to remember, say, a telephone number that someone has given us orally until we get to the telephone or our personal telephone directory and write it down, and dial it. Normally, once we've written it down or dialed the number, it is gone.

This is the frequent fate of linguistic skills if they're not recycled, revised, integrated, made meaningful in the context of a communicative ability. So? Linguistic skills are necessary but not enough

What are linguistic skills, then?

They're teaching strategies that require the receptive/productive manifestation of isolated linguistic aspects without a real communicative purpose, other than the practice of these same linguistic aspects.

A communicative ability, by contrast, will promote a global analysis of the context, with all its variables, which will also integrate those linguistic aspects that were isolated in view of the overall context. It goes without saying, then, that this type of approach is most desirable since it contributes to enable language users, to both understand and produce.

This implies that the asymmetry between comprehension and production is best treated from the outlook of communicative abilities, rather than from the linguistic skill approach. As we've said before, communicative abilities are global, all encompassing, and hence suitable for exposure, which –hopefully– leads to input and hence acquisition.

How do we bridge the gap between linguistic skills and communicative abilities, then?

One neat way to do so is to always think of the final communicative task, and plan the lesson in terms of the linguistic skills necessary to pursue the task.

What we're trying to say is that there's a continuum between one extreme and the other, between activities oriented towards the development of an isolated linguistic skill to full communicative value.

Nothing is forbidden provided there's a rational sequencing of activities from the mechanical –like repetition– going through manipulative activities –like the fill-in-the-blanks exercise– to the fully communicative situation with the expression of personal meanings.

Linguistic-skill practice should not be eradicated, provided it's put into the context of the overall planning leading on to communication, which requires that activities be placed in a certain order requiring more commitment, knowledge and communicative stress from the learner.

What do we mean by integration?

As learning does not proceed on a straight line, it frequently goes back, waits (often it comes to a halt), goes on, tries to include the new learning member into some system, sometimes confuses the system and a number of systems collapse; then, with more exposure, the learner elaborates a new hypothesis and resends the new item in a different direction, until it finally matches the features of the system in question.

Phew! How much work!

In teaching terms, what does this mean? It means that one way to bridge the gap between linguistic skills and communicative abilities is to plan activities that will recycle, integrate and reinforce a certain linguistic item in the context of the overall system, provoking the use of the target item in a situation with a communicative purpose.

This type of strategy will imply not only the use of the language but also the possibility of reflecting on the linguistic forms used in the context of the communicative activity proposed. In turn this means correcting errors, rewriting drafts, drawing attention to linguistic charts and the preparation of new activities that will serve both as input to find out more about learner hypotheses and further practice.

This latter concept brings us to the contrast between fluency and accuracy. Fluency does not necessarily mean speed in production – that depends on cognitive style. We would recommend instrumental fluency, which allows the learner to achieve the communicative purpose proposed in real time, even if, while doing so, his performance reveals that his interlanguage is incomplete and requires hypothesis adjustment.

What kind of activity would you implement for learners to carry out a survey relating to their classmates' daily routines, including domestic facts, leisure time, sports and other aspects you might have detected as crucial for your particular group of learners? What aspects would you recommend for linguistic skill practice and how would you organise communicative practice as a continuum?


WIDDOWSON, H. G. (1998). Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Publicado: 14 de enero de 2015

Última modificación: 25 de febrero de 2015



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