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Communication for a purpose

Why do we communicate? Christine Trumper discusses the importance of purpose

Communication can be understood as receptive, productive and interactive skills, but it cannot be kept in isolation or without purpose.

I remember a few years ago taking a group of IB Diploma Programme (DP) students on an exchange trip to a francophone IB World School in Togo and their disbelief when I told them about their programme during their stay: “Do you mean we will be learning maths and economics in French?” And their excitement on their return because, not only had they understood the French-speaking teachers but they had taken part in class projects with their Togolese counterparts who, by then, had become firm friends.

Thanks to their experience in Togo, my students had fulfilled the main aim of learning French or any foreign language, which is communication.

Communication can be understood as receptive, productive and interactive skills, but it cannot be kept in isolation or without purpose. In the new DP language B course outline (see diagram, communication takes place in a framework or a situation (themes). Communication is intentional (texts).
When we communicate, we have a purpose. We want to inform, tell a story, convince someone; we might want to sell a product or an idea. Our state of mind, our previous experience, where we are, will influence what we communicate and how we do it.

Whom we address, their state of mind, their previous experience, where they are, will also influence how we will address them. All these elements will define the choice of text with its audience, its context, its purpose, its meaning and its variation (conceptual understanding).

But, of course, in order to communicate, students need language; the necessary tool to communicate as precisely and as appropriately as possible, to achieve their purpose.

For example, when writing a letter, it is not sufficient to write the address in the correct place, the date, the appropriate greetings and a signature. Over the years, I have set my students the task of writing a letter to a head of school and have subsequently read so many letters to the head of an imaginary school with an unlikely address where the content was merely an emotionless essay.

Syllabus outline Language B guide first assessment 2020 © International Baccalaureate

On those occasions, I have always told my students: “You are in a school with a head teacher/principal. You know him/her and what makes him/her tick. Write to him/her. Think of what he/she would like to hear. Do not write an essay pretending to be a letter.” It is important to get students to put themselves in a real situation rather than imagine an unlikely one.

I remember a student who had always achieved very good results in French until she started the DP. After explaining to her the purpose of communication she then exclaimed: “Oh! Now I understand. So there is more to it than just vocabulary and grammar!”

In practice, DP French B teachers (those who are teaching French as a second language) can embrace this focus on communication in the updated course that starts teaching later in 2018 and students will be encouraged to reflect on and understand the concepts which underpin appropriate and efficient communication in productive, receptive and interactive skills.

IB teachers can find the new course guide and teacher support materials by logging in to the programme resource centre via My IB. They can also refer to the DP French B course book published by Oxford University Press (OUP), in cooperation with the IB, co-authored by Christine. She has over 40 years of experience as a DP teacher, head of modern languages department, subject area manager for the IB, workshop leader and examiner. She has worked mainly in the UK and Africa, most recently in Ghana. A version of this post was originally published on the OUP website. For a video highlighting the features of the DP Language B course book from OUP please click here.