Competency-based Language Teaching
Competency-Based Language Teaching (CBLT) focuses on what “learners are expected to do with the language” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.141). This approach emerged in the United States in the 1970s and can be described as “defining educational goals in terms of precise measurable descriptions of the knowledge, skills, and behaviors students should possess at the end of a course of study” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.141).
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2000, p.246) defines competency as “the ability to do sth well” and as “a skill that you need in a particular job or for a particular task”.
According to Richards & Rodgers (2001, p.141) “Competency-Based Language Teaching (CBLT) is an application of the principles of Competency-Based Education to language teaching”. In Competency-Based Education (CBE) the focus is on the “outcomes or outputs of learning”. By the end of the 1970s Competency-Based Language Teaching was mostly used in “work-related and survival-oriented language teaching programs for adults” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.141). Since the 1990s, CBLT has been seen as “the state-of-the-art approach to adult ESL” (Auerbach, 1986, p.411) so that any refugee in the United States who wished to receive federal assistance had to attend a competency-based program (Auerbach, 1986, p.412) in which they learned a set of language skills “that are necessary for individuals to function proficiently in the society in which they live” (Grognet & Crandall, 1982, p.3).
 Theory of Language and Learning
The major basis of CBLT is the “functional and interactional perspective on the nature of language (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 143) which means that language learning always needs to be connected to the social context it is used in. Therefore, language is seen as “a medium of interaction and communication between people” who want to achieve “specific goals and purposes” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143). This especially applies to situations in which the learner has to fulfill a particular role with language skills which can be predicted or determined for the relevant context (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143). In connection to this Competency-Based Language Teaching shares the behaviorist view of learning that “certain life encounters call for certain kinds of language” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143). Another key aspect of both language and learning theory is the so called “mosaic approach to language learning” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143), which assumes that language can be divided into appropriate parts and subparts. Communicative competence is then constructed from these subparts put together in the correct order (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143). All these aspects together show that CBLT is in some respects similar to Communicative Language Teaching (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.143).
A syllabus for a competency-based framework clearly differs from the traditional approach to developing a syllabus. Instead of selecting a topic or field of knowledge that one is going to teach (e.g., British History, American Literature, or poetry) and then choosing “concepts, knowledge, and skills that constitute that field of knowledge” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144), Competency-based Language Teaching “is designed not around the notion of subject knowledge but around the notion of competency” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144). Therefore, the focus is on how the students can use the language instead of their knowledge about the language. Schenck (1978) points out that the teacher provides a list of competencies which the course is going to deal with, and these are “typically required of students in life role situations”.
The fact that CBLT is an outcome-based approach also influences the syllabus, especially the kind of assessment which is used. In contrast to “norm-referenced assessment” (Docking, 1994, p.16), which is used in many other teaching approaches and methods, “criterion-based assessment” (Docking, 1994, p.16) is essential for CBLT. Students have to perform specific language skills which they have already learned during the course (Docking, 1994, p.16). The competencies tested “consist of a description of the essential skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors required for effective performance of a real-world task or activity” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144). These performance-criteria form the basis for the assessment.
 Learning Activities
The learning activities used in CBLT can be described as systematically designed activities to achieve a certain competence. These activities are real-world tasks which “may be related to any domain of life” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144) but especially to survival-oriented and work-related situations in a new environment (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144). Typical areas, for which such competency-based activities have been developed, are for example Job Application, Job Interview, or Work Schedules (Mrowicki, 1986). All these areas “can be described as a collection of units of competencies” which consist of “specific knowledge, thinking processes, attitudes, and perceptual and physical skills” (Docking, 1994, p.11).
 Eight Key Features
According to Auerbach (1986) there are eight key features which are essential for Competency-Based Language Teaching:
1. A focus on successful functioning in society which means that language is taught in order to prepare the students for the different demands of the world (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
2. A focus on life skills to determine that language is always taught as a medium of communication in concrete tasks in which specific language forms/skills are required (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
3. Task- or performance-centered orientation. The focus is on what the students can do with the language and certain behaviors instead of knowledge of the language (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
4. Modularized instruction emphasizes that the competencies which are taught have to be systematically separated into manageable parts so that both the teacher and students can handle the content and realize their progress (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
5. Outcomes that are made explicit a priori. “Outcomes are public knowledge, known and agreed upon by both learner and teacher” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146). Therefore, the students clearly know what behaviors and skills are expected of them (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
6. Continuous and ongoing assessment which means that the students are tested before the course to determine which skills they lack and after they have had instructions in that skill they are tested again to ascertain whether they have achieved the necessary skills or not (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
7. Demonstrated mastery of performance objectives. The assessment is based on the students’ performance of specific behaviors instead of traditional paper-and-pencil-tests (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
8. Individualized, student-centered instruction. The instructions given by the teacher are not time-based but the focus is on the progress the individual students make at their own rate. Therefore, the teacher has to concentrate on each individual students in order to support them in those areas in which they lack competence (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146).
 Role of Teacher
The role of the teacher in a competency-based framework is not defined by specific terms. The teacher has to provide positive and constructive feedback in order to help the students to improve their skills. She/he needs to be aware of the learners’ needs so that everybody feels welcome in class (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146). The different competencies dealt with in class require specific instructions for the various learning activities. Thus the teacher has to give clear orders and explanations to make sure that every student understands the task they are going to deal with. But the teacher does not push the students because the instructions are not time-based; instead the student’s progress is most important (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146). Another task of the teacher in CBLT is to select learning activities and to design a syllabus according to the competency the students are going to acquire.
 Role of Learner
The role of the learner in a competency-based framework is to decide whether the competencies are useful and relevant for him/her (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146). This shows that the learner has an active role in the classroom which is underlined by the fact that the students are expected to perform the skills learned (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.146). The competencies the students will learn are clearly defined and present in the public so that “the learner knows exactly what needs to be learned” and for which purpose he/she has to use the competencies (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). In this regard it is vital that every competency is mastered one at a time because this makes sure that the learners know what they have already learned and what the next steps will look like (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). Moreover, the students have to stay in the actual program until they improve. After they mastered their skills, they move into a more proficient group of students. The main goal of the learner in Competency-Based Language Teaching is to be able to adapt and transfer knowledge from one setting to another.
The materials the teacher chooses are mainly “sample texts and assessment tasks that provide examples of texts and assessment tasks that relate to the competency” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). These materials are used to provide the students with “the essential skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors required for effective performance of a real-world task or activity” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.144). A great variety of competencies should be improved by these tasks. On the one hand, knowledge and learning competencies as well as oral competencies are dealt with. On the other hand, the materials include tasks to improve the reading and writing competencies (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147).
At the beginning of a course in a competency-based framework the students have to go through an initial assessment, in which the teacher determines the current proficiency level of the individual student. After this the students are grouped on the basis of “their current English proficiency level, their learning pace, their needs, and their social goals for learning English” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). Furthermore, a course based on CBLT is divided into three stages, which the students have to go through in order to successfully finish the course (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). At Stages 1 and 2 the learners deal with twelve competencies which are related to general language development (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147). At Stage 3 the students are grouped on the basis of their learning goals and “competencies are defined according to the three syllabus strands of Further Study, Vocational English, and Community Access” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.147).
There are both critics and supporters of Competency-Based Language Teaching. According to Tollefson (1986) it is very difficult to develop lists of competencies for every specific situation. This is due above all to the fact that many areas in which people need certain competencies are impossible to operationalise (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.148). Other researchers argue that describing an activity in terms of a set of different competencies is not enough in order to deal with the complexity of the activity as a whole (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.148). But on the other hand, CBLT is gaining popularity in the whole world. It is argued that through the clearly defined outcomes and the continuous feedback in CBLT, the quality of assessment as well as the students’ learning and the teaching are improved (Docking, 1994, p.15). These improvements can be seen on all educational levels, “from primary school to university, and from academic studies to workplace training” (Docking, 1994, p.15). Rylatt and Lohan (1997, p.18) point out that “the business of improving learning competencies and skills will remain one of the world’s fastest growing industries and priorities” in the future.
- Auerbach, E. R. (1986). Competency-based ESL: One step forward or two steps back? TESOL Quarterly 20(3): 411 – 415.
- Docking, R. (1994). Competency-based curricula – the big picture. Prospect 9(2): 11 – 15.
- Grognet, A. G., & Crandall, J. (1982). Competency-bases curricula in adult ESL. ERIC/CLL New Bulletin 6: 3.
- Hornby, A. S. (2000). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (Sixth Edition). Oxford: OUP.
- Mrowicki, L. (1986). Project Work English Competency-Based Curriculum. Portland, Oreg.: Northwest Educational Cooperative.
- Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Second Edition). Cambridge: CUP.
- Rylatt, A., & Lohan, K. (1997). Creating Training Miracles. Sydney: Prentice Hall.
- Schneck, E. A. (1978). A Guide to Identifying High School Graduation Competencies.
- Tollefson, J. (1986). Functional competencies in the U.S. refugee program: Theoretical and practical problems. TESOL Quarterly 20(4): 649 – 664.