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The shift from the paradigm of communication to the paradigm of action, and its implications for practical implementation of the social action-oriented approach

Université Régionale de Formation Été 2012
« Didactique des langues, des cultures et des disciplines à l’université »
Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines Dhar Mahraz
Fès, 26-28 septembre 2012
Conference of September 26, 2012
Original version: “Le passage du paradigme de la communication au paradigme de l’action, et
ses implications dans la mise en œuvre pratique de la perspective actionnelle”,
Christian Puren
Professeur émérite de l’Université de Saint-Étienne (France)
The idea of the social action-oriented approach (SAOA) was launched in 2001 by the CEFRL
which proposes the training of a social actor as a new purpose of language teaching and learning
in Europe. However, the first French as a foreign language (FFL) textbook based on both the
task-based approach and the social action-oriented approach, was not published until 2004
(Rond-Point 1, Paris: Éditions Maison des Langues). Moreover, some didacticians continue to
view SAOA as a simple extension of the communicative approach (CA).
This is not my opinion, and here I will analyze what is probably the most important break
between the communicative approach and the social action-oriented approach, i.e. the shift from
the communication paradigm to the action paradigm, and its main implications, illustrated with
excerpts from recent textbooks.
I have kept for my text the structure of the slideshow, which will therefore be mainly in the form
of a commentary of visuals.
1. The communication paradigm
A "paradigm", in epistemology, is a principle or a limited number of principles that command the
entire vision that one has of the field. In astronomy, for example, Ptolemy's "paradigm"
considered that the earth was fixed at the center of the universe, the "Copernican-Galilean
paradigm", that it revolved with other planets around the sun.
Here are two statements from the communication paradigm:
Council of Europe, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning,
teaching, assessment, Strasbourg, Language Policy Unit, 260 p. On line :
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- We can't not communicate. Paul WATZLAWICK, School of Palo Alto.
- It is certain that learning or teaching a language can only be done within a
communicative framework, since it is necessarily a question of communicating in a
foreign language. Évelyne BÉRARD, L’approche communicative. Théorie et pratique.
(Paris: CLE international, 1991, pp. 62-63).
In the second quotation above, I have put in bold the expressions that correspond to the three
elements that, combined, reveal in a statement the presence of a paradigm: certainty
("certain"), restriction ("only"), and finally obligation ("necessarily"), which is also found in the
quotation from Paul WATZLAWICK ("We cant not ...").
Paradigms are necessary for thinking, because they are principles of coherence, "reading grids"
of reality, but these grids are also cages that imprison us and prevent us from grasping the
complexity of reality. Here are two examples, which I will comment briefly:
- In a global way, the only skill targeted by the teaching of a foreign language is
the ability to communicate. What the student wants, what he needs, immediately and
for his future as an adult, is to be able to communicate with a native speaker of the
language he is learning, that is to say, to understand him and be understood by him.
Louis PORCHER, L’enseignement des langues étrangères.
Paris: Hachette Éducation, 2004, pp. 31-32, emphasis added).
It is clear, however, that the teaching of a foreign language is not "only aimed at the ability to
communicate": some learners of a foreign language only want to be able to read texts written
in a foreign language, be it literature or scientific documentation.
- Despite its special place, negotiation only covers cognitive processes that we have
already mentioned: it "must be considered as a branch of interactive communication"
(BELLANGER, 1995, p. 119).
The second quotation above is taken from an article by Régine TEULIER-BOURGINE, who takes
it up in an article in 2008.
However, it seems more logical to me to consider that communication
is only a means at the service of negotiation, which is the real action carried out: in the "action
paradigm" we will consider the action as first, and the means used to carry it out as second.
I will illustrate the influence of the communication paradigm, to the detriment of the action
paradigm, in four recent FFL textbooks.
"Representations: mediating strategic action". Online (last consultation August 15, 2012):
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Example 1
Presenting information about a city
Step 1: In small groups, we choose our favorite city.
Step 2: We exchange and write down the useful information to visit this city
(means of transport, climate, visits...).
Step 3: We present the information about the city to the class.
Step 4: We answer the questions of the other groups.
Below I am taking up the commentary on this textbook reproduction that I made in a recent
where I present the different options currently available in language and culture
didactics -in this case the "task-based approach" as it is still conceived in most FFL textbooks,
i.e. as a communicative task:
The announced task ("Presenting information about a city") is communicative, and this is
indeed the type of task aimed at: the real action (choosing a city) is done in small groups
because it is in fact only a pretext to make the students interact linguistically with each
other within each of these groups, and then to make each of them communicate with the
class group. The real challenge for social actors (that of the learners in their class-society)
would have been to decide collectively - and if possible really, or at least realistically -
which city they would go to visit together. Realism would imply, in the example of this
textbook task, that what is presented there as "useful information for visiting the city"
(communicative approach) once the city is chosen, be integrated into the criteria
mobilized to choose it (social action-oriented approach). (pp. 17-18)
Example 2
"Configurations didactiques, constructions méthodologiques et objets didactiques en
didactique des langues-cultures : perspective historique et situation actuelle". Online:
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Form groups of four or five people to select
the folder (1, 2, 3 or 4) from the XXX manual.
a) Each person gives his or her opinion and
justifies his or her choices. You express your
agreement or disagreement. You make a
common choice.
b) Each group communicates its choice to the
class and explains the reasons
The task proposed is this time a real action (choose the preferred folder) which has a real
meaning in relation to the common project in progress in the classroom, namely the teaching-
learning of a language-culture. But we see:
1) that the authors propose that this action be carried out only in small groups, and the
reason for this is that it favours and multiplies communicative exchanges between
learners; but this action in fact interests the whole class, so there should have been, at
least at the end of the activity, a general discussion and a choice of the whole class (or,
if not, a negotiation with the teacher on the implementation of differentiated pedagogy
2) that the large group is used only as a pretext to redouble communication (cf.
instruction b), without this leading to action (which would have been the collective choice
of the whole class);
3) that the activity thus ends with communication for communication's sake, which clearly
indicates that it is communication, and not action, that is the true objective: action is a
pretext for communication, whereas in a truly action-oriented perspective,
communication is a means to the true objective, which is action.
Example 3
The title of this manual is "Travailler en français en entreprise" (Working in French in the
workplace), but the photo on the cover page is not realistic: it is difficult to imagine the possibility
of actually capturing a scene of this type. In fact, it is the paradigm of communication that
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worked in the editor's mind: what he has represented here is not a scene of working in a
company, but a scene of a foreign language class organized for the communicative approach,
where the learners are all put in a situation of interindividual communication (in pairs), because
it is there that the exchanges will necessarily be the most multiplied.
In the implementation of the communication paradigm in the language classroom, we find the
scheme initially proposed by Shannon:
This model was based on the communication technology of the time, which was the telegraph,
where communication was reduced to an exchange of information between two communicators
who alternately exchanged the roles of transmitter and receiver.
2. The action paradigm
I will illustrate this paradigm, like the previous paradigm of communication, with a few "defining"
- Inflation of communication can hamper action.
We are now in an era where information messages are attacking us from all sides: the concept
of "infobesity" has been created to refer to this situation... We spend a long time every morning
deleting unwanted e-mails (which French Canadians nicely refer to as "spam") from our e-mail
inbox, as well as useless messages, the ones that "we have nothing to do with".
This change of era is reflected in the criticisms that many citizens now make of politicians. It
used to be said of them that often "they talk for the sake of talking". They are now
communication specialists (or at least they all have "communication advisers", but as a result,
the criticism they now receive is that "they say a lot to do nothing"... These citizens now demand
that their representatives do, that they act, and not just communicate. And these same citizens
are no longer content to simply delegate the power to act to their representatives elected every
4, 5 or 7 years; they demand to be able to act themselves permanently on their society (on its
choices, on its evolutions) as autonomous and responsible social actors. It is this new demand
that explains, according to some political scientists, the "crisis of representative democracy" that
European countries are currently experiencing. In other words, the citizens of democratic
societies have also moved from the paradigm of communication to the paradigm of action...
- Communication depends on upstream and downstream actions.
Corporate sociologists - a workplace where the ultimate and constantly present criterion is the
effectiveness of collective action - have shown in recent years that information depends on action
upstream (it is produced by its author according to what he or she thinks the recipient will want
or need to do with it) and downstream (it is received - understood and used - by the recipient
according to what he or she will want or need to do with it). There was a time when, when a
company was malfunctioning, the boss would bring in a communication guru, because the
spontaneous hypothesis was that the malfunctions were due to a lack of communication in the
company. The dominant theme in business management today is "The right information at the
right time to the right person" .
- Communication at the service of action is part of a global information management process.
This is what we call, for the employee in a company, Knowledge Management, and for the citizen
in his company, "information literacy". I have already quoted on several occasions, in my lectures
and articles, this Annex (B) entitled « The information literacy life cycle explained » which can
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be found at the end of Jr. FOREST WOODY HORTON's 2008 Understanding Information Literacy :
A primer
( (pp. 59-60) :
1. Realize that a need or problem exists that requires information for its satisfactory
2. Know how to accurately identify & define the info needed to meet need or solve
3. Know how to determine if the needed info exists or not, and if it does not, go to Stage 5
4. Know how to find needed info if known to exist, and then go to Stage 6.
5. Know how to create, or cause to be created, unavailable info. (i.e. create new
6. Know how to fully understand found info, or know where to go for help if needed to
7. Know how to organize, analyze, interpret, and evaluate info, including source reliability
8. Know how to communicate and present info. to others in appropriate/ usable
formats/ mediums.
9. Know how to utilize info. to solve problem, make decision, or meet need.
10. Know how to preserve, store, reuse, record and archive info. for future use.
11. Know how to dispose of info. no longer needed, and safeguard info. that should be
(Emphasis added)
We can see that the competence of a responsible citizen no longer consists - I was going to say
does not consist of all above competencies - of simply being able to communicate information
received immediately to others, but in being able to carry out all these pre- and post-
communicative operations as well, what we can call "informational competence", in the sense of
being able to act on and through information as a social actor.
The same is true of those information professionals who are journalists. Here is the front page
of the French newspaper Libération as it appeared on its website on September 4, 2009
Laurent Joffrin: "We seek to rehabilitate journalism against communication".
A few years ago I wrote an article entitled "Les implications de la perspective de l'agir social
sur la gestion des connaissances en classe de langue-culture : de la compétence
communicative à la compétence informationnelle". On line:
The article is still available as of the present date (2021/01/28) at
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What Laurent Joffrin, who was at the time the editor of this newspaper, means by this is
undoubtedly that the journalist must, in his job, know how to act on and through information
according to his ethical principles and standards.
3. The Paradigm of Action in the Common European Framework of
Reference for Languages
Clearly, the authors of the CEFRL have taken into account the paradigm of action. It is found as
a central concept:
a) in the definition of the action in the social action-oriented approach:
The approach adopted here, generally speaking, is an action-oriented one in so far as it
views users and learners of a language primarily as ‘social agents’, i.e. members of
society who have tasks (not exclusively language-related) to accomplish in a given set of
circumstances, in a specific environment and within a particular field of action. While acts
of speech occur within language activities, these activities form part of a wider social
context, which alone is able to give them their full meaning. (p. 9)
b) and in the definition of all key concepts used throughout this document:
-Competences are the sum of knowledge, skills and characteristics that allow a person
to perform actions.
-Context refers to the constellation of events and situational factors (physical and
others), both internal and external to a person, in which acts of communication are
-Text is any sequence or discourse (spoken and/or written) related to a specific domain
and which in the course of carrying out a task becomes the occasion of a language
activity, whether as a support or as a goal, as product or process.
-Domain refers to the broad sectors of social life in which social agents operate. A
higher order categorisation has been adopted here limiting these to major categories
relevant to language learning/teaching and use: the educational, occupational, public
and personal domains.
-A task is defined as any purposeful action considered by an individual as necessary in
order to achieve a given result in the context of a problem to be solved, an obligation to
fulfil or an objective to be achieved. (p. 9 and p. 10)
But the authors of the CEFRL are still under the strong influence of the communicative approach
and its communication paradigm, as we can see:
- in the competency descriptors, which, for the first levels, frequently use the description
of the language inherited from this approach, namely the notional-functional grammar :
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Table 1.
Common Reference Levels: global scale (p. 24)
- or the inability of the authors to integrate action criteria, when the communicative criteria
are no longer sufficient. The following example seems to me to be particularly telling:, p. 84
I have already taken this grid as an example in a 2009c article cited above in note 1, and here
I will simply copy the long analysis I made of it in that article:
One will recognize, I hope, that an evaluation grid with six levels, four of which are defined
by the same descriptors, constitutes a real docimological aberration: this means in fact
that for the same observed performance (the one indicated here in B1), the evaluator
could attribute to productions of certification candidates, as far as written interaction
competence is concerned (since written interaction is concerned), as much level B1 as
level B2, C1 or C2! But on which criterion? The "client's head", as we say colloquially?!
First question:] Why is it that the authors of the CEFR, on their six-level competency
scale, are unable to find specific descriptors for the top three proficiency levels?
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The answer lies, in my opinion, in their unconscious and systematic application of the
information-communication paradigm: all the descriptors they use here, as can be seen,
relate to the punctual transmission of information content. However, this paradigm
proves to be unsuitable in texts such as notes and messages, which as "working
documents" are by their very nature part of a logic of social action, that is to say,
collaborative and sustainable.
In this type of text, in fact, the information must be treated, from its elaboration to its
transmission, in relation to its intended or foreseeable use by the recipient(s), in relation
to what he/she will or can do with it. In other words, the notes and messages imply an
action on the information that the informant must carry out in relation to the action by
the information that he or she foresees that the addressee(s) will/will have to carry out.
It is precisely in the joint consideration of these two actions (action on and through
information) in different temporalities that the difference between what I will call
"informational co-action", on the one hand, and communicative interaction, on the other,
Second question: One really wonders what forms do in this gallery (in this case in this
group of texts), even if, if we look hard enough, we can say that a form is a document
characterized by a very strong upstream action on the information as we want the user
to communicate it, by means of a very directional formatting (lines to be completed,
check boxes, etc.) designed precisely according to the action we want to perform with
the information thus collected. But there is still no interaction in the sense of reciprocity,
and even less common action on and through the information thus transmitted.
The most plausible answer to this second question is that this is another effect of the
information-communication paradigm on which the authors of the CEFRL have focused.
What brought together notes, messages and forms in their minds, as I think we can see
from the descriptors they use, is the simplicity of the information requested/transmitted
(they assume that it is few and factual) and the simplicity of the language used to transmit
it (they assume that it is written in short sentences or even telegraphic style). Hence,
very logically there too, the impossibility they found themselves in by proposing in this
grid more complex criteria and performance indicators for the three upper levels B2, C1
and C2, for which it would have been necessary to use criteria of informational
competence such as the relevance in the choice or design of the medium, the information
content, the recipient and the time of transmission. (pp. 25-26)
In the time allotted for my intervention (20 minutes) I was unable to address, after "the shift
from the paradigm of communication to the paradigm of action", the entire second part
announced in the title of my lecture, namely, "its implications in the practical implementation of
the social action-oriented approach. I apologized to my listeners for this, and I apologize again
to my readers.
However, I have addressed this issue in several articles available online on my personal website,
to which I therefore refer students and interested colleagues:
« Formes pratiques de combinaison entre perspective actionnelle et approche
communicative : analyse comparative de trois manuels »,
« La nouvelle perspective actionnelle et ses implications sur la conception des manuels
de langue. Analyse des mini-projets terminaux des unités didactiques de Rond-point 1
(Difusión, 2004) »,
« Construire une unité didactique dans une perspective actionnelle »,
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Mise en œuvre de la perspective actionnelle : analyse comparative de la tâche finale
dans deux manuels de FLE, Latitudes 1 (2008) & Version Originale 1 (2009) »,
Note dated 2010-01-29
For an updated bibliography on the action perspective, see:
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