Competency Based Approach

Competency-based education (CBE), an approach to adult and literacy education, began to be used in adult education ESL in the 1970s. Competency-based ESL is centered around teaching to competencies. A competency is a task-based goal to be met by the learner. Competencies frequently include basic survival skills like taking transportation, going to the doctor, and buying necessities. However, competencies could also be goals to be met by students or professionals. A competency-based approach includes an assessment of learners’ needs, selection of competencies based on those needs, instruction targeted on meeting those needs, and evaluation of learners’ performance in meeting the competencies. A competency based approach continues to be the primary method used in U.S. government-funded adult education ESL programs. The two most widely known competency based programs in the United States are (1) SCANS, which is the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, a report put out in 1991 by the U.S. government detailing what competencies, skills, and personal qualities are needed to succeed in the workplace, and (2) CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System), a private organization that has created its own competencies with its own materials and assessment and is now used by a number of adult education programs in the United States. In addition, CBE is also used extensively in Australian adult ESL programs for immigrants.
Strategy of Competency Based Approach

English Skill Level: Beginning to Advanced
Grade Level: Upper Elementary to Adult

  • The teacher conducts a needs assessment to see how and where students will need to use English to be successful in the future.
  • The teacher defines tasks, or competencies, that students will need to accomplish. Examples of competencies might include requesting and giving personal information, asking for the time, practicing transactions in the post office, and making a doctor’s appointment.
  • The teacher creates lessons and activities that will teach students how to accomplish the tasks, or competencies, that have been prescribed. Lessons might include new vocabulary, understanding and practicing dialogues, reading and filling out forms, and discussing previous experiences and future problems that might occur.
  • Students are evaluated on their ability to perform the designated task or competency.
Applications and Examples of Competency Based Approach

Shopping for Clothes

  • A picture of a clothing store with a clerk and a woman is shown to students. Students are asked, “What is happening in this picture?” If students have difficulty answering, the teacher can ask more direct questions: “Where are they?” “Who is this woman?” “What is she doing?” Students are then asked about their shopping experiences with questions such as, “Do you like to shop?” “What do you like to buy?” “Where do you shop?” “How often do you shop?” Such questions not only help students focus on the topic but also help the teacher assess what the students know and what they need to know.
  • Students are then shown pictures of different articles of clothing. Students review the names and colors of articles of clothing.
  • Students then listen to a dialogue between the shopper and the store clerk. Students may follow the written dialogue as they listen.

Clerk: Can I help you?
Shopper: Yes, I’m looking for a new dress to wear to work.
Clerk: What size do you wear?
Shopper: I wear a size 12.
Clerk: What color would you like?
Shopper: I’d like something in blue.
Clerk: How about this dress?
Shopper: No, I don’t really care for that dress.
Clerk: How about this one?
Shopper: Yes, I like that one.
Clerk: Would you like to try it on?
Shopper: Yes, where is the dressing room?

(Shopper tries on the dress)

Clerk: How does it fit?
Shopper: Just fine. I think I’ll get it.

Note: Within the dialogue are a number of idiomatic expressions that are used when shopping.

  • The teacher points out new vocabulary in the dialogue such as

Looking for
How about
Don’t care for
Try it on
Dressing room
Does it fit
I’ll get it

  • Students practice parts of the dialogues. First, students practice saying individual lines as a class. Then students practice the dialogue in pairs. Then students practice shopping in pairs using the practice dialogue or their own. Students then role-play the situation.
  • Once students can accomplish this competency, they can go on to similar competencies such as shopping for groceries, buying clothes for children, shopping in a hardware store. Students can also go on to other topics such as going to the doctor, applying for a job, or visiting with their children’s teachers.