Communicative Approach or Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).
Its origins can be traced to the 60s, with the changes that occur in the British language teaching tradition. At this point, the foundations of Audiolingualism begin to be questioned, mainly as a result of Chomsky’s cognitivist ideas (cf. section 5).
Thus, on the one hand, CLT appears as a reaction to previous methodological principles, such as those underlying Audiolingualism or Grammar-Translation. Scholars such as Candlin or Widdowson now begin to advocate the development of communicative proficiency in the target language, rather than knowledge of its structures, basing themselves on a wide range of theories, ranging from those of the
British linguists Firth and Halliday, to those of the American sociolinguists Hymes, Gumperz, and Labov, to those of the language philosophers Austin and Searle. Another strong contributor to the Communicative Approach is Wilkins, with his proposal of a notional syllabus, incorporated by the Council of Europe in its attempt to facilitate the teaching of European languages in the Common Market. However, none of these ideas would have prospered if they had not been rapidly applied by textbook writers and equally quickly accepted by language teaching specialists, curriculum developers, and even governments. This provided the impetus for CLT, or the notional-functional approach or functional approach, as it is also termed, to become an international movement.
The latter views language learning as the product of the diverse subcompetences comprised within the general concept of communicative competence; that is, not merely linguistic or grammatical competence, as in previous methods, but also sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competences. Hence, the primary goal of CLT is to develop communicative competence, to move “beyond grammatical and discourse elements in communication” and probe the “nature of social, cultural, and pragmatic features of language” (Brown, 1994: 77).
Consequently, learners are expected, not so much to produce correct sentences or to be accurate, but to be capable of communicating and being fluent. Classroom language learning is thus linked with real-life communication outside its confines, and authentic samples of language and discourse or contextualized chunks rather than discrete items are employed. Students are hence equipped with tools for producing unrehearsed language outside the immediate classroom.
This general goal of CLT can be viewed in two ways, since, as Howatt (1984: 279) points out, it has both a “weak” and a “strong” version. The weak version “stresses the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes and, characteristically, attempts to integrate such activities into a wider program of language teaching”. On the other hand, the strong version “advances the claim that language is acquired through communication”, so that language ability is developed through activities simulating target performance and which require learners to do in class exactly what they will have to do outside it.
But let us characterize CLT further, beyond its central aim, by examining its theory of language and learning, its syllabus, activity types, and materials, as well as its teacher and learner roles. At the level of language theory, the Communicative Approach is based, in line with what we have already mentioned, on Hymes’ and Canale and Swain’s view of communicative competence, on Halliday’s theory of language functions, and on Widdowson’s view of the communicative acts underlying language ability.
In turn, this method’s theory of learning has a much less solid foundation. Nevertheless, according to Richards and Rodgers (2001), three main principles can be inferred from CLT practices:
1. The communication principle: Learning is promoted by activities involving real communication.
2. The task principle: Learning is also enhanced through the use of activities in which language is employed for carrying out meaningful tasks.
3. The meaningfulness principle: The learning process is supported by language which is meaningful to the student. Activities should consequently be selected according to how well they involve the learner in authentic and meaningful language use.
Much more discussion has been devoted to syllabus design in CLT, as it is central to this method. One of the first models to be set forth is Wilkins’ notional syllabus, which specifies notional or semantic-grammatical categories (such as time, sequence, quantity, notion, location, or frequency) and communicative function categories (for instance, requests, denials, offers, or complaints). The Council of Europe builds on this proposal and develops a syllabus including objectives, situations, functions, notions, and vocabulary and grammar. The result is Van Ek and Alexander’s Threshold Level English (1980). Further designs have since then been developed, such as task-based syllabuses (cf. section 10.1.) or the movement in favor of the abolition of the concept of syllabus.
Such syllabus types are implemented through a series of clear-cut activities and materials. The former, according to Littlewood (1981) are of two main kinds. One of them involves functional communication activities, where the information-gap principle is the basis for comparing pictures, working out sequences of events, discovering missing features in a map or picture, giving instructions, following directions, or problem-solving. The other consists of social interaction activities, based, as Nunan (1991a: 279) puts it, on the emphasis placed by CLT on “learning to communicate through interaction in the target language”. They encompass conversation and discussion sessions, dialogues and role plays, simulations, or debates.
In turn, materials are, in Richards and Rodgers’ view (2001), of three major types: text-based (e.g. textbooks), task-based (relying on jigsaw or information-gap principles), and realia (here, we are referring to authentic materials, taken from “real life” and brought into the classroom, such as signs, magazines, newspapers, maps, pictures, graphs, charts, or even objects).
One of the teacher’s roles is obviously to act as a guide during the afore-mentioned activities. But (s)he equally fulfills other extremely relevant ones. Among them, we
can distinguish those of independent participant within the group; organizer of resources and resource him/herself; researcher and learner; needs analyst in order to cater adequately for the students’ necessities; counselor, much in the way advocated by Community Language Learning; or group process manager. However, perhaps the most outstanding function of the instructor is to facilitate and provide opportunities for communicative interaction between all classroom participants, always, if possible, in the target language.
The learner thus becomes a central and active member in the learning process. (S)he must negotiate, interact, and cooperate with other participants and should be an important contributing element to classroom learning. In other words, teaching becomes learner-centered.
How can such an influential method in the history of language teaching be appraised? For many years – even decades – CLT is considered a panacea. It appeals to those who see a more humanistic, interactive, and communicative approach to teaching. Ur (1996: 6) perfectly sums up the general feeling: “The coming of the communicative approach represented for those of us involved in teaching at the time a healthy revolution, promising a remedy to previous ills: objectives seemed more rational, classroom activity became more interesting and obviously relevant to learner needs”.
However, once initial enthusiasm has passed, CLT has been criticized on a number of fronts and some of its central claims have been called into question. Let us examine exactly which ones by analyzing what has come to be known as the post-communicative or post-methodology era.
a) Comment on the origins of CLT.
b) Name the author(s) who …
– proposed the notional syllabus.
– produced Threshold Level English (19080).
– distinguished between functional communication and social interaction activities.
c) What is the general goal of CLT? Do you agree this should be the objective in language learning? Why or why not?
d) Which version of CLT would you favour in your EFL classroom? Why?
e) Enumerate the subbcompetences which CLT believes should be included within the concept of communicative competence. Can you briefly describe what you consider each one involves?
f) Work with a partner. Draw up an example of a functional communication or a social interaction activity for a roughly 4th year of CSE level. Swap activities and complete them. Comment on your general impressions. Would you use activities of this type in your class?