More elephants in the classroom: The Communicative Approach

Is the Communicative Approach the miracle cure for language learning worldwide?

The Communicative Approach to language education is held up by many to be the magic bullet that can enable language learners the world over develop their confidence and skills in communication. But is it really the global solution that it has been made out ot be?




Elephant 1: Communicative language teaching is just about playing games and chatting


Like it or not, most school language curricula are focused on learning testable information and skills. After all, grammar and vocabulary knowledge, multiple choice reading and listening tests are easily graded, and can be defined as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to a set markscheme. However, real-life use of language does not work like that. In life, there are no right answers, and the hundreds of language choices we make to communicate every sentence that we speak or write in any language are testament to that.


The principle of communicative approaches to language education is that by encouraging students to use the language they are learning to talk to each other, they are by definition showing that they can use what they learn independently. It may not look like much ‘work’ is being done when learners are playing a language-focused game, performing a role-play or discussing a topical issue, but as long as they are using specific language which they are learning to do the job, their language brains are being activated and they are working harder than they would by choosing from 3 possible responses to answer a reading comprehension test, for example.


However, there is a common reaction to the types of activity which are seen in the communicative classroom: parents and education authorities such as head teachers do not see the value of games and discussions in their classrooms - games don’t help students pass their exams, do they? Too much fun and not enough rigorous learning goes on, so the whole test-oriented system of education is under threat…


This comment comes from a lack of understanding of effective spoken practice and purposeful, language-focused play. Without a clear linguistic purpose, and a well-planned set of target language for students to get their heads around, classroom games quickly become time-fillers with little purpose other than to keep the students making noises in English and to stop them getting bored. Identifying linguistic purpose is a key skill in task design, and even the simplest crossword puzzle, guessing game or matching activity can be made more effective and purposeful with attention to the language that students use to perform the task, and the meaning, pronunciation and form of the target language that they are being asked to use in communicative activity.

Elephant 2: Communicative methodology is the single best way to teach English


On the other hand, a new elephant has risen in the classroom, questioning the value of communicative language teaching altogether. The rise in the presence of English language as a school subject around the world, and the increased diversity of settings where it is taught have led to a much wider range of pedagogies being used to teach it. A primary school in rural China, for example, will have very different assumptions about the nature of language learning as compared to a school in urban Manila. The paradigms of education upheld by educational traditions in these two settings are very different, as are the learning preferences of students in China and the Philippines, the resources available, the role of English in students’ future lives,… so it follows that different approaches to language education (and therefore English teaching) may be required.


Proponents of the communicative approach to language learning often use the adage that ‘the function of language is to communicate, therefore the best way to teach it is through communication’. This is reasonable, and a good teacher can harness classroom interaction, tasks and communication to great educational effect. However, the same proponents of communicative methodology are often blinkered to other approaches to language learning. The value of communicative approaches is often argued with a sledgehammer rather than an open mind.


A few years ago, a leading communicative proponent and prominent ELT author from the UK took part in a debate with a senior teacher from XinDongFang (New Oriental School, one of the biggest language education providers in China) about the value of communicative language teaching. His unwavering view that communicative language teaching was the single best way to deliver language education was met by a barrage of objections rooted in Confucian-heritage education (a paradigm which is several thousand years older than that of the UK), which showed the weaknesses of communicative approaches in that culture of education. These objections held true, and shook the communicative approach to its core in that setting.


When educational assumptions are unquestioningly brought in from other cultures, the effects can be very negative: a mismatch of expectations between a teacher or teacher trainer from one culture and students or participant teachers from another can result in what Holliday (1994) termed ‘tissue rejection’ - a resistence to the culturally imported approach to teaching and learning whcih can foster resentment and opposition, rather than improving what is already being done in that context.


Communicative language teaching has long been assumed to be the most effective way to teach English to second language speakers, though this assumption is not as strongly held when held up to the diverse range of physical (and now, online) settings where English is taught. Yes, communicative language teaching presents us with a wide range of useful practice activities and fluency exercises for ‘real-world’ application, but if these do not gel with the real worlds of learners in different settings, then it cannot be justified as a cure-all which will enlighten teachers and students the world over, no matter where and how they are used to studying.

Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.

If you are interested to know more about these new qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.


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