21st November 2017

Breaking the myths around communicative language teaching

By Bryan Holmes

Nowadays, English is an international language and used throughout the world. The ever increasing need to develop one’s communicative competence is often something learners struggle to do. Outdated methods and a focus on grammatical proficiency tend to inhibit improvement. Though grammar is a significant aspect of language learning it shouldn’t be the primary aim of an ESL teacher. A common belief among students is that learning grammar will automatically improve fluency, accuracy, and competency with the language.

This idea may lead to disappointment as language serves different functions which can be determined by context. For example, register: formal or informal? Should the intonation rise or fall? What vocabulary is needed among many other considerations? Even today many ESL classrooms lack a true communicative edge. This article will define communicative language learning (CLT), suggest how to make your class "learner-centered" as opposed to "teacher-centered", and provide ideas to improve your learners' communicative competence.

The communicative method is currently favoured in the ESL classroom, but as a new teacher you may be asking yourself what exactly is the difference between “grammatical competence” and “communicative competence”. Firstly, grammatical competence would imply that learners have awareness of syntax and of how sentences are constructed (e.g. clauses, parts of speech, tenses, word order). Although this shows how a sentence is formed, it does not provide any information regarding its meaning or function. It’s very easy to complete a gap-fill with a verb without fully understanding its meaning. Look at the examples below and ask yourself which ones require grammatical competence and which ones require communicative competence:

1. It can be annoying.

2. I can swim.

3. Can you open the window please?

4. We can try.

5. If you can, could you kindly open the window please?

As you can see, it’s fairly easy to identify the sentences which require grammatical competence (1-4); whereas number 5 clearly indicates a learner would need a fair amount of communicative competence as this also includes register and function (can) to make a polite request.
One goal of the communicative approach is to raise awareness of language functions in a variety of different scenarios.  Here are a few situations, both formal and informal, which build a range of communication strategies e.g. turn taking, interrupting. Additionally, this also brings focus to how to create different texts e.g. conversations, reports, and other narratives. Using a more communicative approach not only integrates added skills but also allows the learner to personalize the language aim.

Classroom activities

The goal in this type of learning environment is to focus on fluency rather than accuracy. A common belief in the ESL community is "fluency first, accuracy last". In fact, speakers will be fluent first before accurate and many native speakers are not particularly accurate themselves. In lessons it’s much better to promote fluency and competence and move away from traditional grammar teaching. Typical activities would include roleplays, find someone who, and surveys. Additionally, projects work well, like making a magazine or posters (Young Learners). The overall point is to make the situation as authentic as possible that allows maximum output which is meaningful.

The role of the teacher and the student

Traditionally, the role of the student was to listen to the teacher and remember what was said or learnt. CLT contrasts this by giving more autonomy to the student. Generally speaking, the teacher acts as a facilitator who monitors work and perhaps notes errors and feeds in needed language. This can be conflicting for both teachers and students since most CLT classes are a bit noisy and value group work rather than independent, pending on teaching and learning philosophies.

In Asia some parents may assume that their children are misbehaving or playing instead of diligently studying. It’s important to remember no matter how much exam prep is taught if students lack the necessary skills, they certainly will not be ready to pass an exam. The communicative approach prepares learners by not only focusing on grammatical concepts but also concentrating on skills such as reading, writing, and speaking and listening. Integrating skills in each lesson should be a goal of a language teacher as this prepares learners to successfully pass an exam.

As discussed, changing your role as a teacher and relinquishing control of a class can cause a bit of anxiety for both teachers and students. With the right amount of preparation and thought behind your materials, you can engage your learners and maximize output. So are you ready to have a go? Will CLT work for you and your learners?

Are you interested in putting these skills into practice? Check out our upcoming teacher training workshops in Hong Kong.

Bryan Holmes is teacher trainer and the part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL , MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.