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Communicative Language Teaching: The Origins

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5444 words Published: 8th May 2017

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This chapter is devoted to the CLT approach, its origins and major features. Also the chapter sheds the light on grammar, how it is handled in language teaching, the way it is defined and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, its role in CLT.

3.1 Communicative Language Teaching

CLT is an approach to the teaching of second and foreign languages that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of learning a language. It is also referred to as “communicative approach to the teaching of foreign languages” or simply the “communicative approach”.

3.1.1 The Origins

Educators such as Richards and Rodgers, Savignon, and Sano state that the origins of communicative language teaching are many, in so far as one teaching methodology tends to influence the next.

Sano (1984:171) says that the communicative approach could be said to be the product of educators and linguists who had grown dissatisfied with the audio-lingual and grammar-translation method of foreign language instruction. Richards and Rodgers (1986:93), on the other hand, claim that the origins of CLT are to be found in the changes of situational language teaching approaches, which influenced the British language teaching tradition till the late 1960s.


Meanwhile, Savignon (1991:262) asserts that the emergence of CLT can be traced to concurrent developments on both sides of the Atlantic, i.e., in Europe and the United States.

Educators and linguists e.g., Candlin (1981: 121) and Widdowson (1978: 61) saw the need to focus in language teaching on communicative proficiency rather than on mere mastery of structures. They felt that students were not learning enough realistic, whole language in those methods, i.e., situational language teaching, audio-lingual or grammar-translation method. Students did not know how to communicate using appropriate social languages, gestures, or expressions; in brief, they were at loss to communicate in the cultures of the language studied.

In respect of this point, Widdowson remarks the following:

The problem is that students, and especially students in developing

countries, who have received several years of formal English

teaching, frequently remain deficient in the ability to actually use

the language, and to understand its use, in normal communication,

whether in spoken or written mode (1972:15).

Similarly, Howatt says that “the original motivation for adopting a communicative approach in the early seventies was remedial, an attempt to overcome the inadequacies of existing, structural syllabuses, materials, and methods” (1984:287).

To put simply, the rapid application of these ideas by textbook writers; and the equally rapid acceptance of these new principles by British language teaching specialists, curriculum development centers, and even governments gave prominence nationally and internationally to what came to be referred to as communicative approach. There was a positive response from linguists, methodologists, and classroom teachers offering the best hope for the elaboration and diffusion of language teaching methods and materials that work, encourage and support learners in the development of their communicative competence (Savignon, 1991: 264).

Although the movement began as largely British innovations focusing on

alternative conceptions of a syllabus since the mid 1970s, the scope of

communicative language teaching has expanded. Interest in and the development of communicative style teaching mushroomed in those years;

authentic language use and classroom exchanges where students engaged in real communication with one another became quite popular. Also, numerous textbooks for teachers and teacher trainers expound on the nature of communicative approaches and offer techniques for varying ages and purposes (Brown, 1994: 217).

It is this socio-linguistic perspective, which is the unifying principle and the driving force behind a communicative approach to language teaching (Sano, 1984: 174) Although this socio-linguistic approach is basically a language theory rather than a learning theory, taking into account Richards and Rodgers’ definition of approach, CLT encompasses a theory of language and a theory of language learning, and see it as an approach than a method.

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Briefly, they define an approach as a set of theories about the nature of language and of language learning. It is axiomatic, as it takes a number of assumptions as a starting point. A method, on the other hand, is the level at which theory is put into practice and at which choices are made about the particular skills to be taught, the content to be taught, and the order in which the content will be presented. Besides, these writers claim, “at the level of language theory, CLT has a rich, if somewhat eclectic theoretical base” (1986:102).

3.1.2 Language Theory

The rise of interest in the individual and in relationships among individuals, which characterized the sixties, marked the emergence of socio-linguistics, that branch of science where sociology and linguistics meet. A new light was shed on language, not simply as a system of structurally related elements, which form a rule, but as a vehicle for the expression of meaning and social interaction. In other words, the structural view was supplemented with a functional, a semantic and interactional view. It was this idea of language as communication that started off the whole communicative movement (Savignon, 1991: 266).

And it was Hymes (1972) that made history by challenging Chomsky’s view on linguistic competence, and replacing it by the notion of communicative competence (cited in Savignon, 1991: 269).

In the words of Canale and Swain (1980:7) communicative competence refers to the “interaction between grammatical competence, or knowledge of the rules of grammar, and socio-linguistic competence, or knowledge of the rules of language use”. In other words, rules of use and rules of usage are complementary and not mutually exclusive.

According to them; “the primary goal of a communicative approach must be to facilitate the integration of these two types of knowledge for the learner” (1980: 25).

Savignon notes that communicative competence characterizes the ability of language learners to interact with other speakers to make meaning, and “[it] is relative, not absolute, and depends on the cooperation of all the participants involved” (1983:9). Broadly speaking, communicative competence is an aspect convey and interpret messages and to negotiate meanings interpersonally within specific contexts.

According to the socio-linguistic theory, the act of communication is seen not as basically an exchange of linguistic messages, but rather as a social phenomenon in which the use of language plays a part. In the field of the ethnography of communication, which Stern (1983:220) defines as “the study of the individual’s communicative activity in its social setting.” language is a sub-ordinate, yet integrated part of social and situational systems, which are actually behavior patterns.

Halliday argues the existence of a semantic network which is the linguistic realization of patterns of behavior. He postulates that” the more we are able to relate the options in grammatical system to meaning potential in social contexts and behavioral settings, the more insight we shall gain into the nature of the language system” (1978:44). In his functional account of language use, Halliday has criticized Chomsky’s linguistic, theory of competence. He says “Linguistics … is concerned … with the description of speech acts or texts, since only through the study of language in use are all the functions of language, and therefore all components of meaning, brought into focus” (1970:145). This view complements Hyme’s opinion of communicative competence, and we can only understand language if we view it as an instrument or as a communicative tool. To which Widdowson (1979:50) adds that “once we accept the need to teach language as communication, we can obviously no longer think of language in terms only of sentences.” This statement provides the justification for the emphasis on discourse in CLT.

3.1.3 Learning Theory

In contrast to the amount that has been written in CLT literature about communicative dimensions of language, little has been written about learning theory. However, two of the general learning theories, which emphasize common features among learners, are cognitive theory and skills theory. Cognitive Theory

According to cognitive theory, learning involves the ability to understand, to anticipate, and to relate new information to pre-existing mental structures. This focus on meaningful learning is derived from an attempt to make sense of the world.

The heavy reliance of CLT practitioners on the mental schema theory is exemplified by Brumfit’s statement that “new learning must be closely assimilated with what is already known, and if language is being learnt for use, then new learning must be directly associated with use” (1979:189).

Hence, at the level of learning theory this view supports Halliday’s claim about the semantic network as a bridge between linguistic form and behaviour pattern, a link between words and the world. As Stern (1983:261) posits “The learner must become a participant in a real-life context of language use as a condition of effective learning.”

Macdonough (1981:27) describes the cognitive process as “hypothesis testing”, and adds, significantly, that “rules can only be found if the risk of error is run” (ibid: 29). This view is reflected in the great tolerance of CLT towards errors. Errors are not to be avoided at all cost; they are not to be seen as evidence of non-learning, but being an external manifestation of the continual revision of the inter-language system. They are essential elements in the learning process. Skills Theory

This theory emphasizes the importance of cognitive learning and practice. However, advocates of this theory reject mechanical practice altogether as being totally irrelevant to genuine learning. Skills theory links mental and behavioural aspects of performance through a hierarchically organized set of plans, in which low level of automation is necessary to free attention for high level of planning. In this regard, Littlewood states the following:

The cognitive aspect involves the internalization of plans for

Creating appropriate behaviour. For language use, these plans

derive mainly from the language system they include grammatical

rules, procedures for selecting vocabulary, and social conventions

governing speech. The behavioural aspect involves the automation

of these plans so that they can be converted into fluent performance

in real time. This occurs mainly through practice in converting

plans into performance


Skill practice is considered as a legitimate learning principle (Richards and Rodgers 1986), provided that it “offers natural options of language use which reproduce the kinds of choice that occur in spontaneous communication” (Stern 1983:260).

3.1.4 Major Features

CLT is, relatively, a newly adapted approach in the area of foreign/second language teaching. CLT is a “hybrid approach to language teaching, essentially ‘progressive’ rather than

‘traditional’….” (Wright 2000: 7).

CLT can be seen to derive from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes, at least, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, sociology and educational research (Savignon 1991:271). It is generally accepted that, proponents of CLT see it as an approach, not a method (See Richards and Rodgers 1986; Savignon 1991; Brown 1994).

For Brown, for instance, “[Communicative language teaching] is a unified but broadly- based theoretical position about the nature of language and language learning and teaching”(1994: 244-245). He further maintains that though it is difficult to synthesize all of the various definitions that have been offered, the following four interconnected characteristics could be taken as a definition of CLT:

1. Classroom goals are focused on all of the components of communicative

competence and not restricted to grammatical or linguistic competence.

2. Language teaching techniques are designed to engage learners in the

pragmatic, authentic, functional use of language for meaningful purposes.

Language forms are not the central focus but rather aspects of language that enable the learner to accomplish those purposes.

3. Fluency and accuracy are seen as complementary principles underlying

communicative techniques. At times fluency may have to take on more

importance than accuracy in order to keep learners meaningfully engaged in language use.

4. In the communicative classroom, students ultimately have to use the

language, productively and receptively, in unrehearsed contexts (Brown, 1994: 245).

The communicative approach is a hazy concept, which can have a variety of meanings along the continuum between a strong version and a weak one. Johnson (1979: 155) argues that the weak version attempts to integrate

communicative activities into an existing programme, where as the strong version claims that language is acquired through communication.

According to Howatt (1984: 279) the weak version, which became more or less the standard practice in the late ’70s and early ’80s of the last century,

”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…. ”

As for the strong version of communicative teaching

”it advances the claim that language is acquired through

communication, so that it is not merely a question of activating an

existing but inert knowledge of the language, but of stimulating the

development of the language system itself. If the former could be

described as ‘learning to use’ English, the latter entails ‘using

English to learn it’ (ibid).

Howatt adds that creating information gap activities, games, role-plays, dramas, simulations etc., are some of the exercise types in the weak versions of CLT.

Although we have different versions and various ways in which CLT is interpreted and applied, educators in the area, Richards and Rodgers (1986, 2001); Littlewood (1981); Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983); Brumfit (1984); Candlin (1981); Widdowson (1978, 1979); Johnson and Morrow (1981);; Larsen-Freeman (1986); Celce- Murcia (1991b) and Johnson (1982), put some of the major characteristics of CLT as they are presented in the following subsections. Emphasis on Language Function

It is felt that students need knowledge of the linguistic form, meaning and

functions. However, CLT gives primary importance to the use or function of the language and secondary importance to its structure or form (Larsen-Freeman 1986: 88; Johnson 1982:63).

This does not mean that knowledge of grammar is not essential for effective communication, rather systematic treatment of both functions and forms is vital. Stressing on this, Littlewood says “one of the most characteristic features of communicative language teaching is that it pays systematic attention to functional as well as structural aspects of language” (1981: 1).

“CLT suggests that grammatical structure might better be subsumed

under various functional categories…we pay considerably less attention to the overt presentation and discussion of grammatical rules than we traditionally did” (Brown, 1994: 245). Emphasis is also given to meaning (messages they are creating or task they are completing) rather than form (correctness of language and language structure). For Finocchiaro and Brumfit “meaning is paramount” (1983:91) since it helps the learners to manage the message they engage with the interlocutors. Fluency and Accuracy

“Fluency and accuracy are seen as complementary principles underlying

communicative techniques” (Brown, 1994:245). However, at times fluency may have to take on more importance than accuracy because “fluency and

acceptable language is the primary goal” (Finocchiaro and Brumfit 1983:93) and accuracy is judged not in the abstract but in contexts.

Fluency is emphasized over accuracy in order to keep learners meaningfully engaged in language use. It is important, however, that fluency should never be encouraged at the expense of clear, unambiguous, direct communication. And much more spontaneity is present in communicative classrooms (Brown, 1994: 246) Teaching Techniques

Language teaching techniques are designed to engage learners in the

pragmatic, authentic, functional use of language for meaningful purposes.

Classrooms should provide opportunities for rehearsal of real-life situations

and provide opportunity for real communication. Emphasis on creative role

plays, simulations, dramas, games, projects, etc., is the major activities which can help the learner provide spontaneity and improvisation, not just repetition and drills. Another characteristic of the classroom process is the use of authentic materials because it is felt desirable to give students the opportunity to develop the strategies for understanding language as it is actually used by native speakers. In the classroom, everything is done with a communicative intent. Information gap, choice and feedback are thought to be truly communicative activities (Johnson and Morrow, 1981: 25). Grammar Teaching

Grammar can still be taught, but less systematically, in traditional ways along side more innovative approaches. Savignon (2002:5) says “… for the

development of communicative ability [communication depends on grammar], research findings overwhelmingly support the integration of form-focused exercises with meaning-focused experience”.

Grammar is important; and learners seem to focus best on grammar when it relates to their communicative needs and experiences.

Disregard of grammar will virtually guarantee breakdown in communication (Thompson, 1996: 10).

These writers also say that there are some misconceptions about CLT that

makes difficult for many teachers to see clearly what is happening and to

identify the useful innovations that CLT has brought. One of the persistent

misconceptions is that CLT means not teaching grammar although “the

exclusion of explicit attention to grammar was never necessary part of CLT” (ibid).

In CLT involvement in communicative event is seen as central to language development, and this involvement necessarily requires attention to form (structure). In fact, it is certainly understandable that there was a reaction against the heavy emphasis on structure at the expense of natural communication. Nonetheless, it would seem foolish to make mistakes

on the side of using communicative approach exclusively and totally disregard grammar teaching. Regarding this, Celce-Murcia comments:

In spite of the intuitive appeal and the anecdotal evidence

Supporting proposal for exclusively communicative language teaching, there is equally appealing and anecdotal evidence… that grammarless approach…. can lead to the development of a broken, ungrammatical, pidgenized form of the target language beyond which students rarely progress (1991a:462).

Savignon also remarks that, “communicative language teaching does not

necessarily mean the rejection of familiar materials [grammar]”(2002:7). Rivers in her famous statement strengthened Savignon’s remark in that “Saying that we do not need to teach grammar is like saying that we can have a chicken walking around without bones” (cited in Arnold, 1994: 122). Nowadays, it seems that educators accept that an appropriate amount of class time should be devoted to grammar, but this does not mean a simple return to a traditional treatment of rules. Rather “the focus has now moved away from the teacher covering to the learners discovering grammar” (Thompson, 1996: 11). Skills and Activities

Communicative approach is not limited to oral skills. Reading and writing skills need to be developed to promote pupils’ confidence in all four skills areas. Students work on all four skills from the beginning, i.e., a given activity might involve reading, speaking, listening, and perhaps also writing (Celce-Murcia, 1991b: 78).

Of course, oral communication is seen to take place through negotiation between speaker(s) and listener(s) (most likely among students), so too is the interaction between the reader and writer, but with no immediate feedback from the reader. Hence, in the classroom, emphasis is given to oral and listening skills, as contact time with language is important. It paves way for more fluid command of the language. Learners do not hear the teacher all the time, but having personal contact themselves, practicing sounds themselves, working on the permutation of sentence patterns and getting chance to make mistakes and learn from doing so. The idea of emphasizing the oral skills creates uncertainty among teachers. They misconceived CLT as if it were devoted to teaching only speaking. But, “CLT is not exclusively concerned with face to face oral communication” (Savignon, 2002:7).

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The principles of CLT apply equally to reading and writing activities that engage readers and writers in the interpretation, expression, and negotiation of meaning. In other words, it is important to recognize that it is not only the speaker (or writer) who is communicating. Instead, communication through language happens in both the written and spoken medium, and involves at least two people. Thompson (1996:13) further states that, though there is a complaint that CLT ignores written language, a glance at recent mainstream textbooks shows that reading and writing materials have been given attention too. Pair Work and Group Work

Students regularly work in groups or pairs to transfer (and if necessary to

negotiate) meaning in situations where one person has information that others lack (Celce-Murcia, 1991b: 82). More emphasis should be given to active modes of learning such as pair or group work in problem-solving tasks in order to maximize the time allotted to each student for learning to negotiate meaning. Many people assume group/pair work is applicable in all contexts. However, classroom group and/or pair work should not be considered an essential feature used all the time, and may well be inappropriate in some contexts (ibid).

Thompson (1996:12) and Savignon (2002: 6) claim that group and/or pair work are flexible and useful techniques than that suggests, and they are active modes of learning which can help the learners to negotiate meaning and engage in problem-solving activities.

The use of pair/group work is a physical signal of some degree of control and choice passing to the learners; but that needs to be complemented by real choice (learners need to be given some degree of control over their learning). Therefore, the use of pair/group work needs to be complemented by real choice for the following reasons: (1) they can provide the learners with a relatively safe opportunity to try out ideas before launching them in public; (2)they can lead to more developed ideas, and therefore greater confidence and more effective communication; (3) they can also provide knowledge and skills which may complement those of their partners which in turn lead to greater success in undertaking tasks (Thompson, 1996:13). Errors and Correction

Errors are seen as a natural outcome of the development of the communication skills and are therefore tolerated. Learners trying their best to use the language creatively and spontaneously are bound to make errors.

Constant correction is unnecessary and even counter-productive. Correction noted by the teacher should be discreet. Let the students talk and express themselves and the form of the language becomes secondary. If errors of form are tolerated and are seen as a natural outcome of the development of communication skills, students can have limited linguistic knowledge and still be successful communicators (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 121). Evaluation

Sano (1984: 176) states that evaluation is carried out in terms of fluency and accuracy. Students who have the most control of the structures and vocabulary are not necessarily the best communicators. A teacher may use formal evaluation i.e., he/she is likely to use a communicative test, which is an integrative and has a real communicative function (e.g., Madsen, 1983; Hughes, 1989). Larsen-Freeman (1986: 132) points out that the teacher can also informally evaluate his students’ performance in his role as an advisor or co-communicator. Savigonon, (1991: 275: ; 2002: 4) reports that the communicative approach follows global, qualitative evaluation of learner achievement as opposed to quantitative assessment of discrete linguistic features. Native Language Use

The students’ native language has no role to play (Larsen Freeman, 1986: 135). The target language is used both during communicative activities and for the purpose of classroom management. The students learn from these classroom management exchanges, and realize that the target language is a vehicle for communication. Whatever the case may be, “the teacher should be able to use the target language fluently and appropriately” (Celce-Murcia, 1991b: 8). However, for others (e.g., Finocchiaro and Brumfit, 1983: 98) judicious use of native language is accepted where feasible. Teachers may provide directions of homework, class work and test directions by using the native language. Teacher’s Role

The teacher is the facilitator of students’ learning, manager of classroom

activities, advisor during activities and a ‘co-communicator’ engaged in the

communicative activity along with the students (Littlewood, 1981: 9; Breen and Candlin, 1980: 90). But he does not always himself interact with students; rather he acts as an independent participant. Other roles assumed for the teacher are needs analyst, counselor, researcher and learner. Students, on the other hand, are more responsible managers of their own learning. They are expected to interact with other people, either in the flesh, through pair and group work, or in the writings. They are communicators and actively engaged in negotiating meaning in trying to make themselves understood. They learn to communicate by communicating (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 142). Above all, since the teacher’s role is less dominant; the teaching/learning process is student-centered rather than teacher-centered. In other words, it is the learner who plays a great role in a large proportion of the process of learning.

3.2 Grammar and Grammars

Yule (1996: 87) states that each adult speaker of a language clearly has some type of ‘mental grammar’, that is, a form of internal linguistic knowledge which operates in the production and recognition of appropriately structured expressions in that language. This ‘grammar’ is subconscious and is not the result of any teaching. A second, and quite different, concept of ‘grammar’ involves what might be considered ‘linguistic etiquette’, that is, the identification of the ‘proper’ or ‘best’ structures to be used in a language. A third view of ‘grammar’ involves the study and analysis of the structures found in a language, usually with the aim of establishing a description of the grammar of English, for example, as distinct from the grammar of other languages.

Linguists define grammar as a set of components: phonetics (the production and perception of sounds), phonology (how sounds are combined), morphology (the study of forms, or how elements are combined to create words), syntax (how words are strung together into sentences), and semantics or meaning. Because all languages are characterized by these components, by definition, language does not exist without grammar (VanPatten, 1990:288).

However, grammar has not always been defined in these terms. Originally, the term grammar, grammatica, referred to the art of writing, as compared to rhetoric, rettorica, the art of speaking. As used today by many teachers and learners, grammar is loosely understood to be a set of rules that govern language, primarily its morphology and syntax. But morphology and syntax are only two components of grammar (Chamot & Kupper, 1989: 15).

Actually the word “grammar” has been defined rather differently by various grammarians and dictionary writers. According to Crystal (2003:207), grammar is “systematic description of a language”. Also, Widdowson describes that grammar is the name given “to the knowledge of how words are adapted and arranged to form sentences” (1988: 147; cited in Shih-Chuan Chang, 2011: 14). Still other definitions of the term specify the scope of grammar.

In fact, grammar is “multi-dimensional” (Kennedy, 1987: 165) and has multi-meanings. It is generally thought to be a set of rules for choosing words and putting words together to make sense. Every language has grammar. It has been held that if a language is a building, the words are bricks and the grammar is the architect’s plan. One may have a million bricks, but do not make a building without a plan. Similarly, if a person knows a million English words, but he doesn’t know how to put them together, then he cannot speak English (Karavas, 1996: 189). In other words, grammar is a framework to describe languages.

3.2.1 Grammar in Language Teaching

The role of grammar is perhaps one of the most controversial issues in language teaching. In the early parts of the twentieth century, grammar teaching formed an essential part of language instruction, so much that other aspects of language learning were either ignored or downplayed. The argument was that if one knew the grammatical rules of the language, he would be able to use it for communication. This concept was strongly challenged in the early 1970s (Ellis, 2006: 90).

Knowledge of the grammatical system of the language, it was argued, was but one of the many components which underlay the notion of communicative competence. To be considered a competent user of a language, one needs to know not only the rules of grammar, but also how the rules are used in real communication. During this period, grammar teaching became less prominent, and in some cases, was abandoned (Hudson, 1998: 12).

In recent years, grammar teaching has regained its rightful place in the language curriculum. People now agree that grammar is too important to be ignored, and that without a good knowledge of grammar, learners’ language development will be severely constrained.

There is now a general consensus that the issue is not whether or not we should teach grammar. The issue now centers on questions such as, which grammar items do learners need most? How do we go about teaching grammar items in the most effective way? And are they best taught inductively or deductively? (Tomlinson, 1994: 22).

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