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Communicative Breakdown

September 29, 2013

If you ask most English language teachers to describe their approach to teaching, most of them will in some way use the term “Communicative Language Teaching”. Whether you are teaching small multilingual groups in a private language school in Brighton, all-male monolingual classes in a technical university in Saudi Arabia, or classes of 60 8-year-olds in a Chinese primary school, it seems that everybody is using a communicative approach.

But is that possible? If the same approach can be applied to so many contexts, what do we mean by it? Are we actually using the term correctly, or has it become a sort of catch-all phrase that doesn’t really mean anything much at all?

Let’s have a look at what Communicative Language Teaching was originally all about. CLT, like most approaches or methods in language teaching, was developed out of theories in linguistics.

The term “communicative competence” was originally coined in 1972 by Dell Hymes, who wanted to emphasise the contextual impact of language use, as opposed to the abstract notion of linguistic competence that linguistics had previously been concerned with. Evaluating linguistic competence by bringing language into its social context tied in with the work of Michael Halliday, who described language as a series of “speech acts” that are used to perform functions, and that language can only really be studied within the context of the functions its users wish to perform (Halliday 1970).

So, as long ago as the early 70s, linguists were moving away from analyzing language at sentence level and were starting to recognise the crucial role of context; this was grounded in the idea that  you can only really measure someone’s ability to use language against how effectively they achieve their communicative purpose. In short, language use is all about being able to say what you want to say, in the way that you want to say it. It’s not just about producing grammatically correct sentences; it’s about selecting language that has a certain, desired effect on the listener.

This focus on communicative purpose (as opposed to simply analyzing grammatical structures) quickly started to find its way into language teaching, as applied linguists such as Widdowson, Candlin, Brumfit and Johnson wrote extensively about its potential impact (Richards and Rogers 2001: 153-154). One of the more influential works of this nature was by D.A Wilkins, whose book “Notional Syllabuses” (Wilkins 1976) led to the development of language teaching programmes that described themselves as “functional” (presenting language in order to perform functions) or “notional” (using concepts or themes to categorise language), or both. A good example of this would be the “Strategies” series of coursebooks (Abbs and Freebairn 1979).

However, it was in the application of theories behind Communicative Language Teaching in order to develop an appropriate syllabus tha the whole thing started to go a bit pear-shaped. It’s true that functional-notional coursebooks presented language as a means of achieving a series of communicative functions within a notional context, but language was still being itemised and categorised in an atomistic fashion. As Nunan puts it, “When such syllabuses began to appear, they looked very similar to the structural syllabuses they were meant to replace.” (Nunan 1988: 37).

Subsequent coursebooks, including the Headway series (which has become the blueprint for all ELT coursebooks including the popular ones we use today) are clearly influenced by communicative ideas, in that they tend to have notional unit titles and present language within clear contexts. However, the organizing principle behind these coursebooks is grammatical – language items are presented in order of linguistic complexity – and in many, fundamental ways these courses look more like structural linguistics in action than anything grounded in basic principles of communicative competence.

The problem does not only lie in the materials we use. If we look at ways in which language is presented and taught to learners, the onus is still very much on the teacher to plan (in advance) a way in which they will introduce, present and provide controlled practice in the use of discrete language items.

Basically, Communicative Language Teaching stalled before it ever really got off the ground, and has never quite been fully understood as a result. People seem to think that if they allow their students the opportunity to speak to each other, they are employing a communicative approach. But CLT is (or should be) about a lot more than that. It’s about prioritising the learner’s communicative purpose. Making the learner aware of the impact of using certain language in certain contexts. Helping the learner to select from the range of linguistic alternatives available to communicate in the way they want to communicate – not the way teachers or coursebooks tell them they should communicate.

There are some methods or approaches that do focus on the more social and functional side of language. Community Language Learning (Richards and Rogers 2001: 90-99) is one; it allows learners to drive syllabus content and dictate what they learn. However, its reliance on L1 means that it can only really be used with monolingual groups and requires teachers to be bilingual, making it less universally applicable (and less commercial, since it is impossible to write a coursebook for CLL).

Another is Task-Based Learning (Richards and Rogers 2001: 223-243) which prioritises the achievement of tasks over the practice of specific language items. However, this approach has itself been hijacked to some extent, with the word “task” sometimes being used to describe activities with little or no communicative purpose, such as gap-fill activities or controlled practice drills (“find someone who” activities and the like).

So, my main problem with Communicative Language Teaching as we view it today is that it is (at best) a watered-down version of what it should be. Why is this? Why have we been unable to embrace communicative competence and apply it to language teaching practice? I have written before (here as well) about how the commercial forces in English Language Teaching have driven us towards an approach that can be used by everyone and how, by definition, this means it is directly applicable to no-one. This is surely part of the reason why an approach that values, indeed relies on, learner input has been unable to flourish.

However I would also argue that something else is preventing us from embracing a more genuine communicative approach. Basically, it boils down to teachers being afraid to let go, to hand control over to their students. I know we tend to place a lot of importance on student-centredness, and many teachers (if they have the freedom to do this) will also, to varying degrees, negotiate course content with their students. But if you take a broad view of language teaching in practice, there is a general assumption that whatever the language focus will be, the teacher will know it in advance of teaching the lesson. Whether it is already contained in a coursebook (possibly) selected with the specific learner group in mind, or whether the teacher selected the language aim in order to address previously identified learner needs, the decision is made by the teacher or the institution, not the learners.

There is an unhealthy obsession with having the whole lesson planned and sewn up in advance, before it is taught. What is therefore missing is a focus on what the learner input is during the lesson. If we really want to focus on and develop communicative competence, we need to pay more attention to what the students want to say and, more importantly, make them aware of what the impact will be of saying that. This can only really be done if we allow space within our lessons for the learners to provide the input, and for us to react to this input with on the spot correction, clarification, or provision of alternatives. Instead of telling students how to use language, we need to be asking them how they want to use language, how they would like to come across, what kind of users of English they would like to be. And then we need to respond appropriately.


Maybe our reluctance to surrender the focus and direction of our lessons to students is because we teachers are essentially control freaks. Maybe the roles of teacher as possessor of knowledge and student as empty vessel are so deep-rooted that we find it hard to get out of them. Whatever, for an approach to be genuinely communicative, the learner’s communicative purpose needs to be prioritised over everything else. This appears to be counter-intuitive to teachers, teacher trainers and materials writers. As long as that remains the case, the language teaching approaches currently applied around the world will only ever be “communicative” in a subsidiary sense.


Abbs, B. and Freebairn, I. 1979, Building Strategies. Harlow: Longman.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1970, Language structure and language function, in J. Lyons (ed.), New horizons in linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 140-146.

Hymes, D. 1972, On communicative competence, in J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.), Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 269-293.

Nunan, D. 1988, Syllabus Design. Oxford: OUP.

Richards, J. and Rogers, T. 2001, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition), Cambridge: CUP.

Wilkins, D.A. (1976), Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: OUP.

  1. We are in a difficult profession that many do not see as a “profession” at all. Our fellow teachers often do not see us as equals. What is it we are teaching after all? The further we move away from teaching language as grammar and as such a logical construct with formal rules etc. and the further we move towards teaching language as communication, the closer we are to humanistic areas such as counselling and therapy. We move away from scientifically proven areas into more uncharted territory that may well be closer to the lives lived by our students but does not carry the weight and so the kudos of scientific study. As a result, teachers on the front line, will be even less likely to demonstrate the confidence to be flexible in their lessons.

    • Yes Holly, if we see ourselves as developers of communicative competence rather than teachers of an academic subject, it is perhaps harder for people to regard us as teachers in the traditional sense. There is certainly an element of counselling involved, especially when we focus on the processes of skills development. We could also liken ourselves to teachers of more practical disciplines though. In my college there are lecturers in construction, hairdressing, make-up artistry etc, whose primary focus is on getting students to DO things rather than getting them to KNOW things. Maybe language teaching is more like this?

  2. Richenda permalink

    Great blog Steve. As you imply, one of the reasons that CLT isn’t applied in its true form is that many teachers do not appreciate what a communicative activity really is., It is not just talking to (“communicating with each other”).
    I agree that we should respond to the students and we all strive for a student-centred classroom, Perhaps we should be approaching every lesson in a Dogme-way and deal with emergent language, but how many “institutions” would be happy to break away from the generic syllabus? How many teachers are prepared to abandon the course book (throw away the crutch) and respond to the students in front of them? How many teachers/management can accept that individual language learners have different needs and today’s intermediate group won’t have the same needs/wants/interests as tomorrow’s or last month’s? Our students are also brought up with the idea that we must follow the syllabus and/ or course book and tick off the units, but as you said in an earlier blog, language learning is not linear. If we can persuade students, parents. management and ourselves that we know what we are doing, we may find that dealing with the emergent language, rather than the planned,,may be more acceptable and become the norm.

    • Thanks very much for this, Richenda. As you suggest, taking a strong view means calling for a major overhaul of the whole teaching and learning process, and this entails convincing all stakeholders that it’s necessary. I’ve previously advocated this need for change (and I’m not the only one who feels this way) but it requires so much change that it’s bordering on idealistic.
      Is there anything that we can do within our existing construct to make language teaching genuinely communicative? I certainly feel that small but effective changes could be made at the initial training process. TP points that aren’t based on a coursebook, maybe? No TP points at all, even? Not demanding that trainees identify language aims in advance? Placing more importance on trainees’ ability to improvise and work with the learners rather than making the learners work for them? I know some teacher trainers already do this, but many don’t, and as a result the world is being populated by teachers who prioritise the wrong techniques.

  3. steveoakes99 permalink

    As I think you know, I completely agree with you, and I think you summarised the key reasons for CLT being a misnomer for itself in your earlier post (‘Let there be light’): training, measurability/(accountability), and commercial considerations. Having worked as a trainer on Cambridge Diploma courses since the mid-90s, it’s my experience that it’s very exceptional that a candidate comes onto the course being open to and able to deal with emergent language, i.e. the unpredictable; in fact if candidates cite one thing as ‘the most important thing I learned on the Dip’, it’s just that– the notion (and hopefully some openness and ability) of dealing with emergent language.

    But to deal with emergent language, a teacher has to be able to generate/motivate meaningful use of language among learners, and that also requires a certain degree of know-how and emotional intelligence; for starters, one has to be able to differentiate between different types of so-called communicative tasks and activities, and perceive what learners will find meaningful enough to venture into expressing their own meanings, not those pre-determined by the teacher/material.

    If teachers are control freaks, as you suggest, I think it has to do with self-preservation. Encountering unpredictable language ‘problems’ can be scary for native and non-native speaker alike, even for experienced teachers (at least in my observation), and certainly for novices. It’s not just about knowing what to do (what’s the rule? how do I convey it? should I bother?) but how to maintain accountability, how to keep lessons and courses from feeling like a mass of ad hoc language ‘bits’ (bytes maybe?). For this reason, I’m less bothered by the fact that coursebooks and initial teacher training courses present teaching as a relatively predictable process. You’re right, it’s often not really CLT though it purports to be. And that wouldn’t be a problem if more teachers were aware that that’s the case, and understand that they need to move from facilitating what I call an illusion of learning towards engendering a genuine learning process.

    It’s ironic, or at least interesting, that arguments for a truly communicative approach go back centuries, and are seen not just in the 19th century reformists’ writings, but much earlier. One of my favourites, which emphasises the primacy of real language use over a focus on rule systems, comes from a text published by Joseph Webbe in 1622 called ‘An appeale to Truth, in the Controuersie betweene Art, and Use; about the best, and most expedient Course in Languages’: “…we shall get the judgement of the ear, and retain the same forever: which Grammar cannot help us to; in that it is imperfect and beguileth us”

    Incidentally, Webbe indicated that his text was ‘to be read Fasting’. Hmmm.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks very much for that quote by Webbe. I was thinking of adding another paragraph pointing out that people have been criticising the way CLT has gone ever since it started going there, but I was only going to go back as far as Henry Widdowson in 1979 – your quote gives us far greater perspective, which is very important.
      You make a very good point that if teachers realised that what they’re doing isn’t actually CLT then at least they would be able to look at what is. You can’t begin to know what you don’t know until you know that you don’t know it.
      I’m still not sure how impossible it is for new teachers to take on board principles of teaching emergent language. Sure, you need to have a certain level of emotional intelligence to know how to react to situations (the more humanistic side of teaching that Holly mentioned above), but isn’t that a skill that can be overtly focused on and developed? This area is barely addressed on many CELTA courses; instead it mostly seems to be about classroom management techniques and writing lesson plans.
      Of course, maybe part of the problem is that there is a commonly accepted “truth” that you can learn how to be an effective language teacher in 120 hours…

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