Please click to download a PDF of my book Teach and Learn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Our approach to language teaching is called CLT, or communicative language teaching. CLT has its roots in the idea that the goal of language learning is to become good at using language for communication. That simple notion is surprisingly profound.
Although languages have been taught around the world for many centuries, this seemingly obvious idea is fairly recent. Beginning in the 1960s, British applied linguists developed the communicative approach as a reaction away from grammar-based approaches such as the aural-oral (audiolingual) approach. CLT didn’t take the teaching world by storm for another 20 years, however.
Communicative Competence. Communicative language teaching enables learners to acquire a language by focusing on the development of communicative competence. To do this, communicative language teachers use materials that focus on the language needed to express and understand different kinds of functions. (Examples include asking for things, describing people, expressing likes and dislikes and telling time.)
CL teachers also emphasize the processes of communication – for example, using language appropriately in different types of social situations. They encourage students to use their second language to perform different kinds of tasks, like solving puzzles and getting information. They also stress using language to interact with other people. The following Venn diagram helps explain.
The theory behind CLT suggests that we learn language by using it. However, we use language in four different ways, which we can think of as competencies. The best way to develop communicative competence is for learners to strengthen these areas of competence. In the diagram, the learner’s discourse, grammatical, sociolinguistic and strategic competencies overlap in areas high in communicative competence.
• Discourse competence refers to the learner’s ability to use the new language in spoken and written discourse, how well a person can combine grammatical forms and meanings to find different ways to speak or write. How well does the student combine the language’s elements to speak or write in English? Teachers often call this ability the student’s fluency.
• Grammatical competence refers to the ability to use the language correctly, how well a person has learned features and rules of the language. This includes vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence formation. How well does the learner understand the grammar of English? Teachers call this accuracy in language use.
Fluency and accuracy are traditional measures of effective language learning. The other two competencies are less obvious.
• Sociolinguistic competence refers to the learner’s ability to use language correctly in specific social situations – for example, using proper language forms at a job interview. Socio-linguistic competence is based upon such factors as the status of those speaking to each other, the purpose of the interaction, and the expectations of the players. How socially acceptable is the person’s use of English in different settings? This competency is about appropriacy in using language.CLT has its critics. For example, an early critic of the approach, Michael Swann, pooh-poohed the approach brilliantly in a pair of academic essays. His critique seems to be aimed at early dogmatic, almost evangelical, writings on CLT. In the early days many true believers seem to have failed to appreciate that non-CLT language teaching can also be effective.
• Strategic competence refers to strategies for effective communication when the learner’s vocabulary proves inadequate for the job, and his or her command of useful learning strategies. Strategic competence is how well the person uses both verbal forms and non-verbal communication to compensate for lack of knowledge in the other three competencies. Can the learner find ways to compensate for areas of weakness? If so, the learner has communicative efficacy.
The non-dogmatic approach I advocate seems less open to criticism, since it happily accepts methods and techniques from other approaches, as long as they work. One of Swann’s criticisms, however, still rankles. Said he, “language learners already know, in general, how to negotiate meaning. They have been doing it all their lives. What they do not know is what words are used to do it in a foreign language. They need lexical items, not skills….”
Many CL teachers believe vocabulary acquisition is the most important part of language learning, and that the most important lexical items to learn are verbs. This is a core idea of this course, and can serve to segue this discussion to language content and language behaviour. The Heart of Language. The rest of language learning can be illustrated in a parallel diagram, shown below. This model applies to all languages, regardless of the method or approach the teacher uses, and it is relevant irrespective of your approach to language teaching.
In the heart of this diagram lie the three components of language: phonology, lexis and structure.
Together, they comprise the content of language Around the periphery of the graphic are the four language skills. These are speaking and writing, the productive or active skills; and listening and reading, the receptive or passive skills. Language Content. Let’s begin with language content.
• Phonology refers to new features of the sound system of the language. For example, focusing on the difference between the words “rip” and “lip” is a phonological exercise. A more common way to teach phonology is simply to have students repeat vocabulary using proper stress and pronunciation.
• Structure refers to the rules we use to make correct sentences. For most purposes, we can think of structure as being the same as grammar. When we teach language structure, we almost always introduce these as examples or model sentences, and they are often called “patterns”.
• Lexis is about words. When we say we are introducing a new “lexical item” in a lesson, we usually mean a new bit of vocabulary. It is sometimes difficult to decide whether an item is structural or lexical. For example, when we study phrasal verbs like “chop down” or “stand up” in a class, we can address the topic lexically or structurally.
Every language, including sign language, has these components. Lexical, structural and phonological content lie at the heart of the language. But to make the language come alive requires the behaviours related to listening, speaking, reading and writing. Language Behaviour. In language teaching, the term “language skills” refers to the mode or manner in which language is used. Listening, speaking, reading and writing are generally called the four language skills. We deal with each of these topics in some detail elsewhere.
Speaking and writing are sometimes called the active or productive skills, while reading and listening are called the passive or receptive skills. As we discuss elsewhere in this text, it is possible to consider thinking in the second language as another highly desirable ability. Some call it the fifth skill.
So there you have it. What defines CLT is its focus on the need to develop communicative competence. Like all language teaching systems, however, it can only be judged by its ability to help learners practice using the content of language – phonology, lexis and structure. And that content can only be practiced through the behaviours known as listening and speaking, reading and writing.