Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

I am writing this in response to Alex’s question about why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach. Let me say before I begin that the case I want to make has already been made far more eloquently by Michael Swan in his 1985 articles in the ELT Journal. If you have not read these, please do. In my opinion, they should be compulsory reading for all language teachers.

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1)

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2)

One problem with discussing the Communicative Approach is that the term has come to mean different things to different people. I recently had a very heated discussion with a Japanese teacher of English about Communicative Language Teaching. He insisted that my interpretation was out of date, and that CLT is actually just an umbrella term for any kind of teaching where the goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate. Under the “correct” definition, he claimed, CLT actually embraces things like Grammar-Translation and the Audio-Lingual Method.

If this were truly the case, I would have no arguments with CLT, although I would question the usefulness of a term that claims to cover every other method and approach that preceded it. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing CLT in the way that it was taught to me in London in the 1990’s, which is also the way it seems to me to have been interpreted by most teachers I have met over the course of my career.

I do not want to get into a “Smith (1996) wrote that… but her point was later countered by Jones (1997)” type of debate, so please do not send me a list of references that you think I need to read. Having at last finished my PhD, I am taking a break from reading academic books and articles for a while! Anyway, my understanding of the Communicative Approach is that it claimed that real communication is not only the goal of language learning, but also the process through which languages are learned. Put simply, you don’t just learn to communicate, you learn by communicating.

Now this was a valuable insight, and it led to the development of a great many useful teaching tools such as information-gap exercises and discussion activities. However, it shot itself in the foot (or at least, many of its evangelical proponents did) by claiming that real communication was the only way to learn a language. Because of this, classroom activities that were not based on authentic communication were deemed useless and outdated. The worst that could be said of any teaching technique or material in the heyday of CLT was that it was “not communicative” (cue gasp of horror).

I specifically remember being told in my teacher training course that it was unproductive to ask a student a question to which you already know the answer, since there is no possibility of genuine communication taking place. Can you see the problem here? The suggestion that we should ask students questions to which we genuinely do not know the answer is a nice one, but it is a very big jump from there to “and so you should never ask a question unless you do not know the answer.” The other night, my French teacher had us chain-drilling “What’s your name?” and “How do you spell it?” around the class. Everyone already knew everyone else’s name, but the point of the exercise was for us to practice the pronunciation of the alphabet. There was no real communication taking place, but it was still very useful practice, and every student in the room was fully engaged in the activity.

To be fair, I don’t think that all of the proponents of CLT meant it to be taken to quite such extremes, but that does not change the fact that it was. I remember sitting in a presentation once where the presenter was describing a conversation that she had been practicing with her students in the classroom. One woman in the audience raised her hand and said in a very officious tone, “I could never imagine myself having a conversation like that in real life.” Most of the audience nodded wisely and tut-tutted at the presenter’s use of such a contrived dialog. I remember thinking, “So what? What has that got to do with whether it is useful in a classroom or not?”

When I started studying Japanese, I remember one lesson in which we learned about prepositions. We engaged ourselves for about an hour with conversations along the lines of “Where is the pen?” “It’s under the book” and a range of variations that I’m sure you can imagine for yourselves. As both parties to the conversation could clearly see both items, it would be difficult to claim that there was any real communication taking place. There was, however, a great deal of language learning taking place. Some CLT zealots might suggest putting the students back-to-back so that one of them could not see the pen or the book. Frankly, I find that a bit silly. All of us were quite aware that the purpose of the activity was simply to practice the prepositions and relevant grammar structure, and everyone seemed to find it quite beneficial enough without having it turned into “pseudo communication.”

Another unfortunate result of CLT has been textbooks that are really nothing more than a series of recipes for activities. What happened to the wonderful books of yesteryear that had detailed explanations of grammar and pages and pages of practice activities? A dangerous consequence of the CLT revolution has been the idea that if the students are communicating, then they must be learning. This has led many teachers to assume that all they need to do is set up communicative activities and the learning will take care of itself. I remember being told during my training that that one of the greatest evils in the language classroom is TTT (teacher talking time), and that this should be kept to a minimum at all costs because it takes up time that students could be using to communicate with each other. In many EFL situations, however, the teacher is the only access students have to native or proficient speakers of the language, and listening to the teacher talk is both useful and beneficial for them.

To sum up, the reason I am not a big fan of CLT is not because of the ideas it introduced, but because of the way its proponents tried to push aside and devalue other ideas about language learning on the basis of no hard evidence whatsoever. Communicative exercises most certainly have their place in the language classroom, but so do focused grammar study, substitution, rote-learning, and a host of other techniques and activities that are quite clearly “not communicative.”


Comment from Dorothy
April 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I’m confused by comments like “I could never imagine myself having a conversation like that in real life.” Why isn’t the classroom considered “real life”? Is it… fake life, somehow?

I spent 19 years in the classroom as a student, another 18 years in the classroom as a teacher… I’m not technically “in” the classroom anymore, but a great number of my conversations still concern it!

Elsewhere in posts in this blog people have drawn various analogies–sports players drill skills, musicians practice scales and chords. Rehearsing parts of language isn’t “fake.” It’s part of language learning.

Comment from mossaab
April 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Hi David, yes, yes and yes again.
At least, in my country the english books for all levels are boring for both the teachers and students. The students get nothing from this and I’m in a heated conversations everyday with my colleagues and the supervisor. I totally agree with you and am eager to read your articles. Thank you for the enlightenment.

Comment from naleeni das
April 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Yup, a lot of water has since passed under the bridge before this falsehood was outed! Poor Dr Krashen, was such a keen advocate of the CLT.

Today, we’re still using the CLT but a weaker version, thank God! I do find it useful for engaging my students in both pair and grp work and I’m grateful for the numerous ideas for activities.

Most of all, I’m glad that grammar has come back to take its rightful place, but alas, not many teachers in my country are well versed in teaching it. There’s still a lingering and conspicuous gap in their knowledge for them to help students. Considering they never had grammar lessons themselves, many cringe at the idea of teaching it today.

Comment from oriel ortega
April 25, 2011 at 8:19 pm

My name is Oriel. I have been teaching English since 2004. I worked with children (Elementary School) in Panama. I really agree with you. In my experience, I have learned that in a classroom I have to make a mix of methods, activities etc. in order to achieve my main goal: “My students doing something with what they have learned in my classroom.” Every method or technique is like a coin, it has two faces: a “good” face and “bad” face. In our classrooms we cannot discharge anything. Another important aspect is that our textbooks are “TOOLS” we are who decide what is good for our students. We cannot allow the books run the show we are the teachers.

Comment from David
April 25, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Thank you Dorothy, mosaab, and naleeni das for your comments. I was a bit worried that I would be attacked for questioning the value of CLT, so it is nice to see that other teachers feel the same way.

In fairness, I should point out that in my own training, I was never told that we should not teach grammar, just that the way we taught it had to be “communicative.” I must admit that I do not really understand the “CLT vs. grammar” debate. Are there really people out there who think that you do not need to teach the grammar of a foreign language at all?! If there are, I can only imagine that they are people who have never learned a foreign language themselves!

I noticed that naleeni das said “we’re still using CLT but a weaker version.” I actually wonder whether the term CLT has any real meaning any more. So many teachers are using it to describe completely different methodologies that it makes analytical debate almost impossible. As I mentioned in my article, I met a teacher last year who insisted that grammar-translation should be considered CLT if the teacher’s final goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate. I can’t help thinking that it is time to introduce another term, maybe something like “TCC” (teaching for communicative competence). This would put the stress on goals rather than methodologies, and it might help us to avoid a lot of the mistakes we have made in the past (i.e., abandoning useful techniques because they were not in fashion).

If anyone has a better suggestion, I would love to hear it.

Comment from David Barker
April 25, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Hi Oriel,

You posted your comment as I was writing my response. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you 100%!

Comment from naleeni das
April 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Hi David,

CLT must meet the criteria of : negotiation, feedback and choice of words the learner uses. This now has been broadly interpreted to include all manner of tasks where pair/grp work takes place.

On grammar translation as being part of the communicative approach, I suppose it’s still widespread in Asia; I would prefer to look at it as code-switching where teachers substitute certain lexis with the L1 for easy comprehension. Personally, I would not advocate anything more than that as learners would get too comfortable to not try their L2 more often.

Comment from David Barker
April 26, 2011 at 8:05 am

Hi naleeni das,

The problem with the definition you suggest is that different people might interpret it in different ways. What exactly does “negotiation” mean? How much feedback does there have to be for the exercise to become “communicative”? Is all pair/group work communicative, or only certain types? If a teacher spends one hour lecturing on grammar in the students’ language but then uses that to lead into a group discussion, is she doing CLT, or is she just doing a communicative exercise at the end of a traditional grammar lesson?

My point is that different teachers might answer these questions in different ways because we do not have a standard definition of what they mean. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest problems with our “profession.” Can you imagine what would happen if architects had different definitions of “right angle”?! (I think I can feel another article coming on!)

I find it almost impossible to have a sensible debate about CLT these days because everyone I talk to has given their own meaning to the term, and each is convinced that his or her own interpretation is the “correct” one. I have found that when they talk about CLT, some people mean teaching without focussing explicitly on grammar, while others simply mean including pair work activities as part of their lessons. I could go on and on with a list of the different interpretations I have heard.

Actually, the same can be said of “grammar-translation.” What exactly does this term mean? If it means analyzing the grammar patterns of a language and explaining it in terms of how it would be translated into the students’ L1, then I am all for it. I often hear the argument that students will not use the L2 if they get too comfortable with the teacher using the L1, but frankly, if they are not sufficiently motivated to want to use the target language as much as possible in the first place, then they are never going to learn it whatever the teacher does. (Again, that’s probably a topic best left for another article!)

Anyway, thanks again for your comments.

PS A quick question – have you found that most teachers in your environment define CLT in the same way, or have you had the same problem as I have?

Comment from Betty Azar
April 26, 2011 at 11:19 am

Again, I agree with David Barker’s observations, especially about those who think they know all the answers to L2 acquisition (the “zealots”) – when what is needed is blended, flexible approaches based on our students’ needs. As for CLT, the articles by Michael Swan that David mentions are stellar. Another article of Swan’s that is excellent is “TBI: The overselling of theory based on scanty empirical evidence”:{} I was fortunate enough to be on a panel with Michael at the New York TESOL in 2008. We had a grand time. (There’s a video of the panel here on the website.)

David certainly got my attention when he nostalgically asked, “What happened to the wonderful books of yesteryear that had detailed explanations of grammar and pages and pages of practice activities?” I think our textbooks (the Azar-Hagen series) eclectically and innovatively are just that! —and are not (heavens forbid) of yesteryear! The texts certainly don’t slight grammar, but are continually more comprehensive in the types of practice we offer, with one of our main goals being pedagogical adaptability.

I’m finding the comments from David’s blogs great reading. They certainly help keep me up-to-date on current teaching practices. It’s great to hear from so many teachers.

Comment from naleeni das
April 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Yes David, we all do have the same trouble you described! Great to hear that everyone has the same notions abt how best to accommodate the CLT in their individual classrooms. It appears that we in Asia are not alone!

Great to read Betty’s comments on the matter too. TBI is certainly a grey area for many of us! As for me, I just go with the needs of my students. If I think that an entire lesson could benefit from grammar lesson, I go for it, old fashion or not!

At the end of the day, it’s the tools we have that aids us to be better teachers. I for one, am glad to have so many in my kit.

Comment from David Barker
April 27, 2011 at 12:10 am

Hi naleeni das,

“I just go with the needs of my students. If I think that an entire lesson could benefit from grammar lesson, I go for it, old fashion or not!”

Bravo to that!!

I also like the idea of teachers having a “tool kit.” My advice to teachers is that when someone tells you about a new idea or methodology and suggests that you could add it to your tool kit, listen carefully to what they have to say. If, on the other hand, they suggest that you ought to throw things out of your tool kit in order to make room for it, be very suspicious!

Hi Betty,

Thanks for the other Swan reference. I had never read that article before. In some ways, TBI is the “new CLT,” in that, as Michael said, it is pushed on teachers despite the fact that there is very little evidence to show that it is any more effective than other methods.

One well-known advocate of TBI is Professor Rod Ellis. I have met him several times, and as well as being a world-class researcher and a highly accessible writer, he is also an extremely friendly and helpful man. What he is not, however, is a language learner. I attended a presentation he gave in Christchurch a few years ago, and he began by saying, “I’ve never actually been much good at learning languages myself.” Of course, this does not mean that we should not listen to what he has to say, but it does mean that he has a different perspective.Teachers are often bombarded with conflicting advice, and it is important to remember that the people giving that advice all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different points of view. The job of teachers and students is to listen to all of the advice and decide for ourselves what to accept and what to reject.

I include students in that because we must not forget that students often know much more about language learning than teachers do. Being bi-lingual is unusual in most English-speaking countries, but in many places around the world, bi-lingualism (or even tri-lingualism) is the norm.

When I worked in Singapore, I taught two kinds of EFL. One was “English as a Foreign Language,” and the other was “English as a Fifth Language.” I am not exaggerating – it was not at all unusual for me to be teaching students who already spoke four languages before they came to English. Trying to tell these people the best way to learn would be ridiculous. If they say that they want grammar-translation, then grammar-translation is what we should give them. If they want their mistakes corrected, then corrected they should be, regardless of what SLA academics have to say on the subject.

I’ll stop there because I can feel myself drifting into yet another article!

Comment from mona
April 27, 2011 at 2:49 am

I’m a CELTA holder & I enjoy my classes so very much. I loved this sentence of yours :” I just go with the needs of my students.” couldn’t agree more

Comment from David Barker
April 27, 2011 at 6:36 am

Hi Mona,

I’m afraid I can’t claim credit for that. I was just quoting from the comment by naleeni das. It’s a nice sentence, isn’t it? I only wish a few more academics could learn to think this way!

Comment from oriel ortega
April 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm


I am little confused!!! Can you help me??
What is the difference between an approach and a method in language teaching

Comment from David Barker
April 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Hi Oriel,

You and me both! This is another one of those silly “pairs” that academics seem to like so much. (I can still never remember whether a slip of the tongue is an “error” or a “mistake”.)

As with “CLT,” these terms are not used consistently, but I think the general idea is that an approach is broader, and it covers theories about languages and learning. A method, on the other hand, is more like a specific set of techniques for teachers to follow in the classroom.

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t worry about it. Social sciences have a history of making up terminology and creating distinctions in order to make themselves sound more academic. In our field, these are usually of little interest or value to practicing teachers.

Hope that helps.

Comment from oriel ortega
April 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Thank you very much!!!!! It will help help me a lot.

So,Are The natural approach and the and the communicative language teaching (Method)just the same?

Comment from David Barker
April 29, 2011 at 6:19 pm

They share some of the same ideas, but they are not the same. Also, I think CLT is usually thought of as an “approach” rather than a “method” because it does not specify a list of procedures to be followed in the classroom. (Compare this with the Audio-Lingual Method, which states very clearly exactly what teachers and students should do.)

Try Googling “Natural Approach” and “Communicative Language Teaching.” You will find lots of explanations of both on the Web. As I said, though, unless you are planning to become an academic, you do not really need to worry too much about the terminology. I certainly don’t!

Comment from David Barker
April 29, 2011 at 6:22 pm


There is an excellent book called “Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching” by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson that explains a range of different approaches and methods, and the differences between them. If you have not read it, I highly recommend getting hold of a copy.

Comment from oriel ortega
April 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Thank you again. The information is realy helpful.

Comment from David Barker
April 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Glad to be of help :-)

Comment from Tipa Thep-Ackrapong
May 1, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I agree with the idea that the communicative approach in many textbooks is not effectively used. Grammar is not explicitly explained and exercises are too steep. I mean too many activities are crammed in one lesson and there is not much reinforcement. My Thai students are quite lost even with simple grammar rules such as the use of pronouns and the verb to be. It is a sad thing to see how the communicative approach has ruined learners’ ability to learn English.

Comment from David Barker
May 1, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Hi Tipa,

I think what happened after the Communicative revolution was that publishing companies started competing to make books that were more and more “communicative,” so the focus moved away from grammar teaching. Too many modern course books just “throw” students into activities without any real preparation. It was encouraging to hear from Betty that her new book is trying to move the focus back onto language, but I’m afraid that too many publishing companies still focus too strongly on communicative activities. As I said, that is another reason why I am not a great fan of the Communicative Approach.

Comment from Thomas Leu
May 3, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I have a question as far as going with the needs of our students. I’m only in my first year of MA TESOL so I haven’t had much experience in the classroom yet. I agree that we need to teach to the needs of our students. My question is, how do we know what the needs of our students are? Is it what they think they need? Is it what we as teachers think they need? Or something else altogether, and how do we balance it all? For example, you mentioned teaching EFL (fifth language) students in Singapore and how it would be ridiculous to tell them how best to learn. Yet, if we as teachers honestly feel or believe there is a better way to teach or help them, does that mean we should just go with their ideas (especially if they have so much language learning experience)? Thanks for your time and all the helpful comments.

Comment from David Barker
May 3, 2011 at 6:26 pm

HI Thomas,

That is a very thought-provoking question. Of course, if students know everything and teachers know nothing, then what is the point of having teachers?

When I started working in Singapore, I had just finished a course where I had been trained in CLT. Everything I had learned told me that it shouldn’t have been possible for the students I met to have learned English (and other languages) in the way they had. The problem was that I couldn’t argue with the fact that they had, and this led me to question everything I had been taught. I don’t think it was ridiculous for me to give these people suggestions and present alternative ideas about learning, but it would have been foolhardy for me to try to persuade them that I was right and they were wrong when the evidence so clearly showed that the opposite was true. (Unfortunately, evidence is one thing you will not see a great deal of as you learn about different methods and approaches to language teaching.)

I think the most important thing is to remember that in spite of what you may learn or read about on your MA, the following three things remain true:

1) Nobody really knows or understands how humans learn languages.
2) There is no one approach or method that is “best” for every student. (With the exception of SHAPAL – please see my last post.)
3) There is nothing that should always or never be done in the language classroom, and even that is an over-generalization. (This is something that Penny Ur often says in her workshops. I love it so much that I use it all the time.)

After you finish your MA (I mean “you” in the sense of “one”), there is a danger of coming away with the feeling that you are a “language learning expert.” It is vital to remember that you are not. Nobody is. As teachers, it is our job to take what we have learned into the classroom, but we should never be afraid to abandon anything if our experience contradicts it, regardless of what theorists and academics have to say on the matter.

I think what I am saying is that a good teacher is not someone who knows a lot about language learning: a good teacher is someone who is aware of just how little they know about language learning.

I’m not sure if that answers your question, but if it doesn’t, please let me know. Also, a final tip on your teacher training. At the same time as you do your MA, are you also learning a foreign language? If not, try to get yourself enrolled in a class in a language that is nothing like English – something like Russian, Japanese, Thai, or Arabic. The experience will help you to get a lot more out of your TESOL studies.

Comment from Erin Shaw
October 11, 2011 at 9:12 am

I really like your points. I think when I first started my MA I was on the CLT bandwagon and criticized the school where I taught for using a certain red grammar book for not being communicative enough. That’s what I was taught and I could only see how that would benefit students. However, with more experience and knowledge I have seen both practical and theoretical problems with that. Students need scaffolding in language learning. Children learn with scaffolding, that’s why readers and children’s books are so great. If you assume that everything must be a real life situation there are many things that won’t be taught, or at least not in a CLT manner. What about syntax and basic sentence structure? Students deserve to have background knowledge for their grammar. Also, I think this issue relates a lot to implicit and explicit knowledge and instruction. Purely communicative methods would rely upon implicit learning (different from knowledge but related), rather than explicit learning that some would argue can transfer and become quite useful to students. My own language learning has proven that to me. Now, as an administrator I have seen the benefits of clear instruction, especially with grammar and adopted the same text I shunned earlier.

Comment from David
October 12, 2011 at 7:03 am

Thanks Erin. My experience has been very similar to yours. It’s funny how your views change as you gain more experience, isn’t it!

Comment from Abraham Patrick
April 24, 2012 at 1:29 am

Reading your article and the comments confirm what I have always felt about teaching in general. Be innovative! Be flexible! What matters is that students understand well in the teaching-learning process and they enjoy the process of learning.
I’m going to try some experimental teaching in passive voice. The students will be learning it in groups by themselves with less of teacher talk. I’m trying this with a group of girls who are enthusiastic second language learners. I need to sit down and prepare the instruction material.

Comment from Cuc Elledge
June 2, 2012 at 10:29 am

I am going to book mark your blog and keep returning regularly.

Comment from Ipa Jones
June 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Thank you for this discussion. I’m glad I finally found this blog and this site. When I was in an MA program in TESOL, I was frustrated with the lack of attention to evidence and good research methods. In fact, the word “evidence” was rarely uttered. Communicative Language Teaching was discussed as a given, with no attempt to justify it. Much of what I heard about CLT conflicted with my common-sense radar, but I felt so alone. I barely even openly questioned it because I didn’t want to alienate my professors. I did find Swan’s articles by doing a search of the literature for “CLT Critique” or something like that, and it gave me some hope that I could find evidence-supported teaching materials somewhere. Now I’m teaching and I’m using Betty Azar’s Basic Grammar book. I really appreciate the discussions and helpful teaching materials on this site! I feel more confident now that, eventually, after some practice, I will be able to bring some clarity to my classroom and give my students what they signed up for–effective teaching of English!

Comment from David
June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Hi Ipa,

I know how you feel. I was in the same boat when I did my DELTA. The uncomfortable truth is that success in language acquisition has far more to do with the way learners learn than the way teachers teach, and we really don’t know much more for certain about how the process works than we did 200 years ago. There is no shortage of people who will try to tell you otherwise, though! My advice is to trust your instincts and go with what works.

Comment from Craig
November 14, 2012 at 5:33 am

Hi David and all involved in this discussion,

It is interesting to note that a lot of the material in TESOL, Celta and DELTA programmes is geared towards CLT or TBI. I have no qualifications (yet) in this area, but have been teaching EFL for the past 11 years. it has been my experience, as you stated in your blog and in the article referenced by Betty ( a great and informative read btw if you haven’t read it) that there are problems with any approach or method as set down in the text books for teaching languages. As a native English speaker in a foreign country teaching English, and being the father of 3 children all born in that foreign country, it surprises me that a basic understanding of grammar is all but ignored in most current courses about teaching English. Grammar most definitely has its place in the classroom.

I fact, if any of my students has any interest in learning grammar, one of the first things i say to them is to find the series of grammar books by Betty & co. This series has been a godsend to me whenever i needed to explain and to get students to practice grammar. It eloquently and succinctly provides not only exercises but also explainations that are understandable by both students and teachers.

Horray that a group of people of there in the language teaching world/profession has the same ideas that i have been expressing to my superiors for the last 7-8 years!!

PS interesting to note, that while my 3rd child is truly bilingual, because of the way i communicated with the first 2 while they were groing up, that the first two are not bilingual. might be the topic of discussion for another blog?

Comment from David
November 14, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Hi Craig,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article encouraging. The question of how children become bilingual would definitely be a good topic for discussion, but as I don’t have any, I think I will leave it to one of the other bloggers.

Comment from Mohammed Bens
December 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Hello David,

CTL has evolved. It seems to me that you went to school in the 1970’s or 1980’s. The early experimental stage of CLT is not what it really is. Explicit teaching is not against CLT.

Comment from David
December 2, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Hi Mohammed,

Thanks for your comment. I actually did my teacher training in the ’90s, and I can assure you that the “Communicative revolution” was still in full swing at that point. (People were starting to question it when I did my DELTA, which was in 1996.)

I am aware that, as you say, CLT has evolved, but the way the term is interpreted now seems to vary from teacher to teacher, which makes it very difficult to discuss. As I think I mentioned in my article, I know one teacher who swears that CLT means “any kind of language teaching where the goal is to promote communicative competence.” So basically, just “language teaching”, then?

I understand also that explicit teaching is not against CLT, but there was a very strong suggestion when I did my training that the language should be learned as far as possible through “communication.” To quote another example from my article, I remember spending a whole lesson in my Japanese class asking and answering questions concerning the whereabouts of various items of stationery, all of which were in plain view. We were doing this in order to practice prepositions of place. That kind of practice would definitely not have been considered compatible with the ideas of CLT when I did my training. Would it be okay nowadays? As I said, it depends who you ask.

It is very difficult to argue either for or against something when it means completely different things to different people. Evolution is great, but when something evolves in very different ways in very different places and at very different speeds, I would argue that the original term becomes meaningless. Actually, I feel another article coming on! Thanks for the inspiration :-)

Comment from becky
February 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I couldn’t agree more, with this article. The most effective teacher takes the best practices from each method. Extremes are never the best way to teach.

Comment from Lee
June 9, 2013 at 9:42 am

Being adaptive and dynamic in every lesson is key to helping students reach their goals irrelevant of methods used.

Comment from maria efthimiadis
June 10, 2013 at 10:24 am


All books have a structured format that repeats itself throughout the book. That is why a good teacher should engage in different types of activities and not use only one approach as it gets boring. It does not matter what textbook you have. One needs to supplement knowing that the use of one approach gets old and new learning is best when diverse methods are used. However, I have noticed that schools favor the Communicative Approach for speaking.

Comment from Scott
November 7, 2013 at 1:23 am

Hi David,
I’m doing an MA Tesol and one of my assignments is on CLT. I’ve scoured several textbooks and about a thousand websites, but no one seems to really define what CLT actually is! Although, there are plenty of texts that say what it ISN’T. Any thoughts on how to define it?!

Comment from David Barker
November 8, 2013 at 2:13 am

Hi Scott,

That is a great question. I started writing an answer, but it got so long that I decided to turn it into another entry. I’ll post it in the very near future, so watch this space!

(To summarize, there is no definition of CLT that everyone will agree on, just as there is no common definition of Task-Based Learning.)

Comment from Scott
November 14, 2013 at 1:33 am

Hi David,
Thanks a lot. I’ll look out for that entry. It just seems crazy to me that it is an approach that has been around for over 40 years, that has influenced nearly every textbook on the market, and has had entire books written about it, yet nobody seems to know exactly what it is!

I think I’ve got a pretty decent handle on the theory behind it now, and I can see the benefits of teaching intermediate students and above in this way, but I really can’t see how its possible to teach beginners like that.

Comment from David Barker
November 14, 2013 at 2:32 am

Hi Scott,

Working on the article now. Thanks for the idea.

Comment from Lee Joon Hee
January 27, 2014 at 4:57 am

Hello David,
Your April 25, 2011 comment mentioned that you haven’t heard about a teaching method that does not involve teaching grammar at all. If you are interested in the result of such a technique, you should search for TOSS English. It is a franchise academy in S.Korea and it is very popular amongst Korean students who are not able to speak the English language. I’m not here to promote or side with the CLT method just to be clear. I myself think that it is wise to try and use all methods whichever is the best for each student and I don’t believe that there is just one method to teaching.
But just for the curious minds,
The TOSS English academy uses visual and audio aids to teach the students.
What they would do is, they would turn on a movie and show a 5~15second video clip 3 times and make the children repeat what they have seen and heard. They have two types of videos. A movie based and a book based. The movie based is just like what I have just said, they would turn on a Disney video and make the kids repeat the scripts. The Book based is they would turn on a video that only has words and a narrator who read the lines. Then the kids will listen and repeat the same as before. Then they will answer some questions from a textbook that the academy has provided involving the specific videos they have seen. No grammar is being taught during these classes. I am familiar with this academy because I have worked there myself back in 2009. I hope this would have been informative and if anyone is curious, i’m sure you can all search the academy’s website

Pingback from Teacher Talk » A Question of Terminology
February 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm

[…] this entry in response to a question that was posted by Scott on one of my older entries, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach.” Here is what Scott […]

Comment from Karin
February 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Here, here! I have to agree Dave! I am taking a TESOL course right now and it definitely emphasizes the Communicative Approach. I find it kind of stifling that I have to limit my lesson planning assignments to just this one approach when there are also very useful features in other methods that can be incorporated into teaching.

Comment from David
February 6, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Thanks Karin. Glad to hear that you found the post useful.

Comment from marc cummings
April 13, 2014 at 9:58 am

Students in my college ESL classes are fluent. Many have graduated from area high schools, yet they have not mastered the higher-level academic English needed for history, sociology, nursing or whatever major they choose. So they are fluent and they certainly can communicate. They represent the changing face of ESL in the US. My students would find a focus on “authentic” or “real-life” situations somewhat strange. They recognize that they need the grammar skills that allow them to articulate their thoughts about ideas, concepts, social problems, cause-effect situations, etc. I find that a “project-based” ESL method works well because students need to use many language skills to complete the project. Then, the final assignment is a PowerPoint or Prezi to show the whole class the result of the collaborative work on a particular project.

Comment from David
April 15, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Hi Marc,
Thanks for your comment. I agree that there is often a mismatch between what teachers think the students want and what they actually want.

Comment from Robert
May 4, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Here’s a very interesting talk by Jeremy Harmer about the nature of CLT amongst other things

Comment from Jason Bolster
May 8, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Thank you for your considered article. You seem to be advocating using the range of methodologies as a smorgasbord rather than as a menu, which is the way I do it.

Comment from David
May 9, 2014 at 3:11 am

Hi Robert, thanks for the link. I will show that to my students.

Hi Jason, I am indeed advocating a “smorgasbord” of methodologies, as well as a much greater degree of caution about dismissing “old” and “traditional” methods of teaching and learning simply because they are no longer fashionable.

Comment from David
May 13, 2014 at 12:54 am

Hi Robert,
Thanks again for the link. I’m just watching the video now. Jeremy Harmer very succinctly makes the point that I was trying to make in my most recent post. In his words, the biggest problem with CLT is that “it means everything and anything to anybody.” He goes on to say, “and that is not good enough for a model of teaching.” A big A-men to that!

Comment from David
May 14, 2014 at 2:10 am

Hi again Robert,

I have just finished watching the video, and it has inspired me to write another post, so thank you for that! I would love to hear your comments on the new post when it is published.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » A Discussion about Communicative Language Teaching
May 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

[…] a comment on one of my previous posts, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach,” a reader very kindly posted a link to a video of a discussion between Jeremy Harmer and […]

Comment from m assar
May 28, 2014 at 9:18 pm

thank you for your very helpful article.i’m an English teacher from Iran.we ‘ve had the same revolution in teaching language in our country too.unfortunately after finishing an educational year i found that my students have learnt very little regarding the time taken to teach them.the reason ,i think ,was the absolute use of clt as the only regarded effective method.i agree with you.we would better to act selectivly with no prejudice on the most fashionable method. thank you for your help again.

Comment from David
May 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

Thanks for your comment. When I talk to Western teachers of English about this, everyone says, “No one thinks that CLT is the only way you should teach nowadays.” As your comment shows, however, there are many countries in which it is still being put forward as the most effective approach to language teaching.

Comment from Eduardo Fernandez
May 24, 2015 at 10:10 pm

Hello Prof. David:In Costa Rica were I teach English, it has become an essential activity for getting a fairly good job in foreign companies. On the other hand, these companies evaluate a high level of English over the applicants, with grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening activities. As you can see, Communication only is not enough for latin americans to apply for work in foreign companies. English learning is a process of time and effort and that takes time. Maybe the easy solution is to learn communicative English but only for communication purposes. Thank you.

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Pingback from Why the Communicative Approach Is Holding You Back in Language Learning | Language Surfer
September 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm

[…] best, most concise definition I’ve seen comes from David Barker in an article on Azar […]

Comment from Christine Jost
September 10, 2015 at 11:08 am

Is the Communicative Approach the same as “Communicative Language Learning”? Is it the same as the “Natural Approach”? Thanks!

Comment from David Barker
September 10, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Hi Christine. With anything concerning the word “Communicative/communicative” in EFL, the answer to your question depends largely on who you ask and at what point in time you ask them. That’s the main problem of Communicative Language Teaching: it means different things to different people. The Natural Approach is something quite different, however. You can get lots of information about all these terms by googling them. Hope that helps.

Comment from Stuart
November 19, 2015 at 10:07 am

My message may be slightly off topic, but I am considering studying for the DELTA. Based on some of the comments written here, I’m having doubts as to whether it is worth it? What do you think?

Comment from David Barker
November 19, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Hi Stuart, I found the DELTA to be far more beneficial than the CELTA because all the “students” were already experienced teachers. The trainers acknowledged this, and they were much more open to different ideas and opinions. I don’t know anyone who has done the DELTA and regretted it, so my advice would be to go for it.

Comment from Eva Dickman
December 5, 2015 at 8:08 am

Why engage your students? One reason is to let them enjoy the thrill of discovery. This is what Montessori is all about; not to kill curiosity, but to feed it. Lay out all the clues/facts and ask your students to come up with the rule or reason. It makes class fun for everyone. My Linguistics professor does this and that’s why I LOVE her class. Forcing information down student’s throats to meet targets will keep a teacher on schedule, but the lessons are soon forgotten.

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