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.
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 He insisted that my interpretation was out of date, and that CLT is actually just an umbrella term for any kind of teaching where the goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate.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.”