Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Question of Terminology

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I am writing 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 wrote:

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?!

Here is my answer:

Hi Scott,

I’m afraid you have come up against one of the biggest problems in ELT, which is the lack of a body of universally accepted definitions and terms. Here is my own interpretation of how and why we have ended up with this state of affairs.

As any successful learner knows, languages are learned rather than taught. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires an enormous investment of time and effort, and teaching methods and materials are only a tiny part of the puzzle. However, as these are the only things that we can directly control, their importance gets blown out of all proportion.

As teaching is so relatively unimportant in the big picture of language learning, new ideas and theories about materials and methods tend to have very little impact on actual outcomes. When one new method or approach turns out to be less effective than its proponents initially claimed, this leaves the field open for the next contender. And so the cycle continues.

If you look back over the history of ELT, you will see a series of what were actually nothing more than limited insights into the learning process or good ideas for activities being put forward as all-encompassing teaching methods.

What tended to happen is the following cycle:

  1. Teachers are told that a revolutionary new method or approach has been discovered, and that what they have been doing so far is wrong and should be abandoned immediately. At this point, the new idea is usually clearly defined, easy to understand, and intuitively appealing. It is also likely to be quite idealistic and quite impractical. (Suggestopedia, anyone?)
  2. Teachers realize that the method/approach has some useful new ideas, but also that implementing it in its “pure” form would be impossible. As a result, they integrate the parts of it that they like into what they were doing before while claiming to be following the new orthodoxy. Confusion begins to arise about the new idea as teachers notice that others who are claiming to be doing the same thing as them are actually doing something quite different.
  3. Supporters of the method/approach try to justify the original idea by “toning down” some of its claims. As you very astutely noted, this defence tends to take the form of saying what the new idea / method is not rather than what it is.
  4. As the number of these “weak forms” of the initial idea increases, everyone ends up totally confused about what it actually is.

This is pretty much exactly what happened with CLT, which is why you cannot find a standard definition.

As I understand it, (and I must stress that this really is just my own interpretation), the original insight of CLT was that communication is not just the goal of language learning, but actually the method by which languages are learned. In other words, we don’t just learn in order to communicate; we communicate in order to learn.

This was definitely a useful insight, and it is difficult to argue with unless it is taken to mean, “languages can only be learned through authentic communication,” i.e., that all language teaching must be Communicative. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened with CLT.

Eventually, teachers and academics realized that students still wanted and needed plenty of “non-communicative” teaching as well, which meant that defenders of CLT had to come up with different ways of defining so that it did not sound quite so extreme.

I think I mentioned this in my original post, but I remember having a debate with a Japanese university professor about the efficacy of CLT. He was very much in favor of it, and I was very skeptical. After arguing for about an hour, we realized that we were actually talking about two very different things. He assured me that under the “latest” and “most authoritative” definition, CLT refers to any kind of teaching that over the long term aims to improve the students’ ability to communicate. So basically, just “teaching” then!

A similar problem can be seen today with Task-Based Teaching. TBT began with the idea that tasks were the best way to organize language teaching. (Once again, I should note that this is my own interpretation.) The key proposition was that the language to be taught should arise naturally from meaning-focused tasks rather than being pre-selected by the teacher. Of course, this didn’t generally work in practice, so new definitions began to emerge. These generally refer to differing degrees of incorporating tasks into a broader syllabus, something that teachers and materials writers have doing for years anyway. The problem now is that many of these teachers claim that what they are doing is Task-Based Teaching when it is nothing of the sort. If you ever have to write a paper about TBT, therefore, I’m afraid you will run into exactly the same problems of definition.

In a paper I read recently, the respected academic Rod Ellis says that criticisms of TBT “reflect a failure to acknowledge that multiple versions of task-based teaching exist.” The same can probably be said of CLT. If this is true, however, then surely it is not possible to have any kind of meaningful debate about either of them.

To answer your original question, the reason that you were unable to find a single, universally accepted definition of CLT is simply that there isn’t one. For the purposes of writing a master’s paper on the topic, I would suggest that you discuss the difficulty you had finding a definition and conclude that, “there does not appear to be a consensus within the profession as to what CLT actually means.” Unfortunately, I guarantee that you will find teachers who tell you that an authoritative definition does indeed exist, and I also guarantee that whatever they tell you, you will have no trouble finding others who disagree with it. Such is the nature of terminology in ELT.

Hope that helps!

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