Tuesday, May 27, 2014
A Discussion about Communicative Language Teaching
In 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 Scott Thornbury about what we have gained and lost because of Communicative Language Teaching:
Two points in the discussion made a big impression on me; the first because I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement, and the second because I found myself shouting “No!” at my computer monitor.
Let’s begin with the part I agreed with. Jeremy Harmer was remarkably frank about how he felt that he had let himself be carried away by communicative fever in the early days. He freely admitted that he had abandoned grammar teaching altogether for a while, and he seemed to be quite clear in his own mind that his students had missed out to some extent because of his obsession with the new philosophy. However, he seemed to imply that this was not such a big problem because he soon saw the error of his ways and adjusted his teaching to make it more balanced. If only every teacher and teacher trainer had spotted the problem as quickly as he did!
Anyway, the part that had me nodding in agreement was the part where he talked about what he sees as the most serious negative effect of CLT. Here is what he said: (The problem with CLT) “is that it means anything and everything to anybody and everybody, and that is not good enough for a model of teaching.” How refreshing to hear an expert state this point so clearly. This is precisely the point I was trying to make in my last post, “A question of terminology.” You can’t have a sensible discussion about the pros and cons of CLT if that term represents something different to every person in the room.
That leaves us with the point that had me jumping up and down in my seat. It was a point made by Scott Thornbury, a man for whom I must say in advance that I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration. During the talk, he recounted a story about how some of his students in Egypt failed to produce the present perfect when they genuinely wanted to ask him something even though that was precisely the point he had just been teaching them. He cited that as evidence that grammar teaching doesn’t work. To be honest, I was quite surprised that someone as smart as him would reach such an obviously erroneous conclusion. When our brains are focused purely on communicating meaning, we can normally only produce language that has already become a part of our (inter)language system. That is clearly not going to be the case with something that you were taught five minutes ago. In Mr. Thornbury’s story, I would have thought it miraculous if any of the students had managed to produce the present perfect. To cite this as evidence that grammar teaching doesn’t work seems illogical to say the least.
My own view of grammar teaching is that its role is primarily to “get the ball rolling” in the language learning process. It does this by introducing students to particular features of the language in isolation in order to sensitize them to those points. This has the effect of making students more likely to notice the points they have been taught when they meet or need to use them, which in turn speeds up the acquisition process. In other words, the teaching of grammar is simply one step in a long and ongoing process of learning. Provided that it is followed by sufficient engagement with the language for communicative purposes, grammar teaching will eventually lead to full acquisition, but nobody should expect students to be able to produce grammar as soon as they have been taught it.
In my own studies of Japanese, I remember learning many grammatical structures in the classroom that left me totally confused by the end of the lesson. Confused, but aware. And also curious. From that point, I began to notice those structures and make connections between the examples I was meeting in “real” Japanese and the explanations I had been given in the classroom. I am 100% certain that I was able to learn those structures more quickly because of my grammar lessons.
Mr. Thornbury also made another point that I strongly disagreed with. He said something along the lines of (and I apologise in advance if I misunderstood this) “We do not need to explain mistakes; we just need to correct them.” I may have mentioned this previously in another post, but I remember giving a presentation in Japanese many years ago where I used the expression kowakunaranaide kudasai. I was trying to say “Please don’t be scared,” but my grammar was wrong. After my talk, a Japanese teacher of English thanked me and said, “By the way, your Japanese is great, but you made a mistake. You can’t say kowakunaranaide kudasai.” At this point, she had identified my mistake. She continued by correcting my mistake: “You should have said kowagaranaide kudasai.”
Luckily for me, she had not finished. She then explained my mistake: “The reason your sentence was wrong is that …ku naru is only used when you are talking about your own feelings. If you want to talk about the feelings of another person, you need to use the verb garu.” She went on to give me several examples of its correct usage, and thanks to her explanation, I was able to add a few of my own. I had never even heard of the verb garu before, but because this lady taught me how to use it, I began noticing it in other people’s Japanese and trying to use it in my own. Eventually, I reached the point where I was able to use it without thinking. If that teacher had stopped at the point of simply correcting me, I would not have learned that new verb because I had no idea what it meant or why my original sentence was wrong. In fact, I could never even have identified it as a verb just by hearing her correction. True, I may well have learned it later on in an incidental way, but her explanation definitely speeded up the process. As a learner, I want teachers who can not only identify and correct my mistakes, but also explain them to me so that (a) I learn new things, and (b) I don’t make the same mistakes again and again. I suspect that I am not alone in this.
Anyway, I have just finished watching the video, and I wanted to get my responses down while I still remembered it. I would like to thank both Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury for giving such an interesting and thought-provoking talk, and also Robert for posting the link. If anyone has time to watch it, I would love to hear what other teachers think. In particular, I would love to hear about any points that you strongly agree or disagree with.