Communicative Language Teaching

Historical Background

Communicative Language Teaching grew out of the work of a number of scholars in Great Britain and the United States. In the 1970s, British linguists were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Situational Language Teaching, the prevailing British approach of teaching basic language structures in the context of situation-based activities. With sponsorship of the Council of Europe, a team of experts began to investigate the possibility of a new type of syllabus based on a functional or communicative definition of language. Their work evolved into proposals by linguist D. A. Wilkins (1972, 1976) to organize language teaching according to linguistic functions (e.g., judging, persuading, requesting arguing, expressing agreement) and notions (e.g., time, frequency, sequence, quantity, location). Wilkins's work became known as the Notional-Functional Approach. Other British linguists such as Brumfit, Candlin, and Widdowson made similar proposals for communicative or functional approaches to language teaching. Their work quickly spread through Europe and became known collectively as Communicative Language Teaching or CLT (Richards & Rodgers, 2001; Savignon, 2005).

During the same period, American scholars were also interested in expanding the notion of language competence to include more than grammatical mastery. Authors such Hymes (1971) and Savignon (1972) began to use the term communicative competence to describe the degree to which language learners are able to make meaning and interact with others. Drawing on the theories of these and other writers, Canale and Swain (1980) proposed a model of communicative competence, which was later expanded by Canale (1983) to include four elements: (1) grammatical competence (knowledge of phonology, orthography, vocabulary, and rules for forming words and sentences); (2) sociolinguistic competence (ability to express appropriate meanings in different social contexts); (3) discourse competence (ability to use lexical and grammatical devices for cohesion, and to structure one's discourse coherently); and (4) strategic competence (ability to compensate for imperfect knowledge of the language, as well as for background noise, interruptions, etc.). The Canale and Swain model and others like it were influential in promoting an expanded view of the skills that learners need to develop in foreign language classes (Hadley, 2001).

With the development of models of communicative competence came the need for describing and assessing what learners could do at various levels of proficiency. During the 1970s and early 1980s the work of Educational Testing Service, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), and other American government, business, and academic agencies resulted in the development of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. In the early 1990s, similar projects were undertaken by the Council of Europe and by the Canadian National Working Group on Language Benchmarks, resulting in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the Canadian Language Benchmarks. The descriptions of learners' language use at varying levels of proficiency contained in these documents have had a significant impact on the content and organization of language textbooks, as well as on classroom practice. Teachers have been encouraged to provide opportunities for students to speak, listen to, read, and write the language for communicative purposes, and to sequence instruction so as to prepare students to function at successively higher levels of proficiency.

Another important development in the U.S. was the release of the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in 1996. The Standards grew out of initiatives by the U.S. government to develop content standards for major academic content areas. Unlike the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, which are performance standards describing levels of language proficiency, the Standards for Foreign Language Learning are content standards, describing what students should know and be able to do. The Standards address five goal areas: Communication, Cultures, Comparisons, Connections, and Communities. The first goal area, Communication, emphasizes the development of interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational communicative ability. Although the Standards do not advocate any particular approach to language teaching, they have played an important role in curriculum planning in communicatively-oriented classrooms in the U.S.

Theory of Language Learning

Although a wide variety of theories have been associated with communicative language learning, all of them seem to be based on two basic premises: (1) language is a tool for communication, and (2) students learn language by using it to communicate. Canale and Swain (1980) affirm that "the primary objective of a communication-oriented second language programme must be to provide the learners with the information, practice, and much of the experience needed to meet their communicative needs in the second language" (p. 28).

A number of theories have been associated with communicative language learning, of which three will be briefly discussed here: Krashen's comprehensible input hypothesis, Swain's output hypothesis, and the Long's Interaction Hypothesis.

In 1982 linguist Stephen Krashen posited that students acquire language only when they are exposed to comprehensible input, or language that contains structures that are slightly beyond their current level of competence. He maintained that this process occurs naturally when students are exposed to sufficient quantities of input in the target language. Krashen's input theory has been instrumental in increasing the amount of oral and written input in foreign language classes. The theory has been cited specifically as the basis for several communicatively-oriented methods, including the Natural Approach, Total Physical Response, and TPR Storytelling.

While acknowledging the importance of comprehensible input, Merrill Swain, a researcher in French immersion education, affirmed that students also need opportunities to produce "comprehensible output" (Swain, 1985). Swain's Output Hypothesis (1993) lists four benefits of requiring students to produce spoken and written output: (1) it provides opportunities for meaningful practice that can lead to automaticity; (2) it forces learners to recognize what they do not yet fully know; (3) it provides the opportunity to test hypotheses by trying out different ways of saying things to see if they work; and (4) it provides the opportunity for learners to receive feedback on their language use.

A third area of theory in communicative language teaching relates to the concept of "negotiation of meaning." This term refers to the process in which learners modify their speech in order to make it more understandable to their conversational partner. According to this theory, which has been formulated by Long (1996) as the Interactional Hypothesis, the adjustments that learners make in conversation facilitate language learning because they help connect input and output, as well as helping learners focus on particular aspects of language that they need to learn. A growing body of research has supported this theory (e.g., Doughty & Pica, 1986; Pica, Holliday, Lewis, & Morgenthaler, 1989), establishing the case for providing opportunities for language learners to interact meaningfully with each other and with native speakers.

One issue that has been much disputed in communicative language learning is the role of grammar instruction. Early proponents of communicative competence tended to downplay the importance of grammar, emphasizing that it was only one of several elements that contribute to communicative ability. Savignon (1983), for example, claimed that "the development of the learner's communicative abilities is seen to depend not so much on the time they spend rehearsing grammatical patterns as on the opportunities they are given to . . . negotiate meaning in real-life situations" (p. vi). Others, however, such as Higgs and Clifford (1982), have contended that there is danger in pushing students into free communication before they learn fundamental linguistic structures, as this may result in fossilization of incorrect forms and ultimately prevent learners from reaching high levels of proficiency. Most communicatively-oriented programs today seem to acknowledge the role of grammar and introduce basic grammar structures at a relatively early stage.

Classroom Activities

All four language skills " speaking, listening, reading, and writing " are emphasized in communicative classrooms. Since the advent of the Standards, foreign language teachers in the U.S. have reconceptualized these skills in terms of three communicative modes: (a) interpersonal mode, which involves engaging in conversation and exchanging information with others; (b) interpretive mode, which entails understanding one-way written and spoken messages; and (c) presentational mode, which involves presenting information verbally or in writing to an audience.

One hallmark of a communicatively-oriented classroom is the frequent use of pair and small-group activities. The advantages of these activities are many: they increase opportunities for individual students to speak; they provide opportunities for students to negotiate meaning; they free up teachers to give individual attention to students; and they reduce anxiety by not requiring students to speak in front of the whole class. Commonly used activities include information gap activities, jigsaw activities, role plays, task-based activities, and paired interviews.

Communicative Language Teaching also makes extensive use of authentic texts, which are generally understood to be texts produced by native speakers for a native-speaking audience. These may include both oral texts (audio and video recordings, films, online video) and written texts (literary, journalistic, informative, advertising, etc.). Learners are encouraged to interact with a text and construct their own understanding of it. To aid in this process, instructors often conduct pre-listening or pre-reading activities to activate students' background knowledge of the topic and genre. Listening and reading activities may later be tied into productive activities in which students speak or write about the text or topic.

An additional characteristic of many communicative classrooms is their emphasis on culture. Although culture teaching and learning are by no means unique to Communicative Language Teaching, CLT's focus on using language for communication lends itself naturally to interaction with native speakers, whether face-to-face or via Internet technology. An increasing number of teachers are using email, websites, social networking sites, and online audio and applications to promote such interactions. As learners interact with native speakers and the texts they produce, culture becomes a natural topic of interest. Indeed, many practitioners now view cultural understanding as a key component of communicative competence.

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video is taught to a second-semester university Spanish class by Leticia Michalek de Hames, an M.A. graduate of Brigham Young University. The lesson is centered around a comparison between the U.S. and Latin American food pyramids (inspired by Galloway, 2001). First, the teacher shows slides of both pyramids, asks students what they are and how to interpret them, and what differences students observe between the two diets. The students then work on a paired activity in which they interview each other about what they have eaten recently and compare their diet with a typical Latin American diet. After following up on the pair activity, the teacher leads the class in a discussion of possible cultural explanations for the dietary differences between the two regions.

References and Additional Resources

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1986). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Hastings-on-Hudson, NY: Author.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1999). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines Speaking. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In J. Richards & R. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and communication (pp. 2-27). London: Longman.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1, 1-47.

Doughty, C., & Pica, T. (1986). "Information gap" tasks: Do they facilitate second language acquisition? TESOL Quarterly, 20, 305-325.

Galloway, V. (2001). Giving dimension to mappaemundi: The matter of perspective. In V. Galloway (Ed.), Teaching cultures of the Hispanic world: Products and practices in perspective (AATSP Professional Development Series Handbook, Vol. IV, pp. 3-63). Mason, OH: Thompson Learning.

Hadley, A. O. (2001). Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Higgs, T. B., & Clifford, R. (1982). The push toward communication. In T. V. Higgs (Ed.), Curriculum, competence, and the foreign language teacher (ACTFL Review of Foreign Language Education Series, Vol. 13, pp. 57-79). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Hymes, D. (1971). On communicative competence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York: Pergamon.

Liskin-Gasparro, J. E. (1984). The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines: A historical perspective. In T. V. Higgs (Ed.), Teaching for proficiency, the organizing principle (ACTFL Foreign Language Education Series, Vol. 15, pp. 11-42). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Long, M. H. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbood of second language acquisition (pp. 413-468). San Diego: Academic Press.

National Standards in Foreign Language Learning Project. (1999). Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Pica, T., Holliday, L., Lewis, N., & Morgenthaler, L. (1989). Comprehensible output as an outcome of linguistic demands on the learner. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11, 63-90.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savignon, S. J. (1972). Communicative competence: An experiment in foreign language teaching. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development.

Savignon, S. J. (1983). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Savignon, S. J. (2005). Communicative language teaching: Strategies and goals. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 635-651). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 235-256). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Swain, M. (1993). The Output Hypothesis: Just speaking and writing aren't enough. Canadian Modern Language Review, 50, 158-164.

Wilkins, D. A. (1972). The linguistics and situational content of the common core in a unit/credit system. Unpublished document. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED136550)

Wilkins, D. A. (1976). Notional syllabuses: A taxonomy and its relevance to foreign language curriculum development . Oxford: Oxford University Press.