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What is Communicative Language Teaching?

Author: Nick Brieger Page 1 of 22

r: Katie J ones.
By Nick Brieger

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) emerged in the mid-1970s as a reaction against the accuracy-based grammar
translation method that had held sway for many centuries (despite the attempts of other, more recent methods to
replace it, such as the direct method, the audiolingual method, and the situational method). At the outset, it needs to be
said that CLT is not a method (a comprehensive set of teaching/learning procedures to be followed). Rather it is an
approach, borne out of the self-evident realisation that the main reason for learning language is to communicate. So,
avoiding the prescriptivism of earlier methods, CLT has spawned a flexible range of:

teaching approaches
teaching materials
competence assessment tools

At CLTs core is the objective of developing communicative competence; and therefore the language teaching
classroom needs to put this objective at the centre of learning activities. In addition, the recognition of the primacy of
speaking skills (rather than reading, listening or writing) has redefined how teachers should go about developing
communicative competence.

Communicative Competence
Earlier approaches to language teaching were heavily influenced by a structured view of language. Students studied
language patterns and then reproduced them in a controlled environment. Though controlled practice still plays a role
in CLT, it is not seen as the goal. Communicative competence requires the learner to be able to produce language
(especially speech):

accurately (language features)
appropriately (socio-cultural features)
confidently (psychological features)
fluently (smoothly, clearly)

What is Communicative Language Teaching?

Author: Nick Brieger Page 2 of 22
r: Katie J ones.

Teaching approaches
Developing communicative competence requires teachers competent and comfortable playing a range of pedagogic
roles. On the one hand, the CLT teacher needs to be able to carry out the more traditional role of presenting new
language forms and managing controlled practice tasks: leading the class, controlling the activities, teaching from the
front. However, these skills need to be complemented by other pedagogic skills such as introducing role plays,
organising free practice activities and managing the feedback process. Taken together, the teacher needs to be:

a content expert (language and language skills)
a people expert (learners and their personalities)
a task expert (classroom activities to achieve learning goals)

Creating materials to satisfy the growing demand for language learning (and especially CLT) has kept the publishing
world busy. Course sets, skills materials and supplementary activities present decision-makers with a bewildering range
of choices. Comparing communicative course books is very difficult, as there is no set syllabus in terms of content, nor a
standard approach in terms of methodology. CLT, as stated before, is an approach rather than a method.

Competence assessment
Developing communicative competence in a foreign language is a long-term process, requiring both study and
practice. Study in order to consolidate and extend language knowledge; practice (and feedback) in order to
improve fluency. So what are we to measure? Accuracy, in terms of grammar and vocabulary, are the easiest
dimensions of competence to measure objectively. However, if we are to remain true to the sprit of
communicative competence, then we need also to measure appropriacy, confidence and fluency. And finding the
tools to reliably measure these dimensions will, I suspect, remain a challenge for some years to come.