C is for CLT

8 03 2015

Having been trained in what might best be described as late-flowering audiolingualism, it was not until my second year of teaching that I became aware of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and how it represented such a radical shift from current methodology. I think it must have been the influence of the Strategies series (Abbs et al. 1975) but before long everything went functional-notional, information gap activities were the rage, and formal accuracy, along with error correction, went out the window. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! In fact, the advent of CLT coincided nicely with my own disenchantment with drilling and with the snail-like progress through the structural syllabus that seemed only to thwart the latent fluency of my (Egyptian) students.

Being communicative, Cairo 1976

So, what did we gain? The emphasis on language’s social function, including attention to appropriacy and register, was important, not least because – to practise ‘being social’ with language – we needed to include lots of interactive activities, such as role plays and ‘real’ conversations, into our classes. This in turn led to the idea that (perhaps, just perhaps) such activities, rather than being simply practice of previously presented language items, could be the springboard to learning itself: that is to say, that you could learn a language simply through using it. This, after all, was a core tenet of the ‘strong’ version of CLT and was an extremely powerful idea (captured in the term ‘fluency-first), influencing all my subsequent thinking on methodology.

What we lost, from the benefit of hindsight, was a ‘focus on form’. Even if you can learn a language by using it, you still need to have your attention directed to the language’s formal features, if only so that you are ‘primed’ to notice them in situations of real language use. That realization prompted my first ever IATEFL talk, which was called ‘No pain, no gain’.

But what we also lost was the communicative approach itself. I still believe that CLT was ‘betrayed’ in the mid-1980s by the revival of the grammar syllabus and the associated drift back to an accuracy-first methodology. (A subsequent talk of mine on this topic was called ‘Not waving but drowning’). I also believe that it is possible to combine a fluency-first methodology with a focus on form, so long as that focus is primarily reactive, not pre-emptive. I’ve been lucky enough to see this occur myself, in classes I’ve observed. And, of course, the view that language learning is both an emergent and scaffolded phenomenon is fundamental to what was to become Dogme ELT. Dogme ELT was really an attempt to inject new life into CLT.

So, is Dogme ELT the future of CLT? I doubt it, somehow. The commodification and marketization of education, including language education, continues unabated. Where the language English is just another curriculum subject, where it is viewed as knowledge to be learned rather than a skill to be activated, and where it is measured less by communicative competence than by the results of high-stakes testing, then there is not a lot of incentive for a fluency-first approach. In such an educational climate, concepts so fundamental to CLT as authenticity, fluency, discovery and collaboration seem outmoded, or, at best, ‘add-ons’ for those who can afford the luxury of small classes of communicatively-motivated learners. Given the appeal that still attaches to the word ‘communicative’, though, CLT will probably continue to prosper as a brand, even though its original ingredients may have long since been reconstituted.

Strategies smallReference

Abbs, B., A. Ayton, A., and I. Freebairn. 1975. Strategies: Students’ Book. London: Longman.

This was my ‘half’ of the conversation with Jeremy Harmer that we ‘performed’ at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate in April 2014, and which is written up in IATEFL 2014 Harrogate Conference Selections, edited by Tania Pattison (Faversham, Kent: IATEFL 2015).



And here is a video of the conversation when it was first aired, at The New School, NY, in July 2013:




16 responses

8 03 2015
Scott C

The grammar-based syllabus is alive and well. “What have you done in class this week?” “We’ve reviewed the present perfect and started on the present perfect continuous.”

9 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Also known as the ‘I don’t care what you say so long as you use the present perfect continuous’ syndrome. 😉

8 03 2015
Peter Cox

I was in Bali last month (tough life eh?) and was impressed by the level of English among the Balinese. Very little if any language seems to have been acquired in school or any other formal learning environment but rather from talking to tourists. What does this tell us? The Balinese know that an ability to converse in English is financially advantageous so they have a real reason to learn and they have a plentiful supply of “free” tutors. They seem to do just as well, if not better, than those who pay through the nose for EFL training. I guess this is why I appreciate what Scott and his colleagues are doing in this respect.

9 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

The camel boys at the Great Pyramid could run rings around most trained UN interpreters, fluency-wise, I suspect.

8 03 2015
Luiz Otávio

Hi, Scot! 🙂
There’s something about watershed ELT titles that really fascinates me, so when I saw the Strategies cover in the post, I stopped everything I was doing to read the post.

At the risk of being overly contentious, I’d say that post-L.G.Alexander, the first big paradigm shift came with the Strategies series, which, in its early 80s incarnation, I actually used as a student (!!!). I’d love to be able to turn back the clock and be in the same room as Abbs, Freebairn + the editorial team, just to witness the amount of arm-wrestling involved:

Authors: “We’re going with a functional syllabus, end of story. This is not negotiable.”
Powers that be: “Can’t we at least thrown in the occasional drill, please? We might lose some big adoptions if we don’t.”

Two hours later, a compromise is reached and a page full of situational, contextualized drills is included at the end of each unit, labeled “Oral exercises.”

Then in 1985 (87?), the first first first edition of Headway Intermediate came along and ELT would never be the same again. I remember gasping in horror when I first opened the book and saw how the units were labeled: “Unit 1 – Present Simple.”

We’ve come a long way since then, I think. Mainstream titles are tighter, lighter, more varied, upbeat and balanced in terms of syllabus (and classroom processes). But at their very core, they’re all Headway clones, for better and for worse. The first Headway helped to define what CLT looks like today and set the standard for what is acceptable / marketable / sellable in the publishing business and either one plays by the rules or one fades into oblivion, I suppose.

As to the whole fluency first, then accuracy discussion, I think a lot depends on how you define fluency, which is such a slippery, wobbly term. If fluency = free expression, then the ensuing accuracy work will be mostly dogmeish in nature, I think (i.e., based on emerging language and dependent on the teacher’s ability to work with “what is there”). If fluency = the ability to chunk ready-made language, then maybe we can look at accuracy in two ways: one, the accurate use of the target formulaic language itself and two, the long-term, “priming” effect that might have on students’ general interlanguage development. Ironically, I think that’s something the Strategies series (and its American clones – In touch / Lifestyles / Spectrum) did relatively well…

Sorry for all the rambling. I missed your posts.

9 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

I love your rambling, Luiz – and it was partly to get people like yourself rambling again that I’ve rehabilitated this blog (briefly).

Thanks for making the point that fluency might indeed be a function of having an immense and accurate store of readily available chunks. The ‘accurate’ is highlighted because it shows how fluency and accuracy are interconnected. Harold Palmer understood this 90 years ago, when answering the question: How do you become proficient in a second language?’:

“Memorize perfectly the largest number of common and useful word-groups”.

The ‘perfectly’ is important, I think.

9 03 2015

Like you Luiz, I am also fascinated by old text books. Being trained as a teacher in the “post-method” era where textbooks, while still being largely based on a structural syllabus, are designed with a number of ELT philosophies in mind. I think it’s much tougher for teachers to tease out a book’s underlying pedagogical framework.

I began teaching in Turkey with the the New Headway series and remember how much my classroom practice changed when I started teaching at a school that used Cutting Edge. Criticised as much as textbooks are, it was the first time that I saw exactly an example how or what a “Task-Based” approach could look like in the classroom. It was also the first time that I changed my view on the role of vocabulary, as the book seemed to me to be so influenced by a lexical approach to working with vocabulary. I’ve since integrated these two aspects of practice into my regular teaching routine, regardless of the text I’m working with.

It has always struck me that there are only two ways to really wrap your head around a method, strategy, or approach to language teaching: one is to walk into the classroom of a living practicing teacher, and the other is through textbooks, which have left a record of classroom practice in history for hundreds of years. It is always amusing to crack the pages of antiquated textbook and construct an image of what the people in the classroom did with it.

During a teaching evaluation I was once encouraged by the DOS to drill a structure with my class. At that time I thought that this technique was forbidden and I had never seen anyone do it. After all, I had only read about drilling connected with audiolingualism in a book on methodology, which criticized the technique for being inadequate to engender any real learning. Any practical instruction on how to go about the “back-chaining” drill my employer suggested I perform seemed out of reach since I couldn’t even find a textbook based on the approach anywhere in the country. There wasn’t even a silly video on the Internet to watch. It was a very frustrating experience.

I regularly reflect on this particular view of textbooks:

“The concept of method..[ ]..has been replaced by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach are now determined by textbooks” (Akbari, 2008 p. 647)

I know that Akbari’s argument was based largely on the fact that teachers are the inadequately trained, overworked, underpaid victims of broken education systems. However, with books like Strategies providing a new framework that helped teachers break with audiolingualism decades ago, perhaps Akbari’s view of the textbook’s impact on classroom practice was as relevant then as it is today.

9 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Delpha, for your comment – and your ringing endorsement of how coursebooks can themselves be vehicles for change.

Unfortunately, they can just as easily be brakes to change too, especially when the methodology that they embody becomes ‘cloned’, goes viral, even – an effect that Luiz alluded to with regard to the grammatical syllabus.

Also, given the massive investment involved in publishing a coursebook series nowadays, are the days of mould-breaking courses, like Strategies, effectively over?

10 03 2015
TEFL Campus

Please keep “rehabilitating” your blog, Scott. Your recent work has been a breath of fresh air within the ELT blogosphere–in particular, ‘S is for SLA’.

14 03 2015

I have the impression that CLT looks very differently in the US than it does in Latin America, for example, but I don’t have any studies to show this, so my opinions here are strictly based on personal experience.

I taught EFL in Colombia in courses that had a textbook, but there always seemed to be more room for integrated skills and less of the “I don’t care what you say but use the present perfect” syndrome mentioned in a comment above. Access to textbooks wasn’t as easy in the US, and I believe this made for more creativity and authentic language/tasks in the classroom. In my particular setting, I had a chance to work closely with other teachers and share ideas, which also helps when you want to implement CLT and need guidance

When I started teaching in the US, I noticed how grammar ruled our program, and it is taught preemptively. I witness lots of “study chart 3.4” or “I taught chart 4.5”. Teachers in my current context don’t have time to prepare in advance and teach a full load every week, and the grammar syllabus (more like following Azar’s textbook chronologically) has been the unquestioned norm.

I believe that having more chances to collaborate amongst each other instead of more books and premade lessons could enhance CLT or ELT practices.

Curious to see if these personal observations resonate with anyone else here.

25 03 2015
Martin Sketchley

I would love to challenge all my teachers to teaching a class using one exercise for a 45-60 lesson and find out how they survived in the deep end without this reliance on material to teach.

Unfortunately, learners feel like they are making progress if English is quantifiable and measurable as it’s easier to asses I guess. Yet, language is rather loose and you have to know what you are measuring hence the appeal of teaching and assessing grammar and vocabulary in language classes. Coincidentally, I find my own second language improves if I’m able to use it naturally in context – like riding a bike.

Since studying my MA and researching Dogme ELT, my approach and method of teaching has evolved and I would actively encourage a communicative approach in class. I suppose that I pick and choose how my I teach and, depending what I focus on: I prefer to be natural and not perceived as a teacher in class and encourage natural and authentic communication. However, this has a knock-on effect:I can’t stand inauthentic role-plays and I feel these are unconnected from real life. I can see the benefit of role-plays with functional language.

Nonetheless, I’m an avid supporter of CLT (as well as Dogme ELT) and every class I teach has an element of authentic communication.

28 03 2015

It is undeniable that CLT was a great movement from the traditional teaching methodologies, but as every thing else, things evolve and develop over time. Methodology is no exception from that, many teachers now claim to follow task-based teaching (TSBT), while, in fact, they still following CLT. If you were in a position to choose between the CLT or TSBT what would you choose and why?

12 05 2015

I think the CLT will continue to be the major General language teaching methodology For many years to come as it is deal with some factors of motivation and learning strategies that play an important role of teaching any language .
This approach begins to gain popularity in the classroom everywhere, as it is preferred by both teachers and students. It’s interactive activities make it not only successful Teaching methodology in language classrooms But also the most effective learning strategies.

9 04 2016

As a British teacher living and working in Valencia, I own a successful language school. I am also studying another Masters, this time in applied linguistics and plurilingual education. I find the argument above insightful and parallel with my experience.
The kids that come to our school are by and large products of the Spanish or more correctly Valencian education system. The system is very much grammar translation and is driven by teachers who generally have a low level of English, quite often a B1 certificate.
It is frustrating when I genuinely try to deliver communicative classes being a believer in learning through doing. I also believe in some of Krashen´s work so try to maximise the comprehensible, stimulating, relevant input too! The kids do learn this way and they learn quickly, they become fluent, confident and articulate in English, often 2 stages further up the CEF than their classmates at school. I subscribe to no method, but my own approach. Text books are a mere signposting device used to provide a slight basis in the class.
However, we are kind of hamstrung by the system. Every week we get requests of can we revise (insert a page from a grammar book here) please? The problem is, they can all speak fluently using said grammar without problems. However, they then get an exam in school which is so focussed on out of context grammar “fill in the blanks” or “translate this” activities, it is really demotivating for the learners (or language users) and frustrating for me.
Also, another criticism of the system here is they learn a part of grammar or a vocabulary list to be tested. The part of language is then forgotten until the next year, there is no revision or recycling. The emphasis is on accuracy with little or no thought given to fluency or social interactions (i.e. using the language).
As a learner of languages myself, I speak French and Spanish to C1 level along with Valencian, Italian, German and Italian to A2 or B1 levels, to me the main purpose of a language is as a tool to allow the conveyance and reception of ideas. This necessitates fluency and some degree of accuracy, but I do not agree with studying the present perfect on its own or the third conditional in isolation which is the prevailing text book methodology in the education system here. The students might be able to recite the 3 verbal columns but most of them cannot construct a sentence as they are never given the chance, let alone encouraged to do so.
I would be interested to know Scott’s feelings on the education system in Catalonia regarding English language teaching as I am sure it is similar to my experiences and frustrations here.
I will add as a footnote, that the frustrations felt are far outweighed by the joy of watching a classroom full of kids, teenagers or adults expressing themselves, peer learning happening and great ideas and concepts being discussed with accurate, fluent English, and all from an activity explained and then stepped back to take notes for the feedback.

25 04 2017

Hello, this article seems to address the issues that I encounter as a teacher. whenever I walk in the the class, I say to myself, I am going to use CLT but the problem I face is that my student are not ready for communicative approach, as they are accustomed to grammar-translation and they prefer it. and I end up doing grammar translation. this really upsets me, my question is how do I change my students point of view? has this got to do with motivation? thanks

5 01 2019
yehudit Gabay

Dear Mr. Thornbury,
You write “it is viewed as knowledge to be learned rather than a skill to be activated, and…it is measured less by communicative competence than by the results of high-stakes testing.” Unfortunately, this is exactly the view the Ministry of Education takes on English in my country. How do I get around the school books which I’m not allowed to throw out and the exams which I must give and still teach in a CLT style???

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