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:


C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: participants can use any communicative means at their disposal; in other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism –  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!


Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.

S is for “Strategies”

7 03 2010

At the ELTONs awards ceremony in London this week, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Ingrid Freebairn. If you weren’t already teaching in the 70s and 80s, you might not know that Ingrid was one of the team that wrote  Strategies (what became known as ‘white Strategies’), published by Longman in 1975. Strategies was the first major course to espouse a functional (or notional-functional) syllabus. Up until then the structural syllabus – that legacy of audiolingualism – was still the reigning paradigm. A structural syllabus is a form-based syllabus, organized primarily according to criteria of structural complexity. So, you start with the verb to be, then the present continuous, then the present simple, and so on.  Strategies, by contrast, adopted a semantic organization, with unit headings such as Invitations, Ability, Polite requests, Recent Activities and Speculating about the past. In the words of the blurb on the back cover: “In these materials the criteria are primarily functional and secondarily structural.”

In adopting a semantic organisation, Strategies was instrumental in introducing the ‘communicative approach’ to a generation of teachers (including myself) who had been formed during the late-audiolingual era. Although still labelled “functional-notional”,  the approach that Strategies embodied  was communicative. It had to be, because, if you base your curricular goals around functions (such as Polite requests) or notions (such as Ability), you need a methodology that allows these meaning-driven goals to be realized in terms of classroom activity. You need role plays and dialogues. Moreover, you need activities that distract attention away from a focus on (grammatical) form and, instead, encourage a concern for meaningful interaction. So you need communicative games, information-gap tasks, and jigsaw activities. For someone like myself who had been trained mainly to elicit, drill and correct structural patterns, this radical shift in learning objectives and teaching procedures was truly revolutionary.

For that reason I have always had a soft spot for ‘white’ Strategies, and its subsequent re-packaging as the (more systematic and more colourful)  Strategies series (Starting… Opening… Building… Developing…). So, as we tucked into the ELTONs dinner, I happened to ask Ingrid what had inspired the concept behind the Strategies series.  While she did not quite echo my sentiment of  “bliss was it, in that dawn to be alive!”, she did confirm that the mid-seventies was an exhilarating time for methodologists and materials writers, where the sense of a sea-change was palpable, and where the publishers, too, were prepared to throw caution to the wind.

The original site of the University of Reading

What I hadn’t realized, until talking with Ingrid, was that the thinking behind Strategies was directly influenced by the work of David Wilkins, then at the University of Reading, where Ingrid had just completed a Masters degree. Wilkins was one of the chief architects of what would come to be known as the communicative approach: his seminal Notional Syllabuses, building on his work with the Council of Europe, would be published in 1976. In fact, when I got home and pulled down my copy of Strategies (long ago rescued from a recycling bin at IH Barcelona) I found that this connection is explicitly acknowledged:

From the work of David Wilkins we took as our starting point this quotation:

What people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system.

How come I had never noticed that acknowledgement before? More worryingly, what happened, subsequently, to reverse this sea-change – to make the structurasl syllabus the primary one again, and the semantic one only secondary? Why is it that “the mastery of language as an unapplied system” again takes precedence over its communicative purposes? What happened to the communicative approach?