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English Teaching: What is the Communicative Approach?

If you are teaching English as a foreign language you will have no doubt heard of the “communicative” approach to language teaching and its many benefits. However, when push comes to shove, how many of us can really, honestly, explain what it is?

The majority of course book syllabi is based broadly on the communicative approach, as are the many TEFL/TESOL teacher training courses. As an experienced language teacher it took me many years before I really understood the practical implications of its underlying principles and to confidently apply them effectively in my language classroom.

Here are the main core principles which make it the most successful language learning approach in use today.

Basic Principles for Teachers

  • A teacher’s main role is a facilitator and monitor rather than leading the class. In other words, “the guide by the side” and not “the sage on the stage”.
  • Lessons are usually topic or theme based, with the target grammar “hidden” in the context e.g. a job interview (using the Present Perfect tense.)
  • Lessons are built round situations/functions practical and authentic in the real world e.g. asking for information, complaining, apologizing, job interviews, telephoning.
  • Activities set by the teacher have relevance and purpose to real life situations – students can see the direct benefit of learning
  • Dialogues are used that centre around communicative functions, such as socializing, giving directions, making telephone calls
  • Emphasis on engaging learners in more useful and authentic language rather than repetitive phrases or grammar patterns
  • Emphasis on communication and meaning rather than accuracy. Being understood takes precedence over correct grammar. The fine tuning of grammar comes later.
  • Emphasis is put on the “appropriacy” of language. What is the most appropriate language and tone for a particular situation?
  • Communicative competence is the desired goal. i.e. being able to survive, converse and be understood in the language.
  • Emphasis is put on correct pronunciation and choral (group) and individual drilling is used
  • Authentic listening and reading texts are used more often, rather than artificial texts simply produced to feature the target language
  • Use of songs and games are encouraged and provide a natural environment to promote language and enhance correct pronunciation
  • Feedback and correction is usually given by the teacher after tasks have been completed, rather than at the point of error, thus interrupting the flow

Basic Principles for Learners

  • Learners are often more motivated with this approach as they have an interesting what is being communicated, as the lesson is topic or theme based.
  • Learners are encouraged to speak and communicate from day one, rather than just barking out repetitive phrases
  • Learners practice the target language a number of times, slowly building on accuracy
  • Language is created by the individual, often through trial and error
  • Learners interact with each other in pairs or groups, to encourage a flow of language and maximize the percentage of talking time, rather than just teacher to student and vice versa
  • Unless the focus is on the accuracy stage of the lesson, learners are corrected at the end of an activity so as not to interrupt their thought process

Summary

Out of the many approaches and methodologies available to the language teacher, the Communicative Approach has proven one of the most successful in providing confident learners who are able to make themselves effectively understood in the shortest possible time. It is therefore the teacher’s responsibility to create situations which are likely to promote communication, and provide an authentic background for language learning.

The Communicative Approach initially prioritizes communicative competence over accurate grammar. Grammar is hidden within the body of a lesson and highlighted and focused upon once the context has been set.

Let your students communicate first – build on their accuracy after. For example, do not start by frightening your adult students off with “Today we are going to learn about the Present Perfect Simple”, instead authentisize your lesson with “Today we are going to learn how to do a job interview in English”.

It is important to remember that as individuals most of us do not learn a language in order to communicate. First we try to communicate, and in doing so, we learn!

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  1. Clara

    On May 9, 2008 at 2:32 pm


    It’s an ineresting point of view of what communicative approach is and its principles.

    I like it

  2. Haydar Ali

    On September 9, 2008 at 4:38 am


    I like to know more about coomunicative approach which recently found in Iraq for teaching the primary school ,but we need mor training about that

    PH.D Student in TEFL
    Thanks

  3. Haydar Ali

    On October 26, 2008 at 9:31 pm


    I am an english teacher in Ecuador (south America) i think communicative approach works well specially for young and early learners. This article tells pretty much what this is about. I suggest you to start thinking firstable what you want your students to learn, and of course what they need to learn, so then apply some principles of this theory. I think that sometimes we should have a mix of thoeries, since no one is perfect.

    lorena

  4. ann

    On April 19, 2009 at 10:48 pm


    I can not understand it ,will you write it clearly ?

  5. Sandy

    On May 12, 2009 at 4:46 am


    I want to know that the part of basic principles for teachers and learners is written by you? If it isn’t, then who writes it. Thanks!

  6. muhammed

    On June 9, 2009 at 5:49 pm


    I’m an english teacher from iraq , it is the best method I’v ever tried
    by other methods of teaching english as a foreign language students get high marks like 99/100 but they can’t even make an english sentence in real life, in communicative approach students are able to ask and answer in english.
    my point of view it is the best method although its negativism.

  7. femi

    On September 30, 2009 at 5:14 am


    i am student of m.a english n this artcal realy help in my thesis. thnx

  8. Angie

    On March 22, 2010 at 12:33 am


    Are there any disadvantages? I have a masters of English, and currently doing TESOL in Australia.. I am thinking of the negatives for such an approach?

    Any idea?

  9. Bhagwan Aher

    On April 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm


    Hi! This is Bhagwan Aher,a Secondary teacher.I found that this approach is very useful in Indian secnario where we have plenty of languages.Students get much practice of the target language.I through this comment want to familirize with other English Teacher of other countries.If u r a teacher of English pls let us be friends.I am a lover of this language.My email ID bhagwanaher@gmail.com

  10. mohamed

    On October 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm


    Hi iam a third-year student in english literature,in fact iam intersted in this issue because it is related to my research.please, i want to read more and more about this topic.

  11. Eni

    On February 2, 2011 at 9:46 am


    Hi, I’m a training English teacher from Indonesia, I would like to teach reading skill using communicative approach, so anyone could help me what method and technique should I apply. Please, send it to Semutireng@hotmail.com

    Many thank’s

  12. John

    On March 29, 2011 at 5:54 am


    I’ve taught in Thailand and Taiwan and I concur! The communicative approach is most effective. After all, this is exactly how we learned our first language. Great article!

  13. noe macay

    On June 22, 2011 at 7:40 am


    great information. is there a difference between communicative approach and communicative language teaching? or are they same? I am taking Ma in TESOL and the teacher ask me to report on “creating a communicative lesson plan” I wonder how to begin. what comes to my mind is the steps or the guidelines in making a communicative lesson plan. i need your help.

  14. CKennedy

    On September 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm


    I just retired from teaching after 27 years in the U.S. I would like to teach English overseas. The information in this article was very helpful to me.

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