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
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!