The Communicative Approach -

its history and theoretical background

'Communicative' and 'Natural' have long been good marketing terms for people and institutions offering services to language learners. In fact, different forms of the 'communicative' approach go back several centuries.

Unsurprisingly, educators who claim that their methods are 'natural' often emphasize people's natural capacity to learn languages. In A History of English Language Teaching by A.P.R.Howatt with H.G.Widdowson buy new: 2nd Revised edition [2004] or buy used 1st edition [1984], the authors group together several labels (Natural Method, Conversation Method, Direct Method, Communicative Approach) which they associates with communicative language teaching. The suggested common denominator is the hypothesis that the conditions which awake natural capacity to learn languages are (a) someone to talk to (b) something to talk about and (c) a desire to understand and make yourself understood.

The continuing importance of 'syntax' in language syllabus design

The 1970s conception of The Communicative Approach, billed at the time as a major change in direction, sets further conditions. These vary according to different proponents of the approach. Some theorists appear to believe that The Communicative Approach should replace The Structural Syllabus. However, this has not happened. Most market leading English coursebooks retain a structural thread, especially at lower levels of proficiency.

Complete abandonment of 'the structural syllabus' would make language learning and teaching difficult, if not impossible. There is a distinction to make between 'acquiring' a first language from birth and 'learning' a second language later on in life. Clearly it is not the same experience. However, research studies into how infants acquire language examine every level of linguistic analysis e.g. from the ability to produce the phonemes in "Ma Ma" and "Da Da" to the stage when a English speaking child is able to produce the Third Person Singular "s" on the end of a verb.

Books exploring the relationship between 'syntax' and 'meaning' in the English language

The relationships between 'choice of syntactic forms' (SYNTAX) and meaning (SEMANTICS) is so important that it is the main focus in books which I would highly recommend to language leearners and teachers:

  1. Meaning and the English Verb Geoffrey Leech [09/09/2004] and,

  2. A Communicative Grammar of English Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik [06/01/2003]

Focus on sentence-level syntax in Berlitz's 'natural' method

Berlitz's Natural or Direct Method (used from the end of the 19th century) depended very heavily on the structural syllabus. The pattern drills present in course material involved a considerable amount of sentence-level question and answer. It is difficult to reconcile Berlitz's Natural method with other Natural Methods which have appeared more recently.

Focus on discourse in more recent 'natural' methods

One of the advances made by 1970s versions of The Communicative Approach, was focus on discourse. Reference skills need to be developed in the context of paragraphs as well as sentences.

It is fair to say that the audio-lingual method coupled with the structural syllabus, which was one of the mainstay approaches used in private language schools during the 1960s and much of the 70s, pushed discourse off the agenda.

Main course books for lower level students - such as L.G. Alexander's successful First Things First, Practice and Progress and Geoffrey Broughton's Success With English (which had longer texts!) - used anything resembling a paragraph mainly to contextualise new structural items. Although these particular authors could write skilfully, the texts in many coursebooks of this era were devoid of cohesive devices and lacked coherence. At worst, longer texts consisted of a series of disconnected sentences. Dialogues were lacking in the features of spoken English conversation; instead they were often an exchange of structure-speech i.e. stilted. However, to be fair to authors, the purpose which they set out to fulfil was 'authentic' in its own right; they quite deliberately set out to present language patterns in a controlled environment in order to make bits of language (which students could parody for their own generative use) easier to learn.

There were a few good materials on the market for learning to write well constructed prose, usually intended for use at higher levels of proficiency. One, which still remains a favourite, was From Paragraph To Essay: Developing Composition Writing - by Maurice L. Imhoof and Herman Hudson [1975].

For higher level learners with time on their hands to develop writing skills, the offering of US publishers was noticeably better than that of their UK counterparts. By the late 1980s, the growing numbers of students from non-English speaking countries attending US and UK universities had increased the offering of language learning materials focusing on discourse:

By the late 1970s, British universities were calling upon private languages schools for ideas on how to set up learning centres offering language support for L2 learners. Simultaneously, private language schools were recognising that more of their students were preparing for studying at a UK university and that there were other reasons for reading and writing than practising structural patterns at sentence level. Early ELT readings skills titles which I like were:

To meet the rapidly growing interest in English for Academic Purposes, private English language schools needed to offer more accurate models of both written and spoken English discourse.

Alongside titles such as Tom McArthur's Reading and Thinking in English: Discovering Discourse [1979], offerings for teachers appeared such as Gillian Brown's Listening to Spoken English [1977] (there is also a 1990 edition). This theoretical work alerts those learning to teach English that there is much more to listening than merely knowing the meaning of the words you hear i.e. stress, intonation, voice quality, gesture. It offers a good analysis as to why many second language users find it difficult to understand native speakers.

The much maligned 'grammar / translation' method focused on passages of text as well as sentences, which remains the skill of the professional translator.

It should also be remembered that 'the grammar/translation method' extended beyond sentence-level in the tasks learners were expected to perform. Some of our best linguists can be found among people who earn their living through translation. Awareness of both semantic and grammatical relations within longer sections of text is critical to good translation. Translators today keep databases storing examples of chunks of text they have previously translated well. If they have particular customers requiring specific genres (e.g. the language of social history or industrial relations), similar content is likely to reappear whether this is individual words, complete sentences, or methods of topic development within paragraphs.

Great progress has been made in the field of textual analysis, given the power of modern computers (the use of Concordancers, frequency data, etc). It is now well recognised that a good stylistic analysis needs to be both structural and functional i.e. it should look at both usage and use. For structural methods of analysing text, see:
Investigating English Style by David Crystal and Derek Davy [1973]

For both structural and functional analysis, see
The Language of Advertising by Angela Goddard [2002].

Terminology used in the 1960s and 70s to argue the case for 'communicative' language teaching

Competence and performance - Chomsky's terms (1965) used to refer to: a) the native speaker's idealised knowledge of the abstract system of rules of the language, knowledge that can produce and understand an infinite number of sentences.

Performance - the actual use of that language in concrete situations.

Communicative Competence - Term used by Campbell and Wales (1970) and Hymes (1972) to refer to: the relationship and interaction between the native speaker's grammatical competence (or knowledge of the rules of the language) and Sociolinguistic Competence (or knowledge of the rules of language use). It is distinguished from communicative performance which is the realisation of theses competences in actual speech in real situations.

Usage and use - Terms used by Widdowson (1978) to refer to two aspects of communicative performance
a) the ability to produce correct sentences, or manifestations of the linguistic system = usage.
b) the ability to use the knowledge of the rules for effective communication = use.

Signification and value: Terms used by Widdowson to distinguish the two different kinds of meaning attached to USE and USAGE:

A) the meaning attached to a sentence as an instance of language usage, isolated from context = signification.
B) The meaning taken by a sentence when it is put to use for communicative purposes = value.

e.g. Question: Could you tell me the way to the bank?"
Answer: The rain destroyed all the crops".

The response has signification but no value!

Other contrasting concepts

Linguistic categories v Communicative Categories

Widdowson defined the above set of contrasting concepts to distinguish between language as a formal system and language use as effective communication.

From the Notional/Functional approach to CLT (Communicative Language Teaching)

Teaching Language as Communication [1978]. Together with "Notional Syllabuses [Oxford 1976] by D. A. Wilkins, Teaching Language as Communication was one of the most influential works in explaining the rationale for a change in the L2 language curriculum and L2 language teaching methods. Some previous direct method approaches had emphasized syntax at the expense of semantics. Widdowson argues for greater attention to be given to meaning and use. Preoccupation with patterns and forms can take meaning out of lesson content. However, there are dangers in casting patterns or forms aside, since different selections of structures such as verb tenses are used to indicate different meanings e.g. she lived (in the past) / she has lived (she may still be there now). See:
Meaning and the English Verb Geoffrey Leech [09/09/2004]. This title is as much concerned with meaning and communication as with the structure of language. One of the key areas of knowledge for anybody learning or teaching a language is ability to relate 'language function' to 'syntax or form': e.g. "what are the main uses of the Present Perfect?".

Making it 'lingual' and 'structural' as well as 'communicative'

Versions of The Communicative Approach ["Semantics at the expense of syntax"], which refuse to focus of the contribution of structure to meaning, are just as deficient as those versions of The Audio Lingual Approach ["syntax at the expense of semantics"] which used language for display instead of for communication. There are some arguments for using language for display, for example, it may strengthen the organs of articulation to pronounce English words and phrases without knowing what they mean. Works such as 'English Pronunciation Illustrated' use pictures to explain the different meanings of minimal pairs, though appropriate use of a word often depends on linguistic context, situation, formality. One-to-one associations between picture and word are of limited help to teaching language in use.

Getting your tongue around the target language

The shortcoming of some English Language Coursebooks, which claim to put meaning at the centre of the syllabus, is that occasions (such as pattern drills!) which offer pronunciation practice and active use of the target language are missing. An 'Audio-Lingual' approach (based on syntax) is likely still to prove superior to a coursebook (based on semantics) where the main utterances learners are requested to make amount to little more than A, B, C or D.

It is possible to focus on meaning, but at the same time require very passive behaviour from learners in terms of utterances. The effort teachers are required to make may be a lot less and classroom management may be smoother if learners are spared the challenge of speaking the target language. Teachers and learners may be blissfully unaware of how little English they are actually learning if the exam for which they are preparing takes the form of 'Multiple Choice', which also invites passive behaviour. It is possible to focus on meaning in a pedagogical way (A, B, C or D) without requiring learners to do any substantial speaking or writing.

Language teachers only have to gain a little experience to recognise that considerable energy goes into teaching at lower levels of proficiency. A lot of pattern practice and repetition is needed to model, practise and consolidate the entry points into an unfamiliar language system. To a large extent, these entry points will be basic structures. The structural syllabus cannot be absent if you are making any concession at all to learners' level of proficiency. However, the presence of a structural syllabus does not exclude the need for a parallel functional syllabus and vocabulary selection which serves the learners' communication needs (as opposed to purely selecting words which make it easier to teach basic syntax).

What about 'The Input Hypothesis'?

One justification for not giving learners opportunities to produce the target language was 'the input hypothesis' i.e. learners need authentic materials and lots of comprehensible input. This justification has worn thin in the age of the Internet when learners can get lots of practice listening to authentic use of their target language (including audio and video) at their own home computers before they set foot in a classroom.

When learners pay for help from a native-speaker of the target language, they usually expect some modelling of the language and some practice opportunities to use it actively.