What is Communicative Language Teaching?
This is a question that comes up often. It is a term that we hear as language teachers and maybe even use it to describe our classroom. But, do we have a solid understanding of what it is?
Let’s take a look.
There is considerable research being conducted and published on effective ways to teach and learn language. At the forefront of this work is Dr. Bill VanPatten, a linguist whose work focuses on second language acquisition. Through his own extensive research as well as compiling studies done by other linguists and educators, Dr. VanPatten concludes these points:
- Language is an abstract and complex mental representation that bears no resemblance to textbook rules and charts.
- Language acquisition is largely controlled by unconscious mechanisms internal to the learner.
- In order to develop a linguistic system, learners must be exposed to language (input) embedded in communicative events and comprehensible in nature.
- Communicative ability develops as a result of participation in communicative events.
communicative language teaching
There are three concepts of communicative language teaching that set it apart form more traditional approaches:
- The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
- It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
- The approach is focused on understanding the message being conveyed by students despite inaccuracy in language form. This is a change from focusing on correct usage of language structures and only secondarily tending to the message.
There has been a significant shift in mindset along with the arrival of communicative language teaching. Previous methodologies focused on what learners did wrong rather than on their progress. The goal was complete accuracy along with the belief that a speaker would not be understood if the language was not completely correct. We now accept that communication can happen despite occasional inaccuracy. This is the base of the difference in mindset, or underlying tenets that support the communicative approach.
Examples of a communicative classroom
Objectives and Content:
- The teacher is the all-knowing possessor of knowledge who directs all content and objectives to ensure progress toward correct language.
- The teacher works in collaboration with students with shared learning objectives.
- The communication is focused on the four traditional language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) in isolation and not interconnected.
- The three modes of communication (presentational, interpretive, interpersonal) are represented and focused on what the learner does with the four skills.
- The focus is on what students know about the language and its structures. There is only practice of correct grammatical aspects of the language in isolation and out of context.
- The focus is on what the learner is able to do or accomplish with the language. There is authentic communication with the language despite occasional inaccuracy in language when the message is conveyed.
Assessment in a communicative classroom
Assessments focus on what students can do with the language. Communicative assessment characteristics:
- Students create a product or do a demonstration
- Graded more holistically
- Focus is on completing a task
- Tasks are situation-based or use real-world content
- Higher-level thinking skills of application, integration, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
These are common assessment activities that focus on what students can do with language.
- Complete the sentence logically
- State your opinion, thoughts, or comments
- Give personal answers
- Create a situation
- Seek information
- Develop a product, e.g. advertisement, brochure, collage, poem, song, essay, video, etc.
- Demonstrate your knowledge
- Summarize, paraphrase
- Change the ending
You might also want to listen to me talk through this on an episode of the World Language Classroom Podcast.
Lee, J. F., & VanPatten, B. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen.
VanPatten, B. (2003). From input to output: A teacher’s guide to second language acquisition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Van Patten, B. (2014). Creating Comprehensible Input and Output. The Language Educator, 7(4), 24-26.
Krashen, Stephen D., and Tracy D. Terrell. “The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom.” (1983).
Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.
VanPatten, B., & Fernández, C. (2003). The long-term effects of processing instruction. In Processing Instruction: Theory, Research, and Commentary (pp. 277-293). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.