You are on page 1of 10

Communicative language teaching: Making it work David Nunan

While a great deal has been written on the theory and practice of communicative language teaching, there have been comparatively few studies of actual communicative language practices. A classroom-based study of communicative language practice revealed the persistence of non-communicative patterns of interaction. A follow-up study demonstrated that it is possible for teachers to foster more communicative language use. These studies demonstrate the importance of validating theory against what actually happens in the classroom.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

Introduction

If one were to be guided solely by publications in the field, one would be led to the conclusion that a revolution had swept through language classrooms all round the world, and that very little remained of what might be called 'traditional' classroom activities. However, whether or not such publications reflect changes actually occurring at the classroom level is a matter for empirical investigation rather than theoretical speculation. In promoting the cause of classroom-centred research, Long suggests that: While still in its youth, if not infancy, classroom-centred research has already accumulated a substantial body of knowledge about what actually goes on in ESL classrooms, as opposed to what is believed to go on, and as distinct from what writers on TESL methods tell us ought to go on. (Long 1983:422) The paper investigates communicative language teaching as it is manifested in the classroom. The purpose of the studies reported on in the body of the paper was to determine the extent to which genuine communication is evident in communicative language classes, and whether strategies can be developed to encourage such communication. Recent works tend to typify non-communicative language practices in terms of grammatical focus, error correction, the extensive use of drill and controlled practice, and interactions which are pseudo-communicative, rather than genuinely communicative. Some theorists assert that such practices do not facilitate genuine communicative language skills, and question their value in the language classroom (see, for example, Krashen and Terrell 1983). Howatt suggests that it is possible to take a 'strong' and a 'weak' line on communicative language teaching. He states that:
ELTJournal Volant 4112 April 1987 C Oxford University Press 1987

Communicative mnd non-communlcmtivm practices In the language classroom

136

The weak version, which has become more or less standard practice in the last ten years, stresses the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes and, characteristically, attempts to integrate such activities into a wider programme of language teaching. (Howatt 1984:279) Lattlewood (1981), a proponent of the 'weak* approach, attempts to reconcile non-communicative and communicative activities by suggesting that such things as drill and controlled practice have a valid place in the language class as pre-communicative activities which provide learners with the necessary prerequisite skills for more communicative language work. It is suggested that genuine communication is characterized by the uneven distribution of information, the negotiation of meaning (through, for example, clarification requests and confirmation checks), topic nomination and negotiation by more than one speaker, and the right of interlocutors to decide whether to contribute to an interaction or not. In other words, in genuine communication, decisions about who says what to whom and when are up for grabs. Thm study In order to investigate the degree to which features of genuine communication were present in language classes, five communicative language lessons were recorded, transcribed, and analysed. The results of this analysis are presented in this section. All of the teachers taking part in the study were knowledgeable about and committed to communicative language teaching. All were highly qualified, with graduate diplomas in TESOL. Two of the teachers had MAs in applied linguistics. Five of the teachers were highly experienced, having taught for between seven and eighteen years, while the remaining teacher had taught for two years. All classes taking part in the study contained mixed nationalities and language backgrounds, with studentsfromEurope, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Three of the classes had predominantly Asian students. Language ability ranged from beginner through to intermediate. The lessons themselves all exemplified 'communicative' language activities. These included an elaborate jigsaw listening task, a map-reading exercise, a discussion class based on recordings of casual conversations, simulated interviews in which students had to provide personal details, and a comprehension class based on radio advertisements and magazine pictures. On the surface, the lessons appeared to conform to the sorts of communicative principles advocated in the literature. However, when the patterns of interaction were examined more closely, they resembled traditional patterns of classroom interaction rather than genuine interaction. Thus, the most commonly occurring pattern of interaction was identical with the basic exchange structure found in mother-tongue classes (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975) and adult EFL classes (Dinsmore 1985). The structure consists of the following turns: Teacher initiation Learner response Teacher follow-up. The pattern is exemplified in the following exchange. T: The question will be on different. . . ? What? Different. . . ?
Communicative language teaching 137

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

S: Talks. T: Tasks? What? S: Subject. T: Different sub . . . ? S: Subjects. Subjects. T: Subjects, subjects, thank you, right, yes. In all of the lessons, drills featured prominently. One teacher, having just explained the fact that in English we say 'a three-bedroom house' rather than 'a house with three bedrooms', launched, almost as a reflex action, into the following drill: T: A three-bedroom house, a three-bedroom house, a three-bedroom house. So, what's he looking for? S: For three-bedroom house. T: What's he looking for? S: (Inaudible) T: What's he looking for? S: House. T: What's he looking for? S: Three-bedroom house. T: Thank you. What's he looking for? S: Three-bedroom house. T: All right. This, and the following drill from another group, demonstrate the fact that many of the drills incorporate the initiation/response/follow-up pattern. T: Ss: T: S: T: S: S: T: Where're the table lamps? Table lamps. Table lamps. Table lamps. (Points) OK, good. Where's the handbasin? Handbasin. (Comes to the table and points) Very good. OK.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

In a lesson on 'Providing Personal Details', the teacher 'interviews' the students. At first sight, the interactions seem genuine, but, as the teacher already knows the answers to her questions, the interactions are little more than contextualized drills. T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S:
138

Chay Kew, come here. I'll talk to you, OK? (Comes to the centre of the circle) Oh, hello. Hello. What's your name? My name? Chay Kew. What's your surname? Liang. Liang? Yeah. Are you married? Yeah, marry. Have you got any children? Fi(ve) children.

David Nunan

T: Five children. How old are your children? S: How are . . . one are nineteen . . . T: Nineteen? S: Yeah, er, nineteen, eight, nineteen, eight. T: Yeah. S: Three, thirteen . . . T: Thirteen. S: Four, ah, eleven. T: Eleven, yeah. And where do you live? Here the pseudo-communicative nature of the exchange is evident. Although the student says she hasfivechildren, the teacher reveals that she is not really paying attention, by changing the topic after the ages of four of the children have been given. The rather artificial nature of the 'interviews' is also evident in the following exchange. T: Do you like coming to English classes? You like your English class? S: Yeah. T: Do you think you learn a lot of English? S: Little bit. T: A little bit of English. Well, I think you speak very well. You can have a seat. Sit down. In all lessons, it is generally the teacher who decides 'who should say what, when'. The only student-generated topic nominations are on points of grammar or classroom procedure, which would seem to indicate that, while the ostensible focus of the lessons is on meaning, the covert focus, at least from the learners' perspective, is on form. This is evident in the following extracts. S: T: S: Ss: T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S: T: S: S: T: Quiss? Pardon? It will be quiss? It will be quiss? Quiss? Quiz, quiz. Ahmm, sorry? Try again. I ask you . . . Yes. . . . you give us another quiss? Oh, quiz, oh. No, no, not today, it's not going to be a quiz today, sorry. Why three bed, er, three bedroom? Why we don't say three bedrooms? Ahhm, oh. I don't know, um. Is not right. We don't say it, we don't say it. There's no explanation, but we often do that in English. Three-bedroom house. Don't ask for it. Yes. Well, do ask why, ask why and 99 per cent of the time I know the answer. One per cent of the time, nobody knows the answer. If I don't know it, nobody knows. (Laughter) Ah, no, I don't know the answer.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

T: And here is the bottom. S: Bottom.


Commxmicatinc language teaching 139

T: S: T: S: T:

Bottom of the table, yeah. (Points under the table) An call here? Oh, underneath. Underneath. Yeah.

The fact that some students are aware of where the real power lies, in terms of deciding who should say what, is evident in the following exchange. T: S: T: Yeah, I think . . . (to a student who had been indicating disagreement) You agree? I have to. (Laughter) You don't have to because I'm . . . everybody sees the world from a different perspective. OK, I think you've thought about Janet a little bitshe is unusual in her, er, her family.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

Here the teacher has ostensibly been trying to get the students to 'give opinions'. However, one student, at least, is aware that it is really the teacher's opinion which is required. Even though the teacher denies this, she validates the learner's comment by asserting the truth of her own position on the point of discussion. All but one of the lessons contain 'teacher explanations' of various sorts. These range from grammatical explanations through to attempts to raise learners' meta-awareness of the nature of language and language learning. In most instances, the language of explanation is more complex than the language points being taught, as can be seen from the following extracts. T: If you walk down Rundle Mall, OK? If you walk down Rundle Mall to David Jones, OK? Walk down Rundle Mall to David Jones, yeah walk, walking down to David Jones, walking down to David Jones, yeah? OK? What is opposite David Jones? Opposite? Opposite. Opp . . . os . . . ite. Oppis? Opposite James (Inaudible) James Place James Place? Opposite David Jones? David Jones, opposite David Jones. Er, John Martin? John Martin's? No, not opposite. You told me about swallowing the words. Can you tell mewhich words did she swallow? Well, er, as you said them, a word for me that, er (Inaudible). She said that very fast. OK, can you tell me the pronunciation of this word in normal speech? (Writes on the board). It's not 'to', it's . . . ? To, to, to. It's 't', 'f. T start, t start. See? You can hear V, you can't hear 'to'. You can hear 't'. T start. What're these? What're we listening to? (Misunderstands intention of question) Handbasin.

S: T: S: T: S: S: S: T: S: T: T: S: T: S: T: T: S: 140

David Nunan

T: Yes, but, these are, these are advertisements. You have them on TV and you have them on the radio. You have them on TV and you have them on the radio. S: The radio. T: OK? You can watch TV, and you can watch the advertisements, and you can practise your English. And it doesn't matter if you don't understand every word. In thefinaltwo examples, the teacher is attempting to introduce a language point and a learning strategy respectively. In both instances, he switches from question drills to explanation without signalling the rhetorical shift to his students. In both instances this results in misunderstanding and confusion on the part of the learners.
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

Diacunlon

In each of the lessons analysed, the teachers claimed to be teaching 'communicatively', and to a certain extent they were, with all lessons ostensibly focusing on functional aspects of language use. However, in terms of the patterns of classroom interaction, there was little genuine communication between teacher and student (or, for that matter, between student and student). There was also a great deal of'traditional' language work. If one accepts a 'weak' interpretation of communicative language teaching, then one must accept the value of grammatical explanation, error correction, and drill. However, learners also need the opportunity to engage in genuine communicative interaction. If the evidence just cited is to be believed, such interactions would seem to be comparatively rare. We have to ask ourselves, of course, how representative the data really are. In an article of this length, it is impossible to provide full transcripts of the lessons, and the author's analyses have to be taken on trust. However, there is a growing body of classroom-based research which supports the conclusion reached here, that there are comparatively few opportunities for genuine communicative language use in second-language classrooms. Thus Long and Sato report 'ESL teachers continue to emphasise form over meaning, accuracy over communication' (1983:283). The reader is also referred to Brock 1986; Dinsmore 1985; Long and Crookes 1986; and Pica and Long 1986. A disconfirming study is yet to be documented. Given the fact that all but one of the teachers in the study reported here were highly skilled and experienced, and were knowledgeable about and committed to the concept of a communicative approach to language teaching, it is reasonable to assume that the results are not unrepresentative of a much wider range of language classrooms. How do we account for this state of affairs? Is it that the very nature of the classroom, with its unequal power distribution and the conservative attitudes of teachers and learners, precludes the development of methodologies which are truly 'communicative'? Long and Sato have suggested that: The classroom speech of SL teachers is affected by at least two kinds of constraints: those imposed by the classroom as the setting for the conversation, including the patterns of speech associated with the role of teacher, and those arising from the limited linguistic proficiency of the interlocutor. (Long and Sato 1983:270) Another classroom constraint is the attitude of the learners themselves. There is evidence that learners have some rather definite views on what are
Communicatiot language Uachxng 141

'legitimate' classroom activities (Willing 1985), and that there are frequent mismatches between learner and teacher expectations (Nunan 1986). These may exert a powerful conservative influence on what is possible in the language classroom. Probably the most powerful constraint of all is that imposed by the classroom itself. Seliger states that if the use of language in the classroom is compared with language used outside, important differences become evident. He goes on to say: These differences are the necessary result of the organisation of contexts for the formal teaching of language that takes place inside the classroom. Outside the classroom, however, in naturalistic environments, language is a means to an end . . . The language classroom is, by definition, a contrived context for the use of language as a tool of communication. The bulk of time in a language class is devoted to practising language for its own sake because the participants in this activity realise that that is the expressed purpose of their gathering together in a room with a blackboard and a language expert, the teacher. (Seliger 1983:250-51) However, it is not necessary to be totally pessimistic about the chances of making the classroom more 'communicative'. What is important is to recognize that powerful constraints exist, as do 'conditioned classroom reflexes' on the part of teachers and learners. These will not necessarily change because of the published pronouncements of applied linguists. The essential first step in promoting change is to acknowledge and document present realities through classroom-based research. Classroom researchers are, in fact, working on strategies for fostering more communicative language use. Long and Crookes, for instance, are working on intervention points. These are defined as: 'classroom processes which teachers, materials designers, or learners can manipulate in ways which theory or research in SLA suggest are beneficial for language learning' (1986:2). Their studies suggest that increasing the use of'referential' questions (those to which the teacher does not know the answer) over 'display' questions is likely to stimulate a greater quantity of genuine classroom communication. From the data provided by Long and Crookes, it would seem that the most likely explanation for the success of referential questions is that they stimulate learners to engage their 'schematic knowledge representations' (Nunan 1985).
Stimulating

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

schematic
knowledge

In order to test this notion, a small follow-up experiment was conducted. A teacher working in the same programme as the five already studied was asked to teach a short lesson, using a sequence of pictures about an accident. The teacher was experienced and qualified. The class was a group of near zero-proficiency beginners. The initial activity chosen by the teacher was a picture-sequencing task in which learners working in small groups were required to place the pictures in order. This was followed by a teacher-fronted discussion. Here, the patterns of interaction were similar to those already documented. All of the questions asked were 'display' questions (questions to which the teacher already knew the answer), and the typical pattern of interaction was teacher initiation/learner response/teacher follow-up. Responses were monosyllables or short phrases. The following extract is typical. T: What's the name of this? What's the name? Not in Chinese.

142

David Nunan

Ss: Van. Van. T: Van. What's in the back of the van? S: Milk. Milk. T: Milk. Ss: Milk. Milk. T: A milk van. S: Milk van. T: What's this man? Driver. S: Driver. T: The driver. S: The driver. T: The milkman. S: Millman. T: Milkman. S: Milkman. T: Where are they? Ss: Where are they? T: Where are they? Inside, outside? S: Department. T: Department. . . ? S: Department store. Following this, the teacher and researcher engaged in a short discussion on ways of relating the content of the picture sequence to the learners' own lives, and of encouraging learners to bring their background knowledge to discussion. In doing this, the teacher was asked to focus on the use of referential questions. The effect was immediately apparent, and the following features, which are characteristic of genuine communication, appeared in the data: content-based topic nominations by learners; student/student interactions; an increase in the length and complexity of student turns; the negotiation of meaning by students and teacher, with a concomitant increase in the number of clarification requests and comprehension checks. There is even an instance of a student disagreeing with the teacher. These features all appear in the following extracts.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

T: Have you ever been in an accident?


S:
No. No.

T: No. Little?
S:

T: No? You must be a good driver. S: No good driver. T: Two cars like this, and you hurt your wrist? Mmm, very bad. Oh, here. S: Hospital? S: Yes. S: Oh, I'm sorry. T: How long were you in hospital? S: One month. T: Dead? when did he die? S: Um, sixty-eight. T: Sixty-eight S: Sixty-eight year old.
Communicativt language teaching 143

Sixty-eight years old. Oh, that s very sad. In Australia. It was in Australia? Gosh, I'm sorry. Australia, it's me. My, my . . . Oh, you were in Australia and your father was in Greece. China, my mother is a teacher, my father is a teacher. Oh, she go finish, by bicycle, er, go t o . . . S: House? S: No house, go to . . . S: School? S: My mother . . . T: Mmm S: . . . go to her mother. T: Oh, your grandmother. Ss: Grandmother. S: My grandmother. Oh, yes, by bicycle, by bicycle, oh, is, em, accident. (Gestures) T: In water? S: In water, yeah. T: In a river! S: River, yeah, river. Oh, yes, um, dead. Ss: Dead! Dead! Oh! (General consternation) This follow-up experiment demonstrates that, when learners' interests are engaged, and when they are able to bring their own background schemata to classroom interactions, these can begin to be truly communicative, even with very basic learners. In the instance cited here, the interactions were stimulated principally by the use of referential questions by the teacher on a topic which learners were interested in, and for which they had been prepared by some non-communicative language work. Conclusion This study demonstrates the importance of conducting classroom-based research to determine the extent to which theory is realized through classroom practice. There is growing evidence that, in communicative classes, interactions may, in fact, not be very communicative after all. Despite this, strategies are being developed to increase the opportunities for genuine communication. It is teachers themselves who need to become the prime agents of change through an increased sensitivity to what is really happening in their classes. As Stenhouse suggests: . . . the uniqueness of each classroom setting implies that any proposal even at school levelneeds to be tested and verified and adapted by each teacher in his own classroom. The ideal is that the curricular specification should feed a teacher's personal research and development programme through which he is progressively increasing his understanding of his own work and hence bettering his teaching... It is not enough that teachers' work should be studied: they need to study it themselves. (Stenhouse 1975:143)
Received June 1986

T: S: T: S: T: S:

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

144

DamdNwum

R- Day (ed.): Talking to Leant: Conversation in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury Brock, C 1986. 'The effects of referential questions on House. ESL classroom discourse.' TESOL Qjiarterly 20/1. Dinsmore, D. 1985. 'Waiting for Godot in the EFL Seliger, H. 1983. 'Learner interaction in the classroom and its effect on language acquisition' in classroom.' ELT Journal 39/4:225-34. Howatt, A. 1984. A History of English Language Teaching. Seliger and Long (eds.) 1983. Seliger, H. and M. Long, (eds.) 1983. Classroom Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oriented Research in Second Language Acquisition. Krashen, S. and T. Terrell. 1983. The Natural Rowley: Newbury House. Approach. Oxford: Pergamon. Little wood, W. 1981. Communicative Language Teaching:Sindair,J. and M. Coulthard. 1975. Towards an AnalyAn Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University sis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Press. Stenhouse, L. 1975. An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann. Long, M. 1983. 'Process and product in ESL program evaluation.' TESOL Quarterly 17:409-25. Widdowson, H. 1979. Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Long, M. and G. Crookes. 1986. 'Intervention Points in Second Language Classroom Processes.' RELC Willing, K. 1985. Learning Styles in Adult Migrant Education. Sydney: Adult Migrant Education Service. Regional Seminar, Singapore, 21-25 April 1986. Long, M. and C. Sato. 1983. 'Classroom foreigner talk discourse: forms and functions of teachers' questions' in Seliger and Long (eds.) 1983. Nunan, D. 1985. 'Content familiarity and the percep- Thm muthor tion of textual relationships in second language David Nunan is Director of the National Curriculum reading.' RELC Journal 16/1. Resource Centre for the Australian Adult Migrant Nunan, D. 1986. 'Communicative Language Teach- Education Program. He has had extensive experience ing: The Learner's View.' Paper presented at the in ESL/EFL teaching and teacher training in RELC Regional Seminar, Singapore, 21-25 April Australia, Europe, and Southeast Asia. He holds a PhD in applied linguistics, and his research interests 1986. Pica, T. and M. Long. 1986. "The linguistic and con- include teacher-based curriculum development and versational performance of experienced teachers' in classroom-centred research.

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Sheffield Hallam University on July 18, 2012

Communicative language teaching

145