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System 30 (2002) 85–105 www.elsevier.


Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in EFL classroom
Zhenhui Rao
School of Education, University of South Australia, Holbrooks Road, Underdale, South Australia, 5032, Australia Received 30 October 2000; received in revised form 23 June 2001; accepted 28 August 2001

Abstract This article reports the views of 30 Chinese university students on the appropriateness and effectiveness of communicative and non-communicative activities in their English-as-aForeign-Language (EFL) courses in China. Using multimethod, qualitative research procedures, the researcher discovered that the perceptions of these students sometimes surprised their teachers, and that the students’ perceived difficulties caused by Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) had their source in the differences between the underlying educational theories of China and those of Western countries. The results suggest that, to update English teaching methods, EFL countries like China need to modernize, not westernize, English teaching; that is, to combine the ‘‘new’’ with the ‘‘old’’ to align the communicative approach with traditional teaching structures. It is apparent from the study that only by reconciling communicative activities with non-communicative activities in English classrooms can students in non-English speaking countries benefit from CLT. # 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Chinese students; EFL learners; Perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities; Learner behaviour; CLT; Difficulties in adopting CLT; Traditional teaching methods; Teaching English in China; Education settings; Culture

E-mail address: (Z. Rao). 0346-251X/02/$ - see front matter # 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S0346-251X(01)00050-1


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1. Introduction Recent attempts to introduce CLT into EFL teaching in China have provoked a great deal of comment and debate. Whereas some accounts have emphasized the value of adopting CLT in China (e.g. Li, 1984; Maley, 1984; Spenser, 1986), others have noted the importance of Chinese traditional ways of teaching and learning (e.g. Harvey, 1985; Ting, 1987; Sampson, 1990). However, the majority of accounts have focused on the need to adapt CLT to the demands and conditions for language learning and teaching in China (e.g. Scovel, 1983; Anderson, 1993; Rao, 1996). Within this heated debate on English teaching methodology, the study of Chinese students’ response to CLT deserves particular attention. Do they enjoy activities involving communication and real use of language? Are they receptive to the teaching techniques that may be new to them? Do they agree that real-language activities emphasizing language content are more effective than non-communicative activities that stress formal correction? Do they believe that such activities are helpful to them as language learners? With these questions in mind, researchers and English teachers have conducted extensive studies on Chinese students’ learning strategies. Most of these studies revealed that Chinese students’ learning strategies consisted of many of the following features: concentration on intensive reading as a basis for language study; a preoccupation with the careful, often painstaking examination of grammatical structure and a corresponding lack of attention to more communicative skills; the use of memorization and rote learning as a basic acquisition technique; a strong emphasis on the correction of mistakes, both written and oral; the use of translation as a learning strategy (Maley, 1983; Scovel, 1983; Barlow and Lowe, 1985; Harvey, 1985). One exception this researcher has found in literature is a recent study made by Littlewood (2000), in which he discovered that ‘‘the stereotype of Asian students as ‘obedient listeners’—whether or not it is a reflection of their actual behaviour in class—does not reflect the role they would like to adopt in class’’ (Littlewood, 2000, p. 33). All these research reports of Chinese students’ learning strategies in EFL learning, except Littlewood’s, have generally been based on anecdotal evidence and the intuitive sense of teachers and researchers. This sort of evidence can be valuable, but it is surprising that almost nobody seems to have actually asked Chinese students themselves to rate the extent to which they enjoy communicative and noncommunicative activities. Recent researches have shown that the perceptions of teachers and their students do not always match (e.g. Kumaravadivelu, 1991; Block, 1994). Block (1994, 1996), for example, has found that ‘‘teachers and learners operate according to quite different systems for describing and attributing purpose to tasks’’ (1994, p. 473). Block’s findings are supported by Nunan’s study (1986), in which he found clear mismatches between learners’ and teachers’ opinions about which activities were important in the learning process. In order to deepen our understanding of how students react to communicative and non-communicative activities, Barkhuizen (1998, p. 86) has called for ‘‘teachers to discover their learners’ feelings and beliefs about their language learning experiences and consequently to review and possibly change their teaching process’’. For this

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reason, I undertook a case study of Chinese university students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in the English classroom. While this study was based on the studies previously done in second-language settings, there was a shift in focus to a foreign-language context. Next, by directly involving the students in the study, I explored their personal feelings and beliefs in English learning. Finally, I discussed the implication of the findings for EFL teachers in the Chinese context, as well as for those teachers who may share the same characteristics of English teaching worldwide.

2. Defining characteristics of CLT There is considerable debate as to appropriate ways of defining CLT, and no single model of CLT is universally accepted as authoritative (McGroarty, 1984; Markee, 1997). However, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986), CLT starts with a theory of language as communication, and its goal is to develop learners’ communicative competence. CLT consists of a strong version and a weak version. The strong version of communicative teaching, according to Holliday (1994), advances the claim that it is not merely a question of activating an existing but inert knowledge of the language, but of stimulating the development of language itself. The weak version emphasizes the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes and, characteristically, attempts to integrate such activities into a wider program of language teaching. Howatt (1984, p. 279) describes the former as ‘‘using English to learn it’’ and the latter as ‘‘learning to use English’’. What I must stress here is that characteristics of CLT to be described below reflect only the definition of the weak version of CLT, which has become more or less standard practice in China in the past two decades. The most obvious characteristic of CLT, according to Larsen-Freeman (1986, p. 132), is that ‘‘almost everything that is done is done with a communicative intent’’. In CLT, meaning is paramount. There are a variety of communicative activities (e.g. games, role plays, simulations, and problem-solving tasks), which give students an opportunity to practice communicating meaningfully in different contexts and in different roles. In the process of the performance of these activities, students’ native language is avoided and error correction may be infrequent or absent. Another characteristic of CLT is that ‘‘activities in the Communicative Approach are often carried out by students in small groups’’ (Larsen-Freeman, 1986, p. 132). Students are expected to interact with each other in order to maximize the time allotted to each student for learning to negotiate meaning. Through these small group activities, the students are engaged in meaningful and authentic language use rather than in the merely mechanical practice of language patterns. Furthermore, CLT favors the introduction of authentic materials (Larsen-Freeman, 1986; Dubin, 1995; Widdowson, 1996). It is considered desirable to give learners the opportunity to develop strategies for understanding language as it is actually used by native speakers (Canale and Swain, 1980).


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The final characteristic of CLT is ‘‘its learner-centered and experience-based view of second language teaching’’ (Richards and Rodgers, 1986, p. 69). In CLT, classroom performance is managed not just by the teacher, but by all present. Teachers are not seen only as teachers, learners simply as learners, because both are, for good or ill, managers of learning (Allwright, 1984). Instead of being the dominating authority in the classroom, one primary role for the teacher is to facilitate the communicative process in the classroom where students feel secure, unthreatened and non-defensive.

3. The study The study reported here used a case study approach to investigate Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in EFL classroom. 3.1. Background: CLT in China The last decades bear witness that China’s modernization program needs thousands of people with a working command of English. Realizing that the traditional grammar-translation method and audiolingual method could not help much to develop learners’ communicative competence, EFL teachers in China started introducing CLT into English teaching at both the secondary school level and tertiary level in the early 1980s. In most schools, students are encouraged, from the very beginning of English learning, to develop communicative competence through meaningful drills and communicative activities. Accompanying the introduction of CLT was the publication of a series of new textbooks. Various kinds of English textbooks are now available to English teachers, who are free to choose any set provided that the whole school adopts it. The new textbooks incorporate a communicative perspective and more listening and speaking materials and activities relative to the older ones. Nevertheless, the outcome of teaching English exclusively using CLT did not provide the expected results. On the one hand, students did not like to participate in communicative-type activities and preferred more traditional classroom work; on the other hand, teachers felt discouraged from continuing with CLT, both because of students’ negative responses and because of their lack of training in using CLT and low English proficiency. What is responsible for this phenomenon? Is CLT a viable approach for EFL teaching in China? To answer these questions, I investigated Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in the EFL classroom. Specifically, the study attempted to answer the following questions: 1. What are the students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in the EFL classroom; and 2. What are their perceived difficulties in an EFL class exclusively conducted by a teacher using CLT?

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3.2. Subjects 3.2.1. Survey subjects The participants in the formal questionnaire were 30 Chinese university students majoring in English in Jiangxi Normal University, China. They were randomly selected from the enrollment lists, so as to provide each member of the population an equal opportunity to be included in the sample (Dane, 1990). Fifteen of them were second-year students and another 15 were third-year students. The first- and fourth-year students were not included because the former had been in university for just a short time and were in the process of adjusting themselves to university study while the latter were busily engaged in hunting for jobs or preparing for Bachelor’s theses at the time the study was conducted. All the subjects had been exposed to CLT both in secondary school and in university, and were therefore familiar with the terminology applied in the investigation. The questionnaire was administered immediately after the class time and the response rate was 100%. Among the 30 subjects, 21 were females and nine were males. The age ranged from 18 to 23, with the average being 20. By the time of the study, these students had all had 6 years of English learning experience in secondary school (932 contact hours). In university, the second-year students had just completed 1 year of English learning (532 contact hours) and the third-year students 2 years of English learning (1062 contact hours); their courses covering listening, speaking, reading and writing. 3.2.2. Interview subjects Ten of the 30 subjects were chosen for interviews. In selecting interview informants, following Patton’s ‘‘maximum variation sampling’’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985, p. 200), I allowed for maximum variation in subjects’ age, sex, grades and English proficiency. First of all, based on the previously completed questionnaire, I tabulated the background information on the survey subjects. Then, I started to select the interviewees that would represent all the variations mentioned above. The result (Table 1) was a group that was representative of the 30 survey subjects (the students’ names have been changed).
Table 1 Background of interview subjects Subject Li Hui Gao Ming Wang Dawei Jing Tao Zhong Qing Liu Peng Sheng Hao Wu Wei Liang Qian Zhang Jiangse Sex F F M F M M M F F M Age 20 22 18 19 19 21 23 20 21 19 Grade 3 3 2 2 2 3 3 2 3 2 English proficiency Fair Good Good Poor Fair Good Poor Fair Good Poor


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3.3. Instruments 3.3.1. Questionnaire The questionnaire consists of three parts (Appendix). Part A concerns the subjects’ personal details (that is, name, sex, age, grades, English proficiency) and their general views on communicative and non-communicative activities in the EFL classroom. Part B consists of 19 questionnaire items, which were designed as a representative mix of communicative and real-language practice on the one hand, and noncommunicative form-based techniques on the other. Items involving communicative and real use of language included activities characterized by student-to-student interaction with little or no monitoring of student output by the teacher (items 4, 8 and 11); oral situations characterized by student–teacher interaction with the teacher monitoring and sometimes responding to student output (items 7, 14, and 15); content-based teacher responses to students’ journals (item 10); and the use of songs in the classroom (items 2 and 17). Singing and listening to songs were included in the communicative group because such activities tend to focus on the meaning rather than the grammatical form of what is being sung or listened to, and because singing and listening to songs are real use of language. Non-communicative items emphasizing formal correctness included workbook type drill and practice exercises (items 1 and 16); audiolingual style substitution drills (items 12 and 13); dictionary work on a list of words before reading a selection containing the words (item 3); explicit grammar instruction conducted entirely in English (item 5); explicit grammar instruction conducted in Chinese with examples in English (item 6); teacher correction of errors in the students’ journals (item 9, deliberately in contrast to item 10); and students’ obedience to the teacher (items 18 and 19). Part C consists of some difficulties that Chinese EFL students may have in using communicative activities in the EFL classroom. All the question items in the questionnaire were simply and concisely stated so as to avoid any misunderstanding. To each item in Part B and C, only two responses were given. The subjects were instructed to express their personal opinions on each item by choosing ‘‘Yes’’ or ‘‘No’’. 3.3.2. Semiconstructed interview This interview was conducted to help the researcher gain an in-depth understanding of the students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities and their perceived difficulties in using communicative activities in the classroom. In this partially structured interview, I posed a few predetermined questions but had considerable flexibility concerning follow-up questions pertinent to their learning experience, then I listened to their response for clues as to what question to ask next, or whether it was important to probe for additional information (Maykut and Morehouse, 1994). While formulating interview questions, I made sure that the questions were clear, precise and motivating (Denzin, 1989). Each interview, which lasted 1 h or so, was conducted in the students’ native language (Chinese) so that the subjects were able

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to express their ideas fully. All the interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts of the interviews were later given to the subjects for verification.

4. Data analysis Data analysis is not a simple description of the data collected but a process by which the researcher can bring interpretation to the data (Powney and Watts, 1987). The themes and coding categories in this study emerged from an examination of the data rather than being determined beforehand and imposed on the data (Bogdan and Biklen, 1992). In the process of data analysis, I adopted analytic induction (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984; Bogdan and Biklen, 1992). By reading through the completed questionnaire and the interview transcripts over and over again, I discovered the students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities and identified the recurrent themes and salient comments in regard to the constraints that Chinese students had encountered in using communicative activities.

5. Results 5.1. Research question 1: What are the students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in the EFL classroom? The reported favored activities in the EFL classroom, both communicative and non-communicative, are shown in Table 2. Items in this table follow the order of the descriptive listing above. The survey results suggest that the students favored a variety of classroom activities, but that they liked non-communicative activities more than communicative ones. Of the 10 non-communicative activities, six were favored by more than two thirds of the subjects while in communicative activities four out of nine items were claimed to be favored by most students. This reflected to a certain degree the current English teaching situation in Chinese classrooms. Although CLT was gradually introduced into the Chinese EFL classroom from the early 1980s, it still has not become a dominant method in most EFL classrooms. Most students felt, on the other hand, that such traditional classroom activities as audiolingual drill (items 12 and 13), workbook type drill and practice (items 1 and 16) were still effective ways to facilitate their English learning. The following comment was typical. 1. We are Chinese students learning English in China. Though we do need, to a certain degree, communicative activities to help us improve our communicative competence in the classroom, we should not discontinue the use of our traditional classroom activities. Of course, it is not all the non-communicative activities that we should keep, but those which have proved to be very efficient for our English learning nowadays. (Liang Qian, 11 October 1999)


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Table 2 Reported favored activities in EFL classroom Item Communicative items Student–student interaction 4 8 11 Student–teacher interaction 7 14 15 Personal response to students’ exercises 10 Songs 2 17 Non-communicative items Workbook type drill and practice 1 16 Audiolingual drill 12 13 Dictionary exercise 3 Grammar rule explanation by teacher 5 6 Error correction 9 Obedience to teacher’s instruction 18 19 No. of mentionsa

29 28 9 28 30 8 17 14 7

25 27 30 30 11 30 11 16 12 27

a The number of times the research subjects referred to an item in the questionnaire. The maximum number of mentions possible for each item is 30.

Indeed, the students’ comments here reflected their current attitude towards some of the outdated traditional classroom activities. For example, dictionary exercise (item 3), which was quite welcome and popular before the 1990s, was reported to be favored by only 11 of the 30 subjects. The same was true for error correction (item 9). 2. While speaking English, I don’t like to be always interrupted by my teacher or classmates. I am happy if the teacher can help me correct some serious mistakes in my speaking, but certainly not all the mistakes. Otherwise, I will never be able to speak freely and fluently. (Wu Wei, 15 October 1999)

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What surprised the researcher even more from the study was the students’ response to the explanation of grammar rules by the teacher. All 30 students reported that they would like the teacher to explain a grammatical rule that is printed in the textbook in English (item 5). However, when asked if they would like the teacher to explain a grammar rule in Chinese (item 6), only 11 of them said ‘‘Yes’’. This indicated that most of the students had taken up the mother-tongue-avoidance strategy in the classroom, which was one result from the introduction of CLT in China. Even respondents whose English proficiency was poor insisted that teachers should use English whenever they could. 3. I would like to be exposed to the English language as much as possible in the EFL classroom. I don’t mind a few Chinese words when the teacher is explaining some complex and abstract grammatical rules, but too much Chinese is absolutely unwelcome in an English class. (Jing Tao, 15 October 1999) Similarly, the students’ belief in obedience to the teacher in the classroom had also undergone a certain change. While 27 reported that they would still rely on the teacher to tell them how much they had learned (item 19), 12 reported that they would like to depend on the teacher to explain everything to them (item 18). This result supports Littlewood’s study, in which he concludes: ‘‘Asian students do not, in fact, wish to be spoonfed with facts from an all-knowing ‘fount of knowledge’. They want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers’’. (Littlewood, 2000, p. 34). There were also some striking features in the reported favored communicative activities by the subjects. Almost all of the students stated that they liked group work (item 4) and pair work (item 8), which involved a great deal of student–student interaction. Nevertheless, when asked whether they would like to move around the classroom (item 11), only 9 provided positive answers. Li Hui expressed her distress when asked to perform such activities in class. 4. There are 38 students in my class. It is all right for us to organize group discussion or pair work. But there is chaos when we are asked to interact with each other by moving around the classroom, which is only spacious enough to hold all of us. I feel quite frustrated when such an activity is going around. (Li Hui, 11 October 1999) This suggests that, while most of the students did like to be involved in the communicative activities for language practice, this involvement should be confined to the practical learning condition. The research result indicated that any attempt to teach English in a communicative way without taking into account the actual teaching circumstances would lead to a failure. The same rule also applied to student–teacher interaction. In this section, 28 subjects found it stimulating to report on a newspaper or magazine article in English (item 7), and all 30 subjects considered it helpful for the teacher to lead a class discussion (item 14).


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5. I like these activities because they prompt me to express myself in English. These activities also enable me to know the latest news and enlarge my knowledge. (Sheng Hao, 15 October 1999) However, the same sort of activity as interviewing English speakers outside of class had mostly met with negative answers (item 15), with only eight claiming to like this activity. 6. It is too difficult for me to interview an English speaker. It will make me feel at a loss when such an activity is going on. Besides, there are not many opportunities for us to see English speakers in our university. (Zhong Qing, 17 October 1999) Surprisingly, even respondents who could speak English well thought their English was ‘‘too poor to communicate with native English speakers’’ (Liu Peng, 11 October 1999). It seems that it was not the students’ lack of English proficiency that discouraged them from interviewing English speakers. Rather, it was lack of opportunity for practice and lack of confidence. This problem was particularly serious for female students, who were ‘‘too shy to talk with a native English speaker’’ (Gao Ming, 17 October 1999). In other words, interviewing English speakers outside of class may indeed be a good way for students to practice English. But it is not realistic and practical in some non-English speaking countries, where the opportunity to meet English speakers is quite rare. The students’ attitudes toward content-based teacher responses to their journals (item 10) were moderate, with 17 of them claiming to like it. What appeared to be the unfavored activities for most of the students, among the communicative activities, were related with English songs (items 2 and 17). There were probably two reasons: (1) lack of use of the English songs for English teaching in classroom by teachers; and (2) the students’ traditional concept about education. In China, most people take their learning seriously and associate songs and games in class with entertainment exclusively. Therefore, they are skeptical of their use as learning tools (Rao, 1996). Several subjects with good English proficiency commented favorably on some dynamic, creative activities, but noted that these activities were difficult to apply in the Chinese context. ‘‘There is a cultural gap. Chinese don’t think in the way most Westerners think’’. (Liang Qian, 11 October 1999). 5.2. Research question 2: What are the students’ perceived difficulties in an EFL class exclusively conducted by a teacher using CLT? All the 30 subjects showed interest in the methods their teacher used in the English classroom. Twenty-two subjects reported that non-communicative activities suited them better, and the other eight reported that they preferred communicative activities. To meet their current needs in English learning, all the subjects unanimously agreed that a combination of communicative and non-communicative activities was a best way. However, most of the subjects reported having encountered difficulties

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caused by communicative activities (Table 3). Some of the subjects pointed out that these difficulties made them unwilling or unable to participate in dynamic classroom activities. 5.2.1. Lack of motivation for communicative competence Twenty-eight subjects referred to lack of motivation as one of the principal constraints on their interest in communicative activities in the EFL classroom. Although Chinese students are becoming more and more aware of the importance of communicative competence, students in universities and secondary schools still pay more attention to grammar than to communicative competence because all the language tests are grammar-based. 7. I know it is very important to be able to communicate in English. But if I want to graduate from university, I have to pass all kinds of examinations, which are all grammar-based. That is why I like to work on English grammar. (Zhang Jianse, 15 October 1999) Another factor causing little motivation for the students to improve their communicative competence originated from their career orientation. Since the university in which the present study was conducted was a teachers’ university, all the graduates were supposed to be English teachers in secondary schools. 8. Since I will be an English teacher in a secondary school after graduation, what I need to teach my students in secondary schools is plenty of vocabulary, a wide range of grammar knowledge and a solid foundation in reading and translation. With these capacities, I am sure I will be able to help my students pass the grammar-based National College Entrance Examination. (Sheng Hao, 15 October 1999) Since grammar still plays a decisive role in all examinations in China, students complained that ‘‘they did not learn anything if they did not learn new words and grammar in a class’’ (Liu Peng, 11 October 1999). Such an attitude makes the students pay meticulous attention to language details rather than to communicative
Table 3 Reported difficulties caused by communicative activities in EFL classroom Difficulty Lack of motivation for developing communicative competence Traditional leaning styles and habits EFL learning situations Lack of funding No. of mentionsa 28 25 23 21

a The number of times the research subjects referred to a theme in the questionnaire as a constraint in using communicative activities in their context. The maximum number of mentions possible for each of the themes is 30.


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competence. As Li (1984, p. 13) observes: ‘‘The examination is the piper that calls the tune. Perhaps the tide will turn only when language testing has changed its focus.’’ 5.2.2. Traditional learning styles and habits Twenty-five subjects reported that their traditional learning styles and habits had prohibited them from being actively involved in communicative activities. As students have already been in school for at least 12 years by the time they enter university, they have become accustomed to the traditional language teaching style, which is dominated by a teacher-centered, book-centered approach and an emphasis on rote memory. 9. I was taught to behave traditionally in classroom the first day I went to school. Since then, I have started forming my own learning habits, which have brought me more or less success so far. I feel it awkward to change my classroom behaviors at my age in the English class. (Wang Dawei, 13 October 1999) To make communicative activities in EFL classroom feasible in China, some interview subjects suggested that language teachers in China change their teaching approaches from kindergarten. ‘‘Only by changing language teaching methods from the very beginning in schooling can students accustom themselves to CLT’’ (Li Hui, 11 October 1999). 5.2.3. EFL situations It was worth mentioning, during the interview, that most of the subjects were aware of the significant differences between ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). They noted that, in case of ESL, English is the official language which is needed for education and full participation in the political and economic life of the nation while EFL learning often takes place in settings where the language plays less major role in the community and is primarily learnt only in the classroom. Twenty-three respondents mentioned EFL situations as a constraint for using communicative activities. Since CLT was first created for ESL countries (e.g. Britain, the USA, and Canada), ‘‘it is unavoidable for us to meet many obstacles when we use it in our EFL situations’’ (Zhang Jiangse, 15 October 1999). The significant differences that the students saw between EFL and ESL included the purpose of learning English, learning environments, teachers’ English proficiency and teaching experience, and availability of authentic English materials. 10. In an ESL situation, students have a strong motivation to improve their communicative competence in the classroom because they need it to survive in English-speaking countries. Here in China, the majority do not need to use the language except in the English class. Furthermore, students in ESL situations can hear and speak English outside class. This supportive learning environment outside school, which is unavailable for us, greatly facilitates their comprehensive English proficiency. (Gao Ming, 17 October 1999)

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11. Teachers in ESL situations are mostly native English speakers. They are not only fluent in English, but also good at organizing their classes in a communicative way because they have had a lot of training in this aspect. However, our English teachers are mostly Chinese, and most of them don’t have much experience in improving students’ communicative competence. In addition, students in ESL situations can have access to many authentic materials whereas such resources are hardly available for us except textbooks. (Jing Tao, 15 October 1999) 5.2.4. Lack of funding Lack of equipment was cited by 21 subjects as a constraint. In China today, most educational institutions do not have enough financial resources to provide the audio-visual equipment, photocopiers or sources (such as a wide range of authentic print materials) that are required to support the dynamic teaching necessitated by communicative methods. 12. There are five language laboratories in our department, each having 48 seats. However, only 30 seats or so in each laboratory are in good condition. To make things worse, there is even no two-way communication facility in the laboratory. All the classrooms in our university are not equipped with projectors, let alone TV sets and computers. (Liu Peng, 11 October 1999) The respondents also complained that they had to share the costs involved in the communicative classroom teaching in class. 13. In our extensive reading class last semester, our teacher always asked us to pay for the photocopied materials for communicative activities in class because there was no extra funding available from the university. Since there was so much complaint from us, the teacher stopped providing us with any authentic reading materials this semester. (Wang Dawei, 13 October 1999) Faced with such a financial dilemma, some subjects doubted whether communicative activities would be feasible or effective for their English learning.

6. Implication of the study On the whole, much of what the Chinese students said about communicative and non-communicative activities in their English classroom is encouraging for teachers concerned with whether students are likely to accept real-language techniques. The students in this study were not inclined to see all activities emphasizing formal linguistic competence as more effective than those emphasizing the real use of language. They also did not tend automatically to reject what was new to them in favor of what was familiar. However, the results of the study do show a tendency that most of the students favor a combination of communicative and non-communicative activities in their


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English classroom. All the subjects are aware of the fact that no single teaching method, so far, can be expected to deal with everything that concerns the form, use and content of the target language. The only way out is to reconcile communicative activities and non-communicative activities in English learning. Actually, there exist some encouraging examples in teaching English in China by combining communicative and non-communicative activities (see White, 1989; Forseth, 1991; Tool, 1992; for details). All these examples illustrate that Chinese students’ English learning can be facilitated if teachers can develop their own ‘‘locally appropriate version of the communicative approach’’ (Thompson, 1996, p. 36). However, in the process of devising such teaching methods, teachers may encounter resistance from their students, as mentioned above by the subjects in this study. The conflict between what communicative activities demand and what the EFL situation in China allows must be resolved before Chinese students can benefit from these learning activities. To find possible solutions to these problems, attention should be given to the following areas. 6.1. Avoiding students’ misconceptions of CLT While trying to introduce CLT, teachers need to consciously reorientate students to ‘‘the basic function of the classroom, the role of the student and the nature of language’’ (Deckert, 1987, p. 20). They should make their students fully understand the features of CLT. For example, most of the students in China worry that CLT does not provide them with adequate grammar knowledge, which runs against their purpose of learning English, that is, to pass grammar-based examinations (Li, 1984). However, contrary to this common misconception, CLT does not exclude the teaching of grammar (Thompson, 1996). In fact, many researchers have provided us with convincing arguments for including grammar instruction in English teaching (Lightbown, 1991; Savignon, 1991; Widdowson, 1996). Meanwhile, students should also be made aware that grammar is a tool or resource to be used rather than to be learnt as an end in itself. If CLT is to be implemented in a previously traditional classroom, students must shift their conceptions of what constitutes good English teaching (Penner, 1995; Markee, 1997). 6.2. Balancing the relationship between linguistic competence and communicative competence In reconciling the communicative activities with the non-communicative activities, it is very important that we are not biased towards either of them, but rather towards integrating the two into one. At the foundation stage, linguistic competence means the spontaneous and flexible as well as the correct manipulation of the language system, and communicative competence involves principles of appropriateness and a readiness on the part of the learners to use relevant strategies to cope with certain language situations. Linguistic competence is the basis of communicative competence. Without linguistic competence, there is no communicative competence to speak of. But students should also be made aware that communicative competence does not

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result from linguistic competence automatically. Students should actively participate in such forms of classroom activities as role playing, simulations and true-to-life interaction so as to develop communicative competence while practice for the achievement of linguistic competence is given. 6.3. Creating authentic communicative scenarios for the real use of the language Because students in EFL situations do not have many chances to be involved in the real use of the language, it is of vital importance for the teacher to provide them with such an opportunity. For example, class activities that simulate real-life situations can help build pragmatic, cultural, and linguistic components of L2 competence in an integrated manner (Li, 1984). Students should be given contexts, roles and tasks that they conceivably could face someday, such as helping a foreign visitor on the street or serving as a translator for a US company. For authentic communication, EFL students can correspond with people in an English-speaking country or with other non-native speakers of English in countries where English is the lingua franca. In this respect, electronic mail (e-mail) nowadays makes it quicker and easier for EFL students to communicate through English with people all over the world. To make students use the e-mail more efficiently, teachers should ensure that the email communication has a purpose by assigning specific tasks tied to the goals of the course (Warschauer, 1995). 6.4. Making full use of any materials available The study shows that lack of materials prevents students in EFL situations from getting exposed to the authentic English language. However, this does not mean that there is nothing we can do about it. For example, teachers and students can cut out and circulate individual articles. They can also clip articles from local English language periodicals (e.g. China Daily, Beijing Review, China’s Reconstruction) and international newspapers and magazines (e.g. The International Herald Tribune, Newsweek International). The latter offer students more insight into other countries, people and cultures (Kitao, 1995) as well as more international news than their local or national periodicals provide. What is more, the Internet also offers a rich source of authentic reading materials.

7. Conclusion Teachers, curriculum planners, and others who want to be sensitive to the needs of the students they serve cannot always rely on their unaided intuitions (Rudduck, 1991). By using the present instrument, in which the students expressed their personal opinions about communicative and non-communicative activities, the researcher has discovered whether the subjects see certain kinds of activities as more effective than others and whether they are likely to be open to techniques and practices not previously experienced. Giving this type of survey to the students has also helped the


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researcher identify their difficulties in using communicative activities in classroom. The study dealt with a group of English majors in a Chinese university and further researches are needed for non-English majors in university or students in Chinese secondary schools to determine the extent to which attitudes of various groups of students would be similar or different. It would contribute to our knowledge about learners and learner variables to know whether and how student perceptions of various kinds of teaching and learning would vary with different variables such as age, gender, personality, learning style, education level, or proficiency level in the target language. While the present study focused its subjects on English learners in China, much of what the Chinese students said about communicative and non-communicative activities in the Chinese classroom and about their difficulties in using communicative activities is common to many parts of the world. EFL students in these countries share much of the same perception with regard to their classroom teaching activities. In addition, information from this kind of survey is also crucial for teachers to develop their teaching methods ‘‘appropriate to their learners, their colleagues and their societies (Edge, 1996, p. 18).

Appendix. Questionnaire Part A: Please complete the following questions as appropriate. 1. 2. 3. 4. Name ___________________ Age _____________________ Sex ______________________ How do you rate your English proficiency as compared with the proficiency of other students in your class? GOOD FAIR POOR

5. Which grade are you in? ________________________ 6. Are you concerned about the teaching methods used in EFL classroom? YES NO

7. Do you like communicative activities in your EFL class? YES NO

8. Why do you or why don’t you like communicative activities in EFL classroom? _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________

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9. Do you like non-communicative activities in EFL classroom? YES NO

10. Why do you or why don’t you like non-communicative activities in EFL classroom? _________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________

Part B: The following are 19 descriptions of things that might happen in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) class. Please give your personal opinions about them by choosing one of the two answers. 1. Do you like to do a written exercise in which you are asked to fill in the correct forms of verbs in sentences? YES NO

2. Do you like to be given the words to a current hit song in English, and then listen to the recording, or watch the video? YES NO

3. Do you like the teacher to give you a list of words that occur in a story or article, and then ask you to look up the words in an English-English dictionary for the purpose of copying the definitions? YES NO

4. Do you like the teacher to divide you into small groups in which you and your classmates talk about things you like and things you dislike? YES NO

5. Do you like the teacher to explain a grammatical rule that is printed in the textbook in English, and then give you examples in English as well? YES NO

6. Do you like the teacher to speak Chinese when explaining a grammatical rule that is printed in the textbook, and then give examples in English? YES NO


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7. Do you like to find and report on an interesting newspaper or magazine article in English? YES NO

8. Do you like the teacher to divide you into pairs, in which you have to ask your partner questions, and answer the questions your partner asks you? YES NO

9. Do you like the teacher to correct all mistakes in your exercises? YES NO

10. Do you like the teacher to pay attention to the ideas and feelings in your journals, and write short personal notes in response to what you say? YES NO

11. Do you like to receive a sheet of paper with a number of sentences like: _______________________ is a fantastic dancer. _______________________ has visited Beijing. and then move around the classroom, ask your classmates questions in English, and try to fill the blanks with as many different names as possible? YES NO 12. Do you like the teacher to speak a series of sentences and ask the entire class to respond orally to each sentence by changing it in some way? For example: TEACHER: CLASS: TEACHER: CLASS: John John John John walks to school. doesn’t walk to school. is walking to school. isn’t walking to school.



13. Do you like the teacher to call on all students in turn to change a sentence in some way? For example: TEACHER: MARIA: TEACHER: VICTOR: ‘‘John walks to school’’, Maria. John doesn’t walk to school. Very good. ‘‘John is walking to school’’, Victor. John isn’t walking to school.



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14. Do you like the teacher to lead a class discussion of a topic such as population problem, movies, or places to visit in China? YES NO

15. Do you like to interview English speakers and report on the interviews in English? YES NO

16. Do you like to do an exercise in which you should find mistakes in grammar and correct the mistakes? YES NO

17. Do you like to be given the words in a song and sing the song, led by the teacher or a record? YES NO

18. Do you like to reply on the teacher to explain everything that you should know? YES NO

19. Do you like the teacher to evaluate how much you have learnt? YES NO

Part C: The following are some difficulties that other students in EFL situations had in adopting communicative activities. Did you come across these difficulties or do you think they might be difficulties for you in using communicative activities in China?

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Lack of motivation? Passive style of learning? Lack of authentic English reading materials? Lack of facilities? Grammar-based examination? Large class? The differences between EFL and ESL?




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Allwright, R., 1984. The importance of interaction in classroom language learning. Applied Linguistics 5, 156–171. Anderson, J., 1993. Is communicative approach practical for teaching English in China? Pros and cons. System 21/4, 471–480. Barlow, T.E., Lowe, D., 1985. Chinese Reflections: Americans Teaching in the People’s Republic. Praeger, New York. Barkhuizen, G.P., 1998. Discovering learners’ perceptions of ESL classroom teaching/learning activities in South African context. TESOL Quarterly 32/1, 85–108. Block, D., 1994. A day in the life of a class: teacher/learner perception of task purpose in conflict. System 22, 473–486. Block, D., 1996. A window on the classroom: classroom events viewed from different angles. In: Bailey, K.M., Nunan, D. (Eds.), Voice from the Language Classroom: Qualitative Research in Second Language Education. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 168–194. Bogdan, R., Biklen, S.K., 1992. Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Allyn and Bacon, London. Canale, M., Swain, M., 1980. Theoretical basis of communicative approaches to second language learning and testing. Applied Linguistics 1, 1–47. Dane, F.C., 1990. Research Methods. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. Deckert, G., 1987. The communicative approach: helping students adjust. English Teaching Forum 44, 25–37. Denzin, N.K., 1989. Interpretive Biography. Sage, Newbury Park, CA. Dubin, F., 1995. The craft of materials writing. In: Byrd, P. (Ed.), Material Writer’s Guide. Heinle and Heinle, Boston, pp. 64–78. Edge, J., 1996. Cross-cultural paradoxes in a profession of values. TESOL Quarterly 30, 9–30. Forseth, R., 1991. Conversation class: how to keep your students talking (in English). ELIC Teaching 8, 35–44. Goetz, J.P., LeCompte, M.D., 1984. Ethnography and Qualitative Design in Education Research. Academic Press, New York. Harvey, P., 1985. A lesson to be learned: Chinese approaches to language learning. ELT Journal 39, 7–9. Holliday, A., 1994. Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge University Press, New York. Howatt, A., 1984. A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Kitao, K., 1995. Teaching English through newspapers. In: Kitao, K., Kitao, S.K. (Eds.), English Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice. Eichosha, Tokyo, pp. 297–320. Kumaravadivelu, B., 1991. Language-learning tasks: teacher in intention and learner interpretation. ELT Journal 45, 98–107. Larsen-Freeman, D., 1986. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, New York. Li, X., 1984. In defense of the communicative approach. ELT Journal 38, 2–13. Lightbown, P., 1991. Input, instruction, and feedback in second language acquisition. Second Language Research 7, 2–3. Lincoln, Y.S., Guba, E.G., 1985. Naturalistic Inquiry. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA. Littlewood, W., 2000. Do Asian students really want to listen and obey? ELT Journal 54/1, 31–35. Maley, A., 1983. XANADU—‘‘A miracle of rare device’’: the teaching of English in China. Language Learning and Communication 2/1, 97–103. Maley, A., 1984. On chalk and cheese, babies and bathwater and squared circles: can traditional and communicative approaches be reconciled? In: Larson, P., Judd, E.L., Messerschmitt, D.S. (Eds.), On TESOL ’84. TESOL, Washington DC, pp. 159–169. Markee, N., 1997. Managing Curricular Innovation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Maykut, P., Morehouse, R., 1994. Beginning Qualitative Research. The Falmer Press, London. McGroarty, M., 1984. Some meanings of communicative competence for second language students. TESOL Quarterly 18, 257–272.

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Nunan, D., 1986. Communicative language teaching: the teacher’s view. Paper presented at RELC regional seminar, Singapore. Penner, J., 1995. Change and conflict: introduction of the communicative approach in China. TESL Canada Journal 12/2, 1–17. Powney, J., Watts, M., 1987. Interview in Education Research. Routledge, London. Rao, Z., 1996. Reconciling communicative approaches to the teaching of English with traditional Chinese methods. Research in the Teaching of English 30/4, 458–469. Richards, J.C., Rodgers, T., 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: A Description and Analysis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Rudduck, J., 1991. Innovation and Change. Open University Press, Milton Keynes, England. Sampson, G.P., 1990. Teaching English literacy using Chinese strategies. TESL Talk 20/1, 126–138. Savignon, S., 1991. Communicative language teaching: state of the art. TESOL Quarterly 25, 261–277. Scovel, T., 1983. The impact of foreign experts, methodology and materials on English language study in China. Language Learning and Communication 2/1, 83–91. Spenser, L., 1986. An adjunct-model English-language program in Beijing. Monday Morning/Lundi Matin 2/1, 7–9. Ting, Y.R., 1987. Foreign language teaching in China: problems and perspectives. Canadian and International Education 16/1, 48–61. Tool, D., 1992. Teaching large conversation classes with media aids. English Teaching Forum 30/2, 32–33. Thompson, G., 1996. Some misconceptions about communicative language teaching. ELT Journal 44, 25–37. Warschauer, M., 1995. E-mail for English teaching. TESOL, Alexandria, VA. White, C.J., 1989. Negotiating communicative language learning in a traditional setting. ELT Journal 43/ 3, 213–220. Widdowson, H.G., 1996. Authenticity and autonomy in ELT. ELT Journal 50, 67–68.

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The prizewinners: most downloaded articles in 2003
In our editorial in 31/4 2003 we announced that Elsevier had decided to award prizes for the three System papers most downloaded during 2003. First prize, £200; second prize £100; third prize £50, though the greater prize, I am sure, is the satisfaction of seeing one’s work reach as wide an audience as possible. The final figures are now to hand, and the lucky prizewinners are the following: 1st: Madeline E. Ehrman, Betty Lou Leaver and Rebecca L. Oxford, ‘A brief overview of individual differences in second language learning’. 31/3 2003, 313–330. 2nd: Virginia LoCastro, ‘Individual differences in second language acquisition: attitudes, learner subjectivity, and L2 pragmatic norms’. 29/1 2001, 69–89. 3rd: Stephen Bax, ‘CALL—past, present and future’. 31/1 2003, 13–28.

Our heartfelt congratulations to all the above! Runners-up 4th to 10th are: 4th: Zhenhui Rao, ‘Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and noncommunicative activities in EFL classroom’. 30/1 2002, 85–105. 5th: Bryan Smith, ‘The use of communication strategies in computer-mediated communication.’ 31/1 2003, 29–53. 6th: Ann C. Wintergerst, Andrea DeCapua and Marilyn Ann Verna, ‘Conceptualizing learning style modalities for EFL/ESL students’. 31/1 2003, 85– 106. 7th: Rod Ellis, Helen Basturkmen and Shawn Loewen, ‘Doing focus-on-form’. 30/4 2002, 419–432. 8th: Fiona Hyland, ‘Focusing-on-form: student engagement with teacher feedback’. 31/2 2003, 217–230. 9th: Ghazi M. Ghaith, ‘The relationship between cooperative learning, perception of social support, and academic achievement’. 30/3 2002, 263–273. 10th: Teresa Chen, ‘Reticence in class and on-line: two ESL students’ experiences with communicative language teaching’. 31/2 2003, 259–281.


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Our congratulations to the above, as well! We must, however, point out that a popularity list does not in itself say anything about the quality of those articles which did not make the top ten. What it does perhaps indicate is those topics which are attracting most widespread attention in our readership at the present time, here individual differences, learning styles and strategies; the computer in language education; communicative language teaching and cooperative learning; and the everpresent question of the role of grammar or ‘form’. None of these come as a surprise. Our publishers have offered to award similar prizes for downloads in 2004, so we look forward to a new list in a year’s time. Do please let your editor know if you have any comments on this new feature.