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Communicative language teaching

unity within diversity
Pham Hoa Hiep

This article presents what are considered to be the key theoretical tenets of CLT. It
then discusses the meanings of CLT theory in classroom practices, showing the
dynamics of context that construct these meanings. Drawing on a study of
teachers’ beliefs and implementation of CLT in Vietnam, the article argues that
inherent in CLT is a view of language, of language learning, and teaching that
most teachers aspire to. When C LT theory is put into action in a particular context,
a range of issues open up, but these issues do not necessarily negate the potential
usefulness of CLT.

language teaching

Since its birth in the early 1980s, definitions of CLT and the matter of its
appropriateness in certain cultures have constantly been debated. Brown
(1994) notes that CLT is based on a broad theoretical position about the
nature of language and of language learning and teaching. This broad
theory has generated many different ways of understandings, descriptions,
and uses of CLT, challenging what it actually means to classroom teachers.
This article first identifies the common tenets of CLT as proposed by the
main scholars in the field, and discusses the potential meanings of CLT in
classroom practice. It then documents how a group of teachers in one
context define and appraise CLT, and how they struggle to implement the
key aspects of CLT they value. The findings imply that ongoing debate,
exchange with peers and students, support from policy makers and from
teacher education courses can empower teachers in their aspirations to
develop communicative techniques appropriate to their context.

The theoretical

Current understandings of CLT can be traced back to Hymes (1972), who
proposed that knowing a language involved more than knowing a set of
grammatical, lexical, and phonological rules. In order to use the language
effectively learners need to develop communicative competence—the

E LT Journal Volume 61/3 July 2007; doi:10.1093/elt/ccm026

ª The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.


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Recent articles in the E LT Journal offer interesting debates on CLT. On one side,
Bax (2003) proposes that CLT should be abandoned since the methodology
fails to take into account the context of language teaching. On the other side,
Liao (2004) suggests that CLT is best. However, within the broad theoretical
position on which CLT is based, different understandings of CLT exist, and it
is not clear what version(s) or element(s) of CLT these authors reject or

most notably by Canale and Swain (1980) who contended that communicative competence comprises grammatical competence. these activities cannot take place without the control of grammar. can serve as a focal point of the learning-teaching process . Savignon emphasized that CLT put the focus on the learner: ‘Learner communicative needs provide a framework for elaborating program goals in terms of functional competence’ (2002: 3). Language for a purpose is the use of language for real communication goals. . and meta-communication. grammar. but situate 194 Pham Hoa Hiep Downloaded from http://eltj. . . A communicative methodology will therefore exploit the classroom as a resource with its own communicative potentials. . and thus classroom activities should focus on learners’ genuine communication.oxfordjournals. and strategic competence. . [it] no longer needs to be seen as a pale representation of some outside communicative reality. In other words. their common agreement is that the need for meaningful communication supports the language learning process. Theatre arts means to teach in a way that can provide learners with the tool they need to act in new language such as to interpret. Breen and Candlin (1980: 98) set out the essentials of a communicative classroom which: .Trusted Agent Gateway . While communicative activities are considered to be the means to develop learners’ communicative competence in the second/foreign language. Hymes’ notion of communicative competence was elaborated by a number of practice-oriented language educators. She continued to propose five components of a communicative curriculum which would help support both the theoretical and practical foundations of CLT: 1 Language arts includes those elements that teachers often do best. Drawing on the implications of Canale and Swain’s definition of communicative competence. .ability to use the language they are learning appropriately in a given social encounter. . discourse competence. communication about learning. For example. express. and negotiate meaning. Personal English language use relates to the learners’ emerging identity in English. It can become the meeting place for realistically motivated communication-as-learning. British educators tended to view CLT in terms of syllabus and methodology. Beyond the classroom refers to the need to prepare learners to use the language they learn in the world outside the classrooms. and elaborated over two decades. 2010 While North American scholars focused on communicative competence as the goal of second language learning. . The scholars above illuminate views of what CLT should be within the communicative theory of language and language learning. Savignon influenced even further reflections on CLT. and structure of a language. All see the essence of language learning to be based on real communication rather than simply on learning the at SWETS .OUP on May 19. sociolinguistic competence. it may 2 3 4 5 be all they have been taught to do including exercises used in mother tongue to focus attention on formal accuracy.

While Savignon believes that even exercises in the mother tongue can be one of the many ways to develop communicative competence so long as these exercises are not overused. How to develop communicative competence Communicative Language Teaching is best considered an approach rather than a method. in Vietnam. the issue left for classroom teachers to discover is what communication means. and using language which is meaningful to the learner’. and the use of ‘materials [that] promote communicative language use. is how real communicative competence is to be developed. For example. learners. within which. a range of issues emerge. can best develop the communicative skills they immediately use in their real at SWETS . In either case. when the above practices are used in Vietnam or China. given that the socio-cultural. political. English language students share the same mother tongue and thus do not have the immediate need to use English in the classroom. As a result. To facilitate this learning group ideal Brown (op. As Richards and Rodgers (1986: 83) put it very early on: .).) describes the practices to be used in the classroom such as: 1 A significant amount of pair work and group work is conducted. however. Nunan (1989: 194) also stresses the use of ‘activities [that] involve oral communication. at the levels of design and procedure there is much greater room for individual interpretation and variation than most methods permit. others posit that communicative competence will emerge naturally from practice in communicative interaction that has meaning. by interacting with each other on meaningful things. cit. carrying out meaningful tasks. although the theory of communicative competence on which CLT is based is uniform. 3 Students are encouraged to produce language for genuine. It is. the English language classroom operates on the principle of immersing learners in Anglo-Saxon society.oxfordjournals.grammatical competence within a more broadly defined communicative competence (Savignon op. thus.OUP on May 19. 2010 What varies. it is broad. cit. what C LT looks like in classroom practices may not be uniform. The implication is that teachers need to work that out for themselves. and how it can be created within their context. 2 Authentic language input in real life context is provided. and physical conditions of these countries markedly differ from those in the UK or the USA. In the Western English speaking context. However. Thus although a reasonable degree of theoretical consistency can be discerned at the levels of language and learning theory. important in the Western classroom to establish what Holliday (1994: 54) calls ‘the learning group ideal’ or ‘the optimum interactional parameters’. CLT in practice As seen above. they are task-based and authentic’. These practices may vary depending on the dynamics of a certain context which constructs the actual meaning of communicative competence as well as the tools to develop it. where immigrants learn English in order to conduct their present and future life in communication with native and other competent English speakers. meaningful communication. CLT: unity within diversity 195 Downloaded from http://eltj.Trusted Agent Gateway . Nor do many of them have this need outside the classroom.

Kramsch and Sullivan op. while there are certainly problems in the transfer of CLT methods from the Western contexts to others. Holliday op. the large class size in Vietnam (between forty and sixty) also challenges the use of pair work and group work. Thus.Trusted Agent Gateway . the use of ‘authentic’ material.) have continued to argue that it can be problematic to take a set of teaching methods developed in one part of the world and use it in another part. and that within this environment. it is doubtful that they reject the spirit of CLT. CLT sets the goal of language learning to be the teaching of learners to be able to use the language effectively for their real communicative needs.OUP on May 19. Pennycook 1989. However. as Pennycook (op. . As Kramsch and Sullivan (1996) point out.oxfordjournals. This.1 Furthermore. carried out by the ‘many Western teachers abroad [who] blithely assume superiority of their methods’. most progressive and always works across contexts. cit. Bax (2003) strongly criticizes what he terms as the CLT attitude—the assumption that CLT is modern. it is questionable whether these problems negate the potential usefulness of the CLT theory. assuming that what is appropriate in one particular educational setting will naturally be appropriate in another is to ignore the fact that E LT methodology is grounded in an Anglo-Saxon view of education. Also.For the past 15 years. LarsenFreeman (2000: 67) warns that in the combat against imported methods. 2010 The principle of doing tasks in the classroom which are applicable to the world outside the classroom is thus questioned. of English language instruction in many contexts of the world. What are teachers’ beliefs and values about CLT? How do teachers go about implementing the significant aspects of CLT they espouse.. what these practices and issues mean for the local teachers’ thinking and actions has yet to be fully explored. meaning authentic to native speakers of English can be problematic in the Vietnamese or Chinese classroom. More recently. As noted at the beginning of this article. at SWETS . while teachers in many parts of the world may reject the CLT techniques transferred from the West. cit. and how are they 196 Pham Hoa Hiep Downloaded from http://eltj. the question raised is whether they are really engaged in genuine communication. if not the immediate goal. These authors point out that education is situated in a particular cultural environment. constitutes ‘cultural imperialism’ in English language education. the definition of ‘good teaching’ is socially constructed. what is authentic in London might not be authentic in Hanoi. When Vietnamese students are asked to use English to conduct a ‘real life’ game in pairs. ‘we may fail to understand the cause of the problem and run the risk of overacting and losing something valuable in the process’. C LT theory proposes a focus on learning.: 611) notes. Undoubtedly. rather than simply to provide learners with the knowledge about the grammar system of that language. it holds that learning is likely to happen when classroom practices are made real and meaningful to learners. In this way. While many common Western C LT practices as well as issues associated with the use of these practices are well identified and criticized in the literature. CLT originates in the West. if there are any. This goal is consistent with the long-term goal. and this might lead to the de-skilling of teachers. but to decide a priori that this teaching approach is inappropriate to a certain context is to ignore developments in language teaching. researchers and writers (for example.

For example: I am aware that the point of teaching [English] is for people to succeed in real life communication. stimulating and stress-free. Beliefs about CLT All three teachers in the study highlighted the potential usefulness of CLT. Think of our students’ motivation.Trusted Agent Gateway . I acknowledge that the data presented below are necessarily selective and partial. (Lien) Implementation of CLT The major C LT principle of teaching shared by the three teachers was the need to create meaningful communication to support the learning process. Conversations and observations were interwoven. They should not feel that learning imposes on them. Xuan said this meant to ‘encourage students to use the language in a meaningful way not necessarily in an accurate form’. they did represent diversity in ages. and observation of their classes during a 12-week semester. and helping to improve the classroom atmosphere. The study was conducted in a micro setting in Vietnam but it seems likely that the findings can still illuminate some issues of CLT that other teachers working in similar contexts may encounter. and classroom incidents that I believe best represent their thoughts and behaviour. It aims to teach things practically useful to students in a relaxing manner. While the teachers did not represent the full diversity of potential participants. some want to become a tour guide. with these teachers. Participants The three teachers in this study comprised two senior teachers and one junior teacher. not only for teaching English but the spirit of it can also benefit teaching other subjects. stressing that CLT primarily meant teaching students the language meaningful for their future life. They were teaching at a university in Vietnam. .org at SWETS . others wish to work in an international N G O.challenged in this process? Is it possible for teachers to incorporate the theoretical tenets of CLT without using common Western practices? The data reported here are drawn from part of a study which sought to address some of the questions raised above.oxfordjournals. In the attempt to present to the readers what I have found significant to the inquiry. seniority. excerpts. 2010 Teachers’ beliefs and use of CLT: a case study . and one a Postgraduate Diploma in TESOL in Australia. (Xuan)2 I have no doubt that CLT is the right method. Most of them want to work in a foreign company.OUP on May 19. I was aware of reporting the data from my own perspective. and all were female. Thao claimed it was CLT: unity within diversity 197 Downloaded from http://eltj. (Thao) Students can learn best if the learning atmosphere is fun. In doing so. The data presented here are sourced from 13 recorded 60-minute conversations. So CLT is considered the best method in this regard . So I feel that CLT is a good teaching method as it aims to create such an uninhibited atmosphere in the classroom. Two of them had completed an MA degree. I have chosen to include in the teachers’ quotations. and length of experience. . teaching specialization. conducted at intervals of 2–3 weeks. These jobs require good English communicative skills.

However. . . 198 Pham Hoa Hiep Downloaded from http://eltj. . . It’s not like the context in Australia . what is not. there is no motivation. no reason for them to use English. . . when talking about the techniques to realize these principles. . while they feel more tolerant to accept ideas and suggestions from someone with a higher status . I open the methodology book. . A major challenge is the lack of a real environment for the students to use English . . Lien emphasized that the use of task-based materials promoted communication among students. . and see if the technique I want to use is CLT. I find it difficult to use these activities in my class. It’s quite difficult to motivate students to speak English in our condition.‘to create a fun. to show them my ideas. But when I give them opportunities to do that. 2010 I know that C LT can be promoted by the activities such as pair work. The challenges the teachers envisaged and experienced in implementing the common CLT techniques such as pair and group work made all of them talk about the need to adapt rather than simply adopt C LT. . they should rely less on the teachers. read again about CLT theory.oxfordjournals. When asked to sit together to prepare for a role-play. This piece of paper.OUP on May 19. the students from different countries all speak English . For example. the students are Vietnamese. Since the teacher is Vietnamese. However. One tends to think that his/her idea or way of doing things is better than his friends’. they usually quarrel and cannot come to a compromise. to accept criticism from their equal. . . for example. group work. they appeared to lack confidence or skills to generate independent CLT practices. You know how structure-based our exams are! Lien saw the issue of culture challenges group work: I always want the students to interact more with each other. the teachers were more ambivalent.Trusted Agent Gateway . I wonder if this is part of our [Vietnamese] classroom culture. Lien admitted: I have trouble identifying what I do is C LT. Thao was conscious that the many CLT techniques that she had learnt in Australia contradicted her teaching context: Xuan noted that pair and group work are difficult to use because her students: only want to pass exams for a university degree . you know! Though everyone claims they wish to speak English well. They just want me to tell them what I think. . the students usually use Vietnamese to do the work . When I prepare for a particular activity. role-play or simulation. . when they sit in pairs or groups to exchange opinions about their answers to an exercise. to write English well . they seem to care more about passing exams . . Yet. stimulating and stress-free atmosphere . People of the same status are not willing to collaborate with each other. . . .org at SWETS . . to facilitate meaningful communication’. . or to write a story. . . where we are obliged to speak English because our teacher speaks English. a report. rather than listen to their friends. .

and the concern for examinations. . . with low-motivated students. However. 2010 CLT principles they espoused. Xuan encouraged students to . as shown for example. some pairs were seen to be writing the script for the task. . no Vietnamese. . The students stood up and read from their notes. However. T asked a couple in the front to perform their work. Yet. After the students finished. and were not accustomed to doing so. Lien did not experience the difficulty in getting students into groups. .Thao wondered if she was really using CLT when she did something that did not look exactly like a Western communicative technique.oxfordjournals. However. there is some way to do it. For example. for example: I keep asking myself if I am using CLT when I allow the students to use Vietnamese for their group at SWETS . After some 20 minutes. then shared their responses with the whole class. . many others were still sitting in the wrong place . Xuan’s problem with using CLT had more to do with the teacher herself—she unconsciously retained her authority in the classroom. Although she said ‘I keep encouraging students to talk more and do more with English . They prefer this way. no writing please’ . . T looked tired and desperate. there was a positive note as she reflected on the event: I wish I have a chance to see how group work could be done successfully with large classes. The failures can be attributed in part to the factors reported above such as large class size. Lien used current Vietnamese newspapers as prompts for students’ discussions in English. She confided. with many Ss walking around. She kept reminding the students: ‘Try to speak English. . I give them more choice’. not very successful. in Thao’s class: T repeated the instructions several times asking Ss to form groups. some classroom exchanges such as the one below seemed to be underpinned by a very different power in the teacher-student relationship: CLT: unity within diversity 199 Downloaded from http://eltj.OUP on May 19. in general. Still Ss could not organize themselves to form the groups. . asking and explaining to each other about what they were supposed to. asking each other how to say some Vietnamese word or phrase in English. or lack of motivation to use English. The class became really chaotic. it was also clear that some teachers lacked repertoires to realize CLT techniques such as group work in their context. The following was noted in her class: During the work [where Ss were asked to play a role play]. . then one [group member] presents [the work] to the whole class in English. T finally managed to get about half of the Ss in the room to form new groups. The observation data showed all these three teachers tried hard to realize the read texts without understanding the meaning of all the words. Maybe. Thao used role-play and group work in her class. her students did not have enough English to communicate with each other. the teachers felt that these communicative activities were. but I don’t know . Others spoke in Vietnamese. . The teacher moved around to ensure that the students did the work. . Unlike Thao.Trusted Agent Gateway . However. .

particularly in non-Western contexts (for example. to cultural constraints characterized by beliefs about teacher and student role.) is deemed important in this process. is an issue that needs further investigation.oxfordjournals. Support from peers. 2010 The data indicate that teachers tend to hold certain beliefs about their work. Neither do they embrace it simply because they want to please the educational policy makers. try to speak English. Of course. However. The teachers in this study espouse firmly the primary goal of CLT—to teach students to be able to use the language— believing that this is consonant with the students’ ultimate goal of learning English in their context. I will randomly point at some pairs and you must present your work to the whole class. So be vocal. not simply because C LT represents a modern and progressive way of language teaching. as I said before. As Bax (2005: 90) says. . This failure can lead to their rejection of these at SWETS . have started to question their own understandings of what CLT actually means. many teachers embrace C LT. The teachers cited here are not successful.OUP on May 19. Contrary to what Bax (2003) suggested. classroom techniques appropriate to their condition. teachers should not be left alone in this process. which is manifest through efforts to promote common Western CLT practices such as pair work and group work. at least in their eyes. cit. conflicts with many contextual factors. However. ‘rather with how they [CLT ideas] are amended and adapted to fit the needs of the students who come into contact with them’. they do not reject the communicative approach. In their aspirations to implement C LT. CLT should not be treated as a package of formulaic. teachers are capable of determining the 200 Pham Hoa Hiep Downloaded from http://eltj. from training courses as well as findings from empirical research on the use of C LT in certain contexts. Their desire to implement CLT. large class sizes. . teachers often encounter many difficulties. and classroom relationships.Trusted Agent Gateway . will make up to 30 per cent of your final mark . . Conclusion However. students. prescriptive classroom techniques. Remember that. to personal constraints such as students’ low motivation and unequal ability to take part in independent active learning practices. within the communicative approach. These factors range from systemic constraints such as traditional examinations. and learning can best take place when the learning task is meaningful. from policy makers. when it comes to the level of practice. Teachers in Vietnam or elsewhere need to make further efforts to develop and generate. how they can best be assisted and supported in the process to make communicative techniques become apparent and ‘real’ to their students within the potentials and constraints of their context. . and even to teachers’ limited expertise in creating communicative activities like group work. believing that learning must have a goal. class participation. Harmer (2003: 292) notes that the concerns of CLT are not with the methodology itself. and are seeking alternative ways of action. If you do it well I will add a credit to your semester mark. in realizing certain Western techniques such as pair work and group work. the teachers are going through a process of becoming reflective—they have become conscious of their own instructional practices. Kramsch and Sullivan op.T: Everyone should work.

2 All the names of teachers cited in this article are pseudonyms. Lubeska. at least because students from different language backgrounds cannot understand each other unless they use English. Larsen-Freeman. 1989. 1996. Hiep has an EdD in Language Education from the University of Melbourne. 2003. His professional interests include teacher education. T E S OL Quarterly 23/4: 589–618. interested knowledge. Richards. and an MA in Bilingual/E S L Studies from the University of Massachusetts.E J. CLT: unity within diversity Kramsch. J. 2005. T E S L . D. Pride and J. ‘so long they are empowered. ‘Correspondence’. D. ‘On the appropriateness of language teaching methods’ in J. Hymes. Pennycook. 1986. ‘Appropriate pedagogy’. ‘Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing’.). Shaw. . Email: hiepsuu@gmail. and Teacher’s Edition. ‘The house of T E S E P and the communicative approach: the special needs of state English language education’. or simulations are artificial. and M. English as an international language. the need to communicate in English even for simulations or exercises is real. B. J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Savignon. Liao. Applied Linguistics 1/2: 89–112. M. Harmondsworth: Penguin. E LT Journal 58/3: 270–3. J. regardless of E S L or E F L. Language and Development: Partnership and Interaction. games. A. Nunan. and C. D. ‘Popular culture. Englewood Cliffs. The author Pham Hoa Hiep is a lecturer in the Department of English at Hue College of Foreign Languages. Noullet (eds. E LT Journal 57/3: 278–87. Swain. Revised version received April 2005 References Bax. and way to teach the lesson. Applied Linguistics 1/1: 1–47. Holmes (eds. E LT Journal 59/1: 90–1. where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in TE S OL and applied linguistics. S. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.). X. ‘Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching’. E LT Journal. ‘The need for Communicative Language Teaching in China’.org at SWETS . However. all communications/interactions taking place through role plays. ELT Journal 50/3: 199–212. Harmer. But the best lesson is no doubt the one in which teachers feel satisfied in their aspirations to create the learning atmosphere to teach the language and the skills they believe are useful for their students. 1989. ELT Journal 57/3: 287–94. 1994. Boston. D. in many E S L classrooms. 201 Downloaded from http://eltj. 2002. Candlin. 2003. ‘The concept of method. 1972. 1980. Bangkok: Asian Institute of Technology. 2004. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Canale. Vietnam. ‘The end of CLT: a context approach to language teaching’. Bax. Breen. C.Trusted Agent Gateway . 1980. S. and T. the Journal of Asian T E F L. Sociolinguistics. S. 2000. and context’. R E LC Anthology. M. and translation. Holliday. methods. and the politics of language teaching’. Rodgers. English Teaching Forum 40: 2–7. He has published in English Teaching Forum. He has also worked as a teacher educator for many projects in Vietnam. such as the shopping centre or the post office. ‘On communicative competence’ in J. encouraged and helped to do so’. and P. 2010 Notes 1 I understand the argument that within the classroom setting. since they do not take place in the real settings. ‘Communicative curriculum design for the 21st century’. A. D. Sullivan. Brown.OUP on May 19. H. socioliguistics.oxfordjournals. NJ: Prentice Hall Regents. E LT Journal 48/1: 3–11. ‘The essentials of a communicative curriculum in language teaching’.