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Concourse 2

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)


You may like to refresh your memory concerning the history and development of English Language Teaching before we go on.

To recap briefly what was said at the end of that guide, the following led to a rise in the 1960s and 1970s of a new approach to language teaching:

That approach is usually called Communicative Language Teaching or CLT.  You may also find it called Communicative Language Learning or CLL.


The roots of CLT

The roots of CLT run deeper than many realise.  As long ago as the 17th century people were producing guides to learning languages which expressly focused on communicative acts such as recommending, suggesting and informing.  For a little more on that, see the guide to the history and development of ELT.

The rise of a range of direct method approaches was also spurred to some extent by the recognition that people need language for a purpose, not just as an intellectual exercise which would, eventually, allow access to literature and culture.  For example, the originators of the Oral or Situational Approach to language teaching asserted that:

The language a person originates ... is always expressed for a purpose.
(Frisby and Halliday in Richards and Rogers (2014: 48))

and that purpose, it can be argued, is to use language to get things done.

It is also arguable that the main aim of all previous approaches to teaching English was linguistic competence: the ability to manipulate the grammatical and lexical system of the target language to construct meaning.
The aim of CLT is communicative competence.


Defining communicative competence

Firstly, of course, we need to define what we mean by communicative competence.
Briefly, it is the ability to:

Two important points:

  1. Communicative competence includes linguistic competence.
  2. Communicative competence is not the same as oral ability but includes competence in writing, reading and listening, too.

It's actually quite difficult these days to find a teacher of English who doesn't claim to teach communicatively.  CLT has become the dominant methodological approach and it is what underlies many of the criteria which teacher training courses use to assess people.  It's attractive, simple to understand and intuitively 'correct'.  It is, however, worth taking a closer look at some of the claims.


Competence vs. performance

This distinction is usually credited to Chomsky but it is allied to a much earlier distinction described by de Saussure (sometimes referred to as the father of modern linguistics) and called langue vs. parole.
In both cases, the distinction is between:

the speaker's abstract knowledge of the systems of the language (langue or competence)
This refers to a learner's ability actually to articulate the rules of the language.  For example,
    I know that the past tense of most verbs in English is formed by adding -d or -ed to the base form of the verb
    I know that the possessive pronoun in French varies with the gender of the following noun
the speaker's actual use of the language (parole or performance)
This refers to the learner's ability to apply the rules and be able to say, write or understand the value of, e.g.:
    She watched the game
    Marie est ma soeur

(In fact, de Saussure's distinction relates to the speech community as a whole, whereas Chomsky is referring to individuals.)

It is clear that CLT focuses on the learners' performance in the language but it should not be forgotten that this performance is based on competence.


Strong vs. weak forms of CLT

Almost from the outset, two forms of CLT emerged:

Strong form
You can only learn a language through the effort to communicate so:
No teaching of language forms – no pronunciation teaching, no vocabulary teaching, and definitely no grammar teaching.
The classroom is, therefore, the place where people struggle to communicate, get help and guidance and learn through trying.
Weak form
The goal of language teaching is communicative competence but all types of teaching are appropriate providing the goal is maintained.

It's also quite hard to find someone who consistently advocates the strong form these days.  So what follows applies to the weak form of CLT.


Rules of use

You will, of course, recall the much-cited statement:

There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless.
(Hymes (1971))

The key concept here is the illocutionary force of any utterance, i.e., what the speaker intends to be understood and what the hearer understands.  This is sometimes referred to as a statement's communicative value rather than its significance (following Widdowson).

For example, if you reply to:
    I think we should eat soon
    I'll order a takeaway, shall I?
then you have demonstrated some communicative value as well as significance.  The response is appropriate and relevant so this is language use.

If, however, you reply to:
    I think we should eat soon
    Alaska is the largest US state
then you have demonstrated only the statement's significance (we know what is meant but it has no communicative value), so this is merely language usage.


Three forces

There are, in fact, three forces at work when language is used to communicate.  To explain, we'll use the example of someone saying
    It's 8 o'clock
Before we go on, think for a moment about what that simple statement could actually mean.
Click here when you have thought of three possibilities.


Differences between function-based and form-based approaches

The most obvious example of a form-based approach is audiolingualism.  If you have followed the guide to the history and development of ELT, you'll know that it is an approach based on a behaviourist theory of language learning and a structural linguistics theory of language itself.
Can you fill the gaps in the table?  Click on it when you have / want an answer.

al vs clt


Classroom implications

This is not the place to present an entire training course in communicative methodology but there are some obvious implications for the classroom.  Before going on, please consider what some of these implications might be.  To help that process, here are some categories to work from:

When you have made some notes in answer to those questions, click here for a discussion.

Related guides
pragmatics for more about how we communicate
history and development of ELT for the background to approaches which preceded and are still viable alternatives to CLT
humanism in ELT for a guide to a mostly hidden but powerful influence on CLT
noticing for more on a key teaching technique
form and function for a simple guide to the differences
functions: essentials for a simple guide to what they are and how to teach them
semantics an understanding of semantics underpins many communicative approaches
methodology the link to the methodology index

There is a short and not particularly communicative test on this area.

Chomsky, N, 1957, Syntactic Structures, The Hague/Paris: Mouton
Hymes, D, 1971, On communicative competence, in Pride, J. & J & Holmes (eds.), p 278, Sociolinguistics, London: Penguin
Howatt, APR, 1984, A History of English Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Richards, JC, and Rodgers, TS, 1986, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Widdowson, H G, 1978, Teaching Language as Communication, London: Oxford University Press
Additional resources:
There is a large body of literature on CLT (much of it repeating other bits of it) but the following are fundamental:
Brumfit, C, 1984, Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, W, 1981, Communicative Language Teaching, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Prabhu, NS, 1987, Second Language Pedagogy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
An interesting and valuable resource which takes a slightly different approach from the above is:
Richards, JC, 2006, Communicative Language Teaching Today, New York: Cambridge University Press