logo ELT Concourse teacher training
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 (new tab) because that will give you the background.

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 and even Communicative Language Teaching and Learning (CLTL).


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 the target language 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.

The roots of CLT go further back than the 1930s, however, and have been variously traced to Comenius (a 17th century Polish philosopher and educationalist) and to other 17th century endeavours to teach Europe's increasingly mobile population (or, at least, its elites) to operate in another language.  Around that time, too, Latin was beginning to lose its preeminence as the language of scholars and some, notably Isaac Newton, wrote, or were beginning to write, in English.  Newton's Principia was written in Latin but his hugely successful Opticks was written in plain English, only translated into Latin two years after the 1704 publication.

By the 19th century, many approaches to teaching language centred around its communicative functions, not just its grammar, so, for example, François Gouin (1831-1896) developed a teaching methodology based on sequentially logical descriptions of everyday routines and others, too, were experimenting with what today would be seen as communicative approaches.

In Britain prior to 1800, too, it was reasonably common for wealthier families to employ refugee Huguenots as tutors to their children and from them many children learned to be quite fluent in French, at the time the general lingua franca (for that is what the Latin means) of Europe and the language of diplomacy and science.  Such tutors were usually not in any sense, of course, trained teachers let alone trained language teachers and their pupils learned the language simply by talking.  In 1693, John Locke, the eminent British philosopher, put it this way:

Men learn languages for the ordinary intercourse of Society and Communication of thoughts in common Life without any design in their use of them.  And for this purpose, the Original way of Learning a Language by Conversation, not only serves well enough, but is to be prefer'd as the most Expedite, Proper and Natural
(Cited in Howatt, 1984:193)

Underlying all these early approaches to language teaching are three ideas which still inform a communicative approach to language learning and teaching:

  1. Learners need someone to communicate with whose mastery of the target language is better than theirs
  2. Learners need something to talk and write about that concerns them personally
  3. Learners have a motivation to learn which stems from a desire to understand and be understood

Nevertheless, It is arguable that the aim of previous mainstream approaches to teaching English or any other language 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, a term coined by Dell Hymes around 1970 to distinguish between formal ability and knowledge of the structures of language and a practical, social ability to use it as a medium of communication.


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.

If you prefer a diagram:

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 Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) a Swiss linguist (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 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.


Speech acts

A speech act is an utterance as an action, a way of getting something done in any language.  In discourse analysis, speech acts may be subdivided into moves.  A move is a communicative use of language which is often smaller than an utterance but may be the utterance itself.  For example:
    Would you like some more tea?
is a complete utterance containing just one move, offering.  However,
    That's true and I have often said so myself
contains two moves, the confirmation (That's true) and the information (I have often said so myself).

In addition to coining the term communicative competence, Hymes spent a good deal of his career establishing the nature of communicative speech acts and what they depend on for their realisation.  The work is voluminous and sometimes complex but he usefully gave us a short-cut acronym – S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G.
It works like this:

S is for Setting and Scene
This refers to where and when a speech act is taking place and the physical environment in which it occurs.
For example, the way something is said will be very strongly influenced by where it is said.  Language used in the home will differ markedly from that used in a school or a public place where others may be listening in.
Equally, the language use at a festive occasion will be very different from that used at a more sombre and serious event.
P is for Participants
This refers to the speaker and the audience.  There are four participants by most analyses: addressor, speaker, hearer and addressee.
For example, if we take:
    John asked Mary to tell Peter to let Fred know
then we have:
John: the addressor and first speaker
Mary: the hearer and second speaker (note that she is not the addressee)
Peter: the second hearer and third speaker (also not the addressee)
Fred: the third hearer and the addressee
Not all interactions will contain all four roles discretely, of course, because in a situation where only two people are speaking, they will both from time to time take on the role of addressor and speaker and addressee and hearer.  It is, however, noticeable that we do frequently say things which are not intended to be addressed to the hearer but to be passed on to, or overheard by, the real addressee.
We often send messages to more than one addressee, less frequently are we addressed by more than one addressor.
Who the people are, their roles and relative power will constrain quite markedly what language is used.  We will not address a police officer in the same way that we might address a child or life partner in the same way we would address a schoolteacher.
What is concerned here is what in other, functional, analyses is called the tenor of discourse.  For more on that, see the guide to genre, linked at the end.
E is for Ends
This refers to the purposes of the interaction: the intended outcomes.
We may speak to inform, to entertain, to explain, to teach, to create a bond, to request information and a host of other functions.  How we phrase what we say will depend to a large extent on what we intend to achieve.
This is sometimes referred to as the field of discourse but that concept is somewhat wider in scope.  See the guide to genre, linked below, for more.
The language we use, for example, to suggest a reproach will be very obviously different from the language we use to congratulate or request help.  Compare, for example:
    Could you help me?
    You could help me
    You could have helped me
A is for Act sequencing
Speech acts do not, of course, occur randomly.  For example:
    I want you to help me with this
is an unlikely beginning to an exchange as is
    What do you want to do?
a very unlikely closing to an exchange.
Speech acts occur in logical orders but that is not to say that they are predictable.  For example:
    Have you got a minute?
will usually be perceived as a precursor to some kind of request and may be followed by:
    Sure, how can I help?
but may also be followed by:
    I'm a bit busy right now.  Can it wait?
    What is it now?
and the initiator of this exchange needs to be able to react sensibly and appropriately to whatever response is received.
Speech acts may follow rules associated with adjacency pairings, so, for example, a suggestion such as:
    You should take a break
will conventionally be followed by something like:
    Yes, you're right.  I think I will
    I can't right now
or even:
    Not possible.

but will not usually be followed by something like:
    May I ask a question?
because suggestions do not normally combine closely with requests for permission.
There is a good deal more on this in the guide to adjacency pairs such as complaining / making excuses, informing / acknowledging, inviting / accepting / declining and so on.
The analysis of turn taking, too, is concerned with speech act sequencing and part of the ability to speak in a language involves knowing how, when and with what effect to take a turn, hold a turn or give up a turn.
There is a separate guide to turn-taking skills, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
K is for Key
Our speech contains signals of the manner, tone and spirit in which we want to be heard.  Compare for example:
    Three horses came into a bar ...
    Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess ...
    I'm late I know but I've had an awful morning because ...

and each of these is the prequel to a narrative of some kind but the tone of each will be very different and that is signalled by our choice of language (a joke, a fairy tale and an excuse respectively).
I is for Instrumentalities
This refers to the forms and styles of speech that we use.
We may, for example, be speaking casually to a close friend with whom we share much and will not be careful to avoid slang, dialect and colloquialisms.  We will also, probably, draw on shortcuts such as:
    She's a bit like your sister
to avoid long descriptions.
However, if we are concerned because of other factors to maintain some distance and an air of authority, we may select our words very carefully and be very concerned to speak accurately in a standard dialect with very little colloquialism and idiomatic language use.
Equally, if we are operating in a particular register (such as professional meetings or fields of concern), we will be at pains to use precise terminology and conventional language for that field of discourse.
N is for Norms
This refers to the cultural rules governing discourse.
In a familiar, informal setting, we may feel free to interrupt a speaker and grab a turn.  In a formal business meeting or a church service, for example, interruption will not be welcome.
We may, too, opt to collaborate with the speaker in some settings (such as the recounting of an anecdote) to help the story along.  In other settings and with other participants, the cultural rules may prevent that.
G is for Genre
All cultures have generic conventions whether in speech or writing but they vary.
What may be the usual way of structuring a narrative in one culture (e.g., orientation, series of events with a complications, resolution of the complication and personal evaluation) may not be appropriate in another culture where the evaluation may come first and the story serve to illustrate its value.

The argument follows that in order to present and practise language successfully in terms of its communicative force, we need to consider SPEAKING at all times to make sure that we are giving learners the opportunity to understand the constraints and possibilities that they need to be aware of for successful language use (rather than just language usage).

strong and weak

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 is here, of course, that we can see that CLT is not necessarily a radical paradigm shift away from approaches which relied on drilling, habit formation and so on but which incorporated the methodology into an endeavour with a new aim.

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 (1978).

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

The division here draws on the work of John Austin (1911 – 1960) a British philosopher who developed the ideas.

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.

A simpler and nowadays more common division is to consider only the propositional content of what someone says or writes (i.e., the messages and information it contains) and the speech act's illocutionary force (i.e., what it is intended to do in the language).
For example, if you are having trouble with a computer, I might say:
    My friend, Pete, is good with hardware
and the proposition is a) I have a friend, b) the friend is called Pete and c) he is good with computer hardware.  The illocutionary force of the message may, however, be different and what I say is meant as an offer to telephone Pete and ask if he can help.


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.



Functions: what language does

There is a list of nearly 70 functions in the pre-service guide to functions which you may like to consult (new tab).
The overarching categories (which often overlap) are:

  1. The descriptive function: giving and understanding factual information.  For example:
        Can you tell me where the station is?
        It's getting late
        I'm taking the train home
        I can't help you

  2. The expressive function: relaying and understanding of information about the speaker's feelings, preferences and ideas.  For example:
        I'm not feeling well
        I really don't like that man
        I am not even going to try

  3. The social function: establishing and maintaining social relationships, especially roles and power structures.  For example:
        Can I help you, madam?
        Anything else?
        Good morning officer.  How can I help you?

These three categories, variously expressed and variously redefined in the literature constitute the foundations of the methodology's theory of language.


A theory of learning

It has long been recognised that CLT has a well-worked-out theory of language to which, in particular, Hymes, Austin, Seale and others contributed greatly.  See above.
What is less certain is whether the methodology has a theory of learning which is equally robust and detailed as it must if it is to qualify as a methodology in the strict sense of the word as it is used in our profession.

Those who take a weak approach to the methodology are on sounder footings here because they can draw on a range of learning theories and hypotheses to explain how form can be learned and competence acquired.  They can select from (and, to some extent, mix and match) any of the theories of second-language acquisition which have been propounded at various times.  These will include all those explained and exemplified in the guide to second-language acquisition (to which you are referred for more detail).
Most of the theories drawn on in CLT will be cognitive and many will centre around active construction of grammar theory and connectivism, in particular, but practitioners will also use techniques which reflect imitation theory and even behaviourist learning theory at times.

Those who take a stronger line have a more impoverished set of theories to draw on and many resort to proposing motivational theories.  The suggestion is that growing real communicative ability is a powerful motivational factor and seeing the communicative usefulness of what one is learning to do is another.

Another theoretical lifeline draws on social constructivist theories which state that learning is constructed by the learners.  This is usually contrasted in educational theory with what is labelled as a transmission model in which knowledge is handed down from above.
The criticism of that is, naturally, that social constructivists are setting up an unrealistic 'traditional' model in order to suggest how social constructivism is superior.
It is, moreover, asserted that learning is primarily a social activity.  This means that knowledge and skills are not acquired by individuals operating alone but only through interaction with others.
This makes the theory a good fit with communicative classroom approaches which forefront real (or even simulated) communicative tasks and emphasise interaction with peers and others.
For criticisms, see the guide to second-language acquisition theories.

A second string to the theoretical bow is drawn from theories of first-language acquisition and is closely related to social constructivism: social interactionist theories.
This cluster of theories seeks to explain how it is that children acquire not only the ability to use language accurately but also to use it in socially appropriate ways.  A good deal of attention in this theory is on what is called child-directed speech.  Such speech tends to be delivered with excessive intonation range and pitch and to be simplified and repeated for comprehension.  From it, the child learns to decode its meaning before going on to be able to comprehend and produce more complex and appropriate adult-to-adult language.
If we substitute child-directed speech for learner-directed speech, we have a good theory about how learning happens in a communicative classroom in which models of communication are simplified at first with explicit direction to noticing the social environment of language as well as the intentions of the speakers but become progressively more complex and demanding as communicative competence grows.


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.


Criticisms of CLT

We should not leave this guide without considering some of criticisms that have been levelled at CLT.  Because CLT has become so dominant a methodology, criticisms of it are less often heard.  Indeed, most teacher training programmes take it as a given that communicative approaches are central to best classroom practice and do not consider whether they are actually effective.
Here's a citation to that effect:

In the 21st century, it is not necessary to defend the premise that learning a foreign language should be based on a communicative approach which prioritizes meaning over the form in which this meaning is communicated.
Irún-Chavarria, 2005: 20, cited in Swan, n.d.)

There are those who would suggest that this is a premise that most certainly does need defending because as it stands, it is simply an assertion and admonition with very little evidence to support it.  We are all free to state what we believe should be done but to be taken seriously in the profession, we need to go on to argue persuasively why that should be the case.

Criticisms of CLT fall into a number of categories:

  1. Inductive learning
    While CLT does not have, as we noted above, a well-thought-through theory of how language is learned, there is a thread which seems to state that given enough opportunity to see, hear and use language in a natural context, the learners will be able to construct an internal grammar which explains the forms.
    This may be the case with English which happens to have a quite simple morphology.
    For example, in English there is only one inflexion on the verb in the present simple tense to show person (the -es/-s ending) and none at all in the past or future forms.  Past forms of all verbs are signalled by a simple ending change (the regular -ed/-d ending) or by internal changes to the verb.  Nor does English have a recognised case structure affecting the forms of adjectives, nouns and articles in particular.
    Other, more highly inflected languages are very different and the complications are manifold.  Trying to figure out inductively how to use French verbs, German articles and Finnish cases would be virtually impossible.
    CLT may, therefore, arguably be appropriate for a morphologically shallow language like English but is very unlikely to be effective in helping learners to acquire the forms of many other languages.
  2. Cultural centrism
    Anglophone cultures are strongly individualistic and have demonstrably low levels of power distance between individuals.  They also score highly on the level of uncertainty that people are willing to tolerate.
    These characteristics are self-evidently useful in a classroom in which the effort to communicate, however inaccurate and clumsy the language use is, is seen as a learning opportunity.
    People from other cultures in which it is not customary to take public risks, where the output of the group is more important that that of the individuals in it and where people are intolerant of uncertainty and prefer to have reliable rules for behaviour will not be helped by an approach which conflicts with their cultural conventions.
    (For a bit more on culture, see the guide, linked below.)
  3. Teacher ignorance or intolerance of structure
    Many teachers who employ a communicative approach, or at least claim to, are native speakers of the language who have not had the opportunity to engage with its formal characteristics.  In other words, they don't feel at home with grammar.
    For them, a communicative approach is a bonus because they are relieved of the need to learn the grammar of the language properly and can simply focus on its use.
    Non-native teachers of English, on the other hand, have learned the language, often to a very high level of competence, and know from both personal experience and theory that a knowledge of the formal aspects of grammar, lexis and pronunciation is a prerequisite for the ability to communicate successfully, part of it, in fact.
    The lazy native teacher has no such motivation and may use a communicative approach merely as a way to avoid difficult ideas.
  4. Indifference to pattern
    The image here actually does not contain a pattern that repeats (the definition of a pattern, of course) but if you look at it long enough, you may think that you can discern a pattern.  That is what human brains do; we are active pattern seekers.
    There is an argument that we should teach function not structure because that's the communicative, and, therefore best, way to teach.
    The problem with the teaching of functions is that it quickly degenerates into a phrase-book approach to teaching anything.
    Then we get to the stage at which a learner may be told that, for example:
        I'm sorry
        Please forgive me
        I regret that
        Excuse me

    and so on are all ways to perform the function of apologising (and they are, of course, although they vary in intention and style).
    Unfortunately, however, learning those four simple phrases and clauses tells the learner nothing which is of any further use and it is not possible for any learner to generate, for example:
        I apologise
    from any of them or even from a combination of them because there is no overt pattern to emulate and manipulate.
    On the other hand, teaching that:
        Forgive me, please
        Excuse me, please
    are transitive verbs in the imperative and the structure is simply the base form of the verb followed by a direct object (hence me not I) which is softened by the use of please, does allow any learner to generate:
        Help me, please
        Tell me, please
        Show me, please

    and thousands of other perfectly correct imperative-form requests which can perform multiple functions.  The learner then has to supply the correct structure (not too hard) and know the meaning of the lexis.  That's all.
    The reason is simple: functional language abjures a focus on pattern but structural considerations insist on it.
  5. Focus on skills
    A focus on language as a communication rather than language as a system leads to an overdependence on skills work in the classroom.  Most adult learners already have high levels of language skills in their first language(s) and neither need nor want to be told about how to read, write, listen or speak.  What they want is the ability to do so in another language and for that they need to know the structural and phonological features which will help.
    In other words, critics might say, they need skills practice, not skills teaching.
  6. Focus on process
    An unspoken (and very rarely written) assumption in CLT is that the very act of, say, trying to make sense of a text whether written or spoken or of constructing a bit of communicative writing or spoken interaction is in and of itself a good learning endeavour.  What is lost sight of is whether the outcome, i.e., the product, is of any use in furthering learners' abilities.
    Teachers within a communicative approach, however conceived, may feel the process is important but what learners crave (and have often paid for) is the product.
    In other words, while it asserted (see above) that learning happens through the effort to communicate meaningfully, that is not a proven.  It may be the case that communication aids language acquisition but whether it also aids language learning is a different matter.
  7. Do-it-yourself materials
    The assumption that the syllabus should be constructed around the needs, interests and wishes of the learners and be negotiated with them is a common one in CLT practice.  So, in an effort to appear imaginative and innovative, many teachers within a communicative tradition will endeavour to construct materials which appeal to the current communicative needs as they see them of the learners in their charge.  While it is laudable to try to fit materials to learners in this way, there are obvious dangers.
    The construction of a course in language is a vast undertaking, often requiring highly skilled practitioners with access to large databases concerning the frequency and coverage of all sorts of items.  To hope to replace that with materials constructed in whatever disposable free time a teacher may have is hopelessly unrealistic and leads to unbalanced and unreliable syllabus content.
    Languages are large interrelated complexes of data and to try to teach the systems on an ad hoc basis as and when the need arises in the efforts of the learners to communicate with inadequate formal linguistic resources is doomed to failure.  Thus, for example, a Dogme approach, which sits centrally in a CLT environment, will not result in consistent teaching but scattershot attention to formal features of the language which may be disorganised, unconnected and internally contradictory.

On their own, each of these criticisms would not be enough to undermine the profession's current faith in CLT but, taken together, they may be.

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
second-language acquisition for a guide to some of the most popular theories about how we learn a second language 
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
adjacency pairs for a guide which contains a link to a list
turn taking for a guide which includes a good deal on speech act sequencing
genre for more on the field, tenor and mode of discourse
functions: essentials for a simple guide to what they are and how to teach them
semantics an understanding of semantics underpins many communicative approaches
learning styles and culture to see where some criticisms of CLT are based
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. & Holmes, J, (Eds.), p 278, Sociolinguistics, London: Penguin
Howatt, APR, 1984, A History of English Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Irún-Chavarria, M, 2005, Doing, reflecting, learning, English Teaching Professional 40,20-28, Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd. (this reference is cited in Swan, n.d.)
Richards, JC, and Rodgers, TS, 1986, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Swan, M, n.d., We do need methods, available at https://mikeswan.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/We-do-need-methods-1.pdf [accessed November 2021]
Widdowson, HG, 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, as this page does) 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