Historical Background of Communicative Language Teaching (A Study)

According to Richards (2006: 6-13), Thornbury (2006: 200-201), Richards and Rodgers (2001:64-87), and Harmer (2001:69-71 ), CLT appeared in the 1960’s as a reaction to the Audio-Lingual Method and Situational Language Teaching because it was consider that language required more than grammatical competence. It was Noam Chomsky in Syntactic Structures (1957) who determined a new vision on language approach stating that the structural theories of language were unable to render the creativity and uniqueness of sentences which he considered the fundamental characteristics of language. Moreover, the British linguists pointed out to another fundamental characteristic of language that was not yet taken into consideration in the methodology, namely the functional and the communicative aspects of language.

But it was not just the works of linguists that changes the perspective it was also the work of philosophers and that developed speech-a(words can carry information, but also determine behaviour): J. L. Austin and John R. Searle, and sociolinguists: John Gumperz, Dell Hymes and William Labov, who demonstrated the link between social context and the communication behaviour. The phenomenon amplified with the interference of The European Council in language teaching and learning as adult education which triggered the need to create a national syllabus and materials based on the communicative approach.

The ALM developed in the US during the Second World War, and was strictly linked to behaviourism which claims that behaviour of humans and other creatures is determined by repeated stimuli. This is why it is characterised by repetition, memorizing, teacher intervention and control to avoid fossilized mistakes. So methodologically, applied to language learning, it promoted lots of controlled practice though drilling, no real presentation, and no much production on behalf of learners. The primary emphasis is on spoken language, the evaluation being mainly oral as well. ALM contained short range objective and long range objectives. The short range ones stood for training listening comprehension, accurate pronunciation, recognition of speech symbols and the ability to produce these symbols in writing. Moreover, long-range objectives include the goal to be able to use the target language as if the students were the native speaker. Students are presented with language patterns and dialogues which they have to rehearse and memorize. They have a reactive role, do not initialize interaction. The main techniques used in teaching are role-play, drills of all kinds, translation, dialogues, vocabulary and grammar exercises. The students’ native language is avoided in practice. The teacher is the one who controls the learning and monitors the student’s performance offers the model of language, the students being imitators of this model. There is  interaction between teacher and student, but also between students.  Errors of pronunciation and grammar are corrected immediately.

According to Richards (2006), a typical lesson would start with listening to a dialogue that is repeated individually, and collectively until it is memorized. The teacher corrects any pronunciation, intonation or grammar error that could occur. Then the dialogue is changed to students’ situation or interest, and is acted out by them. After that, key structure are selected from the dialogue, and are used in different drills. At this point, grammatical explanation may be provided. Further follow-up activities would contain reading, writing or vocabulary activities starting from the initial dialogue. The Audio lingual method was given up to as it could not provide  speakers who were able to communicate in the target language.

Thornbury (2006), Richards and Rodgers (2001) state that The Situational Language teaching (The oral approach) developed between 1920s and 1960s and was mainly promoted  by Harold Palmer, A.S. Hornby, and Michael West. It is closely linked to Structuralism which analyses structure, functions, and relationship systems that characterize objects and processes, so the focus of teaching would be arranging the language into grammatical and lexical structures and providing ways for the learners to internalize them. Palmer and West were two British linguists who came out with their principles of language learning, and teaching while teaching English abroad, in The Far East. On the one Harold Palmer considered grammar was the core of language learning, and developed an universal logic of grammar. Together with Hornby he set the grammatical rules into ‘sentence pattern’ (substitution table) that were supposed to be easily internalized by the English learners. On the other hand, there was Michael West’s theory was that lexis was the most important for foreign language learning and reading. Both considered though that the oral approach of language was the most efficient one. Later SLT was influenced by the ideas of the British linguists JR Firth, and M.A.K Halliday, and their concern with language occurring naturally in actual contexts of use, which CLT emphasized later. The most influential methodologists, and textbook writers who used, and developed STL materials for ELT were G Pittman,  and  L G Alexander who activated in the 60s, and who also settled the main principles. Richards and Rogers (2001:34) offer a range of characteristic were as follows:

  1.  Language teaching begins with the spoken language. Material is taught orally before it presented in written form.
  2. The target language is the language of the classroom.
  3. New language points are introduced and practiced situationally.
  4. Vocabulary selection procedures are followed to ensure that an essential general service vocabulary is covered.
  5. Items of grammar are graded following the principle that simple forms should be taught before complex ones.
  6.  Reading and writing are introduced once a sufficient lexical and grammatical basis is established.

In a typical SLT lesson, as Richard (2006:7,8) shows, there are three sequences: Presentation, Practice, Production. The presentation phase is controlled by the teacher who introduces the grammar structures by means of conversation, an audio tape or a text or other visual means to demonstrate a situation. From this the teacher extracts the required form, explains the structure and drags the rule. During the practice phase, students practice orally or in writing the language structure correctly. Typical practice activities include drills, multiple-choice exercises, gap filling exercises, rephrasing etc. The focus is on accuracy. In this phase, the teacher directs the activities, to provide positive feedback to students, corrects mistakes and model the correct forms. The production phase, or the free phase is about students using the new structures in different contexts freely and fluently. The newly learnt language structure can be used in both oral, or written activities. Typical production activities include dialogues, oral presentations, and production of sentences, paragraphs or longer texts. The teacher does not interfere, too much unless necessary as the students are supposed to use the language correctly by now. Everything is taught deductively, students are expected to drag out the meaning of a word or sentence or the usage of a structure starting from situations, and not through translation or explanation. The learner is expected to apply the language learned in the classroom to situations outside the classroom.

SLT shares with the ALT the emphasis on accuracy errors, and also values drilling, though in a context. SLT approaches methods that give the opportunity to practice the structures more freely though. Opinions in favour of this approach underline that cognitive skills are enhanced, first by engaging with the facts of the matter, the theoretical principles that become internalized through practice and automatism, all leading to the acquisition of a skill. The opinions against PPP are that slicing the language into very small units does not render anymore the complexity that language has and that the first stage tends to take over the later phases.

1. Harmer, Jeremy (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching, 2nd Edition: Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers
2. Harmer, Jeremy (2001)The Practice of English Language Teaching, 3rd Edition: Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers
3. Ladousse, Gillian Porter. (1987) Role Play: Resources Book for the Teacher Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Littlewood William. (1981). Communicative language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Nunan, David. (2005).Practical English Language Teaching. Mc Grow Hill
6. Richards, Jack and Schmidt, Richard (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Third edition. London: Longman
7. Richards, Jack C. (2006). Communicative Language Teaching Today: Cambridge University Press
8. Richards, Jack C, & Rodgers, Theodore S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
9. Thornbury,  Scott (2006): An A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts Used in English Language Teaching. Macmillan Education Australia
10. Thornbury, Scott (2005). How to teach speaking. Oxford: Pearson – Longman


prof. Oana Crăciunescu

Școala Gimnazială George Vâlsan, Amara (Ialomiţa) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/oana.craciunescu

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