The Communicative Language Teaching Approach

As from the 1970s, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is considered to be the approach which aims to make communicative competence the goal of language teaching and to develop procedures for the teaching of the four language skills that acknowledge the interdependence of language and communication.
CLT stands out for its comprehensiveness.

Howatt, in 1984, distinguishes between two types of versions of CLT – a “weak” and a “strong” one. The “weak” stresses the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes. The “strong” version advances the claim that language is acquired through communication, so it is not a question of activating language, but of stimulating the development of the language itself. If the former could be described as “learning to use” English, the later is “using English to learn it”. Howatt  (1984; p 279)

Regarding learning theory, any kind of activity that involves real communication promotes learning. Also it’s important that the activities to propose meaningful task with a certain aim and that the vocabulary or the structures used to perform the task to be selected according to their age, level, performance.

The range of exercise types and activities compatible with a communicative approach is wide on condition that they enable learners to communicate, they should be involved in meaningful-focused communicative tasks – negotiate, exchange or share  information, interact, find what is missing.

Communicative language teaching makes use of real-life situations that necessitate communication. The teacher sets up a situation that students are likely to encounter in real life. Unlike the audiolingual method of language teaching, which relies on repetition and drills, the communicative approach can leave students in suspense as to the outcome of a class exercise, which will vary according to their reactions and responses. The real-life simulations change from day to day. Students’ motivation to learn comes from their desire to communicate in meaningful ways about meaningful topics.

The type of classroom activities proposed in CLT also implies new roles in the classroom for teachers and learners. Learners now have to participate in classroom activities that are based on a cooperative rather than individualistic approach to learning.

Learner roles

The learners have an active role – learning is practically in their hands, they learn as much as they participate, struggle to communicate. They interact a great deal with one another. They do this in various forms: pairs, small groups, large groups, whole class.

Students are expected to interact primarily with each other and then with the teacher. The correction of errors may be absent or infrequent. Learners must realize that success in communication is not an individualistic term, but a team result (Brumfit; Johnson, 1979, p. 85). Students communicate and negotiate meaning and are expected to establish a positive relationship, to understand what their partner is saying and to make himself or herself understood; they have to cooperate and to use what materials they have at their disposal, plentiful exposure to language in use and plenty of opportunities to use it are vitally important. In their purpose to communicate, they should use a variety of language, not only one language  structure or form.

In lessons where reading and writing are the main focus, students also work in groups. For example, they can collaborate before, while and after writing – they can brainstorm ideas, give advice, make corrections.

An extra task for teachers is to consider the demands made on learners by participation and interaction, meaning the socio-psychological factors.

Adults returning to the English language classroom, after been experiencing teacher-fronted lessons, may be daunted by the collaborative element of learning. Learners develop their own routes to language learning, progress at different rates, and have different needs and motivations for language learning.

Second language learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in interaction and meaningful communication, and this results from students processing content that is relevant, purposeful, interesting, and engaging.

With the more dynamic approach of CLT, students have to become more comfortable with listening to their peers in groups, rather than relying on the teacher’s model. While the students’ role is ascending, the teacher has to become more often a monitor and a facilitator.

Teacher roles

In CLT, teacher’s intervention is known to be kept to a minimum, especially when it comes to correcting mistakes or teaching grammar, but the teacher still has a lot to do. Rather than being a model for correct speech and writing, the teacher has to develop a different view towards error correction and of his own role in facilitating language learning. Richards (2006; p.5)

The teacher may have different roles in CLT, according to the situations. He will have to study his groups interests and purposes of learning in order to develop appropriate activities to touch those purposes.

The teacher-counselor in CLT is expected to exemplify, an effective communicator to maximize the message through the use of paraphrase, confirmation and feedback.
The teacher as organizer – he establishes the grouping, timing, types of activities, correction procedure which is mostly done by students themselves.
The ultimate role the teacher must assume is to generate communication.

Evaluation aims both accuracy and fluency. The student who has the most control of the structures and vocabulary is not always the best communicator. A teacher can evaluate the students day by day in class during their oral performances or after written tasks. For more formal evaluation a teacher can use a test that has communicative functions. (for example – students may be asked to write a letter to a friend if the writing skill is being evaluated).

Errors of form are tolerated during fluency-based activities and are seen as a natural outcome of the development of communication skills. The teacher may note down the errors during fluency activities and return later during an accuracy-based activity (Larsen-Freeman, 2000; p 87).

In communicative language classrooms, the teacher is no longer in total control. The teacher lends the central role to the students who share their experience and knowledge. The teacher can become a learner or a co-learner. This way the classroom is always an active, lively and equitable place to be.

In CLT, teachers dispose of a real arsenal of materials. These can be:

  • text-based – understanding the message, asking questions to get information, taking notes, ordering events and presenting them.
  • task-based, that usually come as a one item or type of exercise – games, role plays, simulations, activity cards, pair communication practice materials.
  • realia –from the need of bringing into the classroom pieces of  “real life” or authentic materials – weather forecasts, road signs, newspaper or magazine articles, letters, postcards, recipes, advertisements, menus, tickets, timetables, airport and station announcement, radio talks, maps, charts, instructions for use of equipment.

The argument for using authentic materials is quite simple: if the goal of teaching is to equip students to deal with authentic language from the real world then they should be given opportunities to practise it into the classroom.

Communicative language teaching sets out to involve learners in purposeful tasks which are embedded in meaningful contexts and which reflect and rehearse language as it is used authentically in the world outside the classroom. It holds many attractions: realistic language practice, personalization of learning, face-to-face encounters in the classroom. Hedge (2008; p 71)


– Brumfit, C., & Johnson, K. 1979. The communicative approach to language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Hedge, T. 2008. Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Howatt, A. P. R. 1984. A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and principles in language teaching. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Richards, J. C. 2006. Communicative language teaching today. New York: Cambridge University Press.


prof. Nicoleta Cobianu-Șontac

Școala Gimnazială Mihai Viteazul, Târgoviște (Dâmboviţa) , România
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