Feb 3

What is CLT?

Communicative Language Teaching
What do the Magnificent Seven and CLT have in common?
If you've heard the term 'Communicative Language Teaching' but only have a vague idea of what this means, then here is my list of seven important tenets of Communicative Language Teaching.
Video transcript - The Magnificent Seven:
Some thoughts about communicative language teaching

What is the connection between this film and Communicative language teaching? Well, to be perfectly honest, not much, but if you’re interested in the very tenuous link that I’m drawing here, keep watching!

If this is the first time we’re meeting, I’m Jo Gakonga, I’ve been teaching since 1989 and training teachers on CELTA and MA TESOL programmes for over 20 years. I’ve also got a website at ELT-Training.com where I make video based material for teachers at all stages of their careers. Check it out and don’t forget to like and subscribe if you want to see more of my stuff!

So, Communicative Language Teaching. You’ve probably heard this term and you’ve probably guessed that it’s about teaching language by communicating but if that’s about as far as your knowledge goes, then listen up and I’ll give you seven of the most fundamental ideas behind this and you can see how you think your teaching matches up… Seven – you see – magnificent seven… I told you it was a tenuous link but I think I’ve got some useful points here.

Are you ready? This is going to be a bit longer than my usual videos, so get yourself a beverage of your choice, get comfortable and we’ll begin!

Before we get going, it’s probably a good idea to think about what Communicative Language Teaching or CLT isn’t… and it’s usually compared to the Grammar Translation Method. The clue here is in the name and it relies heavily on translation into and out of the target language (that’s the one you are learning)- also called L2 from L1 (that’s the one you already speak).

Grammar Translation tends to focus on learning word lists and grammatical syntax by rote, doing a lot of controlled gap-fill type exercises and it usually prioritises writing. It’s how I learnt (or didn’t learn) French in school and if you learnt a language in a large class in school it might seem quite familiar to you.

The idea of grammar translation has fallen out of fashion really and it’s often held up as a kind of straw man against CLT methodology. You know what I mean- we used to do this, but now we’re enlightened and we don’t. In honesty, this kind of methodology is fine if what you want to do is to pass exams in the target language. It’s not so great if you want to actually use the language to communicate. You might think this is laughable and to a large extent I’d agree, but it’s worth bearing in mind that for a lot of people, especially teenagers in school, the ‘passing exams motivation’ is still a very strong one.

Stop me for a minute. Think about a language that you’ve learnt- what was YOUR motivation? And how were YOU taught?

OK, so that’s a bit of background and what CLT ISN’T. But then what is it?

Grammar translation as a methodology started to go out of fashion in the 1970s and it was replaced in lots of contexts by other methods that moved towards more of an emphasis on speaking and using the language in a more natural way.

You’ll often hear this change towards more communicative methodology described as a rather linear one. We start with grammar translation, we move on to audio-lingualism- then the direct method-and that leads onto various methods that come under the CLT umbrella- alternative approaches such as the Silent Way, Suggestopedia and Community Language Learning then onto Task Based Learning and the Lexical Approach and now into a world where we are ‘post-method’ according to some pretty eminent scholars (Carantarajah, Pennycook, Prabhu).

In fact, though, it’s much more complex than this and some of these methods have been locally adopted in some places and at some times but not in others. For the sake of this video though- I’m trying to keep it simple here- the important thing to keep in mind is that some form of CLT has been the dominant approach in English language teaching since the 1980s. If you look at the aims of most government education systems and the big publishing houses worldwide, they’d usually say this is their goal. What they’re aiming for.

Well, you’re probably thinking… what is it? Let’s have a definition from Diane Larsen Freeman. She says that CLT aims to enable learners to communicate in the target language and learners use “the target language a great deal through communicative activities such as language games, role play and problem-solving tasks” (Larsen-Freeman, 2000, p. 129).

So, we have two main issues here: there’s a focus on extensive use of the target language …… in a meaningful context.

Let’s unpack these a bit.

Extensive Use. The idea is the learners are USING the language not just learning ABOUT it. It also means that speaking is in the forefront- although that doesn’t mean writing is off the agenda completely.

Meaningful context. This means language that you might actually need. So sentences like ‘this is my head’ and gap fill exercises where you need to fill in the past tense of the verb are OUT and the kind of activities that are used or at least preferable are ones where there’s a PURPOSE for the talk, a task that you have to achieve, using the language in the way that you use your first language.

So, what does this mean for us as language teachers? It’s a big question, but I’ve put together a ‘magnificent seven’ – the things that I think are the important take-aways of CLT. It isn’t a definitive list, of course, but it’s MY list and I hope it’s helpful to you. Saddle up – we’re off!

1. More student talk – less teacher lecture
This is the big one and it’s often the one that trainee and novice (and experienced) teachers struggle with. If you want them to learn to use the language, THEY need to be using it – not you. The secret here (and it’s not rocket science) is to PLAN for learner activity. Aim to replace long teacher-at-the-board explanations with pairwork or groupwork. If you want them to USE the language, give them the opportunity to do it and give them a task and a purpose.

2. Personalisation – relevant, interesting topics
The next thing is that if you’re going to get them using the language, you’d better make sure that they’re interested in the topics you’re talking about. One of the best things about teaching language is that it’s skill based, so the content can be whatever you or your learners find interesting. USE this idea and keep in mind that the thing it’s easiest to talk about is yourself!

3. Contextualised language
Number three is that it’s easier to understand language when it’s in a clear and obvious context- not just at the word or sentence level. CLT aims to start from a context such as a reading or listening text and take the language out of it, rather than starting with the language and building to the context. So lessons DON’T start with ‘today we are going to study the present perfect’, they might start by talking about experiences – have you ever seen an elephant? Where? What was it like? And then pull the language out of that – have you ever seen an elephant…. No, I’ve only seen them on TV.

4. Authentic language
Although the use of more authentic texts isn’t necessarily part of CLT, it’s come to be an issue that’s associated with it, I think. This means that we avoid the kind of conversations I remember from coursebooks in my early career- I’m sure you know the kind I mean- the ones that sound artificial and are obviously designed to showcase grammar:
  • Why are you washing your dishes in the bathtub?’
  • Do you usually wash your dishes in the bathtub.
  • No, I don’t usually wash my dishes in the bathtub, but I’m washing them in the bathtub today because my sink is broken.

This is genuinely from a coursebook I used in the 1980s. I won’t say which one but it’s still for sale on Amazon.

Using more authentic language means conversations that sound more like natural language (even if they’re not genuinely authentic).

There are debates about what constitutes ‘authentic’ language and how important this is (or not) and whether ANY language in a classroom context can be seen to be ‘authentic’ but the general principle’s still worth bearing in mind.

5. Grammar where it’s useful
What about grammar? As we saw before, the Grammar Translation method was BIG on that. The grammar was taught almost as an academic exercise in its own right (this is often called a focus on form). The teacher comes into class and says- Today, we’re going to learn the present continuous.

CLT is a bit different. Now grammar is taught as it is needed by the learners. The PURPOSE of the language comes first. So, if you were getting the learners to describe a holiday they’d been on, they’d need past tenses and we’d teach them those in the context of holidays (confusingly this is referred to as a focus on forms).

So, in CLT, grammar is more of a passenger and not in the driving seat. But that doesn’t mean not teaching grammar- it’s still a central part of language teaching and, in honesty, it’s what learners expect. But a CLT approach would tend to have more focus on the learners’ ‘communicative competence’- can they communicate effectively- rather than ‘grammatical competence’- is their language always accurate.

In practice, this means that there is more time spent on more commonly used forms that learners need for communication. So, we need to spend more time on the past simple because it’s hugely common and useful and not so much on the present perfect passive (which is rather rare).

It also means that although there’s a place for controlled practice, like gap-fills to make sure that learners know the correct FORM of the language, we want to put more emphasis on them USING the grammar in a contextualised way such as a discussion or information gap task or roleplay. This is much harder and it’s why so much freer practice is important.

6. The importance of lexis and chunks of language
Number six on my list is lexis. Now, it’s arguable that it was Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach rather than CLT that’s brought the focus back to vocabulary and to teaching learners chunks of language and collocations. But in either case, I think it’s worth including in this list. A communicative approach tends to emphasise the importance of WORDS and especially to teaching multi-word ‘chunks’ to help learners sound fluent. So, for example, don’t teach ‘insist’- teach ‘insist on doing something’.

7. Functional approach
Finally, and probably linked to teaching grammar in contextualised form and teaching lexis in multi-word chunks, using a functional approach has become associated with CLT. This means teaching the kind of languages and phrases that you might need in a particular situation or for a particular purpose. For example, the kind of conversation that might happen in a shop (can I help you? Have you got this in a bigger size?), or the kind of language you need to make suggestions (you could, have you thought about, if I were you, I’d…). At lower levels, you might not even want to analyse these functional exponents. They don’t need to know the second conditional to understand that ‘If I were you, I’d + verb) means that I think it’s a good idea.

OK – so seven things. My magnificent seven. I’m going to put them back up on the screen and I want you to pause me and try to remember what I said about each one. If you can’t, feel free to rewind.

Got all of that? Great. I hope that this is useful to keep in mind when you are planning your lessons and teaching. Have fun with it.

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