The failure of Communicative Language Teaching

Contemporary approaches to the teaching of English emphasize the instrumentality of the language. Teachers try to get students to learn the language by giving them a purpose to use it, by focusing their attention on meaning and by making instruction relevant to their non-educational goals, relevant to their lives outside the classroom.

If this was in part a result of modern developments in the understanding of language, it was also a reaction to the failure of traditional approaches to teaching which were based on more academically-oriented understandings of scholars interested in language as a thing in itself, intent on stripping away from the study of language everything which was not language, and intent not to see language as a means to an end, but rather to regard language study as an end in itself.

Traditional approaches to teaching language (like audiolingualism) failed to involve learners who, while motivated to learn and perhaps academically oriented, were not interested in a scholarly understanding of language as a thing in itself, not in strippign away from the study of language everything which was not language.

But while the contemporary approaches have been successful with the traditional type of language student, the increasing pressure put on education systems in East Asia and elsewhere to give all students a basic competence in English, eg the ability to carry out conversations in the language, has presented a challenge. With lower-level students unmotivated to learn, the communicative approach is a call to subvert the curriculum.

Many NNS teachers find when they start to use a new method of teaching that the deskilling leaves them with no room to maneuver and they give up. In particular, the reluctance of students to use English in communicative activities limits their ability to develop confidence in their ability to implement the new method, threatening teacher self-belief in their competence and forcing them to fall back on procedures in which they know they are expert.

All teachers probably feel these blows to self-confidence when students don’t participate in the class, aren’t willing to speak English, or are otherwise unwilling.

At least, thse have been the feelings of the authors. The first author experienced stress starting to teach at a junior college when the classes of 50 unmotivated ‘naughty’ students would not/could not follow directions to work in pairs and read textbook dialogues. Communicative activities were carried out completely in Chinese and full-frontal teaching became interaction with two or three more talkative students.

The failure of communicative activities based on ‘use’ and the acceptance by the students of traditional procedures like listen and repeat, tests and workbook exercises all stressing ‘usage’ led him to agree with many (NNS) teachers that CLT does not work. He concluded that rather than communicativeness being a requirement for an activity, it was a sign it wasn’t going to work and, like them, he reverted to the audiolingualism of the textbook, Molinsky and Bliss’s Expressways.

But when as part of a cooperative-learning-based, testing-focused approach adopted instead of CLT, he found students would do dialogues, and even guided role-plays using props in English, if he was standing there, listening and grading their performance, and he realized there was scope to get students to participate more actively.

Instead he instituted a heavy dose of assessment to instil a sense of accountability, to impress upon students the necessity of speaking English and to inculcate groupwork ideals.

But reversion was always a step back to take two steps forward.