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The communicative approach

The communicative approach

The communicative approach represents a clear improvement on earlier methods of language learning, in particular the audio-lingual and grammar-translation methods which were once used almost exclusively for the teaching of foreign languages.

Grammar-translation sought to teach the target language by directly translating everything into the learner`s own language. The emphasis on finding equivalent words, expressions and grammatical forms was by definition unrealistic, and placed little or no importance on speaking the target language appropriately or even competently.

Audio-lingual teaching is familiar to anyone who has used a “language lab” – listening and repeating is the basic method here, with a consequent de-emphasis on grammar and real-life interaction.

IBy the 1960`s, it was felt that students were not learning enough realistic, situational language using these methods, and that they consequently did not know how to communicate in real-life situations. An increase in travel around this time probably helped to highlight these deficiencies.

Since the widespread introduction of the communicative approach in the 1970`s, it has become a more or less standard method for teaching foreign languages, with many countries adopting the approach at primary or secondary levels of education.

Communicative language teaching makes use of real-life or simulated real-life situations in order to promote effective language use. The teacher sets up a situation that is likely to occur in real life and encourages the students to perform a task. Appropriate language is pre-taught using a variety of techniques, and practiced in context.

Explanation and demonstration take the place of translation for new vocabulary items. The target language is used for all classroom interaction, the classroom itself being a real-life situation in which effective communication takes place. Students are encouraged to ask questions, interact with each other and take control of activities to reach their own outcomes.

Learning is seen as the responsibility of the learner, and the teachers find themselves talking less and listening more than in a traditional classroom. The teacher sets up an activity and then allows the learners to perform the performance of the activity is the immediate goal, with feedback and further input from the teacher coming later.

With the communicative approach, language is seen as a tool for interaction - it is not simply a subject for academic study and analysis. Students look at the use of language both from a linguistic point of view (grammar, lexis, collocation, etc) and from a social or situational point of view (who is speaking, why are they speaking, what is appropriate in this context, etc).

Because of the increased encouragement to participate fully, students gain confidence through direct experience in what they can achieve, motivating them to use the language more frequently and allowing them to learn more quickly.

Steve Wheatley