Tag Archives: communicative language teaching

The Tragic History of the Communicative Approach

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In the seventies a movement called the communicative approach emerged. The term was well chosen and intuitively appealing to all of us. Is there anybody around who prefers teaching non-communicatively?

Communicative activities should be at the centre of foreign language teaching. There is a basic law of learning known to all of us: We learn what we practice, i.e. we learn to communicate by communicating. Make “message-oriented communication” rather than “medium-oriented communication” the focus of the classroom (for this distinction see Butzkamm & Caldwell, The bilingual reform , p. 42ff.). An old mistrust of grammar was revived and a new kind of error tolerance was born. Gone are the days when catched, or she didn’t bought the jeans, were considered a crime against the English language by teachers who were quite unaware of the fact that monolingual English children made the same mistakes on their way to adult grammar. Did such mistakes prevent them from communicating happily? Many other good things can be said in favour of the communicative approach, such as a new emphasis on speech functions, on learners’ needs inside and outside the classroom etc.  And, in fact, it did breathe new life in my teaching.  Nevertheless it “failed to deliver”, as Robert O’Neill wrote in The Guardian in 1999, and is still failing today.

This is because it tragically came with several birth defects, one of which is that it simply ignored the long-standing issue of the role of the mother tongue. So native speakers happily continued teaching monolingually, while others were
generous to a fault in using the pupils’ mother tongue even for message-oriented activities such as organizing the daily life of the classroom, explaining tasks, setting homework, giving feedback on tests etc.. Still others used it hesitantly and sparingly in various ways while feeling guilty about it.

What is badly needed is the knowledge and dissemination of highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential and indispensable. Teachers need to understand and use sophisticated bilingual techniques alongside monolingual ones, of course. Here are two articles that describe some of these techniques:Practice Makes Perfect or: How to learn structures“  and “Practice Makes Perfect or: How to learn a dialogue“.

On my website (please click here), you can also see videoclips illustrating bilingual techniques. After all, it is indisputable that mother tongue skills are the very foundation of FL skills. Nevertheless, the communicative philosophy, as I see it, still wants teachers to keep the L1 out of the FL class, i.e. rarely mentions bilingual techniques which can scaffold the learning of an L2 most effectively.  How can you keep something separate from its very foundation?

The “communicative approach” will not die because the term in itself is so attractive. But it will be faltering and ailing unless it openly recognizes its birth defects and remedies them. I’ve mentioned one of these defects, but see O’Neill for others (please click here).

Wolfgang Butzkamm & John A. W. Caldwell (2009). The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: Narr.

Jim Scrivener on Traditional PPP in the EFL Classroom

by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In a talk delivered at the 44th IATEFL Conference in Harrogate earlier this year, Jim Scivener argued that the term ‘situational presentation’ (used by him to refer to the first of three steps in traditional lesson design, known as PPP – presentation, practice and production) seems to have lost  much of its meaning and/or relevance in the age of task-based or task-supported, technology enhanced and self-directed instruction: “I’m puzzled that this term, situational presentation, and in fact that the concept behind it, seems to be relatively unknown now.  There is a whole generation of teachers that don’t know what this is and don’t know how to do it. Or may be they know it or they know it by a different name or they know it with some other differences …”.

I very much like how he goes on illustrating what situational presentation (or dialogical contextualization) is about. Watch this:

However, based on my personal experience as an EFL teacher educator over here in Gernany, I  cannot confirm that situational presentation is something my students/student-teachers in the weekly teaching practice sessions don’t know (or think of as a discredited technique). It is rather a firmly established part of their developing teaching repertoire and, furthermore, a concept that is deeply rooted in their personal set of presumptions and beliefs of how English should be taught in schools.  As such, it is a valuable starting point for discussion.


Getting Students to Stick to the Target Language in an EFL Lesson

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this interesting and thought-provoking video, Herbert Puchta addresses the important issue of monolingual communicative language teaching in (secondary school) foreign language classrooms.  As is well-known, many foreign language learners tend to switch to their mother tongue ‘whenever’ (this is an overgeneralization, of course) they are asked to work in pairs or in groups, especially when they are engaged in more demanding, increasingly self-regulated communicative activities.  In consequence, very often only the resulting products are presented in the target language in class (often by those students who are more confident – and competent - in the specific target language). This is a huge problem in German EFL classrooms, and perhaps, in foreign language classrooms around the world.

Herbert Puchta suggests that EFL  teachers should think about offering some additional incentives,, e.g. by appealing to the competitive spirit of teenage learners, and, more generally, by creating a classroom atmosphere that is not (or at least less) detrimental to the students’ willingness to speak English. This is plausible,  but in order to get down to the core of the problem (i.e. code-switching), teachers need to think more deeply about the basic design of the activities and tasks they wish to use in the EFL / foreign language classroom in the first place.

Tasks and activities which allow (or even force!) learners to resort to the mother tongue are questionable, mainly because they are not sufficiently tuned to the learners’  target language level of productive competence. Embedding competetive, game-like elements may help, but this is just one way of circumventing the problem.

Theoretically, this largely corresponds with Krashen’s I+ 1 , but O + 1 (O = output; with the improvised +1) is equally important in foreign language education.

On this blog, you can find an activity that softly ‘pushes’ EFL learners to speak English, to use their target language resources spontaneously, i.e. the improvisation ‘Bus Stop’. Try it out and let me know how it worked for you and your learners.

Future EFL Teachers’ Conceptions of Grammar Instruction

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Two days ago, I asked my students to briefly outline what they consider to be important in teaching grammar in a ‘communicative’ EFL classroom environment. One group of students created the following mind map:

(click on image to enlarge)

I think it is quite interesting to see that the students seem to be aware (perhaps not more than that) of some of the most intensively discussed problems associated with grammar instruction in communicative EFL classrooms, i.e.: CLT – approach or method?; acquisition-learning, competence-performance, contextualization, focus on meaning / form / forms, explicit-implicit and inductive-deductive learning, the necessity to integrate learners’ prior knowledge, introducing vs. practicing grammar, error correction, cultural implications of teaching grammar, etc.

However, as Larsen-Freeman (1997) pointed out many years ago, knowing/thinking and doing is not one and the same thing (and, furthermore, that this is an area crying for research).

This is why I regularly embed practice-oriented activities in my seminars; analyzing EFL textbooks used in the past and at present (to my mind, both is necessary and important); discussing examples of good practice documented on video (e.g. Siebold 2004), encouraging students to simulate sequences of grammar-oriented EFL lessons (including micro-teaching sessions, etc.). I also try to connect the seminar to the obligatory teaching practicum (if possible), etc.

Any comments or suggestions?

Larsen-Freeman, Diane (1997). “Chaos/Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition”. Applied Linguistics, 18, 2, 141-156.

Siebold, Jörg (2004). Let’s Talk. Lehrtechniken. Berlin: Cornelsen (including DVD-videos).

In Defense of Grammar

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

“All you need is communication? No, because all you get is fossilisation.” (see Butzkamm (2009: 83-91): “The Language Acquisition Mystique: Tried and Found Wanting.”)

In the best known methodology handbooks, foreign language teaching is viewed through the lens of a few closely related European languages. Their grammars are often transparent for each other. This explains to some extent the severe doubts cast upon grammar teaching in general, rather than only against its misuse.

But a focus on grammar is not only indispensable for remote languages. It can really help the learner by making “odd” constructions meaningful and transparent, for instance through idiomatic and literal translation (“mirroring”) combined. That is why grammar should not be dealt with in a cavalier fashion. However, at all times the teacher must discipline himself to be brief, to confine the focus on form – in whatever way it is done – to matters of immediate practical relevance, and above all, to be clear. That is no easy matter for any language. On the other hand, for many foreign languages taught in schools excellent grammars have been made available, which represent a great advance on the grammars of earlier centuries.

The Role of the Textbook in the EFL Classroom (2)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Back in 1934, McElroy stated that “the textbook is decidedly not the sole condition of an effective class; quality of teaching is more important” (1934: 5). 75 years later, an enormous body of research on the role of the textbook in EFL classrooms has accumulated around the globe, indicating that ‘successful’ learning and teaching in primary and secondary EFL school environments is dependent on a wider spectrum of factors, not only on the quality (or quantity) of English language learning materials. The importance of the teacher is, of course, undisputed (see, for instance, Butzkamm 2005).

Over the past decades, it has become increasingly clear that context-sensitive EFL instruction requires teachers to take into account many anthropological and sociocultural factors which influence the conditions under which English is taught. Currently, global textbooks produced for teaching and learning English as a foreign language in many different countries are criticized for paying too little attention to this, especially for largely failing to assist EFL teachers in bridging the cultural background(s) of ‘their’ individual learners and the diversity of English-speaking target language cultures.

In Germany, global textbooks are rarely used in institutional contexts though. Instead, local textbooks and related materials and media, produced especially for the ‘German school market’ by a few major German publishers are usually employed in EFL classrooms. In my view, the overall quality of these products is high. However, as commercial products textbooks and related materials are – in Germany and elsewhere – last not least designed to occupy the textbook market, offering whatever is seemingly necessary and useful in terms of target language und intercultural education (see Kurtz 2002). In consequence, German EFL teachers are flooded with materials and suggestions. 

Psychologically, this makes it difficult to think about teaching options which go beyond those suggested by the textbook authors in the teaching manuals (arguing from a Gestalt theoretical perspective see Kurtz 2001). Viewed from an international perspective, this is a luxury problem, but it is not unproblematic; the more the better?


Butzkamm, Wolfgang (2005). Der Lehrer ist unserer Chance. Essen: Buchverlag Prof. A.W. Geisler.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Das Lehrwerk und seine Verwendung nach der jüngsten Reform der Richtlinien und Lehrpläne. Englisch, 36 (2), 41-50.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2002): Fremdsprachendidaktik als Dienstleistung und Ware: Verlagskataloge für das Fach Englisch unter der Lupe. Englisch,  37 (1), 8-12.

McElroy, Howard (1934). Selecting a basic textbook. The Modern Language Journal, 19 (1), 5-8.

Dimensions of Task-based Language Learning and Teaching

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

- task-based instruction
- task-based learning
- task-based language learning
- task-based language education
- task-based language learning and teaching
- task-based, task-oriented, task-supported, task-driven
- task design, task complexity, task sequencing, task cycle
- focus on form, focus on message, role of the mother tongue
- target tasks, pedagogical tasks, rehearsal tasks, activation tasks
- accuracy, fluency, complexity, appropriateness
- projects, tasks, activities, exercises
- task performance and assessment

Are you familiar with current research on task-based language learning and teaching? If not, here are a few presentations that give you an idea of what it is about:

David Nunan: Task-based language teaching: from theory to classroom practice

Kris Van den Branden: Task-based language education: from theory to practice .. and back again

Rod Ellis: Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings

Paul Knight: Task-based learning: myth or reality?

Greg Ogilvie & Bill Dunn: Taking teacher education to task

Form-focused and Message-oriented Communication in Secondary School EFL Classrooms

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In the International Handbook of English Language Teaching (Cummins & Davison 2007), Nina Spada (2007: 283) states that “there is an emerging concensus in the classroom research literature that the inclusion of form-focused instruction is needed within exclusively and primarily meaning-based approaches to CLT if learners are to develop higher levels of knowledge and performance in the target language. This has been demonstrated in descriptive, experimental, and quasi-experimental studies with adult, adolescent, and child learners in different second/foreign language contexts.”

This raises a number of fundamental questions concerning the current status of EFL classroom interaction and, more specifically, the optimal mix of form-focused and message-oriented instruction in everyday secondary school EFL practice.

Up to now, there is very little empirical evidence that frontline educators in secondary schools, for instance in Germany, actually orchestrate classroom interaction in accordance with “exclusively and primarily meaning-based approaches to CLT”. On the contrary, the overall focus of instruction behind classroom doors is still very often on target language form or forms, i.e. on the weak, rather than on the strong version of the communicative approach (see Howatt 1984).

This is what the current DESI-study (German-English-Student-Assessment-International), a large-scale assessment study (n = 11,000) commissioned by the German federal board of education (including a classroom video-study), designed and implemented by an interdisciplinary consortium of applied linguists and educational researchers indicates (for a summary, see the official German DESI homepage and the corresponding Powerpoint-Presentation in English created by Günter Nold, University of Dortmund, Germany.

EFL classroom interaction in everyday practice in Germany is often far from being appropriate to stimulate and scaffold lively, meaningful and creative interaction (especially self-regulated peer-to-peer communication in English) and to systematically stretch learners’ participatory abilities in the target language, primarily because message-oriented classroom discourse is mapped onto the traditional interactional architecture of form-focused and predominantly accuracy-oriented language practice (i.e. IRF: teacher initiation, student response, teacher feedback, mainly focused on immediate error-correction).

The “procedural infrastucture of talk-in-interaction” (Schegloff 1992: 1299) which has emerged in classroom practice over many years is suggestive of a form-oriented communicative cocoon spun by teachers to protect learners from the natural complexity and unpredictability that is typical of many communicative encounters outside the classroom. In consequence, there is very little room for spontaneous, less regulated (or scripted) and less predictable communicative exchanges which are necessary to induce a communicative metamorphosis among learners – from peripheral and dependent to increasingly more central and autonomous participants. In my view, this needs to be considered more thorougly when proposing the inclusion of form-focused instruction in secondary school EFL classrooms.

Howatt, Anthony P. R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Ox­ford: Oxford Uni­versity Press.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1992). “Repair after next turn: The last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation.” American Journal of Sociology, 5, 1295-1345.

Spada, Nina (2007), “Communicative Language Teaching: Current Status and Future Prospects”, in: Cummins, Jim & Davison, Chris (Eds.). International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Part 1. New York: Springer: 271-288.

CLT in Theory and in Practice

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Three months ago I pointed out on this blog that communicative language teaching (CLT) is a ‘fuzzy’ concept which has been interpreted and translated into secondary school EFL syllabuses, textbooks, and everyday classroom practice in a variety of ways around the world since its inception in the 1970s (see: “A Cognitive Science View on Communicative Language Teaching”). In theory, advanced university students of English as a foreign language understand this in principle, as the following key-word summary which a class of mine came up with collectively illustrates (click on image to enlarge).

Unfortunately, this does not automatically mean that students of English as a foreign language can indeed implement CLT in actual classroom practice successfully (and many, but not all are well-aware of this). More classroom research is needed on how to enable students and novice teachers to translate the principles of CLT into practice in primary and secondary schools (including task-based and content-based instruction as well as CLIL; becoming aware of its potentials and problems). 

In Germany, however, arguing for a better mix of theory and practice, of knowing and doing in initial teacher education is problematic, because of the relatively low status of Fachdidaktik (i.e. domain-specific pedagogy and methodology) in general, and Fremdsprachendidaktik (i.e. research-based foreign language pedagogy and methodology) in particular, which is still seen by many decision-makers as a mere additum to, and not as a core element of initial teacher education in the twenty-first century.

Giving the Wrong Signal? The Role of ‘Signal Words’ in Teaching Tense and Aspect in the EFL Classroom

posted by Ulrike Altendorf, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

What would German learners of English do without ‘signal words’? — ‘Signal word’ is TEFLSPEAK-G, a literal translation of the German classroom term Signalwort that refers to temporal markers, mostly adverbial and prepositional phrases, taught as automatic triggers of certain tenses or aspects. Ask a non-native student of English – at secondary school or at university level – when to use, for example, the present perfect and you will get the following: a list of ‘signal words’, mostly just, ever, never, since and for, and, if you are lucky, the odd grammar rule of the categorical type.

And why not? After all, ‘signal words’ have many advantages. They work with little cognitive effort. They are easy to remember and even easier to put into practice. They spare us the onerous meta-linguistic discussion that modern teaching professionals, many of them still working in the wake of Krashen, seek to avoid. They also spare us to go into detail about a complex and still under-researched area of English grammar that even advanced students and non-native teachers of the language tend to feel insecure about.

However, it is, in my opinion, exactly the heavy reliance on ‘signal words’ that plays an important role in creating this insecurity in the first place. It makes non-native speakers dependent on a ‘safety anchor’ which is often misleading and even more often absent. As Schlüter (e.g. 2000) has shown for the present perfect, only about a third of his approximately 3,000 verb phrases were specified by temporal markers. And if the desired temporal marker occurs, it does not necessarily ‘trigger’ the tense or aspect that students expect on the basis of didacticized grammar rules. Never, for example, which EFL learners usually interpret as a ‘signal word’ for the present perfect can also occur with other tenses including the simple past. In the BNC (British National Corpus) World Edition it occurs even more frequently with the simple past than with the present perfect.

Apart form leaving students in the dark about the correct functioning of tense and aspect in English, ‘signal words’ also deprive them of communicative options. After all, tense and aspect can be used to express a range of attitudes and functions, including tentativeness and annoyance. These and other communicative functions should be available to advanced learners of English, especially if their language education prides itself in aiming at communicative competence. In order to become familiar with these options, advanced learners need to be introduced to the more complex functioning of tense and aspect, from an early, at least intermediate level onwards. It is true that ‘signal words’ come in handy for pre-pubescent beginners. With increasing cognitive maturation and language proficiency, however, teachers should gradually move away from the gross oversimplication of the ‘signal-word’ strategy. For this purpose, one should also move away from the old-fashioned prejudice that language work is inevitably boring, theoretical and irrelevant. In the hands of an able teacher, language work can be interesting and intriguing as well as cognitively demanding.

The approach outlined by Jürgen Kurtz in this blog provides a flexible methodological framework for such an undertaking. In message-oriented communication students will encounter or be made aware of situations in which a more skilful handling of a particular tense or aspect would have helped their communicative cause. In the related medium-oriented intervals, the relevant meta-linguistic information can be provided, also inductively. In the following message-oriented section, the newly acquired insights can immediately be put to the test. Unmotivated pondering over seemingly superfluous linguistic structure, which some students will have forgotten again at production stage, will hopefully become a thing of the past.

Schlüter, Norbert (2000). “The present perfect in British and American English: selected results of an empirical study.” In: Christian Mair & Marianne Hundt (Eds.). Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 313-320.