Tag Archives: communicative language teaching

How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

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

In my view, the theory and practice of teaching beginners is stagnating. One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The four areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the imitative principle,  the bilingual principle, and the generative principle. They are all based on our knowledge of how humans learn languages naturally, irrespective of educational arrangements.

(1) We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures. And they bring these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face-to-face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

(2) Imitation is our “motor for culture” (Gopnik); it forges the neuronal link between hearing and speaking. Language learning and teaching is at the very beginning strikingly physical: ear-training, articulatory training and body language combined. Listening plus imitating is therefore our most basic form of practice. It must first and foremost begin with short utterances in the context of the mimicry-memorization of dialogues. To achieve this, precision techniques have been developed. However, repeated intensive and noisefree imitation is often neglected. But without ears and articulatory organs attuned to the foreign language we cannot take much pleasure in it.

(3) Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. All languages help us to make sense of the world, so they all dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc. In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

(4) In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This combinatorial infinity is according to Chomsky the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance – and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. If constructions are fully understood, they can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign and second language learners and observing them in and outside classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.


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.