The greatest myth
How communicative language teaching fails
This column is predicated on three external and indisputable truths:
1) Numbers don’t lie; people do.
2) People don’t fail systems; systems fail people.
3) Time doesn’t change things; things change in time.
These truths are not wild, philosophical, esoteric ramblings. They are the three premises that will lead me to the conclusion that Communicative Language Teaching, or CLT, ultimately lead to failure. Failure on the part of language schools; failure on the part of teachers; and, most importantly, failure on the part of far too many students.
Throughout history people have created systems, ideologies, and methodologies for all sorts of reasons: To make our lives easier; to facilitate the day to day activities of our existence; and even to change the world. We have created all sorts of systems, methods, and “isms”—- political, social, religious, and educational. We join social movements, political groups, think tanks and study groups. We even attend seminars and conferences. We do this because we think we can change things for the better. And many times, we do. Every once in a while, we actually get things right. Certain political movements have made the lives of women, blacks, and homosexuals far better and equal than they ever were.
But ironically and paradoxically, there are times when our attempts to create a system or a method to make things easier for us and for others becomes the very same system or method that fails us. And the sad thing about this is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The educational system, and more specifically, how we choose to teach English as a second or foreign language is a perfect example of how our methods of teaching is failing the very same people it was meant to help.
A case in point: Although all three of my initial premises are interrelated, let’s take the first two: “Numbers don’t lie, people do”, and “People don’t fail systems, systems fail people.” When I taught at a well-known English language school in Bangkok last year, teachers were periodically given the opportunity to test the students. These weren’t level tests, although the school did have them. These were “gateway” tests given after every fourth level to see who will move on to the next level and the next book. In one of my level four gateway tests, 20 students took part. Nine passed, and 11 failed. Of course there were other opportunities for the students who failed to retake the test. There were other teachers who experienced similar results.
As we educators all know, there are a multitude of reasons why some students fail tests and exams. I myself was never very good at them. Some students don’t memorize things very well. Others don’t study as much as they should. Maybe the teacher didn’t prepare the students as well as should be expected. While others, perhaps, just don’t have good luck. Most of the students who have failed are probably asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me? Am I stupid or something?” Maybe those questions can apply to a few students. I don’t believe that these questions can be applied to most adult students studying EFL.
Far better questions to ask are,
1) What is wrong with a system that would allow 30%, 40%, and even half of the students to fail a simple English test?
2) What is wrong with the school’s method or way of teaching that would allow for such a high failure rate?
While I fully realize that there will always be students who fail—- some by their own fault—- the major and primary responsibility of a school is to ensure that as many students as possible pass. If the failure rate is consistently at 30-40%, then it’s not only the students who look bad and incompetent. We must allow ourselves to look at this situation that we created as unnecessary, the method as unjust, the institution full of folly, incompetence, and perhaps, bitter political partisanship, and the system in desperate need of transformation.
The method used by many, if not the vast majority of language schools and public schools that employ native English teachers, is called Communicative Language Teaching or CLT. This method is becoming increasingly under scrutiny by many TESOL professionals. And for good reason. In fact, many TESOL professionals don’t consider CLT a “method” of second language instruction.
In his essay on the subject, Dimitrios Thanasoulas calls CLT not a method, but “an approach which transcends the boundaries of concrete methods and, concomitantly, techniques. It is a theoretical position about the nature of language and language learning and teaching.” 1 The communicative approach tell us only how we should approach the subject matter, not specifically what we should be teaching.
Which brings up a very essential question: Just what is Communicative Language Teaching? Consider these two responses.
——CLT is a “teaching approach where negotiation for meaning is critical. The teacher becomes a facilitator. Collaborative learning and peer interaction is important. Students and teacher select and organize curriculum contents.” 2 (Italics mine.)
——“CLT makes use of real life situations that necessitate communication. The teacher sets up a situation that students are likely to encounter in real life. Unlike the audio lingual method of language teaching, which relies on repetition and drills, the communicative approach can leave students in suspense as to the outcome of a class exercise, which will vary according to their reactions and responses. The real-life situations change from day to day. Students’ motivation to learn comes from their desire to communicate in meaningful ways about meaningful topics.” 3 (Italics mine.)
You may have noticed that I chosen to put certain phrases in italics. Some may find that leaving students in suspense as to the outcome of a class exercise is a good thing. I don’t. The classroom is not a movie theatre, and for the students to not know the outcome of a class exercise is to bamboozle them, shortchange them, and to somehow trick them into thinking that they are learning more than they actually are. If a teacher does not want to shortchange the students by leaving them in suspense as to the outcome of a class exercise, then don’t negotiate for meaning with them.
I’m not saying that the teacher is, and should always be the de facto boss, but negotiating for meaning with them will leave you, as a teacher, with less authority in the eyes of your students. It will also leave your students with a lot less respect for you as a teacher.
And just how do we communicate in “meaningful ways” using “meaningful topics?” Is teaching our students how to order a Big Mac with fries in English meaningful? Is putting advanced adults in groups and having them talk about controversial topics such as religion, abortion, or pre-marital sex meaningful? Asking advanced groups of adults what they want to talk about is useless and dangerous. It will lead to confusion as to the roles of the teacher and students. It will lead to anger on the part of the students when their point of view isn’t expressed. And, most importantly, it will lead to the downfall of the class. Don’t believe me? Try talking about religion and see how many of your students come back.
Stephen Bax argues that CLT “has always neglected one key aspect of language teaching—- namely the context in which it takes place—- and that the consequences of this are serious, to the extent that we need to demote CLT as our main paradigm, and adopt something more similar to what I term a Context Approach.” 4 (Italics mine.)
Bax argues that his context approach takes into account many different ways of learning a language, that “Other methods and approaches may be equally valid” 5, and that “the context is a crucial determiner of the success or failure of learners.” 6
CLT also tells us to create a “natural environment” in the classroom so that students can communicate naturally. Create a natural environment in the classroom where students can communicate naturally? Just whose environment are we talking about? If I, as a Canadian, is teaching in Bangkok, do I go with a Canadian environment or a Bangkokian environment? And just what is a Canadian or a Bangkokian environment anyway? The same goes for a British female teaching in Osaka, Japan or an American male teaching in Pusan, Korea. Which environment are we speaking of, and how, specifically, are we to go about magically transforming a sterile classroom into a Pizza Hut so that our students can feel comfortable ordering a large cheese crust with everything on it?
But the failure of CLT goes way beyond simply attempting to create a more natural environment for our students. Here are some other major flaws of the Communicative Approach.
(a) CLT takes too much time for students to actually learn anything substantive.
(b) CLT takes too much for granted in relation to the students.
(c) CLT leaves too much open to chance.
Let’s take these flaws one at a time.
(a) CLT takes too much time for students to actually learn anything substantive.
At the Bangkok language school where I used to teach last year, there were 17 levels. Levels one through 15 with two pre-levels (A and B) prior to level one. Let’s say that some poor soul tested into pre-level A and wants to go through the whole system of 17 levels. Each level consists of six weeks with a one week break between each level, a two week break for Songkran (the Thai New Year and water festival) and a three week break for Christmas and New Years. If my math serves me correctly, 17 x 6 = 102. Add about 20 weeks for all the breaks between levels and that takes us up to 122 weeks. That’s almost 28 months, or two years and four and a half months to get through the system. And that’s without failing any of the “Gateway” tests and the level 15 speaking test, which many students fail and choose to repeat.
Let’s look at this realistically. Do busy, hardworking adult students have 30, 28, or even 24 months to learn English? I fully realize that it takes time to learn another language, but I also understand that in today’s fast-paced globalized work environment, students not only need to learn English, they need to learn it very quickly. Or at least as quickly as possible. There are English language schools using methods, like the Callan Method, which claims that students learn in one quarter of the time. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but a more direct method may prove to be a more effective way of teaching English to many Asian students who are not used to a student- centered atmosphere.
(b) CLT takes too much for granted in relation to the students.
CLT is certainly a fun way to teach and I’m sure it’s a fun way to learn. Using warmers to begin the class, pair-work, group work, etc. takes the onus and some of the pressure off the teacher, but, again, we must ask ourselves, is this the best way for our students to learn? Student generated activities are sometimes fine. It can break the monotony of a more teacher-centered, direct method of learning. But we are only fooling ourselves and shortchanging the students if we believe that a steady diet of CLT and student generated activities will, in the end, somehow magically transform our students into confident and proficient English speakers. EFL students want, need, and expect results for the money they spend on English lessons and the time they spend in the classroom. CLT alone is not meeting those wants, needs, and expectations.
(c) CLT leaves too much open to chance.
Specifically, CLT tells the students that once they are in groups, something magical will happen. They will talk, discuss, even debate the particular topic or activity. They will banter and argue, (amicably, of course), and, eventually, they will reach a consensus and conclusion that they will present to the whole class for its approval. In theory this sounds fantastic, and it sometimes does happen. But more often than not, it doesn’t. More often than not we Western English teachers are teaching in countries and cultures where discussing openly, debating, bantering, arguing, and reaching a consensus is not encouraged among its population. That is another problem with CLT.
Although there are times when CLT will lead to “Eureka!” moments, and may lead to serendipitous discoveries among the students, these are few and far between. Serendipitous discoveries are those “magical moments” when the proverbial light bulb goes off in a student’s head. Magical and rare moments, indeed, but serendipity alone can never compensate for a more holistic approach to second language acquisition.
Failure, especially a failing system, can never be made an option. It is an unfortunate and inevitable result of the educational endeavor. It is never pleasant to have some of your students fail a test, the final exam, or your class. Even though failure in an inevitable result of the learning experience, it should never be made an option of any educational institution. Once failure of the students is made an option, it thus becomes a failure of the system to meet the specific needs of the students.
Getting back to the “Gateway” tests at my former school, in teaching the communicative approach, just what is it that we’re testing our students for? What is it precisely and specifically that we’re asking our students to regurgitate? If CLT did not fail the students so consistently and in such large numbers, then the failure rate for these “Gateway” tests should be no more than 15%. And it certainly should never be more than 20%. But we must first find out what it is that we are testing our students for. We can drastically reduce the failure rate of our students if these three conditions are met:
(a) The school must have a mission which corresponds to the social and economic realities of the day.
(b) The method of teaching being used by the school must correspond to how the local population learns.
(c) The school, the teachers, and the students must be “on the same page” as to how this method is implemented.
The school’s mission is extremely important and can never be underestimated. A school’s mission gives the teachers a very clear idea of where it wants to take the students. It also gives the students a very clear idea of whether the school takes them seriously enough to invest the time, money, and energy in developing a system and method of language learning that will allow the students to achieve their desired results in the shortest possible time.
Going back to my former school in Bangkok, this language school was established in the early 1950’s and was the first English language school in Thailand. Back then it’s mission was to spread the English language and American culture throughout the Kingdom of Siam, while preventing the spread of Southeast Asian Communism from entering Siam. At the time it was certainly a worthwhile goal, especially if you were a Capitalist landowner. But we now live in the 21st Century. We now have computers and satellite television. And the last time I turned on CNN, Laos was not about to invade Thailand. Cuba is not about to send over spy planes. We now live in different times.
This brings me to my third external and indisputable truth: “Time doesn’t change things, things change in time.” Since things change in time, missions must also change with the times. Let’s look at how other schools see their mission.
One Callan (Direct Method) School in Bangkok says its mission is to “enhance the potential of students to understand, respond to, and contribute to a rapidly changing world.” They also seek to “accomplish this mission by teaching language, tutoring Math and Science and by preparing students for success for the many tests that will be given by academic institutions.” 7 (Italics mine.) Rapidly changing world; preparing students for tests; Sounds like this school is taking their responsibilities seriously.
Another Callan Method School in Bangkok, this one for children, says that their mission is “to help Thai people both understand and enjoy the benefits of improved communication skills in English.” 8
A bit vague and unspecific, perhaps, but in her letter to the parents on the school’s website, Managing Director, Khun Uthaiwan Jantharan tells them that by sending their children to her school, “we can build upon the lessons you have taught and allow them to become not only well qualified and highly capable in the profession they intend to choose, but also help them to achieve their goals with excellence.” 9 (Now this should be the school’s mission statement.)
Stephen Bax and others in the ELT field, see a paradigm shift in how we think about and actually go about teaching EFL students. Bax claims that we are going from CLT to a more context approach. A context approach has always been essential in teaching EFL. “Good teachers naturally take account of the context in which they teach—- the culture, the students, and so on—- even when they hold that CLT is essentially the answer.” 10
Remember my student from a past academic writing class who exclaimed, “We don’t learn like that!” in reference to Westernized textbooks and teaching methods. (See last month’s column.) We must take into account how other people learn. This doesn’t mean that we must throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. On the contrary. Bax sums it up:
“With all these factors given their full importance as far as possible in each situation, the teacher will then identify a suitable approach and language focus. The decision will depend on the ‘context analysis’. It may be that an emphasis on grammar is useful to start with, or an emphasis on oral communication. It may be that lexis will come first. It may be that groupwork is suitable, or a more formal lecture mode. The approach will probably be eclectic, in order to meet varied learner needs. All this will take place within a framework of generating communication—- CLT will not be forgotten. But it will not be allowed to overrule context. Then, as the lesson unfolds, the teacher will aim to be as attentive as possible to contextual factors, and will patronize these over methodological aspects.” 11
Here are a couple of important points for language schools to consider when taking the contemporary needs of the students into account:
A good language school does not put 20—25 students into a CLT student-centered classroom and simply hopes for the best. A good language school limits a context based, method-centered classroom to no more than 8—10 students and expects the best. Why? Because CLT student-centered classes may have a general function, but they don’t serve a specific pedagogical purpose outside of the communicative aspect. Students are spending their time and money not for function, but for a specific purpose and for results.
1 Thanasoulas, Dimitrios. “The Changing Winds and Shifting Sands of the History of English Language Teaching.”
2 Language Acquisition: Glossary of Second and Primary Language Acquisition Terms.
3 Galloway, Ann. “Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction and Sample Activities.”
Center for Applied Linguistics, ERIC Digest. June 1993.
4 Bax, Stephen. “The End of CLT: A Context Approach to Language Teaching.”
ELT Journal. Volume 57/3 July 2003. Oxford University Press. p. 278.
5 Ibid. p. 281.
6 Ibid. p. 281.
7 Learning Achievements (LA) Language School. Bangkok, Thailand. Mission Statement.
8 Marilyn Language School (MLS.) Bangkok, Thailand. Mission Statement.
10 Bax, Stephen. “The End of CLT: A Context Approach to Language Teaching.”
ELT Journal. Volume 57/3 July 2003. Oxford University Press. p.284.
11 Ibid. p. 285.