Matt Smith

CLT again

Establishing a ‘communicative English language teaching environment’

I’ve thought a lot about this; to describe the biggest challenge I have always experienced teaching Asian students, it’s probably best to say that it is most difficult to establish a ‘communicative English language teaching environment’. To outline the problems in a few sentences, it has always been very difficult to firstly get students to understand that the reason for which language exists is to communicate meaning, or more specifically to communicate our thinking (the ideas in our heads, or dancing of information through our neurons) unto others. Or, alternatively, to get meaning from the gestures and utterances of others. And, that they have to want to do that before language teaching and learning really is of any significant benefit to them. In other words, what I think lies at the heart of the biggest problems that I’ve faced is that Asian students don’t, without any training, really equate the sounds you’re teaching them and the symbols they are looking at on paper, or that (heaven forbid) you are asking them to produce on paper, with anything more significant than a bunch of silly sounds and squiggles; consequently, or furthermore, they don’t really want to do a lot of the language workouts that language teachers recommend to familiarise them with the system that puts sound and squiggles together to create meaning in a second language, probably because they don’t realize that what they are learning is a code, or a special combination of the sounds and squiggles we can produce that will transcribe our thoughts into a communicable form, and thus can’t really see the point of what you’re up to. You’re then faced, on top of this of course, with the fact that in many situations the English teacher is faced with in Asia, even if they do understand the context of what they are doing, for a variety of reasons they don’t want to expend the effort in doing it; the culmination of all this is that really, the English language teacher is then left in a bit of a pickle.

The nature of that pickle being a particularly tiresome one; there are acres of established language teaching workouts out there for us to choose from, and indeed there are many tried and tested varieties that are, at any time, not too difficult for us to produce ourselves. It is very difficult, however, to get many Asian students to engage in a lot of regular style workouts, I have found that usually after I have explained what I want them to do until I am blue in the face, and why I want them to do it, it is still necessary to walk around and explain to each person individually the nature of the task. And, most often, to actually goad them into doing what they are supposed to be doing after they get the gist of it, often even to the point of demanding they pick up their pen (or open their mouths, whichever the case may be) and get cracking. The point is, in other words, that they are not naturally present in the classroom with the view that doing workouts, or activities, is how you learn a language. Even if they are, there is no guarantee whatsoever that they are present in the classroom with the desire to burn any brain energy engaging in such workouts. Or, that they really want to try and understand what little bit of English language knowledge you are passing on to them, and give it a go themselves. Before I go too far here by the way I am not suggesting that this problem is exclusive to Asian students, I have just stuck to that category because it defines the limits of most of my language teaching experience…although I would say that the university classes I teach here in Thailand, particularly when it comes to my Chinese students, are a lot less focussed on the teaching/learning dialogue, or more specifically are a lot less attentive to what the teacher is proposing to them, and on mastering the subject of the lesson, than the people in any university class I ever sat in in Australia. Again though, I am not blaming this on their ‘Asian-ness’ here at all, it could be that if I had sat in different types of classes in Australia, I might have found that those in faculties other than humanities, or at universities other than those I went to, were perhaps very much the same – the honest truth, which is what I am trying to express here, is that I am not in a position where I could say with any certainty otherwise, this issue would require a lot of further examination.

At any rate, that it is the case that a lot of Asian students tune out especially for explanations of theory and activities, and then don’t engage in said activities, backs the English language teacher into somewhat of a corner; as I have said here previously, and as I have seen Steve Schertzer allude to on many occasions (in the sense that he genuinely wants his students to engage in the teaching/learning dialogue), this situation could very well be argued to be what whips up the ‘games fervour’, or what leaves so many teachers in so many countries frantically searching for a game or gimmick that is going to, like sitting a TV in the corner, at least draw the students’ eyes towards them. I got caught up in this myself at first; I stepped into the classroom with what I thought was an adequate grasp of some genuinely interesting kinds of English teaching and learning activities that I had gained from my training and academic background. Only to discover that all the things that I had been told were the heart of communicative language teaching were completely ineffective, on the grounds that the students couldn’t care less about listening to the nature of established activities, let alone in making any sort of effort to participate in them in what we might say was a ‘serious learning’ frame of mind. Because, moreover, I blamed this on myself, or blamed this on the fact that I thought my teaching style was inadequate, I at first simply looked for a new approach – all around me in Korean hagwons there was the games fervour, and it was all too easy to fall into thinking that this was the way to go. Nor, I should add, is it simply the poor old foreign teacher who is acting out of desperation in this context – I couldn’t count the number of times I have heard in the years since, from Asian teachers themselves (the Thais were lamenting this to me just last week), that communicative teaching is ineffective in Asian classrooms, they get just as downcast about the situation as we do.

I’ve since wised up a bit, however. If you make, as I have said before, playing a game, or singing a song, the object of your teaching, it’s a very ineffective way of teaching – as any education graduate knows, you have to make the deliverance of some knowledge or understanding the object of your teaching, games, songs, and other materials or workouts are merely the vehicles for this transmission (this knowledge, furthermore, has to be appropriately sequenced, this is Education 101). When you get the hang of it, this in no way diminishes the relief you get from having an activity that does draw the students’ attention, or doesn’t take away at all from the fact that lessons are livened up with an injection of technology, liveliness, friendly competition or fun; all it does it put these things in a context that is much more expedient to students’ second language development. On the flipside, as Steve has said, you shouldn’t feel compelled to think that everything should be a game – the many books and papers on the subject I have since read, in my quest to see where I was going wrong, all give testimony to the fact that language learning, for any age, most definitely is a cognitive endeavour, and that contemporary CLT activities very much represent the cutting edge in terms of making this endeavour interesting, effective and fun. In other words, what I now know is this; sure, a lot of it was my fault to begin with, because a novice has to be that by definition. However, the students we are faced with here in Asia, or that I have at least been faced with, aren’t in a CLT frame of mind when you meet them, and as I have since also noted a lot of people try to tell us in the literature, rather than avoiding the responsibility (because it is the most arduous and emotionally upsetting part of teaching), we have to put in the effort to make sure that their attitude towards their classes is appropriate to the approach. Which isn’t, and it took me personally a long time to overcome my insecurities and arrive firmly at this conclusion, asking them to really make any sacrifices on your behalf – a proper communicative language teaching and learning environment is the best sort of teaching and learning environment you can give them, and thus they themselves have the obligation to make sure that their own attitudes meet your efforts to try and do your best by them.

But, as I started out here by saying, it is not easy. If they genuinely want to get or generate meaning from the English language, they have to try and speak, they have to be patient and quiet while their friends are trying to speak, they have to listen to the teacher give instructions and explain theory without zoning out, they have to write stuff down, they have to ask questions when they don’t understand, they have to learn to keep trying when they are not understood, and they have to learn strategies by which to get others to make themselves understandable to them - in short, they have to do all the things they are so very un-wont to do. Still, this is what I have found; by implementing strategies that get them to do all these things, and I have found one definitely has to implement the rod as well as the carrot, although it is a very terrible ordeal, at the end of the day the execution of your job as a teacher becomes enormously easier (it drives me crazy, for example, when the students won’t listen when I am speaking, particularly if I have spent a long time making a great lesson for them, I wouldn’t have been able to stick at my job if I hadn’t figured out ways to get past this). Strategy-wise, this is what I have used myself – I devised activities that increase their metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness (boy, do I understand now why so many theorists tell us these days to do this), or that get them to understand what language is and how you have to learn it (because you won’t agree that the teacher is providing you with decent activities if you can’t grasp this). I spent a lot of time walking around the class making sure they knew the behaviour that was expected of them (i.e. that they were actually following instructions and doing activities). And I put in place systems of penalties that would adversely affect students who didn’t want to adhere to the teaching and learning contract. All this stuff, is what I am trying to say here, takes effort and misery to put in place; however, if I could give any advice to anyone who might be suffering the way I initially did it is that expending this energy is absolutely worth it.

Personally, in fact, I would say that the practice that most improved any of my classes, by far and away was the practice of walking around the class (particularly in writing classes) and making sure that students were doing the activities, and furthermore knew what they were going to get from them – it was, I admit, as we would say in Thai the biggest ‘lum-barg’, especially when you have just explained everything to everyone altogether (with slide shows, flashing lights, and every other aid to comprehension one can think of it). When they get used to doing what they are supposed to be doing, however - and after the initial anguish of ‘police work’, or of confronting people, this took a surprisingly short time to happen (don’t give up, I mean, you get past the anguish soon) – when they get used to doing what they are supposed to be doing, your life immediately becomes a lot more interesting and pleasanter. I guess, too, that there are many of you, like me, who wouldn’t think that at a university even this police-work was going to be necessary (and it is a far cry from the university classes I taught in Australia) – I assure you it is, however, if you move to one, then, just like at schools and academies, if you want things to be better, this is what you are going to find yourself doing.

The last thing to add here, I suppose, being what is meant by a ‘proper’ CLT approach; the first thing I would do here, because it took me countless books before the penny finally dropped into place, is direct you to a great book from the Cambridge Teaching Library written by Dubain and Olshtain called ‘Course Design’. Read that, and I would say you will understand what I have been talking about. Although I could add, from my own burgeoning understanding, that when we talk about CLT what we are talking about is this – before, with grammar translation (where you learn a verb tense and then practice it in the text in a variety of examples, or so on, until you have ‘acquired the language), meaning wasn’t the principal item being negotiated. This involves interaction between people, and between the learner and the things that people have genuinely written or said to communicate ideas to people, and not an interface with dry and artificial examples – communicative language teaching is an attempt to make meaning the focus, or is the evolution of earlier approaches in ways that address their shortcomings (it subsumes them, not supplants them). I won’t go on but, because if I did I still wouldn’t get it half as good as Dubain and Olshtain have already – again, I defer you, as the best starting point that I have come across, to their wonderful little tome.


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