Communicative methodologies have been popular in ESOL since the 1980s. Richards and Rodgers describe them as “a major paradigm shift…whose ramifications continue to be felt today” (Richards and Rodgers 2007: 151). The shift is from Situational Language Teaching, where “language was taught by practicing basic structures in meaningful situation-based activities”, to a focus on “the functional and communicative potential of language” (153). The aim of ‘communicative language teaching’ is defined by Paul Knight:
The desired outcome is that the learner can communicate successfully in the target language in real situations, rather than have a conscious understanding of the rules governing that language. (Knight 2007: 155)
Such an approach can then be seen as emphasizing communication over structure, or as Littlewood defines it, “it pays systematic attention to functional as well as structural aspects of language” (Littlewood 1981: 1). It is interesting for my research that such an approach was born from shifts in European boundaries, the development of The Council of Europe, and the rise of the European Common Market, which demanded a more practical and functional language ability for citizens of member countries. Richards and Rodgers provide another summarized definition:
An approach (and not a method) that aims to (a) make communicative competence the goal of language teaching and (b) develop procedures for the teaching of the four language skills that acknowledge the interdependence of language and communication.
(Richards and Rodgers 2007: 155)
As it is not a prescriptive ‘method’ then the communicative approach is open to be interpreted in differing ways. Howatt for example contrasts a more standard ‘weak version’ , which stresses communication as part of a wider program of teaching, with a ‘strong version’, which “advances the claim that language is acquired through communication” and so would focus entirely on communication (Howatt 1984: 279). Finnochiaro and Brumfit make a table to contrast key features of communicative teaching with audiolingual methodologies. This includes interesting points for teaching such as allowing errors as “language is created by the individual, often through trial and error” (Finnochiaro and Brumfit 1983: 93), the role of the teacher to “help learners in any way that motivates them” rather than “control” them (92), or a focus on students interacting with each other rather than just with machines or “controlled materials” (92).
Again, ways of implementing communicational methodologies have also been varied. Some have argued that the syllabus should be abolished entirely to allow a focus on the needs of individual learners (Richards and Rodgers 2007: 165). Others suggest a “grammatically focused syllabus around which notions, functions, and communicational activities are grouped” (165). As the focus is on communication, classroom activities emphasise processes such as “information sharing, negotiation of meaning and interaction” (165). How this is done is left open. An example would be to have one student describing an image which another would have to guess. This would be what Littlewood classifies as a ‘functional communicational activity’ (Littlewood 1981). However, the approach also included what Littlewood defines as ‘social interaction activities’ so could incorporate, say, role-plays or debates. An ‘information gap’ activity would be appropriate, when one student has some information, which they have to share with others in order to make a decision or solve a problem. What is important is that they are more focused on the information they are communicating than on the structures they are using to communicate it. Harmer expands on this, “They should use a variety of language rather than just one language structure. The teacher will not intervene to stop the activity” (Harmer 2001: 85). Information Gap activities have also been used in contemporary teaching methodologies alongside developments in technologies. Joanna Norton for example developed an activity “that involved learners using mobile phones to send pictures and using email attachments” (NATECLA 2008b: 4).
As Raptou points out:
These types of activities are extremely effective…They give every student the opportunity to speak in the target language for an extended period of time, and students naturally produce more speech than they would otherwise. (Raptou 2001: 1)
Rather than a ‘teacher-centred’ scenario where the teacher is the main speaker and leader, while students mainly listen and respond, here the teacher plays the role more of a ‘facilitator’, allowing a more student-centred model. These scenarios may be more fun for students than, say, the repetition of drills, and allow for an aware teacher to notice where problems lie and help students in appropriate ways, which may of course be different for each student. Raptou describes another advantage of this approach in that “students are forced to negotiate meaning because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task” (Raptou 2001: 2). This, she claims, leads to increased motivation, even participation, and an acceptable level of accuracy. Breen and Candlin have emphasized the role of “learner as negotiator” (Breen and Candlin 1980: 110), and the focus in this approach is definitely on the learner and the way they can negotiate the classroom procedures and activities to get meaningful results.
There are also problems with such an approach however. Firstly, Richards and Rodgers point out that the “range of exercises is unlimited” (2007: 165), which on one hand may be good, but may also make implementation difficult, especially for teachers lacking imagination themselves. Secondly, communicational activities requires a certain level of knowledge of the language already, so would be harder to implement with students at a very basic level. Thirdly, it may be hard for the teacher, as ‘facilitator’, to have control over difficult situations which may arise . Fourthly, while a student-centred focus may be ideal for certain (positive-minded) students, it could be seen by others as offering the potential for laziness. Also, such emphasis on the learner may not be suitable for less able or less imaginative students. Fifthly, communicational activities are harder to assess than more grammatically focused exercises, and this may lead to more errors that go unnoticed or uncorrected. Accuracy may be sacrificed at the cost of communication. Bearing the advantages and disadvantages of such approaches in mind, communicative methodologies must be incorporated into the syllabus when appropriate but may not always provide an entire model of teaching. This requires an analysis of, say, what balance between communication and accuracy needs to be struck, abilities of the learners and the type of classroom situation.
The grammar translation method was established in the mid 19th century and based on the study of Latin. Its emphasis was heavily on the learning of grammar, “textbook compilers were mainly determined to codify the foreign language into frozen rules of morphology and syntax to be explained and eventually memorized” (Titone 1968: 27). Focus was on written work rather than spoken communication, and work was mainly to drill in the application of learnt rules. Richards and Rodgers point out some of the main characteristics of this method. These include the focus on the sentence as the basic unit of teaching and language practice an emphasis on accuracy, and teaching in the student’s native language (Richards and Rodgers 2007: 6).
The method then can be seen in direct opposition to communication methodologies. It focuses on grammar, accuracy and writing rather than functional and communicative speech. It is teacher-centred, leaving little freedom for the student to adapt methods to their own particular needs, and it can be tedious, involving endless learning of lists and tables removed from informative contexts. As Richards and Rodgers point out, the method emerged mainly from a context where “the goal of language study is to learn a language in order to read its literature” (7), and it is still used today in contexts where literary study is important and there is no need for speaking knowledge of the language. Otherwise, it is uncommon and unpopular, “there is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it” (7). As Scott Thornbury points out, this method has generally been replaced by more communicative approaches:
For a long time language teaching operated on the basis that accuracy should precede fluency, and that the only speaking learners were allowed was the oral manipulation of recently taught grammar structures…
..A radical re-thinking of the relative importance of accuracy and fluency fuelled the evolution of the communicative approach.
(Thornbury 2008: 115).
Functional Method Syllabus
A syllabus is made up of four main elements: aims; content; methodology and evaluation. Michael P. Breen defines the functional method syllabus as, “focusing on particular purposes of language and how these would be expressed linguistically” (Breen 2007: 152). This suggests a break with pre-1970 conventions by focusing on use of language rather than on linguistic knowledge. Such syllabuses were common throughout the 1970s as Breen expands, “Special purpose syllabuses and teaching materials were quickly developed focusing upon language knowledge and skills needed for academic study or specific occupations, e.g. engineering or medicine” (152). However, such development of syllabuses has also been criticised . Firstly, from a perspective of limitation:
The teaching of a repertoire of functions or special purpose language was considered by some as limiting the learner’s potential to certain fixed communicative situations or fixed social and occupational roles. (152)
According to this criticism, as proposed by Brumfit (1984),while more general syllabuses would allow learners to adapt knowledge to specific situations, those on functional method may be restricted to this particular situation, limiting the possibility of them adapting their language to other situations, and so leaving them trapped in a particular linguistic or social role. Another criticism suggested that while functional method syllabuses differed in some ways from formal ones, they retained their ‘synthetic’ nature, meaning that learners had to accumulate knowledge in a decontextualised way, then ‘synthesize’ this knowledge in real-life situations (Breen 2007: 152). Further, they were seen as only ‘partial’ as “either formal or functional knowledge of linguistic structures or utterances were just two elements within broader communicative competence” (152). Breen suggests that they are restrictive as they focus too much on how linguists define language, rather than how language learning is actually done from the perspective of the learner. As my argument is situated mainly in a functional context, I must bear these criticisms in mind in relation to the context of my argument. Functional method syllabuses were largely replaced by ‘task-based syllabuses’, which drew on communicative methods in order to focus more on how language is learnt, on a broader context, and on language as a whole. As Breen argues, “the goal of the syllabus designer became the provision of suitable tasks to encourage interaction and, through it, negotiation for meaning. Others have agreed with this, proposing that syllabus focus should be on task rather than form or function (Prabhu 1984). Functional syllabuses are used however. Livia Faqirne Patel for example co-ordinates an ESOL for Work course which focuses on compulsory topics such as job search and interview techniques (NATECLA 2008b; 11). Such courses draw on histories of functional method syllabuses and are still important today.
The Callan Method was established in 1959 and claims to teach a language “in a quarter of the time” of conventional methods (Callan 2009). Developing from audiolingual approaches, it was established as a more effective way to learn than grammar translation methods. It does this through a rigid fixed methodology focused around speech and speed. The teacher asks questions quickly and the student must respond. It focuses on basics of language so that, “students are never distracted by rare or complicated vocabulary” (Callan 2009) and claims to develop attention and memory. Its press materials repeatedly emphasise its efficiency, and how it is ideal for learning language for practical skills rather than intellectual pleasure. In this way, it shares aims with functional syllabus methods. Students are constantly involved in the process, and repetition is used as a key component of learning.
It uses techniques such as ‘drilling’, which is the use of repetition and imitation of chunks of language, generally in a mechanical way, after stimulus from the teacher or audio material. The purpose of it is to cement learned material into a student’s mind, and for the student to practice speaking in order for grammatical structures to seem natural. Scott Thornbury points out some of the benefits of drilling. Firstly, that “it may in fact be a useful noticing technique” (Thornbury 2008: 64). If repetitions are incorrect then the teacher can notice this and correct them. Secondly, he suggests that the use of repetition has an important effect on the memory of language:
Drilling may also function to move items from working memory into long-term memory, just as we tend to memorise new PIN codes or telephone numbers by repeating them a number of times. (64)
Thirdly, he suggests that drilling “provides a means of gaining articulatory control over language” (64). In other words, through repetition, students get used to actually pronouncing and properly articulating the words and phrases, rather than just seeing them written down.
While drilling may have benefits, it has also been criticized. Paul Knight points out for example “that it promoted mindless repetition over communication” (Knight 2007: 152). This suggests that techniques of drilling fail to teach complexities of language, and ways in which language is used in pragmatic situations. It focuses on speaking rather than writing, and on grammar and unconscious absorption of information, rather than communication. It is also very ‘teacher centred’ giving no opportunity for students to respond in any other way than the drill requires. The drill allows little imagination or creativity on behalf of the student, which may lower motivation and willingness to learn. These criticisms may be directed at the Callan Method as a whole. While it may be effective in certain situations, it allows no space for creativity or imagination. Also, as it has been marketed as a rigid fixed method, it allows no possibility for change, leading its language use to seem dated.
The Callan Method is a ‘direct method’ of teaching and its oral focus can be traced as developing from the audiolingual method, based on assumptions such as, “foreign language learning is basically a process of mechanical habit” (Richards and Rodgers 2007: 57) and that target language items are learnt better if presented in spoken form rather than written form first. It is also open then to criticisms of audiolingual methods in general. Chomsky for example, questions its linguistic assumptions by arguing that, “language is not a habit structure” as innovation is also important (Chomsky 1966: 153). As Richards and Rodgers summarise, such methods may teach “language-like behaviours” but not “competence” (2007: 66). Despite these criticisms of its mechanization of language however, the Callan Method is still currently popular, and the Callan School in London is reputedly the largest language school in the UK.
Brumfit, C.J. (ed) (1984) General English Syllabus Design, ELT Documents 118. Oxford: Pergamon / The British Council
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NATECLA News (2008a), National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults News, Summer 2008
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Accessed 11th April 2009
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Titone, R. (1968) Teaching Foreign Languages: An Historical Sketch Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press