Communicative Approach

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A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1) Michael Swan

This (the first of two articles) examines some of the more theoretical ideas underlying the ‘Communicative Approach‘. These include the belief that we should teach ‘use’ as well as ‘meaning; and some attitudes regarding the teaching of ‘skills’ and ‘strategies’. A second article will deal with more pedagogical aspects of the approach, especially the idea of a ‘semantic syllabus’ and the question of ‘authenticity’ in materials and methodology. In both articles, it is argued that there is serious confusion in the communicative view of these matters. In particular, the Communicative Approach fails to take account of the knowledge and skills which language students bring with them from their mother tongue and their experience of the world. Introduction There is nothing so creative as a good dogma. During the last few years, under the influence of the ‘Communicative Approach’, language teaching seems to have made great progress. Syllabus design has become a good deal more sophisticated, and we are able to give our students a better and more complete picture than before of how language is used. In methodology, the change has been dramatic. The boring and mechanical exercise types which were so common ten or fifteen years ago have virtually disappeared, to be replaced by a splendid variety of exciting and engaging practice activities. All this is very positive, and it is not difficult to believe that such progress in course design has resulted in a real improvement in the speed and quality of language learning. And yet . . . A dogma remains a dogma, and in this respect the ‘communicative revolution’ is little different from its predecessors in the language teaching field. If one reads through the standard books and articles on the communicative teaching of English, one finds assertions about language use and language learning falling like leaves in autumn; facts, on the other hand, tend to be remarkably thin on the ground. Along with its many virtues, the Communicative Approach unfortunately has most of the typical vices of an intellectual revolution: it over-generalizes valid but limited insights until they become virtually meaningless; it makes exaggerated claims for the power and novelty of its doctrines; it misrepresents the currents of thought it has replaced; it is often characterized by serious intellectual confusion; it is choked with jargon. In this article I propose to look critically at certain concepts which form part of the theoretical basis of the new orthodoxy, in an attempt to reduce the confusion which surrounds their use, and which unfortunately forms a serious obstacle to sensible communication in the field. I shall discuss in particular: (1) the idea of a ‘double level of meaning’ associated with such terms as ‘rules of use’ and ‘rules of communication’, and the related concept of ‘appropriacy’; and (2) some confusions regarding ‘skills’ and ‘strategies’. ELT Journal Volume39/1 January 1985

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In a later article, I shall deal with: (3) the idea of a semantic (‘notional/ functional’) syllabus, and (4) the ‘real life’ fallacy in materials design and methodology. I shall find it convenient to argue as if the Communicative Approach were a coherent and monolithic body ofdoctrine. This is, ofcourse, far from being the case. Individual applied linguists and teacher trainers vary widely in their acceptance and interpretation of the different ideas which I shall discuss here. Some of the views quoted are becoming outmoded, and would not necessarily be defended today by their originators. But whatever their current status in academic circles, all of these ideas are familiar, widespread, and enormously influential among language teachers, and they merit serious scrutiny. Meaning and use A basic communicative doctrine is that earlier approaches to language teaching did not deal properly with meaning. According to the standard...
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