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



References: Alexander, L. 1977. Handout for seminar at the British Council, Paris. Brumfit, C. J. 1981. ‘Accuracy and fluency.’ Practical English Teaching 1/3. Candlin, C. (ed.). 1981. The Communicative Teaching of English. London: Longman. Johnson, K. 1981. Introduction to Johnson and Morrow (eds.). 1981. Johnson, K. and K. Morrow (eds.). 1981. Communication in the Classroom. London: Longman. Scott, R. 1981. ‘Speaking’ in Johnson and Morrow (eds.). 1981. Widdowson, H. G. 1978. Teaching Language as Communination. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wilkins, D. 1976. Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wilkins, D. 1983. ‘Some issues in communicative language teaching and their relevance to the teaching of languages in secondary schools’ in Perspectives in Communicative Language Teaching. London: Academic Press. The author Michael Swan was formerly Principal of the Swan School of English, Oxford, and has taught English in Britain and France. For the last few years he has worked full-time as a writer of ELT materials, and has published several textbooks, mostly with Cambridge University Press. 12 Michael Swan articles welcome

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