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Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative Language Teaching

21 September, 2016

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is a strategy to the teaching of second and foreign languages that emphasizes communication as both the means and the ultimate purpose of learning a language.


As an extension of the notional-functional syllabus, CLT also places great stress on helping students use the target language in a variety of contexts and places great emphasis on learning language functions. Unlike the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM), its primary focus is on helping learners create meaning instead of helping them develop perfectly grammatical structures or acquire native-like pronunciation. This means that successfully learning a foreign language is assessed in terms of how well learners have developed their communicative competence, which can loosely be defined as their ability to apply knowledge of both formal and sociolinguistic aspects of a language with adequate proficiency to communicate.

CLT is usually characterized as a wide approach to teaching, rather than as a teaching method with a clearly defined set of classroom practices. As such, it is most often defined as a list of general principles or features.

One of the most renowned of these lists is David Nunan’s (1991) five features of CLT:

  1. A highlight on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus, not only on language but also on the learning process itself.
  4. A development of the learner’s own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language learning with language activities outside the classroom.

These five features are claimed by practitioners of CLT to show that they are very interested in the needs and desires of their learners as well as the connection between the language as it is taught in their class and as it used outside the classroom.

Under this broad umbrella definition, any teaching practice that helps students improve their communicative competence in an authentic context is deemed an acceptable and beneficial form of instruction. Thus, in the classroom CLT often takes the form of pair and group work requiring negotiation and cooperation between learners, fluency-based activities that encourage learners to develop their confidence, role-plays in which students practice and develop language functions, as well as judicious use of grammar and pronunciation focused activities.

Relationship with Other Methods and Approaches


Historically, CLT has been seen as a reaction to the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM), and as an extension or development of the Notional-Functional Syllabus.

Audio-Lingual Method

The Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) arose as a direct result of the need for foreign language proficiency in listening and speaking skills during and after World War II. It is closely tied to behaviorism, and thus made drilling, repetition, and habit-formation central elements of instruction. Advocates of ALM felt that this emphasis on repetition necessitated a corollary emphasis on accuracy, claiming that continual repetition of errors would lead to the fixed acquisition of incorrect structures and non-standard pronunciation.

In the classroom, lessons were often prepared by grammatical structure and presented through short dialogs. Often, students listened repeatedly to recordings of conversations and focused on precisely mimicking the pronunciation and grammatical structures in these dialogs.

Critics of ALM asserted that this over-emphasis on repetition and accuracy ultimately did not help students attain communicative competence in the target language. They looked for new ways to present and organize language instruction, and advocated the notional functional syllabus, and eventually CLT as the most effective way to teach second and foreign languages.

Notional Functional Syllabus

A notional-functional syllabus is more a way of organizing a language learning curriculum than a method or a strategy to teaching. In a notional-functional syllabus, instruction is organized not in terms of grammatical structure as had often been done with the ALM, but in terms of “notions” and “functions.” In this model, a “notion” is a particular context in which people communicate, and a “function” is a specific purpose for a speaker in a given context. As an example, the “notion” or context shopping needs numerous language functions including asking about prices or features of a product and bargaining. Similarly, the notion party would require numerous functions like introductions and greetings and discussing interests and hobbies. Supporters of the notional-functional syllabus argued that it addressed the deficiencies they found in the ALM by helping students develop their ability to effectively interact in a variety of real-life contexts.