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خانه زبان انگلیسی - communicative approach when teaching English in English-as-a-foreign language


Glenn Deckert
EPORTS ABOUND ON THE PRACTICAL DIFFICULTIES OF IMPLEMENTING A
communicative approach when teaching English in English-as-a-foreign language
(EFL) settings. These settings are the environments in which students have
little exposure to English outside the classroom. Some reports attribute the failure
of the approach to inadequacies of the teachers themselves. Karavas-Doukas
(1996), in her study of 101 local secondary school teachers of English in Greece,
concludes that part of the problem stems from the instructors’ misunderstanding
of the very nature of communicative language teaching (CLT). Thus, she found
that even when using textbooks designed for communicative activities, teachers
tended to revert to traditional teacher-centered routines. Kumaravadivelu (1993),
drawing on teaching experience in India as well as North America, concludes that
teacher trainers sometimes simply fail to equip teachers with the skills and techniques
they need for implementing CLT in their classrooms.
J
THECOMMUNICATIVE APPROACH:
Addressing
Frequent Failure
Often the difficulty is attributed to the EFL
environment. Focusing on cultural values that
may interfere with CLT in Japan, Stapleton
(1995) points out how Confucianism as a
belief system is in tension with underlying
notions of CLT. For example, Confucianism
establishes the superior status and knowledge
of the teacher over that of the students, thus
elevating the role of the teacher above the students.
Similarly, Ellis (1996) raises questions
about the basic compatibility of CLT with
Vietnamese learners, who have deeply rooted
notions about social uses of language. That is,
in Vietnam knowing and using the acceptable
linguistic forms in interpersonal exchange is
highly important. Li (1998), with observations
from South Korea, and Leng (1997), reflecting
on teaching and learning in China, each report
local conditions that are detrimental to CLT
methodology. Li observes the scarcity of relevant
authentic materials, lack of student prerequisite
skills, continued use of traditional
examinations, and the absence of new forms of
assessment to match CLT priorities. Leng
refers to the economic problems that account
for overly large classes, teachers’ heavy teaching
loads and outmoded classroom equipment.
She also points out how administrative practices
in teacher assessment may even penalize
teachers who use communicative techniques in
their classes. Thus, it appears that even instructors
who are well versed in the theory and fundamentals
of communicative language teaching
face an uphill battle in EFL settings.
Frequent challenges
to classroom communication
In spite of the many challenges to implementing
a communicative approach in EFL
contexts, there remains a strong rationale for
pursuing CLT methodology, especially when
instruction envisions learners moving on to
use English for further education or career
advancement. That is, in EFL settings, most
learners outside the classroom lack daily exposure
and inclusion in purposeful exchanges in
the English medium. These EFL learners are
far more dependent upon whatever guided
communicative practice they can get in the
classroom. It is mainly in the classroom that
they can learn, in the words of Larsen-Freeman
(2000), “when and how to say what to
whom” in English (121). Accordingly, proponents
of the CLT approach argue that EFL
students are in need of CLT methodology in
order to gain facility and confidence in using
English. Based on student centeredness, the
CLT approach features low profile teacher
roles, frequent pair work or small group problem
solving, students responding to authentic
samples of English, extended exchanges on
high interest topics, and the integration of the
four basic skills, namely speaking, listening,
reading, and writing. The CLT approach discourages
extensive teacher-controlled drills,
quizzing of memorized material, and extended
commentary on forms of English.
In the face of the many adverse conditions
that militate against significant and authentic
communication among students in EFL classrooms,
my own observations in EFL settings
have led me to conclude that the most frequent
obstacle to CLT is excessive talk on the
part of the teacher. This teacher tendency possibly
rests upon teachers’ own contrary beliefs
about how language learning takes place.
There may be failure to appreciate the way
CLT methodology aims to track the known
processes of second language acquisition.
Alternatively, excessive teacher talk may simply
be the reassertion of old habits that resist
change in spite of teacher acknowledgements
about the value of CLT activities. Conceivably,
lack of preparation time may lead some teachers
to fill the class hour with extemporaneous
talk about the target language. Whatever the
cause, students end up doing less talking. That
is, excessive teacher talk hampers the emergence
of sustained purposeful student talk.
This is not to deny that the breakdown may
indicate a lack of a ready repertoire of CLT
techniques, or that classroom conditions are
often limiting. I also recognize that some instructors
may harbor doubts about their own
ability to model the complex sociolinguistics of
spoken English. Over time, however, much can
be done to alleviate these drawbacks. On the
other hand, the teacher talk variable is most
immediately accessible to change and clearly
under the command of the teacher. I maintain
that as teachers self-impose a reasoned and disciplined
control of their own talk in the classroom,
classroom activities, with a few basic
techniques, will move in the direction of meaningful
exchange between learners.
E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 4 13
Case Study on EFL Classrooms
My recent semester teaching EFL as a Fulbright
Scholar at a university in one of the emirates
on the Persian Gulf gave me fresh opportunity
to investigate the notions and practice of
EFL instructors. Here most of the 75 instructors
giving English instruction to both male
and female Arabic-speaking students were
from surrounding countries, most having
obtained their highest qualification from Western
institutions. I was privileged to be an
observer of many of these colleagues’ classes
and an informal interviewer about my observations.
Also, while teaching my own two English
classes, I was able to administer questionnaires
to my colleagues and a large number of
students to gain further insight into local perspectives
on teaching and learning English in
this EFL context. The questionnaires were
exploratory and wide-ranging. They were but
one means of exploring local notions and
habits regarding teaching and learning English.
The 75 instructors were based in two different
divisions of the university. The majority
were instructors in the English Teaching Unit
that provided approximately 15 hours of English
instruction per week to sections of firstyear
students over a period of two or three
semesters. All entering students, except a few
that had already obtained a score of 500 on a
practice TOEFL exam, had to complete these
courses. The classes in the English Teaching
Unit were composed of students of similar
majors. Textbook materials were chosen for
topical relevance for the students planning to
study engineering, science, social studies, and
business. Other instructors were members of
the English Department and taught the courses
constituting a major in English. The major
consisted of both language and literature,
although my in-class observation was limited
to the language courses. I personally taught
and observed classes in both the Teaching Unit
and the English Department.
As reported from other EFL situations, I
found even in my own classes an initial pull
toward what seemed to be a default position of
traditional teacher-fronted, form-focused
instruction, with the result being a more passive
student role. That is, students’ customary
reliance upon teacher initiative countered my
efforts to make them independent learners.
Although the students had had in secondary
schools several years of English lessons from
curricula with a distinctly CLT orientation,
they seemed restless and distracted in the roles
I assigned. Classes I observed, taught by both
native and non-native English speakers, while
displaying the instructors’ able facility in English,
largely assumed teacher-centered activity.
For example, I witnessed large portions of class
time devoted to the instructor’s analysis and
commentary on students’ written errors,
extended explanations on usage and vocabulary,
and volleys of teacher-initiated exchanges
yielding only short responses from students,
often in chorus.
Often while observing my colleagues’ classes,
after every 30 seconds I ticked on a worksheet
whether the communication at that
instant was coming from the instructor or the
students, whether there was silence, or whether
other kinds of activities were taking place.
Doing this for periods of 30 minutes or more at
a time provided an approximation of the
amount of class time consumed by instructors’
talk versus that of the students. Upon adding
up these notations on class activities, I found
that, typically, instructors were speaking anywhere
from two to five times more often than
all their students combined. I also observed that
in whole class activities, student utterances
more often consisted of just one-, two-, or
three-word utterances. Occurrences of extended
student discourse of several sentences or
more were infrequent except in the case of their
asking questions or delivering prepared speeches.
In eleven observed classes, each lasting either
60 or 90 minutes, eight classes gave a portion of
the time to group activity. The group activity in
five of these cases averaged just 5 minutes; other
classes devoted 12, 20, and 35 minutes to group
work. Spontaneous student communication
dramatically rose when class activity shifted to
these small groups—albeit, not always in the
target language.
Exploring instructor beliefs
In an effort to uncover some of the instructors’
operating beliefs, I administered a questionnaire
to which instructors responded
anonymously. The questionnaire consisted of
24 statements about beliefs and practices followed
by Likert scales to elicit respondents’
level of agreement or disagreement with each
statement. The questionnaire was distributed
14 J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 4 E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M
to 75 instructors of English, nearly all of whom
had at least a Master’s degree in English, education,
or applied linguistics. Of the 41 who
completed and returned the questionnaire, 20
identified themselves as native speakers of Arabic,
14 as native speakers of English, and 7
chose not to specify their first language. Of the
41 respondents, 30 taught in the Teaching
Unit, and 11 worked for the English Department.
On average, these 41 instructors had
taught at the university for nearly 6 years.
Responses to two questionnaire items
directly pertain to the instructor’s understanding
of their classroom role. First, instructors
were asked to respond to the statement, “Generally,
instructors must correct most errors students
make in speaking and writing so that the
errors do not become a permanent habit.” In
response, 9 chose “I strongly agree,” 15 “I tend
to agree,” 14 “I tend to disagree,” 2 “I strongly
disagree,” and 1 claimed to be uncertain. Thus,
24, or 59%, indicated they agreed to some
extent that they must correct most student
errors. Second, the instructors expressed their
level of agreement with the statement, “In firstyear
courses, an English language instructor
should devote most of the class time to giving
explanations, examples, and error correction.”
Here, 5 chose “I strongly agree,” 9 selected “I
tend to agree,” 19 indicated “I tend to disagree,”
and 5 answered “I strongly disagree.”
The other 3 respondents indicated they were
uncertain. Therefore, on this item, 14, or 34%,
revealed that they believed they must use most
of the class time for giving explanations, examples,
and correction. Ten of the 24 who indicated
they ought to correct most of their students’
errors were among the 14 who saw their
role as that of giving explanations, examples,
and error correction. One other questionnaire
item explored the instructors’ use of group
work in their lessons. The statement was as follows:
“Most of the lessons I teach for enhancing
students’ English language proficiency
include at least a 10-minute period of paired or
sub-group activities led by the students themselves.”
Just 15 of the 41 responding instructors
claimed that this was their own practice.
That 59% and 34% of the 41 respondents
admittedly hold positions on their classroom
roles that translate into extensive teacher talk
is consistent with the teacher-centeredness I
observed in the classrooms. In fact, the most
common class activities I observed were reinforcement
of textbook explanations and analysis
of student errors. Regarding teachers’ focus
on student errors, Stevick (1996, 155, 200)
concludes from past studies, that constant correction
inhibits students and constrains both
the content and forms of students’ expression.
In summarizing a concern of Silent Way proponents,
Stevick writes “the more the teacher
talks and explains, the less internal work the
learner is likely to do” (221). In my study I
suspected the scarcity of authentic communication
among learners in the classrooms
stemmed in part from instructors’ beliefs
about handling student mistakes.
One can conclude that teacher talk, a variable
obviously subject to teacher control, and
the beliefs that sustain this activity, are the primary
variables to focus on in helping teachers
implement CLT methodology in their classrooms.
Unquestionably, teacher talk is essential
for initiating learning activities, setting standards,
assessing performances, and providing
some forms of feedback. Instructors, however,
too often seem compelled to promote learning
by their own extended talk. One can only guess
the extent to which this variable of teacher talk
limits the realization of authentic communication
among students in the classrooms.
The students’ perception
Data from a similar questionnaire administered
to students in the same context were even
more decisive. A total of 181 Arabic-speaking
students, mostly in their first year at the university,
were administered another Likert-scale
questionnaire on perspectives and habits in
language learning. One statement of immediate
relevance was as follows: “If English
instructors do not correct most of the errors
students make in speaking and writing, the
students will not make much progress in English.”
In response, 86 students indicated that
they strongly agreed; 50 responded that they
tended to agree; just 12 indicated a tendency
toward disagreement; and 8 replied that they
strongly disagreed. The other 25 claimed not
to know. Thus, 136 of 181, or 75% of these
students, appear to believe that their teachers
ought to regularly correct most of their mistakes.
Interestingly, there was a striking statistical
difference (p<.0005) between males and
females in the replies to this item with 87.5%
E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 4 15
of the 104 women agreeing with the statement,
versus just 58.4% of the 77 male students.
Whatever the reason for that difference,
a clear majority of these students believe it is
the duty of the instructor to identify and correct
most of their errors. With many instructors
inclined to think similarly, the shared perspective
perpetuates an atmosphere in which
the instructor is the dominant speaker. So, on
the one hand, the questionnaire revealed a
major obstacle to meaningful communication
in the classroom.
On the other hand, the questionnaire uncovered
the fact that the majority of participating
students had a positive view of grouped activity
in the classroom. In response to the statement,
“It is usually a waste of time to be put in small
groups to do group assignments during class,”
103 of the 181 students disagreed, 48 agreed,
and 30 indicated they did not know. Also, in
response to the statement, “Small group work in
class with classmates (e.g., for 20 or 30 minutes
at a time) is usually a good use of class time for
improving my English,” 128 of the 178 respondents
agreed, 27 disagreed, and 23 said they did
not know. Clearly, most students viewed small
group work with little involvement of their
instructor as a beneficial experience.
Suggested response
The reported observations and questionnaire
data suggest a need for teachers to reflect
on their own past second-language learning
and that of their own second-language learners.
Teachers must strive to sift through the
many claims they have encountered about language
learning and determine what in fact
they themselves hold to be most descriptive of
the process. As Pajares (1992) points out, it is
beliefs more than mere knowledge or awareness
that establish the roles teachers assume in
the classroom. Teacher acknowledgements
about CLT are not necessarily what inform
their classroom behavior. Rather, their classroom
conduct rests on their beliefs. Once
teachers identify their operating beliefs about
how a second language is learned, they can
compare those formulations with prevailing
theory on the matter.
One widely shared portrayal of second language
acquisition for teachers to consider is
often referred to as learner interlanguage. This
refers to the learner’s imperfect but evolving
representation of the target language at any
point in the acquisition journey. Brown (2000)
summarizes this acquisition process as “the creative
construction of a system in which learners
are consciously testing hypotheses about
the target language from a number of possible
sources of knowledge…” (215). What teachers
say in class about the target language or about
mistakes is only one of the sources and not
necessarily the most important one. Brown
further explains, “By a gradual process of trial
and error and hypothesis testing, learners slowly
and tediously succeed in establishing closer
and closer approximations to the system used
by native speakers…” (215). This trial and
error process, according to the theory, pertains
to all aspects of second language mastery, that
is, the phonology, syntax, lexis, and social conventions
of language use. Thus, while there
remains a place for formal linguistic explanation
and correction on the part of the teacher,
the CLT approach assumes that a student’s
interlanguage development is benefited most
by uninterrupted trial and error, along with
attentiveness to the responses of interlocutors.
It is through all of these acts of communication
and feedback in the target language that students
gain facility in the language. Inevitably,
students will exhibit shortcomings, ups and
downs, unpredictable sensitivity to contexts,
and only gradual improvement on the road to
mastery. It is, however, this experience with the
target language that ensures progress.
Teachers inclined to talk excessively in the
classroom may benefit from in-service training
to facilitate their introspection and experimentation
and to reorient their beliefs. However, as
Pajares (1992) points out, some teachers are
more inclined to question and alter their beliefs
in the face of firsthand classroom evidence
rather than in response to secondhand acquisition
theory given them by trainers. For such
teachers, having them experiment with basic
CLT techniques and urging them to reduce
their teacher talk and observe the resulting student
performance might help them reconsider
their beliefs about how students learn.
In-service training can also broaden teachers’
repertoire of techniques for furthering inclass
communication between students, and it
can help teachers explore how some ESL/EFL
textbooks can be adapted to serve as a springboard
for communicative activities. With less
16 J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 4 E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M
proficient learners, for example, teachers can
explore ways to use magazine pictures, personal
photographs, cancelled postage stamps, and
even road signs, bumper stickers, and advertisements
for communicative purposes. At the
intermediate level, as in my own classes, teachers
can have students explain some frequently
misunderstood aspects of their culture. Or,
they can have students report on both the
process and findings of assigned internet
searches. They can have students brainstorm
controversial topics for class discussion and
prepare pro or con positions as part of moderated
panels. They can have students prepare
two-minute oral news reports from notes on
assigned topics and reply to their classmates’
questions. Teachers can have small groups of
students formulate solutions to real local social
problems and present their ideas to classmates
in writing or orally. Teachers working with
advanced students can challenge them to draw
upon their own experience and specialties to
teach each other. With all these activities, the
teacher’s role is to select or design appropriate
classroom tasks that contain relevant topics
and to serve as a resource as needed.
A final area of in-service assistance to teachers
who wish to move closer to a communicative
approach is to have them consider ways to
reorient their students as to the roles they and
their teachers should assume in the classroom.
Results of the student questionnaire indicate
that most students are fond of small group
activities in the classroom and feel they are beneficial.
However, as reported earlier, some students
may view a good teacher as one who constantly
corrects the spoken and written errors of
students. Thus, as Deckert (1987) points out,
teachers face the challenge of helping students
adjust their expectations about who does what
in the classroom. This negotiation between
teacher and students promises a high level of
classroom interaction in its own right.
In conclusion, CLT in EFL settings need
not be elusive; teachers can take the first critical
step toward raising the level of authentic
classroom communication by sharply reducing
the amount of talking they do. To take this
step, however, presupposes the belief on their
part that real communication promises a
greater payoff than extensive teacher commentary
and frequent corrective intervention. The
teacher, of course, needs to acquire facility for
adapting textbooks, creating communicative
tasks, and providing selective, useful feedback
to students on their performances. Granted,
the reorientation may come slowly as students
overcome old expectations and new insecurities
and as entire programs accommodate to
the changes being made in the classroom.
During this process of gradual pedagogical
and curricular change, however, teachers can
find encouragement in knowing they are not
expected to attain some ideal CLT standard.
Lesson by lesson, activity by activity, teachers
can gradually increase the degree of meaningful
interaction between their students. What
English teachers need, however, is administrative
assurance that their less dominant role in
the classroom is not a sign of negligence or loss
of control, but rather a sign of informed belief
that students learn best by using language for
purposeful communication.
References
Brown, H. 2000. Principles of language learning and
teaching, 4th ed. White Plains, NY: Addison
Wesley.
Deckert, G. 1987. The communicative approach:
Helping students adjust. English Teaching Forum
25 (3): 17–20.
Ellis, G. 1996. How culturally appropriate is the
communicative approach? ELT Journal 50 (3):
213–218.
Karavas-Doukas, E. 1996. Using attitude scales to
investigate teachers’ attitudes to the communicative
approach. ELT Journal 50 (3): 87–197.
Kumaravadivelu, B. 1993. Maximizing learning
potential in the communicative classroom. ELT
Journal 46 (1): 12–21.
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and principles
in language teaching, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Leng, H. 1997. New bottles, old wine: Communicative
language teaching in China. English
Teaching Forum 35 (4): 38–41.
Li, D. 1998. It’s always more difficult than you plan
and imagine: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in
introducing the communicative approach in
South Korea. TESOL Quarterly 32 (4): 677–703.
Pajares, M. 1992. Teachers’ beliefs and educational
research: Cleaning up a messy construct.
Review of Educational Research 62 (3): 307–332.
Stapleton, P. 1995. The role of Confucianism in Japanese
education. The Language Teacher 19 (4):
13–16.
Stevick, E. 1996. Memory, meaning and method,
2nd ed. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
GLENN DECKERT is an Associate Professor of
ESL/TESOL at Eastern Michigan University,
where he has taught ESL and MATESOL
courses since 1993.
E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 4 17


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