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Communication in the language classroom

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Communication in the language classroom

Now that our English proficiency tests are based on communicative principles, it is important to apply communicative principles in the language classroom. The basis of the communicative approach is:

  • Activities that involve real communication promote learning

  • Activities in which language is used for carrying out meaningful tasks promote learning

  • Language that is meaningful to the learner promotes learning

The Sage on the stage vs. The Guide on the Side

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is a learner-centered approach. In the ideal CLT classroom, the teacher guides the students to use the language for real-life communication purposes. If the teacher is doing all of the talking, the students are not learning to speak. The teacher needs to be the ‘Sage on the stage’ for some of the time but the students need to contribute too. The ‘sage on the stage’ is useful for presenting new information, introducing and reviewing grammar structures, general classroom management, and so on. However, the ‘sage on the stage’ should lead the students towards real communication activity where the students are participating in communicative acts. At this point, the ‘sage on the stage’ becomes the ‘guide on the side’.


Students that are motivated to learn are easy to teach and manage. They are more likely to listen to the teacher and to contribute to the classroom community. Students may be attending a language class because it is compulsory or because of parental demands. It is important to encourage self-motivation. There should be regular discussions that encourage the students to think about the reasons for learning a language. Why do we learn it and what benefits will come from learning it? Activities and materials should be interesting and relevant. Students should be encouraged to talk and write about topics and experiences that are interesting and relevant to them.

The objectives of Communicative Language Teaching: 

  • students will learn to use language as a means of expression

  • students will use language as a means of expressing values and judgments

  • students will learn to express the functions that best meet their own communication needs.


The use of authentic materials is encouraged in the CLT classroom. Textbooks can serve as a guide to the vocabulary and forms that need to be learned as a minimum standard. However, classes become much more interesting, and the language becomes much more relevant, when authentic materials are brought from outside the classroom. These could include, books, magazines, newspapers, movie tickets, products/product labels, web pages, multimedia, DVDs, brochures and much more. Authentic materials need not be text-based. Objects can be used as talking points. The manipulation of objects, such as puzzles or blocks can be used in task-based learning activities where students are encouraged to communicate in the target language in order to complete a task.

Use the language

Every act of real communication is an opportunity to use the target language in a way that introduces or reinforces it in an authentic situational context. Classroom management should be carried out in the target language as much as possible because these are often the most authentic communicative acts in a classroom situation. Consider the following situation:

Student: “Teacher, may I close the window?”

Teacher: “OK. You may close the window.”

At first, the student will probably make the request in their native language. At this point the teacher should think about the statement and consider whether the student is capable of making the request in the target language. What kind of structures and vocabulary is the student familiar with? Perhaps the student is capable of asking ‘may I go to the bathroom?’ The phrase ‘open the door’ was learned last year. The word ‘window’ is part of the first year vocabulary list. So the teacher asks the student to repeat the request in the target language. The student is motivated for the task because she is cold and wants to close the window. The situation is authentic. The student must recall the previously learned grammar structure and vocabulary to achieve her objective. The different components needed to form the request were learned at different times and in different situations. For example: ‘may I go to the bathroom’, ‘the door is closed’, and ‘he is looking out the window’. The student must draw on these resources and use a whole set of cognitive skills and linguistic competences in order to achieve her objective. It is these mental processes that constitute language, language use and language learning. Language itself is not just a discrete set of facts but a cognitive and social activity.
Let’s consider the example a little further. What if the student had failed to recall or process the information? Perhaps the student is nervous or lacks the confidence to speak out. The teacher would then continue to provide an opportunity for authentic communication by ‘opening the floor’ to the other students. “Can anybody tell me what Mary wants?” Now all of the students are actively engaging in the cognitive processes of recalling vocabulary, parsing grammar, and connecting information together. Even if nobody speaks, linguistic processes are occurring in the mind that will lead to better learning outcomes.
If Mary or one of her classmates succeeds in the communicative act, the window will be closed. Mary will feel more comfortable and rewarded for succeeding in the communicative act. If neither Mary nor her classmates succeeds in finding the correct strategies to make the request, the ‘sage on the stage’ can come back into play by writing the necessary statement on the board and having Mary make the request in the target language.
As learners increase their skills, it becomes easy for them to make such a simple request as “May I close the window?” The teacher must continue to create opportunities for real communication. Consider the following example:
Student1: “Teacher, may I close the window?”

Teacher: “Why do you want to close the window?”

Student1: “It’s cold and windy.”

Teacher: “Does anyone else feel cold?”

Student2: “I feel too hot. If you close the window, it will be worse.”

In this example, there was no need to request the student to switch to the target language. The structure and vocabulary of the request is well-known and presented no problems so the teacher was able to take the communication event one step further to seek a reason for the request. The student was then given an opportunity to express her feelings. The teacher then asked the rest of the class how they felt, and that created another opportunity for more authentic communication in the target language. The opportunity also created a conflict or difference of opinion that created another opportunity to use the language for one the most important communicative functions in the real world – conflict resolution and mediation.

Conflict Resolution (The problem is the solution)
There are many potential conflicts in a classroom situation. No matter what kind of conflict occurs, it is almost always seen as a problem. In a communicative language classroom, a problem is an opportunity for authentic communication.
Consider this example:
Teacher: “What are you doing?”

Student: “Nothing.”

Teacher: “Show me your hands.”… “Are you writing a note?”

Student: “Well…”

Teacher: “I can write notes too, you know. Perhaps I will write a note to your parents… Would you like me to?”

Student: “No.”

Teacher: “Well don’t write notes in my class and I won’t write notes to your parents.”
The beauty of this kind of ‘problem’ is that the student usually knows what they are doing wrong, so you can introduce new vocabulary and grammar and the situational context provides the meaning. Consider this exchange:
Teacher: “Are you chewing gum?”

Student: “Huh?”

Teacher: “Are…you…chewing…gum?”
The student has never heard the term ‘chewing gum’ but the student knows what he is doing. There is a strong emotional response in this kind of conflict, including fear and guilt. The nature of the communicative act causes intense concentration as the student tries to understand what the teacher is saying and attempts to connect it to the guilty act. This kind of conflict also causes the other students to concentrate on the communicative act taking place. Everybody is trying to understand the exchange, and they are anticipating the outcome (listening).

As you can see, the communicative approach can be a powerful method of introducing and reinforcing language that would otherwise exist only as abstract concepts, lists of memorized vocabulary and structures with no function or usefulness in daily life. Knowledge that is acquired but not used tends to fade away. The actual use of the language in real communicative acts is the only way to acquire, retain and improve linguistic ability. Using the target language for classroom management is a wonderful way to integrate the communicative approach into your teaching program without displacing the textbook, curricula and existing methodology.

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