Penny UR - Communicative Approach Revisited

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The Communicative Approach Revisited

Penny Ur

Penny Ur was educated at the universities of Oxford (MA), Cambridge (PGCE) and Reading (MA). She emigrated to Israel in 1967, where she still lives today. She is married with four children and seven grandchildren. Penny Ur has thirty years’ experience as an English teacher in elementary, middle and high schools in Israel. She teaches M.A. courses at Oranim Academic College of Education and Haifa University. She has presented papers at TESOL, IATEFL and various other English teachers’ conferences worldwide. She has published a number of articles, and was for ten years the editor of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series. Her books include Discussions that Work (1981), Five Minute Activities (co authored with Andrew Wright) (1992), A Course in Language Teaching (1996), and Grammar Practice Activities (2nd Edition) (2009), all published by Cambridge University Press.

One of our jobs as teachers is to help our students make the ‘leap’ from form-focused accuracy work to fluent production by providing a ‘bridge’.

Penny Ur

The Communicative Approach Revisited by Penny Ur

The communicative approach in language teaching sees language as a means of communication rather than as a set of words or structures. The goal of the language course, therefore, is for the learner to achieve ‘communicative competence’ (Hymes, 1972), rather than mastery of the correct forms of the language. A communicative methodology should include activities that get learners to use the language to communicate with one another, for ‘use’ rather than ‘usage’ (Widdowson, 1978). This last recommendation has an interesting underlying assumption: that language is best learnt by directly simulating the target behaviour in the classroom. Previous methodologies had included all sorts of teaching procedures (drills, grammar exercises, comprehension questions etc.) that we do not do

outside the classroom, on the assumption that these lead to useful learning that will later be incorporated into reallife language use. The communicative approach, in contrast, disapproves in principle of such ‘inauthentic’ activities, and proposes that what learners do in the classroom should be a recognisable imitation of real-life communication. The communicative approach was introduced in the 1970s and became increasingly accepted among the methodologists and teachers during the 1980s. Its popularity was a result, at least in part, of a reaction against the previously widely used methodologies of grammar-translation and audiolingualism. In grammar-translation, much of the lesson was actually conducted in the mother tongue: rules were given, samples of the language were manipulated, translated and explained. There was very little speaking in the target language. Students often learned to read and write well, and had good mastery of the grammar and vocabulary, but usually could not actually use the language for direct communication. In audio-lingualism, which was essentially based on behaviourist psychology, language was seen as a set of habits which the learner acquired through imitation, memorisation, drilling. In contrast with grammar-translation, it stressed the spoken rather than the written form of the language. The communicative approach changed all this. At the level of objective: learners were now expected to be able to communicate rather than to produce correct sentences. The language used was ‘real’ authentic samples of language, whole discourse or contextualised chunks rather than discrete items, used for some communicative purpose rather than simply provided as a sample, ‘acceptable’ rather than ‘correct’. Learner output was free rather than teacher controlled, personal rather than impersonal. Tasks involved making and understanding meanings rather than receiving or producing correct items. Mistakes were, on the whole, not to be corrected as long as meaning was clear. Mother tongue was not to be used (as, in fact, had already been accepted in audio-lingualism). The teacher’s main role was now to facilitate, to provide opportunities for students to communicate, rather than to instruct or drill. And success, as measured in tests, was to be judged by success in communication (although it has to be admitted that test format lagged behind, and until very recently most exams in fact tested accuracy rather than fluency or communication.) All this can be summed up in the following table.

Grammar translation


Communicative approach


correct language (mainly written)

correct understanding language and (mainly spoken) communicating


discrete items

discrete items

correct, prescriptive

correct, prescriptive acceptable, descriptive




samples of correct usage

samples of correct usage

samples of meaningful use

Learner output



less controlled, personal


language manipulation

language manipulation




corrected if necessary

often not corrected

Mother tongue


not used

not used

Tests measure




Teacher mainly as

instructor, tester



whole discourse items in context,

The coming of the communicative approach represented for those of us involved in teaching at the time a healthy revolution, promising a remedy to previous ills: objectives seemed more rational, classroom activity became more interesting and obviously relevant to learner needs. However, already in the 1980s, people were having reservations about the ‘strong’ form of the communicative approach. The more confident and knowledgeable of the methodologists expressed these reservations openly (Swan, 1985). Teachers on the whole did not feel they could openly criticise the new orthodoxy, but in fact many continued with ‘old-fashioned’ techniques such as grammar drills, feeling, perhaps, a little guilty about it. This feeling of guilt was partly because ‘communicativity’ was becoming axiomatic rather than a means to an end, synonymous with ‘good language teaching’. Even today there is a hidden message in much of the professional literature and teacher-training courses: if you do not teach communicatively you are a ‘bad’ teacher. Now this is, in my opinion, nonsense: you are a good teacher if, as a result of your teaching, students learn the language well and can function in it fluently and accurately. What methodology you use is up to you: communicative methodology is good

insofar as it contributes to good teaching and learning. It is not a value in itself. So today it is, perhaps, time to take a good hard look at the communicative approach: as a means to achieving good language learning, to discarding, or at least mitigating some of its possible negative aspects; and to think again about some of the valuable babies we may have thrown out with the bath water of previous methodologies. 1. Accuracy. It is important for learners to express themselves accurately: it is not just enough to understand and make yourself understood. Accuracy is important because it makes language more clearly comprehensible; because students feel they want to use language correctly; and because research shows that foreign language learners who have a solid basic knowledge of grammar eventually progress further in the foreign language than those who acquire the language intuitively through immersion. 2. Language manipulation. Some useful learning can take place through non-communicative language manipulation: drills, transformation and slot-filling exercises all have a place in helping students master aspects and items of language. 3. Rules. The giving and application of rules can also help students understand and produce the target language successfully. Very often learners are aware of this, and actually ask for them. A summary of research on this and allied points can be found in Ellis, 1994. 4. Mother tongue. The use of mother tongue in the classroom should not be taboo. Mother tongue is extremely useful for clarification and instruction, for quick translation as an alternative to lengthy and difficult explanation, for contrastive analysis to raise language awareness and help students avoid mother-tongue interference. It also has a place in testing: if students can give you a rough translation of a foreign language item or text, that is pretty reliable evidence that they have understood it. 5. Non-authentic language. Authentic language is often difficult and very culture-bound. ‘Artificial’ language can be adapted to the students’ needs and provide them with a useful, relevant and appropriate basis for learning. Authentic language is, obviously, useful, particularly for advanced

classes but it is not necessarily the ‘best’ language model for many learners. So we can, perhaps, suggest a compromise methodology that would aim for both accuracy and fluency, that would use all sorts of different kinds of language material, both authentic and artificial, both discrete-item and holistic, whose tasks would involve both language manipulation and communication …and so on. See the table below for a summary of what I would suggests as a desirable modern methodology.


communicating in correct English


both discrete items and language in context, depending on objective, as used by educated, competent users of the language both artificial and correct, depending on objective and level stressing both form and meaning, depending on objective

Learner output

sometimes controlled, sometimes free, depending on objective







meaningful language Errors

usually corrected

Mother tongue

used when cost effective and to raise language awareness

Tests measure

both fluency and accuracy

Teacher as


This, however, is arguably not a methodology at all: it is far too permissive and gives no clear methodological direction. But perhaps, as some writers now argue, we are not only ‘post-communicative’; we are actually ‘post methodology’ (Prabhu, 1990, Kumaravadivelu, 1994). In other words, it is not just that the communicative methodology is probably

not optimally effective, but that probably no single method is. The basic criterion has to be not ‘The best – or most fashionable, or politically correct – method’ but rather ‘The best, most effective teaching.’ The difference between a language teaching methodology, and language teaching in general, or pedagogy, is that methodology typically concerns itself with a specific set of procedures, is very closely linked to language theory and linguistic research, and concentrates mainly on the nature of language learning: whereas pedagogy is more concerned with universals of learning and teaching, is informed by educational research and the teaching of other subjects, and sees teaching as a valuable and interesting process in itself, worthy of study and research. This distinction is expressed in rather more detail below.



consists of a specific set of Uses procedures which produce procedures based on a theory effective learning and accord of the nature of language and with the teacher’s educational language learning


Is not concerned with teaching Is concerned also with teaching universals such as classroom universals climate,



classroom management Is informed mainly by linguistic Is and applied linguistic research







educational research Is




pedagogy of other subjects Focusses language





the Is





pedagogy of other subjects of Is informed by research on

language language learning, but sees

teaching is derived from and teaching itself as an interesting dependent on this

process in itself, to be studied and researched

The guidelines we need, then, are not the commandments handed to us by proponents of a ‘correct’ methodology, but rather principles of effective language teaching. These are inevitably based on one’s own beliefs, educational objectives

and experience, enriched by reading and learning. My own teaching goals might be expressed as follows (each of you will have your own, but I suspect that we would agree on most of the general principles): • To get my students to learn the language both fluently and accurately, as well as fast as they can, through orderly classroom process; • To get my students to enjoy their learning and feel pleased about themselves as learners; • To contribute as far as I can to the general educational progress of my students as individuals; • To maintain relationships of caring and mutual respect between members of the class (including the teacher) All this does not let us off learning methodology. On the contrary, we probably need to learn more methodology than ever before. What I am suggesting is that we now need not to learn one accepted methodological approach, but get hold of and learn about all the methods we can, from whatever sources: examining each in the light of our own pedagogical principles and teaching context in order to choose that combination that seems most appropriate and will bring about the best learning results for our students.

References Ellis, R (1994) The Study of Language Acquisition, Oxford; Oxford University Press Hymes, D. (1972) ‘On communicative competence’, in Pride J. B. and Holmes J. Sociolinguistics: Penguin, 269-93




Kumaravadivelu, B (1994) ‘The post-method condition: (e)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching’, TESOL Quarterly, 28/1, 27-48 Prabhu, N.S. (1990) ’There is no best method - why?‘ TESOL Quarterly, 24/2: 161-76 Swan, M. (1985) ‘A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1)’, English Language Teaching Journal 39/1: 2-12 Swan, M. (1985) ‘A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2)’, English Language Teaching Journal 39/2: 7687 Widdowson, H.G. (1978) Teaching Language Communication, Oxford: Oxford University Press


Penny Ur’s latest book A Course in Language Teaching is published by Cambridge University Press

It is important to stop and think after giving a lesson whether it was a good one or not, and why.

Penny Ur

One of our jobs as teachers is to help our students make the ‘leap’ from form-focused accuracy work to fluent production by providing a ‘bridge’.

Penny Ur

Book by Penny Ur

A Course in Language Teaching

Discussions that Work

Five-Minute Activities

Grammar Practice Activities

Newland street Way to go!

Teaching Listening Comprehension Cambridge University Press



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