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The Communicative Language Approach in ESL Education

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is an approach that aims to achieve communicative rather than linguistic competence through learner interaction. Born in the 1980s, this strategy to language teaching is based on the philosophy that, in order to learn a language, one must practice using that language to communicate meaning to others.

Teachers who use the CLT approach in English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms encourage students to use English. To promote meaningful language use, ESL teachers can utilize activities that encourage students to speak in the performance of meaningful tasks. Interaction is both the method and the goal of ESL education.

Talk the Talk

In an ESL classroom that uses the CLT method, students do most of the talking. This enables students to practice communicating in English, continuously talking with each other, rather than listening to an instructor’s lecture. ESL teachers can encourage students to interact with each other with minimal direct correction. The intent behind the communicative approach to speaking is to have students practice English without fear of awkwardness or making mistakes when learning a new language.

Instead of interrupting or correcting students when they make mistakes, instructors who utilize the CLT approach might use indirect feedback or conversational redirections that do not interrupt a conversation. They might reform faulty grammar (e.g., “his shoes is old” can be answered with, “yes, his shoes ARE old”) to give students clues for further conversation. However, variables such as age and proficiency can influence how effective indirect and direct feedback are in classrooms that utilize the CLT approach.

Real-Life Scenarios

Encouraging meaningful interactions, ESL teachers can utilize a wide variety of individualized activities and meaningful tasks. Students might engage in role-playing based on real-life scenarios such as discussing hobbies and popular culture, negotiating prices when shopping or describing the plot of a book or movie they have recently enjoyed. The focus is on utilizing real-world situations to allow students to practice using language for context and content rather than learning about grammatical rules and structure. Techniques include modeling, repetition, pair and group work to help students develop communicative competencies.

Working Together

CLT activities are most effective when they allow students to work together in pairs or groups. This mimics realistic communication that encourages fluency over grammatical competence. Research has found ESL students usually feel more confident and comfortable practicing their language skills and ideas when working with other students. Since they are working with fellow English Language Learners (ELLs), they often feel safer communicating without fear of making mistakes.

Grouping and pairing students also encourages engagement with in-class activities. For example, one might have students work together to play a game where they must describe an object to each other in English so their peers can guess what that object is. Having students work together not only encourages them to engage with the language meaningfully, but it also holds the potential to gamify the ESL classroom and incentivize active participation.

FluentU offers a helpful list of similar “outspoken” activities that incentivize meaningful communication between classmates, ranging from reverse charades games to mock television interviews.

Integrate Reading, Writing and Speaking

However, studies have found that these pairing and grouping conversational techniques alone are not enough to promote active participation in ESL classrooms. Instructors utilizing the CLT approach might also include work reading, writing and listening, as these skills are also vital to ELLs’ development as English language speakers.

The integrated-skills approach to CLT brings these major language talents together in activities. For instance, teachers might ask students to watch a video online (listening), post their opinion about it in the comment section (writing) and describe others’ opinions from the comments section (reading). Activities that integrate multiple language skills can enhance communication-based ESL education by offering students the chance to practice multiple skills while also offering teachers a chance to demonstrate best practices in each of these modes.

Learn more about the University of Louisiana Monroe’s online Master of Education, Curriculum & Instruction program.


Cambridge University Press: Communicative Language Teaching Today

Canadian Center of Science: The Use of Communicative Language Teaching Approach to Improve Students’ Oral Skills

Fluent U: 5 Communicative Language Teaching Activities That Give Students the Gift of Gab

IATEFL Research Special Interest Group: Teacher-Researchers in Action

TEFL Training College: Communicative Language Teaching

What Is ELT: What Is the Communicative Approach?

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