English language teaching is a challenging task. Instructors endeavor to teach the learners the target language and become proficient readers of the language. Even though many of the language users have a good vocabulary, most of them struggle with their pronunciations and fluency while reading. As such, the level of satisfaction for the teacher and the students is low and teachers constantly strive to integrate new methods and techniques in their instructions. The communicative approach is one such approach used by teachers of English language to enable the learners become active and fluent users of the language and become fluent readers of English. In the paper I aim to accomplish the following objectives:
- Explain the importance and significance of the communicative approach in language teaching from a cognitive, constructivist and socio-cultural perspective.
- Compare the communicative approach to other teaching approaches such as the direct approach and the audiolingualism approach.
- Analyze the reasons for the choice of communicative approach for teaching reading and improving the pronunciation of the students in contrast to the Audiolingual and Direct methods of teaching.
Importance of the Communicative Approach in ELT
English is a global language and has acquired immense importance due to its reach. It is not simply a subject to be learnt but rather a tool for communication purposes. The internet has further widened its usability and applicability and the mere variety it enables in the global scenario is simply amazing. In order to keep pace with the new globalized world and interact with people socially, economically or technically, English is the language of communication.
Keeping in mind the communicative function and purpose of English, it is vital for teachers to inculcate newer means and methods such as the communicative approach while teaching reading to students. Traditional approaches to teaching English language tend to focus on teacher-centered methods using direct instructional strategies as compared to communicative approaches of teaching which emphasize the use of language rather than its form and structure by ensuring fluency of the language rather than its accuracy (Anderson, 1993), which is an important criterion while using the language purely for communicative purposes.
Reasons for preferring the Communicative approach in teaching reading skills
There are a number of cognitive perspectives which support the use of the communicative approach in teaching the skill of reading while teaching English language. The primary perspective, constructivism, entails that the learner is able to learn best when the information is actively constructed by the learner on the basis of personal experiences rather than simply being a passive recipient in the learning process (Ormrod, 2000). Therefore, when teaching the reading skill, it is essential for teachers to enable students or language learners of English “to construct knowledge for themselves” by highlighting “the interaction of persons with situations in the acquisition and refinement of skills and knowledge” (Schunk, 2000). The teacher can ask the students or learners to read and to communicate with them the meanings of the new vocabulary while correcting their pronunciations during the reading sessions.
Learning of a language and its understanding are crucially dependant on the usefulness and importance of the knowledge gained and how that knowledge relates to the personal situation and contexts of the learner. Thus learning a language is facilitated if the instructional approach is meaningful with regard to the contexts and situations the learner is likely to face and use the target language. A communicative approach for teaching reading would enable the learner to practice the given language in the classroom where the teacher plays a vital role in presenting different contexts and situations to the learner and actively integrating conversation with the teaching of the skill of reading.
From a socio-cultural perspective, learning the reading skill in English language would also entail the enculturation of the learner into the community of English language speakers through the social interaction with other peers. Thus, practical experiences and interactions in the target language would enable the learner to practice reading, through the communications and interactions within the milieu of the learning class. In this situation, the teacher assumes the dual role of a facilitator to structure the learning processes and become an independent user of the language rather than a passive learner.
Preference of Communicative approach to audiolingualism and Direct methods
The communicative approach in English language instruction is preferred in modern approaches of English language since it facilitates acquisition of the language as a “mindful approach” as compared to the audiolingualism which promotes “explicit language learning” (Houston & Paaige, 2007). Audiolingualism is an approach which considers language to occur as a result of habit formation. The approach uses the techniques of imitation and repetition for the learners to become effective users of the language by using the principles of behaviorism for language learning. Thus, learners are required to imitate and repeat after the teacher, which can sometimes become very boring and uninteresting for the entire class.
The learning of language is primarily based on the performance of four crucial skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. In order to master the language, learners are required to master the basic skills and the teacher is required to develop the classroom and the materials in accordance with the native language of the learners. According to the audiolingualism approach, the teacher uses the core principles of behaviorism to teach the basic reading skills to the learners through repetition plays a crucial role in this process. The repetitive stage then proceeds to the production stage following which the teacher initiates the stage of substitution (Houston & Paaige, 2007). Creative language construction is not practiced in this approach until the skill of reading learners have “mastered” the target structures (Houston & Paaige, 2007).
The overall goal of the audio-lingual method was also to create communicative competence in learners and through the employment of automatic and habitual responses in the learners by the instructor. In this kind of approach, the teacher presents the new reading material in dialogue form and depends on mimicry, memorization and over-learning (Brown, 1994). Teachers use repetitive drills for teaching structural patterns in reading and the instruction is strictly teacher-centered. Limited vocabulary is taught in context to the reading material used by the teacher and there is little scope for innovation and active participation by the learners. Tapes, language labs and visual aids are extensively used to teach vocabulary and pronunciation and improve the reading abilities of the learners. The use of mother tongue is strictly prohibited in class and repetition and drills are used to perfect the learners and enable them achieve the target language.
The techniques used in the direct approach are similar to the Audiolingual method with additional emphasis on memorization through role playing and drills (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). The ‘Direct method’ of English language instruction also aims at the development of communicative abilities of the learners, involves the approach of direct connections between the core concepts and the target language. Teachers using this approach, instruct students to read, without the involvement of their primary or first language (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). Teachers using the direct instructional approach conduct the instruction “exclusively in the target language” and do not explain the vocabulary in the native language of the learner. This makes it very difficult for the leaner to acquire the language since the target language is new and the meanings of new vocabulary cannot be understood through it. Additionally, the approach only focuses on teaching vocabulary and sentences used in daily life situations (Richards and Rodgers, 1986). Question and answer exchanges are used by the teacher to promote the teaching of grammar rather than pronunciation and reading skills. Teachers use objects and ideas to teach vocabulary and there is less emphasis on the practice of reading and pronunciation. The instruction is teacher centered and there is very little focus on the active interaction between the teacher and the students. Materials to be taught are pre-decided by the teacher and this leaves little or no scope for spontaneity and situational learning.
The common techniques used in the direct approach include the reading aloud of passages or dialogues rather than using the target language in the situational context as in the communicative approach (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). Similar to the Audiolingual approach, there are drills and exercises prepared and preplanned by the teacher making the entire instruction teacher centered as compared to the student centered approach involved in the communicative instructional approach. There is also emphasis on self correction and conversation practice through dictation and paragraph writing tasks by the teacher. Since the instruction is completely directed by the teacher, the direct approach falls short of the ability to present the learners with the opportunity to apply the language communicatively in distinct real life situations outside the classroom, which the communicative approach actively succeeds in accomplishing.
On the other hand, Communicative Language Teaching promotes the learners to use any knowledge or practice they may have gained through the process of learning. Teachers who use the communicative approach also encourage the learners to express the meanings of the new words in the process of reading in different ways, rather than any fixed specified method, thus instigating learners to use the language as flexibly and innovatively as they possibly can. In this way, learners are encouraged to read without apprehension and quickly develop a good vocabulary, which enables them to form sentences. The teacher pays attention to the pronunciation of the words ensuring that the words can be understood without actually stressing on the native pronunciation of the words. The teacher then improves and hones this ability of the learners through additional spontaneous practice in different potential scenarios, which enable the learners to read and interact efficiently within a fixed time.
The communicative approach is thus “a generative” means of developing the reading skill in English language which does not give importance to “imitation and repetition” so that there is additional importance on the creative use of the language. The teacher encourages the active participation of the learners in the reading process, keeping in mind the situation and the goals of the participants (Houston & Paaige, 2007). Through this communicative approach, teachers encourage the “development of systematic knowledge with which the learners can approach a novel situation” (Houston & Paaige, 2007).
Teachers using the communicative approach in English language instruction, develop the materials for reading and the classroom by keeping in mind the interests and the needs of the learner. Through the communicative approach, teachers assume variety of roles and present the learner with distinct hypothetical situations so that the learner is able to build an active vocabulary and improve pronunciation skills, according to the potential language contexts he/she is likely to encounter. Through numerous discourses, vocabulary and pronunciation of the learners is developed and improved and the production phase of learners is initiated by the teacher through the communication of meanings via active question and answer sessions. This also enables the teacher to gauge the mistakes of the learners and correct them spontaneously, so that the foundation or the base is free of errors.
Teachers who use the communicative approach do not press on attaining accuracy in reading and prefer fluency and appropriate pronunciation (Houston & Paaige, 2007). From the beginning, teachers encourage learners to “communicate their own meanings” so that the final goal of the development of reading in the target “language system” is achieved. Reading skills are taught in the communicative approach through the introduction of authentic texts and the enhancement of the learners’ personal experiences which contribute to the entire class of learners (David Nunan, 1991). There is a conscious attempt by the teacher to link the language learning process of the learners with the activation of the language in scenarios outside the classroom as well.
Thus, while the communicative method asserts great importance on the building of the vocabulary and facilitate reading through meaning, the other two approaches emphasize structure more than meaning. There is no memorization of dialogues in the communicative approach and reading and pronunciation occur through the presentation of real life situations by the teacher rather than the gaining of mastery through “overlearning” used in the other two approaches. Communicative instructors use the approach to teach language for the primary purpose of communication rather that to learn structures, sounds and words. Drilling, is not a central techniques used in the communicative approach whereas the other two approaches lay emphasis on drilling activities through various tasks given by teacher. The teachers using the communicative techniques endeavor to achieve comprehensible pronunciation as opposed to the instructors using the other two techniques who seek to achieve pronunciation like a native speaker of the English language. Translations are used extensively in the communicative approach whereas the other two approaches do not allow the use of the first language. Teachers using the communicative approach act as mere facilitators and help the students through motivation and active interaction as opposed to the complete teacher control used in direct and Audiolingual approach. The use of language is encouraged using the trial and error method as opposed to the habit forming theory of behaviorists.
Thus, it is apparent that while the communicative approach enables teachers encourage the active participation of the students, audiolingualism stresses on the importance of rote memorization. Teachers who use the approach of audiolingualism are experts and “center of all knowledge and interaction” as compared to communicative language instructors who use learner centered approaches and “represent a departure from traditional student and teacher roles” thereby providing meaningful outcomes for the learners which leads to “successful integration of knowledge” and prepare the learner to deal with any new situation which may arise in future. (Houston & Paaige, 2007)
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