The relevance of communicative methodology for language teaching in South Africa

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Bill Farquharson

Since the emergence of the communicative approach to language teaching in the 1970s, there has been a widespread adoption of the principle within Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) methodology that language teaching should focus on the learners’ communicative proficiency, rather than mastery of grammatical forms.

Communicative competence

The scope of the communicative approach has expanded over the years, but retains the principle that the goal of language teaching should be communicative competence rather than linguistic ‘knowledge’ of a language. It offers tried and tested procedures for the teaching of language systems and skills that “… acknowledge the interdependence of language and communication”.1 In the multilingual context of South Africa, where learners are required to learn one or more ‘additional’ languages, a coherent approach to language teaching is needed across the raft of languages being offered in schools. While the communicative approach is traditionally associated with TESOL, the principles of the communicative approach can be applied to any language.

Three key elements are typically present in communicative language teaching:

1. Activities that involve real communication promote learning.

2. Language should be used for carrying out meaningful tasks.

3. Language should be meaningful to the learner.

The range of activities and exercises available to the teacher are practically unlimited, as long as they allow learners to engage in communication and involve themselves in processes such as negotiating meaning, information sharing, interaction and collaboration. Activities are often designed or selected to focus on completing pairwork or groupwork tasks that require the exchange and sharing of information or opinions between learners. Lessons are correspondingly learner-centred rather than teacher-fronted, and there is a strong emphasis on practice to develop communicative skills. The teacher’s role is no longer simply ‘expert model and instructor of language skills’ but that of a facilitator who assesses learners’ needs, manages group processes and caters to the learners’ emergent language. It is a responsive rather than dictatorial role.

The learners’ role, correspondingly, “…emerges from and interacts with the role of joint negotiator within the group and within the classroom
procedures and activities which the group undertakes.”2

Practice activities

Given the wide variety of activity types suitable to a communicative lesson, it is not a simple matter to describe a typical communicative class. Lesson formats may vary, depending on the particular skills focus in each lesson. A common feature is the use of texts such as articles, recorded dialogues or short videos, which are used to engage the learners’ interest, expose them to language relevant to their needs, and help them notice salient features of this target language in terms of meaning and structure.

A lot of time is spent on practice activities that allow learners to develop accurate and confident use of new language. The efficacy of the communicative approach is reflected in its durability, as it continues to appeal to language teachers and learners after 40 years, but also in its adaptability, as it has been successfully implemented by schools and teachers in different cultural contexts across the globe.

The Department of Basic Education has also endorsed the approach to address a dearth of language teaching skills in South Africa through its Certificate in Primary English Language Teaching (CiPELT) 3 initiative in 2013, which will eventually also extend to the teaching of other languages.

Bill Farquharson is the coordinator of the Language Teacher Education Unit at the Wits Language School at the University of the Witwatersrand.

For more information visit, email or call +27 (0)11 717 4208.
1. Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Breem, N. and Cazndlin, C.N. (1980) ‘The essentials of the communicative curriculum in language teaching.’ Applied Linguistics, 1 (2), pp. 89–112.
3. See, for example:

Category: Autumn 2014

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