The Communicative Approach


A. The Contributions of the Communicative Movement

1. Goal of Language Teaching: Communicative Competence that can best serve the needs of the learner.

 Communicative Competence (Canale and Swain, 1980)

 Grammatical Competence

(knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology, syntax, sentence- grammar semantics, and phonology)

 Sociolinguistic Competence

 Strategic Competence

(verbal and non-verbal communi-
cation strategies that may be called
into action to compensate for break-
downs in communication due to
performance variables or to
insufficient competence)


(knowledge of the relation of language use to its non-linguistic context)


(knowledge of rules governing cohesion and coherence)


2. A New Type of Syllabus: Notional/Functional Syllabus

A notional/function syllabus is one "in which the language content is arranged according to the meanings a learner needs to express through language and the functions the learner will use the language for... A notional syllabus contains (a) the meanings and concepts the learner needs in order to communicate (eg time, quantity, duration, location) and the language needed to express them. These concepts and meanings are called notions. (b) the language needed to express different functions or speech acts (eg requesting, suggesting, promising, describing)." (Richards, Platt, and Weber, 1985, p. 196)


3. A New Category of Classroom Activities: Meaning Focused Activities

1) Information transfer -- is a type of communicative activity that involves the transfer of information from one medium (eg., text) to another (eg form, table, diagram). Such activities are intended to help develop the learner's communicative competence by engaging them in meaning-focused communication.

Example 1: Listen to the story and then add names to the family tree (explanations of the symbols omitted).

I'd like to tell what I know about Ed and Mary's family. Ed and Mary first met at college. Both of them were 19 at the time and they started dating in their third year at college. They got married soon after they graduated from college. Two years after their marriage, their first child was born. It was a boy. They name him Frank. A year later, they had another child. This time, it was a girl. They asked Mary's parents to give her a name. They named her Judy. Frank and Judy grew up. They went to the same college their parents went to. Judy met her boyfriend Eric at college. Soon they decided to get married. Ed and Mary thought Judy was a bit too young, but Eric was such a nice young man, they thought it was all right. Soon, Judy and Eric had their first child. It is a son. Judy and Eric had a hard time naming their son. First they thought of Alexander. They both liked the name, but it seemed such a long name for such a little baby. They decided to ask Judy's parents for help...

2) Information Gap -- is a type of communicative activity in which each participant in the activity holds some information other participants don't have and all participants have to share the information they have with other participants in order to successfully complete a task or solve a problem.

Example 1: There are two shuttles leaving Atlanta airport for Auburn, one at 11:00 am, and the other at 8:00 pm. Someone is coming to Auburn from Chicago. She or he wants to find a flight that arrives in Atlanta airport 45 minutes to an hour before the shuttle leaves for Auburn so that he or she can have enough time to catch the shuttle, but does not have to wait for too long. Four students participate in this activity. Their task is to find two flight they meet the above criteria. Each student has the flight information for only one of the following four airlines, Delta, Northwest, United, and American. They have to share the flight information they have to identify two flights that best fit for this person's need.

3) Problem Solving

Example 1: Listen to the following dialogues and find out how much each customer needs to pay for his or her order. Use the menu provided (menu not shown here).

Customer 1

--Are you ready to order?
--Yes. I'd like to have a hamburger, French fries, and a cola, please.
--Is that all for you?
--Please pull to the front. Thank you.

Customer 2

--How can I help you?
--I'd like to have a chicken sandwich with cheese and an iced tea please.
--Is that all for you?
--I need a medium French fries too.
--Thank you.

Customer 3

--May I take your order?
--I'd like to have two hamburger with chili please.
--Would you like to have something to drink?
--Yes, two colas please.
--Thank you.

4) Role-Playing and Simulation

Remember what the CLT group did in class? They asked you to get into small groups and imagine that you were sitting in an airplane. You talked among yourselves while enjoying the food and drink. It is very close to a simulation activity. For a simulation activity, you may divide the class into 4-5 groups of 4 to 5 students each, as the CLT group did. After demonstrating how to offer food and drink and accept/decline an offer, the instructor can ask each student to take turn to act as a flight attendant, offering food and drink to the rest of the group. I suspect that after all the four or five members of a group have done it, everyone should be highly familiar with how to fulfill these functions in the target language.

4. New Areas/Topics of Research for Enhancing Second Language Teaching

a. Need Analysis

Need analysis is the assessment of the needs for which a learner or group of learners may require a language. As a research area, it started in the early 1970s along with the development of the communicative approach and has gone through substantial developments in the 1970s and 1980s owing much to the work done by researchers such as Richterich, Munby. Proponents of the communicative approach argued that the selection of instructional materials should be based on a systematic analysis of the learners' needs for the target language. The rational behind need analysis is straightforward: people learn a foreign language for different purposes and need it to do different things. The type of language varies along with the learners' needs for the language. A graduate student learning a second language for academic purpose requires different language skills from a flight attendant. Thus, to design an effective language course, it is critical to know why a learner decides to study a second language and under what circumstances she or he is going to use it.

Need analysis involves "compiling information both on the individuals or groups of individuals who are to learn a language and on the use which they are expected to make of it when they have learnt it." (Richterich, 1983, p. 2) A variety of data collecting methods are used in need analysis, such as questionnaires, interviews, and observations. Information may be obtained from the learner, sponsoring organization, receiving institutions, people already in the target situation. Different kinds of framework have been established for analyzing language learners' needs. The following information is often taken into consideration need analysis (as part of a learner's needs profile):

Language Needs
--reasons for learning,
--place and time of anticipated target use,
--others with whom the user will interact,
--content areas (such as traveling, telephone conversations),
--skills (listening, speaking, note-taking, translation, reading, etc.),
--level of proficiency required;

Learning Needs
--how do the learners learn (e.g., learning styles and strategies)?
--what resources are available (e.g., teachers' proficiency in L2; cultural factors; amount and quality of input outside classroom)?
--who are the learners (e.g., age, background language)?
--where and when will the ESP course take place?

b. English for Specific Purposes (or English for Special Purposes)

Another field of language teaching that is closely related to the communicative approach is English for Specific Purposes, or ESP. ESP is not a result of the communicative movement. It started earlier than that, in the 1960s. However, the communicative movement has certainly contributed a great deal in the rapid development of ESP since the 1970s and ESP in turn has much enriched the communicative movement.

ESP is contrasted with EGP, or English for General Purposes. When English is taught as a second language in elementary or middle schools, it is generally taught with a general purpose, i.e., an educational purpose. English, along with other school subjects, is considered something good for them, or something they may need in the future. There is usually no immediate requirement for the students to use English for any real communicative purpose. Different from such English teaching as part of school curriculum, there are circumstances where a learner learns English with an immediate and specific purpose and real needs. English learned under such circumstances is called English for Specific Purposes. Many different terms exist to describe English teaching programs aimed for different subject areas, such as English for Science and Technology, English for Nurses, English for International Business, English for Finance. A distinction is generally made between English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP). EAP deals with English learning in study settings such as learning English for pursuing a college degree. EOP deals with the learning of English for professional purposes or in work places. It should be noted that such distinction is not always clear-cut.

According to Robinson (1991, pp. 2-4), there are two critical features that are shared by all ESP programs and three other features that may apply to some ESP programs:

1) Critical Features:
--goal-directed, i.e., a means rather than an end in itself. Language is considered as a "service" rather than studied as a subject for its own sake.
--based on an analysis of learners' needs (Jiang: including analysis of the register/genre of the language used in the target situation^).

2) Typical Characteristics:
--learners are frequently adults;
--the time period available for learning is often limited;
--homogeneity (of subject background or profession) may exist. (from Johnson and Johnson,1998)

In addition to keeping in line with the learner's language and learning needs, the selection and presentation of instructional materials are also based on an analysis of the register and/or genre of the language used in the target situation.

The following are the components of a sample EAP course (from Jordan, 1997, p. 74)

 Course components Average % time spent on components
academic writing
listening and note-taking
academic speech (oral presentation & seminar strategies)
reading comprehension and strategies
library/reference/research skills
integrated study skills
individual study project
note-making (from reading)
subject-specific topics/language
guest lectures/plenaries
individual tutorials
self-access/individualized learning
English for social purposes
computer literacy
vocabulary development
pronunciation/language laboratory


B. A Hands-On Activity

Design a communicative classroom activity (e.g., information transfer or information gap) that is appropriate for intermediate to advanced ESL learners.