Languages Teaching: the Communicative Language Theory


Teaching languages currently entails an understanding of purposes and contexts of teaching the various languages, as opposed to the holistic application of methods. Contemporary language teaching practice also entails the concern for student needs, affective traits, and learning styles. Richard Jacks and Willy Renandya (2002) suggest that the different views on language determine the different principles and theories of teaching, as language is taken as technology, science, craft, or an art. This leads to principles like operational learning, science-research conception, theory-based, value-based, and art-craft.

The focus of this study is on the “theory-based approaches” to teaching language. However, it is noteworthy to identify that theories of teaching language acquisition began with the classical models which were practiced in the early 19th century when learners were taught through content, vocabulary drill and translation (Brown, 2000). Those later evolved in the current theory-based practices which were the characteristic of the early 20th century, when teaching language was concentrated on a systematic set of teaching processes based on theories of language learning (Brown, 2000).

In the contemporary classroom, the theory-based approach is a teaching method that is characterized by theories or rational methods (Richards and Willy, 2002). In this approach, the teacher focuses on the theory underlying the teaching method, in a systematic, rational, and principle manner (Richards and Willy, 2002). Therefore, theory-based approaches, like communicative and silent way approaches, are focused on logical arguments.

“Communicative Language Teaching” or CLT is a set of goals and processes in learning, where the main theoretical concept is the acquisition of communicative competence (Liao and Zhao, 2012). The theory emerged between the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was developed by theorists like Hymes (1971), Kajobovits (1970), and Habermas (1970) (Liao and Zhao, 2012).

These theorists began addressing language teaching from the communicative and functional potential of the language. In the U.S.A., the theory has its roots in the audio-lingual approach, and in the U.K.’s situational language teaching method (Brown, 2000). Communicative language theory also has its roots in the 1957 Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky (Liao and Zhao, 2012).

From Chomsky’s characterization, the american education system adopted his distinction between performance and competence which were described by the term “communicative competence.” This evolved into CLT since those terms could not effectively account for the uniqueness and creativity of the language. The next section explores the CLT approach, practices, and applications ineffective teaching methods.

Communicative Language Theory

The approach is a method that looks at language as a social relations maintenance tool (Liao and Zhao, 2012). Therefore, from this perspective, the teaching method depends on language context and circumstances that entail teaching and learning of authentic exchange of language. This introduced the need for creating an interactive classroom environment in which the teacher meets the learner’s communicative needs (Butler, 2011). However, the ability to create this interactive environment depends on the interpretation of the CLT approach that the teacher makes (Butler, 2011).

There are different perspectives on communicative language theory. The first is that CLT is communicative competence, where the goal of the theory is the attainment of meaning (Spada, 2007). The second perspective is the socio-cognitive view, where the language is perceived as an engine of conveying meaning.

From this perspective, knowledge transmission is attained through communication between two parts, reader and writer, speaker and listener, but knowledge in this context is constructed through negotiation (Butler, 2011). In this process, communication, therefore, is not only a way of following conventions, but it is the negotiation through the conventions. Therefore, since the communicative language theory embraces these perspectives, it entails several elements underlying its conceptual framework (Liao and Zhao, 2012). These elements are task-based, communication principle, and an essential principle.

Therefore, from these perceptions, when teachers are applying this theory to language teaching, they focus on social interaction and functional activities (Spada, 2007). These activities are selected depending on their ability to involve the learner in authentic language and meaning use. The perceptions direct the teacher’s teaching approaches to embrace the concept that learning is an interpersonal activity required of a learner to learn communication (Butler, 2011).

Moreover, from the CLT approaches described, the teacher must make an attempt to encourage communication with the learner at the beginning of the classroom activity. The theory also directs the teacher to use a dialogue, which is centered on communicative functions and not normal memorization. The theory further directs the teaching of language to the occasional use of practices like drilling, and any device that assists communication and understanding (Liao and Zhao, 2012). Lastly, the teaching of language is directed towards making use of contextualization as the basic premise.

According to Spada (2007), there are different interpretations a teacher can make of CLT, these entail approaches to “Second Language Teaching” (SLT), which makes use of form and meaning. This implies that during the teaching of a language, form and meaning must be linked and should be addressed in the second language learning.

On the other hand, Hymes’ (1972) theory interprets CLT as the theory that leads the teaching of a language to regard language as a tool of communication. In this interpretation, the teacher must, therefore, aim at developing the ability to speak, what to talk about, with whom, where, and in which manner (Liao and Zhao, 2012).

In addition, the teacher can factor CLT in teaching four dimensions of CLT, these are sociolinguistic competence, grammatical, discourse, and strategic competences (Butler, 2011). A teacher who is able to develop their language lesson based on the four dimensions of CLT ends up with a lesson based on a holistic view. The holistic view of communicative language gives the teacher two insights into the theory.

The first assists the teacher in developing the language lesson for the learner within a social context that is meaningful to the learner (Spada, 2007). Secondly, the teacher makes use of grammatical aspects of teaching language since CLT does not downplay its necessity in teaching.

Therefore, from the review of literature, the teaching of language can apply the different approaches to communicative competence through CLT. In this manner, a teacher develops a holistic integrated approach, which links form to meaning, and regards language as a communicative tool (Butler, 2011). This integrated language lesson incorporates teaching methods that develop the learners listening and speaking or communication skills to develop grammatical and strategic competence (Spada, 2007). The integrated lesson also makes use of teaching practices like collaborative and learner groups in which sociolinguistic competence is developed.

Example of Language Teaching Using CLT

Ultimately, this teaching method requires progression from one communicative language theory interpretation to another one in the continuum. To prepare a language class that makes use of communicative language theory, a teacher can put language form into the meaning by applying the non-communicative learning approaches (Spada, 2007).

Non-Communicative learning methods include the use of substitution drills, pronunciation drills, and grammar exercises (Butler, 2011). From the non-communicative learning methods, the teacher then advances the learner to pre-communicative language exercises. In the exercises, the teaching focus is on language, which also has some orientation to meaning. Examples of such exercises are the question-and-answer exercises where the teacher asks learners questions they know the answers to (Liao and Zhao, 2012).

The next approach to the continuum is the use of structured communication approaches, with the aim of ensuring that teaching moves to the communication of meanings of language. In this approach, the teacher must structure the situation to ensure that learners will cope with existing language resources, including what they have used in the form-focused exercises (Spada, 2007). Examples of teaching classroom activities that make use of the communicative language strategy are tasks in information exchange and those from structured role-play (Butler, 2011).

The last classroom teaching activity in the CLT approach is authentic communication. This requires the teacher to teach learners language that is fully meaning-oriented, where the strongest focus is on the communication of messages. In this approach, teaching practices also focus on all types of language forms, leading the learner to acquire communicative skills (Spada, 2007). Examples of classroom activities that rely on this approach are content-based tasks and problem-solving tasks.

Therefore, in the CLT approach, the teacher can make use of content-based teaching instructions to offer the second language students instructions in language and content. The content herein entails all the methods of grammar, translation, vocabulary and audio linguistics or sound patters used in dialogs (Spada, 2007). For example, the teacher can require the learners to listen to words and match them to their corresponding labels of food.

This exercise also entails the classification of foods under meals, for example, breakfast, or snack foods. This can also make use of the non-countable and countable nouns to attain the content-based approach. An example of this includes the use of names of foods within sentences and patterns, like “there is an apple in the fridge,” or “there are apples in the fridge.”

In conclusion, the teaching method identified herein uses the communicative language theory, which is part of the theory-based approach. The choice of the theory has created a teaching method in order to develop the communicative competence of the learner using various approaches. In this approach, sociolinguistic approaches are used along with linguistic structures, grammar rules, and active meaning of language. The method has created a form of meaning through drilling, collaborative learning, problem-solving, reading, discussion, and response to authentic materials.


Brown, H.D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching 4th edition. New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman.

Butler, Y. (2011). The implementation of communication and task-based language teaching in the Asia-Pacific region. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 36–57.

Liao, J., and Zhao, D. (2012). Grounded Theory Approach to Beginning Teachers’ Perspectives of Communicative Language Teaching Practice. Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9(1), 76-90.

Richards, J.C., and Renandya, W.A. (2002). Methodology in Language Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2007). Communicative language teaching: Current status and future prospects. Springer International Handbook of English Language Teaching, 15(2), 271–288.

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ChalkyPapers. "Languages Teaching: the Communicative Language Theory." July 21, 2022.