One important source of uncertainty about the meaning of CLT is that from the outset, it has existed in two different versions, which correspond roughly to the two main sources of CLT: a communicative perspective on language and a communicative perspective on learning.
- The communicative perspective on language is primarily about what we learn. It proposes that when we learn a language we are primarily learning not language structures but language ‘functions’ (how to ‘do things with words’). These communicative functions came to play a central role in syllabus design and methodology. The ELT world came to be dominated by so-called ‘functional’ or ‘communicative’ courses, in which students would practice expressing functions (such as ‘making suggestions’) and then use them in ‘communicative activities’ (such as pair work, role-play, discussion and the use of authentic materials; see e.g. the activities discussed in Johnson & Morrow, 1981).
- The communicative perspective on learning focuses attention on how we learn, especially on our natural capacities to ‘acquire’ language simply through communication without explicit instruction. These ideas were embodied in proposals such as Krashen and Terrell’s (1983) ‘natural approach’, which was based on the belief that only natural acquisition processes can lead to effective language learning. Prabhu’s (1987) ‘communicational language teaching’, which insisted that conscious learning and error correction have no place in the language classroom; and ‘humanistic’ approaches (e.g. Moskowitz, 1978), which emphasized the importance of engaging learners in communication in which their whole personality is invested.
In classroom practice, both perspectives lead to an emphasis on ‘communication in the classroom’ (Johnson & Morrow, 1981). But if we focus only on the communicative perspective on learning, we may draw the conclusion (as many have done) that involvement in communication is sufficient in itself for learning and that we should not make any use at all of ‘traditional’ techniques such as explanations, drills and question-and-answer practice. This has often been called (after Howatt, 1984, p. 287) the ‘strong’ version of CLT’. The communicative perspective on language, on the other hand, still leaves open the possibility that teachers might present and practice individual items (in a communicative context) before or after students use them for communication. This has often been called (again, after Howatt, 1984, p. 287) the ‘weak’ version of CLT.
The two versions of CLT have different implications for how language is best learnt in the classroom and for the role of the teacher. Both versions require the teacher to be a creator and organizer of communicative activities, which presents challenging roles for teachers and learners, but the weak version, adopts a more familiar overall framework through its recognition of controlled and analytic learning. Allwright & Hanks (2009 pp. 47-49) argue that the ‘much less challenging ideas’ of this weak version (which they see embodied in Littlewood, 1981) ‘solved the commodity problem’ of CLT (because it could form the basis of published course books) but hindered the ‘radical rethink about learners’ that the strong version might have stimulated, if it had been commercially viable.
Chow & Mok-Cheung (2004, p. 158) refer to the shift from a teacher-centered pedagogy to a student-centered CLT pedagogy as a ‘quantum leap’ in the transmission-oriented context of Hong Kong schools. Wang (2007, p. 10) summarizes some of the practical challenges faced by teachers in China when they are asked to make this ‘leap’ from a traditional approach to a communication-oriented approach. They are expected to develop new practical skills for classroom teaching; change how they evaluate students; develop the ability to adapt textbooks; use modern technology; improve their own language proficiency; change their conception of their own role from being a transmitter of knowledge to being a multi-role educator; and change their conception of language learning from one based on knowledge-acquisition to one based on the holistic development of competence. Jeon (2009, p. 126) describes a similar situation in Korea, where ‘emphasizing the communicative language approach was a drastic change compared to the previous, traditional approach to language instruction in Korea.’ The factors in this ‘drastic change’ which Jeon highlights include setting the unit of analysis at the discourse level rather than the sentence level; emphasizing communicative competence rather than only linguistic competence; moving from teacher-fronted to learner-centered classes; changing the teacher’s role from lecturer to facilitator; and working with textbooks which focus on communicative situations rather than language based on sentence examples.
Practical challenges are reported from numerous countries when teachers have been asked to implement CLT in primary and secondary schools, where classes are often large and resources are limited (e.g. Carless, 2004 in Hong Kong; Hiep, 2007 in Vietnam; Hu, 2005 in China; Jeon, 2009 and Li, 1998 in Korea; Orafi & Borg, 2009 in Libya; Nishino & Watanabe, 2008 in Japan; see also surveys of a range of East Asian countries in Butler 2011; Ho & Wong, 2004; Littlewood, 2007). These challenges include:
- Difficulties with classroom management, especially with large classes, and teachers’ resulting fear that they may lose control;
- New organizational skills required by some activities such as pair or group work;
- Students’ inadequate language proficiency, which may lead them to use the mother tongue (or only minimal English) rather than trying to ‘stretch’ their English competence;
- Excessive demands on teachers’ own language skills, if they themselves have had limited experience of communicating in English;
- Common conceptions that formal learning must involve item-by-item progression through a syllabus rather than the less observable holistic learning that occurs in communication;
- Common conceptions that the teacher’s role is to transmit knowledge rather than act as a facilitator of learning and supporter of autonomy;
- The negative ‘wash back’ effect of public examinations based on pencil-and-paper tests, which focus on discrete items and do not prioritize communication;
- Resistance from students and parents, who fear that important examination results may suffer because of the new approach.