ESL Teacher Talk: A series of articles for ESL teachers

My Experience with the Communicative Method

When I did my ESL teacher training in the 1990s, I was taught something called the “Communicative Method”. This, I was informed, was the recommended method for us to use in our teaching careers.

Earlier methods had focused too much on learning language through grammar rules and the communicative method was an attempt to correct this. What we were taught was:

At first, I thought that the Communicative Method was wonderful. I taught summer classes at a high school in Romania and the students thought it was great. I taught summer classes in London and the students loved this approach. After all, they had come to London to practice speaking English and this was exactly what they wanted.

I found that this approach was especially good for Japanese, Korean and Chinese students. You see, schools in these countries focus heavily on grammar instruction and the students rarely get a chance to actually speak, partly due to the inexperience of their teachers and partly due to large class sizes. (Although perhaps this situation has now changed in some of these countries.) So, ignoring grammar (which they already knew) and focusing on speaking was exactly what they needed!

It was only when I began teaching in Malaysia that I began to see the problems with the communicative method.

Malaysians have the exact opposite issue that my Japanese and Korean students used to have. Malaysians have plenty of chance to practice English – it’s spoken as a second language and used very commonly in business, but they have terrible grammar.

Schools in Malaysia use a form of the communicative method, or at least they don’t place much focus on grammar. The results of this approach are quite interesting.

Let me give you an example. In one of my business English classes, there was a guy called Hafiz. When I asked him to introduce himself, he began with “My name Hafiz,” instead of “My name is Hafiz”.

It’s such a simple, basic sentence and he got it wrong. It’s basically, the very first thing you learn when you start learning English. But Hafiz isn’t a beginner; this is an upper-intermediate level class. Hafiz uses English every day. He conducts meetings in English and gives presentations in English, yet he gets the most basic sentence in English wrong.

There were eight other students in my class. Three of them made the same mistake. I know why they made this mistake – it’s because they’re translating directly from Malay.

As another example, I asked a coworker, a Malaysian Chinese girl called Su Lin, “Where is Derek?” She answered, “I think he got come late one.”

This is typical Malaysian English, or “Manglish”. Malaysians are able to communicate well; in fact, they have excellent communication skills, but their grammar and sentence structure is all over the place.

Thinking of using the communicative method with Malaysian students? It’s exactly the opposite of what they need!

If you ask adult Malaysian students to spend the lesson having group discussions, they’ll get confused. They spend all day speaking English at work, so how will it help them to simply have “free discussion” practice in an English class? They want to know things like, “What’s the difference between ‘had eaten’ and ‘have eaten’ or ‘advice’ and ‘advise’.

You might say, as a counterpoint, “So what if they get the grammar wrong? You just mentioned that they are excellent communicators, so what’s the problem?”

Well, the first problem is this. English is often the language of business in Malaysia and it’s one thing to speak broken English, but it’s another thing to write it. It’s torturous to read a ten-page report written in broken English.

I’m a business English teacher and most of my classes focus on writing. I also find that when a company asks me to conduct a report writing course, for example, what they really want is a grammar course. Their employees can already write reports, but their sentences are horrible.

This brings me to the second point. There’s a kind of language elitism in Malaysia. The elites – the bosses and managers – tend to have good English as they were educated overseas. They don’t want to read emails and reports written in “Manglish”. Additionally, English spoken and written correctly is seen as a ticket for upward mobility. People join English classes in the hope that they can one day join the elites, or at least move up in their careers.

Finally, Malaysia, like many other countries, is doing more and more business globally. It’s not enough to speak “Manglish” or to be able to communicate in broken English. Malaysians need to speak correct and standardized English.

When I was taking my teacher training course (so many years ago!), I was told that immersion in and use of a target language would eventually lead to fluency and this was another reason to increase “student talking time” in the classroom and to decrease “teacher talking time”. It seemed to make a lot of sense to me. I remembered a Greek friend at university. His English was a bit shaky at first, but after living in England for a couple of years, he was as fluent as a native speaker.

I thought that my friend was proof that all you had to do was to keep communicating in your target language and eventually you’ll hit native speaker level. But it turns out that my friend was somewhat of an outlier.

I’ve since met plenty of people who studied or worked overseas and who still haven’t reached native fluency. Many Malaysians use English every day and are far from native speaker level.

Another example is Jackie Chan (sorry, Jackie!). He’s worked in Hollywood off and on for years, but he still struggles with English.

Some proponents of the Communicative Method are obsessed with cutting Teacher Talking Time (TTT). I was taught to keep it to an absolute minimum and ensure that the students do most of the talking during the class.

The thing is, this is a bit ridiculous. Some of my best lessons have been Q and A sessions where the students asked me to explain points that confused them and I did so at length. A Q and A session is always student-centered, but you can’t do it if your goal is to speak as little as possible!

Another issue is that when students discuss issues in groups, they provide flawed language models for each other.

As I’ve mentioned throughout, the Communicative Method is not a great way to teach grammar or writing mechanics.

However, I should say that, in my case, I was trained to include grammar points in a communicative lesson. I was trained to devise speaking activities that would enable students to use these grammar points in their discussions. But I know that many teachers don’t do this.

So, in summary here, the Communicative Method is great when dealing with students who are well-versed in grammar but have had little experience of actually speaking in English.

The weak points of the Communicative Method are:

Note that I have used the term Communicative Method through this article. People also use the terms Communicative Approach (CA) and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).