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Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is an approach to the teaching of second and foreign languages that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of learning a language.

Relationship with other methods and approaches

Historically, CLT can be seen as a response to the Audio-Lingual Method (the ALM) and as an extension or development of the Notional-Functional Syllabus.

The Audio-Lingual Method

The Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) arose as a direct result of the need for foreign language proficiency in listening and speaking skills during and after World War II. It is closely tied to behaviorism, and thus made drilling, repetition, and habit-formation central elements of instruction. Proponents of the ALM felt that this emphasis on repetition necessitated a corollary emphasis on accuracy, claiming that continual repetition of errors would lead to the fixed acquisition of incorrect structures and non-standard pronunciation.

In the classroom, lessons were often organized by grammatical structure and presented through short dialogs. Often, students listened repeatedly to recordings of conversations and focused on accurately mimicking the pronunciation and grammatical structures in these dialogs.

Critics of the ALM asserted that this over-emphasis on repetition and accuracy ultimately did not help students achieve communicative competence in the target language. They looked for new ways to present and organize language instruction, and advocated the notional functional syllabus, and eventually CLT as the most effective way to teach second and foreign languages.

The Notional Functional Syllabus

A notional-functional syllabus is more a way of organizing a language learning curriculum than a method or an approach to teaching. In a notional-functional syllabus, instruction is organized not in terms of grammatical structure as had often been done with the ALM, but in terms of “notions” and “functions.” In this model, a “notion” is a particular context in which people communicate, and a “function” is a specific purpose for a speaker in a given context. As an example, the “notion” or context shopping requires numerous language functions including asking about prices or features of a product and bargaining. Similarly, the notion party would require numerous functions like introductions and greetings and discussing interests and hobbies. Proponents of the notional-functional syllabus claimed that it addressed the deficiencies they found in the ALM by helping students develop their ability to effectively communicate in a variety of real-life contexts.

Overview of CLT

As an extension of the notional-functional syllabus, CLT also places great emphasis on helping students use the target language in a variety of contexts and places great emphasis on learning language functions. Unlike the ALM, its primary focus is on helping learners create meaning rather than helping them develop perfectly grammatical structures or acquire native-like pronunciation. This means that successfully learning a foreign language is assessed in terms of how well learners have developed their communicative competence, which can loosely be defined as their ability to apply knowledge of both formal and sociolinguistic aspects of a language with adequate proficiency to communicate.

CLT is usually characterized as a broad approach to teaching, rather than as a teaching method with a clearly defined set of classroom practices. As such, it is most often defined as a list of general principles or features. One of the most recognized of these lists is David Nunan’s (1991) five features of CLT:

  1. An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus, not only on language but also on the learning process itself.
  4. An enhancement of the learner’s own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language learning with language activities outside the classroom.

These five features are claimed by practitioners of CLT to show that they are very interested in the needs and desires of their learners as well as the connection between the language as it is taught in their class and as it used outside the classroom. Under this broad umbrella definition, any teaching practice that helps students develop their communicative competence in an authentic context is deemed an acceptable and beneficial form of instruction. Thus, in the classroom CLT often takes the form of pair and group work requiring negotiation and cooperation between learners, fluency-based activities that encourage learners to develop their confidence, role-plays in which students practice and develop language functions, as well as judicious use of grammar and pronunciation focused activities.

Classroom activities used in CLT

Example Activities

  • Role Play
  • Interviews
  • Information Gap
  • Games
  • Language Exchanges
  • Surveys
  • Pair Work

However, not all courses that utilize the Communicative Language approach will restrict their activities solely to these. Some courses will have the students take occasional grammar quizzes, or prepare at home using non-communicative drills, for instance.

Critiques of CLT

Recent critiques of CLT include an article by Stephen Bax entitled: "The end of CLT: a Context Approach to language teaching" in which he argues that the dominance of CLT has led to the neglect of one crucial aspect of language pedagogy, namely the context in which that pedagogy takes place. Bax argues that it is time to replace CLT as the central paradigm in language teaching with a Context Approach which places context at the heart of the profession. The article argues that such a shift is taking place already and will eventually change our practice radically.


Bax, S (2003) The end of CLT: a context approach to language teaching ELT J 2003 57: 278-287

Harmer, J. (2003) Popular culture, methods, and context ELT J 2003 57: 288-294

See also


  • Brown, H.D. 1994. Teaching by Principles – An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Prentince Hall.
  • Brown, H.D. 1994. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Prentice Hall.
  • Nunan, David. 1991. Communicative tasks and the language curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 25(2), 279-295.
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