The Communicative Approach (CLT) – How to Improve the ESL Classroom

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Learning to communicate in a foreign language is hard. Teaching a foreign language hard as well. The Communicate Approach (CLT) can be useful if you’re teaching any language, you probably have one goal in mind: for your students to be able to communicate in that language. Logically, then, students should be actively communicating in class in order to achieve that goal. You wouldn’t win a sports game if you didn’t practice, right?

Unfortunately, our classroom practices do not always align with our intended outcomes. In many conventional classrooms, educators still use this traditional structure: teachers lead the class, while students are quiet listeners.

This is especially true in some eastern Asian countries where teachers are highly respected. It would be unheard of for students to talk freely or openly over the teacher. (Trust me, encouraging students to speak freely was a big obstacle in my classes in South Korea). Instead, class time is used for teachers to deposit as much information as possible. The students’ role is to receive this information, memorize, and later reproduce it on a test.

Sounds boring, right? And, as you may have experienced, students who are bored will not care about English enough to improve.  

In order to solve this dilemma, teachers should reevaluate their classroom practices and use class time more effectively. Most ESL classes only meet for a few hours a week. ESL teachers need to use that precious time to have their students actually practicing English.

If the goal is smoother speaking, the method should be, simply, a lot of speaking. After all, life is not a grammar test, so why waste time memorizing rules?

ESL classroom - communicate approach, CLT

The Communicative Approach

So, how can you include more speaking time while sticking to your curriculum goals? Luckily, there’s a pedagogical approach that does just that. The communicative approach, also known as communicative language teaching or CLT, emerged in the 1960’s in Europe as language teaching became more popular.

People were frustrated with boring old language classes. Also, at that time, travel was becoming more accessible. Students wanted to learn language they’d actually use abroad. Instead of teaching a boring lesson about verb tenses, wouldn’t it make sense to conduct role plays about finding the bathroom in another country?

Enter: the communicative method.

CLT focuses on authentic language production and a flipped classroom, where students direct the learning and even speak more than the teacher. The goal is not for students to have PERFECT English, but to be understood in English.  And, in today’s globalized world where English is more important than ever, this should be the goal of every ESL teacher.

Here are some key features of the communicative approach:

  • The main goal is to communicate in the target language.
  • Links classroom learning with language students will use in the real world.
  • Language is presented in context. Use situations to introduce new vocabulary.
  • Students can personalize the language, making it more interesting.
  • Uses a flipped classroom to increase student talking time.
  • Teachers act as guides rather than facilitators.
  • Less emphasis on error correction. Students will self-correct naturally over time.
  • Evaluation is based heavily on fluency instead of accuracy.
  • Building students’ confidence is key. Teachers should act as motivators in order to do so.
  • Translation to the native language is acceptable as needed.
  • Pair work, pair work pair, pair work!

Basically, a communicative classroom is loud, it’s full of energy, and it’s fun. Students may be shy at first, especially if they’re used to worrying about grammatical output. However, once their affective filter is lowered, they will to speak more and improve their communication skills in no time.

ESL student, classroom, CLT

The CLT Classroom

This method almost sounds too good to be true, right? It’s easier to incorporate in the classroom than you think. You are probably already doing some CLT based activities. The key is to do them all the time.  

What does a CLT based classroom look like in practice? Well, it depends on the students’ ages, interests, and English level. Activities should have clear instructions and examples. Depending on the students’ levels, you can always scaffold lessons by putting sentence structures as guides on the board or even translating into their native language.

Here are some activities to get you started.

Early Learners

What’s one thing kids love? Games! The communicative approach is a great way to integrate games into your kindergarten and early learner classrooms. Because children need a bit more direction, make sure to demonstrate clearly. Flashcard games  are a great option. The teacher can model the language and students can copy while talking about the pictures.

Here are more ideas:

  • Find the picture. The teacher hides flashcards in the classroom, and students will find them while identifying the picture: It’s a ___________.
  • Have the students teach! Kids love to be given important roles. Let the students lead simple tasks, such as asking about feelings or the calendar.
  • Role plays. Act as animals, pilots, bus drivers. Kids will love it!
  • Show and tell. Encourage the audience to ask questions.
  • Mystery box. Put a toy into a box and have students ask identifying questions until they can guess the object correctly.
  • Ball toss. Write a few questions on a ball. Students toss or roll the ball and answer the questions.

Primary and Secondary School

As kids get a little bit older, they’ll be able to do activities with less teacher guidance. Students will love to participate in relaxed, fun activities. Here are some ideas:

  • Flashcard games
  • Hot seat. You can do this with any subject. One student sits in the hot seat with his or her back to the board. Put an image on the board. The class has to give hints without naming the image until the student guesses correctly.  
  • Role play. Have pairs of students create and perform role plays.
  • Human bingo. Students have to fill in a bingo card by asking their classmates questions.
  • Scavenger hunts
CLT, flipped classroom

Higher Education and Adults

In addition to the previous activities, here are some CLT based lessons for adults.

  • Speed dating. This is a VERY effective method to have students practice speaking English. What’s more interesting to a 20 year old than another 20 year old? This activity can last the entire class without getting boring. As students have more conversations, their confidence will increase.
  • Would you rather? Prepare a PowerPoint of ridiculous questions that the students discuss in pairs. For example, would you rather eat only spicy food or only sour food for the rest of your life?
  • Information gaps. In pair or small groups, each student will have a set of information that the other doesn’t know. They must ask questions to obtain the information.
  • Information gathering. (Surveys, interviews)
  • Role play. For example, pairs of students plan a dream vacation and present it to the class.

Whichever CLT task you decide to use, make sure you pre-teach the language necessary beforehand. And most importantly- have fun!


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