BTR-TESOL Unit 4C - Communicative Language Teaching



objectives of this unit

the least you should know: communicative language teaching

basic principles of clt

comprehensive questions

teacher and learner roles in clt

comprehensive questions

information gap activities

designing a successful activity

use of information gap activities

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



As a language teacher, one of the most important things you can do to help your students improve their communication skills is to implement real and authentic communication activities into your classes. These activities will help your students be successful when they need to use communication skills outside of the classroom.

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Scenario: The story of Jan

Two years ago, Jan taught community ESL classes in the western United States. The make-up of her classes was mostly people of Hispanic origin and her classes tended to be lively and amusing. There was a good level of participation and the students enjoyed working in groups. The main problem was that sometimes the students’ pronunciation wasn’t very good.

This year Jan got a job teaching English at a Korean high school. It is her first teaching job overseas and her first class of all Asian students. When Jan entered on the first day of class, the students were silent and attentive, waiting to see what she would do next. Based on the interested look on their faces, Jan wondered if they had ever seen an American before. She also noticed that they did not speak out unless called upon and the conversation among themselves was minimal. As she was teaching, she noticed that the students seemed to have a good understanding of grammar. Their speaking ability, however, was minimal. She wanted to use an approach to teaching that would require them to speak more and hopefully improve their speaking ability but she didn’t know what that could be and how to implement it in her classes.

  • What would you do in this situation?
  • How would you help students improve their speaking abilities?
  • What could you do to make speaking activities both effective and enjoyable?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After you work through this unit you will be able to describe and apply the following:

    1. The basic principles of communicative language teaching.
    2. The steps in designing different types of information gap activities.
    3. The effective implementation of information gap activities in classroom settings.

    If you have learned well, you will be able to implement the principles of communicative language teaching and information gap in your classes through the use of activities that will help your students improve their speaking.

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    The least you should know

    Communicative Language Teaching

    The communicative language teaching (CLT) approach is currently one of the most popular in the field. It is an approach in which the focus is on communication and developing students’ ability to communicate. In order to achieve this goal, CLT places great emphasis on helping students use the target language in a variety of contexts and situations. Its primary focus is on helping learners create meaningful communication rather than helping them develop perfect grammatical abilities or achieve native-like pronunciation. Successfully learning a foreign language is determined by how well learners have developed communicative competence. This term refers to a learner's ability to apply his or her knowledge of the language to communicate effectively. One example of communicative competence is to know how to use language for different purposes, such as apologizing or asking for permission. Another is to know how to use appropriate language in different settings, such as using formal or informal language. Another is to know how to continue communication despite limited communication ability. This can be achieved through the use of communication strategies such as asking someone to repeat and/or explain what they said and also, as the speaker, learning how to make better explanations. (For more information on communicative competence, see the resources at the end of this unit).

    1. Basic Principles of CLT

    1. People learn a language by using it to communicate.

    It was once widely thought that learners must first have a strong knowledge of grammar before they were ready to communicate. In CLT, learners are encouraged to practice communicating during all stages of the learning process, including the beginning stages, regardless of their grammatical ability (see unit 4B: Types of Practice).

    2. Meaningful communication should be the goal of classroom activities.

    Communicative activities that involve spontaneous speech in scenarios and situations that the learners are likely to find themselves in are frequently used to encourage authentic (or realistic) communication. Dialogues, if used, are not usually memorized but are allowed to occur more naturally and spontaneously.

    3. Learning to communicate is a process that involves trial and error.

    As learners create language through communicative practice, it is accepted that errors may occur frequently as they try to discover what works and what doesn’t. This is a natural part of the learning process and one that helps communicative competence. Learners are not expected to be perfect in their communication but they are expected to try to communicate the best they can.

    4. Learner errors are often not corrected immediately but can be corrected later.

    It is considered that the fluency of a learner’s speech is more important than its accuracy. This means that correcting learner errors immediately would interrupt the communication process and the flow of the learner’s speech. Errors are noted by the teacher but they are often not brought up until a later time if necessary (see Unit 3D: Correcting Errors).

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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • Without looking, what are the four basic principles of communicative language teaching?
  • What are the goals of communicative language teaching?
  • How can the principles of communicative language teaching be used to improve learners' speaking ability?
  • 2. Teacher and Learner Roles in CLT

    Teacher roles

  • Organizer and facilitator - The primary role of the teacher is to keep the communication going between all members of the class as they perform various activities. The teacher first prepares the activities and then explains how they will be carried out. It may be necessary for the teacher to provide examples of how each activity will be performed. Once the activity is under way, the teacher checks on individual groups to see if they are communicating effectively and gives help where needed.

  • Participant and guide - Instead of just explaining the activity, the teacher can also take the role of an active participant within each learning group. In this role, the teacher will become part of the group and participate fully with the other group members. As the teachers do so, they can continue to guide the process.

  • Resource and needs analyst - In this role, the teacher determines and responds to learners’ language needs. This involves making students aware of what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. Although the teachers often do not address errors immediately, they can listen for and note learner errors and then plans future instruction to address these needs.
  • Learner roles

  • Participant - The primary role of learners is to be active participants within groups as they seek to achieve effective communication. Learner are often not independent learners but rely on others in the class to learn as much as they can. As they participate, they should try to contribute as much as they gain from the other learners.

  • Cooperative learner - In order to work together, students have to become comfortable listening to each other rather than relying on the teacher as a model. Students also need to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Possible differences from students' expectations

    The roles of learners in CLT may be different from their ideas of what learning should be like, so learners may have to adjust. For example, in CLT, students are expected to interact primarily with each other and not the teacher. This may be different from what they are used to. Also, error correction in CLT is often infrequent or absent, whereas learners may be accustomed to frequent error correction. It is also important for learners to understand that successful communication is the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener. If failed communication occurs, it is not always the fault of either party individually. Learners are expected to work together and not blame each other.

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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • In what ways might communicative language teaching be different from what your students are used to?
  • Without referring to the list above, name and describe as many of the roles of both teachers and learners in communicative language teaching as you can.
  • Which teacher roles might you be the most or least comfortable with?
  • 3. Information Gap Activities

    Information gap activities are one of the most important kinds of communicative activities.

    A great variety of information gap activities exist, but they all have the goal of requesting and giving information. The defining characteristic of these activities is that it is necessary for participants to communicate with each other in order to reach the goals of the task. In an information gap activity, one learner has certain information that must be shared with other learners in order to solve a problem, gather information, or make decisions (Neu & Reeser, 1997). Information gap activities can be extremely effective in the L2 classroom. They give every student the opportunity to speak in the target language for an extended period of time, which results in students naturally producing more speech than they would otherwise. In addition, speaking with peers is usually less intimidating for the learners than giving a presentation in front of the entire class and being evaluated. Another advantage of information gap activities is that students are forced to communicate effectively because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task.

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    4. Steps in Designing a Successful Information Gap Activity

    1. Task Explanation and Review

    The teacher first explains the activity and reviews any vocabulary potentially needed.

    2. Modeling

    Next, the teacher focuses learners’ attention on the information gap itself so they understand what is expected of them. This is often accomplished by the teacher modeling the activity in front of the class.

    3. Performing the Task

    Students are divided into pairs or groups and then left to complete the task. The task is designed so that each participant plays an important role and the task cannot be accomplished without everyone's participation.

    4. Teacher Monitoring

    During this time it is the teacher’s responsibility to monitor student practice and provide feedback.

    Example Activities

    Here is an example of an information gap activity that follows the steps above. The purpose of this activity is for students to find out from each other what they did the previous weekend.
    1. First the teacher explains the task and reviews any necessary vocabulary. For this activity the teacher may want to emphasize the use of the simple past tense and give examples of its use. If desired, the teacher can present the students with a list of questions they can ask and use as a guide in performing the activity. For example:
      • What was the favorite thing you did last weekend?
      • What was the least favorite thing you did last weekend?
      • What was the most memorable thing you did last weekend
    2. The teacher can model the activity by simply answering the questions above in the appropriate form.
    3. Students should then be assigned into pairs and ask the questions of each other. As an additional step, the students can report back on what they learned from each other.
    4. The teacher will walk around the room and provide help where needed.

    In another type of information gap activity, the students will be asked to come up with their own questions in order to obtain the desired information. For example, they can be given a table that requires them to ask get-to-know-you questions of their classmates in order to complete it:

    Student 1 Student 2 Student 3
    Phone Number
    Favorite Food      
    Favorite Color      

    This kind of task will require the students to form questions on their own such as:

  • What is your name?
  • What is your address?
  • What is your phone number
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite color?

  • They have to ask these questions to three different people and record the responses in writing.

    A more advanced information gap task could involve students having a discussion to solve a problem. For example, students could decide together what items would be most important for their survival if they were stranded together on a desert island.

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    5. Use of Information Gap Activities

    Information gap activities are appropriate at all learner proficiency levels, from beginning through advanced. This is because the difficulty of the task can be adjusted based on the student’s level. Typically, in tasks for beginning-level students, the gap should be small and may require questions and answers of only a word or two (e.g. the cost of an item, an address, a birthday, or a telephone number). The activity can be used to reinforce previously practiced material and is often done in pairs. In tasks for higher level students, the gap should be larger and therefore more demanding in terms of language required (e.g. following directions to a location). The activity may be structured for students to work in groups of three or four rather than in pairs.

    Many information gap activities are highly motivational because of the nature of the different tasks. Activities that require the solving of a problem or a mystery can create a high level of interest. Teachers should first try to determine whether an activity is of an acceptable level of difficulty for their students. If the students are sufficiently prepared for the activity, the level of language accuracy will be acceptable.

    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • What is the defining characteristic of an information gap activity?
  • What are the four steps in designing an information gap activity?
  • What kinds of information gap activities are appropriate for your students?
  • Describe an information gap activity you might use with your students in the future.
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    Video examples

    This video shows an information gap exercise that was done with a class of freshmen at a university in China:

    Coming Soon.

    The students are asked to share their likes and dislikes in English with a partner.

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    Reflection and Responses

    Think about each of the following questions related to the video you just watched. Write a sentence or two in response to each one.

    1. How did the teacher divide the students into pairs?
    2. What was the purpose of the activity?
    3. Compare the activity to what you read in the “The Least You Should Know” section above, including the steps of an information gap activity and the characteristics of a successful speaking activity. Were the steps followed? Was the activity successful?

    Write your reflections and responses in the box provided below. After posting your comment, you may scroll down to see what other users of this unit have said in their reflections and responses. If you want to read even more, click on the "Load more comments" button. When you're done, scroll down to the next section of this unit.
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    Where to go to learn more

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit:

    1. Unit 3D, "Correcting language learners' errors productively, and developing their self-monitoring skills."
    2. Unit 4B, "Creating and using exercises for mechanical, meaningful, and communicative practice."
    3. Unit 4D, "Encouraging cooperative and collaborative learning to increase student interaction."
    4. Unit 6B, "Developing English language learners' speaking skills."

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    Online and other electronic resources This website features a number of online booklets including one related to CLT titled “Communicative Language Teaching Today” by Jack C. Richards. It discusses the historical background of CLT as well as current approaches to how it is used. This Wikipedia article provides more information about what defines CLT and how it differs from other approaches. This page introduces several information gap activities and contains printable teaching resources for each activity.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    Here are some published books that have proven to be helpful for learning about communicative language teaching. (All reviews and quotes are from

    H. Douglas Brown. Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy (3rd ed.) "A widely acclaimed methodology text used in teacher education programs around the world. This user-friendly textbook offers a comprehensive survey of practical language teaching options, all firmly anchored in accepted principles of language learning and teaching. End-of-chapter exercises give readers opportunities to process material interactively." ISBN: 0136127118

    Klaus Brandl. Communicative Language Teaching in Action: Putting Principles to Work. Prentice Hall 2006. "A basic text that demonstrates principles and practices of communicative language teaching and task-based instruction. Its primary purpose is to serve as a guide for second and foreign language teachers in training or for those who have embarked on a new career as language teachers." ISBN: 0131579061

    Friederike Klippel. Keep Talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge University Press, 1985. "This is a practical guide to communication activities in the language classroom, suitable for use with students from elementary to advanced level." ISBN: 0521278716

    Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rogers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. (2nd ed.) Cambridge University Press, 2001. "…surveys the major approaches and methods in language teaching, such as communicative language teaching and the natural approach. The text examines each approach and method in terms of its theory of language and language learning, goals, syllabus, teaching activities, teacher and learner roles, materials, and classroom techniques." ISBN: 0521008433

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    Additional References

    Coming Soon.

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