What is communicative language teaching?

communicative language teaching elt Aug 26, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

When communicative language teaching (CLT) was first introduced, the term communication in CLT was often misunderstood as conversation. As a result, there was a noticeable focus on speaking activities in language classrooms. Although conversations are a form of communication, communication is more than informal spoken language.

Another common misunderstanding of the CLT approach is the idea that the grammar of formal English is not important, so teachers and learners can afford to forget about grammatical competence, that is, knowledge of the building blocks of sentences and how sentences are formed, as long as the learners can communicate. Personally, I am yet to be convinced that grammar is everything or that grammar is nothing.

A holistic view

Within the CLT approach, as the name suggests, the focus is on communicative competence. This means that it is important to know how to use language for various purposes and in a variety of contexts (Richards, 2006). This idea is based on the argument that knowing how to construct grammatical sentences alone does not guarantee effective communication, and that grammatical competence may be more or less important depending on the context and nature of the interaction.

One aspect of communicative competence that Richards (2006) discusses, which I find particularly important for learners with limited English language proficiency, is knowing how to maintain communication despite having limited language and particularly vocabulary.

Theory and practice

As ‘real’ communication is at the core of CLT, classroom activities should focus on learners achieving communicative tasks in a meaningful way. By meaningful, I mean tasks that reflect real-life experience and situations. An example of an authentic communicative task includes listening to a piece of news and discussing how it affects class members.

Another example is having learners compare tourist attractions and decide where they would like to visit.
Because communication includes using both formal and informal language in spoken and written texts, it is important to have a balance of spoken and written activities in different contexts, and with differing levels of formality.

Of course, there is always room for the teaching of grammar in a CLT classroom. In practice, this means that grammar should be taught in context. For example, rather than introducing grammatical points such as tenses or adjectives, teachers can draw learners’ attention to typical grammatical features of a communicative function (e.g., seeking clarification in a classroom).

See Harmer (2007) for a list of communicative activities.


Harmer, J. (2007). How to teach English (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.

Richards, J. C. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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