With the rapid development of EFL
teaching in non-English-speaking countries, English teachers have become more aware that
the exclusive use of either the communicative approach or grammar-translation method does
not suit all English teaching situations. Teachers have also discovered that no single
teaching method deals with everything that concerns the form, the use, and the content of
the target language. The overall situation is probably still as Roberts (1982) described:
"The communicative approach, and we will now use the term to refer to the British
tradition, is in many ways a commitment to eclecticism in practice and cannot be
otherwise." Harvey (1985) states: "What might be called traditional methods and
skills are not necessarily unworkable alongside modern EFL teaching methods. The idea that
the two are mutually exclusive is absurd."
What EFL teachers in China need to do
now is to modernize, not Westernize, English teaching. They need to combine the new with
the old so as to adapt the communicative approach to traditional teaching structures.
Communicative approach vs. grammar-translation method
Since teaching is deeply rooted in the local philosophy, culture, and basic concepts of
education, the students learning styles and habits in language acquisition must be
considered. Although the grammar-translation method is out of favor, students accustomed
to this method may still derive benefit from it. For example, Chinese students generally
show great interest in language structures and linguistic details when they are learning a
language. "We would like to know what happens, because if we understand the system,
we can use English more effectively" (Harvey 1985). Therefore, in teaching English to
Chinese students, appropriate grammar analysis is essential, especially for beginners.
Limited utilization of translation from or to the target language is an indispensable part
of teaching. Vocabulary work and pattern drills are also ways of familiarizing the student
with sentence structures. This information helps learners acquire linguistic competence.
But instead of teaching grammar traditionally and drilling grammar patterns, teachers
need to relate teaching grammar and pattern drills to meaning and use. In other words,
language structure practice should be used in contexts that involve some basic principles
of appropriateness. This is the exact area that the traditional EFL teaching has long
overlookedteaching English for a communicative purpose. Thus, English teaching
should be partly communicatively oriented, so students can acquaint themselves with
appropriate language usage.
In teaching grammar, it is important to make the language situations and language
material as realistic as possible. Immediately after supplying students with adequate
explanations of grammar functions, the teacher can provide students with suitable
situations that encourage students to ultimately use the rules in real-life communication.
For instance, in teaching the modal auxiliaries can and may, what should be made clear is
that the two modals are not synonyms and that there are contexts in which only one of them
is appropriate. Thus, these two sentences have slightly different meanings:
1. It can be very nice to have a picnic in winter.
2. It may be very nice to have a picnic in winter.
Accuracy vs. fluency
There is no denying the fact that both accuracy and fluency are essential in language
learning. However, in English teaching dominated by the grammar-translation method,
accuracy is emphasized more than fluency. Students in such classrooms are extremely
particular about linguistic details. They never feel satisfied with their language
productions until the correct answers are provided. They are keenly interested in the
exact words, have a low tolerance of ambiguity, and tend to focus on discrete grammar
points and specific syntactic constructions (Barnhouse 1981). So the question arises as to
the relationship between accuracy and fluency and which one should take precedence. These
questions must be examined in relation to what is expected of the students when they
graduate and what the teaching conditions are.
Modern society is in need of people who not only read English well but also speak it
fluently. As for beginners, they must have a solid foundation in English, which is
primarily, though not solely, built on accuracy. It is believed that once bad language
habits are formed, they are difficult to break. Moreover, for the students who are
learning English in a non- English-speaking country, there is little chance for them to
learn an acceptable form of English outside the classroom. So, in order to achieve
accuracy, students need rigorous language training in their classes.
However, accuracy does not mean 100% error-free, an impossible achievement. But during
the controlled and semicontrolled language practice periods for beginners, a high degree
of accuracy should be required. Not only are the students encouraged to make as few errors
as possible, but they are expected to manipulate the language system as spontaneously and
flexibly as possible.
Of course, fluency in language learning goes far beyond that. Soon after the students
have mastered the language forms, they ought to be given intensive fluency practice. Then,
as control is withdrawn, students can use the language more freely. At this stage, errors
should be tolerated, and the teacher should emphasize that error-making is not at all
disgraceful but a natural and common practice. Teachers assess the students
performances at the end of each fluency practice so that the students are aware of their
weaknesses and become more and more conscious of their errors. In this way, accuracy and
fluency are practiced almost simultaneously. Accuracy and fluency are not mutually
exclusive, but are interdependent.
Linguistic competence vs. communicative competence
The relation between linguistic competence and communicative competence also is
important. At the foundation stage, linguistic competence is the spontaneous, flexible,
and correct manipulation of the language system. Communicative competence involves
principles of appropriateness and a readiness on the part of the learner to use relevant
strategies in coping with certain language situations. Linguistic competence, then, is the
basis of communicative competence. Without linguistic competence, there is no
communicative competence. But communicative competence does not automatically result from
linguistic competence. Forms of classroom activities such as role playing, simulations,
and real-life interactions should be used to provide as much practice as possible for
students to develop communicative competence while practicing linguistic competence.
To facilitate language acquisition, students need much practice. So, teachers must
ensure that classroom interactions are managed, not just by the teacher, but by all
present. In order to avoid being the center of classroom interactions, teachers should
arrange the desks in such a way that the students can look directly at one another. This
helps create interactions among the students. The teacher does not act as leader of the
class, but class leadership emerges from within the group.
Instead of being the dominating authority in the classroom, the teacher facilitates the
communicative process among all the learners and between the students and the various
tasks, giving guidance and advice when necessary. Furthermore, teachers act as independent
participants within the learning-teaching group. Any unnecessary intervention on the
teachers part may prevent learners from becoming genuinely involved in the
activities and thus hinder the development of their communicative skills.
However, this does not mean that once a teaching activity is in progress, the teacher
should become a passive observer. It is still the teachers obligation to develop the
students potential through external direction. Although the teacher may be
nondirective in general, it is still the teachers responsibility to recognize the
distinctive qualities in the students (Han 1979) and to help the students develop those
In contemporary English teaching, the teachers function should become less
dominant than before, but no less important. For example, his/her role as an independent
participant within the learning-teaching group is closely related to the objective of
his/her role as communicative activator. These roles include a set of secondary roles for
the teacher: first, as an organizer of resources and as a resource; and second, as a guide
and manager of activities. A third role for the teacher is that of researcher and learner,
with much to contribute in terms of appropriate knowledge, abilities, and actual and
observed experience in the nature of learning (Breen and Candlin 1980).
One of the important components of communicative competence is the ability to select a
linguistic form that is appropriate for a specific situation (Hymes 1981). Hendon (1980)
argues that "today language has been redefined as an integral part of the culture
with which it is connected." There is plenty of evidence that a good command of
English grammar, vocabulary, and syntax does not necessarily add up to a good mastery of
English. There is a set of social conventions governing language form and behavior within
a communicative group.
EFL teaching in China, with its traditional setting, is markedly different from that in
the United States and Great Britain in that it is conducted in different social and
cultural contexts. Yet this does not mean that the communicative approach is not
applicable in such a context. To make this approach work well in China, we must reconcile
it with the traditional grammar-translation method that is still popularly used in China.
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China: Notes on teaching English language literature in the Peoples Republic of
China. Unpublished manuscript.
Breen, J., and D. Candlin. 1980. The essentials of a communicative curriculum in
language teaching. Applied Linguistics, 1, 2, pp. 89112.
Han, Y. 1979. The thousand-li horse. In Chinese classical prose. ed. Shi Shun Li. Hong
Kong: Chinese University Press.
Harvey, P. 1985. A lesson to be learned: Chinese approach to language class. ELT
Journal, 39, 3, pp. 183186.
Hendon, U. S. 1980. Introducing culture in the high school foreign language class.
Foreign Language Annuals, 13, 3, pp. 191199.
Hymes, D. H. 1981. On communicative competence. In The communicative approach to
language teaching. (ed.) C. J. Brumfit and K. Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roberts, J. L. 1982. Recent developments in ELT. In Surveys 1 and 2 ed.V. Kinsella.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.