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Featured Article

Communicative Language Teaching in EFL Contexts: Not a Universal Medicine
Liping Wei

By conservative estimates, the number of non-native speakers of English in the world today outnumbers native speakers by more than two to one, and the ratio is increasing (Crystal, 2003). This means with the trend of growing globalization, teaching English to speakers of other languages has been more and more significant and indispensable. As one of the most predominant language- teaching approaches, communicative language teaching (CLT) has developed and expanded for over 30 years since its initial appearance in ESL (English as a Second Language) countries in the 1970s. During this time, numerous attempts have been made to introduce CLT to EFL (English as a Foreign Language) contexts, both on the EFL countries’ own initiatives and through international aid projects; however, these attempts often turned out not as successful as when used in ESL contexts (Ellis, 1994, 1996; Shamin, 1996; Valdes & Jhones, 1991). Questions and concerns have emerged accordingly: Where are the difficulties coming from? As a language teaching approach originated and nurtured in ESL contexts, how appropriate is CLT in EFL contexts? How can CLT be implemented to maximize its strengths and benefits for EFL learners? With these questions in mind, this paper aims to develop a better understanding of the application of CLT in EFL contexts.

What Is Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)?
All language teaching approaches “operate explicitly from a theory of language and beliefs or theories about how language is learned” (Richards & Rodgers, 2007, p. 146), and there is no exception with CLT. The linguistic development that exerted the most significant impact on the appearance of CLT began with Halliday’s systemic-functional linguistics (1976), which viewed language as an instrument used to perform various functions in social interaction rather than a system in isolation. As people gradually realized the inadequacy of traditional teaching approaches, such as audiolingualism and grammar-translation, in preparing students for engagement in social interaction, cries for a teaching approach that addresses students’ ability to produce the right thing at the right time echoed in ESL countries, and these cries precipitated CLT.                   

The core concept of CLT is “communicative competence,” proposed by Hymes (1971), which means the ability to produce contextually appropriate language. Curriculum development, syllabus design, and classroom instruction are all centered on the development of learners’ communicative competence. Though no single model of CLT has been universally accepted as authoritative up to now, certain salient features of CLT distinguish it from other language-teaching approaches: (a) communicative classroom activities, (b) learner-centered approach, (c) authentic teaching materials, (d) error toleration, (e) teachers as facilitators, and (f) fluency above accuracy.

All in all, CLT requires teachers to move significantly beyond the teaching of grammatical rules, patterns, and other knowledge about language to the point that they are able to teach students the knowledge of using language to communicate genuinely, spontaneously, and meaningfully.

CLT in EFL Contexts

The distinct features of CLT and EFL contexts as opposed to ESL might already foretell that the implementation of CLT will not begin on the same path in EFL as in ESL contexts, as much evidence provided by previous research studies have demonstrated. A wealth of literature has sprung up delving into the reasons responsible for the tough course CLT has undergone in EFL contexts.  

A study conducted in Vietnam identified class size, grammar-based examinations, and lack of exposure to authentic language as constraints on using CLT (Ellis, 1994). Another study, of English teachers’ perceived difficulties in adopting CLT in South Korea, suggested that EFL countries like South Korea need to change their fundamental approach to education before CLT can be adopted, because “the predominance of text-centered and grammar-centered practices in Korea does not provide a basis for the student-centered, fluency-focused, and problem-solving activities required by CLT” (Li, 1998, p. 66).

Another problem that cannot be neglected is students’ lack of communicative needs. In EFL contexts, English learning is more a part of school curriculum, restricted by teachers’ language proficiency, the availability of teaching resources and materials, and government curriculum and policy. For learners, the classroom is the primary provider of exposure to English. Without an English-speaking environment, motivation becomes more a product of curricular demands, pressure from exams, and academic and professional success, instead of demand for communication. As Widdowson (1998) perceived, the English language teaching that takes communicative competence as the invariable goal doesn’t fit in the EFL contexts where learners’ engagement in social interaction with native English speakers is minimal.

Considering the different contexts in EFL countries, some teachers and researchers opposed the obsession with CLT in an attempt to direct people’s attention back to the value of traditional teaching approaches (Pan, 2008; Rao, 2002). These teachers argued for taking “context” into account in implementing CLT, pointing out that the dominance of CLT has led to the neglect of one key aspect of language teaching—the context in which it takes place. Bax (2003) even appealed for the replacement of CLT as the central paradigm in language teaching with a context approach, arguing that methodology is not the sole solution. Instead he noted, there are many different ways to learn and teach languages; the crucial determiner is the context, which includes students’ learning needs, wants, styles, strategies, course books, local conditions, the classroom culture, school culture, and national culture. The first priority of language teaching is to understand all these key aspects of the context before deciding what and how to teach in any given class (Bax, 2003). Some teachers went even further to assert that “the best approach” didn’t exist at all, because different teaching contexts asked for different approaches (Prabhu, 1990).

Yet other researchers focused on the varied cultural norms and educational practices in EFL countries that contradict those in ESL countries and therefore affect the pedagogical practices of CLT. For example, in questioning the universal relevance of CLT in terms of the cultural conflicts arising from the introduction of the predominantly Western language teaching approach to Asian cultures, Ellis (1996) suggested that we should concede that there are some other ways of viewing educational philosophy and classroom practice, which are incompatible with the principles of CLT. Hence, to make CLT suitable for Asian conditions, it needs to be culturally attuned to the local cultural norms.

Given the gap between the theories of communicative competence and the task confronting EFL teaching and learning, most of the previous research studies maintained that EFL countries should carefully study their English teaching situations and decide how CLT can best serve their needs and interests. However, concerning “how,” few scholars have proposed demonstrably sound schemes that can be used to guide the endeavors of tuning CLT to agree with EFL contexts.

As a corrective to the perceived shortcomings of previous language-teaching approaches, the emphasis CLT places on communication should be acknowledged. It may not be appropriate, however, to adopt the same set of principles and standards throughout the world, since “models of appropriacy vary from context to context” (Savignon, 2007, p. 45). Lots of work needs to be done by EFL teachers and researchers on how to minimize the mismatches arising in the transfer of contexts and adapt CLT to benefit EFL learners as much as possible.


Bax, S. (2003). The end of CLT: A context approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 57(3), 278-287.

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, G. (1994). The appropriateness of the communicative approach in Vietnam: An interview study in intercultural communication. Bundoora, Australia: La Trobe University.

Ellis, G. (1996). How culturally appropriate is the communicative approach? ELT Journal, 50(3), 213-218.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1976). System and function in language. London: Oxford University Press.

Hymes, D. H. (1971). On communicative competence. In J. B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics. London: Penguin Books Inc.

Li, D. (1998). “It’s always more difficult than you plan and imagine”: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 677-703.

Pan, Y. E. (2008). Faculty members’ attitudes and concerns about communicative language teaching in general English courses in Taiwan Universities. (Doctoral disseration.)University of Minnesota.

Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best methods—why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176.

Rao, Z. H. (2002). Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in EFL classroom. System, 30(1), 85-105.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. (Eds.). (2006). Method: Approach, design and procedure. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Savignon, S. J. (Ed.). (2007). Communicative language teaching (CLT) for the 21st century. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Shamin, F. (Ed.). (1996). Learner resistance to innovation in classroom methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valdes, A. I., & Jhones, A. C. (1991). Introduction of communicative language teaching in tourism in Cuba. TESL Canada Journal, 8(2), 57-63.

Widdowson, H. G. (1998). Context, community, and authentic language. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 705-715.

About the Author

Liping Wei is a doctoral student in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education, University of Houston. She also works as the research assistant of the International Task Force, facilitating the international projects of the department. Previously she taught English as a foreign language in a university in China for three years.