Is The Communicative Method Overrated?

I came across Grammatical Consciousness-Raising, an article by Evelyn Doman, in the January 2005 issue of Modern English Teacher (yep, the British Council is still lacking Cosmo), and it raised some interesting questions about the communicative method so much talked about today.

First off, Doman describes communicative methodology as focusing not explicitly on grammar but on the ability to communicate and by organizing content not by grammatical structure but by functional purpose – students might, for example, learn some (but not all) modal verbs in the context of describing cultural norms for being a guest or host; they might practice present continuous alongside will and going to for describing future plans but probably wouldn’t learn all the uses of present continuous from the get-go.

Her purpose here is to debunk the myth that communicative teaching is always ideal and argue that in many situations a more explicit approach is best. She also notes that many students look favorably on this kind of grammar instruction and don’t need English for taking care of their everyday tasks, as she feels a communicative approach implies. In short, she likes the idea of having a five- to ten-minute (in her words) teacher-centered explanation followed by student / teacher-assisted examples and then practice in some task – in contrast to starting with the task without explaining the grammar first.

My own opinion is that much depends on the level. Students certainly need to be introduced to totally new structures before being expected to use them. However at higher levels, students have likely already met most if not all structures which they cover, and a five- or even ten-minute presentation covering all that they’ve amassed over the years may be impractical and/or unnecessary.

I’d also argue that in many (most) contexts in which EFL teachers work, students have already had a substantial amount of explicit grammar training. So many students have studied English for eight or ten years and still cannot communicate or speak comfortably. Explicit grammar teaching did not get them where they need to be, so here they are in your classes. Granted, all of these factors will depend on your students, the context/school and their level.

For many people, developing confidence is actually what they need and with the time constraints imperative in most EFL classes, there may just not be time to cover every grammar point that comes up in detail. Although students may not need to go shopping in an English-speaking environment, they likely need English to actually communicate with others – native or non-native speakers – and not just to pass a grammar test

To be fair though, what may be at issue more is what actually counts as “communicative”. If “communicative” means never mentioning tense names or eliciting rules or patterns, then I agree that is unrealistic. Learning a second (or third or fourth) language is not the same as learning your own language and it is quite normal and helpful to be explicit with grammar at times.