Topic 1 – Didactic evolution of languages. current tendencies in the didactic of english as a foreign language. Communicative approaches

Topic 1 – Didactic evolution of languages. current tendencies in the didactic of english as a foreign language. Communicative approaches

I have based this essay on the following source:

– Richards J.C & Rodgers T.S. Approaches and Methods in Language


– Nunan, D. The Learner-Centred Curriculum.

In this theme I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly with a brief look at the most ancient civilizations.

Secondly the three types of syllabus: language, communicative, task and learner-centred based syllabus and the main methods.

Thirdly the communicative method: practice and theory.

To end up with LOGSE regulations.


The learning of different languages has been very important from the very first stages of human race, due to the need of maintaining communication among different cultures. Nowadays, there are more than 3,000 languages spoken in the world.


Languages have always been studied even in the most ancient civilizations:

– The first written document that exists is the order given by Sargon of Arcadia to proclaim his great deeds in all the different tongues of the Empire in the year 250 B.C.

Interpreters and translators in Egypt or in Babylonia became essential.

– The Greeks did not care much about learning other languages because there was nothing worth reading abroad.

Romans could learn the Greek language so as to be able to read Plato and Aristotle thanks to their Greek teacher-slaves.

– Another step in the teaching of languages must be found in the first Christian missionaries who were forced to learn the different languages of the people who they were trying to convert.

– During the Middle Ages the only languages considered worth studying were Latin, Greek and Hebrew, which were learnt in the Monasteries.

– But it was not until the 18th century that the study of modern languages was officially introduced.

Throughout history methodology teachers have followed different approaches trying to find the perfect one. These approaches can be grouped into three types of syllabus according to the dominant criteria they employ or have employed in planning their courses or their syllabus:

  1. The Language-based syllabus or synthetic syllabus. Methodology is based on the language system as the main unit. This language-centred approach takes a linguistic unit as the main criteria for selecting and organizing (sequencing) what needs to be learnt (content). This linguistic unit may be topical (lexical) or grammatical (structural). The main idea is that a language is learnt step by step and, consequently, different parts need to be taught separately starting with easy areas to more difficult ones.

This conception of ‘teaching’ is sometimes referred as the traditional approach, where materials were produced were not realia but produced for the lesson and where form and accuracy are more important than content and fluency. Well-known methods that follow this conception are the Grammar-translation and the Audio-lingual methods. The former focused on reading and writing and the latter on listening and speaking.

  1. The Communication-based syllabus or analytical syllabus.

The importance given to accuracy changed by the introduction of the notion of ‘communicative competence’ by Hymens (1970’s) and later developed by Canale and Swain in 1980. Communicative competence is not restricted to linguistic competence (pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary) but also includes other less specific aspects such as discourse, sociolinguistic and strategic competence that emphasise fluency and language in use.

Syllabuses that follow a communicative approach usually incorporate functions (intentions of the speaker) and notions (a way of dividing reality, time expressions, adverbs of place) together with other linguistic units and present language globally with a focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Language learning is a natural process that needs to develop with practice in contexts that resemble real situations of communication outside the classroom, therefore material are adapted from authentic texts.

  1. The task-based syllabus.

Later developments of the communicative approach are those that take the task as the main unit. There are many definitions (Breen, Nunan, Candling, Long) but all of them defined task as an action-oriented activity. Tasks entail the use of resources (input) and/or interaction to solve problems or reach objectives. The end point of tasks often materializes in tangible products (a poster, a pamphlet) or oral presentations, all of which are referred to as output. In Spain there is a tradition of macro-tasks or project work, which are characterised by the creative and cognitive demands on the students.

Project work and tasks are very much in line with the guidelines proposed by the Curriculum Design for English in Catalonia, which is learner-centred.

The main features of Learner-centred syllabuses are:

· pay as much attention to content (types of activities) as to methodology (mental processes that accompany the learning of content). The content (knowledge) and its container (the activity) are thought to be a unit; what is learnt and how it is learned cannot be divided.

· Prior knowledge needs to be activated as new concepts and content is introduced.

· Focus on the attitudes that are developed in the student during the schooling process.


These 3 types of syllabuses gather the different methods and approaches used in TEFL and their evolution: the first group, the language-centred syllabus was the first one, and it was the most prominent until the 1950’s. It focused on how language worked and it did not pay attention to the learner, communication or fluency.


In the 1950’s Chomsky stated that learning a language was a mental and cognitive activity and learners were considered an active element in the learning process. The immediate reaction to Chomsky’s view was to look for alternative solutions that followed different paths in the US and Europe.

In US appeared a number of methods: The Cognitive Code, Total Physical Response, Community Language Teaching, the Silent Way, Suggestopedia and the Natural Approach. As most of them are idiosyncratic and were not introduced by researchers or academics, but by people from other fields, it is not feasible here to describe these Methods individually, however they gave us some valuable insights about language and some useful techniques that are still used nowadays: relaxation, TRP for beginners, silent correction, etc. Whereas in Europe, favoured by the EEC and Hymes’ theories against some Chomskyan aspects, the Communicative approach was born. This initial communicative approach is a hybrid nowadays because new concepts have been introduced. Characteristics:

· LL is a process: a long term process.

· Learning activities involve an element of: game, info-gap, problem solving, simulation, guessing, and real-life oriented.

· Dichotomy on fluency versus accuracy. We expect our SS to become fluent.

· Authentic texts and authentic language.

· Errors and mistakes are a natural outcome in the process of learning.


In the 1970’s textbooks were communicative in theory, they had functional objectives and used short dialogues to practise the main grammar patterns. However, they were very similar to the Audio-lingual method, for example.

In the 1980’s, under the influence of Krashen’s views, the emphasis was then laid on the fluency of non-controlled practice and to provide SS with a greater amount of comprehensible input than just dialogues.

Richards and Rogers asserted that communicative activities met 3 principles:

  • real communication,
  • tasks and language were meaningful to the learner.

Littlewood distinguished 2 major types of communicative activities:

· Functional Communicative Activities

SS use language they know to get the meaning across using any resources (solving problems from shared clues, spot differences)

The main principle underlying these communicative activities are:

1. real unpredictability

2. the info-gap principle:

3. the problem-solving principle

4. the jigsaw principle

· Social Interactional Activities

SS have to use language appropriately to the social situation (role-plays, simulations, debates)

The main principle underlying these communicative activities are:

1. the global use of language in lifelike situations.

2. role plays

3. drama techniques

Nowadays, according to the Curriculum, the study of foreign languages in Secondary Education is based on: Constructivism, SLA last theories, which are based on meaning as well as focused on form, task-based syllabus and Lerner-centred approaches.

Teaching is still regulated by the LOGSE and importance is given to the development of skills. Very briefly we look into the four basic elements of the curriculum:

· GOALS: There are general goals proposed by the Ministry and devoted to the development of the capacities of the pupil (social interaction, cognitive,), the general goals of the area, the didactic goals of every didactic unit built by the teacher and the terminal goals proposed by La Generalitat and more connected to the learning of the language (understand a short piece of writing).

· CONTENTS: are the set of cultural knowledge selected within each area to fulfil the general goals, and they can be mere concepts, procedures or even attitudes.

· METHODOLOGY: It does not impose any methodology but it recommends the constructivism.

· EVALUATION: is a continuous process and involves a research of how the student is developing the skills but also how the teacher is helping him to do so.

To accomplish the general objective of the teaching of foreign languages at school, that is, learners will be able to survive in temporary contacts with foreign language speakers in everyday situations, four macro skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing) should be given the same importance.

In terms of foreign language instruction, as teachers we are constantly looking for the best approach and method. There is not a unique approach, but many, depending on the issue we are dealing with and our students’ interests and needs. Goals must be accomplish, contents and methodology selected according to our students’ needs and evaluation will help us to assess our work and students’ process of learning.