Authentic Texts: The Origins of Communicative Language Teaching

Pedagogical doubts about the merits of teaching decontextualized bits of language, as in audio-lingual teaching, are of importance if one wishes to understand the different directions within communicative language teaching that will be discussed here. The communicative approach arose, one must remember, partly as a reaction against audio-lingualism.

The first kind of communicative language teaching (CLT) to be discussed here places much emphasis on the use of ‘texts’ from ordinary or specialized contexts, be it for the purposes of reading, discussion, making deductions (comprehension), learning to write, etc. The aim of bringing language teaching closer to the language that we use in real life is not completely foreign to audio-lingual reaching, especially in some later courses, as we have noted above, but the use of authentic texts nevertheless constitutes a turning away from the dreary repetition so characteristic of pattern drills to a patently more relevant form of language.

The idea that additional and second language learning should be paying attention to units of language above and beyond the level of the sentence also gained importance in this first type of communicative teaching. While later developments showed that modifications may (and in some cases should) be made to texts encountered outside the classroom so as to facilitate learning and teaching, the initial emphasis was on using authentic material in its original, real-life format.

Of course, authentic texts have always been used as classroom materials by good teachers, even if that happened for only a small proportion of class time. One could also observe that the teacher could, by using authentic materials, ensure attention to those grammatical constructions and vocabulary that went unheeded in our (always limited) grammatical insights and descriptions. The main reason why this trend began to gain influence in language teaching, however, was probably that it was thought capable of capturing the interest of learners, thus also increasing their motivation to learn the language (cf. Cook 1981). The same holds true today for those teaching designs, for example by Hong (2013), that propose using not only printed texts, but also video and film as authentic (and engaging, motivating) media.

Some of the most influential initial work done in this direction within communicative language teaching was that of Widdowson (cf., e.g., Widdowson 1978), and the so-called “language across the curriculum” movement, which sees language instruction as an integral part of the teaching of other subjects, such as mathematics, natural science, history, biology, and so forth. In the USA , that is still referred to as “content-based” language instruction, but the origins in time of the latter coincide, it would seem, with the former, as do more recent attempts in Europe to integrate language instruction and the content of academic subjects other than language (in Content and Language Integrated Learning or CLIL). The notion of teaching language for specific purposes (Paltridge and Starfield 2013) therefore derived some additional j ustifi cation from this kind of communicative teaching. Similarly, the increasing disciplinary differentiation in, for example, the teaching of academic literacy (Weideman 2013), derives its motivation from this interpretation of CLT.

If the use of authentic texts or media in the additional and foreign language classroom constitutes but one type of communicative teaching, what are the others? We return to a consideration of these directions in communicative language teaching below, but first wish to consider the basic characteristic of communicative teaching, as a criterion for identifying all those directions in language teaching design that claim to be ‘communicative’, including its first manifestations in emphasizing authentic texts .

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