Information Gap Technique
It should be clear from the observations made in the previous section that communicative language teaching has from the outset entailed a more flexible, open-ended approach to designing language instruction than the simple correlation of theoretically identified units of language with the content of language teaching. Such unfettering of the pedagogical imagination of the teacher from the dogmatic constraints imposed upon it by audio-lingualism is evident also in the mood it sets for the use of material, which might be characterized as an imaginative rather than an accumulative one. However, this spirit is not usually considered to be an adequate mark of identification for communicative teaching; language teaching that claims to be communicative is characterized rather by the employment of one basic technique: the (lingual bridging of an) information gap. This is the acid test; textbooks and courses that do not utilize this technique - no matter what claims are made in their introductions in the form of an acknowledging nod to Hymes (1971), Pride and Holmes (1971) - are simply not considered to be truly communicative. It is also a handy diagnostic of whether teachers who claim to be using a communicative approach are in actual fact doing so. For example, if a teacher uses an authentic, engaging text or medium, but the engagement of the learners with the material is mediated merely by explanations derived from the teacher alone, that is more likely to entail a traditional than a communicative approach.
An information gap task is invariably based on the principle of language user A knowing something that B does not know; furthermore, that A (after perhaps being requested by B) must tell or inform B, or direct and instruct him/her, or explain, or do whatever is appropriate in the situation so that B may also know, understand, act, and so forth. An information gap presupposes that there are at least two parties involved in the language process, not only as speakers and their interlocutors, but also as writers and readers, and in a variety of possible lingual roles, such as buyer and seller, or provider and user, or entertainer and entertained, and so forth. In the type of teaching exercise that proceeds from this premise lingual expression is elevated to the level of authentic communication, with those participating as language users taking on potentially multiple roles. Such exercises may be quite simple: in those that were being experimented with in early communicative teaching (described in Allwright 1977) an information gap was created by putting up a physical barrier between two learners (participants at talk). The attractiveness of these exercises lies in the fact that they can be done with the most modest of means: using a piece of cardboard or even a large book as concrete physical barrier, for example, the teacher may ask one student to give instructions to another on building a model similar to his/hers with a few blocks that have been given to both. Completing the model is a collaborative effort in which language plays a major role. In an information gap task, another quality of functionally defined language use may be observed: the fact that in real life we often use language to search for, find and process information. An information gap succinctly mirrors this language activity.
The point of such exercises is therefore to create an opportunity for the learner to use language in a stretch of authentic communication - something that the audiolingual method may have aimed at, but was never quite successful in realizing.
Developments within what became known as the communicative approach were, however, so simultaneous and so rapid that, in spite of their employment of this one basic technique in one form or another, “communicative language teaching” is no more than an umbrella term for different directions within one broad approach. This is one reason why the term ‘approach’ is to be preferred when one refers to this kind of language teaching, in distinction from the term ‘method’ (cf. Anthony 1963). Another reason is that, since the days of audio-lingualism, the term ‘method’ has always conjured up the image of rigor and inflexibility, ‘correctness’ of teaching technique, and an almost dogmatic and ideological adherence to a set of theoretically justified principles. All these are positions to which the communicative approach on the whole has reacted negatively; in some directions that it has taken, however, notably in the one that will be discussed next, there are still signs of the conviction that scientific analysis must somehow precede language teaching, though the function and task of the analysis may be differently interpreted than in audio-lingualism .