Grammar translation and Communicative Language Teaching Compared

Please note: this paper has been written in collaboration with Steve Smith of and my G.I.S.K.L. colleague Dylan Vinales.


In this paper I shall compare two different language teaching methodologies, the Grammar-Translation methodology, still used in quite a lot of institutions worldwide ( e.g. some UK and Malaysian universities) and the Communicative Language Teaching approach, possibly today’s most popular instructional method worldwide . It should be pointed out that the labels ‘Grammar Translation’ (GT) and ‘Communicative Language Teaching’ (CLT) do not refer to two fixed sets of instructional frameworks whose principles have been formally and permanently codified by their founders or proponents. On the contrary, GT is a term used by specialized authors in their reviews of the history of Applied Linguistics (e.g Brown, 1994) to describe the oldest documented form of L2 teaching in man’s history.

The label CLT, on the other hand, does indeed designate meaning-based methodologies described in great detail by its many proponents and supporters in numerous manuals, papers and conferences. However, it has been applied very flexibly over the last 30 years or so to losely describe teaching methods that share a common core of pedagogic principles but can in fact differ greatly from one other in a number of ways. Some approaches, for instance, ban grammar teaching and correction altogether and employ communicative tasks with little or no structure which aim at fostering spontaneous interaction (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘strong’ CLT approaches); others are less radical and do include some grammar teaching and correction and employ more structured activities in order to exercise some control over learner output (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘weak’ CLT appraoches).

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all the many shapes and forms that GT and CLT over the decades. Thus, in discussing both approaches I shall limit my focus to the main pedagogic principles both methodologies rest upon and the basic teaching activities they employ, evaluating their merits in the light of current theories of L2 –acquisition and cognitive psychology. After discussing each methodology I shall proceed to compare them drawing my conclusions as to which one of them I consider as the more conducive to effective language learning providing the rationale for my choice. In my conclusions I shall also discuss my views on how elements of each methods could be combined in order to produce an integrated teaching methodology which, I believe, has greater potential for learning than either one of the two approaches.

Grammar Translation (GT)

This approach is based on the Classical Humanistic educational philosophy which views teaching as the passing-on of a body of knowledge from one generation to the next; not as the passing of skills necessary to function effectively and independently in the real world in a way which is beneficial for society. In this educational paradigm, language is therefore taught as something to know, as a set of rules and words to memorize rather than an instrument to use in a real-life communicative context.

As the name suggests, this instructional methodology focuses mainly on the explicit teaching of grammar in the belief that the mastery of the morphology, syntax and the other mechanics of the target language (TL) is the key to effective L2-acquisition. In its purest form this methodology will follow a Structural Syllabus (White, 1998) that is a syllabus in which each unit of work centres around a core grammatical structure. The teaching of lexis usually co-occurs, but holds a peripheral role and receive less emphasis and recycling within a typical lesson.

Although instruction rarely concerns itself explicitly with the teaching of translation skills and dictionary use, the learners are often engaged in translation activities from the L1 to the L2 and vice versa, aimed at reinforcing the target grammatical structures. Such activities typically follow the explanation of a morpheme / grammar rule which is usually taught deductively rather than inductively. Other activities of election are grammar exercises which train the learners in the manipulation of the morphology of the various parts of speech with model phrases which are usually learnt out of context. Such model phrases are usually void of communicative value and rather than being selected for their surrender value usually serve a purely demonstrative purpose. Aural/ oral skills are rarely if ever practised. The only oral work the students are likely to engage in is usually when the teacher addresses one of the students to ask them to demonstrate their grasp of a grammar structure through a translation task.

The elective form of correction is explicit error correction, possibly supplemented with rule explanation; in other words, the/a correct TL alternative is provided. The teacher usually practises all-out correction and would prioritize accuracy over fluency, form over communication, product over process. Hence, in the assessment of learner output the teacher would particularly penalize grammar mistakes.

The typical GT classroom sees the teacher as the ‘dictator’ of learning and the students as the passive recipients of his/her input. The learners usually commit lexical items to memory by rehearsing wordlists and are tested on their ability to recall them totally out of contexts. Pronunciation is taught through parroting and the learners usually are taught phonetics and practice reading the phonetic transcriptions of words found in the dictionaries and textbooks. L2-Writing tasks consist of: (a) translating words with the dctionary or (b) writing model sentences over and over again manipulating their morphology or syntax to obtain formally corrected (but not necessarily meaningful) output.

It should also be pointed out that in this instructional methodology the L2 taught is normally the standard variety in its purest and prescriptive form and in its highest register. Thus, the syntax the students will learn is more than often the language of literature or academia. Occasionally, both the lexis and the syntax taught is anachronistic and may occasionally sound flawed to a non-scholarly native ‘ear’.

In evaluating the merits of this methodology one needs to consider that the epistemological foundations of Grammar Translation approaches are not rooted in any systematic theory or model of L2-acquisition. Rather, they are based on the pre-cognitivist overly simplistic assumption that a grammatical rule can be acquired by simple explanation and rote learning. The main shortcomings of this approach stem from these epistemological premise: that by understanding and/or memorizing a grammar rule students ‘acquire’ it.

Today, cognitive research in the way humans acquire and process languages rules out that L2-grammar can be acquired by simply accruing (declarative) knowledge about it. Although cognitive theory does allow for declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge about the L2 grammar) to become proceduralised (i.e. automatic), the proceduralization process is very long and requires extensive practice (Anderson, 2000). Also, Cognitivist theory postulates that unless a learner is developmentally ready to acquire a given structure, teaching it to him/her is likely to be a sheer waste of time (just as you would not ask a beginner driver to drive a Ferrari on a busy highway). GT is not usually mindful of this.

Moreover, current psycholinguistic research has clearly demonstrated that language is a complex cognitive skill involving a series of psycho-motor sub-skills (de Bot, 1992) and that performing these sub-skills effectively is a function of the power law of practice (Anderson, 2000). Since a language is processed through four different modalities (speaking, hearing, reading and writing) each of them governed by different processes, it is flawed to presume that what is learnt by writing or reading can be effectively used by the other two modalities. Information processing theory clearly indicates that processing language effectively in each of the above modalities requires more than knowing words by heart. The brain’s working memory’s ability to process language in each modality requires a lot of modality-specific practice (Anderson, 2000).

It should also be pointed out that apart from very few studies (e.g. Lighbown and Spada, 1992), most experimental research in the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching has yielded little evidence that it actually works (Brown, 1994; Ellis, 1994, Macaro, 2003). The same applies to error correction research (Truscott, 1994).

Finally, in GT students are usually assessed based on the number of errors in their output. The teacher/assessor has a pre-conceived target language model and the learners’ translation, utterance or composition are evaluated on the basis of how deviant they are from that model. This encourages the learners to prioritize the development of accuracy over fluency and may inhibit risk-taking (a valuable learning strategy – Brown, 1994). Moreover, teacher feedback which is product\-based does not help the students improve the skills (i.e. the process) involved in the execution of the target task. Teacher feedback, to be helpful, needs to identify the issues relative to the various processes involved in task performance, identify the flaws and advice the learners on how to address those issues.

In conclusion the main features of GT are:

1. It is teacher centred and does not aim to cater for every learner’s individual needs

2. The emphasis is on grammar learning through verb drills, the translation of written texts and the memorization of wordlists

3. The focus is on the product rather than the process of learning

4. Language is viewed as a body of knowledge rather than an instrument for communicating and functioning effectively in the real world

5. Linguistic practice is confined to the memorization of words and rules

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of the written medium rather than oral communication

7. Accuracy rules over fluency

8. Correction is all-out and punitive

9. The L2-model adopted is elitist and so is the educational philosophy

10. Feedback on learner performance is not likely to be helpful as it is solely accuracy-based

Its main shortcomings are that (1) it does not train learners in using the language to communicate; (2) it does not provide enough practice in oral and aural skills; (3) the emphasis on grammar may alienate students who are not analytical learners; (4) the emphasis on accuracy and correction may demotivate less able learners more prone to inaccuracies ; (5) it does not develop independent learners. Its main strength is that it develops grammar and lexical accuracy. However, by not promoting oral/aural skills, the students’ are likely to be very slow at producing spoken output and seriously impaired when confronted with the task of understanding L2-native speakers .

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

CLT has altogether different objectives to GT as it rests on diametrically opposite educational philosophy and epistemological assumptions. In fact, unlike GT, it prioritizes teaching skills rather than knowledge (Littlewood, 1994). Moreover, this approach is based on Social Constructivism, a pedagogical philosophy which aims at empowering the learners with the tools which allow one to function effectively in society (White, 1998). Consequently, in CLT L2- grammar knowledge becomes a secondary concern; language use across the four core skills of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing takes priority because conveying and understanding messages is what makes one get by in the real world. Thus, the teaching of Functions (e.g. expressing an opinion, apologizing, giving directions, ordering), Notions (e.g. Time, Size, Space) and of the vocabulary (words and lexical phrases) needed to express those functions and notions is the primary instructional focus. Also, since the learners will one day have to cope with the challenges that the real world will pose to them, the target functions, notions and language items are usually contextualized in situations and tasks which replicate real-life.

CLT’s epistemological premises rest on the Skill-theory postulate that language is a complex goal-orientated cognitive skill, made up of sub-skills which are acquired after extended practice (Anderson, 2000). CLT translates this postulate into its instructional practice as follows: (a) since ‘goal-orientated’ implies that language has to be used for a purpose, learning activities must have a clear and tangible communicative goal; (b) since each skill involved in language reception and production has to be automatized in order to be acquired, the CLT teacher must give learners plenty of opportunities for practicing all four skills.

CLT is also based on cognitive models of L2 acquisition which posit that declarative knowledge about the L2 and procedural knowledge (the ability to use it) are two different abilities. Thus, acquiring declarative knowledge does not automatically lead to being able to use the L2.

The emphasis on empowering the individual with skills that will render him self-reliant and the skill-theory assumption that skills must be practised frequently and meaningfully in order to be acquired are at the root of CLT’s pupil-centred orientation. Unlike GT, in fact, CLT aims at obtaining productive learning outcomes from all the students in the classroom (Littlewood, 1994). They all have to take part in the tasks-in-hand. This entails that the teacher, in order to practise speaking, must set group-work tasks which involve interpersonal negotiation of meaning; thus, the students talk to each other rather than to the teacher (as happens in the traditional L2 classroom).

Consequently, unlike the GT teacher, the CLT teacher does not spend most of the lesson at the front of the classroom. S/he sets the students communicative tasks designed to practise the target lexis, morpheme, function, phoneme, etc. and then goes around the classroom HELPING the students, FACILITATING their learning. In fact, the proponents of the CLT approach (e.g Littlewoods, 1984) reiterate – often ad nauseam –  the concept that the CLT teacher is a facilitator not a dictator of learning. In this capacity, s/he abdicates part of the responsibility for the learning to the students as they have to manage the group-work activities set.

This ‘facilitator’ role also entails a different approach to error correction. The proponents of the CLT approach criticized the GT and Audio-lingual approaches for being too intolerant of error (Edge, 1992). ‘Facilitating’ the development of oral and written fluency calls for a different attitude to error, one which recognizes that correcting every single error a student makes can be harmful to their self-esteem and to the development of fluency (especially if the teacher’s correction interrupts their speaking). Thus, the CLT teacher corrects the learners selectively, prioritizing certain errors over others. Since CLT concerns itself with functioning effectively in real life, it gives priority to errors which impede meaning (Walz, 1982). Frequency and Irritability of errors, (respectively how often and how irritating they can be to the interlocutor/reader) are the next most important criteria adopted in selecting which errors to correct (Brown, 1984). Moreover, the correction must not disrupt the flow of conversation. Thus, the CLT teacher tends to delay the correction, making notes as s/he goes around the classroom from group to group ‘coaching’, advising, listening in. S/he will only interrupt the conversation when there are serious breakdowns in communication (Edge, 1992).

The ‘facilitator’ role has also implications for the CLT teacher’s general attitude towards the students. The CLT class being about collaboration and helping the learner to grow, the relationship between the teacher and the learners is different; the teacher is ‘closer’ to the students, sits with them, helps them by giving feedback on the process of their learning rather than simply on the product (Littlewood, 1984). S/he is less judgmental on the quality of their output because the CLT approach acknowledges an important principle of language acquisition: as they acquire the L2 learners build a system, called Interlanguage (Selinker, 2000) which is bound to contain mistakes as it is based on hypotheses and guesses based on their L1 and of their approximate knowledge of the L2 (Brown, 1984). Thus, CLT recognizes that learners need a nurturing, motivational, tolerant environment rather than the academic environment of the humanistic GT classroom. In such an environment, the learners will not feel intimidated by bad marks and lots of red ink and will take risks as they speak or write. Krashen (1981) expressed in his affective-filter theory his belief that such an environment is a categorical imperative for L2-learning to happen. An overly intolerant, critical environment would, on the contrary, ‘raise’ the learner’s ‘affective filter’ serious hindering learning.

Krashen (1981) and other educators have stressed the importance of avoiding correcting learners‘ output altogether in the belief that in order to motivate learners one has to let them talk and write at length and without any interruption. This stance is accepted by strong CLT approaches (Prabhu, 1987). Most CLT instruction still supports the use of correction but emphasizes giving the learners fluency-orientated instruction where the learner’s recourse to survival communication strategies such as Coinage (coining new words), Approximation (using words close in meaning to the target word), Paraphrase, Foreignization (adapting an L1 word to make it sound L2-like) is not only tolerated but even encouraged as they often allow an individual to put the intended message across effectively (Macaro, 2003).

The oral/written activities adopted by CLT usually include all of the following features:

1. They involve an information gap that the learners have to fill through interaction in the L2. For example, two learners need each other’s information to complete a table. Their task is to elicit the needed information by means of asking each other questions in the L2;

2. They have a communicative purpose . Language is an instrument to complete them not the main outcome ( as in a grammar exercise or translation task)

3. They are inspired by real-life tasks (e.g. asking for directions., describing a criminal to a policeman, ordering food, etc.)

The aural/reading comprehension tasks often involve authentic or pseudo-authentic materials in order to better prepare the learners to cope with the challenges posed by the target language environment.

The CLT assessment of learner performance is usually criterion based. The learners are usually graded based on multi score proficiency scales (e.g. Polio, 1997) which identify the skills/proficiency areas (e.g. grammatical accuracy, range of vocabulary, fluency, style) involved in the performance. The learners are awarded marks on each trait which are finally added up. Each mark refers to a level which is described in detail to make the grading process more accountable to the learner. For example, a top mark on the accuracy scale could be described as follows: accurate use of complex structures; very few mistakes, mostly involving mistakes not impeding intelligibility. An average of the scores is calculated. The learners are usually given both the total and the trait-specific scores thereby obtaining an insight in the area of their performance they should pay more attention to in the future. This type of evaluation has a greater potential learning outcome for the students than GT’s.

In conclusion, the main pedagogical principles advocated by CLT are:

1. It is pupil-centred rather than teacher-centred

2 The emphasis is on communication and effective interactional skills

3. The focus is on the process rather than the product of learning;

4. Language is viewed as a skill to learn rather than a body of language

to pass on to the pupil

5. Linguistic practice occurs through communicative activities

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of all of the four core language skills

7. Fluency rules over accuracy

8. Correction is selective and non-judgmental

9. The L2-model adopted is flexible and can deviate from the L2-standard


Its main weakness relates to the fact that by prioritizing communication and fluency development it does not emphasize grammar sufficiently. Thus, learners often develop a pidgin ridden with grammatical flaws at morphological and at grammatical level. Because the teacher corrective intervention is selective and focuses mainly on errors that impede understanding, learner’s mistakes often become automatized and consequently difficult to eradicate. Also, the scarce focus on grammatical knowledge does not help the learners develop the metalinguistic and analytical skills necessary for L2-students to learn grammar independently and to produce and comprehend texts that contain sophisticated syntax. In other words, whereas it may train students to successfully cope at survival and basic conversational level, it may fail to prepare the learners for communication in professional or academic contexts where accuracy and sophisticated language and register are required.

Conclusions and Implications for L2-pedagogy

In conclusion, the two methodologies are very different in their philosophy, goals, and in the way they conceptualize language acquisition. CLT appears, at least in theory, as a more effective approach because it aims at preparing the learners for effective interaction in the real world. Moreover, being based on current models of language acquisition it advocates methods and procedures that are more likely to lead to successful acquisition because they are consistent with the way humans learn and process information and language. However, in my opinion it does not focus learners on accuracy as much as it should. This is particularly counterproductive in acquisition-poor learning environments, that is environments where the learners’ exposure to the target language is minimal (e.g. the two hours a week of a typical secondary school course).

Unlike students learning the L2 in an L2-speaking country, learners receiving instruction in acquisition-poor environments (i.e. with little contact with the L2) do not have many opportunities to internalize grammar subconsciously through frequent exposure; for the latter type of learners error correction and focus on L2 morphemes are crucial in order to learn accurate syntax.

Moreover, current theories of second language acquisition posit that Noticing is often crucial to L2 learning (Schmidt, 1990). Noticing refers to the process whereby the learners realize that a structure works differently in the L2 system compared to its L1 equivalent. This realization, which often marks the beginning of L2 acquisition, is not fostered by strong meaning-based methods like CLT. Explicit grammar instruction on the other hands promotes Noticing, especially when it presents students with bilingual input illustrating the usage of the target L2 structures.

Thus, I believe that CLT and GT should be integrated within an eclectic syllabus with a variable focus  where functions and notions are still prioritised over form. In a seminal article that every language teacher should read, Lighbown and Spada (2008) provide very interesting suggestions as to how this can be done through both inductive and deductive approaches ( One approach involves addressing grammar instruction as of when it arises from the context the class is operating in; so, for example, the teacher would not teach a given grammar structure because the books or the schemes of work say so, but simply because the specific topic or text one is dealing with require the students to understand and/or being able to use it. This approach is referred to as ‘Focus on form’ as opposed to ‘Focus on forms’ (the more traditional grammar teaching approach).

The bias should still be on communication, though, and teachers should find creative ways to teach grammar through communicative activities. There should be, however, space for drills and other behaviouristic (habit-forming) activities which serve the purpose of paving the way for less structured information-gap based activities involving negotiation of meaning in the  context of learner-to-learner oral or written activities. Translations also should be used, if sparingly, in order to focus learners on grammatical, lexical and stylistic accuracy. Also, as Conti (2001,2004) maintains, instruction should include an emphasis on modelling self-monitoring skills to ensure that learners become more effective editors and auditors of their output.


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