Not a highly structured method of teaching. Rather a broad assembly of ideas from a range of sources which have come to be accepted as 'good practice' by many contemporary teachers.
Origins of Approach
In 1960's and 70's foreign language learning was widely extended with the establishment of comprehensive schools. Led to the teaching of a foreign language to virtually all children. Created pressure for a change in teaching methods and curriculi to suit the needs of non-traditional groups of learners. Recognition of inadequacy of traditional grammar/translation methods and also of 'structural' methods with emphasis on meaningless pattern drills and repetition.
Communicative Method1 Focuses on language as a medium of communication. Recognises that all communication has a social purpose - learner has something to say or find out.
2 Communication embraces a whole spectrum of functions (e.g. seeking information/ apologising/ expressing likes and dislikes, etc) and notions (e.g. apologising for being late / asking where the nearest post office is).
3 New syllabuses based on communicative method offered some communicative ability from early stage.Graded Objectives in Modern Languages - movement which flourished in 1970's and 80's - raised pupils' motivation through short-term objectives and through teaching language appropriate to a range of relevant topics and situations (e.g. shopping/ hobbies/ exchanges).4 Hitherto languages were taught in a vacuum - language for the sake of language / passing exams - rather than language for true communication.Professor Dodson distinguishes between language as a 'medium' level communication and as a 'message' level communication, ex.5 Classroom activities maximise opportunities for learners to use target language in a communicative way for meaningful activities. Emphasis on meaning (messages they are creating or task they are completing) rather than form (correctness of language and language structure) - as in first language acquisition.
1) Young lady teacher is teaching Yr 7 pupils to say how old they are ( 'tu as quel age?'. ). They are merely practising the pattern in the foreign language, for the sole purpose of mastering the construction - teacher actually knows the age of the class - pupils also know that the teacher knows their age. According to professor Carl J Dodson, they are all performing at 'medium' level, ie. practising how to say it in the language but with no added purpose.
2) Suddenly, a curious member of the class raises his hand and asks the young lady teacher 'tu as quel age?'. This is language being used at a totally different and higher level, ie 'message' level ( pupil doesn't know the teacher's age, but actually uses the construction practised at the 'medium' level for a specific purpose, namely that of finding out the teacher's age!
One has to practise language at 'medium' level first in order to be able to exercise it at 'message' level. The problem is that a great number of teachers never used to go beyond 'medium' level and use the language for true purposes of sending and receiving 'messages'. They were teaching pupils 'about' the language, about its patterns and rules, rather than using it actively for real purposes!
Prior to National Curriculum, teaching was left almost totally at 'medium' level. Very little scope to test true communicative ability or to use the language spontaneously.
6 Use of target language as normal medium for classroom management and instruction - reflects naturalistic language acquisition.
7 Communicative approach is much more pupil-orientated, because dictated by pupils' needs and interests.
8 Accent is on functional/ usable language. Learners should be able to go to foreign country, prepared for reality they encounter there. Need to be able to cope / survive in a variety of everyday situations.
9 Classroom should provide opportunities for rehearsal of real-life situations and provide opportunity for real communication. Emphasis on creative role-plays/ simulations/ surveys/ projects/ playlets - all produce spontaneity and improvisation - not just repetition and drills.
10 More emphasis on active modes of learning, including pairwork and group-work - often not exploited enough by teachers fearful of noisy class.
11 Primacy of oral work. Emphasis on oral and listening skills in the classroom. Contact time with language is all-important - paves way for more fluid command of the language / facility and ease of expression. Not just hearing teacher, but having personal contact themselves with language, practising sounds themselves, permutating sentence patterns and getting chance to make mistakes and learn from doing so.
12 Errors are a natural part of learning language. Learners trying their best to use the language creatively and spontaneously are bound to make errors. Constant correction is unnecessary and even counter-productive. Correction should be discreet / noted by teacher - let them talk and express themselves - form of language becomes secondary.
13 Communicative approach is not just limited to oral skills. Reading and writing skills need to be developed to promote pupils' confidence in all four skill areas. By using elements encountered in variety of ways (reading/ summarising/ translating/ discussion/ debates) - makes language more fluid and pupils' manipulation of language more fluent.
14 Grammar can still be taught, but less systematically, in traditional ways alongside more innovative approaches. Recognised that communication depends on grammar. Disregard of grammatical form will virtually guarantee breakdown in communication.
15 Language analysis and grammar explanation may help some learners, but extensive experience of target language helps everyone. Pupils need to hear plenty said about the topic in the foreign language at regular and recurrent intervals, so they are exposed to the topic and can assimilate it. (Not mere passive acquisition of certain lexical items).
16 Communicative approach seeks to personalise and localise language and adapt it to interests of pupils. Meaningful language is always more easily retained by learners.
17 Use of idiomatic/ everyday language (even slang words 'bof bof' / 'i'sais pas'). This is kind of language used in communication between people - not a 'medium'/ grammatical/ exam-orientated/ formal language!
18 Makes use of topical items with which pupils are already familiar in their own language - motivates pupils arouses their interest and leads to more active participation.
19 Avoid age-old texts - materials must relate to pupils' own lives / must be fresh and real (cf. Whitmarsh texts developing language but not communicative language!) Changing texts and materials regularly keeps teacher on toes and pupils interested.
20 Language need not be laboriously monotonous and 'medium' orientated. Can be structured but also spontaneous and incidental. Language is never static. Life isn't like that - we are caught unawares, unprepared, 'pounced upon!' Pupils need to practise improvising/ ad-libbing/ talking off the cuff, in an unrehearsed but natural manner.
21 Spontaneous and improvised practice helps to make minds more flexible and inspire confidence in coping with unforeseen, unanticipated situations. Need to 'go off at tangents' / use different registers / develop alternative ways of saying things.
22 Communicative approach seeks to use authentic resources. More interesting and motivating. In Foreign language classroom authentic texts serve as partial substitute for community of native speaker. Newspaper and magazine articles, poems, manuals, recipes, telephone directories, videos, news bulletins, discussion programmes - all can be exploited in variety of ways.
23 Important not to be restricted to textbook, Never feel that text-book must be used from cover to cover. Only a tool / starting-point. With a little inspiration and imagination, text-book can be manipulated and rendered more communicative. Teacher must free himself from it, rely more on his own command of language and his professional expertise as to what linguistic items, idioms, phrases, words, need to be drilled / exploited/ extended.
24 Use of visual stimuli - OHP/ flashcards, etc - important to provoke practical communicative language. (3 stages presentation / assimilation/ reproducing language in creative and spontaneous way).
Visual resources can be exploited at whatever level one wishes - help to motivate and focus pupils' attention.