Robert O’Neill’s critique of the Communicative Approach

I found this article written by Robert O’Neill on a website maintained by Ted Powers and have long shared it with Delta trainees. Recently, I realised that Ted Powers’ excellent website is down. In anticipation of a new, perhaps, website, I am reposting it here and would be happy to link the first few lines back the Mr Powers’ new website if he has any issue with it being here.  

I hope it is of use to those who are studying the different approaches and methods and are beginning to doubt the value of adopting any one approach wholesale. It is a fully thought through argument well worth reading – am looking for the original publication as we speak. 

 Please follow this link to learn more about Robert O’Neill’s life and work. The OUP website has paid him a fitting tribute. 


Just some of the covers of his books
Just some of the covers of Robert O’Neill’s  books

“The appeal and poverty of CLT”

by Robert O’Neill [March, 2000]

“The belief, so widely held and so frequently repeated that ‘language is (a means of) communication‘ is wrong in a way that has been devastating to any adequate conception of what humans are and how they differ from other species. Communication is just one use to which language can be put – and distinguishing between a thing and its uses should surely form the most basic step in any analysis.” Derek Bickerton, Language & Human Behaviour: London, UCL Press, 1996.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has enormous intuitive appeal. Despite this, I have come to believe that at the heart of CLT – especially in fundamentalist versions of it – we find a naive, even impoverished view of language. To demonstrate what I mean, let me examine six propositions upon which I think CLT is based. I am going to argue that if these propositions are true at all, they are only superficially and trivially true – and true only in essentially uninteresting ways. In other words, they are just as true as statements like “When people speak, they use words”. Such a statement tells us nothing about what kinds of relationships there may be between words, how people learn to assemble them into larger units, or what else they do to construct or interpret meaning. I will try to show this through six counter-propositions. Then – finally – I will briefly suggest an alternative – and also suggest reasons why pluralist methodologies are more likely to be successful than any single orthodoxy.

Six fundamentally “trivial” propositions inherent in CLT

  1. Language is primarily a tool of communication. Learning a language means learning to perform communicative speech acts with it.

In CLT, “communication” means using language to make requests, give advice, agree and disagree, complain, praise, to try to persuade people to do things, and so on. The focus should be on meaning, not on form. Some supporters of CLT, like Geoff Thompson argue that this is a misconception of CLT. However, even he admits that there are good reasons for this “misconception”

  1. There is something called a “communicative syllabus” which replaces and is superior to a structural syllabus”

It is often argued that a typical structuralist syllabus focuses on the grammatical structure of language rather than on the “communicative” or pragmatic uses of those language For example, so the argument goes terms like “The Present Continuous”, tell us little or nothing about the fact that typical examples of this form such as “You’re standing in my way” or “You’re driving too fast” are complaints, or that one of the most frequent uses of the Present Progressive is not to talk about actions in the present but about pre-arranged actions in the future, For this reason, many CLT supporters used to argue and still do that language lessons should not be about “The Present Continuous” or “The Present Perfect”, but about “Giving and getting personal information”, “Asking for and giving directions”, “Expressing Opinions”, etc.

  1. Communicative goals can be specified. We can accurately describe what learners should have learned and be able to do with language at the end of the lesson

An example of a typical “communicative goal is given below.

By the end of the lesson, students will be able to

– talk about their own jobs and ask classmates about theirs

– use the Present Simple accurately and fluently in this context

– choose correctly between a/an pronounce the unstressed form of “d’you in their question

  1. Good communicative teaching is learner-centred, not teacher-centred.

“Teacher-centred” means “BAD” The teacher doles out formal knowledge of the language like a cook giving prisoners thin soup and stale bread in a Victorian prison. “Learner-centred” means “GOOD”.

This view is best summed up for me by Julian Edge in what I think is the best and most clearly written exposition of CLT principles,

Many classrooms are arranged so that all students face forward to the teacher; the message is clear.

  • the teacher dominates
  • all information will come from the teacher
  • interaction between or among students is less valued

Edge goes on to describe other seating arrangements which encourage co-operative, communicative pair-work and group-work. In one picture we see ten or eleven young learners, perhaps in their late teens or early twenties, listening attentively to one member of the group talking. In a second picture we see four learners working together. The learners are smiling, eager, interested, entirely absorbed in the communicative task that they are performing. These two pictures seem for me at least to communicate better than any others, the great intuitive appeal of CLT.

  1. What matters most is not whether learners learn to use the language accurately. What matters is that they learn to get their message across.

Professor John Trim, one of the founders of CLT, has said that “children learning in school must be taught that language learning is about communicating, not getting things right”. Trim believes in “emphasising the importance of repair strategies and of the acceptance of errors”. He asks “if certain learner errors are so predictable, how much effort is justified in the attempt to put them right, instead of developing different ways of enlarging that person’s communicative range?”. Instead of correcting mistakes, we should be doing things that will extend the communicative range of learners.

  1. The classroom and the behaviour of teachers and learners in the classroom should be as similar as possible to the behaviour of people in the “real world” outside the classroom

Strict turn-taking, “display questions”, etc. are “uncommunicative” and do not reflect the “real world” outside the classroom. The classroom must become like the world outside the classroom, where we see people using language spontaneously and communicatively.


Six opposing propositions

How can anyone who is not a reactionary, authoritarian anti-progressive disagree with an approach based on these propositions? To give my own answer to this question, I must express six different propositions.

  1. Generative competence the ability to use underlying syntax and structure is one of the foundations of communicative competence. Without it, there is no pragmatic competence worth talking about.

The question “Is form as important as meaning?” is fundamentally mistaken. Form IS part of meaning. It matters whether I say “If I have time I’ll see you” or “If I had time, I’d see you ” just as it matters whether I say “A man attacked a woman ” or “The woman attacked the man. ” The kind of meaning we get from syntactic form tells us essential things, such as “who did what, how, and to whom.” One of the many questions for teachers and materials writers is “How can we make learners aware of how form contributes to meaning?” I will give one possible answer to that question at the end of this article.

It may be possible to communicate very basic messages using words alone, but this is a hollow argument, It is also possible and probably more effective to communicate such messages using no words at all. Hunger, thirst, anger, rage, sexual desire, frustration and interest and most other emotions can all be communicated through gestures with perhaps a few grunts for emphasis. This is not the kind of “communication training” people are prepared to pay money or give up time for.

Language- as Geoffrey Leech argues, has two different domains. There is a GENERATIVE and a PRAGMATIC domain. The generative domain is syntactic and structural. It is possible to state general rules at least about how those syntactic structures are formed. The pragmatic domain is concerned with speech acts. Speech acts cannot be generated without syntax, but speech act theory analyses them purely in terms of their pragmatic effect. Speech act theory tells us nothing about how they are generated, and nothing about how they are learned in the first place.

The “narrow” or fundamentalist version of CLT can easily become a stifling orthodoxy in which things like rote-learning, memorisation, “display questions”, “teacher-talk” automatically mean BAD. None of these things alone is bad. What matters is how, when and why they are done. Although Thompson and Edge have a much broader vision of CLT than the fundamentalist version, it is often that narrow version that prevails among teacher-trainers and other people in strong positions of authority.

2. A language syllabus is more than a list. That is why examples of speech acts cannot be the basis of a syllabus.

Speech acts and functions are important. But in the real world, typical speech acts have to be modified and varied to fit different situations. Typical speech acts typically lead to very unpredictable outcomes. A competent speaker has to know different ways of performing the same speech act. Speakers can do this only if they can generate new examples of the different syntactic structures they need to perform typical speech-acts. That is only one reason a language syllabus has to have a structural as well as pragmatic component . Unfortunately, communicative goals in CLT are usually described so narrowly that it is impossible to study the necessary syntactic forms properly. For example, studying the Present Progressive from the perspective of a single kind of speech act such as “Referring to future plans and arrangements” does not tell us nearly enough about all the other pragmatic uses of the Present Progressive. It may even be better to begin with the structure and to relate it to its most important pragmatic uses. This often makes far better sense than beginning with the speech acts alone. In any case, the same speech act can be performed with very different structures. There is no one-to-one match between them. If we always begin with the speech act, we lose sight of the generative system that makes all speech acts possible.

3. Communicative goals are exercises in illusion rather than reality. It is not possible to specify communicative goals with any precision .

It sounds so neat and convincing to say “At the end of the lesson learners will be able to talk about their jobs” or “be able to give directions”. If these descriptions mean anything, they mean “with some luck and a lot of hard work and good teaching, learners may be able to say a little more about their jobs than they could at the beginning. They may be able to understand stereotypical directions like “To get to the railway station, go down this road, take the first right and then the second left” but in the real world railway stations are rarely so easy to find. Even native-speakers are often unable to give directions clearly or to understand them.

There are no reliable ways of knowing what learners have learned at the end of any lesson, still less of knowing what learners will actually retain in the long term.

Although CLT grew out of a rejection of “structuralism” which was supposed to be based on behaviourism , communicative goals in CLT are all described in typical behaviourist terminology. This implies that language is just behaviour and that communicative competence can be described in simple behaviourist terms.

4. Good teaching requires an understanding of both “whole-class” and “pair/group-methods. Very often far more often than most CLT supporters are prepared to admit competent whole-class teaching is more efficient than pair and group work

In the “real world”, real teachers have to deal with real learners and they are often very different from the eager, motivated learners in the pictures in Edge’s book. Learners in the classrooms I have in mind, typically all speak the same language; Spanish in Madrid, Polish in Warsaw. Japanese in Tokyo, and so on. They do not use English outside the classroom and they rarely if ever hear it used by anybody else. There is only one person in the classroom who has a reasonable command of English who is able to engage them in active use of English in which they also hear someone using that language competently. That person is the teacher and CLT methodology insists that person should “cut teacher-talking-time to an absolute minimum”.

It is true that with so-called “teacher-fronted” methods, some teachers talk too much. It is just as true that the specious description “learner-centred” covers an equally wide spectrum of lazy, ignorant, incompetent teachers who talk glibly of “learner autonomy” and fail to do any of the things that traditional but competent teachers in the past did to help learners towards true autonomy.

The issue is not “teacher-fronted” or so-called “learner-centred” The issue is how can teachers learn to vary their methods and approach, sometimes using “whole-class techniques and sometimes pair/group work. When and why is one approach better than another? A methodology that does not recognise this is not capable of providing teachers with the skills they really need.

5. A reasonable degree of accuracy is an essential part of fluency.

This is not at all the same argument as “learners must get things right from the very beginning”. But neither is this the same thing as saying that because many mistakes are predictable, they are not correctable. Trim fails to make an essential distinction, or to ask one of the many serious questions that should be part of any serious discussion of ELT: “What kind of correction strategies seem to work and which do not?” My answer to that question is “regular form-focused practice as well as many different opportunities to use the forms for a variety of pragmatic purposes”

6. There are essential differences between using your own language and trying to use a language you do not know well. These differences help to explain the differences in behaviour of people in the foreign language classroom and in the streets outside the classroom.

The first and most essential difference is that people in the streets outside the classroom are using their own language to communicate. They learned that language through a long and complex process that is part of their natural development. Children in very different cultures begin using language more or less at the same age, and go through very similar stages of development. This suggests very strongly that the process of L1 acquisition is genetically triggered and biologically driven.

The people in the street outside presumably have already learned the language and the complex syntactic relationships they are using so casually. That is why they are outside and not inside the language classroom. Learning and using an L2 – a foreign language – is an utterly different process. It is NOT genetically triggered or biologically driven in ANY way. This is what makes L1 acquisition and L2 learning so enormously different, and also why Chomsky says “you simply cannot teach a language to an adult the way a child learns a language. That’s why it’s such a hard job.”

Many typical forms of classroom behaviour, such as strict turn-taking, teacher-dominated interaction, as so on, make it possible to focus on things that we normally would not focus on in the world outside the classroom because in the world outside the classroom we would not have time to focus on them or even think about them.

An Alternative To CLT

What I am going to suggest works for me – and I believe it may work for many others. But this does not mean it can work for anybody. The principle behind this is that NO single method or approach can work for all teachers or for all students. We recognise that different learners have different preferred styles of learning. If this is true of learners and their learning styles, it is also true of teachers and their teaching styles. There is NO scientific evidence of any kind that proves or even suggests that typical CLT techniques work well or work at all under all conditions and with all learners. In fact, what little evidence there is points to the opposite conclusion. In a case such as this, it is far better to endorse pluralistic teaching strategies and techniques which allow for greater diversity and choice not just for individual learners but also for individual teachers. But what is my alternative – not the alternative?

Teaching as Narrative

As Scott Thornbury has argued, good lessons have an “affective” or “aesthetic” dimension which is just as important as their pragmatic or pedagogic dimensions. For me, this aesthetic dimension fulfils certain conditions or questions.

  1. Does the lesson, the format and material arouse interest that goes beyond the language itself?
  2. Is there a pleasing and logical relationship between the different parts of the lesson?
  3. Is there anything that the participants can look forward to besides the end of the lesson, and the chance to escape and go home?
  4. Is the language that was used or generated during the lesson memorable in any way? (There are also a number of “more practical” considerations).
  5. Is there something about the format of the lesson that makes it easily retrievable? For instance, if I am the learner, and didn’t understand parts of it or have forgotten it for some other reason, is there some way I could look at or listen to parts of it again as I go home on the bus or tram, or when I am at home the following day?
  6. Does the format and material of the lesson not only provide useful “input” for the learner but also lead to “output” and language production by the learner?
  7. Does the material and the format help to generate spontaneous language-use that is not easily predictable?
  8. Are there features of the language and the lesson format that are likely to stretch the expressive potential of the learners? That is, is there something that helps the learners to improve their generative and pragmatic competence rather than simply use fossilised resources?

My own solution is to adopt a “narrative” approach to the lessons I teach. As it happens, a fairly short text is usually the beginning, but never the end of the lesson. But the lesson would not have a narrative structure at all if that was all I did. And it is quite possible to teach within a narrative structure and not use a “text” in the conventional sense .

A lesson has a narrative structure if the following conditions are met

– The answers to the questions 1-7 are “Yes”

In other words, at each stage of the lesson, the participants have something to look forward to in the next stage; it may be a crucial piece of information they will hear in listening practice. The text might begin with a description of a fairly simple problem, such as someone – let us call her Paula – who feels unfairly treated at work- or as complex as “What led Watson and Crick to believe that the study of viruses could illuminate the secrets of DNA, and how did Rosalind Franklin’s work help them to discover its double helix structure ?”

By the middle of the lesson, learners, – perhaps working in pairs or perhaps as a whole class -should have found out what Paula decided to do about her problem with her boss – or why Watson’s was so intimidated in his first encounter with Rosalind Franklin in a laboratory in the basement of King’s College, London.

By the end of the lesson far more information will have been revealed, such as what happened when Watson met Franklin again or whether Paula solved her problem. The purpose of the narrative structure is not simply to arouse and sustain interest. It is to keep learners involved with the language. If, however, the narrative does no more than keep learners involved with the language, it will still fail as vehicle of language-learning. The narrative has to lead to language-production as well as comprehension. There may be “narrative gaps” that can be interpreted in different ways and which require learners to extend their pragmatic and generative repertoires as they do so. Or perhaps before it is revealed what was done by the person with the problem at work, at least three possible courses of action are described or considered by the class.

Relating form to meaning

In using this narrative approach, I often discover that learners cannot interpret the difference in meaning conveyed by two superficially similar forms, such as “What would happen if you did this?” and “What happened when you did this?” or “I’d like to read this letter to you” and “I’d like you to read this letter”.

The narratives or dialogues were not specially designed to teach such examples. They occurred because they belonged in the text or dialogue. Because they arise naturally, it is also natural to focus on the different meanings conveyed by the different forms. One of the many advantages of using a narrative approach is that the narratives and dialogues make it possible to study a number of things together, and not just one thing, such as grammar, vocabulary or a particular speech act with no context.

Narratives relate different aspects of language to each other in ways, which single speech acts or a set of collocations without context cannot do.

Authentic vs. specially written

Suppose, for example, I want a dialogue in which someone deliberately lies, or threatens someone, or promises to do something and then later fails to fulfil that promise. Where could I find an “authentic ” example of such dialogues? When people know they are being observed or that someone is recording what they say, they rarely behave authentically or normally. Yet all of us know – at least in our own languages -what people are likely to say in such situations. Why should we refuse to use those intuitions in the materials we create or use for our students? Perhaps the products of such intuitions have to be “idealised” in various ways in order to make it possible for non-native speakers to understand them, but this is just as true of “authentic materials”, which are often too long or too difficult or simply not interesting enough for classroom use. Once you adapt such authentic materials, they are no more authentic that a forged signature on a cheque. So I personally have found it far better to create the texts or dialogues myself, often using authentic examples as a guide. When I create such materials, I am only doing what good writers or speakers generally do when speaking to or writing for native speakers. Good writers and speakers do not use language they think their readers or listeners will not understand. The logical conclusion of the “authentic only” argument is that we should treat non-native speakers of English in a way good writers and speakers of English would never treat native-speakers; that is – that we should ignore the problems non-native speakers have with English and speak or write as if those problems simply did not exist. This, by the way, does not mean that we should necessarily avoid language that we think is likely to cause a problem. It means only that we should locate it in contexts that give that language saliency and which also helps learners to infer meaning.

What EFL needs today is writers capable of developing skills that writers in other genres regard as essential: they must be able to develop the kinds of story, plot and character that can keep groups of very different learners interested in the language. The texts and conversations they write must exemplify as naturally as possible how people speak and write outside the classroom. However, the texts and dialogues must also serve the distinct pedagogic purposes that I have tried to categorise here.


Some Misconceptions about Communicative Language Teaching; English Language Teaching Journal Volume 50/1 January 96

‘Pragmatic’ in this sense is used in the sense Geoffrey Leech uses the term in Principles of Pragmatics ; the meaning language acquires when used socially, by and among people, in order to perform typical speech acts.

From Beginners’ Choice , Mohamed & Aclam, Longman 1992. I use this example only because it is quoted by Julian Edge in Essentials of English Language Teaching

Essentials of Language Learning” Longman 1993, p 51 EFL Gazette, December 97

See “the origins of syntax” in Bickerton’s “Language & Human Behaviour“, pp 66-84″ for a discussion of the importance of syntax not only for language but for human evolution and cognition”

Principles of Pragmatics (London, Longman, 1983)

‘Structuralism is one of the major philosophical movements of the 20th Century, and its European form is emphatically not behaviourism’

Language and Problems of Knowledge, The Managua Lectures The MIT Press, 1988 page 180 (Discussions after Lecture 5)

See for example Wong-Fillmore, L. When Does Teacher-Talk Work As Input? in Second Language Acquisition; Newbury House, (now Pearson Education) 1985.


‘Good lessons share features with, among other art forms, good films. They have plot, theme, rhythm, flow and a sense of ending.’

Scott Thornbury, “Lesson art and design”, ELT Journal, January 1999

see Watson, James. D, “The Double Helix” Penguin, 1968

[My quarrel with CLT 28/03/00 Robert O’Neill]


Robert O’Neill, teacher, teacher trainer, and writer, was hugely influential in the world of English language teaching. He died on 29 July, 2014 at the age of 81.

With his gift for story-telling and writing, Robert is fondly remembered as a man of wide-ranging interests, encyclopaedic knowledge and controversial opinions, who took great delight in his ability to shock and surprise. Fellow ELT author, Professor Alan Maley, who knew Robert for over 40 years, remembers him as ‘eccentric, brilliant, outrageously unconventional but, in the words of the song, with a ‘heart as big as a whale’.’ He believes ‘the profession owes Robert an enormous debt for his trailblazing publications, his professional enthusiasm and his exceptional generosity to younger colleagues.’

Continue reading here


A special tribute article accompanies this image on the Pilgrims website here 

Published by Marisa Constantinides

I train TEFL teachers at CELT in Athens Greece and online - our main courses are Cambridge CELTA and Delta. I interact with educators from all over the world through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and through blogging

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