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Communicative approach to language teaching in general, and teaching reading, in particular
By:Hassan Asghari <hassanasghari9@yahoo.com>

Communicative approach to language teaching in general and teaching reading, in particular

Hassan Asghari ( M. A. in TEFL)

Islamic Azad University

English Teacher




In this paper an attempt will be made to briefly deal with the notion of communication, communicative language teaching, its implications for teaching reading. To achieve this goal, we shall look at the reading process from a communicative angle within the framework of discourse. Some parts of this paper will be devoted to the specification of the basic knowledge necessary for discourse processing in general, and reading comprehension, in particular, and the notion of background knowledge in language processing and its specific consequences for reading comprehension.
Mere possession of grammatical competence never guarantees the readers ability to understand language, if we consider reading comprehension as the readers ability to decode what has been coded by the writer in the process of language creation.


The angle from which one looks at the language and language description obviously affects the way theories are put forward for language teaching. Under the influence of structural view to language description and Chomskean notion of competence, the language ability in a language user was considered as a set of grammatical rules that language user has to maser to be called competent language user.

However, the appearance of communicative description of language followed by communicative approach to language teaching, the trend changed and language competence gained new dimensions. In order one to be called competent language user, he/she, besides grammatical competence, has to possess other competencies such as discourse, sociolinguistic, and strategic competencies.

1. Communication
Literally defined, communication is the exchange of ideas and information between two or more persons( Richard et al 1985, Crystal 1992, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 1980). A communicative system consists, at least, three components, a medium, a sender, and a receiver. A message is shaped in signaler’s (sender’s)information network(brain), and then is encoded in the nervous and muscular system. The message leaves the sender and is transmitted via air (in spoken mode)or paper(in written mode) to the brain of the receiver via ear and eye where is id decoded and converted into concepts ( Clark and Clark: 1977) Broughton et al (1978:27) simply diagrams the process as follows.


Sender language receiver

Regarding reading process, the diagram may seem as follows:

Meaning seeded into the text

Writer text reader

2. communicative competence:
He communicative approach to language teaching derives from a theory of language as communication. The goal of language teaching is to develop in learners what Hymes(1972) referred to as communicative competence, as opposed to Chomskean theory of competence(Linguistic competence vs. Performance)(cf. Munby1978, Broumfit and Johnson 1979, Widdowson 1978).

As Richard and Rodgers (1986:70) puts “this [communicative competence]theory of what knowing a language entails offeres a much more comperehensive view than Chomskean view of competence, which deals primarily with abstract grammatical knowledge. “From this brief account, it can be concluded that the ability to manipulate the structure of the labguage correctly is only a small part of what is involved in learning a language, and there is, according to Newmark(1966), “something else”that needs to be learned or acquired.

In an attempt to specify Newmarks’s “something else”, Canal and Swain(1980) identified four components that make up the structure of communicative competence: 1) Grammatical Competence 2) Discourse Competence 3) Sociolinguistic Competence 4) Strategic competence.
Now let us discuss these four categories briefly and point out their possible implications for discourse processing with a special focus on the perceptual dimension of discourse-reading comprehension.

2. 1. Grammatical Competence: Sentence level.
Grammatical competence refers to what Chomsky calls Competence (as opposed to Performance) and what Hymes refers to as “whether (and to what extent) something is possible. “That is an aspect of communicative competence that encompasses “ knowledge of lexical items and rules of morphology, syntax, sentence grammar, semantics, and phonology”(Canal and Swain 1980:29, quoted in Brown, D. 1987:199).

2. 2. Discourse Competence.
This competence proposed by Savignon(1972, 1988) and developed by Canal and Swain (1980) and as is discussed b Munby(1978), is the psychological dimension of communicative competence to relate sentences to each other to form larger units of discourse(written or spoken) for the purpose of inferring meaning, of performing communicative acts, of understanding the communicative functions of sentences(Munby 1988, Berns 1990).

This aspect of communicative competence seems to be equivalent to the question put by Hymes as to “Whether ( to what degree) something is feasible” in virtue of implementation available(see Brown 1987, Hymes 1971).

2. 3. Sociolinguistic Competence:
Sociolinguistic competence refers to an understanding of social context in which communication takes place, including role relationship, the shared knowledge of the participants, and the communicative purpose for their interaction ( Richards et al. 1985, Savignon 1983). This competence roughly corresponds to Hymes (1971) statement “Whether (and to what extent) something is appropriate. A sentence can be grammatically possible but inappropriate for the context in which it is used (cf. Widdowson1978, Richards 1983, Xiaojo 1984). As Hymes rightly points out, a language user must possess a ability or competence to understand when to speak, when not, how, where, to whom, in what manner.

2. 4. Strategic Competence
This section is of great importance to what we are after in this paper because if we consider communicative competence as a system or set of consisting of some sub-sets, the strategic competence has the responsibility of relating these sub-sets to each other to form the whole linguistic proficiency of a language user.

A detailed discussion of the notion of strategy and its application to language understanding can be found in VanDijk(1983) where he speaks of cognitive, language, grammatical, discourse, cultural, rhetorical strategies all of which constitute a language user’s strategic competence( Ch. 3)

3. Implications for Reading Comprehension.
Structural view of linguistic description influenced, among others, teaching/learning approaches. It was supposed that when language learner acquires the underlying grammatical competence, he/she gains the ability to understand language. Understanding a language, as we saw, is more than understanding the relationship that holds sounds and words together, and the sentence, out of context, is not the unit of conveying meaning. Processing of discourse requires broader dimension of competence including discourse competence which deals with language beyond the boundary of sentences. Here, let us appeal to Widdowson(1978:18)who points out that “A knowledge of use must of necessity include a knowledge of usage but the reverse is not the case.

Regarding comprehension, as part of language user’s ability to process discourse, various attempts are made on the part of the reader to make sense of what others say. A reader utilizes all linguistic and also extralinguistic cues to arrive at writer’s intended meaning, inherent partly in the text and partly brought by the reader to the text. All the attempts made by the reader follow certain procedures. These procedures are called strategies.

A reader, according to Van Dijk(1983), in order to make use of his rhetorical competence to give coherence to a text to comprehend it, needs a rhetorical strategy to activate or trigger the relevant rhetorical schemata.


Berns, M. (1990) Context of competence: Social and Cultural Considerations in Communicative Language Teaching, New York and London: Plenum Press.

Broughton, G. et al. (1978) Teaching English as a Foreign Language, London and New York: Routledge.

Brown. H. D. (1978) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Englewood, Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Brumfit, C. J. and K. Johnson(1979) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canale, M. and Swain, M(1980) “Theoretical bases of communicative approach to second language teaching and testing”, Applied Linguistics, Vol. 1, 1)-47.
Clark, H. H. and E. Clark(1977) Psychology and Language, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Crystal, D. (1992) An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Hymes, D. (1971) “ on communicative competence” in Brumfit, C. J. and K. Johnsomn (ends) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: oxford University Press.

Hymes, D. (1972) “ Educational introduction” Language in Society, Vol. 1, pp. 1-14.

Munby, J. (1978) Communicative Syllabus Design, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newmark, L. (1966) “How not to interfere with language Teaching”, in Brumfit, C. J. and K. Johnson(ends. ) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. et al. (1985) Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, Essex: Longman.

Savignon, S. (1993) Communication Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice. Reading, Mass. :Addison-Wesley.

Van Dijk, T. A. and Kintsch, W. (1983) Strategies of Discourse Comprehension, London: Academic Press.

Widdowson, H. G. (1978) Teaching Language as Communication, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Xiaoju, L. (1984) “In defence of the communicative approach”, in Rossner, R. and Bolitho, R. (ends. ) Currents of Changes in English Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Hassan Asghari

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