Research in brief: Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms

Author and year

William Littlewood (2007)

Link to the review here or Google Scholar it.


A review of reports into the implementation of Communicative and TBLT approaches in East Asia (Primary and Secondary levels). No primary research, a review of existing lit only.

Why the review?

  • Research from Ho (2004) shows that CLT had become the dominant approach in 15 countries across the region.
  • According to Nunan (2003) government education policy in seven countries in the region advocated TBLT as ‘the latest methodological realization’ of CLT. ‘Learning through tasks’ was (at the time) emerging as a basic premise for syllabi in the region.
  • Littlewood reckons there’s confusion in East Asian contexts about what implementing CLT/TBLT actually means. At the end of the paper he ‘proposes a methodological framework which may contribute to resolving some of these tensions’ (2007:244)

Some concerns in implementing CLT/TBLT in East Asia contexts

Based on published reports from the region, Littlewood outlines 5 concerns regarding the implementation in CLT and/or TBLT in this (quite broad) context:

  • Issues with classroom management

The existing PPP sequence in many East Asia classrooms provided a way for teachers to control interactions in class. Research summaries from Hong Kong, South Korea and Mainland China show teachers reported difficulties in staging communicative activities, keeping learners on-task and encouraging participation, lack of discipline and increased noise levels (presumably unmanageable) Overall sense of teachers lacking control basically.

  • Avoidance of English

Research from South Korea (Primary schools) highlighted learners’ increased use of L1 during tasks. Various reports from around the region suggested teachers themselves worried about their own level of proficiency and were concerned they couldn’t meet learners emerging needs during tasks.

  • Minimal demands on language competence

One study suggested learners didn’t produce (or need to produce) a lot of language to complete the task. Another report suggested learners fell back on simple strategies with fewer language demands in order to complete the tasks. Also, different reports highlighted instances where certain students dominated in group tasks.

  •  Incompatibility with public assessment demands

‘CLT and TBLT do not prepare students sufficiently well for the more traditional, form-oriented examinations which will determine their educational future.’ (2005:245)’

This section mentioned research from around the region relating to government guidance on assessments, content of exams e.g. high-stakes university assessment exams in Japan etc. Overall, there’s mention of examples typically being grammar or form oriented, less inclined to focus on communicative tasks, knowledge-based. Parents may be concerned the CLT doesn’t meet learner needs.

  • Conflict with educational values and traditions

One report from China suggested the purpose of education was more knowledge accumulation than using knowledge for immediate purposes. Research from Hong Kong referred to move from teacher-centred to student-centred pedagogy as a real challenge. A report from Japan suggests ‘cultural mismatches’ with CLT such as different communication styles, and a report from S Korea suggests a fundamental change to education in the country is needed in order for CLT to work.

How teachers adapt rather than adopt CLT in the region

  • Reports (China) suggest some teachers just ignore top-down government policy on implementing CLT.
  • Some teachers (S Korea) just pay lip service to govt policy in reports but carry on as normal.
  • After initial excitement, teachers just return to didactic approaches (Malaysia)
  • Teachers across region make use of different ELT techniques, approaches etc to form localized methods – some CLT maybe included(?)
  • Reinterpretations of CLT e.g. some teachers using communicative methods to practice discrete items rather than negotiate meaning.
  • Littlewood suggests this ‘reinterpretations’ are a natural part of methodology uptake.

Conceptual uncertainties

  • Misconceptions around the region that CLT is only about speaking, no grammar teaching, etc
  • Misconceptions about TBLT – the notion of a ‘task’ is unclear.
  • Can practice of discrete items constitute an ‘exercise-task’, and would these still come under a CLT or TBLT umbrella?

Littlewoods’ activity continuum

The extent to which an activity/task/exercise is form-focused and/or meaning-focused seems to shape perceptions of CLT in the region. Littlewood attempts to frame form-focused and meaning-focused activities in a continuum:

  • Non-communicative learning – grammar exercises, drills
  • Pre-communicative learning – language focused, display questions and answer sequences between teacher and learners
  • Communicative language practice – using recently taught language in info exchange activities
  • Structured communication – communicative tasks in which learners can rely on their existing language resources
  • Authentic communication – content-based tasks, problem-solving, etc.

 The framework suggests ways for teachers to move towards CLT with a sense of security.

Some thoughts

Having spent a majority of my career working in Asia in the contexts covered, some comments in the reports do resonate. However, the focus is almost 100% on concerns about how CLT and (less so) TBLT are implemented – I wonder whether there were more positives mentioned in the primary sources than are covered by Littlewood here.

The concerns naturally highlight the need for training programmes alongside government policy/guidelines/etc, to support teachers in successfully implementing CLT and TBLT. Mentioning existing programmes in the region was perhaps beyond the scope of the article, although it does feel that the onus is placed on teachers to make these methods work. The ‘adapt rather than adopt’ section in particular made me feel like training is the missing link, and perhaps overlooked in this review.

I like Littlewood’s framework – it has practical application for teachers (assuming CLT is a desired approach). It takes into account constraints such as assessment demands, suggesting that there may be ways to make our classroom practice relatively more communicative. I feel this suits many contexts I’ve worked in here – small changes that can be implemented with support, rather than hugely transformative approaches inevitably leading to pushback.

I first read this article about 7 years ago – I think it’s still as relevant now in this particular region.

Suggestion for further reading

EFL Summer School wrote a summary of Ellis (1995) – some similar points made.

Feature image: za

Categories: General, reflections, teacher development

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