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21st Century EFL: Enhancing the Communicative Approach

Maria R. Coady, USA and Maryna Tsehelska, Ukraine

Maria Coady is an Associate Professor of ESOL and Bilingual Education. She is a Specialist
Scholar with the Fulbright Commission, and her research is teacher education for English
learners. E-mail:

MarynaTsehelska is a Chair of the English Language and Methodology Department at KryvyiRih

National University. She also runs language schools where the newest ideas of teaching are
applied. E-mail:

English language use has become increasingly dynamic with the creation and expansion of new
international communication networks and the ubiquity of technologies in and beyond the
English-speaking world. In this paper, we problematize the traditional and pervasive
communicative approach (CA) to the teaching of English in foreign language contexts. We argue
that CA has not kept pace with 21st century language teaching and learning needs, including the
demand in international contexts for "academic language" development. We propose an
"Enhanced" CA that emphasizes uses of new technologies, academic language development, and
global nature of English.



Communicative competence in EFL

21st Century English language development

Blurring the EFL/ESL divide?

Preparing EFL teachers: The case of Ukraine




English language use has become increasingly dynamic with the creation and expansion of new
international communication networks and the ubiquity of technologies in and beyond the
English-speaking world. While there is a persistent gap between low v. middle, minority v.
majority families and access to technology (Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera & Patten, 2013), the
demand for English in new and varied contexts such as the Internet continues to illuminate
challenges and raise questions for English language development (ELD).In this paper we argue
that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching methods have failed to keep pace with the
nature and use of global English. Moreover, we argue that the contexts in which English is
currently used are influencing the very nature of ELD such that there is blurring of the traditional
EFL/ESL (English as a Second Language) divide.

In this paper we overview the context of EFL teaching, emphasizing where EFL changes are
occurring in the field. We reflect on the changing nature of English, particularly its use as a
global language and lingua franca. Next, we describe the need to reposition traditional EFL
teaching and learning away from the current Communicative Approach (CA)to a new way of
teaching, which we refer here to as an Enhanced Communicative Approach (ECA). We argue
that the latter more accurately reflects the needs, demands, and varied contexts in which learners
acquire and use English as an international language. We use the case of English language
development in Ukraine to illustrate our points. Our goal in this paper is to begin to raise
questions and voice some concerns regarding the preparation of students learning English around
the globe to participate in multiple and varied English language contexts and its corollary
concern: training teachers to navigate and to prepare students for those contexts.

Communicative competence in EFL

Once upon a time, teaching English as a foreign language followed a largely predictable plan:
wherever possible, English was taught by native speakers (NSs), who prepared students to
achieve communicative competence. Essentially, EFL is taught in the countries where it is not
spoken as a native language of the majority of people, and English as a Second Language (ESL)
is taught where it is the native language. The goal of communicative competence in EFL, a term
coined by Dell Hymes in 1966, was to prepare users (speakers) to make utterances appropriately
in order to achieve a particular goal (or language function), such as to praise, to ask permission,
and so on. The linguistic knowledge base of communicative competence included grammar,
syntax, morphology, and phonology with an emphasis on the social context in which the language
was to be used.

Using the communicative approach to teaching (a methodological derivative of the aim of

communicative competence), EFL teachers prepared students to communicate with imaginary
native English speakers, in imaginary contexts, and for imaginary purposes. Language learning
tasks included building vocabulary for greetings, asking directions, using transportation, ordering
food in restaurants, and so on. Students requiring more detailed language training could follow
an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) sequence, in which specialized language and vocabularies
were taught to students to prepare them to perform specific functions, such as French speakers
taught business English in order to trade stock on the French stock market or bourse. These
were not the only uses, but the concept of preparing speakers for these imaginary spaces or,
imagined communities, as Anderson (1991) described with respect to the construct of nation,
pervaded the methods and materials used by EFL teachers. Training materials were developed
based on the communicative approach and typically included topics such as greetings, the
seasons, clothing, health, travel, and transportation; students practiced the language via role
plays, attempting to attain NS-like fluency and ability levels. Examples of these curricula and
textbooks include the Headway series and Total English, both popular in EFL contexts and
still in use today.
During the latter 20th century, when the use of English grew exponentially (Graddol, 2006) and
people became more mobile internationally, English was increasingly used as a common
language or lingua franca, for communication among users who did not share first languages.
Despite this demographic shift in learners of English, the communicative approach continued to
be valued as the approach to teaching English.

21st Century English language development

In spite of the pervasive nature of EFL and its imaginary contexts, it takes little imagination to
recognize the reality of English language use in the 21 st century. Native English speakers no
longer dominate the landscape in international contexts, at least not in terms of numbers.
Countries in which English is spoken as a native language, referred to as the core, are far
outnumbered by English speakers in non-core, or periphery, countries. And there is a growing
semi-periphery as well. Graddol (2006) estimates that about 350 million speakers currently
exist in the core, yet there are an additional 350 million English second language learners (ESL)
and 750 million or more who are learning English as a foreign language worldwide. Yet the non-
core is not a homogenous group. Former English speaking colonies, such as Nigeria and Hong
Kong, differ from contexts in which English holds a more recent place in the countrys language
planning policy (Phillipson, 2003). Increasingly, language policies in those countries mandate
the teaching of English as a foreign language because English is viewed as critical to the overall
economic development and participation in the global economy, no matter how remote those
possibilities may be. McKay (2012) notes that for some, English can result in economic and
social benefits; however, for others, learning English provides [un]realistic accounts of what a
knowledge of English may bring to their lives (p. 39). Ukraine is one such country, where
English has been taught as a foreign language as a mandatory subject in all state schools, yet
questions are being raised as to the purpose for which Ukrainian might use English and the
overall benefit of English for the development of the country (Coady, in preparation).

The differences in histories and policies highlight the myriad varieties of English currently being
used worldwide. One cannot argue that Indians are not NS of English any more than one cannot
argue that New Zealanders are not NS of the language. Further, speakers of Singlish
(Singaporean English) speak a variety of English that differs from that spoken in Belize. So
while there remains an imagined NS variety of English that is still used to guide instruction,
materials, and methods in EFL contexts and that follows CA, the reality is that todays students of
English are more likely to encounter English used by non-native speakers (NNS) in non face-to-
face interactions.

EFL students are increasingly likely to communicate with speakers of English or to access
information in English via the Internet than they are in realized imagined-spaces. However, as
noted earlier, those English speakers are not probably from the core. As English continues to
dominate the industries of business and technology, its status as a lingua franca is not about to
change in the foreseeable future. This reality is exacerbated by the ubiquity of technology in the
form of handheld computers and tablets, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), such as
Coursera, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), and the ability to
obtain information, data, and to access research in English on a extensive scale. Hence, the
nature of global communication in the 21st century requires us to envision and tap into new
contexts (places, situations, and speakers) of English. It is for these spaces that we must prepare

Blurring the EFL/ESL divide?

In addition to changes in context in which English is used, in the field of English language
teaching and learning, scholars have raised the question of whether or not there has been a
merging of the English as a Foreign/ English as a Second Language divide. Some (Bell, 2013)
argue that the nature of teaching EFL, which includes an emphasis on culture (typically the
culture of the core) and, noted earlier, imaginary contexts of language use, is distinct from the
nature of ESL. Yet other scholars see the debate differently (McKay, 2012), and articles
describing assessment practices and curriculum for both ESL and EFL contexts are not unusual
(e.g., Roever, 2012). In ESL contexts, English is the language used in the broader community
and students have immediate access to NSs, can hear the language on television, and so on. In
addition, ESL teaching in primary, middle, and secondary school contexts emphasizes the need
for learning English simultaneous to the teaching of academic subjects such as mathematics,
science, social studies, and literature. Particularly with the common core state standards being
implemented across the United States, students in K-12 settings are being taught academic
language/English in and across the content areas (Schlepegrell, 2004).

Increasingly, EFL students are enrolling in higher education in core English speaking countries.
In fact, in 2010, approximately 733,000 international students enrolled in institutes of higher
education in the United States (McMurtrie, 2011), a 6% increase from the prior year. Yet, many
students are not prepared for the heavy language demands required to use English. For example,
students, like those in Ukraine, where EFL is taught using CA are faced with a mismatch between
their communicative competence and the type of language required in academic and scientific
areas. While there is some fear that preparing some students to attain this level of English will
further stratify students by social class, with upper income students having access to English
learning and lower income students without (McKay, 2012), the fact remains that English
language use today has shifted from imagined interactions with NSs in imaginary contexts to
immediate online uses with NNSs, NSs, and the need for specialized English to attain higher
education, such as to successfully pass examinations like the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and

What is required of teachers, then, to prepare students in EFL contexts for more advanced and
specialized language that meets their needs? We propose a new approach, which we call an
Enhanced Communicative Approach (ECA) for ELD. ECA encompasses prior communicative
teaching methods, leading to communicative competence, but moves beyond that objective. It
understands and recognizes that learners are participants in a global context and have a need to
communicate in specialized contexts in both speaking and writing. This is less frequently in face-
to-face settings with native speakers.

In ECA contexts, learners of English may have variable access to English. For example, students
might access online games, social network media (FaceBook, Instagram, for example), use search
engines for information, conduct research, listen to videos and audio samples for information and
language learning (e.g., YouTube), and read and write blogs. They use abbreviated English in
text and chat messages (LOL, NVMD, JK, NP). They also de-code semiotic systems in gaming
and advertising, reflecting what the New London Group dubbed in 1996, multiliteracies. Such
literacies include de-coding semiotic systems, as players do rapidly in MMORPGs. In online
gaming, players are more likely to read the meaning behind symbols (e.g., treasure chests,
pictures, maps, avatars), than they are words.

Any or all of these situations can occur between EFL students and NS or NNS, in a variety of
countries where English may be taught. Twenty-first century EFL students are less likely to use
static, printed textbooks than ever before, many of which are outdated and too expensive to
replace. In Ukraine, for example, student textbooks are sometimes left over from the Soviet Era
(before 1991); access to technology enables students to obtain current information that is less-
frequently print-based and more recent.

Finally, English for advanced academic purposes has experienced intense demand. Whereas CA
aimed for users of English to achieve native-speaker-like fluency for everyday purposes, ECA
moves beyond that to include higher levels of specialized academic language, both verbal and
written. International assessments are indiscriminate to the learner: EFL students need similar
types of language as NS when taking the GRE, and they also need a strong command of the
language to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International
English Language Testing System), two international English language proficiency tests geared
for NNS who wish to work and/or study in NS countries.

Preparing EFL teachers: The case of Ukraine

Teaching English and teacher training in Ukraine serve to illustrate our point. During the Soviet
era, English was taught in Ukrainian schools as a language that would likely never be used in real
contexts. The emphasis on technical and scientific education contributed to the view of foreign
language teaching (EFL) as a secondary component of education, and the growing isolation of the
Soviet Union from the Western world diminished the importance of the communicative aspect of
English. However, the primary emphasis of English learning remained on grammar, followed by
writing the standard form. Very few educational programs trained students to communicate with
strangers in various social situations, and most courses therefore aimed at producing either
qualified technical translators or linguists. A significant change in foreign language teaching
occurred in the 1970swith the school reform aimed at the improvement of perfecting foreign
language teaching. The communicative approach stirred great interest in the Soviet Union and
provided the basis for a new scientific paradigm.

The leading Soviet foreign language-teaching theorists of the time (Y. Passov, S. Shatilov, G.
Rogova) coupled the communicative approach with individual development of the student, giving
way to the idea of the well-rounded personality that was to be the product of the Soviet
educational system. Later psychologist Irina Zimnyaya (1991) developed the approach by
emphasizing the importance of the goals of the language learner.

Theoretical works never permeated educational establishments, and it was not until the mid-
1990s that the communicative approach was embraced in foreign language teaching. However,
the shared admiration of this approach became peppered with numerous questions by the end of
the 20th century that remain unanswered today:

What are the goals of English in Ukraine?

For what purposes will Ukrainian students require English?
What English should be taught to meet their needs?
Statistic data shows that the priorities of Ukrainian students of English have greatly changed.
According to UNdata (2009) 33,740 young Ukrainians attended institutes of higher education
abroad, a number that has tripled since 1998. The leading providers of education are Great
Britain, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Poland, and Germany. All of these providers require
either TOEFL or IELTS with relatively high scores in order to matriculate into degree programs.

The Ukrainian system of education made an attempt to meet the needs of the students by
introducing the External Independent Testing (EIT) a replica of GSCE in the UK or ACT or
SAT in the US. Independent testing in English was modeled on International English Language
tests, particularly the FCE the First Certificate in English Cambridge test (level B2 in the
Common European Framework). However, due to technical difficulties, Ukrainian EIT retained
only the reading, writing and English use sections, omitting listening and speaking. The first test
in 2009 showed great discrepancy between the teaching and learning of English at schools and
the exam requirements. The main concern was generally the low level of performance; this was
partially explained by the use of textbooks and approaches that do not match the required level of
English. Today more Ukrainian teachers come to understand that communicative textbooks do
not give the required level of language, which can be acquired only through reading and
vocabulary development.

Another argument in support of ECA in Ukraine is the emergence and development of massive
open online courses (MOOCs), which for many Ukrainian students are opening the doors to some
of the best universities in the world. For instance, the top Ukrainian technical university NTU,
Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, on its website encourages students to take 25 courses, among them
Computer Science, Software Engineering, Human-Computer Interfaces, and Machine Learning.
Comments posted by the students reveal the following language problems: the manner of
lecturers speaking (usually resolved with subtitles); the vocabulary, which is very specific and
requires time for acquisition and teaching; critical analysis; and continuous testing for
understanding. Besides the language strategies they were taught at school, now students need
academic language, which could be acquired easier if students had developed the skills of
learning academic vocabulary earlier in the language learning process.


New spaces for English language use using new mediums for communication insist that teachers
must be prepared to introduce, use, critically analyze, and teach these spaces to EFL students.
Here, we believe that a new approach to teaching, Enhanced Communicative Approach or ECA,
needs to emerge, one that builds on students knowledge of their first language, attends to the
specialized and academic language that students need, and uses 21st century literacies and
technologies. In our view, these appear to resemble ESL contexts and bilingual education
wherein students learn academic content through English in order to develop high degrees of
academic language. As such, students learn increasingly complex and content-specific vocabulary
and syntactic structures. They are taught to analyze text from various genres and to use language
academically and socially, locally and globally.

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