Communicative Language Teaching in Indonesia:

Issues of Theoretical Assumptions and

Challenges in Classroom Practice


Bachrudin Musthafa


Introduction: Framing the Issues


Like other reform efforts in the world, the emergence of "Communicative Language Teaching" in public discourse and, later on, the institution of the "Communicative English Teaching Approach" in Indonesia's schools represent a response to our disappointments with the theories coming before. Even the term "communicative approach" itself, in the context of English Curriculum for SLTP (Middle School) and SMU (Senior High School), has taken on different social meanings. First, in the 1984 English syllabus, the communicative approach was "misinterpreted" and its implementation aroused controversy. The same approach has now been redefined and renamed the "Meaningful Approach" (Huda, 1999).


Despite the changing names, the primary concerns remain the same for classroom teachers: Where are we supposed to go with English language teaching? How can we help students to learn English most effectively and efficiently so that, upon completion of the course they can use the language for real-life purposes? What supports has the curriculum made available to help teachers achieve their stated goals? What else should we do with our own resources to optimize student learning?


This paper shall address these issues and elaborate on the implications each of the issues might bring to the fore by first detailing the language acquisition principles underlying the 1994 English Curriculum. The discussion then moves on to spell out the enabling condition that should be present or created so that the stated goals become achievable. To put the discussion into a more realistic context, some observations on the reality of the classroom in particular, and schools in general, will be outlined.


Next, drawing on the discussion on the instructional principles, support requirements, and contextual constraints, the paper presents some challenges that confront classroom teachers. This paper concludes with a discussion of strategies to overcome contextual constraints, and some practical suggestions to inspire classroom teachers to improve instruction through the integration of linguistic macro-skills.


The 1994 English Curriculum: Principles and Requirements for Successful Implementation


The 1994 English Curriculum, which is currently in effect, is an outgrowth of its predecessor, the 1984 English Curriculum, and both curricula share the same theoretical underpinnings. Both have drawn very heavily from studies in language acquisition originating in the USA, language instruction programs that emphasize total language exposure (e.g., Language Experience Approach, Total Immersion Program, etc.), and the European course credit system (cf. Stern, 1983). As an amalgam of a wide array of different theories and instructional programs, communicative language teaching principles and their implementation can take many different forms. Upon closer analysis, however, some characteristics are clearly shared by the communicative approach to language teaching. These characteristics, which represent the major objectives of the approach, include what are explicitly spelled out in the 1994 curriculum guide:


  • Development of communicative competence­ the ability to use English for communicative purposes-which covers all four macro-skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing; efforts should be made to strike a good balance among the four macro-skills;


  • Mastery of linguistic aspects are to be used to support communicative abilities in both oral and written forms;


  • The English syllabus represents an amalgam of various forms of syllabi: functional, situational, skills-based, and structural; given the nature of the syllabus, the basis for the organization of the materials is not linguistic aspects but topical themes and functional skills;


  • Assessment is integrated (covering more than one language component) and communicative (not exclusively on linguistic elements);


  • Not all instructional objectives are measurable using paper-and-pencil tests (e.g., reading for enjoyment).


To better understand how these principles can be translated into classroom instructional activities, a closer look at some key words and/or phrases is in order: "communicative competence," "topical themes," ''functional skills," "integrated assessment," "communicative assessment," and "reading for enjoyment."


Communicative competence: What it is, and how it develops


Many experts have defined the term communicative competence, and they generally agree that it means the ability to use a language for communicative purposes. Canale and Swain (1979) have further specified the components of communicative competence in four areas:


1)      Grammatical competence: the ability to apply the rules of grammar to produce or interpret ideas to gather a message correctly. Teachers trained in the heyday of structuralism and/or audiolingualism, know very well that grammatical competence used to be the only focus of English instruction. Linguistic competence is important of course, because without it, learners of English will not be able to use the language correctly. Without well­-developed grammatical competence, learners of English are unable to function in the language in a sophisticated way.

Research in language acquisition and verbal communication has established that grammar, when taught in isolation from its contextualized communicative use, tends to be acquired by learners as merely linguistic property. This has been evidenced in many studies which show that grammatical knowledge does not automatically transfer to actual communicative acts such as writing and reading. Grammatical knowledge is, indeed, useful to learners of English to the extent that it enables them to use the language for communicative purposes.


2)      Discourse competence: the ability to connect several ideas together appropriately and to maintain an extended exchange of messages. For this competence to develop properly, learners of English need to be exposed to and engage in the actual use of the language for communication purposes.


3)      Sociolinguistic competence: the ability to choose language usage according to the social situation, including such aspects as time, place, and social relationship. Like other aspects of communicative competence, sociolinguistic competence assumes the communicative use of the language. Since this competence is embedded in social interactions, learners must develop their sociolinguistic competence through exposure to various uses of English in a wide array of social situations and role relationships.


4)      Strategic competence: the ability to understand basic meaning or to be understood, even when adequate vocabulary and structures are lacking. This manifests itself mostly in strategies used by communicators (e.g., speakers, writers) to avoid communication breakdown, especially when words cannot sustain the communication flow. Like the others, this competence requires communication activities for its development.


To help learners of English develop into competent users of English, therefore, English language instruction must be based on current research and understanding of the nature of communicative competence and how it develops. To better situate our discussion, it is useful to describe what it means to be communicatively competent.


In our context of English language teaching in SL TP and SMU, communicatively competent students can be described as follows:


  • When speaking, the student is able to use appropriate words at the right time and in the right context, depending on different social situations. This understanding brings with it a serious implication for curriculum developers, for they must base curricular items on their best knowledge of the target group of learners' need and preferences. To address this implication, the curriculum should be negotiated and constructed jointly with target learners.


  • When listening, the student can use all contextual clues to grasp the meaning of what is being said and how the message is being conveyed.


  • When reading, the student is able to construct meaning based on the messages provided by the text and his/her own reading purposes.


  • When writing, the student is able to formulate ideas into acceptable written English in accordance with the writing context and his/her own writing purposes.


Theme-based English instruction: What it is, and how it can contribute to the development of communicative competence


Communicative activities always occur in a social context, and the social context implies two or more interlocutors (or participants) involved in a communicative event embedded in a certain time and place. The "themes" in this type of instruction are believed to be a practical way to preserve both linguistic and social dimensions of communicative events. In other words, organizing English instruction using themes would enable curriculum designers, materials developers, and instructors to present learning materials in ways that promote authentic communication. In this way, it is hoped that students are not only exposed to linguistic expressions, but also to settings (time, place, and role relationship) where the expressions are used naturally for communicative purposes. This is especially important to promote the development of sociolinguistic competence.


Functional skills: What they are, and how they develop


Past experiences have taught us that where instructional language materials have been presented only in grammatical terms, much resentment has resulted among language educators and teachers alike. In the context of theme-based instruction, however, linguistic skills can be presented in the context of purpose-driven social exchanges. With the features of communicative events preserved in the themes, the communicative skills displayed in the exchanges appear more functional. The functionality of these skills is important for learners to keep their motivation high.


Integrated/Communicative Assessment


Communicative language teaching makes use of real-life situations that necessitate communication (Galloway, 1993). And a normal communication event generally requires the use of many linguistic skills-not only one skill at a time, which is how language is usually assessed in the grammar-based curriculum. For instance, when people are engaged in conversational exchanges, both listening and speaking are called into use; in some contexts (e.g. formal debates or lectures) a communicative event requires all four macro linguistic skills in a single event. Given the nature of communicative acts, assessment should cover more than one skill at the same time and, better still, should be embedded in real-life communicative activities.


Reading for Enjoyment


One very important purpose of communicative language teaching is to enable learners to use the language for real-life communicative purposes. As members of a literate culture, our students are expected to read for their own purposes. For example, they might read comics, short stories, or novels to entertain themselves, or they might read to update their knowledge about something. Voluntary reading such as this is important for students' personal development, both as language learners, and as member of a literate society.


Enabling Conditions for Communicative Skills Development


Research evidence abounds which suggests that certain conditions are required to enable language learners to develop into communicatively competent participants in social interactions in the English language. For example, students need to have a good model to learn from and a great amount of exposure to language use in real-life contexts. They also need opportunities to acquire these models and get involved in meaningful communicative events. For their optimal development as active participants in meaningful social interactions and/or dialogs, the language learners need to have a supportive environment. In other words, only when we provide this enabling condition can we reasonably expect our students to develop into communicatively competent users of English.


The Reality of Language Classes in Indonesian Schools


As many Indonesian teachers of English can attest, the enabling condition of a supportive language environment is not always easy to create in our schools. There are many reasons for this. One is the teacher's degree of confidence in using the language in front of his/her students. A second reason might be the time constraints, which practically preclude the teacher designing a lesson that requires learners to get involved in social communication in the classroom. Another reason could be the type and focus of the exam, upon which a student's relative success in learning English is judged.


Other hindrances might be the absence of good, authentic learning materials, teachers' tendency to rely on non-communicatively engaging learning tasks (such as grammar-based worksheets), and the absence of visible social uses of the language outside the classroom confines.


Challenges in Classroom Practice


Given the reality of Indonesian classes, the most serious challenges facing our English teachers include the issue of exposure to real-life English use, student engagement in real-life communicative activities, and all kinds of environmental supports which, according to research, contribute to the development of learners as communicatively competent users of English for communicative purposes. These non­ existent supports include communicatively oriented exit exams, realistic behavioral models of how English is used to satisfy the needs for real-life communication and social interactions, and communication-based instructional materials. As indicated earlier, the assessment tests-which are run nationally-focus on knowledge of syntax and grammar, although many teachers and curriculum developers have realized that this practice is counterproductive to the attempt to develop communicative competence. This national policy seems to have been adopted because some decision-makers wrongly believed that communicatively oriented testing instruments are difficult and expensive to develop. The absence of communicatively designed testing, coupled with the fact that the English language is not used in Indonesia's day-to-day social communication, has resulted in communication­ based instructional material losing its pedagogical value.


Consistent with this observation, many Indonesian teachers of English' have publicly admitted in seminars-and this has been supported by my own observation in many different contexts-that English is seldom used in the classroom. Teachers tend to use Bahasa Indonesia to carry out their English lessons, except, perhaps when greeting students before the session begins and ends. In a situation such as this, students do not have good, functional English language models to learn from. It is difficult to imagine how students in this learning environment could develop a good sense of purpose and direction in learning English.


Suggested Strategies for Promoting Meaningful Language Learning


Some experts have argued that a language activity is meaningful when .learners see clear and reasonable reasons for what they are doing. To ensure “meaningfulness” then, we teachers should make explicit the objectives we want our students to achieve as a result of their engagement in the learning activities we present. The clarity of the objective is also important in enabling students to assess their own success with the learning activity. The process of learning a language is also greatly enhanced when the learners see some personal relevance in the activities presented. It is important therefore that teachers and materials developers base learning materials on topics important to the learners because, according to Frank Smith (as cited in Musthafa, 1994), only when they consider the materials relevant will students commit their optimal attention to learning









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