Soloveva Inna Vladimirovna
National Research University Higher School of Economics
PhD, associate professor at Higher School of Economics since 2008. Main scientific interests concern the methodology of teaching English with the help of modern technology.

The article aims to assess to what extend the theoretical basis of communicative foreign language teaching harmonises with online education. For this purpose the concept of online language teaching is analysed and distinguished from “computer-based teaching” and “Internet-based teaching”. The theoretical basis of communicative approach and online teaching are proved to have the same principal element of teaching via active interaction.

Keywords: communicative approach, Internet-based teaching., modern technology in teaching, Online teaching, teaching foreign languages

Category: 13.00.00 Pedagogics

Article reference:
Коммуникативный подход в практике преподавания иностранных языков онлайн // Modern scientific researches and innovations. 2014. № 12. P. 3 [Electronic journal]. URL:

View this article in Russian

Online learning bears both opportunities and challenges for teachers and learners. Numerous studies indicate the degree of interest around the issue. However, the great majority focus on the students’ perspectives. Most research aims at identifying the ways to compensate the deficiencies of learning online. The majour concern is that student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction is missing in Internet-based classes, making them less valuable to learners, which seriously damages their motivation.

Quite logically in the era of student-centered educational paradigm, the focus of online education research shifts to learners, and only a handful of papers address the teacher’s point of view (1). These few studies emphasise the double challenge that teaching through the use of technology means for instructors: it takes more than mastery of software and hardware – it takes an awareness of how this form influences the teaching process itself.

Even less research focuses on teaching foreign languages online, although it has already become a world-wide practice. “Many teachers are embracing this new form of course delivery as an opportunity. And just as many teachers perceive the move towards online courses as an ordeal, a threat or at least a source of stress” (2). The main teachers’ concern is the need to adjust their methods to the online format. Most of them use communicative approach that has proved its benefits for conventional, face-to-face classes, but still needs assessment in terms of online applicability.

Basing on three years of teaching English via the Internet to groups and individual learners, I hypothesised that online teaching of foreign languages does not limit the application of communicative approach. So I aimed to assess to what extend the theoretical basis of communicative foreign language teaching harmonises with online education. Does the online format limits or broadens teachers’ opportunities to apply communicative approach? For this purpose I analysed the concept of online language teaching, revealed the theoretical basis of communicative approach and questioned its viability in cyberspace from the foreign language teacher’s point of view.

Online language teaching

First of all, we should distinguish between the two potentially confused concepts: online learning and online teaching. Obviously, the focus of writers’ attention defines the difference: speaking about online learning, authors concentrate on students’ problems and opportunities. Hockly and Clandfield define online learning as one that “takes place using a computer connected to the Internet as a tool for communication and learning” (3). The authors suggest no definition for the concept of online teaching, although it figures in the title of the book: Teaching Online: Tools and Techniques, Options and Opportunities. The reason might be that they wrote the handbook for educators with sufficient theoretical background. But can we say that learning and teaching online are just the two sides of the process, like buying and selling or giving and taking? Can we define online teaching as one that “takes place using a computer connected to the Internet as a tool for communication and teaching”?

The prominent writers on methodology of the teaching foreign languages emphasise the critical difference between learning and teaching. “Teaching’ does not equal ‘learning’. Teaching does not necessary lead to learning. The fact that the first is happening doesn’t automatically mean the other must occur. Learning – of anything, anywhere – demands energy and attention from the learner. One person cannot learn anything for anyone else. It has to be done by your own personal effort. Nobody else can transmit understanding or skills into your head” (4).

Therefore, teaching does not equal learning: it is just a component of learning: “the teaching is only one factor in what is learned”. Moreover, Scrivener views it as “rather less important than one might suppose”. Teaching means creating “the conditions in which they [students] might be able to learn” (5).  So if we transfer the concept of teaching into the cyberspace, we can define online language teaching as creating the conditions for students to learn a foreign language by the means of online tools.

Now, when we have separated the concept of teaching from the concept of learning, we need to specify what online teaching is.  The dictionary definition of online as “connected to, served by, or available through a system and especially a computer or telecommunications system (as the Internet)” (6) fails to distinguish online teaching from the other concepts used in the literature on the subject: Internet or computer based language learning/teaching. Still, we believe that this terminology should be specified: not any computer based learning/teaching takes place in online regime, moreover, not any Internet based learning/teaching means learners and trainers being online.

Online language teaching/learning includes the critical element of interaction between Internet users, which may be absent in some computer and Internet based learning/teaching. Therefore, if a language course includes computer software aimed to drill vocabulary or sites with podcasts to listen to, it can be viewed as computer based or Internet based, but cannot be perceived as online because it lacks interaction. Just passively absorbing information and clicking checkboxes does not mean online learning. Such tasks can be – and definitely they are – a very helpful component of any online language course, but an Internet based language course becomes online once it includes Internet users’ interaction. “After all learning a language requires communication with other human beings, not just a computer program” (7).

Diagram 1 illustrates how to distinguish between the three potentially confused concepts of computer based language teaching/learning, Internet based teaching/learning and online language teaching/learning. Obviously, any online language teaching/learning is both Internet and computer based, but not any computer or Internet based language teaching/learning is the online one.

Diagram 1.

To sum up, online language learning/teaching is the one that is available through a computer with the access to the Internet and bases on the interaction between Internet users.

After we have distinguished between the concepts of online, computer and Internet based learning/teaching and emphasised the gap between learning and teaching, we can suggest the definition of online teaching. Online teaching provides learners with conditions to master a foreign language via Internet based interaction with other Internet users.

Communicative approach to teaching foreign languages

Teaching foreign languages online is becoming increasingly popular both among self-employed language tutors and educational institutions. In fact, learners nowadays even expect some part of the foreign language course be available online, as the IT facilities have become more accessible, and lifestyles appear to be much busier than they used to be a decade before. Foreign language learners appreciate the opportunity to get access to the course via the Internet and make learning more effective and less time-consuming. Therefore, offering the Internet based component makes a foreign language course more competitive and caters for modern lifestyles. The other “must” of any foreign language course is teaching in accordance with communicative approach. This expectation bases on the perception of communicative approach as the fundamental both in the eyes of learners and teachers.

Communicative approach has firmly established as a paradigm for foreign language teaching. Thomas Samuel Kuhn introduced the concept of paradigm in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners” (8). Indeed, communicative language teaching fits this description as “no one these days would admit to a disbelief in principles of CLT [communicative language teaching]; they would be marked as a heretic” (9). The paradigm of communicative language teaching embraces a number of concepts, “that have, like CLT, become bandwagon terms without the endorsement of which teachers cannot be decent human beings and textbooks cannot sell” (10).

Further we will describe the concepts shaping the modern paradigm of communicative teaching and analyse their online applicability to access the scope of applying communicative approach in online teaching of foreign languages.

In Teaching by Principles H. Douglas Brown highlights the main communicative language teaching concepts shaping the paradigm of modern language teaching.

1. Learner-Centered Instruction

In contrast with teacher-centered one, it involves

“• techniques that focus on or account for learners’ needs, styles and goals.

• techniques that give some control to the student (group work or strategy training, for example).

• curricula that include the consultation and input of students and that do not presuppose objectives in advance.

• techniques that allow for student creativity and motivation.

• techniques that enhance a student’s sense of competence and self-worth.


Providing learner-centered instruction is likely to be the matter of teacher’s expertise rather than the way of rendering a course. Teaching online gives the opportunity to delegate the most control to students: for instance, they may discuss the goals and needs using a forum or a wiki-page. Moreover, it enhances learners’ motivation as, once they have identified the goals themselves, they would feel more responsible for the result of their studies.

Cyberspace suggests multiple instruments for students to express themselves (see 3) and cater for all learners’ types. The auditory would appreciate listening and recording podcasts, the visual – creating mind maps, cartoons, the kinaesthetic  would express themselves in “doing things” like creating and working with flashcards to learn words or exploring the virtual reality in the projects like

Obviously, online teaching can meet the requirement of learner-centered instruction and provide learners with a variety of tools to realise their creativity, enhance motivation, sense of competence and self-worth.

2. Cooperative and Collaborative Learning.

“As students work together in pairs and groups, they share information and come to each other’s aid. …In cooperative learning models, a group learning activity is dependent on the socially structured exchange of information between learners” (12).

The majour criticism of any online teaching deals with the lack of contact between learners and teacher as well as among leaners as group members. Palloff and Pratt emphasise that “unlike in the face-to-face classroom, in online distance education attention needs to be paid to developing a sense of community in the group of participants in order for the learning process to be successful” (13).  Still, it could be more the matter of process organization rather than the format of classes: it is quite possible to see poorly managed and organized groups in conventional, face-to-face classes, where learners lack interaction. The observer of such classes might have the illusion of interaction and communication among the group members as they share the room and deal with the same tasks. In the cyber-classroom this illusion cannot be created: the teacher either succeeds in providing the tasks aimed at the exchange of information between learners or fails.

3. Interactive Learning

This requirement lies in the basis of communicative approach as communication presupposes interaction, exchange of information. “The communicative purpose of language compels us to create opportunities for genuine interaction in the classroom” (14).

Can online teaching embrace the elements of interactive learning? Providing that Internet connection is appropriate, it definitely can. Spontaneous conversation can be practiced via video chats. Internet sources give the opportunity to practice writing for real audiences: beginners can write in microblogs (Twitter, Facebook), more advanced learners can have their own blogs. Videos, podcasts, articles allow students receive the authentic language input in real-world contexts relevant to them. Moreover, as the online concept includes the critical element of interaction between Internet users, online language teaching will aim at supplying maximum pair and group work, including both oral and written communication. Being online means interaction with other Internet users, so online teaching creates the environment to enhance it. Therefore, conceptually, online teaching has the same nature as communicative approach does: it promotes exchange of information and cooperation.

4. Whole Language Education

The idea of whole language education implies that “that language is not the sum of its many dissectible and discrete parts”. As first language acquisition research has proved, children begin perceiving “wholes” (sentences, emotions, intonation patterns) well before “parts”. “Second language teachers therefore do well to help their students attend to such wholes and not to yield to the temptation to build language only from the bottom up. And since part of the wholeness of language includes the interrelationship of the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), we are compelled to attend conscientiously to the integration of two or more of these skills in our classrooms” (15).

Online teaching makes focusing on skills rather than language items easier because of multiple Internet tools enhancing reading (blogs, articles, news), listening (podcasts, video portals), writing (blogging, microblogging, chats, forums) and speaking (skype, video chat clients). So the online format – with careful planning – puts no restrictions upon realising the communicative approach requirement of “the wholeness of language”.

5. Content-Based Instruction

It aims to provide second-language learners instruction in content and language, where content material dictates the form and sequence of language presentation. “Such an approach contrasts sharply with many practices in which language skills are taught virtually in isolation from substantive content. When language becomes the medium to convey information content of interest and relevance to the learner, then learners are pointed toward matters of intrinsic concern. Language takes on its appropriate role as a vehicle for accomplishing a set of content goals” (16).

Obviously, content-based instruction improves leaners’ motivation, but challenges teachers as they have to be aware of various disciplines. So conforming to this norm of communicative language teaching is mostly restricted by teacher’s expertise rather than the format of language presentation. In this respect online language teaching fits into the paradigm of communicative approach.

6. Task-Based Instruction

Task-based instruction concept focuses on learners performing “real-life” tasks using the target language. “It views the learning process as a set of communicative tasks that are directly linked to the curricular goals they serve, the purposes of which extend beyond the practice of language for its own sake” (17).

As well as whole language education and content-based instruction, task based instruction requirement bases upon the majour idea of communicative language approach: the language is taught as the means of communication, not as an end in itself. Regardless of the class format – online or face-to-face – the teacher can comply with this requirement by asking himself the following questions to assess the techniques that he uses:

“Do they ultimately point learners beyond the forms of language alone to real-world contexts?

Do they specifically contribute to communicative goals?

Are their elements carefully designs and not simply haphazardly and idiosyncratically thrown together?

Are their objectives well specified so that you can at some later moment accurately determine the success of one technique over another?

Do they engage learners in some form of genuine problem-solving activity?” (18).

The issues of rationale and methodological basis of tasks mostly deal with teacher’s awareness of the course goals and ways to attain them. Online language teaching provides the opportunity to engage learners in number of problem-solving activities where they will be using the target language in the real-world context. For instance, the task for the group to find the accommodation with pre-set parameters like the date, price, location, facilities and come to the agreement using the instant message client will help to revise the vocabulary on the topic and practice the functional language for agreeing-disagreeing. So, online language teaching can comply with the requirement to provide task-based instruction on the same basis with face-to-face format.

Having analysed the main communicative approach concepts of learner-centered instruction, cooperative and collaborative learning, interactive learning, whole language education, content-based instruction, task-based instruction, we can conclude that teaching foreign languages online can comply with these requirements. Some of them (cooperative and collaborative learning, whole language education, content-based instruction) deal mostly with teacher’s awareness of the approach s/he uses, their methodological expertise and are not predetermined by the form of classes – online or face-to-face.

As we have found, online teaching tools enable educators to apply communicative approach more consciously as they are not mislead by the illusion of cooperation, collaboration and interaction that might occur in face-to-face class. Cyberspace provides educators with various tools to personalize tasks, adjusting them to learners’ types and interests, delegate more to students and as a result, build the sense of community and enhance the intrinsic motivation.

Another finding of the article is that online teaching harmonises with the theoretical basis of communicative foreign language teaching. The underlying principle of communicative approach is learning foreign language through interaction and exchange of information, so the presented concept of online teaching/learning as the one that is available through a computer with the access to the Internet and bases on the interaction between Internet users, includes the same concept of interaction and exchange. Therefore, we can presume that initially online teaching of foreign languages is communicative by nature.

Teaching foreign languages online challenges the educator to approach the teaching process more consciously, but it grants the opportunity to control the compliance with the criteria of communicative teaching via technology and to provide learners with personalised learning that will help to realise their creativity, enhance motivation, sense of competence and self-worth.


1. Palloff R., Pratt K. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. John Wiley & Sons. 2001.

2. Hockly N., Clandfield L. Teaching Online: Tools and Techniques, Options and Opportunities. Delta Publishing. 2010. P.7.

3. Ibid. P. 9.

4. Scrivener J. Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers. Heinemann Educational Book. 1994. P. 17.

5. Ibid. P. 18.

6. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

7. Hockly N., Clandfield L. Teaching Online: Tools and Techniques, Options and Opportunities. Delta Publishing. 2010. P.9.

8. Kuhn T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1962. P. x.

9. Brown D. Teaching by Principles. Pearson Education. 2007. P. 44.

10. Ibid. P. 45.

11. Ibid. P. 46.

12. Ibid. P. 48.

13. Palloff R., Pratt K. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom. P. 20.

14. Brown D. Teaching by Principles. P. 48.

15. Ibid. P. 49.

16. Ibid. The same page is referred.

17. Ibid. P. 50.

18. Ibid. The same page is referred.

  1. Brown D. Teaching by Principles. Pearson Education, 2007.
  2. Harmer J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman ELT, 2001.
  3. Hockly N., Clandfield L. Teaching Online: Tools and Techniques, Options and Opportunities. Delta Publishing, 2010.
  4. Kuhn T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  5. Palloff R., Pratt K. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, 2001.
  6. Scrivener J. Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers. Heinemann Educational Book, 1994.

All articles of author «Соловьева Инна Владимировна»

© If you have found a violation of copyrights please notify us immediately by e-mail or feedback form.

Contact author (comments/reviews)

Write comment

You must authorise to write a comment.

Если Вы еще не зарегистрированы на сайте, то Вам необходимо зарегистрироваться:
  • Register