How different is the Structural Approach from the Communicative Approach? Let’s take the example of two children raised in two different environments. One child whose mother-tongue is English is raised in an English speaking environment. The other child whose mother-tongue is not English is raised in a non-English speaking environment. The child whose mother-tongue is English enrols in school already equipped with established speech habits which include the main English sentence patterns, the use of tenses of the verb (although to a limited extent), the use of the articles, word order (imitating the adults) and a host of other structural features of the language. On the other hand, the other child whose mother-tongue is not English is confronted with insuperable difficulties to learn English in an environment that does not afford the practice of spoken English.

As such, the foreign student has first to learn and establish as habits, the very material that children whose mother-tongue is English already know on their first day at school. Therefore, a totally different view of the language is required for the foreign student. The materials and methods required for the foreign student differ from the native speaker of the language. Hence, it is justified at this stage to use the Structural Approach for the foreign student. The foreign student is exposed to a variety of sentence-patterns (positive, negative, interrogative) involving the most frequently used verbs in the English language – the 24 special verbs. After hearing and practising these verbs and their use in sentences in their daily lives, the foreign student instils in himself the habit of speaking and writing correctly. It is also important to consciously teach word order to those learning English as a foreign language.

For example, take the case of my son. At the age of six, I began to teach him the pronunciation of the 24 special verbs and structural words or ‘function’ words individually. What are structural words? They are the little words which link up the bigger words. For example:

The exports of China are increasing every year.

Sheep eat the grass which grows on the hills.

The consumption of petrol by an engine increases with speed.

The words in italics are structural words linking the content words (referring to things and actions). The content words are linked by the structural words, the words which show how they are linked: the words of relationship. The structural words are important to the speaker of English.

At eight years of age, he could read books in English very clearly. He was able to comprehend more than 80% of the reading material. Certain words that presented difficulties were overcome by the use of the Oxford dictionary. Comprehension and vocabulary exercises were used to facilitate his command of the language. It is at this stage that I introduced grammar learning as an aid to composition. Now he is able to divide a sentence into Subject and Predicate and identify easily the parts of speech in a sentence. He’s not yet nine-years-old but he is able to compose paragraphs of about five to six sentences on any given topic. My wife and I speak only English at home. This affords him to practise his spoken English widely.

The ‘structure’ of the language does not mean the ‘grammar’ of the language. A teacher of English should be clear as to the structure of English. We never realise that we are using structural English in our daily lives. If there is no structure, we will present our materials in an unorganised and unintelligent way. Knowledge of different sentence-patterns allows us to comprehend and apply the various structures habitually in our spoken and written English. This will lessen the tendency to make mistakes. My experience in applying the Structural Approach towards students from differing levels has proved to be effective and results based.

Malaysia introduced the communicative syllabus in 1970. Back then, the study of grammar was considered not ‘fashionable’ and out of date. Students were not taught how to build correct sentences in English. Too much emphasis was placed on spoken English. Role-play and how to respond to given situations took centre-stage.

I noticed very clearly the defects of the communicative approach in Malaysian students. Their knowledge of English was flimsy and superficial. Most of the time was spent in de-learning what had been taught to them before. Unable to write clearly and speak confidently, they sought help desperately to improve themselves in a short period of time. Anyone involved in language acquisition knows the time, effort and energy that is spent to master a language. Attitude is an important quality in acquiring knowledge or skill. This quality is clearly lacking in Malaysian students now.

Reliance on the communicative approach in Malaysia has presented numerous problems to the government (the so-called English language experts in Malaysia will never admit it). Their students display an inferiority complex to present academic papers at the tertiary level. There are glaring mistakes in grammar and vocabulary in their papers. To indulge in a serious conversation pertaining to current world affairs seems to be a monumental task for them. Owing to this lack of communicative skills, the government has reintroduced the study of grammar in their schools and universities. Grammar study seems to be a vogue. But grammar study in its entirety is just a mechanical exercise. Grammar should be an aid to composition.

The study of sentence-patterns is crucial in the Structural Approach. The sentence-patterns are organised around the verb (which is the most important part of speech). The student is taught how to divide a simple sentence into Subject and Predicate.

John reads.

Dogs bark.

I have slept.

Students are later tested by a series of exercises to supply Subjects and Predicates to incomplete sentence patterns.

Stars ______.

Policemen ______.

Assess ______.

______ is grazing.

______ flows.

______ is speaking.

The next sentence-pattern to be introduced is Subject + Verb + Object. Prior to this, the students will already know that nouns and pronouns can be used as subjects and objects.

The boy kicked the ball.

He killed a snake.

As usual, students are given exercises to practise this sentence pattern.

______ like honey.

______ eat grass.

______ have finished their lessons.

Masons build ______.

Parents love ______.

Authors write ______.

Shut ______.

There are more than 20 different sentence-patterns (which are commonly used) to be mastered in order to speak and write English correctly and effectively. They will be spread out over a period of time to allow ample practice in daily situations. At this stage, it will do well to remind the students the importance of word order and how it conveys meaning. For example:

Jack hit Jim.

does not mean

Jim hit Jack.

Even though the structure is the same in both sentences (S+V+O), the meaning conveyed is different.

The Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) Approach has its benefits but it is not the sole method to learn the English language. It is not my intention to deride the CLT approach. Since 1970, Malaysia has used the CLT approach without any beneficial success for 40 years. The Malaysian government has spent a lot of money training their English teacher population in CLT. All this has come to nought as the student population can’t express themselves confidently in spoken and written English. For this reason, employers in Malaysia are very skeptical to hire a person who is not well-versed in spoken and written English. And it is more so now in the globalised era where English is the lingua franca in trade, commerce and business opportunities. This in turn has led to a drop in foreign investments in Malaysia.

As Brown (an authority on CLT) remarked: “No one these days would admit to a disbelief in principles of CLT; they would be marked as a heretic.” I may be branded as a heretic by CLT practitioners. Hence, CLT (in my opinion) is not the only popular approach to learn English.



  1. Ranjit,
    I think you have your terminology all mixed up, and it’s blurring what you’re trying to say. I have never heard of the ‘structural approach’, and I think there’s confusion between the words ‘method’ and ‘approach’.
    If I’m interpreting your blog post correctly I think you mean syntax rather than structure, but I don’t understand what particular method you’re getting at.

    • In the Oxford Dictionary, the words ‘method’ and ‘approach’ mean way of dealing with thing or way of doing something. Hence, the words ‘method’ and ‘approach’ are synonymous and are used interchangeably in this article. There is no confusion whatsoever in this article. The terminology used in this article is correct.

      The Structural Approach has been around even before the advent of the Communicative Approach. Even though you may not have heard of the structural approach, that doesn’t mean it does not exist. The structural method was used widely but was discarded for unexplainable reasons by experts in the English Language learning field back then. But it still survives. The comments on my discussion in the various groups are proof that it is still practised by some EFL teachers around the world.

      The structural method is still used to this day in certain schools, colleges and universities in India. Pakistan too employs this method in their institutions of higher learning (albeit only the upper echelon of society – the military class, the bureaucrats and the technocrats). Malaysia used this approach under British rule right up to 1970 when it was discarded for the communicative approach. Malaysians who learned English using the structural approach still write and converse in English correctly. But the present generation who are learning English using the communicative approach can’t even string a simple sentence in English correctly. Their spoken English is much to be desired.

      Syntax is a Greek word meaning arrangement and therefore comes under the province of grammar. Grammar learning is embedded in the structural and communicative approach respectively. Syntax plays a more prominent role in the structural approach where sentence patterns are centred around the verb. This gives the student a mastery of the language in its spoken and written form.

      It will be good if you do some research on the structural approach on your own.

  2. Quite an informative and well documented article! I totally agree with you on the importance of structural approach in teaching English. But the case quite reverse to Malaysia can be seen in India, where half of the student population has been trained in the structural approach with little or no emphasis on CLT. So much so, that English syllabus of many schools and colleges in India lack two of the most essential aspects that constitute English language teaching(ELT): speaking and listening. ELT should certainly, as you mention, bring to use both the approaches for effective learning.

    Thanks a lot for the blog post.

  3. Let me try to clear up some confusion that seems to exist with regard to TJ Taylor’s comment: although ‘approach’ and ‘method’ can be used interchangeably, especially in lay usage, many educationalists (J. Harmer, The Practice of ELT, 4th edn. p. 62, for one) distinguish between the terms. According to them, a ‘method’ is more or less fixed set of teaching / learning procedures (e.g. the AudioLingual Method), whereas an ‘approach’ is a more abstract term used to describe a ‘family’ of related methods (e.g. the Communicative Approach). It could easily be argued that the boundaries between the two terms are rather fuzzy, though.

    The Structural Approach is not very widely used these days, which is perhaps why some may not have heard of it. It was somewhat more popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the knee-jerk reactions that these dates might trigger, the fact that many people successfully mastered English (and other languages) in such programmes is a testament to its effectiveness, at least for some learners and some purposes. However, its demise was certainly not ‘unexplainable’; it was a natural response to developments in linguistics that challenged its foundational assumptions. I’m afraid that a detailed discussion of these developments would be out of place in a blog comment.

    Having made these points, I would also like to add that you are perhaps trying to claim too much about the comparative merits of the two approaches on the basis of (what seems to me as) limited anecdotal evidence. One could easily come up with counterexamples, ‘proving’ that CLT, audio-lingualism, or even rote learning of grammar rules constitutes the ‘most / least effective’ method. But that would be a pointless exercise, really, as these methods and approaches are not comparable: each comes with its own criteria of success.

    This could evolve into a long debate, but perhaps it might be better to focus on the points where we seem to be in agreement: the Structural Approach seems to be reasonably effective in promoting accuracy, and may benefit students who are primarily interested in attaining that goal.

    • A.K.,
      My article in the blog is directed at the general public. It is not meant only for linguists or language experts. Hence, my use of the words ‘approach’ and ‘method’ is meant only in simple/lay terms without reference to technical use of the terms in language learning.

      Your comment “…you are perhaps trying to claim too much about the comparative merits of the two approaches on the basis of limited anecdotal evidence” is a rather shallow form of reasoning. Your statement reflects a very simplistic view of things. It is not my intention to debate on the merits and demerits of CLT or the structural approach in my article. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I have stated very clearly in my article that I am not deriding the CLT approach. It is applicable in other countries but certainly not Malaysia.

      I have taken the comparative approach by analysing the success of the structural approach before the introduction of CLT in Malaysia in 1970. For 40 years, the CLT approach has failed to produce the desired results amongst Malaysians. Their command of written and spoken English is terrible.

      Malaysians who were trained under the structural approach before 1970 have a firmer grasp and command of the English language be it spoken and written. These group of people who are right now in their 60’s and 70’s are still in much demand by private organisations in Malaysia. The reason is simple – they can communicate confidently in the English language. The younger generation post – 1970 who were trained under the CLT approach can’t even express themselves correctly let alone confidently. This in turn has affected the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow into Malaysia very badly. Malaysia’s FDI plunged 81% (USD1.38 billion) in the year 2009.

      The present generation of Malaysians can’t compete at the global stage. Malaysia is in the danger of becoming an economic backwater in a short time. The people and events that are unfolding in Malaysia are VERY REAL. Therefore, your comment “…on the basis of limited anecdotal evidence” does not hold water. The article in my blog is only limited to the Malaysian experience.

      • Thank you for taking the time to make these clarifications. I find them very useful in understanding your position. I appreciate the point you make about your observations being only applicable to Malaysia; this is indeed a point that you make quite clearly in the original post, although I was confused by subsequent references to India and Pakistan. I am still somewhat confused by your insistence that you are not intent on ‘debat[ing] on the merits and demerits of CLT or the structural approach’, but proceed to compare them nonetheless. My inclination is to agree with you that there’s little to be gained from such a debate.

  4. Ranjit,
    My comment above wasn’t intended to offend or denigrate; apologies if I have.
    As A.K. mentioned, outside of lay usage amongst professionals the terms method and approach have rather a specific meanings, so everybody’s on the same page and better able to express their ideas precisely regarding methodology. There’s a good definition by Brown (1994).
    My research hasn’t turned up much on the Structural Approach (or Method) except a few blog posts and Yahoo Answers, with under 100,000 hits listed that were in any way related to EFL.
    Re-reading your blog post, if I understand correctly, the Structural Method seems to be an adaption or regional version of the Audio-lingual method, which would also explain why its popularity fizzled out.
    However, as you mention at the end of your post, there’s room to apply alternative methods and techniques – which is precisely what the BC has been doing the last decade or so promoting Principled Eclecticism as the next evolution beyond CLT, drawing in techniques from various methods, including Audiolingualism and TPR, and applying them in a specific situation and contexts.

    • Alex,
      The structural approach has been around even before the advent of the audio-lingual method. They are two separate things. As for the demise of the structural approach, there is still not any concrete data available as to how it happened. A.K.’s contention that the demise of the structural approach is due to “a natural response to developments in linguistics that challenged its foundational assumptions” is merely an opinion without any corroborative evidence whatsoever.

      You can never get information on the structural approach on the internet. It will be good if you can ‘scavenge’ information about the structural approach in the libraries in your area or state. You are bound to head somewhere.

      • Some useful information about the structural approach can be found in works such as A.P.R. Howatt’s ‘History of ELT’ (OUP) and Richards and Rodgers’ ‘Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching’ (CUP), although the latter confusingly use the term Situational Language Teaching to describe what is (by and large) the same approach. I hope that is helpful.

        When making my previous comment, I felt that it would not be productive to conduct a survey of 50 years of research in linguistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics in the space of a blog comment. I am still not sure this is a good idea, but I am now conscious that the credibility of my statements may be at risk without corroborative evidence. So, what follows is a (by necessity) very concise outline of some salient ways in which our understanding of language has evolved in recent (and not so recent) years.

        Linguists such as R. Quirk made a distinction between what the language looks like and how it is actually used (‘Could you give me your passport, please?’ is not actually a question) and have pointed out that descriptions of language that are based on structure are not terribly useful in explaining how to use the language. This led to the development of functional descriptions of language i.e. ‘grammars’ that are different from the ones ‘structural’ teachers were using. In the last couple of decades, analysis of large language corpora (e.g. the COBUILD studies) revealed that many of the grammar ‘rules’ that we tend to teach are actually not well attested in actual usage. Not to put to fine a point on it, the ‘rules’ students were being made to learn were, in many cases, wrong or at least dated, a fact that many teachers come to realise for themselves when teaching, say, Reported Speech. Other linguists have come to wonder whether it was at all possible to capture the dynamic nature of language in static rules, and whether it would be theoretically sounder to focus on interaction and discourse rather than isolated ‘ideal’ sentences. More recently, and somewhat more controversially, researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins have began to challenge our assumptions about what constitutes ‘correctness’ in a language that is now global.

        In sociolinguistics, we now understand that successful language use depends not just on correctness, but also on appropriacy to purpose, audience and context (cf. Hymes’ writings). Speakers who have a thorough command of the L2 may still feel disempowered if, say, they didn’t know the appropriate response to ‘Sorry!’ when someone bumps into them on the street, and ‘Give me the pen!’ is usually not the best way to ask for said pen. Research in psycholinguistics (e.g. P. Skehan, N.C. Ellis) seems to indicate that language is primarily processed by a lexically-based system: essentially the brain seems to be constructing utterances by putting together pre-fabricated ‘chunks’ of language, much like a child puts together Lego bricks, and that we fall back to an analytic (grammar-based) system only when the lexical system fails us.

        I am of course aware that the exposition above is too sketchy, at the point of oversimplification, but the point I am trying to make is that our understanding of language is radically different today from what it was at the height of the Structural Approach, and this has had repercussions on what we now consider effective teaching. This does not mean that the Structural approach has been discredited: as I said in previous posts, we simply can’t overlook the fact that many people learnt English just fine using these methods, and perhaps their English was more ‘correct’ in some senses, as Ranjit has repeatedly and astutely pointed out. That said, it is my belief (and my choice of words is deliberate) that the focus of Structural Approach is rather narrow for most purposes, and that a structurally-based course could benefit from drawing eclectically from other approaches and methods wherever appropriate or helpful.

      • A.K.,
        I am humbled by your knowledge and experience in linguistics and language learning. It reflects that such knowledge is only possessed by someone who is (or was) attached to a language faculty in a university or institution of higher learning.

        Your last comment in the ending paragraph is very prejudiced against the structural approach. As a person of learning, you should practise more tolerance towards contrary opinions of others. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. It is this variety of opinions that has brought mankind many benefits in terms of scientific, technological and physical developments. It applies the same in language learning.

        You seem to be very disturbed by my article on structural approach. Although you may not exhibit your prejudice openly and directly, nonetheless it shows very subtly. You may have a self-interest in maintaining the status quo where CLT approach is concerned. No wonder then you have taken to concealing your true identity in posting comments on my blog. In this way, your colleagues and peers may not come to know that you have posted comments on my blog. You can maintain your ‘artificial’ open-mindedness towards others but you are still actuated by a sense of prejudice towards my article.

        If you are indeed a true believer of the CLT approach, you should state it openly without concealing your true identity. Do you honestly believe that anyone reading your comments on my blog post will take what you say seriously? For all one knows, you may just be a sham or a quack masquerading as a linguist on the internet. Reveal your true identity and let’s see how others judge your comments. Only then will it be called a discussion.

  5. Thank you for your kind comments at the start of your post.

    On the issue of anonymity: I, for one, would be disappointed if people decided to accept (or reject) my views on the basis of my true identity. I think that my comments should stand or fall on their own merit, and I am not sure that attaching my true name to these comments would add anything to whatever persuasive power they have.

    I am genuinely puzzled as to what parts of my postings have given you the impression that I am prejudiced against (rather than sceptical about) the structural approach. If anything, I have gone out of my way to point out that I do not perceive the Structural Approach as being ‘wrong’, ‘ineffective’ or ‘discredited’. Of course, I have made no secret of certain reservations I have about the Structural Approach. For instance, I feel that the Structural Approach, while well-suited to developing accuracy. is less well suited to developing sociocultural appropriateness, which (for me, the teachers I educate and their learners) is an important priority. This does not in any way imply that your priorities must align to mine, and a corollary of that is that the Structural Approach may be suitable for you, even if it not suitable for me. I fail to see how making these observations makes me appear anything less than tolerant, but I can only be held responsible for what I write rather than how my comments are interpreted.

    I suppose I could have been more explicit in raising similar concerns about CLT, but there are only so many things one can comfortably fit in a blog comment. When making my earlier remarks, I thought that it would be redundant to add that *every* method is limited in some way or another. I thought it was self-evident, but perhaps I was wrong in thinking so. In the interest of making my position crystal-clear, let me reiterate: I do not think that CLT is a ‘perfect’ method, or one that should be uncritically applied everywhere. I most certainly do not think that CLT is ‘better’ than the Structural Approach, because (as said above) the learning outcomes are simply not comparable. For the same reasons, I am sceptical when similar claims are raised about other approaches, as was the case here.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there is nothing but advantages from having a multitude of options to choose from. In fact, this is the point that I am trying to make: that exposure to a singular way of learning (be it CLT, Structural, whatever) is something that I personally find restrictive, because it limits the breadth of the students’ learning experience. In line with what is sometimes described as ‘post-method’ teaching, I believe that learners can only benefit from principled exposure to a balanced variety of learning activities, eclectically borrowed from different methods and approaches. It is not up to me to prescribe how English should be taught (hence, I have no ulterior motive in maintaining the status quo); it is up to people like you, i.e. critical teachers who are sensitive to your learners’ needs, to find which ‘mix’ works best for your context.

    I hope this has helped to clear whatever misunderstanding may have existed with reference to my previous remarks.

    • A.K.,
      I appreciate your views but you should have stated much earlier “that every method is limited in some way or another.” I have never laid claims on the Structural Approach being the ‘perfect’ method to teach English. Instead, I have categorically stated in my blog post that the CLT approach is not the only way to learn English. Also, I made it very clear that it is not my intention to deride the CLT approach. As I had made a strong case using the Structural Approach to teach English, I found it expedient to include the quote from Brown where he stated that one who goes against the present status quo (in teaching English using CLT) may be branded a ‘heretic’.

      The CLT approach cannot be compared to the Structural Approach in terms of content and delivery. But the successful outcome and effective use of either of these approaches can be compared. After all, the target audience of both these approaches is the English language learner.

      Malaysia has three different races (the Malays, Chinese and Indians) with three different cultural and religious backgrounds all living under the same roof. Each race presents unique problems and challenges when it comes to English language learning. The CLT approach has been used in Malaysia for 40 years (since 1970). The CLT approach has yielded nothing but failure (where English mastery is concerned) for 40 years in Malaysia.

      Prior to 1970, the Structural Approach was successfully implemented on these three groups of learners. Therefore, wouldn’t one come to the conclusion that the Structural Approach yielded better results as opposed to the CLT approach in Malaysia. The results speak for themselves. For this reason, I have found it wise not to comment on how effective the CLT approach is in other countries. It will be wise of you to do the same. My observations are limited only to the Malaysian experience.

      Like it or not, we are responsible as to how others interpret what we say or write. Your statement, “That said, it is my belief that the focus of Structural Approach is rather narrow for most purposes, and that a structurally-based course could benefit from drawing eclectically from other approaches and methods wherever appropriate or helpful.”does reflect a prejudiced/biased view towards the Structural Approach. What does one gather/deduce from this statement? Haven’t you pre-judged the Strucutural Approach?

      As to your claim that your comments should stand or fall on their own merit rather than your true identity is rather whimsical. You are now rationalising! You are giving plausible excuses for your wrong conduct and thinking! Be bold to present your views using your true identity. What sort of values are you imparting to the teachers that you educate? I shudder to think what kind of influence you have over your charges and how they will turn out to be.

      Anyone is most welcome to provide his/her views and comments on my blog post provided that he/she uses his/her true identity to do so. This in turn will lead to fruitful discussions and eventually lead to one adopting different approaches to teach the English language. There is always an element of give and take in our lives. It should be the same here.

  6. Under the circumstances, I am not sure there is much more I can contribute to this discussion. Thank you again for sharing your views.

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