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English Trainer
See interview of Ranjit Singh Thind
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 differs 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/herself 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 method 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. Due 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 sceptical to hire a person who is not well versed in spoken and written English. 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 into 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 all popular approach to learning English.

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