Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.10A, 1-5
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 1
How Culturally Appropriate Is the Communicative Approach with
Reference to the Chinese Context?
Dongyu Zhang1, Yingxia Li1, Yafei Wang2
1School of Software, Dalian University of Technology, Dalian, China
2School of Grammar, North China University of Technology, Beijing, China
Received June 23rd, 2013; revised July 23rd, 2013; accepted July 30th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Dongyu Zhang et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This paper first discusses the Chinese culture of teaching and learning and then further explores the ap-
propriateness of adopting CLT through explorations into the past research on CLT in China. Finally, due
to numerous cultural factors and difficulties in adapting CLT, this paper suggests an alternative approach
by introducing the Context Approach, before a conclusion is drawn.
Keywords: Chinese Culture; Social Context; CLT; Context Approach
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has probably be-
come a prominent methodology and a guide for syllabus design
in various EFL contexts. It has been recognized that CLT is an
advanced methodology with strengths in developing communi-
cative competence and enhancing learner autonomy (e.g., Lit-
tlewood, 1981; Li, 1984; Bax, 2003). With regard to the Chi-
nese context, there is a view that CLT should be adopted to
promote language teaching for the following two reasons (Li,
1984). First, the “perceived” Chinese teaching methods men-
tioned in some literature (e.g., Harvey, 1985; Anderson, 1993),
such as grammar-translation method, have been criticized for
their weakness in developing students’ oral communicative
skills in actual language use (Li, 1984). Second, with more and
more politically and economically prosperous development of
China, such as the events of the Olympics in 2008 and World
Expo in 2010, English is gaining more importance. Chinese
language teaching has undergone a series of innovations in
terms of modernizing teaching methodology and revising the
teaching objectives of which communicative competence should
be given more importance. In 2003, the Chinese ministry of
Education proposed new College English Curriculum Standards.
This has stimulated innovations in English teaching in 180 key
universities. Take Suzhou University as an example: it requires
that all the graduates must pass an oral English test as well as a
written test in order to get a degree. From the above discussion,
it seems both Chinese researchers and teachers are inclined to
adopt CLT as the “right” approach for China. However, it
should be highlighted that CLT is based on Western settings; it
is still arguable how culturally appropriate it is regarding Chi-
nese culture of teaching and learning. This article will set out to
explore this question.
The structure of this paper is as follows: I will first discuss
the Chinese culture of teaching and learning. In the first part, I
will compare the role of teachers in Chinese traditional English
teaching and CLT in view of their teaching values and their
teaching behaviors; in the second part, I will examine the Chi-
nese students’ learning style of English and the learning process
of CLT; in the third part, a brief introduction of social context
will be presented. Based on the analysis in the previous section,
I will then further discuss the appropriateness of adopting CLT
through explorations into past research on “CLT in China.”
Finally, due to numerous cultural factors and difficulties in
adapting CLT, I will suggest an alternative approach by intro-
ducing the Context Approach (Bax, 2003), before a conclusion
is drawn.
Chinese Culture of Teaching and Learning
The two terms “Chinese culture” and “culture of teaching
and learning” should be defined at the very beginning. For pur-
poses of this article, Chinese culture is discussed in a broad
sense, of which “culture” is defined as “a historically transmit-
ted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols, a system of inher-
ited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of
which people communicate, perp etuate and develop their knowl-
edge about the attitude towards life” (Geertz, 1979: p. 89). As
for the term “culture of teaching and learning,” it specifically
refers to a series of dynamic processes that reflect the core val-
ues of teachers’ and students’ socialization into classroom in-
teraction, their ways of acquiring appropriate knowledge and
skills, and attitudes about the target cultures (Cortazzi & Jin,
1999: p. 196). In this section, Chinese culture of teaching and
learning will be discussed with focuses on the role of Chinese
teachers of EFL and students’ learning style of English.
The Role of Chinese Teachers of EFL
The role of Chinese teachers will be examined from two
perspectives: the perceived values and perceptions of Chinese
teachers embedded in the Chinese traditional culture, and the
role of Chinese teachers of EFL and accordingly their conse-
quent teaching behaviors, as compared to those of CLT teachers
based on Littlewood (1981).
The values and perception of being a teacher embedded in
Chinese traditional culture can be illustrated in the following
two proverbs. First, “师道尊严不可侵犯” (Teachers’ views
and dignity should not be attacked), which shows that teachers
are regarded and respected as authority figures who should not
be challenged in a hierarchical Chinese society. The other one
is “一日为师, 终身为父” (He who teaches me may be consid-
ered my father-figure for life). This proverb illustrates that a
teacher is regarded as one of the most influential persons in a
student’s life. In addition, they are also regarded as the source
of knowledge (Jin & Cortazzi, 1998).
The teachers’ specific teaching practice can be found in an-
other Chinese saying “传道授业解惑也,” which literally means
“telling students moral standards, teaching knowledge, and
answering questions.” Concerning the teaching behaviors of
Chinese language teachers, these traditional perceived views of
teaching practice can be identified in the present language
teaching. First, it appears that Chinese teachers of EFL need to
prepare educational materials and activities that can best benefit
students’ understanding of life and moral standards. Second,
teachers teach knowledge (e.g., explaining grammar points) and
make every effort to make students understand the language
points. This is supported by other researchers. For instance,
Hird (1995: p. 23) mentions that Chinese teachers offer students
a meticulous analysis of meaning in all its minute detail, which
leads to a painstaking understanding of every language item in
which students’ individual interpretation is not highly accurate.
Finally, answering questions and correcting students’ mistakes
is another characteristic of Chinese teachers of EFL. Further-
more, it is considered to be shameful if a teacher cannot correct
the mistakes or answer the questions (Harvey, 1985).
From the above-mentioned teachers’ values and teaching
behaviors, Chinese teachers’ role can be different. They are
guides for students’ future lives. They are also the knowledge
transmitters and students are the receivers (Scollon, 1999). In
addition, they are the dominators of the whole learning process.
However, it should be noted that they also play other roles,
such as classroom organizer, which will not be further dis-
cussed in this paper.
There are some obvious differences between traditional
teachers and CLT teachers in terms of the role they play, ac-
cording to Littlewood (1981) and the above discussion. The
main difference is that the CLT teachers are the “facilitators of
learning” who may decide not to correct mistakes, whereas
Chinese teachers are more likely to be “instructors” and “do-
minators” in the learning process. CLT teachers offer stimulus
and experience and have no direct control over students. In fact,
CLT teachers need to recognize that “learning does not only
take place as a direct result of… [their] own instructions” (Lit-
tlewood, 1981: p. 92). Chinese teachers play a very important
role in the whole learning process and have direct control over
students because they are the main source of language knowl-
These values and perceived role of Chinese teachers are so
rooted that they have become a barrier to adopting a new
methodology, according to the literature (Orton, 1990; Ellis,
1996; Lewis & McCook, 2002; Bax, 2003). For instance, Orton
(1990) discovered when she was giving a training course in
China that Chinese teachers need to undergo changes in their
behaviors but also in their values in order to adopt a new
methodology. She says: “On reflection it seems that for the
Chinese to adopt the approach proposed, they would not only
have to do more of, better and perhaps a little differently, what
they had always done, but they would also have to make radical
changes to some of their basic beliefs, values and consequent
ways of acting” (1990: p. 2).
Chinese Students’ Learning Style of English
China is such a large country with numerous variables and
differences in individual learning style. It is impossible to pre-
sent or generalize about the typical learning style of English.
However, it might be possible to point out some common ele-
ments learners share in learning English, which have been in-
fluenced by the continuous traditional culture. Here, I would
like to discuss two points. First, as Anderson (1993) discovered,
Chinese students learn to read, write, speak, and then compre-
hend aurally in exactly the reverse order stressed by Western
pedagogy. Reading and rote learning are particularly empha-
sized in learning a language in Chinese schools, which can be
traced back to thousands of years as proved by Chinese prov-
erbs “读书百遍, 其义自通” (Read a book a hundred times and
then the meaning of the book will come out) and “熟读唐诗三
百首, 不会写诗也会吟” (If you have been reading and are
familiar with three hundred Tang Dynasty [0618AD-0907AD]
poems, you will be able to read a poem out loud even though
you cannot compose one). Quite a number of Chinese students
believe that repeated reading, imitating the teacher, and reciting
can be helpful to English learning since it has long been proved
by their L1 learning. Another feature of Chinese students’ lan-
guage learning is that Chinese students think of themselves as
“being ‘active’, but not necessarily verbally, even in a language
class” (Jin & Cortazzi, 1998: p. 104). Jin and Cortazzi explain
that Chinese students “participate” by listening, by thinking
(questioning in mind), by asking questions after class, and by
discussing with each other after class. These learning features
do not coincide with the learning process of CLT.
In CLT, one of the main features of learning process is that
the learners learn by working on various communicative activi-
ties structured to suit all levels of ability. These activities are
learner-directed activities; in other words, the learners them-
selves conduct the interactions with or without teachers’ sup-
port (Littlewood, 1981). The communicative activities are based
on Vygotskian “Scaffolding Theories,” and ideas of natural
learning and providing learners with a learning context. For the
former, it has been found out that learners can learn more
through interactions with their peers in communicative activi-
ties (Donato, 1994). In terms of natural learning, Littlewood
(1981: p. 92) points out that learners should follow a sequence
of learning determined by their own natural process (or “inter-
nal syllabus”). A context supporting learning is also empha-
sized in CLT by conducting pair or group work. In all, the CLT
is a learner-centered approach with emphasis on learner autono-
my and interaction rather than simply on teacher-centered di-
rection (Maley, 1984).
According to my experience, the biggest problem for Chi-
nese students to accept CLT is that they may find it hard to
change their ways of learning, which are still being required
and used in learning other subjects. Another problem lies in
their dependence on teachers’ knowledge transmission rather
than other ways of learning; for example, learning through co-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
operative activities. In addition, both Anderson (1993) and Rao
(2002) claim that Chinese students’ attitude towards communi-
cative activities is another barrier. Chinese learners take learn-
ing seriously and tend to regard communicative activities as
games for entertainment rather than a learning tool.
Social Context
The social context should be considered when discussing the
appropriateness of CLT. In China, English is still regarded as a
foreign language rather than a second language. This may result
in a conflict for most learners between Chinese situation and
the communicative approach since it is hard to get access to an
authentic environment (Ellis, 1996). Another constraint will be
current English examinations that emphasize grammatical
structures and pay little attention to more communicative skills
(Barlow & Lowe, 1985; Harvey, 1985). The examinations and
Chinese teachers’ reluctance to take risks (Anderson, 1993)
account for their hesitancy to accept Canale & Swain’s model
of CLT (1980) that seems to equate process with content and
emphasize meaning rather than form.
The equations are an exception to the prescribed specifica In
the previous section, I discussed Chinese situations through
cultural perspectives; namely, the role of teacher, learners’
learning styles and social context, which seem to be culturally
contradictory to those embedded in CLT. It therefore can be
assumed that Chinese teachers, learners, and examination sys-
tems need to undergo great or even fundamental changes in
order to make CLT workable and effective. However, how can
Chinese teachers adopt CLT to match Chinese situations and in
what ways can they themselves and learners make changes to
adopt CLT? Are these changes possible? Moreover, since it
might be difficult to change the rooted Chinese culture of
teaching and learning, is there an alternative approach to reach
the same objective (communicative competence) while main-
taining harmony with Chinese situations? These questions need
to be further explored in the next section when examining the
results of past research on “CLT in China” and Bax’s Context
Review of Past Research
Much research about CLT in the Chinese context has been
done in the past 20 years. Nevertheless, the results seem to be
rather unsatisfactory and there is no agreement on employing
CLT. The earliest research was carried out by Li in a university.
In 1984, she presented a brave idea that CLT should be and
could be adopted in China, especially for her stude nts majori ng
in English. However, it is still arguable whether her approach is
exactly a “communicative approach” (Harvey, 1985), since she
only examined the importance of authentic material and great
amount of language input. Some other research was done by
foreign researchers and teachers. Anderson (1993) claimed that
the greatest contribution made by English native speakers is
their insistence on using CLT in China and CLT is practical as
long as foreign teachers adapt CLT to match the Chinese situa-
tion. One of his example shows that foreign teachers should
take Chinese students’ learning style into account and discuss
with learners about their learning needs. These foreign teach-
ers’ experience might be helpful. However, the limitation in his
study is that those foreign teachers work in institutions where
the situation may be different from what most Chinese teachers
are facing. Furthermore, Chinese teachers have to consider their
learners’ expectations and attitudes towards Chinese teachers
and constraints, such as the existing examination system.
Anderson only points out the obstacles, such as various cultural
factors and social constraints, rather than presenting ways of
solving those problems. A more recent study has been done by
Rao (2002). She reports that only by reconciling communica-
tive and non-communicative activities can Chinese students
benefit from CLT. This result does not mean much with regard
to the Chinese context, for Rao herself discovers that most
Chinese classrooms do not use CLT due to many other reasons
than students’ attitudes towards communicative activities.
Though these research results do not give Chinese teachers
much confidence in adopting CLT, it is not wise to show a
completely negative attitude to CLT since there are variables of
different situations within the Chinese context. However, the
fact is that little evidence shows the possibilities of overcoming
these obstacles and there is no conclusion that CLT can work in
most Chinese classrooms. It therefore may be a better idea to
turn to other approaches that might better benefit Chinese lan-
guage teaching.
Bax claims in his article (2003) that the fatal flaw of CLT is
its neglect of the context that is a significant determiner of the
success or failure of learners. He then proposes a new approach,
a Context Approach, and presents a contrast between CLT and
the Context Approach.
In Bax’s view, the Context Approach takes the context of a
particular situation, other factors, and other methods into ac-
count, compared to CLT and the Lexical Approach. The feature
of this approach (see Appendix) is that it places the priority on
the learning context, including learner variables, before other
priorities, such as teaching approach and language focus. This
approach might be helpful for the Chinese context that has a
number of variables and situations. It can be used as an ana-
lytical tool to help Chinese teachers to be aware of their own
particular context. However, this approach seems to assume
that teachers are all competent in making different pedagogical
decisions suit a particular context. However, such an assump-
tion could be problematic as a considerable number of teachers
are not familiar with other alternative methods except the tradi-
tional methods. A possible way to solve this problem is for
teacher education and training programs to focus on helping
teachers analy ze t h ei r own sit u a tions and methodology training.
This paper has discussed the appropriateness of CLT from
the perspective of culture of teaching and learning. From the
discussion of the role of Chinese teachers, learning styles, and
social context, which have found to have conflicts with those
embedded in CLT, it argued that CLT is not culturally appro-
priate for the Chinese context. Moreover, it is hard for Chinese
language teaching to undergo changes to adopt CLT and there
is little support from the past research. This paper has also
made attempts to explore an alternative approach, the Context
Approach. This approach seems to be a corrective to the short-
coming of CLT; that is, neglecting context. It emphasizes on
identifying a suitable approach based on context analysis. This
approach might be useful because it can help Chinese teachers
critically analyze their own teaching situation when undertak-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 3
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ing innovations, rather than westernizing methodology. There-
fore, since it is a new approach, further investigations are
needed before putting it into practice.
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The context approach to language teaching: priorities and
First Priority: Context
Step 1: Teacher will develop analytical tools for analyzing
and understanding the learning context.
Step 2: Teacher will analyze the context carefully and sys-
tematically as far as possible. This includes enhanced aware-
ness of these areas. As shown in Table A1.
Second (or Third) Priority: Teaching Approach
This may involve decisions related to methodological aims
and means, including decisions relating to: syllabus, classroom
seating, materials, methods, student groupings, etc.
Third (or Second) Priority: Language Focus
This will involve decisions related to the aspect of language
to be focused on, such as lexis, for example, or phonology, or
(Cited from Bax, 2003, 287)
Table A1.
An analysis of learning conte x t .
Individuals Classroom culture
Personal dif f erences Group dynamics
Learning styles Group motivation
Learning strategies Classroom environment
Personal motivation School environment
Local culture National culture
Regional differences Political c ontext
Status for teacher and students in community Religious context
Attitude and behavior of pare n ts Social context
Local env ir o n ment National e n v ironmen t
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