Communicative Approach and Hidden Curriculum

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Criticisms to the Communicative Approach and the Hidden Curriculum: A Review
Diego Olea Yáñez
Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación
[email protected]




The prevalent approach to foreign language teaching in Chile is the Communicative Approach.
This model proposes a shift in paradigm where the functional aspects of a language, i.e., those
who help establish communication among individuals are the ones that play the main role in the
curriculum and inside the classroom. Its growing popularity has been accompanied with
detractors, being a popular criticism the one by Michael Swan in A Critical Look at the
Communicative Approach. By analyzing foundational ideas, Swan remarks that the approach is
an unnecessary consideration to deal with the issue of foreign language pedagogy. This critical
review postulates that Swan’s reasoning lacks the consideration of aspects beyond the realm of
linguistics, namely, the socio-cultural dimension of learning. Such exclusion undermines Swan’s
insights. In order to determine the features of a socio-cultural analysis of educational processes,
this review uses as theoretical framework the work by Jurjo Torres The Hidden Curriculum. The
discussion reached the conclusion that in order to fully understand the process of foreign
language acquisition, a socio-cultural approach needs to be incorporated because it better
explains how people grasps meaning and for its ethical implications in the reproduction of
democratic values.

Keywords: communicative approach, hidden curriculum, meaning, ideology, methodology



Criticisms to the Communicative Approach and
the Hidden Curriculum: A Review
The Communicative Approach to language teaching is nowadays considered the most
popular and practiced model in language pedagogy in Chile. Despite the approach’s impact on
curriculum design, it has been argued that its claims do not explain entirely the process of foreign
language acquisition. In his two-part article A Critical Look at the Communicative Approach,
Swan (1985a, 1985b) argues that the model is a simplistic account of a highly complex process
which relies its principles on para-scientific information, common sense and insights from
experience, and that is far from being a revolution in the field of linguistics and language
pedagogy. Even though such insights could generally be considered as accurate, Swan’s analysis
of this educational matter may lack depth as it deprives language teaching from its wider
sociocultural context and ideological nature. Torres (1991) provides a framework to analyze
educational systems and reproduction of meaning through a hidden curriculum. Torres, in a
similar fashion to Swan, establishes a relationship between acquisition of meaning, curriculum
and methodology but considering them as part of a historical, and hence, political reality. Since
the Communicative Approach is a reaction to a traditional model and since one of its principles
relies on the reformulation of syllabuses, Torres’ reflection on the hidden curriculum seems to be
an appropriate scheme to complement Swan’s criticism.
Background: The historical reality and the ideological framework
The Communicative Approach to language teaching is the current main approach taught
in Chilean universities to future language teachers and the method they are intended to follow in
their classrooms (MINEDUC, 2012, p. 223). Such approach is a reaction to long-established
pedagogical models prevalent in the last century where the focus of language teaching was on



translation and the acquisition of the grammar of the target language (Nunan, 1991, p. 117). This
reaction was based on a change in the conception of what language is and what role it plays in
society. This new view regards the nature of language and its user’s activities to be
communication (Widdowson, 1978, p. 163).
However, what is apparently never discussed is what is expected for students to
communicate. Following Torres’ framework (1991), this matter is ideological in nature. He
develops a scheme in which educational systems as a whole (from its organization to the contents
taught inside the classroom) play an emancipatory role in society. Such role is manifested
explicitly in a curriculum and implicitly in a hidden curriculum, which is the set of meanings and
values present in the educational system but that neither teachers nor students are conscious of.
The way such curricula is articulated is dictated by the social group in power at a particular place
and time under their ideology, which is a set of normative meanings. The prevailing ideology at a
particular place and time is the hegemonic ideology and models the way humans signify the
world according to the dominant group’s values which in turn uses this configuration to
perpetuate its set of beliefs and remain in power. Thus what students understand and
communicate is regulated by the political power.
One first consideration that is part of Swan's criticism is the role of meaning in the
language classroom. Even though he points that "successful language teaching lies in
incorporating meaning properly into our syllabuses" (Swan, 1985b, p. 77), he argues that a new
theory of meaning is unjustified. Under Torres' framework, Swan's notion of meaning is
incomplete, as the latter understands the incorporation of meaning as an isolated linguistic
phenomenon without considering its ideological dimension. Torres (1991) indicates that ideology



models how humans live and build their reality and aspirations, i.e., ideology configures meaning
and values. This recognition is important as it understands meaning not as a linguistic abstraction,
but as a socio-cultural process. Swan continues arguing that another structural flaw of the
Communicative Approach is the idea that functional meaning from the students’ mother tongue is
intransferable to L2. He acknowledges functional meaning as common sense which is inherent in
each individual’s learning of their mother tongue. Such consideration is also incomplete
according to Torres. He remarks that the hegemonic ideology works at very subtle levels
structuring what is considered common sense in a society in order to reproduce its beliefs. Taking
into account those omissions, it is clearly visible that a new approach for the integration of
meaning is necessary, as traditionally the process has been analyzed partially in language
Ideology, historicity and curriculum
A second regard to Swan’s analysis is its conception of language pedagogy as a pure
decontextualized linguistic issue. Apart from the incorporation of meaning into the syllabus,
Swan acknowledges that an important issue in foreign language teaching is the organization of
meaning, i.e., he recognizes the significance of curriculum design. In a Communicative syllabus,
meaning is organized in a semantic syllabus which is a course whose progression of contents is
grouped in themes intended to yield authentic communicative activities in the classroom. Swan
suggests that emphasis on a semantic syllabus itself is not sufficient and that “the real issue is not
which syllabus to put first: it is how to integrate eight or so syllabuses (functional, notional,
situational, topic, phonological, lexical, structural, skills) into a sensible teaching programme”
(Swan, 1985b, p. 80). As it is exposed in the previous quote, Swan’s notion of syllabus is strictly
linguistic. Torres (1991) considers such neutrality a typical feature of western industrialized



societies and, consequently, a conception spread by the hegemonic ideology to retain the ruling
class in power. As this matter could be seen as a peculiarity of the current historical reality, the
issues arising in an educational system can be deemed as a reflection of the conflicts of its
historical context. In addition, educational systems are normally regarded as the foremost
institution involved in the reproduction of values and knowledge, being considered by Althusser
as the main Ideological State Apparatus (as cited in Torres, 1991, p. 21). Accordingly, an
educational system is closely linked to other spheres of societies and any educational policy, such
as curriculum design, cannot be analyzed devoid of context.
Swan's vision of foreign language pedagogy is overly methodological. Swan asserts that
many of the issues that the Communicative Approach tries to tackle, mainly utterances that are
not appropriate to the context and students exhibiting grammar competence instead of
communicative competence, are “caused by poor methodology, and the solution involves
changing what happens in the classroom, not what happens in the student” (Swan, 1985a, p. 10)
Therefore, changing specific classroom practices from the teacher and executing technical
reformulations in the syllabus seems sufficient to deal with that problem. Torres demonstrates
that methodological analyses of educational problems are incomplete, heavily biased and
anachronistic. He does so by relating methodology to the psychological school of behaviorism.
According to Torres (1991), a behaviorist approach in education has scientistic tendencies, is
primarily focused on objectively testing achievement of standards, sees teachers as technicians
and exhibits apparent political neutrality. As it has been previously described, Swan’s criticism
shares some features with behaviorism. Behaviorism is a school whose popularity declined with
the advent of cognitive, critical and humanistic approaches during the last century. Taking into



account Torres chronology of pedagogical models, the prevalence of behaviorist approaches in
the 21st century has an ideological explanation, namely, they correspond to the ideology of
1industrialized and technocratic societies focused on efficient production of capital (Torres,
1991). Finally, it could be argued that using methodology to explain pedagogical problems is a
tendentious argument.
The incorporation of the notion of hidden curriculum
Having explored the core views of Swan’s criticism (1985a, 1985b) to the Communicative
Approach using essential ideas from Torres (1991), the question of the pertinence of the
incorporation of a socio-cultural aspect to the theory of language pedagogy will now be
addressed. Firstly, the way humans acquire their mother tongue is still a cornerstone model to, not
only understand the phenomenon of language, but also design approaches to foreign language
learning (Dörnyei, 2013, p. 161). This naturalistic scope should deal with the actual process
through which reality is given meaning. As it has been discussed, meaning is assigned inside a
context which is a historical reality, and is also modeled by a prevalent ideology. Without such
considerations, foreign language learning will be understood only to a certain extent. Secondly,
the recognition of the presence of ideology in the language learning classroom has ethical
implications. It was analyzed that it is through educational systems that ideology is reproduced
and such reproduction is reflected on the curriculum and its contents (in this case, foreign
language learning). The oversight of the implicit meanings in the curriculum would contribute to
the possible perpetuation of antidemocratic values.
To sum up, Swan’s two-part criticism to the Communicative Approach can be regarded as
accurate if we understand the process of learning a foreign language as a pure linguistic issue.



Nevertheless, taking into account broader analyses that incorporate socio-cultural aspects into the
process of learning, his argumentation is undermined by its omission of contextual factors that
also play a role into the acquisition of a language. Finally, it is important to consider such factors
as they help in describing the process of learning a foreign language and also for their ethical and
emancipatory significances.



Dörnyei, Z. (2013). Communicative language teaching in the twenty-first century: The principled
communicative approach. In J. Arnold & T. Murphy (Eds.), Meaningful action: Earl
Stevick's influence on language teaching (pp. 161-171). Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press. Retrieved from
MINEDUC. (2012). Bases curriculares 2012: Idioma extranjero inglés. Retrieved from
Nunan, D. (1991). Language teaching methodology: A textbook for teachers. London, England:
Prentice Hall International.
Swan, M. (1985). A critical look at the communicative approach (1) [Electronic version]. ELT
Journal, 39(1), 2-12.
Swan, M. (1985). A critical look at the communicative approach (2) [Electronic version]. ELT
Journal, 39(2), 76-87.
Torres, J. (1991). El currículum oculto [The hidden curriculum] (6th ed.). Madrid, Spain:
Ediciones Morata, S. L.
Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching language as communication (20th ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.

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