Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 289-294
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 289
The Pedagogical Maze: Retrospection on CLT in Hong Kong
Dan Lu1, Julie Y. F. Ng2
1Language Center, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong K ong, China
2Center for Applied English Studies, the Unive rsity of Hong Kong, Hong Ko n g, China
Received September 10th, 2013; revised October 8th, 2013; accept e d Oc t o b er 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Dan Lu, Julie Y. F. Ng. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Com-
mons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pro-
vided the original work is properly cited.
For years the English proficiency of general Hong Kong students is said to be continuously declining.
There is a common belief that the execution of mother tongue education is a main factor for this phe-
nomenon. However, rarely have people mentioned, discussed or thought of the relationship between the
falling English proficiency and the prevalent teaching methodology. This paper questions the overuse of
Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in the Hong Kong context. It pinpoints the key principles and
features of CLT and examines the reality of Hong Kong students against these principles and features. It
concludes through the comparison that although CLT is in vogue and meets the general desires of learn-
ing a new language, it has some limitations to a context like Hong Kong. Reality shows that CLT does not
match the Hong Kong context in many aspects; overuse of it can only cause detrimental effects and fail
the intended aim of using it to develop the learner’s communicative competence.
Keywords: Communicative Language Teaching; Classroom Strategy; Language Competence; L2
The Communicative Language Teaching approach (CLT
thereafter) has been dominant and popular in the field of L2
education since the 1970s. Although other teaching methods
like the grammar-translation method, the audio-lingual method
cannot be said to have disappeared completely, they become
lifeless residues under the shadow of CLT. A language course
cannot be attractive without the label of communicative com-
petence, which is the bright spot of CLT. Along with an in-
creasing number of proponents and publications concerning the
effectiveness of CLT, the circle of using it keeps expanding.
Hong Kong is no exception. For years, English teaching has
been criticized for lacking innovative methodology. Biggs
(1996: pp. 53-54) pointed out that many westerners believe
Chinese learners resort to a surface approach to learning—
sheer repetition and memorization without understanding the
real meaning. For the purpose of educational reform, as back as
to the early 1980s, the syllabus for English courses started to
partly shift its emphasis to communicative use of the target
language. While the learner was required to have some knowl-
edge of the basic structure of the language, “meaningful use of
what has been learned must also be built into the teaching”
(Hong Kong Curriculum Development Committee, 1983: p. 14).
“In other words, in the teaching of language, attention must be
paid not only to the formal structure of language (grammar,
vocabulary, pronunciation) but also to how the language is used
to achieve a range of communicative purposes” (ibid, p. 123).
Since then, the practice of English skills for communicative
purposes has become a focus in classroom teaching and learn-
ing. Learners are expected to use the English they learn to ful-
fill various language functions such as asking for advice and
favors, making a complaint, expressing gratitude and regret,
paying a simple compliment. On the other hand, along with the
increase of communicative activities, attention to linguistic
knowledge like grammar and usage of words is reduced. The
teaching of the essential rules of grammar is now far from
complete. This change is evidenced by the abundant errors by
the learners in proficiency tests at various levels. Many of the
criticisms of the declining English standards are made precisely
about the various kinds of errors.
In view of all this, the paper aims to examine the application
of CLT in Hong Kong’s English teaching. It will briefly high-
light the feature and principles of the approach. Then it will
discuss why it is not feasible to the Hong Kong context by ex-
amining the realities of Hong Kong against the features and
principles of CLT. Some ramifications will be drawn on this
About CLT
A retrospective look at the history of language teaching can
tell us that CLT was developed mainly by British applied lin-
guists in the 1960s as a revolution against grammar-based ap-
proaches. In brief, CLT advocates learning a language through
communicative use. In contrast with the traditional approaches
and methods, which stress linguistic competence, namely, the
knowledge about the target language, CLT emphasizes the
competence of using language for communication. Learning is
regarded as a process of natural growth of language ability
rather than doing isolated drills of language. As learners have
their own active mechanisms for making sense of language
input and constructing their own systems through receiving
linguistic input, what teachers need to do is to help them oper-
D. LU, J. Y. F. NG
Open Access
ate these natural mechanisms by providing them with “triggers”.
In lessons, teachers can facilitate the learner’s acquisition by
assisting them to practice so that they can learn to use language
actively for real communicative needs.
As CLT focuses on effective communication and fluency of
language, language errors are by and large tolerable as long as
they do not impede the flow of meaning. In reality, teachers
may not correct students’ errors when communication is un-
derway. They will hold up error correction until later, or simply
ignore it if meaning can be communicated.
According to Mey (1998: p. 2032), CLT has some common
features of practice that derive from its basic principles. First,
classrooms are learner-oriented. Second, opportunities are pro-
vided through developing a wide repertoire of activities. Third,
the teacher’s roles are multiple. Instead of imparting knowledge
and skills (the learner is expected to internalize the knowledge
of the target language through induction), he may act as anima-
tor, co-communicator or counselor in the classroom. Fourth,
authentic materials are used in teaching.
Principles Applicable to Hong Kong
In Hong Kong English is a designated official language and
has therefore been important to its residents. In general Hong
Kong people have a strong desire of learning English well.
Many people start to learn English as early as in kindergarten
education. If properly applied, some principles of CLT can
facilitate Hong Kong learners’ learning of English and are ap-
plicable to the Hong Kong context. They can brighten up
classroom teaching if carefully used. First, more class time is
given to students’ practice. As is known to all, practice makes
perfect. Since language learning involves practice of linguistic
skills and one cannot have good skills without a lot of practice,
appropriate use of CLT will help the learner continuously im-
prove his linguistic skills. Second, such practice will be done
through interactive activities rather than through mechanical
drills. This will turn language learning into a fun process,
which contributes to creation of a lively learning atmosphere
and may reduce the learner’s tension of contacting a new lan-
guage and their acute anxiety about making errors. Besides,
CLT reminds us of the use of authentic materials for teaching.
In line with this, teachers can select materials from various
resources. The more authentic the selected materials are, the
more effective input students will get.
Language has many functions. For the same function, there
might be different linguistic forms. A teacher can hardly teach
all the forms that can be used for a certain function. If students
can express ideas in their own words freely in classroom prac-
tice, then communication occurs. For example, to express an
obligation of doing something, one may use such linguistic
forms as need to, should and ought to. As long as a student
chooses one such form, the communicative purposes can be
reached. So, rather than cramming a particular linguistic form
into students’ mind, which is often criticized as what a teacher
does in traditional teaching, teachers should allow students to
search for a form to convey their meaning in communicative
practice activities. In this way, students won’t be reduced to
passive learners. Besides, when people get familiar with com-
municative functions through communicative activities in class
practice, they will not be timid or scared of using English in
real communication.
Use of authentic materials can provide learners with quality
linguistic input so that they can learn good English and learn
about English speakers’ ways of structuring information.
Limitations in Hong Kong
In spite of the applicability of some principles of CLT as dis-
cussed afore, it should not go unnoticed that some other princi-
ples do not fit the Hong Kong context. In fact the mismatches
to be discussed precisely leads to the decline of general stu-
dents’ English proficiency. In the following I will analyze some
aspects of CLT that do not apply to the teaching of L2 English
to Hong Kong learners.
Induction-Based Learning
As is known to all, CLT encourages learners to use the target
language in communication, through which learners are ex-
pected to internalize the system of the target language through
induction. To put it in a simpler and more straightforward way,
learners are required to learn by themselves through exposure
to the target language. It is believed that such inductive learning
will bring about learners’ acquisition of the target language and
make learning easy to take place. Under this principle, explicit
teaching of grammatical rules and other linguistic knowledge
ought not to be implemented; at least, it is not encouraged at all.
Instead, authentic linguistic data should be provided to learners
in the hope that they will become linguistic input, which helps
learners assimilate the relevant linguistic knowledge through an
implicit process of internalization which is said to be automati-
cally realized.
It is clear that what CLT boils down to is the natural path one
takes when learning a first language. This follows the one and
same way a baby learns his mother tongue: in the learning
process, people around him keep providing linguistic input by
talking a lot. The baby keeps his ears on to the talks, trying to
figure out the meaning carried by the messages. In this way the
baby gradually comes to realize inductively the rules of string-
ing single words into phrases and then putting phrases into
sentences. Such a process of internalization is burden-free be-
cause a baby’s mind is like a blank sheet of paper, which is
loaded with nothing but what he receives from linguistic input.
Besides, it is also pressure-free; a baby is by no means pressed
by time, as no one stipulates a time limit for a baby to acquire a
Commonsense knowledge and common experience tell that it
is unrealistic and even impossible for most L2 learners, par-
ticularly adult learners, to re-take this path to learn a second
language. This is not only because of the existence of their L1
in mind, which is almost unavoidable and plays a certain role,
either interfering or facilitating, when one processes L2 input,
but also because of some other factors like learning motivation,
linguistic environment, manners of people giving input and
time constraint. Any classroom setting cannot be compared to
an environment as natural and pressure-free as the one in which
a young child learns his mother tongue. L2 learners are usually
time-conscious. Hong Kong is such a case, where learners try to
master the target language through school education within
specified time rather than through using the language naturally
and indispensably in daily life. For this reason learners have
limited time to learn the target language. Under the time pres-
sure, learning through induction is not time-efficient, as it takes
too much time for learners to master the linguistic knowledge.
Instead, deductive teaching turns out to be more time-efficient.
D. LU, J. Y. F. NG
Open Access 291
Explicit, concise and systematic explanation of key points can
help learners get a quick grasp of the minimally required lin-
guistic knowledge. With the help of such knowledge learners
can start to practice language skills for communicative purposes.
In the process of practice learners can consolidate their lan-
guage awareness through deduction, consequently fulfilling the
purpose of mastering the target language. Otherwise they are
simple left in dark, often in a vain attempt of summarizing the
rules of language, ending with frustration and little progress. It
is true that deductive learning requires less autonomous think-
ing; but with teachers’ guidance learners can quickly have a
command of the teaching content and start their practice to
consolidate what they assimilate. School education is precisely
characteristic of deductive learning, in which teachers’ guid-
ance plays a significant role to the effect that learners acquire
necessary knowledge in the quickest and most economical way.
Just think how much linguistic data learners need and how
much time it takes them to go through all these data before they
can summarize a grammar rule inductively by themselves. If
inductive learning works effectively, what’s the use of having
so many teachers? Why don’t the government education de-
partment and schools simply provide learners with age-appro-
priate authentic materials so that they can learn from the mate-
rials at their own pace?
Neglect of Err or
Moreover, CLT is featured with its tolerance of errors. Flu-
ency always overshadows accuracy. “Errors of form are toler-
ated during fluency-based activities and are seen as a natural
outcome of the development of communication skills” (Lar-
sen-Freeman, 2000, p. 132). In theory, learning a language is
primarily for the purpose of verbal communication through the
use of the language; therefore, tolerance of errors can facilitate
trial use of the target language for communication and is good
for learners’ practice of skills.
However, precisely on this point, CLT runs counter to the re-
ality of Hong Kong, where English is needed for academic
studies and examinations. Because of this reality, the ability of
producing correct English is of utmost importance and accuracy
takes top priority. It can never be overemphasized that these
examinations are critical and vital to Hong Kong students, be-
cause the students’ performance in the examinations will di-
rectly and immediately affect their chance of getting a place in
tertiary education as well as a decent job upon graduation. Also
for this reason tolerance of errors does not contribute to the
students’ improvement of accuracy.
Nowadays in Hong Kong, low degree of accuracy is often
criticized by society as a typical weakness of Hong Kong gen-
eral students’ English proficiency. Errors are often used as hard
evidence to prove the declining competence of using English.
Not only do students often make errors when they use English
to express themselves, but also some teachers are unable to
offer error correction effectively and explanation of errors
clearly. They are weak in accuracy because in classroom set-
tings, focus is placed on learning tasks and activities rather than
on linguistic forms. Moreover, oral productive competence is
strongly emphasized over or at the expense of writing compe-
tence, which requires a more rigorous knowledge about linguis-
tic forms. It is commonsense that when students have oral prac-
tice or carry out tasks, errors cannot be easily caught. Even if
they are felt, they cannot be remembered completely or are
even forgotten in the end. As long as the overall meaning is
communicated and understood in oral interaction, the purpose
of learning is regarded as having been achieved. As a result of
neglecting errors, learners’ language awareness is decreased;
their sensitiveness to errors is weakened and their skills of de-
tecting and correcting errors are reduced, if not totally lost. All
this is certainly detrimental to any examination of their ability
and performance, for accuracy is no doubt one of the main cri-
teria of judgment in language testing.
Emphasis of Global Meaning
Emphasis on global meaning rather than specific meaning is
another factor which is unfavorable to Hong Kong students’
learning of English. According to CLT, communication is con-
sidered to be successful once the learners catch the gist of lan-
guage messages. In consequence, learning is regarded as satis-
factory as long as learners’ overall understanding proves correct
and acceptable. However, the subtle semant ic diffe re nces whic h
are usually expressed through various linguistic forms may
escape the learners’ attention and comprehension. This is
proved by many Hong Kong students’ weak ability of inter-
preting individual sentences and distinguishing the closeness of
It is out of question that any sentence appears within a cer-
tain context. It is argued that “meaning is paramount” (Richards
& Rodgers, 1986: p. 67). It suffices to know the gist of a text or
a speech even if language learners cannot fully understand the
whole. For example, in the context of students’ writing a per-
sonal profile, the overall meaning of such a sentence After I
completed my HKCEE, I went to England for my A-levels to get
a chance to experience western culture can be well understood.
However, the linguistic form my A-levels is not a standard one
and ought to be changed to A-level exams ; the infinitive phrase
to get a chance to experience western culture is not parallel and
in conflict with the prepositional phrase for my A-level exams in
terms of showing the purpose of going to England; so it ought
to be sepa rate d as anot her se ntence like This is also a chance to
experience western culture. This example demonstrates that
although global meaning is the ultimate goal of understanding,
overemphasis of it may not brush up learners’ micro-skills of
language and result in a risk of ignoring the specific sentence
structures. When learners feel themselves able to understand
the general meaning, they will tend to ignore those complex
segments of language which are new or unfamiliar to them
owing to the low frequency of appearance or culture-specific
different way of structuring information. But if specific mean-
ing is emphasized and learners are often reminded of paying
attention to specific meaning, then learners will spend time
studying different language structures and specific meanings of
such structures. Language awareness of this type will ultimately
add to their repertoire of knowledge about the target language
which can help them see through various structures of language
and perceive the delicate meanings carried by such structures.
Big Class Size and Unreal Peer Communication
In a CLT classroom, students’ grammatical awareness comes
from the roles of the interlocutors (Larsen-Freeman, 2000: p.
130). Therefore, peer interaction is both the basis of in-class
practice and a channel through which to get linguistic input.
However, if peers are of the same proficiency level, then none
D. LU, J. Y. F. NG
Open Access
can obtain quality linguistic input. In Krashen’s term (1985), in
such cases learners cannot be exposed to input that is just be-
yond their current level, namely, the level of the input is not at i
+ 1. So with a relatively low English standard, Hong Kong
students may lack the basic language foundation to give appro-
priate language expressions in peer communication. In simula-
tive activities, if all participants are weak in English, who can
get the ball of learning to roll and what benefits can they all
In order to ensure sufficient communication practice, stu-
dents in CLT classrooms often carry out activities in small
groups, which makes it possible that the time allotted to each
student for learning to negotiate meaning is maximized (Lar-
sen-Freeman, 2000: p. 132). However, in Hong Kong, the class
size is normally very large—with about 40 students in a class.
Supposing that students are divided into groups of four, there
are still 10 groups. With so many groups of people having dis-
cussion at their own pace or undertaking different types of ac-
tivity simultaneously, it is natural a lot of noise will be pro-
duced, which is usually mistaken as a symbol of the teacher’s
poor classroom management.
Even if students are cooperative in minimizing the noise, it is
doubtful whether a teacher can take care of 10 groups of stu-
dents interacting at the same time. Usually a teacher can facili-
tate completion of the practice tasks only with a few groups;
therefore the teachers can hardly give effective guidance to all
the students. Without the teacher’s timely feedback, it is ques-
tionable whether students can improve their language skills
from the assigned tasks or assimilate useful linguistic input
from each other. Very likely those who cannot receive the
teacher’s help cannot learn much from such practice.
Granted that there is no problem of noise and discipline and
students absolutely need no help, class time is another factor to
consider the feasibility of application of CLT. How long will it
take for all the groups to make a report or presentation on what
they do in groups? How can a teacher cater to every individual
learner’s needs and rectify his misconceptions and errors re-
flected through his use of the target languag e in these activities?
English teachers of Hong Kong usually have a tight schedule to
follow, and hence CLT may not be a wise choice for them be-
cause a student-centered communicative activity often requires
quite a lot of time. Despite large groups of students, Hong
Kong teachers want to maximize the students’ learning effects.
Besides they want to ensure completion of lesson.
Teachers’ Insufficient Cultural and
Linguistic Experience
It is an educational tenet that a teacher should have sufficient
subject-matter knowledge and skills before he embarks on the
teaching profession. As a Chinese saying goes, you ought to
have a full bucket of water if you want to share half with others.
This is particularly true of English teaching. As is stated by
Breen and Candlin (1980), for teachers of CLT “the first role is
to facilitate the communication process between all participants
in the classroom, and between these participants and the various
activities and texts” (p. 99). To fulfill this role, the teacher must
reach a benchmark level of English proficiency so that he has
depth of knowledge in the subject and knows how to teach it as
a subject and help his learners use the target language for
communication. Otherwise, either the teacher would feel his
ability falling short of his wishes in class or the learners feel
themselves unable to express as much as they would like. For
this reason, “in recent years, … concerns about the subject-
matter knowledge of L2 teachers, both NS (native-speaker) and
NNS (non-native speaker), have grown, especially in relation to
the teaching of English” (Andrews, 2003: p. 82).
In contrast to these requirements, the general Hong Kong
schoolteachers’ academic and professional knowledge as well
as life experience may not be rich enough to make them capa-
ble of using CLT for the purpose of teaching. Quite some initial
teachers start teaching without even a basic working knowledge
of the systems of the target language. After years of formal
implementation of CLT, they are in fact products of this ap-
proach. Like their learners, they do not have much need for
using the target language in daily communication including the
workplace, because the majority of them are of Chinese ethnic
background and Hong Kong is basically a Chinese dominant
society with Chinese cultural customs as the mainstream culture.
Their communicative beliefs and patterns could not be torn off
from their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Such being the case,
the teachers cannot play the role of facilitator as effectively as
expected. Research shows repeatedly that general Hong Kong
teachers’ English proficiency nowadays needs to be upgraded
(Andrews, 2003; Education Commission, 1995; Falvey & Co-
niam, 2000).
In fact, it is believed by some people that linguistic knowl-
edge is in the narrow autonomous meaning of communicative
competence (Nazari, 2007). Littlewood (1981), a pioneer of
CLT, contended, “The teacher’s overall purpose is to prepare
the learner for later communicative activity by providing him
with the necessary linguistic forms and the necessary links
between forms and meanings” (p. 16, emphasis is mine.). Be-
fore teachers meet the benchmark proficiency level, effective
guidance to the learners in communication can only remain “the
castles in the air”.
Learners’ Lack of Real Needs and Prevalence
of Instrumental Motivation
Among all the blocking factors the most serious one can be
nothing other than the general learners’ lack of needs for using
their targe t language . Many a time is t his evid enced by resear ch
(Education Commission, 1995; Luk & Lin, 2007; Littlewood &
Liu, 1996). The lack of needs together with the dominant Chi-
nese culture in society yields a typical utilitarian motivation.
It is generally agreed that motivation plays a significant role
in determining success in L2 learning. Different types of moti-
vation may result in different attitudes toward using the target
language. Normally two types of motivation are mentioned to
distinguish learners’ specific desires to learn a new language:
people with instrumental motivation want to learn a language
because it is good for some practical goals like getting a job,
reading foreign newspaper, passing an examination; people
with integrative motivation want to learn a new language in
order to communicate with people of another culture who speak
it. Beyond all question general Hong Kong learners have in-
strumental motivation in learning English. Since Hong Kong is
by nature a Chinese society, learners do not have much real
need for using the target language. Instead they need to use the
language for some practical purposes such as passing examina-
tions, applying for a job, reading business and official docu-
ments, newspaper. In most cases their use of English is limited.
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Moreover, English is not much required in their oral communi-
Lack of real need makes it difficult for Hong Kong learners
to acquire high fluency; in turn insufficient fluency often trig-
gers a paradoxical sentiment: learners may have a strong desire
to practice speaking. On this point, CLT seems to be able to
satisfy this very desire. But when they are frequently engaged
in the simple simulative communicative tasks in the classroom,
they will likely become bored at the conversational approach to
learning English. On the other hand, lack of real communica-
tive needs and boredom with practice of little-needed and hard-
to-obtain oral proficiency leads them to an even stronger desire
to effectively and accurately use English to achieve their prac-
tical purposes. It is found that in Hong Kong, “students wish to
have more opportunities to develop their fluency in using eve-
ryday English… However, their desire to participate in active
communication in English is accompanied by an equally strong
desire to have their mistakes corrected by the teacher” (Little-
wood & Liu, 1996: p. 8). “Students consider writing to be the
most important of the four language skills for academic success.
Apart from speaking, however, writing was also the skill in
which students were rated lowest in proficiency” (ibid, p. 47).
Dilemma in Assessment
One ramification related to the light emphasis on errors and
heavy emphasis on meaning is the difficulty of assessment.
Communicative competence is best embodied by one’s produc-
tive skills. In this sense, writing and speaking are often two
windows through which to see one’s communicative abilities.
In most proficiency tests, if not all, judgment of one’s per-
formance in these two aspects is by and large subjective rather
than objective. This is because there can hardly be any objec-
tive criteria to be set up for such assessment. In most cases,
even if a test assessor can understand what is meant in a piece
of writing or a speech, he cannot simply award a good mark
purely because the writing or speech can communicate meaning
and makes sense to him. Language errors are never be treated
leniently under the condition of language testing although they
are tolerable in classroom practice and even in real use. There-
fore, an ironical thing happens: on the one hand, students sel-
dom drill on language forms in classroom teaching, and they
are told not to worry about language errors in communicative
activities while they are encouraged to practice the target lan-
guage in everyday lessons; on the other hand, when tests come,
their language errors become a drag of their test results even if
they make their meanings understood and complete the com-
municative tasks.
Then, the assessment of CLT is not based on communicative
competence as such. This phenomenon confuses people and
makes them cast doubt on the discrepancy between the princi-
ples of CLT and the reality of assessment. One question that
requires a convincing answer is why students can get meaning
across in communication but are still graded as poor users of
English? This is also a source of difficulties for language test
assessors. In face of a student’s written essay or an oral speech
that is judged to be meaningful, understandable but full of er-
rors of linguistic forms, they would feel it a tough job to decide
whether it should be passed as is, because it is controversial.
Those who focus on meaning would tend to think it acceptable
because it can fulfill the purpose of communication; those who
attach attention to form would regard it as unacceptable be-
cause it reflects the test taker’s shaky foundation in the required
linguistic knowledge and weak command of the basic skills of
using the target language. With reference to this point, people
often wonder how to resolve the direct and apparent contradic-
tion, namely, focus on meaning and tolerance of errors. It
seems to be a perennial headache.
Difficulties of Implementing CLT in
Other EFL Contexts
In fact, Hong Kong is not alone in terms of the unsuitability
of CLT. Concerns about the difficulties of using CLT have long
been raised outside of Hong Kong. Burnaby and Sun (1989)
contended that CLT was not effective in mainland China owing
to various restraints such as big class size, the influence of tra-
ditional teaching methods, and shortage of resources. Besides,
the general teachers’ low competence in oral English was also
mentioned as a main factor of the unsuitability of CLT. Another
study about CLT in China was conducted by Anderson (1993).
She mentioned some blocking factors such as insufficient
number of qualified teachers, mismatch between CLT’s goals
and the students’ expectations, difficulties in evaluating stu-
dents’ performance. Valdes and Jhones (1991) made a study of
CLT in Cuba and pointed out that teachers’ low English profi-
ciency and difficulties in designing courses to meet the stu-
dents’ real needs blocked smooth use of CLT, resulting frustra-
tion to all concerned. Grabe and Mahon (1983) reported that
students’ deficiencies in language skills made them reluctant to
participate in open discussions. Their little exposure to English
aggravated the unsmooth use of CLT. Li (1998) discussed the
difficulties of using CLT in South Korea. According to his
study, blocking factors are multi-fold such as teachers’ reluc-
tance, students’ lack of motivation for developing communica-
tive competence, more importantly, “CLT’s inadequate account
of EFL teaching and lack of effective and efficient assessment
instruments” (p. 694). Even in the North American context,
CLT is fraught with controversy because “many a curricula
innovation has been undone by failure to make corresponding
changes in evaluation” (Savignon, 1991: p. 266). Rao’s (2002)
qualitative research revealed that the students’ lack of real op-
portunities of using English and accuracy-oriented proficiency
tests made the students more inclined toward linguistic knowl-
edge and skills (i.e., non-communicative classroom activities)
than communicative competence. Bax (2003, 2005) contended
that each context has its own features. For this reason, teachers
must “consider all the local factors in his or her own context,
alongside the requirements of syllabi and course books, before
determining the best way to teach the lessons” (Bax, 2005: p.
90). In his opinion, the dominance of CLT has caused the ne-
glect of the crucial aspect of language pedagogy, namely, the
context in which a teaching method is used and plays a role.
Because of this, CLT should not continue to be used as the
central paradigm in language teaching. In its place should be a
context approach which considers local specific situations and
All the above research shows that the problems and difficul-
ties caused by the application of CLT have long been noticed
elsewhere in the world. It is worth pointing out that most criti-
cisms come from those areas where English is not a main and
frequent language for regular residents. This is particularly
important because Hong Kong is likewise such a place, where
people need to learn English because of its official status and
D. LU, J. Y. F. NG
Open Access
potential interests but have no frequent and adequate daily use.
It should be known that a teaching method is chosen for use
not because it is of professional or theoretical popularity but
because it allows teachers and students to cope with the realities
of the environment more efficiently. CLT was introduced into
Hong Kong as an educational reform that aims to change the
traditional Chinese learning approach, which is typically de-
scribed as “memorizing what is understood” and “understand-
ing through memorization” (Gu, 2003: pp. 74-75). As memori-
zation is believed not to be a good way of brushing up the
learner’s competence of using the target language effectively in
communication, CLT has been used in the hope that it can im-
prove the teaching of English and lead Hong Kong learners to a
good command of the language, which in turn will help to keep
Hong Kong prosper as an international city.
Nearly three decades have passed; but the hoped-for im-
provement has not yet been in sight. Instead criticism keeps
pouring from society about the general declining proficiency
standard of Hong Kong students. In consideration of all the
efforts, money and time invested throughout the period, people
with wisdom and vision cannot but think and ask why. The
emerging trend of reflection is reported by mass media re-
cently.1 Such an introspectional review of the past three dec-
ades’ adoption of CLT in the Hong Kong context, though a bit
late, is a fortunate thing in that it will benefit all the people
concerned by increasing the public awareness based on the real
experience with CLT. The author hopes that more serious in-
trospection will be made by more people so that a more suitable
and effective methodological change in English teaching will
take place in the long interests of Hong Kong.
In all fairness, some principles of CLT are gene rally true and
constructive to Hong Kong. The key point of adapting it to
Hong Kong is to sinicise it so that it integrates with the culture-
governed learning strategies of Hong Kong students as well as
the realities of Hong Kong. As a former British colony, Hong
Kong used to de-sinicise things including language education
(Tsui & Tollefson, 2007). The process of the de-sinicisation
often blinds people to the characteristics of Chinese society. It
is time now to re-sinicise in a judicious manner so that CLT can
merge into the Hong Kong language classrooms, display its
built-in effectiveness and truly contribute to Hong Kong’s Eng-
lish teaching.
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1An academic co nf eren ce was h eld at th e Uni ver si ty of Hong Kong recen tly.
Some speakers mentioned the unsatisfactory results of using CLT in Hong
Kong and proposed directing more attention to the students’ ability of using
correct linguistic forms through systematic teaching of English grammar.
See Ta Kung Pao, April 15, 2008.