Wolfgang Butzkamm

Medium orientated and message orientated communication

(In: Michael Byram [Hrsg.]: Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London and New York: Routledge, 406-407.)

This is a distinction between two main levels of communication in the foreign language classroom, which are both necessary. In medium-oriented communication the focus is on form rather than on content. The underlying speech intention is for the teacher to give pupils an opportunity to build sentences, to show how they can handle the language, to demonstrate their verbal skills, to display their linguistic competence. Pupils fill in gaps or give answers which the teacher knows already. Dictation, imitation, pronunciation- and grammar-drills as well as language corrections are usuallyunequivocal medium-oriented acts. Here the medium is the only message. However, when the speakers involved satisfy immediate non-linguistic needs and really mean what they say, for instance: ‘How can we prepare for the test tomorrow?’ or ‘In my view the British electoral system is undemocratic,’ they transmit real messages, i.e. they are message-oriented. All classroom management is purely message-oriented. (Butzkamm & Dodson 1980)

Other terms for what is basically the same distinction are ‘rehearsal language versus performance language’ (Hawkins 1981), ‘analytic versus experiential use of the language’ (Stern 1983). In Germany the distinction has become known as sprachbezogene vs. mitteilungsbezogene Kommunikation (Black & Butzkamm 1977). Since the same utterance may serve a variety of functions, many speech acts in language lessons lie on a continuum between pure message-orientation and pure medium-orientation. Do the speakers take their utterances to be a real warning, a praise or promise, a real request for necessary information etc. or are these functions merely incidental to the language-teaching function?

The distinction can be used to assess the communicative quality of classroom interactions. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence show that message-oriented communication is often conspicuously absent in the foreign language classroom. ‘There is increasing evidence that in communicative classes interactions may, in fact, not be very communicative at all’ (Nunan 1987: 144). Mitchell et al. (1981: 66) found that ‘a content vacuum was apparent in many lessons’.


(See also: content-based instruction, language as medium)



Black, C. and Butzkamm, W. (1977) Klassengespräche. Kommunikativer Englischunterricht: Beispiel und Anleitung, Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer.

Butzkamm, W. and Dodson, C.J. (1980) ‘The teaching of communication from theory to practice’, IRAL 4: 289-309.

Hawkins, E. W. (1981) Modern Languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge u.s.: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, R. (1988) Communicative Language Teaching in Practice, London: CILT.

Nunan, D. (1987) ‘Communicative language teaching: making it work’, English Language Teaching Journal 41: 136-145.

Stern, H. H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.


Further Reading

Butzkamm, W. (1998) ‘Communicative Shifts in the Regular FL-Classroom and in the Bilingual Content Classroom’, IRAL Vol. XXXV/3: 167-186.

Fazio, L. and Lyster, R. (1998) ‘Immersion and Submersion Classrooms: A Comparison of Instructional Practices in Language Arts’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development Vol. 19:4, 1998: 303-317.