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Teaching approaches: functional approaches in EFL/ ESL

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing functional approaches to teaching English.


Methods and approaches such as Grammar Translation, Audiolingualism and Situational Language teaching are based on the presentation and practice of grammatical structures and, essentially, a grammar-based syllabus. In 1972, the British linguist D.A. Wilkins published a document that proposed a radical shift away from using the traditional concepts of grammar and vocabulary to describe language to an analysis of the communicative meanings that learners would need in order to express themselves and to understand effectively. This initial document was followed by his 1976 work Notional Syllabuses, which showed how language could be categorized on the basis of notions such as quantity, location and time, and functions such as making requests, making offers and apologizing.

Wilkins’ work was used by the Council of Europe in drawing up a communicative language syllabus, which specified the communicative functions a learner would need in order to communicate effectively at a given level of competence. At the end of the 1970s, the first course-books to be based on functional syllabuses began to appear. Typically, they would be organized on the basis of individual functions and the exponents needed to express these functions. For example, many course-books would begin with the function of ‘introducing oneself’, perhaps followed by the function of ‘making requests’, with typical exponents being ‘Can I ….?’, "Could you ….?’, "Is it alright if I ….?’ and so on. These would often be practised in the form of communicative exercises involving pair work, group work and role plays. It is interesting to compare this approach with a grammatical syllabus. In a typical grammatical syllabus, structures using the word ‘would’ tend to appear in later stages of the syllabus, as they are held to be relatively complex (e.g."If I knew the answer, I would tell you"), whereas in a functional syllabus ‘would’ often appears at a very early stage due to its communicative significance in exponents such as ‘Would you like ….?’, which is extremely common and of great communicative value even to beginners. The need to apply a grammatical name or category to the structure is not considered important within the framework of a purely functional syllabus.

Criticisms of functional approaches include the difficulty in deciding the order in which different functions should be presented. Is it more important to be able to complain or to apologize, for example? Another problem lies in the wide range of grammatical structures needed to manipulate basic functions at different levels of formality (for example, ‘Can I …..?’ as opposed to ‘Would you mind if I …..?"). In addition, although it is possible to identify hundreds of functions and micro-functions, there are probably no more than ten fundamental communicative functions that are expressed by a range of widely used exponents. There is also the apparently random nature of the language used, which may frustrate learners used to the more analytical and "building-block" approach that a grammatical syllabus can offer. Another apparent weakness is the question of what to do at higher levels. Is it simply a case of learning more complex exponents for basic functions or is one required to seek out ever more obscure functions (complaining sarcastically, for example)?

On the positive side, however, there is little doubt that functional approaches have contributed a great deal to the overall store of language teaching methodology. Most new course-books contain some kind of functional syllabus alongside a focus on grammar and vocabulary, thus providing learners with communicatively useful expressions in tandem with a structured syllabus with a clear sense of progression. In addition, the focus on communication inherent in the practice of functional exponents has contributed greatly to communicative language teaching in general. Finally, the idea that even beginners can be presented with exponents of high communicative value from the very start represents a radical shift from the kind of approach that began with the present simple of the verb ‘to be’ in all its forms and focused almost entirely on structure with little regard for actual communication in the target language.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Thanks a lot for explaining about grammatical & functional syllabus and what exponents of request can be taught to a beginner class.

    Keep up the good work :)

    regards
    Manoj
    (Kerala, India)

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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