Functional-notional Approach

Functional-notional Approach

Submitted for Fulfillment of MID Test










April 2011


The term “functional-notional approach” embraces any strategy of language teaching that derives the content of learning from an initial analysis of the learner’s need to express three different kinds of meaning: Functional (i.e. the social purpose of the utterance); Modal (the degree of likelihood); Conceptual – the meaning relations expressed by forms within the sentence (categories of communicative function) .These method of language teaching is categorize along with others under the rubric of a communicative approach. The method stresses a means of organizing a language syllabus. The emphasis is on breaking down the global concept of language into units of analysis in terms of communicative situations in which they are used.

History of Functional-notional Approach

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 categorised on the basis of notions such as quantity, location and time, and functions such as making requests, making offers and apologising. 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 organised 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 (eg “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.

The Concept of Functional-notional Approach

A functional-notional syllabus is primarily based not on a linguistic analysis but on an analysis of learners’ social and/or vocational communicative needs. This approach holds that the classification of skill levels should be based on what people want to do with the language (functions) or in terms of what meanings people want to convey (notions). As such, this approach is based on the following concepts:

(1) Communication is meaningful behavior in a social and cultural context that requires creative language use rather than synthetic sentence building

(2) language is constructed around language functions and notions; functions such as evaluating, persuading, arguing, informing, agreeing, questioning, requesting, expressing emotions and semantic-grammatical notions such as time, quantity, space, location, and motion. The aim of this approach was to transfer these functions to acts of communication.

Explanation of specific terms:

Notions are meaning elements that may be expressed through nouns, pronouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, adjectives or adverbs. A notion is a concept, or idea: it may be quite specific, in which case it is virtually the same as vocabulary (dog, house, for example); or it may be very general – time, size, emotion, movement – in which case it often overlaps with the concept of “topics”. A notion may be “time past”; this may include past tenses, phrases like a month ago, in 1990, last week, and utterances using temporal clauses beginning with when….., before…., after…. and so on;

function is some kind of communicative act: it is the use of language to achieve a purpose, usually involving interaction at least between two people. Examples would be suggesting, promising, apologizing, greeting, inviting.

“Inviting” may include phrases like “Would you like to….? I suggest…., How about…? Please…

situation may affect variations of language such as the use of dialects, the formality or informality of the language and the mode of expression. Situation includes the following elements:

A. The persons taking part in the speech act

B. The place where the conversation occurs

C. The time the speech act is taking place

D. The topic or activity that is being discussed


Exponents are the language utterances or statements that stem from the function, the situation and the topic.


Code is the shared language of a community of speakers.


Code-switching is a change or switch in code during the speech act, which many theorists believe is purposeful behaviour to convey bonding, language prestige or other elements of interpersonal relations between the speakers.

The essential components found in functional-notional syllabi are as follows:

1. The situations in which the foreign language will be used. A situation will always include the following: the participants, the place, & the time.

2. Topics, and what the learner will be able to do with these, for example, everyday interactions, such as buying food, giving directions, are offering advice, etc.

3. The language activities in which the learner will engage.

4. The language functions which the learner will perform. For example:

a. Personal = expressing one’s thoughts or feelings (e.g., love, joy, pleasure, happiness) and the everyday feelings (e.g., hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleepiness, etc.)

b. Interpersonal = Enabling us to establish and maintain desirable social and working relationships (e.g., greetings and leave takings, introducing people to others, expressing joy at another’s success, extending – accepting – declining invitations, apologizing, interrupting another speaker politely, etc.)

c. Directive = Attempting to influence the actions of others (e.g., discouraging someone from

pursuing a course of action, persuading someone to change his point of view, warning someone, etc.)

d. Referential = talking or reporting about things, actions, events, or people in the environment in the past or in the future; talking about language (what is termed the metalinguistic function (e.g.,

identifying items or people in the classroom, the school the home, or paraphrasing, summarizing, or translating (L1 to L2 or vice versa), etc.)

e. Imaginative = Discussions involving elements of creativity and artistic expression (e.g.,

discussing a poem, a story, a piece of music, a play, a painting, a film, a TV program or creating rhymes, poetry, stories or plays, etc.)

5. The general notions which the learner will be able to handle. Notions are the interaction of categories of meaning and grammatical form. Examples of notions are time (time relation: past tense, present tense; duration: until, since), quantity (countable, uncountable), space (dimensions locations, motion) and so on.

6. The specific (topic related) notions which the learner will be able to handle.

7. The language forms the learner will be able to use. These forms are usually referred to as exponents which are the language utterances or statements that stem from the function, the situation and the topic.

8. The degree of skill the learner will be required to display.


 The following are the main characteristics of the functional-notional approach:

1. a functional view of language focusing on doing something through language

2. a semantic base, as opposed to a grammatical or a situational base

3. a learner-centered view of language learning

4. a basis in the analysis of learner needs for using language that is reflected in goals, content

selection and sequencing, methodology, and evaluation

5. learner-centered goals, objectives, and content organization reflecting authentic language

behavior and offering a spiraling development of content

6. learning activities involving authentic language use

7. testing focused on ability to use language to react to and operate on the environment

The Language Skill Focused

A Functional Notional Approach to language learning places major emphases on the communicative purposes of speech or in speaking skill. That is what people want to do or accomplish through speech .Do they want to invite someone to a birthday party or do they want to write an apology letter .Thus the above gives the function of language .Thus sensitivity to the individual needs of the learners gives rise to the Functional Notional Approach. .
Apologizing, we will use words like “ I am sorry for all what I have done.”

The functional Notional Approach to language learning places more emphases on the communicative purpose of speech. It focuses on what people want to do or accomplish through language. This approach has a goal to help learner use the real language or appropriate language when communicating. Thus the primary preoccupation of the Functional Notional Approach is sensitivity to the individual needs of the students.

In teaching language, the Functional Notional Approach to language helps the teacher to first of all identify the needs of the learner and analyze the needs in order to draw the syllabus.
In teaching, the Functional Notional Approach to language helps the teacher to be able to teach the purposes of speech. Do we need language for letter writing or greetings? If so which language do we use?
The Functional Notional Approach helps learners to use real and appropriate language for communication. Thus in conclusion the functional Notional Approach to language is classified in terms of the purpose of language that is, what people want to communicate.


Functional-notional syllabuses are of a number of merits which are mainly the major characteristics of this type of syllabuses suggested by Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983). These merits can briefly be viewed from four perspectives.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, the functional-notional syllabuses emphasize the communicative purpose of the speech act. As a result,

(a)    this kind of syllabuses often tries to set fairly realistic language for learners to learn;

(b)   this approach intends to offer everyday, real-world language use in a variety of socio-cultural situations, thus, learners will be introduced not only to grammatical knowledge of the language, but also to the cultural knowledge necessary for them to fully understand the target language and its culture;

(c)    it recognizes that the speaker must have a real purpose for speaking, and something to talk about.

From a psycholinguistic perspective, the functional-notional syllabuses have placed the needs of learners at the very core of the teaching program. Consequently,

(a)     functional-notional syllabus is often arranged according to different levels and needs of the target learners;

(b)   it is intrinsically motivating because it provides actual communicative functions to serve the learners’ needs;

(c)    it understands that before asking learners to produce language, sufficient input must be provided initially;

(d)   thanks to its unit or modular organization of the curriculum materials, the courses can be designed in a flexible and modular way which will enable learners to learn with different rhythm or pace of learning.

From a linguistic perspective,

(a)    the functional-notional syllabuses will help learners at each level acquire a reasonable, basic knowledge of the phonological, grammatical, and the lexical subsystems of the language, as well as the ability to use these in actual communication.

From an educational perspective, the functional-notional syllabuses have several other merits:

(a)   the approach has enabled teachers to exploit sound psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, linguistic and educational principles;

(b)   it can develop naturally from existing teaching methodology;

(c)   it enables a spiral curriculum to be used which reintroduces grammatical, topical and cultural material;

(d)   it provides for the widespread promotion of foreign language courses.


The above merits are drawn from the ideal level of functional-notional syllabuses. However, the practical application of this kind of syllabuses shows a number of problems, which has aroused criticisms against functional-notional syllabuses among researchers in this field (e.g. Dubin & Olshtain, 1986; Richards, 2001; Widdowson, 1979; etc.). The major drawbacks can also be seen from different perspectives.

From the perspective of course design, i.e. the application of a functional-notional syllabus, the designers always encounter difficulties during the selection of the content. This is because:

(a)    the idea of “functions” and “notions” of language is not as clearly definable as it is thought to be;

(b)   although there are criteria listed above for the selection and grading of the components of  a functional-notional syllabus, it is hard to decide such as which functions or notions is of more coverage or frequency then others;

(c)    a need analysis is an important and necessary step before the design of the contents as whatever included in any particular functional-notional syllabus are highly related to the need of the learners; however, it is always difficult to carry out a profound need analysis in a real life situation.

From the perspective of the nature of language, the basic assumption of functional-notional syllabuses can sometimes be misleading, for

(a)      the idea that language is determined by the uses or functions it performs is an over simplistic view;

(b)      communication does not just refers to language functions and notions; and the process of communication somehow remains unstated in this kind of syllabuses;

(c)      the functional-notional syllabuses, in fact, also assume that language can be broken down into discrete components (various functions and notions) that can be taught separately; this assumption makes them not much different from grammatical syllabuses in misleading the real nature of language.

From the perspective of language teaching and learning, functional-notional syllabuses bring along dissatisfactions and problems unanswered to language teachers and learners, such as,

(a)    grammatical structures elicited by the functions and notions taught appear in an unsystematically order which may make teachers and learners, especially those familiar with grammatical approach, uncomfortable;

(b)   important grammatical structures may not be touched by the functions and notions included in the syllabuses, which may lead to low grammatical competence of the learners;

(c)    language functions and notions do not have particular linear sequence, which may make it  ineffective for teaching and learning as the latter is a process inherently sequential in nature;

(d)      Functional-notional syllabuses are product-oriented which state clearly the expected outcomes of language learning; however, it fails to address the process of how to realize the outcomes.

Students’ Roles: Student-Centered

After the Second World War, the countries all over the world developed FN education in order to meet the needs of politics, economy, military, science, tour, and culture. But the FN education was not satisfactory at that time, especially, students could not communicate with others in foreign language after learning several years. In the middle of the 1960s, the crisis of the western education made people realize the importance of FN education and had a slogan “Student-centered”, at the same time, people should value the factors of the learners, intelligence, feeling, age, sex, and interests. This is a necessary feature of any classroom where the classroom is learner rather than teacher-centered. Among other things, it means to encourage students to state their opinions, to talk about their own experience, and for whatever they say, even accurately, to be treated with respect by the teacher. For example, when students finish answering the questions, the teacher had better say, “Thank you!” (Not “Yes” or “No”). If the teacher said “Yes”, other students will give the similar answer to it. If the teacher said “No”, the students will lack of courage to answer questions in the next class. There is today an increasing emphasis on involving students in decisions affecting their own learning-getting them to take responsibility for their own learning decisions, and to consciously develop learning skills.

Teachers’ Roles

According to Halliday’s functional approach, it views language as a form of “doing” rather than “knowing”. Therefore the teacher’s task is to develop the competence to use language, not to let the students know the language knowledge.

The teacher’s role in the genuine student-centered orientation is not a single-minded act of lesson-based teaching, but multiple, as shown in figure I: (Gu Yueguo. 1999)

What the learner is going to be able to do

Figure I: Process of learning

            That is, a competent and responsible teacher should be assess or assess what manager (manage all the resources and classroom activities) information provide and friend to the students (Gu Yuegou).

Therefore, in the classroom, the students will be engaged in diverse activities. They will have free conversations and debates about weather, current affairs, TV shows and public media. The teacher, just as the film producer, will remain the dominant role of the stage. Without the teacher, the students’ activity will be confused. And “absolute freedom in learning may be good for the strongest, but I can never be good for the middling and weak” (Wang Zongyan, 1998). Beside that the teacher should also be an educator of moral principles, and developing minds.


          Functional-national is a method of language teaching that categorize along with others under the rubric of a communicative approach. The method stresses a means of organizing a language syllabus. This approach holds that the classification of skill levels should be based on what people want to do with the language (functions) or in terms of what meanings people want to convey (notions). A Functional Notional Approach to language learning places major emphases on the communicative purposes of speech or in speaking skill. That is what people want to do or accomplish through speech. In teaching language, the Functional Notional Approach to language helps the teacher to identify the needs of the learner and analyze the needs in order to draw the syllabus, beside that also to teach the purposes of speech.


Finocchiaro, M. & Brumfit, C. (1983). The functional-National Approach. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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