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Functional Syllabus / Notional Functional Syllabus

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4486 words Published: 9th Aug 2021

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A notional-functional syllabus is an approach where the organization of the material is determined with notions or ideas that learners expect to be able to express through the target language and the functions acts learners expect to be able to accomplish (Wilkins, 1976). In this type of syllabus, it contains the same teaching materials as traditional syllabus but organizes them in different way such as around uses or functions (Harlow & Linda L, 1978). According to Wilkins (1972), proponents of this kind of approach believe that the usage of language for learners is more important than the digestion of an unapplied system of grammatical forms. Therefore, a notional-functional syllabus is a kind of communicative syllabus which organize units with the foundation of some functions such as asking question, expressing opinions, expressing wishes, making suggestions, complaining, and apologizing rather than including units instructing noun gender or present tense ending (Wilkins, 1976). First of all, I show how the notional-functional syllabus was brought about and influenced by both theories of language and language learning/acquisition.

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In the second part, I discuss on strengths and weaknesses of the notional-functional syllabus by the relation between it and communicative language teaching and putting it into the practice. Because the functional-notional syllabus is intimately related to communicative language teaching, this type of syllabus has lots of significant merits. However, the relationship between communicative language teaching and functional-notional syllabus design is far from clear, it does present some problems when it is put into practice as well (Brumfit, 1984).As criticizing the structural syllabus for being product-based which is focusing on what language is learnt and opposed to process-based which is focusing on how language is learnt, the functional-notional syllabus would contain a list of items to be learnt rather than a specification of how they are to be learnt. However, the notional-functional syllabus is not considered with traditional structure but function, such formal strategies may not be so useful, because it is more difficult to generalize from functions or use them to create new sentences (Wilkins, 1976). A further problem of the notional-functional syllabus was presented with regard to grading, as there was lack of evidence to concern the frequency of functions and when selecting which forms should be used to realize functions, textbook writers had to “depend on intuition” (White, 1988). However, it is an approach which has significant contributions in fulfilling the needs of both foreign language students and teachers.

The last part of the essay, I would argue the best suitable teaching situations for the notional-functional syllabus in English language teaching with the various elements of teaching situations.

Theory of notional-functional syllabus

A notional-functional syllabus is an approach where the organization of the material is determined with notions or ideas that learners expect to be able to express through the target language and the functions acts learners expect to be able to accomplish (Wilkins, 1976). The functional-notional syllabus takes semantic knowledge as primary and attempts to answer the question ‘what do users of the language need to express?’. This implies a belief in language as a system but a system of meaning rather than forms (Johnson, 1982). It answer that learning language consists of learning how to mean. Such a syllabus would seek correlations between form and function but would define the link as being between the forms of the language available to the user and the meanings he wishes to express (Munby, 1978). As described by Wilkins (1976), the functional-notional syllabus has its starting point something different form either the grammatical syllabus or the situational one. He also points that it is not the linguistic items to be taught but rather the behavioral organization in terms of the purposes for which language is being learned and the kinds of language performance (in terms of language functions) necessary for such purposes. The roots of this type syllabus would be to look at kinds of meanings which have to be considered in second-language teaching (Yalden, 1983). Therefore within them a central concerning is that the meaning of an expression originates from the whole situation in which language is used, not from words or sentences in isolation.

1.1 The theories of language

Richards and Rodgers (2001) show a structural view of language, which is that “language is a system of structurally related elements for the coding of meaning”. They also identify a functional aspect, which states that “language is a vehicle for the expression of functional meaning.” The notional-functional syllabus was influenced by the functional view of language, which itself was partly opposite aspect and partly an evolution of the structural view of language. There have been numerous educators to discuss the ‘communicative revolution’ beyond structural analyses of language which is provided by linguists but with considering what ‘communicative ability’ in a language entailed. Therefore, it would apparent that a different view of language would help learners to develop such ability. Malinowshi (1923) showed that the functional view of language was superior to the structural view, and the discourse in context was extremely important. Teaching the knowledge of the structure of written or spoken texts was more important than exclusively teaching grammatical correct, sentences to language learners. The functional view of language also has an intimate relationship with the view expressed by the likes of Hymes (1972), i.e. “linguistic theory needed to be seen as part of a more general theory incorporating communication and culture”. Halliday (1970) argues that since all the functions of language are usage of studied language, linguistic is considered with the description of speech acts or texts, therefore all components of meaning have been brought into focus of the notional-functional syllabus.

Above all, it can say that how the notional-functional syllabus’s focus on the meanings and functions of language was strongly influenced by functional and communicative views of language.

1.2 The theories of language learning/acquisition

Richard and Rodgers (2001) also distinguish between two basic types of learning theories: process-oriented theories which “build on learning processes, such as habit formation, induction, inference, hypothesis testing, and generalization” and condition-oriented theories, which “emphasize the nature of the human and physical context in which language learning takes place”. Although it is true that teaching notions and functions must be with using behaviorist techniques. And Widdowson (1990) notes that teachers were “not bound to interpret the syllabus in line with its intentions”. In practically, there came to be a strong alliance between the functional view of language represented by the notional-functional syllabus, and a condition-oriented, communicative approach to learning.

As Wilkins (1976) points that the meaning must be considered through the study of language in use, language in discourse. So we study the communicative functions of language and their relation to grammatical forms through approach language in this way. Moreover, the goal of learning language is communicative and not formal perfection in the learner. Language is seen as essentially a function of society, serving an interpersonal role, and making each speaker a member of a speech community through its use.

Meanwhile, the grammatical syllabus teaches the language for learners by taking them progressively through the structures of the target language; the situational syllabus does so through recreating the situations in which native speakers use the language (Wilkins, 1976).Wilkins (1976) also points that the combination of grammar, lexis, stylistics, linguistic and non-linguistic context and, in speech, intonation ensures that any two sentences hardly have exactly the same meaning. Since the learning of a language is most commonly identified with acquiring digestion of its grammatical system, it is not surprising that most courses have grammatical pedagogic organization. And courses are based on the systematic introduction of vocabulary and others which take language situations as the starting-point. Therefore, the functional-notional syllabus is not necessarily mutually exclusive. Regarding them form the linguistic point of view, Richards (2001) asserts that the notional-functional syllabus not only be considered with an analytic approach for language learning but also was combined with restating of traditional structural grammar rules as functions.

From above, Richards and Rodgers (2001) asserts that one of the first syllabus models to be proposed for communicative teaching was described as a notional syllabus and the progenitor of the notional syllabuses himself. And Wilkins (1981) highlights that the communicative purposes of language learning link the notional approach to the wider communicative movement in language teaching. Therefore, the notional-functional syllabus was one answer to the question of what kind of course content should be used to lead learners acquire the ability to convey communicative meaning through language.

The strengths and weaknesses of the notional-functional syllabus

The notional-functional syllabus concerns two important elements: one is a notional or conceptual view, which is involved with some concepts such as time, space, movement, cause and effect; another one is functional view which is used for intentional or purposive description and classification. It is a new type of syllabus because it could take notional-functional categories as an organizing principle which would not only be determined by grammatical considerations but also be concerned with communicative categories into account as well (White, 1988). All of the grammatical syllabus, the situational syllabus, and notional-functional syllabus belong to ‘Type A Syllabuses’. Neither grammatical nor situational syllabus would be denied that the purpose of learning languages is to communicate both of them give learners few adequate opportunities to promote the communicative capacity. However, the notional-functional syllabus takes the desired communicative capacity as the starting-point. From the notional-functional syllabus, it asks speakers to communicate through language. So the designers are able to organize language teaching in concerning of the content rather than the form of the language (Wilkins, 1976).

2.1 The strengths of the notional-functional syllabus

The advantages of the notional syllabus include that it could consider the communicative facts of language from the beginning with concerning of grammatical and situational factors. So it is superior to the grammatical syllabus possibly (Wilkins, 1976). In the grammatical syllabus language elements are demonstrated more in complete possibilities of the language than the use of it needed in conversation. So learners would complain that foreign language learning is not practical and they have few opportunities to use out of it. However, a functional-notional syllabus would teach language to use it rather than instructing the use of its exclusive forms. As teaching the language through its uses, learners would consider the utility and the relevance of their study (Wilkins, 1976).Moreover, Harlow and Linda L. (1978) point that by perceiving language as a real means of communication; learners would feel more motivated to learn as they would feel what they were learning is useful. Language functions in a real-life setting would generate a special kind of excitement for learning and leads to productive learning. Therefore, as comparing to the structural syllabus where elements of language are learned in an isolated way from real life, students’ communicative competence and confidence can be well developed, and teachers can revitalize teaching materials to meet learning objectives in functional-notional approach study.

Furthermore, the functional-notional syllabus is superior to the situational syllabus because it can include both of the most important grammatical forms and all kinds of language functions in it rather than concentrate those exist in specific situations typically (Wilkins, 1976).

From above it can say that this type of syllabus does have some significant merits as follows:

The first merit of the functional-notional syllabus is that it emphasizes the fact that students and their communicative purposes are at the very core of the teaching program. The learner’s actual and foreseeable academic, social, and vocational needs will underlie all aspects of the programs of linguistic and cultural content. While due attention is given to certain aspects of selection and grading of linguistic cultural content, the primary consideration is those functions that persons of a particular age level, in a particular situation, would wish or need to express. Thus, it suits the need of learners’. This syllabus is extremely useful for ESP clauses in which the learners can learn part of the language which they are badly in need without wasting their time and energy for detailed study of the whole language system.

The second merit of this syllabus is that the act of communication, even at the elementary levels, will be intrinsically motivating. Unlike the grammatical syllabus which separates the language into discrete items and from which the learners have to communicative competence at the very beginning. The language forms, its functions, and communicative skills they have learned can be used immediately in the communicative activities and in role plays, or even in the real world. This direct effect of language use motivates the learners. They feel quite satisfied and are eager to learn as much as possible according to their needs because they are not passive listeners but active participants.

The third merit is that language functions are quite generalizing. According to Wilkins (1973,1976), eight types of communicative functions are recognized, that is, eight kinds of things learners can do with language, such as:

  1. Modality (to express degrees of certainty, necessity, conviction, obligation, and tolerance)
  2. Moral discipline and evaluation (judgment, approval, disapproval)
  3. Suasion (persuasion, recommendation, predictions)
  4. Argument (information asserted or sought, agreement, denial, concession)
  5. Rational inquiry and exposition (author’s note: similar in sub-categories to argument and evaluation)
  6. Personal emotions (positive and negative)
  7. Emotional relations (greeting, flattery, hostility…)
  8. Interpersonal relations (politeness and status: degree of formality and informality)

In a word, the functions of language, the very cores of the functional-notional syllabus, are fairly generalizing.

2.2 The weaknesses of the functional-notional syllabus

Every syllabus has its demerits, so does the functional-notional syllabus. When putting it into practice, we will find that it presents some problems.

What could make learners be able to communicate best in the foreign language decide the process of what to teach (Wilkins, 1976). So when we can decide the most appropriate forms for each type of communication, we can establish the syllabus. Although Hedge (2000) claims that structural syllabuses are amendable to planning, provide systematicity and make learners feel secure, the symbol of the each learning unit is semantic basically (Wilkins, 1976). Nunan (1988) asserts that an alternative to the grammatically-oriented textbook may not solve all of the problems in language teaching. These lists of functions and notions do not reflect the way languages are learned. Dividing language into discrete units of functions may misrepresent the nature of language as communication (Widdowson, 1978; Nunan, 1988). Therefore, the structural syllabuses coverage with notional-functional ones, they are both product-based, synthetic syllabuses. In short, the semantic needs of learners decide the planning of the linguistic content.

Above all, it is ensure that this type of syllabus has some weaknesses as follows:

The first problem is that language functions alone are not a satisfactory organizing principle. In the first place some realizations of functions are in fact little more than fixed phrases (e.g. ‘You must be joking!’ ‘Come off it!’). It may be important to learn them, but that is all we learn! In other words, some functional exponents are just single items- we cannot use them to generate more language as we can with grammatical structure.

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The second problem lies in the selection of items for the syllabus and the grading and sequencing of the items. Which should be selected and come first? As White (1988) notes that there was “a dearth of evidence for the frequency of functions” and that when selecting which forms should be used to realize functions, textbook writers had to “depend on intuition”. What order should the grammar be taught in for students to be able to apply it to functions? White also notes that the small amount of empirical evidence regarding the natural order of acquisition of functions by children was not directly applicable to adult language learning (White, 1988). This problem was exacerbated by the fact that linguistically complex forms could appear in more basic and essential functions, such as requesting (e.g. “Would you mind closing the window?”) In the functional-notional syllabus, the specification of needs may well turn out to be as global as the specification of types of situation does for the situational syllabus. Richards (2001) points that “the term ‘needs’ is not as straightforward as it might appear” and suggests that “what is identified as a need is dependent on judgment, and reflects the interests and values of those making such a judgment.” Moreover, Wilkins (1976) notes that the forms are asked to express the semantic needs, so they would be extremely varied.

The third problem is impossibility of defining functions with precision and clarity. Although speech-act theories have proposed conditions whereby a given speech act may be defined as performing a given function, no reference is made to such specifications in proto-syllabus, nor indeed, in any other similar listings. The absence of a specification of conditions which limit or determine the interpretation of a given functions means that there is at best, some ambiguity, and, at worst, total misunderstanding over what is meant by such functions as expressing intention, expressing one is/ is not obliged to do something or expressing dissatisfaction.

The best suitable teaching situations

Selection of items to be included in this syllabus would be concerned with a variety of ways. According to Peck (1971), this type of syllabus contains the methods such as self-communion, observational research (research based on observation of oral and written use of the language), polls and surveys to users and learners of the language, and teachers’ identification of concepts that students want to express. In the notional-functional syllabus, each unit would include both of productive and receptive usage of language and use artificial situations. Therefore, teaching situations which adopted the notional-functional syllabus, learners would be the center of the teaching situations and listen to more than they would be asked to produce (Harlow & Linda L, 1978).

In its transatlantic version, the functional-notional syllabus has been in Canada to all levels in education. At the time of writing, there has been the appearance of the functional-notional syllabus in the United States chiefly in courses for vocational or occupational purposes; however it has been discussed among the professional fields certainly (Yalden, 1983).

Define teaching situations

There are numerous elements have power to define teaching situations and decide whether can a notional-functional syllabus be adopted by them. Therefore, it will assume that language being taught in English and teachers are native speakers in order to narrow the discussed field down to analysis.

3.2 Best suitable teaching situations

3.2.1 Short-time courses

According to Harlow and Linda L (1980) identify that language is used to realize communicative functions and convey meanings. Moreover, language teaching should focus more on the purposes (functions) of using the language and the meanings (notions) expressed through the language rather than grammatical forms. Therefore, a situation of short-term courses teaching where the students have two or three months to reach a given standard of English for a given purpose and are taught by native English teachers would be one of most suitable teaching situations. In this situation, students’ language level is intermediate. Learning content would be a degree of structural competence which students are able to produce a number of grammatical sentences by them, but may not be able to put them to appropriate use. Students also can be given some of the basics necessary for communication such as have the opportunity to talk with the native speakers who are their teachers. From that student will easily learn to be appropriate as they operate in the native speaker environment. After learning in this situation, students can get help for their vital needs and reap benefit from leaning immediately. As lack of the grammatical foundation to generalize and apply, the knowledge which is taught should be restricted in its area of application to meet students’ immediate needs and interests. In this period of restricted time available, teachers should spend time in teaching the use of knowledge and provide students with a general ‘overview’ of how the language operates by covering the main structures (Johnson, 1982).

The language level of students has implications for both the language and methodology employed in the classroom (Harmer, 2001). In this kind of teaching situation, students’ language level is intermediate that they have capacity to apply grammatical structure in the areas of functional use. Moreover, there are two major categories of motivation: instrumental and integrative. The former refers to learners need a language as an instrument to achieve other purposes such as doing a job effectively or studying successfully at an English-speaking institution and latter one implies that learners wish to integrate into the activities or culture of another group of people (Hedge, 2000). Motivation can be linked with needs analysis so that it is an important element to decide whether to adopt a notional-functional syllabus. Meanwhile, White (1988) emphasizes that proponents of the notional-functional syllabus should be considered with which functions will be required for the future roles in which learners are expected to use the target language. It seems that the notional-functional syllabus would supply the functional language content to apply the presence of integrative or instrumental motivation. It would be invaluable to such learners who have certain purpose in the short-term courses. According to above, we can point that the functional-notional syllabus can promote learners’ motivation through meeting their needs and adapt learners’ language level in the short-term course. Therefore, the functional-notional syllabus can play the role fully in this kind of teaching situation.

3.2.2 Private remedial teaching situation

The private remedial course is for students who have already followed one (structural) course, and have failed to learn properly or achieve the communicative purpose. In this kind of course, students either repeat the course or follow a similar one as complementary study. The grammatical knowledge would be provided in a different kind of framework in this kind of course. Comparing with the structural syllabus teaching the rules of grammar, the functional-notional syllabus teaches the rules of use as an additional dimension. Both of rules and rules of use are mastery of the language. The functional-notional approach can word off the tedium which is the potential danger inherent in remedial teaching (Johnson, 1982).

Considering the status as one element of teaching situation, private institution may afford more freedom in which the syllabus is more commercially viable and attractive to potential students. Moreover, Hedge (2000) asserts that the effective and practical syllabus being used in this kind of teaching situation is extremely important. So in this commercial teaching situation, the notional-functional syllabus’s theoretical weaknesses, such as its product-based, synthetic nature (White, 1988), may be seemed as its pragmatic strength. Consequently, the functional-notional syllabus would have a dominant position in the private remedial teaching situation.


The notional-functional syllabus is brought and influenced by both theories of language and language learning/acquisition. And there are clear benefits connected with the notional-functional syllabus associated with a communicative teaching approach and plenty of criticisms exist when put it into practice as well. As considering theories which influence the functional-notional syllabus and characteristics of this type of syllabus, there are two kinds of teaching situations to be discussed are best suitable ones. However, there are also lots of questions haven’t been solved such as: What kinds of particular circumstances are in when students are instructed in the notional-functional approach? How much grammatical knowledge can be assumed? How restricted is the need for English? How long will the students study English? Will they have the time and the opportunity to learn how to apply any grammatical foundation provided in a course? Above these questions it cannot be automatically assumed that which kind of common teaching situation is the best suitable one. However, as a communicative teaching approach, the utility of the functional-notional syllabus will be in a wide range of teaching situations across the world continually.


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