Thursday, 2 February 2012

Remembering and Reusing Functional Language - an #Eltchat Summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12noon GMT on Wednesday 1st February, 2012.  The full title of the chat was:

How to help students remember and reuse functional language

I was joining the chat for the first time since relocating to Vietnam a few months ago, but was immediately made to feel welcome - just like I'd never been away!  The discussion was moderated superbly by @Marisa_C and @Shaunwilden and was, as usual, informative and thought-provoking.....

How do we define 'functional language'?
We started the discussion by defining our terms.  @SimonGreenall's definition - 'Functions and their exponents are the practical realisation in language acts of theoretical structures' - though mightily impressive, needed translating into layman's terms for the mere mortals amongst us!  @TeachEslToday suggested that, 'Functions are the practical realisation of grammar, grammar put into the real world'. There was broad agreement that we were talking about language which fulfills a specific purpose - making requests, offering to help, making suggestions, apologising, interrupting, making a phone call, giving thanks, taking your leave, giving directions, ordering in a restaurant, etc..  We also concurred that functional language begins at starter level with exponents such as classroom language, telling the time and greetings and, because many of them are fixed expressions, they can be learnt relatively easily even if they are structurally complex.  For example, we can teach, 'Would you like to.....?' 'Yes, I would/no, I wouldn't' at beginner level in a functional syllabus, but not until much later in a grammar/structure driven syllabus.

@TeachEslToday made the distinction between 'functions' (what people want to do with the language) and 'notions' (the meanings people want to convey) and suggested that any syllabus must be based on learners' social communicative needs which would involve both.   

@PatrickAndrews posed the question, 'Doesn't all language fulfill a function?'  This was largely agreed with, though it was pointed out that the function which particular language fulfills depends on the context.

@Marisa_C summed up this part of the discussion by asking us - 'So do we all agree that morphology rules (of form) are not enough - meaning/concept/notion are important, but function and intention are crucial?'

So to the focus of the chat:

How do we help students to remember and reuse functional language?

It was widely felt that the best way to help students remember this language was to give them a context, a personal one, if possible.  Merely giving them lists of functions is not enough as it isn't generative and it doesn't help students to sort language.  It was pointed out that functions are most often taught around a context and/or situation anyway and that coursebooks introduce them in this way so that even the most clueless teacher has a chance!  We all seemed to agree that the communicative approach was best and that we needed to make students see the practical use of the language through roleplays, live listenings, dialogues, and getting them to use the functions to speak about themselves, their world and their experiences.  It was pointed out that it is probably easier to contextualise language to adults rather than to children as adults have more experience to refer to.

Before we got carried away with the idea that context is the be all and end all, though, @Marisa_C reminded us that, whilst it is the key for memory, form awareness is more generative. 

So, how do we get students to notice functional language?  @ShaunWilden suggested that a natural step would be to use the transcripts of listening exercises, something which I make a point of doing every time.  @michaelegriffin's advice was to use test-teach-test, where students do a roleplay using the language, then hear it done by others and then do it again.  @Marisa_C agreed, but added that well-taught ppp for lower levels was also effective.

Once students have noticed the language, they have to be taught how to sort it, in terms of formality, for example.  This could be done by giving them a range of roleplays, each showing a different use, from formal to casual.  Students could also do roleplays where they choose their own level of formality and classmates have to guess the identity of and relationship between the participants.  A handy tip for students would be to tell them that the more complicated the exponent, the more formal it is (e.g. 'Would you mind awfully if ....').

We were advised by @OUPELTGlobal not to give too many examples of a particular function when teaching it as that can make remembering it difficult.  Limiting the number of forms to the level is key.

Repetition is also important for remembering functional language.  Constant exposure to the form and repeated use of it are crucial.  Drilling is especially useful as intonation in functional exponents is very important and often neglected.  I agree with this, but voiced my concern that perhaps we should be wary of too much emphasis being placed on intonation.  My students love to ham it up and can end up sounding ridiculous!  However, as Shaun and Marisa pointed out, at least if they are hamming it up deliberately, then they know what the intonation should be and they can always be encouraged to tone it down in a real-life situation.  @TeachEslToday gave us a good tip when teaching intonation - students listen to a short dialogue from a movie they like and then they try to imitate the intonation using the transcript.

When it comes to reusing functional language, @ShaunWilden told us that he likes using video without sound so that students have to guess the exponents from the situation and paralinguistic features.  Comic strips could be used in a similar way.

We were also reminded of the value of live listenings in that they demonstrate real language in use complete with pauses, repetitions, doubts, etc. - something that students have to get used to.

Useful links

Book recommendations

  • 'Function in English' (1982) J. Blundell, J. Higgins & N. Middlemiss - currently out of print, but highly recommended by @Marisa_C.
  • 'Variations on a Theme' - a book giving the same dialogue, but in different contexts - very good for intonation.


  1. Andrea,

    Thanks for the write up (and I'm very glad to have found your blog). I can never make the 2nd #ELTchat because of tiime lag, so this write up is full of great info I would have missed. I do wonder how people feel about the ELF movement and how it impacts the idea of functional language. When English is used as a tool for international communication between two non-native speakers from different countries, how do functional language structures change? How can we prepare our students for those situations?


  2. Hi Kevin,

    It's a good question, especially as most communication made in English today involves at least one non-native speaker. I think the best we can do is to teach the most commonly used forms and structures for functions and do our best to avoid colloquialisms, particularly at lower levels. For higher levels, or for students who will be travelling to a particular country (for business, for example), we can expose them to the forms they are likely to come across.

    Thanks for the comments!