Tying Functional Language In With Your Syllabus

Alex Case
Making sure that all classes get lots of functional language and that those lessons are useful for everyone.

I think most teachers and students would agree that there is a need for more classroom presentation and practice of language for communicative functions such as apologising, thanking, requesting and offering, but there are also obvious pressures in the opposite direction. These include:

  • Teachers having rigid syllabuses that do not allow for adding extra language points
  • Doubts about the efficacy of teaching functional language, e.g. about whether teaching students more common and polite ways of disagreeing will ever stop them just saying “I disagree”
  • The difficulty of grading and testing functional language
  • The ease with which you can usually skip the functional language bit of the textbook, especially as it often has a tenuous connection at best to the rest of the unit and isn’t really recycled in the rest of the book

One good way of tackling most of the issues above is to tie functional language in with other language and skills that are on your syllabus. To give an idea of how it is possible to do so, this article looks at combining functional language with grammar, vocabulary and needs analysis.

Tying Functional Language In With Grammar

A great activity for this is to get them to work together to tell a story with a list of functional language words like “request” and “offer” as practice of reported speech and/or past tenses, e.g. “Yesterday I requested a day off. My boss refused but he offered me a longer lunch break instead…” When they have brought their story to some kind of conclusion, they can brainstorm what people might have actually said to achieve those things and then retell the story with direct speech in it, e.g. “Can I have a day off tomorrow?” “I’m afraid we are far too busy for that. How about a two hour lunch break instead?” etc.

You can do something similar with the Present Simple and reporting verbs by asking students to make true sentences about their partner with “thank” and “complain” such as “You rarely thank shopkeepers”. They can then guess the adverbs of frequency for an average Brit or American, e.g. “British people usually thank shopkeepers” and then brainstorm language that they would need to do those things in English.

For the Present Continuous, you can ask students to mime apologising, refusing an offer etc with gestures, then brainstorm suitable language to do so. This can also be done with pictures of people using body language. Either version is also good for introducing cultural differences in gestures, e.g. that they should be careful which way round their hand is when asking for “two” of something in the UK.

Another activity for Present Continuous is for the teacher to read out a list of language with the same function and whenever the students know what the function is they stick up their hand and say “You are thanking/requesting/complaining”. After labelling the same sections on the worksheets, students can try to make generalisations about the language used with those functions (e.g. “can” and “could” for requests) and then play the same game in pairs.

There is also a nice simple activity that can be used for Present Perfect, Simple Past or future tenses. Each student is given some cards with short functional language responses like “Get well soon”, “Congratulations” and “That’s a shame” written on them. They must try to get exactly that response from their partner by telling them things like “I have broken my leg”, “I passed my test” and “I will have to move to another city”.

Another way of linking between grammar and functions is to simply take one of the meanings of a tense and expand that out to other forms that have the same meaning. For example, “will” for predictions in the book can be linked to “will” for promises and that can then be expanded into other language for promises like “I guarantee that”. The same can be done with:

  • “Will for spontaneous decisions” and offers like “I’ll carry that for you”, “Shall I get you a cup of tea?” and “Can I help?”
  • Second conditional forms like “If I were you” and “If was in your place” and then “I think you should” etc for advice.
  • Indirect questions like “I wondering if…” and then “Could I possibly…?” etc for requests.

With any of these you can also ask students to analyse which of the example sentences that you give them have the more “functional meaning” and which have the more “grammatical meaning”, e.g. which “will” sentences are promises and which are predictions, although note that this is often a difficult distinction to make.

Modal verbs can be tied into functional language by presenting “must be”, “might be” etc for probability/possibility before or after asking them to discuss how likely the out-of-context sentences you give them are to have particular functions, e.g. “’Your coat is on the floor’ must be an order”.

Countable and uncountable nouns and determiners are fairly easy to tie into requests, offers and giving advice, e.g. “I’d make sure you get lots more sleep”.

Tying Functional Language In With Vocabulary

This can easily be done by asking them to use the list of words that you give them in roleplay conversations using the function you want to practice, e.g. asking for advice and giving advice using the love and marriage vocab from the book or on the worksheet with sentences like “My ex keeps phoning me” “You should tell him you’re engaged. It worked for me”.

Combining Functional Language With Needs Analysis

The easiest way of putting together functions and needs analysis is to ask them about what functional language they need, e.g. ranking things like “Making arrangements” and “Inviting” by how often they are likely to need them. They can then brainstorm suitable language for the top choices.

A more indirect way of putting functional language and needs analysis together is presenting opinions language before or after asking them to rank the most useful things to do in class. Another is moving from asking each other questions about language learning to the topic of meeting people and making small talk.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.