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The notional / functional approach

['speech act theory' applied to language syllabus design]

The term "notional syllabus" 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:

The three different types of meaning the learner needs to express are:

  1. Functional (i.e. the social purpose of the utterance)
  2. Modal (the degree of likelihood)
  3. Conceptual - the meaning relations expressed by forms within the sentence (categories of communicative function)

Notional / Functional approach - how new were the ideas?

The ground breaking theoretical work in the UK was Notional Syllabuses [Oxford 1976] by D. A. Wilkins.
However, the ground was not entirely new. Speech Act Theory had been around for some time:

While the Notional / Functional approach should therefore not be credited completely to the second half of the 20th century, it is fair to credit Notional Syllabuses for helping to formalise what was for a time cited by course book writers as the 'Notional/Functional approach' before they seized on the adjective "communicative".


Are 'structural' syllabuses any less natural than other approaches

Ways of structuring courses reflect different underlying approaches to language learning. Wilkins term 'synthetic', to describe structural language syllabuses prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s, involves an unfortunate ambiguity. Structural syllabuses are 'synthetic' in so far as they help learners to build up their language skills. Yet, the adjective 'synthetic' is also used in the dictionary to mean 'unnatural'. Characterising the structural syllabus as 'unnatural' in order to validate something called 'The Natural Approach' as having more to do with communication, was not Wilkins' intention.

The defence of 'structural' syllabuses is their capacity to ensure that those embarking on learning new languages are presented with a fair challenge. Those who argue for the abandonment of structural design, possibly need reminding that all languages are structural. All learners of languages build up their skills partly by recognising and using structural patterns. I know of no language course books for low level learners which do not have a structural thread, no matter how they are otherwise described by authors and publishers.

Further description of the ideas which have been marketed as 'natural' as in 'the natural approach' can be found in Language Two [1982] by Heidi C. Dulay,Marina K. Burt, Stephen D. Krashen. Hard as I tried to absorb these ideas on my MA Course in 1984, they were never as much use in my teaching as less theoretical works such as Streamline Departures structured to provide learners with entry-points into an unfamiliar language system.

At pre-intermediate level, I got on fine with Brian Abbs' and Ingrid Freebairn's Building Strategies, which they billed as a Notional / Functional approach. However, they did not abandon a structural thread. The Council of Europe's Waystage [1980] and Threshold [1980] syllabus specifications - at the pre-intermediate and intermediate levels respectively - also managed to specify a functional syllabus without abandoning reference to structural patterns. There is therefore acknowledgement that control of syntax is needed at lower levels of second language learning and teaching.

I got on less well with coursebooks such as Communicate and Approaches Cambridge 1979. My learners were disorientated by absence of a clear structural thread and did not feel that they were making any progress in their studies. These last two coursebooks enjoyed a disappointingly short shelf-life in the school where I taught. One teacher commented: "they have no meat in them". I assumed that by 'meat' the teacher meant 'the backbone offered by a structural syllabus'.

Food analogies are not altogether helpful in linguistics. Branding one type of syllabus as 'natural' in order to dismiss another type of syllabus as 'synthetic' (when it is deliberately 'synthetic' in a completely different meaning of the term) is especially unhelpful.


Are 'structural' syllabuses uncommunicative?

Another common form of branding or marketing is the use of the adjective 'communicative' to indicate a brand of syllabus invented in recent times which is so superior that there is no need for others to judge whether it is effective in fostering language use. Claiming special ownership of the adjective 'communicative' for a given era or type of syllabus is highly presumptious. 'Communicative' describes the overall purpose of learning and teaching a modern language.

Is it really the case that people trying to organise language teaching, in previous decades / centuries / millenia, have never previously focused on helping others to communicate? The history of language teaching is well documented in:

  1. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Applied Linguistic Research by Stern H.H. [1983] Oxford Applied Linguistics, and

  2. A History of English Language Teaching by A.P.R.Howatt with H.G.Widdowson buy new: 2nd Revised edition [2004] or buy used 1st edition [1984]

Chapter 14 of the latter publication is entitled 'Natural methods of language teaching from Montaigne to Berlitz'. Anthony Howatt cites a variety of labels (Natural Method, Conversation Method, Direct Method, Communicative Approach) which he identifies with communicative language teaching methods. The reference to 'Michel de Montaigne' in the title of the chapter is there to make the point that there was an early example of natural foreign language teaching in the sixteenth century.

Howatt's Chapter 2 - 'Refugiate in a strange country' : the refugee language teachers in Elizabethan London - gives attention to to the language teaching methods used by three refugees 1) Jacques Bellot 2) Claudius Holyband and 3) John Florio. Large numbers of French Huguenot and Protestant refugees fled to London in the 1570s and 1580s. Jacques Bellot set about providing English manuals, including collections of dialogues and conversations for French-speaking refugees. These were much based on the L2 everyday spoken English needs of the non-breadwinners in the refugee families e.g. doing the shopping, getting up in the morning, going to school.

Before the lastest revival of CLT in the late 1970s, communicative approaches had also been revived among native speaking immigrant speakers (e.g. Sauveur and Heness) in America in the 1860s (see Saveur's 'An Introduction to the Teaching of Living Languages without Grammar or Dictionary' (1874).


Different 'Natural Approaches' relate to different & incompatible sets of ideas

Anthony Howatt's review of 'Natural methods' finishes with a description of how 'Direct Method' language teaching was made available from the late 19th century onwards to large numbers of learners, who would not have encountered this methodology in ordinary schools, through the setting up of dedicated Direct Method language schools by Maximilian D. Berlitz (1852-1921). In the UK, the grammar/translation approach to language learning and teaching was prevalent in State schools, top public schools and universities until circa 1970!

As a marketing term, the word 'Natural' is confusing since over time the adjective has been used to publicise very different sets of ideas. When one forgets the label and looks at the ideas, it is immediately clear that one 'Natural Approach' is largely incompatible with to another.

Berlitz's Direct Method, alternatively described as The Natural Method, is very far removed from The Natural Approach' as described in Language Two [1982] by Heidi C. Dulay,Marina K. Burt, Stephen D. Krashen.

The very different 'Natural Approaches' endorsed by Berlitz (in the late 19th century) and Krashen (in the second part of the 20th century) both departed from the use of translation, yet the Direct Method, used successfully in Berlitz and Inlingua schools for over a century, is a 'structural approach'.

Wilkins branded the structural approach as 'synthetic', not to suggest that the language patterns used were 'artificial:

Berlitz and Inlingua schools and many other chains have had a long record of success using the above approach. One still does not see many course books intended for lower levels without a structural thread.


Valid criticisms of many structural syllabuses

The Direct Method, traditionally used in Berlitz, Inlingua and many other private language schools - a behaviourist version of the structural syllabus - did not emphasize explanation of rules, (and certainly not through translation, though no doubt that did occur!). The onus was on 'Stimulus - Response'. It was later 'cognitive' versions of the structural approach which set importance on knowledge of the rules.

Analogous sentences designed to promote inductive learning are present in all structural approaches. I have always found them useful, though I would acknowledge that one of the main weaknesses of many structural approaches, including Berlitz's direct method, was the lack of attention given to discourse e.g. the features such as discourse markers used for reference and to indicate logical relationships within a well constructed paragraph.

Poor versions of structural syllabuses focused almost entirely on sentence-level question and answer. The grammar / translation approach at least involved learners with discourse.

Berlitz Direct Method emphasized spoken English. A fair criticism of the structural syllabus adopted by Berlitz and Inlingua Schools up until circa 1980 was that there was little cultural adjustment. The syllabus followed very similar patterns and vocabulary, regardless of whether the target language was French, British English, American English, German, or Spanish. To achieve this, much of the content was question and answer at sentence-level. What was being offered as spoken language oftened resembled a kind of structure-speech, lacking in the features which one would find in conversation between native speakers.

Interest among language syllabus designers in DISCOURSE (both spoken and written) gathered pace during the 1970s. The expansion in the ELT market (e.g. English for Academic Purposes: the need of university students to write essays in second languages) also led to recognition that reading and writing skills requiring an understanding of discourse (e.g. topic development within a paragraph) was being neglected. L2 students found themselves listening to university lecturers who did not speak to them in short perfectly formed sentences and in received pronunciation.

There was a parallel expansion during the 1970s in the teaching of English for specific purposes to L2 learners. Removed from the context of General English, forms like "will" (This machine will print 10 pages per minute) can relate to CAPACITY rather than TIME. Although a structural approach can accommodate more than one meaning and can also work with single occupational varieties of English, is clearly possible (See A.P. Herbert's 'The Structure of Technical'), more focus on the relation between syntax and semantics is required to make the point that isn't a one-to-one relationship between form and meaning.


Refinements to structural syllabuses during 1970s and 80s

During the 1970s and 80s, with the influence of works such as Robert O'Neill's 'English in Situations', the structural syllabus improved in quality:

[i] a cognitive dimension was added to many language course designs providing greater focus on i) meaning ii) insight into the underlying rules [Transformational Grammar!] and iii) the role of mistakes in earmarking the need for greater conceptual awareness.

[ii] by the end of the 1970s, The Council of Europe's Waystage [1980] and Threshold [1980] syllabus specifications marked the need for both structural and functional syllabus threads.

Direct Method language courses such as 'Nuffield En Avant French' had already used both structural and situational criteria for selecting content, though functional criteria became an added strand both in language coursebooks (e.g. Strategies) and examination syllabuses (e.g. the revised Cambridge First Certificate; the new Cambridge PET

These demonstrations that twin structural and functional syllabuses can operate side by side answer criticisms which should only be addressed to poor structural syllabuses which emphasize syntax at the expense of semantics:

The great strength of structural syllabuses is the emphasis on language patterns to assist in the generative use of language and therefore to facilitate communication. In selecting content words, the better structural syllabuses also involve themselves in functional language and both the immediate and deferred needs of language learners.


The extract below, written by Robert O'Neill, is published in English for Specific Purposes Modern English Publications Limited 1977 ISBN 0 906149 00 2

Robert's criticisms of functional/notional syllabuses, in this article, would equally apply to communicative language teaching syllabuses.

The gist of the article is that language use can be so personal that no notional/functional or communicative syllabus designer could predict that a child would want to tell a teacher that 'her guinea pig died with its legs crossed'. Julian Dakin recounts that this was uttered by an eight-year old girl in a tape-recorded interview.

However, structural syllabus design fosters the generative use of language and allows speakers to form sentences that have never been uttered previously.

The article draws quite extensively from Julian Dakin's Language Laboratory and Language Learning Longman 1973, yet states Robert O'Neill's experience and beliefs about structural and communicative language teaching very clearly in some of the best of his own writing.

Extract from: The limits of functional/notional syllabuses - or
'My guinea pig died with its legs crossed' by Robert O'Neill

There is in my mind, and in my teaching and writing, a constant and often uneasy tension between the desire to teach what I hope will be directly useful to the learner and the desire also to help the learner acquire the generative framework without which no communication is possible. And to do this at all there are at times, frankly, when I feel compelled to abandon the claim that what I am doing is going to be of any use I can foresee at the time. Often I have to address myself to other needs than the learner's "communicative" ones. And even, sometimes, when I know there are language operations the learner will have to carry out just outside the classroom, I defer teaching for these needs in order to meet still greater needs, For example, in the beginning stages there is the need to help the learner feel he or she can actually learn. This is perhaps the greatest need of all. And huge numbers of those who begin learning a language never get beyond the rudiments because they are defeated at this level. They are not helped by teachers who think only of 'communication'. By teachers who do not try to predict some of the major phonological and structural problems the learner will have in trying to communicate. By teachers who do nothing to help the learner, in some kind of flexible but orderly fashion, to come gradually to grips with these difficulties and slowly to master at least some of them.

At the very beginning, a foreign language seems to the learner like a brutal and wild barrage of strange sounds, words, noises, letters and stringings-together of structures. If you simply march your troops into the loudest bits of gunfire, the 'communicative situations' you can be pretty sure they will have to deal with, you are more likely to give them a bad case of shell shock than help them to survive. Some teachers, aware of this danger, create in their classrooms an atmosphere from which the sound of real action is forever banished. Everything is ordered according to some rigid and internal notion of simplicity and learnability, and usually the result is that nothing worth learning ever gets learned. Other teachers, more wisely I think, remain concerned with both communication and the problems of learning the system behind it. They organise their teaching so that the needs of both the system and the communicative functions it is used for are kept in some kind of equilibrium. For instance, they begin with what they feel, often intuitively, to be fairly accessible entry-points into the system. The learner can reach them without excessive effort and damage to his or her confidence. These entry-points may be structures like "My name is...", "This is...(an introduction)", "I live in...", "He lives in...". But these are chosen not only brcause they are accessible but also because they are likely to be very useful. And from the very beginning they can be manipulated by the learner with some degree of creativity. Perhaps at this point they go on to the Present Progressive, much like Dakin's story.

Click here for full text of the article (used with Robert O' Neill's permission)


Successful course books based on Notional / Functional design

D. A. Wilkins' metalanguage from his seminal work Notional Syllabuses [Oxford 1976] got carried over into more than a couple of successful coursebooks. Language teaching theory was moving in a similar direction in the USA and in other parts of Europe, though many authors continued to acknowledge John Searle's Speech Acts rather than D.A. Wilkins' Notions and Functions for drawing attention to semantic criteria. Taxonomies with titles such as Los Actos de Hablar found their way into school and university collections in Spain.

Less successful course books of the late 1970s and early 1980s by other writers, who were good at espousing the theory, included:


Successful course books of 1970s and 80s based on a multi-syllabus approaches

The most successful coursebooks of the late 1970s and the 1980s were more eclectic than the clearly synthetic designs of the two previous decades. Concession was made to language use, semantics or meaning without necessarily adopting D.A. Wilkins's metalanguage (i.e. terminology such as "functions" or "notions"). However, these multi-syllabus / multi-skill coursebooks clearly retained a structural thread and some continued to lean heavily on drilling:

  1. Robert O' Neill's Kernel One [1979] and Kernel Two [1982]. These have a good structural thread as well as a narrative with central characters. Supplementary to Kernel One are drills and pronunciation exercises by Robert O'Neill and Muriel Higgins: Tapescript to these.

  2. Bernard Hartley's & Peter Viney's Streamline Departures [1978], Streamline Connections [1979], Streamline Destinations [1981] and Streamline Directions [1985].
    Streamline Departures was one of the most successful structural syllabuses of the 1970s and 80s. Supplementary exercises suitable for the language laboratory exist at each level. The word 'Speechwork' is added to each title.

  3. Brian Abbs & Ingrid Freebairn's Strategies [1975], Starting Strategies [1977], Building Strategies [1979 & 1984], Developing Strategies [1980], Studying Strategies [1982], Opening Strategies [1985].

    'Building Strategies' [1979] was the first of the series to mention Notional / Functional syllabuses in its Teacher's Book, though the earlier 'Strategies' [1975] also moved some distance towards 'communicative syllabus design'.

  4. Michael Swan & Catherine Walter's The Cambridge English Course 1 [1984]; The Cambridge English Course 2 [1985]; The Cambridge English Course 3 [1987]

    Revised versions of these coursebooks were published The New Cambridge English Course 1, 2 & 3 in larger formats to equal the size of coursebooks in Oxford University Press's Streamline series. While I liked the well balanced course design of the original series, I felt it was a mistake to bring out new versions. Since the content had changed only slightly, it was confusing for schools which held class sets of both versions and there were some unhappy mix-ups when learners purchased the wrong ones. The trick of forming a coursebook title by adding the adjective "New" to a title already established as a market leader was also used by Oxford University Press. However, when the New Headway series was brought out, the content of the coursebooks was completely changed, so each new book at each level of proficiency established an identity of its own, usually bettering the previous offering. I felt that the quality of the orginal 1991 Headway Pre-intermediate was hard to beat - the coursebook worked seamlessly on most occasions that I used it.

  5. John & Liz Soars' Headway Intermediate [1986]; Headway Upper Intermediate [1987] and Headway Pre-intermediate [1991]

  6. Robert O'Neill's and Patricia Mugglestone's Fourth Dimension [1986] and Third Dimension [1989]

It is worth noting the influence on coursebook design [especially at pre-intermediate and intermediate levels] exerted by The Council of Europe. Their earliest Waystage [1980] and Threshold [1980] syllabus specifications followed a twin syllabus approach by listing notions & functions and listing syntactic forms (suitable for lower levels) which could realise those functions.

For a chronological account of the important developments in English language teaching methodology from 1400 to the present day, try
A History of English Language Teaching by A.P.R.Howatt with H.G.Widdowson buy new: 2nd Revised edition [2004] or buy used 1st edition [1984]


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