Ten questions and answers on 'notional' syllabuses and their compatibility with structural syllabuses
- What is the advantage of a 'notional' syllabus?
A notional syllabus takes desired communicative capacity (i.e. what it is the learner wants to communicate) as its starting point. Language teaching is then organised in terms of content rather than form. It is claimed that a "notional syllabus" will produce communicative competence in the learners and motivation will be sustained.
- Can both semantic and structural realizations be indicated in the index of learning units?
The danger is that learners may assume that there is a one to one relationship between function and form, yet it is nevertheless important for coursebook writers and teachers to consider questions like "what are the most frequent uses of The Present Perfect Tense?" in selecting lesson content for general English courses. Note too the attempts to suggest connections between functions and forms in the Council of Europe's 1980 Waystage and Threshold Syllabus specifications for the pre-intermediate and intermediate levels.
- Will semantic needs correspond with what is grammatically easy?
Those who want to give the impression that notional / functional syllabuses are incompatible with structural ones often quote the example of "How do you do?" as if it were the very first functional language item needed on a visit to the UK. Their argument is that in a structural syllabus, this may not be the first language pattern which a teacher wants to present and that in the context of greetings "How do you do?" is not an example of the Present Simple Tense as in "How do you do that?" (inquiring about a difficult task). However, these days "Hello" or "Hi" would serve a learner perfectly satisfactorily when meeting friends of their host families. Just as the use of phonics in the teaching of reading does not preclude the use of 'the look and say method' (with words like "the", "ghost" and "enough"), structural syllabuses have never in their long history prevented teachers from using rote learning and memory to hold onto bits of language which are very useful but which are easy to explain as syntactic forms. People get by in foreign languages through a combination of naming things and accompanying gestures (pointing, nodding, smiling, grimacing), especially when they are shopping for food. The syntactic forms 'is / are + noun phrase or adjective' are found in the opening units of most English courses for elementary learners, not only because they are grammatically easy but also because the functions of identifying and naming things is very useful - a basic survival skill.
- Is there one simple form to meet each one simple need?
The skill of the English coursebook writer and that, too, of any teacher (whether of languages or sciences) is to provide entry-points into their subjects: i.e. simple models which serve immediate needs, but can be refined in the future (e.g. in formal contexts such as a court of law or certain other occupational settings). The Council of Europe's specifications made good suggestions on how simple syntax may be offered to meet functional needs. Does Notional / Functional design alone offer viable syllabus specifications at lower levels of proficiency? If a linguistic form is so complex that it is very difficult to retain, what is the use in teaching it in the early stages of a course? Having separated the actual needs from linguistic forms, most functions can be recognised through both easier and more difficult forms.
- What is the linguistic character of language teaching material derived from a notional syllabus?
The signposting (in the form of the functional headings used in coursebooks) is at best superfluous clutter (e.g. Say where things are / Give correct information) and at worst confusing (e.g. Cómo expresar las cualidades y actitudes físicas y morales). Gone is the defining vocabulary carefully used in Elementary Learner's English Dictionaries and structurally graded readers. Some of the abstract words used in chapter and section headings are more difficult than the language items taught within, which can create unwanted distractions when teachers are asked to explain them.
The better Notional / Functional course books such as Brian Abbs / Ingrid Freebairn's Building Strategies  set out tables in their Teacher's Book which not only map out Function/Language Focus, but also Topic/Situation and Main Forms as well, giving example too of the latter. Too much metalanguage in Student's Books, derived from different approaches to syllabus design, detracts from the content which teachers really want their learners to notice. Unnecessary descriptions kills the books off as useful working documents.
On the other hand, the avoidance of signposting terms (adjective, noun, definite article, The Past Simple), which are already known by many learners and teachers given the history of grammatical syllabuses, for me is a case of throwing away good working knowledge. Why discard the familiar for something which is worse? Signposting which is ridiculously obvious or too abstract to constitute a useful point of reference is known in my neighbourhood as 'street clutter' and we ask our Local Council to remove it.
The absence of a structural thread, operating alongside a notional / functional syllabus, often has an adverse effect on learners' motivation, especially if they experience variations in difficulty-level which do not constitute a fair challenge. This can affect classroom management.
- Why are global courses (e.g. general English) NOT the most effective field of application of the notional approach?
Until learners are faced with specific challenges (e.g. following a degree in a UK or US university or having to use English in occupational roles, needs are difficult to define. When L2 learners are of school age, especially when English lessons take place in their own countries, the opportunity to actually use language is often deferred. Their first visit to a country where English is widely spoken may be months or years ahead
A notional approach could come into its own, for example, in the teaching of spoken English to immigrants already based in the UK. The setting might be in-company training. Industrial English: An example of theory and practice in functional language teaching for elementary learners by TC Jupp and S Hodlin  was written for just that purpose.
- Why is special course design a more effective field of application for the notional approach?
The notional approach could also come into its own on a limited duration course (X hours) by offering maximum communicative value. When learners have arrived in a setting where their target language is spoken, they may not want to spend their limited stay systematically studying grammatical structures which they could easily learn in their own countries. When learners are involved in English for Specific Purposes, then roles and functions (what they do in their workplaces) usually becomes the priority, especially on 1:1 courses or when groups are screened so that there is really common purpose within them. Just because learners are drawn from the same company (a Steelworks for example), it does not follow that their special needs will be the same. Some may work in the accounts department and others in the hot rolling mill. In practice, it often happens that the need to fill gaps in general English is the most significant common denominator within groups. Guidelines for communicative syllabus design as finely tuned as John Munby's specifications may turn out to be somewhat 'over the top'.
- Would grammatical forms be distributed in the same way as on a special course?
The Structure of Technical English by A. J. Herbert  could be regarded as a special course with its focus on machines such as centrifugal governors, which control the speed of engines. The topics were too specialised to sustain the interest of the learners I taught - all from the same Swedish steelworks. However, what was interesting about the coursebook was the use of common syntactic forms to convey different meanings to those usually encountered on general English courses. Special fields (e.g. Hospital English) involve people in particular concepts which are less common outside of special environments. These concepts can often be communicated either through formal Latinate vocabulary or through shorter Anglo-Saxon words - the same ones which may form part of a general English course at lower levels of proficiency. However, in their special contexts these words often have a different meaning than they do in their more general context. It would be a mistake to separate syntax from meaning, since forms can also take on different meanings in special contexts. These points are best illustrated by looking through handbooks of special usage. Some extend to grammar; others remain entirely with vocabulary. Three of my favourite are:
- Explain the concept of varieties of language (registers). Do the categories of communicative function demand a specific lexicon in general or are they determined by other factors? Which other factors?
As well as special occupational varieties of language (Medical & Business), there are also academic ones (Literary - though this could be occupational too), regional varieties and social ones (the language of travellers, the playground or teenagers or particular groups such as hippies, punks, aristocrats, prisoners). Parameters identified in works on communicative syllabus design include situational context, linguistic context, topic and physical setting. Situational analysis predicts lexical need. Note that Wilkins differentiates the Notional Functional Approach from Situational Syllabus design. Situations cannot always go to plan since individuals are master of what they choose to say (although they have no comparative control of what they hear. The assumption here is perhaps that functional, modal and conceptual meaning are more generic than situation. However, I would defend the Situational Syllabus having heard numerous cabin crews on planes explain safety procedures in English I can understand. Their learning has earned these employees their bread and butter. As an English teacher I contend that it is often possible to predict people's language needs to the extent that I can be helpful to them. The Situational Syllabus certainly has a part to play.
- Why should courses based on the notional syllabus, in particular, pay more attention to receptive competence and the use of authentic materials?
The strength of these courses is that they are less likely to subject learners to structure-speech and can provide opportunities for learners to listen to spoken English as discourse as opposed to series of disconnected questions and answers. In structural syllabus, dialogues used for contextualization (i.e. to embody teaching points focussing on syntax) are often sentence-based. The notional syllabus (witness the use of role play in 'Building Strategies') should be able to offer more. The tum-te-tum effect of meaningless drills used in poor structural syllabuses is not the kind of comprehensible input which will motivate learners, nor is it likely to help them to understand people who converse normally. The use of authentic materials hopefully provides a mix of speakers who don't all speak in slow-colloquial, perhaps some with regional accents and others who use different social and occupational varieties of English i.e. they are not all middle-class language teachers who speak received pronunciation! See: