Teaching Language Functions as a Broader Concept
As a student, I learned English largely through Grammar Translation method, but when I studied the subject “ELT Theories and Methods” in the university, I became aware of much better methods for teaching English. As a result, when I started teaching, I was able to teach my students by using communicative and other methods. I used language functions as a key concept to teach communicative skills, and I found teaching language function very much helpful to develop the other language skills of my students and after a short period of time they were able to speak in English. However, when I studied advanced ELT Methods in Kathmandu University, I began to wonder if role play is sufficient for teaching language functions? Are there other alternative methods for it? How can I develop other skills with the help of language functions?
What are language functions?
In order to do anything with and through language, we take help of the certain exponents of language. The purpose of language use is called language function. As Blundell, Higgens & Middlemiss (2010) state, we only speak or write with a purpose in mind: to help someone to see our point of view, perhaps or to ask their advice or to reach agreement with them. The functional use of language is not only based on certain language structure or grammatical rules, it is how we understand the context and use the language in order to fulfill those purposes. For example, sentences in the imperative form may perform a variety of different functions:
Give me your book. (Order)
Pass the pen, please. (Request)
Turn right to the corner. (Suggestion)
Come to visit us on Saturday. (Invitation)
The above exponents are used by the speaker of language in different situations. Thus, language function refers to the purpose for which an utterance for which a form of language is used as a means of communication.
Stages of teaching language functions
Teaching language function is very similar with teaching grammar. There are three stages of it. The three stages are described below:
This is the first stage of teaching language function. In this stage, the teacher presents a language function either in a dialogue form or by creating context. S/he holds discussion with the students regarding the possible exponents for the language function to be taught. This stage can also be taken as a pr- communicative activity as it is a pre-step to develop communicative activity. Some of these activities are; Contextualization, Description of the social settings of the language use, Motivation and preparation, Identification of the participants, Setting, Acting emotion, determining purpose etc. Doff, Jones & Mitchell (1997) says “This stage is concerned with controlled practice of a new language. It ranges from simple manipulation of structures to more imaginative practice in which students use language in real life situation” (p. 9)
Thus, in pre- communicative activity, the teacher creates the context and provides description on where to use such language function or in which situation.
At this stage, the students are given opportunity to practice language function presented. For this purpose, they may be involved in pairs to conduct mini – dialogues. They practice the language function by means of mechanical, manipulative or communicative drills. In this stage, they mainly memorize as well as learn how to use different exponents and realize their meaning.
This is the last stage of teaching a language function which focuses on using the new language function, in free or real life situation. Richards (2006) says that students practice using the new structures and in different context often using their own content or information in order to develop fluency with the new patterns. Thus, this stage focuses more on the fluency of the language rather than accuracy. Thus, this stage is also known as communicative stage. In this stage, students can be asked to work in pairs or a small group to share the ideas. Some of the activities of this stage are; mini- exchange, role plays, oral games, guessing games, interviews etc. (Note: An example of teaching language function for class nine students using these three steps are presented in appendix).
Some other activities for teaching the language functions
Though the P-P-P model is very popular in teaching language function, it is criticized for being limited in certain functions. (Skehan (1996), as cited in Richards (2006) says “The underlying theory for a P-P-P has now discredited. The belief that a precise focus on a particular form leads to learning and automatization”. Thus, only the three stages of presentation practice and production is not sufficient for teaching language function. Role play is very popular activity to develop language function. More than role play, there are other activities which are very helpful to teach language function. As it is very similar with teaching grammar, we can utilize the techniques of teaching grammar for teaching language function. Ur. (2003) has presented different types of grammar practice such as: awareness, controlled drills, meaningful drills, guided or meaningful practice, discourse composition and free discourse. Among these activities, drills, discourse composition and free discourse are really helpful to teach language function because while writing the discourse students should use different language functions that are used in our daily life. Highlighting the focus on meaning and situation of language used, Doff (2010) says that there is a way to show meaning through a situation i.e. to think of a situation from outside the class, in which the structure could naturally be used which may be real or imaginary. So, a teacher can create a context and ask students to use different language functions in those contexts which also can be a technique of teaching language function. Moreover, some other techniques of teaching grammar are presented below:
Information gap activities
It is an activity in which a learner knows the information but other does not know. It is necessary for communication to occur so that the listener actively decodes and reacts. Then the listener speaks becoming the informants for a while. Some of the information gap activities are; discovering missing information, discovering secrets, the role of customer and shopkeeper.
Pair work or group work
The teacher can provide a situation and language function and ask students to discuss that situation and develop dialogues according to the context and present it in front of the class.
Strip story is a technique of presenting a story part- wise in a small slips of paper called strips. This activity is also helpful to develop communicative activity among the students because students need to discuss in pairs where there can be interaction, thinking and sharing. While sharing the ideas they need to use different language function such as describing, negotiating meaning etc. students also develop problem- solving activity from this technique.
This is also a technique which is very helpful in teaching language function. It is a type of drill in which the type of response is controlled but the students provides his or her own content of information. For example:
What did you do after breakfast? I —————
Say how you greet to your teacher in the morning. ————————–
Thus, this type of drill is also very useful to develop communicative skill of the students and can be used as a technique to teach language function.
The teacher can provide a problem in groups so that they should have to do lots of interaction and while interacting with their friends they should use different language functions. For e.g.; requesting, description, questioning, refusing etc. thus, this is also a helpful technique to teach different language functions.
Communication games are designed to provoke communicative activity among the learners. For e.g. oral games, guessing games, solving the puzzles etc. they are very helpful to teach language function as well as to motivate learners towards learning.
Oral Speech (telling stories or experiences)
While sharing experience or the story among the students, they need to use different types of language function which is more helpful to develop the use of language function. Thus, it is also a technique to develop communicative skill of the language with the help of language function.
Developing other language skills
Teaching language functions is very helpful to develop other language such as: listening, speaking, reading and writing. When we are teaching a language function we can develop other language skills as well and it is the most important aspect of language to develop other language skills.
The main aim of language teaching is for communication and communication of language can be developed when we learn to use language in different context and language function is the way to develop communication among the learners. My experience as I have presented above also shows that teaching language function can help developing speaking skill of the learners. Similarly, above mentioned methods not only help in developing speaking skill but the other skills as well. For e.g. when we are using strip story technique students should speak in order to communicate with their friends as well as they should develop a story based on the strips so that they will use different language functions while writing. They should listen the response of their friends as well as it may be necessary sometimes to read in order to complete the task.
The basic model of teaching language function can be the P-P-P model as in grammar teaching which means presentation, practice and production. Any language function can be taught being based on this model in an effective way. Regarding the techniques of teaching language function, role play is a very popular technique however; there are other techniques such as: strip story, communication games, communicative drill, oral speeches, information gap activities, pair work or group work etc. We can use these methods to teach language function to our learners. Moreover, while teaching language function to our learners we can develop other language skills as well.
Doff, A. (2010). Teach English. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Doff, A., Jones, C., Mitchell, K. (1997). Meanings into words (teacher’s book). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J.C. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ur, P. (2010). A course in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.