How to teach Language Functions
As a teacher of English, I have often noticed my students having problem in learning functions of language. Theoretically, they learn even much better than we expect but practically they are found struggling with basic functions of language. Almost three or four months ago, when I joined a new school to teach, I was shocked the first time when I heard students having difficulties in choosing and using appropriate language functions. Here basically students were found to have lack of knowledge of language functions. When I came to realize this, I started to talk to my colleagues and principal of school. They also agreed with it and asked me how to make the students learn language functions creating such environment so that students would be able to use them fluently and accurately in practical life. Since then I started to think of and look for the proper ways and techniques of teaching language functions in order to make them capable to use in appropriate time.
Therefore, I as a teacher read different articles and books regarding how to teach language functions to make it easier for my students to use language functions and came up with some ideas. So here in this article, I would like to talk about what language functions are, how language are presented, ways of practicing them, what are the stages of teaching language functions and some activities to teach language functions.
Language functions are the purposes for which human beings speak or write. According to Harmer (2008), “A language function is a purpose you wish to achieve when you say or write (p, 76).” He further claims that by ‘performing’ the function, you are performing an act of communication. Every day we do something including language that has purpose. Language is a vehicle to serve functions. A function in language refers to purpose for which we use utterances or units of speech. Broadly language functions can be classified into two as grammatical functions and communicative functions. Grammatical functions refer to the role of linguistic units in the structure of a sentence. It is the relationship that a constituent has with other constituents in a sentence. According to Richards et al (1991), “Grammatical function is the relationship that a constituent in a sentence has with other constituents.” There are mainly five grammatical functions such as subject, predicate, object, complement and adjunct. For example: ‘Hari plays football’ is a sentence in which ‘Hari’ is subject, ‘plays’ is a predicate and ‘football’ is an object.
Though there are two functions of language, simply function of language refers to communicative functions and here our major concern is to deal with main function of language, communicative function. Communicative function of language is the expressions of ideas, emotions, information, etc. communicative function refers to communicative goal for which language is used as means in the community. In other words communicative function is defined as the purpose for which it is used. Language function is used to get done our work. In community we use language for different purposes such as greeting, apologizing, requesting, advising, and ordering and so on. Ur advocates that “very often functions are ‘binary’; that is to say, the performance of one implies a certain response or set of response which take the form of another, complementary functions. For examples: suggestions and invitations are typically followed by either acceptance or rejection. Most typical language functions are: Inviting, Suggesting, Promising, Apologizing, Requesting, information, Agreeing, Disagreeing, Offering, etc.
Ways of presenting language functions
There are basically two ways of presenting a language functions when teaching grammar: inductive and deductive. Inductively language functions are presented giving different examples of the function and students are asked to identify it. For example: What is the intention of speaker here? What language or expressions has he used to express his intention? And deductively they are presented creating a situation in which the function is needed for asking students to respond to it. We may also ask comprehension questions to check their understanding.
Ways of practicing language functions
There are basically two ways of practicing language functions. They are receptive practice and productive practice respectively. The main aim of receptive practice is to familiarize students with a series of examples of the functions. The Possible activities for receptive practice are: Finding a function in a dialogue or text, classifying a list of functional language (which would you use to say …?) and classifying a list of sentences according to their precise meaning. Similarly, Productive practice is rather controlled practice. The possible activities for it are: Transformations between different examples of a function, question and answer work, situational cues (what would you say in these situations?) and so on.
Stages of teaching language Functions
Just as stages of teaching grammar there are three stages of teaching language functions. Though they are criticized for being limited in certain aspects they are still found to be very useful in teaching language functions. The three stages of it are Presentation, Practice and Production in short P-P-P model.
This is the first stage of teaching language functions in which the teacher presents language functions either in a dialogue form or creating a context. This stage is a pre-stage for communicative activity. In this stage the teacher has a discussion with the students regarding possible exponents for language function to be taught. Adhikari (2012) says that contextualization, identification of participants, motivation and preparation and descriptions of the social settings of the language use are the some activities that we can use here. This is a pre-communicative activity so the teacher has to create the context and should give description to the students in order to make them know where and in which situation such language functions to be used.
This is the second stage in which students are given opportunity to practice language functions presented in the first stage. To provide opportunity to practice they are involved in pair work to conduct mini-dialogues. Mechanical or communicative drills are used as means to practice language functions. In this stage the learners are made to memorize and learn how to use different exponents appropriately in different contexts.
This is the final stage of teaching language functions in which the learners use the language functions freely as in the real life situations. This stage is also known as communicative stage as the learners focus on fluency rather than accuracy. Richards (2006), as cited in Adhikari (2012) says that students practice using new structures and in different contexts often using their own content and information in order to develop fluency with new patterns. Role play, oral games, guessing games, interviews, mini exchange, etc. are some useful activities to teach language functions.
Some other activities to teach language functions
In spite of being very useful and popular to teach both grammar and language functions P-P-P model has been criticized. It is said that it is limited in certain respects. It is claimed that the only three stage of teaching language functions are not enough to teach language functions. As we know teaching of language function is similar to teaching grammar so we can adopt some activities of teaching grammar in it too. Ur (2003), as cited in Adhikari (2012) has presented different activities for grammar practice, such as awareness raising, controlled drills, meaningful drills, guided or meaningful practice, discourse completion and free discourse. Among these activities drills, free discourse and completion discourse are very useful to teach language functions as students should use different language functions in discourse. Learners need to be able to use language functions appropriately in proper situation to make language meaningful. Regarding the focus on meaning and situation of language use, Doff (2010) as cited in Adhikari (2012) claims that there is a way to show meaning through a situation i.e. to think of situations from outside of the class, in which the structure could be naturally be used which may be real or imaginary. So, teacher should create a context and ask learners use different language functions in that context which is one of the techniques to teach language functions. Besides this According to Adhikari (2012) there are different activities which are done using different techniques to teach language functions which are given below.
This is one of the useful techniques to teach language functions. Adhikari (2012) states that it is a type in which the type of response is controlled but the students provide their own content of information (p, 32). For example:
A: Teacher: What were you parents doing when you reached home?
B: Student: They were………………………
A: Teacher: How do you ask your teacher to repeat again if you don’t get him/her?
B: Student: I………………..
The above type of drill is very useful to develop communicative skills of students and can be used to teach language functions.
Pair work and group work:
Though this activity seems more concerned with organizing group, this activity also can be used to teach language functions. Doff (2008) has presented some examples of this activity: pattern practice, practicing short dialogue, discussion, etc. In this activity the teacher provides situation and language functions and gets students to discuss about situation and have dialogues according to context and present to the class.
Information gap activities:
It is the activity which creates need to communicate. In this activity a learner knows the information but rest do not. Here, the listener has to listen carefully at first and later on he/she has to become an informant for some time. Doff (2008) states that to make communicative activity students need to given natural information gap. As presented in Adhikari (2012) some good examples of information gap activities are: discovering missing information, discovering secrets, performing the role of customer and shopkeeper, role of waiter and customer, etc.
The aim of this activity is to create need of using language functions. For this teacher creates a problem in group in order to get students have a great deal of interaction and while interacting with friends they need to use different language function such as, requesting, questioning, describing, refusing, etc. Therefore, we can take it also one of the useful techniques to teach language functions.
In this activity story is presented through small slips of paper part-wise. This technique is also useful to create need to communicate among students as they have to interact either in pair or group keep strip story in proper order. To do this they use different language functions such as describing, negotiation of meaning, asking for clarification, checking, etc. Adhikari (2012 says that students also develop problem solving activity through this technique (p, 31).
Oral games, guessing games, solving the puzzles, etc. are communicative games designed to stimulate communicative activity among the learners. Communicative games are very useful to teach language functions and to motivate learners in learning too.
Oral speech telling stories
We generally do not want to share our experience or story with students but sharing is very useful. Sharing experiences and stories among the students create need of speaking or language use that also help to develop use of language functions. Thus, we call it a technique in which communicative skills are developed through language functions.
Developing other language skills
Language consists of four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. These skills can be developed through language functions too. Language function is very important aspect of teaching language as while teaching them we can develop other skills too. Though main aim of teaching, language function is to make learners speak appropriately according to context but directly or indirectly students also develop other skills.
Though the P-P-P model is more concerned with grammar teaching it is very useful in teaching language functions. Through this model any language function can be taught in an effective way. There are many techniques for teaching language functions and among them role play is a very popular technique; however, the other techniques such as strip story, information gap activity, communicative drill, communicative games, problem solving are also equally useful in teaching language functions. Furthermore, the learners’ other language skills can also be developed through teaching language functions.
The author is doing his Master’s degree in ELT at KUSOED. He is currently teaching in a private school in Kathmandu as a secondary level English teacher.
Doff, A (2008). Teach English. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ur, P (2010). A Course in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harmer, J. (2008). How to teach English. London: Person Longman.