The Notional-Functional Approach to Language Syllabus Designing

The Notional-Functional Syllabus is based on the pragmatics of learning another language. It is structured on the functions of language in a culture. Notion means, in this sense, "general (abstract) ideas and specific (contexts or situations) idea," and function means "authentic tasks that can be accomplished using language," and "syllabus" means "the plan for a particular course,” So a Notional-Functional Syllabus is a theory of actions for the study of a second or foreign language. It cannot be called a methodology, because it does not delineate specific teaching methods. Experts say that when we use language, we use some ideas and it has some functions, or when we perform some certain actions, we express some emotions. We use language for performing certain functions and notions which is addressed in Notional- Functional approach to language syllabus designing. The basic units of notional-functional syllabus are language functions and notions. Whereas ‘functions’ refer to the purpose of using language, ‘notions’ refer to conceptual meanings. Both functions and notions are used to present the target language to the learner. Therefore, functional/notional syllabuses are based on what people want to do through language. Examples of ‘functions and ‘notions’ are given below: Functions and Notions Introducing duration Greeting frequency Agreeing time The experts in syllabus designing thought that if we can introduce the students to all the notions and functions, it will be more effective. That’s why they introduced the NotionalFunctional approach. D.A. Wilkins (1976) is the main exponent of the Notional- Functional approach.


Wilkins' criticism of structural and situational approaches lies in the fact that they answer only the 'how' or 'when' and 'where' of language (Brumfit and Johnson. 1979:84). Instead, he enquires "what it is they communicate through language". Thus, the starting point for a syllabus is the communicative purpose and conceptual meaning of language i.e. notions and functions, as opposed to grammatical items and situational elements which remain but are relegated to a subsidiary role. In order to establish objectives, the needs of the learners will have to be analyzed by the various types of communication in which the learner has to confront. Consequently, needs analysis has an association with notional-functional syllabuses. A notional-functional syllabus is more a way of organizing a language learning curriculum than a method or an approach to teaching. In a notional-functional syllabus, instruction is organized not in terms of grammatical structure as had often been done with the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM), but in terms of “notions” and “functions.” In this model, a “notion” is a particular context in which people communicate, and a “function” is a specific purpose for a speaker in a given context. As an example, the “notion” or context shopping requires numerous language functions including asking about prices or features of a product and bargaining. Similarly, the notion party would require numerous functions like introductions and greetings and discussing interests and hobbies. Proponents of the notionalfunctional syllabus claimed that it addressed the deficiencies they found in the ALM by helping students develop their ability to effectively communicate in a variety of real-life contexts. Communicative language teaching came from the Notional-Functional Syllabus, but a Notional-Functional Syllabus cannot be called Communicative language teaching because it doesn't teach communicative competence. What the Notional-Functional Syllabus is made to do is to give what should be focused on for language learners. If there were a NotionalFunctional Syllabus book, some of the chapters would be like this in order: Introductions, Greetings, Good-Byes.

The Notional Functional Syllabus emerged from the inadequacy and drawback of the earlier approaches. Experts were not satisfied with previous approaches to language syllabus


designing. The Notional Functional Syllabus appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a reaction to the structural syllabus, which emphasized strongly on sequenced grammatical forms. Proponents of communicative approaches to syllabus design maintain that a grammatical syllabus is neither necessary, nor effective in language learning. The shortcoming of the structural model is that language form takes precedence over meaning. This model emphasizes linguistic competence over communicative competence and offers language samples outside their social and cultural contexts, making transfer of learning from the classroom to the real world rather difficult. A further drawback, as Wilkins points out, is its effect on motivation. While some learners might see value in long-term grammar study for the benefit of future performance, many students want an immediate return for their efforts. The situational syllabus recognizes that language is always used in a social context that influences meaning and therefore uses a series of situations (usually in dialogue form) that the learners are most likely to encounter when traveling abroad, such as finding a room, ordering a meal, buying stamps, traveling by train, or getting around town. Wilkins considers this type of syllabus more efficient and more motivating than the grammatical syllabus because it centers on practical needs rather than abstract analysis. The shortcoming of the approach, however, as Wilkins points out, is that a physical situational setting such as “At the Post Office” or “In a Restaurant” does not necessarily predict the language forms that will be used. One may go into a restaurant not to order a meal but to ask directions to a nearby museum or to change money for a telephone call. While certain language functions will most likely occur in certain situational settings, physical setting cannot really predict language use. A further problem, not inherent in the situational approach but caused by its strong ties to the grammatical syllabus in many existing materials, appears in the “seeded” dialogues, which both illustrate recurrent grammatical patterns and present practical phrases for a situational context. Often these dialogues include discourse that would never be used in natural language. Thus, language as practiced in the classroom and language as spoken in the real world often have little in common.


A situational syllabus, particularly if it is not tied to a grammatical progression, is probably most appropriate for short-term special-purpose courses: giving prospective tourists survival skills or preparing service personnel, such as waiters or waitresses, to deal with routine requests or fire fighters to handle emergency situations. It has limited potential for the language learner interested in acquiring global language proficiency. The notional-functional syllabus is primarily based not on a linguistic analysis but on an analysis of learners' social and/or vocational communicative needs. The notionalfunctional concept originated in Europe in the early seventies through the efforts of the Council of Europe. Language notions and functions were studied to devise a unit-credit system for adult language learners who need to become functional in a language, usually outside the traditional school curriculum. A notional syllabus is based on the premise that communication is meaningful behavior in a social and cultural context that requires creative language use rather than synthetic sentence building. Content, meaning, and context take priority over form. Grammatical structures are taught not as an end in themselves but as a means of carrying out communicative functions such as evaluating, persuading, arguing, informing, agreeing, questioning, requesting, expressing emotions. The syllabus also deals with semantico-grammatical notions such as time, quantity, space, location, motion, and agent.

Barnett lists the following characteristics of notional functional approaches: 1. A functional view of language focusing on doing something through language; 2. A semantic base, as opposed to a grammatical or a situational base; 3. A learner-centered view of language learning; 4. A basis in the analysis of learner needs for using language that is reflected in goals, content selection and sequencing, methodology, and evaluation; 5. Learner-centered goals, objectives, and content organization reflecting authentic language behavior and offering a spiraling development of content; 6. Learning activities involving authentic language use; and 7. Testing focused on ability to use language, to react to and operate on the environment.


She explains further that a notional-functional approach focuses on 1. sentences in combination instead of the sentence as the basic unit in language teaching; 2. meaning over form; 3. relevance of what is taught for meeting the immediate and future language needs of learners; 4. participation in authentic language use; and 5. Effectiveness, fluency, and appropriateness in learner performance over formal accuracy. In a notional-functional syllabus students are oriented to real life situations. It enables students to use the language actively in limited contexts outside the classroom right from the beginning. It also promotes language variation and creativity, since students may choose a variety of expressions and a number of grammatical patterns for each communicative function. A notional-functional syllabus has some disadvantages as well. Meaning varies from culture to culture as it is culture or context specific. Again, critics point out that communicative syllabi and notional syllabi in particular may only prepare for tourist-level activities and, more seriously, may hamper further language study by not emphasizing linguistic accuracy. They warn that deemphasizing form and concentrating on meaning may lead to irreversible error fossilization. Finally, we can say that the notional-functional syllabus is one of the important approaches to language syllabus designing. Despite its certain faults and drawbacks, it achieved the status of orthodoxy in the 1970s. It has proved the most popular alternative to the formal/structural/grammatical syllabus. The End


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