The limits of functional/notional syllabuses - or
'My guinea pig died with its legs crossed' [Julian Dakin 1973 & Robert O'Neill 1977]


I have recently been reading a story about a crow, a hen and a rat. It was designed for immigrant children learning English. The three animals gambol about in front of a sleeping tiger. In the end they almost get eaten. You may be wondering what all this has to do with Functional/Notional syllabuses. For me, the story and the book it is in go to the heart of most of the central issues.


The book is the late Julian Dakin's The Language Laboratory and Language Learning. In import it goes far beyond the narrow scope of the first part of the title. I doubt that you would agree with everything in it. But reading it would probably make you think about and question almost everything you do in the classroom.


Very little in the story, which is called Mr Tiger Is Sleeping, would appear to have any communicative value. At least, not according to strict functional, notional criteria. And it offends all sorts of other basic precepts, too. In particular it would seem to break rules like "First predict the situations the learner is likely to use the language in. Then identify the language functions the learner will have to perform. Then teach the language necessary to perform those functions." And it also breaks precepts like "Teach this language in situations the learner will be familiar with, within the range of his or her everyday experience." After all, how many immigrant kids are going to have anything to do with sleeping tigers? Particularly in Bradford or Leeds! Measured by such criteria, a lot of the language is bizarre, even grotesque. It is very rarely 'natural', for example. The characters ask themselves foolish questions like "What can I see?". They utter requests like "Please don't eat me!" They chant silly songs:


We're walking, we're walking, we're walking.
We're skipping, we're skipping, we're skipping.
We're jumping, we're jumping, we're jumping.
Mr Tiger is sleeping.
He can't catch me.


Does any of this, we might ask, communicate information the learner will wish to communicate in everyday life? What possible relevance can this be to the learner?


And yet for me, the story would probably succeed exactly where a great deal of material designed on strict functional/notional criteria would probably fail. First of all, it is memorable. And through it, so is the language. And though you can't imagine any of the children using this kind of language in this exact form in their own lives, it does not take much modification for it to have wide application in all sorts of situations we cannot foresee. For example, almost all the verbs are very useful, even if they do occur here in the Present Progressive. But at least the form makes it possible for them to be adapted later into past and future forms, through reference to fairly regular rules. And that odd "Please don't eat me!" illustrates, of course, the structure of negative requests. Dakin reports that these began to occur spontaneously in the children's conversation shortly after they had heard the story. This was unplanned and unforeseen. The form was meant more for recognition, apparently, and not for production.


My thesis here is simple. You cannot judge materials or a lesson through reference to narrow functional/ notional criteria alone. An approach based solely upon such criteria is likely, ultimately, to be sterile and unpalatable. It is like food cooked and evaluated according only to the principle "It should be nourishing." There are other equally important considerations. What is more, the idea that "everything I write or teach must be seen to be of direct value to the learner in situations we can predict he or she will encounter" is based on a delusion. Secondly, it cannot be carried out. Thirdly, if you try to do so, you will debauch the concept of communication itself.


And what, then, is communication and what are its preconditions? This is what Dakin says:


"Communication is essentially personal, the expression of personal needs, feelings, experiences and knowledge, in situations that are never quite the same. And though we may often repeat ourselves, much of our conversation about even the most mundane matters is to some degree novel. We hear or produce utterances that we have never heard or produced before in quite the same form, and which, in consequence, cannot be practised by the teacher or previously learnt by the learner. 'My guinea pig died with its legs crossed' said one eight-year old girl in a tape-recorded interview. No teacher is going to present such an utterance as serious material for drilling in the classroom or laboratory." (pages 6-7)


Whether more than one child will ever want to talk about its guinea pig dying with its legs crossed, uncrossed, or with little boots on, is not important. Very little of what we may want to say will be this striking. But almost all of it will be equally novel. Ask a language class of six adults "What did you do last night?". If you are seriously interested in the answer, and actually wait for it, you will find perhaps that one watched TV, the other went to a brothel, the third had a strange religious experience, the fourth had a disgusting and overpriced meal, the fifth witnessed an accident and the sixth spent the evening playing whist. It would clearly be impossible for you as the teacher to have predicted what each learner will want to say or to have given them before the language necessary in that form. So either you should never have asked the question at all, or have included in your teaching a strong element of something else. What?


The answer, of course, is what D A Wilkins, whose work underlies so much functional/notional teaching, calls "generalising grammar learning". A generative framework. A system for internalising from what others say the capacity to say what only you want to say. It is what Chomsky, drawing upon a vast historical tradition, re-emphasised twenty years ago. And we don't have to accept the rest of what he has said to agree: without this there can be, in Wilkins' words, no language, only language-like behaviour. The question is not whether this is one of the primary needs in communication. The question is whether we can teach it. And how? And how can we be sure the learner ends up not just learning the system but the main uses to which it is put?


There is in my own 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 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 the 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 because 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. The learners themselves may not use this form very much in their own lives to tell others what they are doing. But at least the form makes it easy to demonstrate the meaning of many verbs. And they can be practised. The first faltering attempts to get one's tongue around some of the strange sounds can be made. As quickly as possible, long before the full meaning of the Present Progressive form itself has been learned, these verbs are transferred into forms that are immensely more useful, such as "Can you ... ?" or "Did you...yesterday?" The past itself is taught. At the same time, a lot of other things are taught like numbers, the days of the week, the months, the names of things the student may want to ask for or ask about or see in his or her daily routine.


These are rarely linked to specific functions, like getting information, etc. But the teacher can be reasonably certain they will occur in a whole variety of functions the learner will be exposed to. And so the learner will be given at least some help in understanding what is being said, or in saying something himself, however imperfectly.


And the generative forms themselves that are taught at this stage, such as "Do you ...?" "Can you ... ?" "Did you . . . ?" with their corresponding indicative forms, are taught less because they realise one function alone but because they, too, can be used with a great variety of them. "Can you ... ?" will be used for getting information. And for making simple requests. And with modification for asking permission. "Have you got... ?" will be used to express need ("Have you got a light?") and also to get information. These forms are both essential building-blocks in the system and essential tools in thousands of situations nobody can really predict. I do not think at this stage we should try to give them narrow labels, like "expressing needs and desires", and so on. The label will often be more difficult than the language under the label. And usually it will be unnecessary. The situations the forms occur in should be chosen to make the nature of the function clear. For example, does a learner actually have to be told that "Can you tell me the way to ... ?" is a means of asking for directions when the form occurs in a conversation between a tourist who could hardly be doing anything else, and a policeman whose job it is obviously to give them?


But at the same time the wise teacher will be probably doing other things as well. For example, he or she will probably be increasingly aware of the difference in the group between what Dakin calls "the external syllabus" and "the learner's internal syllabus". The two are never quite the same. And the second always varies from learner to learner. Different learners require different things at different times and show varying abilities to absorb and assimilate them. This is the internal syllabus. There are three steps we can take to try to reconcile the external syllabus (our own chosen order and pace of advance) with the many internal syllabuses in the group:

  1. In the external syllabus we can concentrate at first upon those forms we know to be essential building blocks of the system and which are also of high, general communicative application (realising a variety of functions).
  2. We can include outside this, either in separate, distinct parts of our lessons or materials, or generally distributed within them, a variety of forms and lexis as well as techniques for understanding them which may be absorbed by different individual learners at different times according to the needs of their internal syllabuses.
  3. We can keep returning constantly to the basic forms in the external syllabus and with less intensity to the va'rious forms in the internal syllabuses.

This last approach is the principle of cyclical concentric teaching. It specifies that there is no one particular point at which we can expect all the learners in the class to have acquired a particular form. The fact that I taught "Did you . . . ?" with high-frequency regular verbs or irregular ones on Friday, April 22 does not mean I should think they were absorbed then. I must return to them time and time again, observing the different levels of achievement in coping with them in the class, noting the difficulties, linking such forms to an ever increasing range of communicative functions. So, I do not say "Now, you stupid blockheads, we're going to do questions in the past again!". Instead, I might present them in contexts where they are used simply as questions ("Did you see that film last night?") and later perhaps as expressions of doubt ("Did you really win all that money?") The overt emphasis at this point might be to make the learner aware of the different function the form is serving. Covertly I am still giving practice, too, in the mechanics of a particular form which learners must absorb in order to communicate effectively at all, regardless of its function.


The second step arises from Dakin's observation that "Different learners may need different experiences and different kinds of problems." But unlike him I do not fully accept that "Any number of structures of new structures can be introduced at once to see which ones he (the learner) can absorb." Some new structures, yes. But not "any number ". We have to face the fact that we can never know which new structures can be absorbed by which learner. But if we inject them promiscuously, willy-nilly into the external syllabus, we are more likely to create bewilderment than the conditions of effective learning within the individual learner. Unless we adopt some kind of paradigmatic, measured approach, we can never through experience with different groups discover what the elements of flexibility with them must consist of. In any case, it cannot be and never will be our job to cater for the needs of each individual learner inside the classroom itself. There, our approach must be based on the assessment "what is it possible to do to meet the greatest number of common learning needs in the whole group". But we often forget, or are blind to the possibilities of what lies outside the classroom. We can encourage learners to read, to watch, to listen, to take part. We can give them some survival techniques that will help them to understand at least the general meaning of what they hear and see. And through this interaction, not between us and them but between them and the world outside, they will begin to become aware of their own particular learnings needs and to teach themselves the means of satisfying them.


It is very unlikely that many learners will ever be aware of their needs in the terms of Dr J A van Ek's The Threshold Level (Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 1975). And I think it is both fruitless and unnecessary to try to specify everything we do in such terms. A model such as Dr van Ek's is a good basis for a model of what a learner should eventually learn to do with the language. It can never specify the exact means. These means will vary enormously from learner to learner. Language needs are, in this respect, not all that different from financial 'needs'. Where once a bike was enough, nothing less than a fast, four-door saloon will do. And so it is in language. At first, instead of asking the way, we peer at street names or buy a map. In our hunger, we often point to unpronouncable, strange things on the menu and hope it is not some loathsome delicacy only the natives can stomach. Later we learn to say it. And still later, perhaps, we learn how to get the waiter to explain what the other things on the menu are. In short, our language needs grow with our language resources. The more we can say, the more want to say. This is certainly not an argument for keeping learners at artificially low levels of language performance. But neither is it justification for supposing that they can learn to perform effectively with the language only if they accept our definition of what 'effective performance' is. Just as there are as many ways of learning as there are learners, so there are almost as many ways of 'performing effectively' as there are performers. Ultimately this is a subjective evaluation, made by the learner and the people he has to interact with, and not by us.


We cannot teach people to communicate in a foreign language if we become obsessed in everything we do with specific, clearly-defined functions and purposes. Some of the most important things we teach will not be taught with any specific communicative aim in mind, like "inviting" or "rejecting advice". We cannot be certain exactly what use the learner will make of the language we teach. We cannot be certain how useful this will be to him or her in individual situations. We cannot even teach the language itself. We can only give the learner the basic tools of creating language. In doing this, we will have to be aware of all sorts of other things besides narrow functional or notional aims. Things like the need to be interested, the need to be able to adapt, the need sometimes simply for change, the need to feel that the effort one is putting into learning is worth the result. These are not measured by the learner in quite the same way we might draw up a communicative syllabus. Instead, they are often assessed in terms like "Does this make me laugh?" "Do I like this story and can I read it?" "Does this help me to understand what I have just been studying and why I should learn it?"


These may not be the initial reasons a learner starts learning. (How many learners are ever aware of these reasons anyway?). But they are often the reasons they continue learning. At different times and with different learners these needs and others take precedence over precise communicative needs. Unless we are aware of them, and adapt our materials and teaching to take them into account, the learner will lose the motivation and inner insights necessary for independent, creative control of the language. And that, after all, is the thing that makes all the rest worthwhile.

Last modified: Tuesday, 20 April 2010, 9:56 PM