Functional-notional Approach











In 1972, the British linguist D.A. Wilkins published a document that proposed a radical shift away from using the traditional concepts of grammar and vocabulary to describe language to an analysis of the communicative meanings that learners would need in order to express themselves and to understand effectively. This initial document was followed by his 1976 work Notional Syllabuses, which showed how language could be categorised on the basis of notions such as quantity, location and time, and functions such as making requests, making offers and apologising. Wilkins’ work was used by the Council of Europe in drawing up a communicative language syllabus, which specified the communicative functions a learner would need in order to communicate effectively at a given level of competence. At the end of the 1970s, the first course-books to be based on functional syllabuses began to appear. Typically, they would be organised on the basis of individual functions and the exponents needed to express these functions. For example, many course-books would begin with the function of ‘introducing oneself’, perhaps followed by the function of ‘making requests’, with typical exponents being ‘Can I ….?’, "Could you ….?’, "Is it alright if I ….?’ and so on. These would often be practised in the form of communicative exercises involving pair work, group work and role plays. It is interesting to compare this approach with a grammatical syllabus. In a typical grammatical syllabus, structures using the word ‘would’ tend to appear in later stages of the syllabus, as they are held to be relatively complex (eg "If I knew the answer, I would tell you"), whereas in a functional syllabus ‘would’ often appears at a very early stage due to its communicative significance in exponents such as ‘Would you like ….?’, which is extremely common and of great communicative value even to beginners. The need to apply a grammatical name or category to the structure is not considered important within the framework of a purely functional syllabus.



Finocchiaro, M. & Brumfit, C. The Functional-Notional Approach. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (1983).


This method of language teaching is categorized along with others under the rubric of a communicative approach. The method stresses a means of organizing a language syllabus. The emphasis is on breaking down the global concept of language into units of analysis in terms of communicative situations in which they are used.


Explanation of specific terms:


Notions are meaning elements that may be expressed through nouns, pronouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, adjectives or adverbs.

A notion is a concept, or idea: it may be quite specific, in which case it is virtually the same as vocabulary (dog, house, for example); or it may be very general – time, size, emotion, movement – in which case it often overlaps with the concept of “topics”.

A notion may be “time past”; this may include past tenses, phrases like a month ago, in 1990, last week, and utterances using temporal clauses beginning with when….., before…., after…. and so on;


A function is some kind of communicative act: it is the use of language to achieve a purpose, usually involving interaction at least between two people. Examples would be suggesting, promising, apologizing, greeting, inviting.

“Inviting” may include phrases like “Would you like to….? I suggest…., How about…? Please…


Task: Have a look at the items listed in the box below. Can you sort them into separate lists of notions and functions?

Notions and functions









the future


the body

expressions of opinion


spatial relations





A situation may affect variations of language such as the use of dialects, the formality or informality of the language and the mode of expression. Situation includes the following elements:

A. The persons taking part in the speech act

B. The place where the conversation occurs

C. The time the speech act is taking place

D. The topic or activity that is being discussed


Exponents are the language utterances or statements that stem from the function, the situation and the topic.


Code is the shared language of a community of speakers.


Code-switching is a change or switch in code during the speech act, which many theorists believe is purposeful behaviour to convey bonding, language prestige or other elements of interpersonal relations between the speakers.


Functional Categories of Language

Mary Finocchiaro:The Functional-notional Approach: From Theory to Practice  (1983, p. 65-66) has placed the functional categories under five headings as noted below: personal, interpersonal, directive, referential, and imaginative.

Clarifying or arranging one’s ideas; expressing one’s thoughts or feelings: love, joy, pleasure, happiness, surprise, likes, satisfaction, dislikes, disappointment, distress, pain, anger, anguish, fear, anxiety, sorrow, frustration, annoyance at missed opportunities, moral, intellectual and social concerns; and the everyday feelings of hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleepiness, cold, or warmth


Enabling us to establish and maintain desirable social and working relationships:

greetings and leave takings

introducing people to others

identifying oneself to others

expressing joy at another’s success

expressing concern for other people’s welfare

extending and accepting invitations

refusing invitations politely or making alternative arrangements

making appointments for meetings

breaking appointments politely and arranging another mutually convenient time


excusing oneself and accepting excuses for not meeting commitments

indicating agreement or disagreement

interrupting another speaker politely

changing an embarrassing subject

receiving visitors and paying visits to others

offering food or drinks and accepting or declining politely

sharing wishes, hopes, desires, problems

making promises and committing oneself to some action

complimenting someone

making excuses

expressing and acknowledging gratitude


·           Directive

Attempting to influence the actions of others; accepting or refusing direction:

making suggestions in which the speaker is included

making requests; making suggestions

refusing to accept a suggestion or a request but offering an alternative

persuading someone to change his point of view

requesting and granting permission

asking for help and responding to a plea for help

forbidding someone to do something; issuing a command

giving and responding to instructions

warning someone

discouraging someone from pursuing a course of action

establishing guidelines and deadlines for the completion of actions

asking for directions or instructions


·           Referential

talking or reporting about things, actions, events, or people in the environment in the past or in the future; talking about language (what is termed the metalinguistic function: = talking or reporting about things, actions, events, or people in the environment in the past or in the future

identifying items or people in the classroom, the school the home, the community

asking for a description of someone or something

defining something or a language item or asking for a definition

paraphrasing, summarizing, or translating (L1 to L2 or vice versa)

explaining or asking for explanations of how something works

comparing or contrasting things

discussing possibilities, probabilities, or capabilities of doing something

requesting or reporting facts about events or actions

evaluating the results of an action or event


·           Imaginative

Discussions involving elements of creativity and artistic expression

discussing a poem, a story, a piece of music, a play, a painting, a film, a TV program, etc.

expanding ideas suggested by other or by a piece of literature or reading material

creating rhymes, poetry, stories or plays

recombining familiar dialogs or passages creatively

suggesting original beginnings or endings to dialogs or stories

solving problems or mysteries



Task: In the table shown below each column represents a different basis for selection of language: situation, function, vocabulary, etc. In each row one of them is filled in; can you fill in some suggestions for the others?


Coordinating different language categories



Notions and Functions



Getting to know someone







Road accidents







Making requests







Future tense








secretary, etc






People who study and use a language are mainly interested in how they can do things with language --- how they can make meanings, get attention to their problems and interests, influence their friends and colleagues and create a rich social life for themselves. They are only interested in the grammatical structure of the language as a means to getting things done. A grammar which puts together the patterns of the language and the things you can do with them is called a functional grammar.”

[COBUILD, 1990]



The main objective of a functional grammar is to explain language in terms of what people do with it, how they use the language to live. It tries to do that by adopting more of a semantic and pragmatic orientation inside the grammar. It does not see semantics and pragmatics as extra levels of organization but sees them as integral to the organization of the grammar.




·           Order

Criticisms of functional approaches include the difficulty in deciding the order in which different functions should be presented. Is it more important to be able to complain or to apologise, for example? Another problem lies in the wide range of grammatical structures needed to manipulate basic functions at different levels of formality (for example, ‘Can I …..?’ as opposed to ‘Would you mind if I …..?"). In addition, although it is possible to identify hundreds of functions and micro-functions, there are probably no more than ten fundamental communicative functions that are expressed by a range of widely used exponents.

·           no structures syllabus

There is also the apparently random nature of the language used, which may frustrate learners used to the more analytical and "building-block" approach that a grammatical syllabus can offer. Another apparent weakness is the question of what to do at higher levels. Is it simply a case of learning more complex exponents for basic functions or is one required to seek out ever more obscure functions (complaining sarcastically, for example)?




On the positive side, however, there is little doubt that functional approaches have contributed a great deal to the overall store of language teaching methodology. Most new course-books contain some kind of functional syllabus alongside a focus on grammar and vocabulary, thus providing learners with communicatively useful expressions in tandem with a structured syllabus with a clear sense of progression. In addition, the focus on communication inherent in the practice of functional exponents has contributed greatly to communicative language teaching in general. Finally, the idea that even beginners can be presented with exponents of high communicative value from the very start represents a radical shift from the kind of approach that began with the present simple of the verb ‘to be’ in all its forms and focused almost entirely on structure with little regard for actual communication in the target language.


Solutions to the tasks:


Functions are: offer, request, promise, advise, threat, instruction, apology, remind, expression of opinion. The rest are notions.


Coordinating different language categories



Notions and Functions



Getting to know someone


Tastes, hobbies

Inquiring, informing, greeting

Interrogative forms

Verb (e.g. enjoy + - ing

Swimming, sports, etc.

Reporting an accident

Road accidents


Time past



Past tense

Road, car, drive, etc.



Making requests



Would, could, might


Adjectives of colour, size, etc.

Planning a holiday



Future time



Future tense


Train, plane, etc.

Hotel, camping

Asking about or describing a profession




Requesting information

Describing activity

Yes/no questions

Present tense


secretary, etc