Teaching Functionally to Develop Pragmatic Competence

This article looks at the way teaching functions and pragmatic competence in general are treated in contemporary coursebooks and classrooms. Whereas these areas were the main focus of any course in the late 70s and early 80s, looking at the contents page of any contemporary coursebook shows that they are generally downplayed. This article deals with three areas:

why the situation has changed
b)   what the advantages of teaching functionally are
c)    the types of activity that can be used to teach functions and develop pragmatic competence


So why has the situation changed?

  •     "Purely" functional coursebooks (used largely in the early 1980s) were a reaction to the "purely" structural coursebooks of the previous years, which had produced Ls who had a good receptive knowledge of the language but were unable to apply it to specific situations. They were therefore often aimed at "remedial" learning - showing learners who already knew the language how to apply it in specific social contexts. For example, learners might know the  simple present, the modal could, the adverb possibly and the phrasal verb turn (something) on, but not know how to combine them to make a request such as Do you think you could possibly turn the heating on. I’m really cold.  This is, in general, no longer the situation as language use is now given as much emphasis as structural form in current approaches.
  •     "Purely" functional coursebooks were ungraded in terms of level of the exponents used. This again was fine as remedial work for learners who had covered the grammar already, but could cause overload for those who hadn't. For example, a unit on Making Requests might cover exponents such as  Can you… Do you think you could possibly… Would you mind (+Ving) etc all at the same time. They were therefore not suitable for use outside the remedial context.  This caused coursebooks to return to a more traditional graded syllabus of "Grammar McNuggets" (Thornbury) though. As already mentioned, usually now incorporating a focus on use as well as form.
  •      Because of other precepts of the Communicative Approach, the influence of Krashen’s “Input Hypothesis” and the effect of the Lexical Approach (Lewis), coursebooks also drifted towards emphasising a skills based, text-based approach where language focus was dependent on the text used. Very often the text and the language it contained had no connection with the type of pragmatic competence mentioned above and again the textbook  just returned to a focus on grammatical form and use.
  •     Pragmatic competence thus tended to be "relegated" to the occasional section called something like "Social English" or "English in Use". However, various researchers ( eg Ekin and  Barron) have shown that these sections take up a minimal part of the coursebook, often exclude specific functions and, I would argue, do not meet learners’ pragmatic needs. For example, I have never seen a course book that focuses on the difference caused by stress and the positioning of the word please between Could you XXX please? / Could you PLEASE XXX? and PLEASE could you XXX! 

What are the advantages of teaching functionally?

  •      Some language clearly lends itself to a functional lesson format – eg asking for and giving directions exponents like “Go straight on until you come to the traffic lights”. Advantage : If not taught in a functional format, it is unlikely that this language would occur in the course.
  •      It is an ideal format for mixed ability classes. A range of exponents for the same function can be presented, but weaker and stronger ls can be encouraged to use those at their own level productively when doing further practice and production activities. For example, in a lesson on polite requests, weak learners may practise Can you/Could you + infinitive, while stronger learners practise Would you mind + Ving. Advantage for the learners : Weaker learners get the advantage of understanding all the exponents receptively without risking confusion by  having to use them while stronger learners are challenged productively;  Advantage for the teacher : The lesson can be differentiated without having to provide different activities - thus saving lesson planning time.
  •      It is a useful format when teaching learners who have already followed a general purpose course, but are about to go to an English speaking country for the first time – eg teenagers who are going to attend a summer course in Britain and will be staying with host families. Advantage for the learners : Lessons on functions such as asking for permission, apologising, introducing friends, asking for directions, paying and accepting compliments  etc can give them confidence that they will be able to communicate appropriately while they are there.
  •      Some functions, eg polite requests, are extremely complex as they involve decisions relating to appropriacy which – if made incorrectly – can cause offence. These include: the level of directness of the exponents used, knowledge of formulaic replies, the place of the request in an adjacency pair format – whether it can be made directly or needs a pre-sequence, the existence of preferred and dispreferred seconds, how dispreferred seconds need to be expressed etc. This all needs to be taught, as it is culturally determined and may not be the same in the L’s own culture/L1. For example, the polite response to a compliment in Thailand is silence (showing humility) rather than the thanks or downplaying used in English (Oh, it’s just something I picked up at the market…) Advantage : A functional organisation of the lesson is the clearest way of presenting and practising all this.

What types of activity can be used to teach functions and develop pragmatic competence?

  •      If the Ls have met a certain number of the exponents before then a Test-Teach-Test format can be used. The learners can be given a situation to roleplay, possibly in the form of a conversation frame, where prompts are given for each utterance in the conversation,  and the teacher can monitor to see which exponents they are using and whether they are using them accurately and appropriately. This gives the T. important information for the Teach stage – s/he can decide whether time needs to be spent correcting, revising and consolidating previously known exponents, or whether the Ls are ready to meet more complex structures.
  •       Roleplays may also be used for free practice in the final stage of the TTT sequence or in the Production stage of a PPP sequence. The learners might be asked to repeat the initial roleplay with a different partner, but incorporating the new exponents they have focused on.  
  •      If the learners are eg beginners and have never met any exponents of the function before, then a limited number of exponents, suitable for the level, need first to be presented. To do this a recorded dialogue may be used, and after gist comprehension work, a transcript with the exponents highlighted  can be used to provide examples for a language focus stage. A recorded dialogue can also be used if the Ls complete the initial Test stage using exponents they are “comfortable” with. They can then listen to and compare their performance with the language used in a dialogue using more complex exponents, possibly using a gapped transcript. Both the highlighted and gapped transcripts will help promote “noticing” (Schmidt) ensuring the language is processed at a deeper cognitive level than otherwise.
  •      Controlled practice activities will be similar to those used for other language systems areas. However, repetition work may be particularly important as the degree of politeness/appropriacy of a functional exponent is often dependent on the stress and intonation pattern used.
  •      Other practice activities (or an alternative format for the initial “test” section) might be a What would you say? activity – which is really a series of mini roleplays. Eg in an intermediate+  lesson on requests, learners have a list of five to ten situations such as You’ve just realised you left your purse/wallet at home. Ask a friend to lend you £5. / You’re at work. Your mother-in-law is coming to dinner and you need to get home to cook. Ask your boss if you can leave half an hour early and make up the time by working late tomorrow. etc.

Related Articles on the Notebook

Teaching Polite Requests : Part One

Teaching Polite Requests : Part Two