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Teaching functional language: Staging

The other day, out of the blue, I got a message from a colleague. We were talking about teaching functional language. He said:

“We have covered all the language, why can’t they do it????”

I understood exactly what he meant. I still distinctly remember one of my first functional lessons that completely bombed. I was teaching phrases for agreeing and disagreeing from a course book and when it came to learners using them, it never materialised. Since then, I’ve taught lots of functional lessons, had lots of trial and error and lots of great advice from other teachers. So what was my answer?

Staging a functional lesson

The simple answer is: you might be missing a step. Here is my favourite visualisation of the language acquisition process:

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 11.53.12

My favourite visualisation of the language acquisition process from: Tessa Woodward (2001). Planning lessons and Courses. Cambridge: CUP, p91. 

Here’s how this might translate into a (rather dull) lesson:

  1. Exposure: Learners listen to a dialogue in which someone invites their friend to come to a party, concentrating on meaning. (Find out more in my post on Exposure).
  2. Noticing: With any luck, learners will notice useful phrases for making invitations and accepting or refusing an invitation. We will reinforce this by studying the transcript of the dialogue and highlighting the phrases used. Also, focus on and clarify the functional language, for example, for phrase ‘Do you fancy…?’
    • Meaning: Synonymous phrases like ‘Would you like to…’, highlighting the function (inviting)
    • Form: Do you fancy +ing form
    • Pronunciation: Do you –> /dʒə/, sentence stress and rising intonation
    • Use: Formality, context, etc.
  3. Remembering: Learners fix the language to memory. Eg. Show the learners a similar dialogue with the functional phrases missing. They try to remember them and add them in.
  4. Use: Learners use the language more meaningfully and personalise it. For example, you give them a blank diary page for the week and ask each learner to create two events. They then work in a group of 3 to invite each other to their events.
  5. Refinement: You give learners some feedback on their invitations, including error correction, praise, emergent language and the like. Now you set them off to invite other classmates to their events (‘Use’ again) so that they can work on the refinements you suggested.

Missing a step

Like I said, the simple answer is: if learners are having difficulty using the language, it could be because one or more of these elements is missing. For example, without Exposure, they have no model or input on which to base their own output. Without ‘Remembering’, they may understand the function, but might struggle to recall the language, especially under real operating conditions (when listening and speaking in a real conversation).

A smooth progression

The slightly less simple answer is: you might not be completely missing a stage, but there might be too much of a jump from one stage to another. In other words, one stage doesn’t provide a smooth enough transition to the next one. This can occur between any of the stages in the lesson. However, I’d say that the transition between Noticing, Remembering and Use needs to be the subtlest of all. In the example above, for instance, that one simple gap fill exercise in the Remembering stage might not be enough to prepare learners to use the language. A short controlled practice game could help them to recall the language and use it in spoken form. The more meaningful encounters learners have with the target language, the better it will stick. I’ll be exploring activities for this in my post on ‘Remembering’ in the near future.

What are all those other arrows?

Now for the not so simple answer… In the diagram above, arrows go back and forth in a cycle between Remembering, Use and Refinement and all the way back to exposure. This reminds us that these stages mutually reinforce each other. When a learner uses the target language, this helps them fix it better in their memory, as we saw above. When a learner refines the language (imagine they were saying ‘Do you fancy go cinema?), they need to go back to the Remembering stage and remember not to make this error again. They may even need to go back to Exposure, for instance listening to how to pronounce it from a model, in order to refine their own use of the target language. The implication of this for us as teachers, is that we should build in several opportunities for Use, often from less demanding controlled practice, progressing to more demanding free practice. We should also be flexible and ‘tuned in’ to learners so that we can teach responsively.

What order?

Hope you’re still with me… Those arrows that go back and forth in a cycle basically remind us of something else that’s important. Language learning doesn’t always happen in a linear progression. The order presented here is a sort of logical progression from input to output. It is reflected in lots of lesson staging paradigms, like Presentation, Practice, Performance or Engage, Study, Activate.

However, following this order assumes that learners understand how the target language is relevant to them after hearing it in a recording or some other form of Exposure. This is sometimes the case. For example, learners might have requested a lesson on how to make, accept and refuse invitations and be very receptive to it. So I’m not going to knock it. It is more likely that they need a bit more convincing of the usefulness of the target language first. They might need to see how the language they use for that function differs from the language that a proficient speaker uses. Enter Test-Teach-Test!

What we do in Test-Teach-Test lesson is just jump right in at the Use stage right at the start of the lesson. Let’s see what that might look like:

  1. Use: After a bit of banter with learners about dinner parties, you ask learners to spend 5 minutes planning a dinner party of their own – music, food, location, activities, etc. Then give learners a diary page and they invite 3 classmates to their party. You monitor super attentively to hear how they make, accept and refuse invitations.
  2. Refinement: You give some encouraging feedback on their parties and elicit how they made, accepted and refused invitations. You also tell them what you heard while monitoring (which is likely different their idealised version of what they think they said!)
  3. Exposure: Now you’re going to listen to that proficient speaker doing the same thing (inviting friends to their dinner party).
  4. Noticing: Learners had already developed a receptiveness to the new functional language by trying it themselves in stage 1, so they are likely to notice it more autonomously. Nevertheless, you can give them the transcript and focus on and clarify the language (meaning, form, pronunciation and use) as above. You can highlight the differences between learner’s output in stage 1 and this model.
  5. Remembering: Learners fix the language to memory. Eg. Show the learners a similar dialogue with the functional phrases missing. They try to remember them and add them in.
  6. Use: Now comes the challenging bit. Learners need to put the new language they learnt back into use so that it sticks. Ask them to put 3 other events in their weekly diary page (eg. drinks with friends, university open day) so that they have more reason to accept and refuse. Give them 10 minutes to invite as many people as they can. They should be making a more conscious effort to use the target language this time.

This approach is great for two main reasons. Firstly, the main emphasis is on learners communicating something meaningful from the outset, unhindered by consciously having to practise any specific target language. Secondly, learners are very aware of their improvement. They go away thinking ‘Wow, I can make invitations in English much better than before.’

So that’s the simple answer, the slightly less simple answer, the not so simple answer and the hope you’re still with meanswer.

Please do leave a comment below! Let us know…

  • Does that match your experience of staging functional lessons?
  • Can you talk through a functional lesson that has gone well for you?

Read on…

This is part of a whole series of posts on teaching functional language. More coming soon!

Further reading


Featured image adapted from: Image from page 1521 of “The Street railway journal” (1884). For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: Teaching functional language: Exposure | TESOL TOOLBOX

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