How to Teach Functional Langauge

Most students struggle to communicate effectively in some social situations because most teachers focus overly on grammar and often neglect teaching students functional language.

The heart of functional language is understanding the implied social meaning of certain expressions. We use language mainly to perform some kind of communicative behavior like make a request, offer help, offer advice, give apology, … etc. The expressions that we use to achieve these functions are called functional exponents.

There are two basic ways of presenting a language function:

1. Inductive way:  

* Give the learners different examples of the function and ask students to identify it: E.g. “Any chance of a coffee?” What is the speaker’s intention here? What language or expressions did he use to express his intention?

2. Deductive way: 

Present a situation in which the function is needed and ask students to respond to it. E.g. you dropped the vase and it broke down. What would you say?

The best way to teach language functions is in context, that’s in dialogues 

When focusing on dialogues that contain functional language, there are three things should be clear for students to help them think about and analyze the target language:

  1. The place where the dialogue is taking place.
  2. The relationship between the two speakers.
  3. What the speaker A / B wants to do or say.

Practical steps to teach a dialogue with some language functions:

1. Introduce the dialogue telling students the names of the speakers and present the difficult words if it is necessary.

2. Play the dialogue or read it as a whole then ask students about:

  • where the dialogue is taking place (to check understanding of the context)
  • the relationship between the two speakers (to check language appropriateness)

3. Divide the dialogue into mini dialogues; a stimulus and its response (functional expressions) and write them on the board.

4. Talk about the speakers’ intentions and give students the functional meaning.

5. Underline the key words in the expressions and highlight the form.

6. Draw students’ attention to the choice of particular words or structures to express certain meanings.

7. Ask students to say the expressions focusing on stress and intonation (pronunciation practice).

8. Ask students to practice the dialogue in public pairs (controlled oral practice)

9. Write a scrambled dialogue containing the functional language on the board asking students to rewrite it in the correct order (controlled written practice).

10. Create a real-life situation asking students to perform a dialogue using the target functional exponents (freer oral practice).

After that, you need to tell students that there are common functions in English. Write a list of them and ask students to match each function with its exponent (the way of expressing it).


1. Making suggestion. d a. I can’t make it tonight – sorry.
2. Inviting. h b. I’m afraid I was disappointed by the service.
3. Giving advice. e c. I should have left earlier.
4. Requesting. i d. We could order in a pizza.
5. Making apologies. g e. It’d pay to talk to the boss.
6. Refusing. a f. I’d go along with that.
7. Agreeing. f g. I’m really sorry about the vase.
8. Regretting. c h. Why don’t you come over tonight?
9. Offering. j i. Any chance of a coffee?
10. Complaining. b j. I’ll pay.

At last, you should tell students the following principles associated with functional language:

  • There are many functions in English, and there is also a wide variety of exponents that can be used to express each function.
  • One structure can have more than one functional meaning so it’s difficult to understand the meaning of an utterance out of context.
  • The kind of functional exponent that you use changes depending on how well you know the relationship between the two speakers.
  • Pronunciation, in particular sentence stress and intonation, has a key role to play in learning functional language so you should always practice it orally.
  • Functional exponents can often vary greatly depending on the structure so we should focus on grammatical form too.
  • Some functions can be indirect and subtle so you should know their meanings.

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Teaching Language Functions


Language functions define what the person should say or write in communicative situations. The best way to present these functions is in context, in a conversation.

A conversation lesson plan:

1. Start with reading the whole conversation while students listen.

2. Then divide it into mini dialogues; a stimulus and its response.

3. Draw students’ attention to the choice of particular words or expressions to express a meaning and talk about the speaker‘s intention; i.e. presenting the function.

4. Then ask students to generate sentences of their own to practice this function.

* This keeps the learning process simple and gives students tools to build on.

5. Next Students are given a situation or task with individual roles allotted. They extend practice by asking one another or engaging in role-play.

* The focus here is on a certain function and that function is taken as the cue for the grammar taught in the lesson. Such practice provides opportunities for students to practice a range of real-life spoken language in the classroom.

Most typical language functions are:

1- Inviting

2- Suggesting

3- Promising

4- Apologizing

5- Requesting information

6- Agreeing

7- Disagreeing

8- Offering

Two basic ways of presenting a language function:

1. Inductively: give the learners different examples of the function and ask students to identify it:

What is the speaker’s intention here?

What language or expressions did he use to express his intention?

2. Deductively: present a situation in which the function is needed and ask students to respond to it. You may ask comprehension questions to check understanding.

Two basic ways of practicing language functions:

Receptive practice.

It aims at familiarizing students with a range of examples of the functions. Possible activities for receptive practice include:

– Finding a function in a dialogue or text.

– Classifying a list of functional language. ( which would you use to say  ……..? )

– Classifying a list of sentences according to their precise meaning.

Productive practice.

It may be relatively controlled practice. Possible activities for it include:

– Transformations between different examples of a function

– Question and answer work.

– Situational cues (what would you say in these situations?)

Tips for teaching language functions:

– Create a situation and direct students in a certain activity progressively.

– Learners should conduct the activity to its conclusion

– Make sure that learners understand what they are required to do in an activity.

– Demonstrate the activity with learners.

– Select activities which need comparatively light demands on the learners’ linguistic and creative abilities

– Equip learners with expressions and language forms they need for their activities.