This article on teaching grammar focuses on “functions”, what this word means in methodology jargon, and how we can identify functions through context. This article also introduces the connection between function and structure and how these concepts are combined in a grammar ESL lesson that follows the Communicative Approach.
What is a Grammatical Function?
‘Function’ is a term we use from the time the Notional/Functional syllabus was born and it continued to be used in Communicative Language Teaching. When we say something, we say it to communicate that particular thought to the listener. Every single sentence, and sometimes single words, has a function (i.e. meaning that the speaker is trying to convey). Even the word “yes” with falling intonation expresses detachment, non-involvement. Or, a word like ‘Tea?’ with rising intonation may mean an offering.
Why do we need to understand the concept of functions and exponents as English teachers? Well, when we teach grammar communicatively, we teach our students how to express what they want to say, and how to combine words to express those intentions.
When we understand that language is used to communicate, and that to communicate we need to use a specific combination of words, we realize that this concept can even be introduced on the first day of a beginner class.
The important part of Communicative Language Teaching is that we can teach our students to communicate right from the beginning by presenting the target language through context. We do not need to teach English using the students’ mother tongue (as in the Grammar-Translation method) and get the students to memorize sentences as other grammatical oriented methods do.
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Teaching Function: Greeting
For example, imagine the following dialogue is on the first page of the ESL textbook.
-Hello! My name is Susanne. What’s your name?
-Hi! I’m Harumi.
– Hi, Harumi, Nice to meet you.
– Nice to meet you, too.
– Where are you from?
– I’m from Japan.
What do you think the functions of these sentences are? Let’s review. There is ‘greeting’ in Hello, Hi, Nice to meet you. You will be teaching how to greet someone for the first time informally or neutrally. There is also introducing oneself by saying one’s name and asking for the listener’s name in My name is Susanne. What’s your name? I’m Harumi. And then, you will continue teaching asking and answering about the origin with the question Where are you from? and the answer I’m from Japan.
What is the grammar involved in these exponents or sentences? The verb is in the present form: My name IS Susanne. What’s your name? I AM Harumi. And, the preposition ‘from’ when asking and talking about the origin.
So, from the grammatical point of view, you will be teaching:
Subject + is/are/am+ name
Wh- questions: What + IS + (noun)?
Where+ is/are + subject+ from? Subject+ am/is/are+ FROM + (country).
From the functional point of view, you will be teaching greetings, introductions and asking and answering about the origin.
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Teaching Grammar in Context
Let’s see other examples of functions and how they are connected to specific grammatical structures.
If you ask this type of question, Can you drive?, you will be asking a question using modal verb CAN, which follows a specific pattern:
CAN (modal verb) + pronoun (you) + main verb in base form (drive)?
This combination of words is essential to the meaning, the intention you are trying to communicate to the listener. But, what are you communicating? What is the function of this question? The function is ‘asking about ability’, the ability to drive; if the person knows how to drive. This could be a question asked in the context of a job interview.
Contextualization is one of the main features of Communicative Language Teaching. A sentence said in different contexts can change the function radically. Yet, in some cases, the grammatical pattern remains the same. Let’s see some other examples.
“Can you drive? I’ve drunk a couple of beers”
The speaker is not asking about the ability the listener has to drive a vehicle, or if he has a driving license. He is requesting, asking for a favor.
What about this other example? Two women are talking about rules in a foreign country and one asks the other woman, who is from Saudi Arabia: Can you drive? The context clearly shows that the question refers to ‘permission’; if the person is allowed to drive.
Sometimes a change of pronoun or adding a word can change the function. Imagine that a group of friends is planning a trip to the forest. They have a map and they have to decide how to get to their destination. One looks at the map and asks Can we drive there? The grammatical pattern is still the same: Modal CAN + pronoun+ verb in base form? But the speaker is surely asking about how possible it is for them to get to their destination by car.
All these examples show that the same grammatical pattern or structure in context will communicate different things. Same structure, different functions.
Modal verb Can refer to different functions:
When choosing a grammar topic to teach, make sure that you can identify the pattern or structure, and the function so that you can create a good context, or situation to present the grammar topic communicatively.
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