Teaching Functions Lessons in EFL

Our Monthly Featured Comment/Question – from a reader of our blog:

About a year ago, I took the highly-regarded [name deleted] TEFL training course which turned out as rewarding as it was cultivating.

However, I have come to realise that I am in desperate need of learning to plan functions lessons because what was offered on the course was minimal at best.

I can choose target language well and I can certainly clarify items, introduce topics, prolong a section, and conclude it smoothly.

My problem is in two areas:

1. How to clearly and quickly set up the functions task
2. How to manipulate students into producing the exact target language without resorting to audiolingual approach.

Please advise a plan sequence or recommend a book (or both) because my whole confidence is kind of hanging by a thread.

My response was as follows:

I am not sure that you are perhaps making it more difficult than it needs to be. But – my first question would be: for whom are you creating these lessons?

Your students will most likely determine how you would organize and create and structure your functions lessons.

Certainly if you are teaching Business English or Hospitality English (as examples) in work settings, the language is going to come right from their work place.

You can easily ask people what they are having trouble with or for what type of interactions do they use English – and build your lessons from there.

But even for kids, a functional lesson like – Asking and Answering Questions about your Favorite Video Game – would not be difficult to get going quickly, no?

Some good resources for getting a better handle on functions lessons?  Try these . . .

Check out the website at Business English Ebook.  There you will find quite a few functions lessons and in the ebook (found at TEFL eBooks).

The Hotel and Resort English eBook is also functions based.  Check out that website at:  Hotel-TEFL.com

Between those two websites you can get a good feel for what a tightly focused functions lesson is all about.  There are lots of examples right on the websites and many are organized such that it would be easy to transfer them right into the classroom, including activities and worksheets.

TED’s Tips™ #1:   You might also check out a previous post here called: Don’t Teach Grammar:Teach Functions

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What’s Wrong with CELTA and Most TEFL Certifications?

We all enjoy a bit of controversy from time to time, so now it is my turn to stir the pot . . .

What I find most frustrating about many formally – and well trained – EFL teachers is the way EVERY lesson is really just a grammar lesson.  It might seem we are teaching about hobbies or animals, but really we are just teaching grammar.

Got an ESP class teaching Business English?  Let’s have them talk about business using the past perfect.  Teaching six-year-old kids?  How about teaching them adverbs of frequency? No! No! No!

I am NOT saying don’t teach grammar.  What I am saying is that it is often the primary focus of many teachers because they were trained that way.  And it need not be so.

My issue with teaching and over-emphasizing grammar is that you can quickly lose the motivation and interest of your students.  And for ESP classes, you can end up way off track from what your students REALLY need.  This is primarily because teachers often make up a reason to talk about the grammar point they want to cover.

Teach FUNCTIONS instead of GRAMMAR

The most basic of functions we can write as this: Asking and answering questions about ___________ .   How do you fill in the blank?  Get to know your students!  Ask them what interests them.

What really motivates students is teaching them the specific language needed to talk about things they WANT to talk about.  For teenagers, this might be talking about the current pop/rock/movie stars.  For young kids it might be talking about puppies and kitties or even the latest coolest toy.  For business people it might be how to deal with a customer complaint or how to express their opinion about an important issue in a meeting.

What interests your students?  Find something relevant to them and they will stay motivated during your class.

Now . . . I didn’t say DON’T teach grammar.  Students learn grammar best when it is learned in context of a function.   In every function lesson there is a place for reviewing the grammar needed to properly ask and answer those questions about their motivating topic.   So – what I am suggesting here is that you teach functions and within your function lessons that you teach the grammar needed to serve that function.

Eventually, you will cover almost everything and – okay – it probably is fine every now and then to do a straight grammar lesson to help your students organize their thinking about grammar.  Forgive them though if the students in the back snooze off after a while . . .

Many teachers complain about their students’ lack of motivation and often real disinterest in their English classes.  Could this be why?

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Try teaching function lessons and  you will find a real uptick in student motivation.  An increase in student motivation will also likely lead to better, faster skill development that is retained rather than quickly forgotten.  Try it.  What do you and your students have to lose?

Those of you with rigid methodology welded into your brain – this is just my opinion.

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Teaching Functions in the EFL Classroom

Teach Functions to Increase your Students’ Motivation

Why do so many TEFL courses put emphasis on teaching grammar directly as the goal of a lesson rather than teaching it indirectly and related to the direct teaching of functions?

I think it is because either they are lazy (putting together a grammar lesson is fast, easy AND boring!) and/or they don’t always really understand the purpose of learning English. Sad to say – but it sure seems to be true.

Very quickly, first, lets talk about what a function is. It’s simple: a function in teacher-talk is a specific task. So teaching students the English needed to find and rent an apartment, for example, would be a function. Most often functions are stated like this: Asking and Answering Questions about Renting an Apartment. Or in occupational language it might be the language required to deal with a customer complaint at a business or to inquire about the details of a service or product. Then the function might be: Dealing with Customer Complaints or Answering Customer Questions about Servicing their New Honda.

Let’s try a few more functions: Asking for Permission to Stay out Late on Friday Night. Expressing your Opinion about [fill in the blank].

Teachers who teach functions will generally have a much more motivated group of students. Why? Wouldn’t you rather learn how to do something than to learn – let’s say – about the future perfect progressive aspect of verbs . . . Ow! I almost fell asleep just writing it.  Students are motivated by learning functions that are relevant to their daily lives.  Future Perfect Progressive, on the surface anyway – doesn’t seem relevant to anything.

Particularly if you ever teach Business English or English for Specific (or Special) Purposes classes – you should always be teaching functions.

I am not suggesting never teaching grammar, but teaching grammar in the context of a function makes much more sense to students and gives them a motivation to use the language – rather than just the raw information of how to use a grammar point.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Teach functions rather than grammar points.  Your students will thank you and you will feel far more productive.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Motivate your students to learn even more by asking them what they would like to learn to do or deal with – in English.