The limitations of the notional-functional syllabus

In this post, I would like to point out the limitations of the notional-functional syllabus as it was introduced into our Language syllabus over 30 years ago. Don’t quote me about the exact timing but it was present 23 years ago when I first came to grips with the NZ language syllabus and it feels like it’s been around for such a long time. Some teachers today still prepare units of work using the old notional-functional kaupapa (policies/principles).

To me, the emergence of the old notional-functional system coincided with the communicative approach which has brought benefits to our language teaching (one of which being the primacy of fluency over accuracy) but the combined approach also one major disadvantage in my eyes.

First, I understand that prior to the notional-functional approach, grammatical competence was given too much of a priority. Language learning was all about the grammatical components, every effort then was to break down the language and there was little practice regarding the actual use of the language and fluency. We were kind of stuck in the age of the grammar-translation model.

Then, as a historical counter-reaction, came the notional-functional approach whereby learners were asked to use the language in a very pragmatic but slightly robotic manner. For example, they were asked to describe someone/something, justify a point, introduce themselves, etc. Unfortunately, some teachers still think and prepare units using those functions as a basis point.

Those communicative functions are great in so far they introduce learners to broken down patterns that make up a language but they are also limited because they have no meaningfulness and negotiation-raising tasks per se.


We cannot prepare a unit whose outcome is to “describe your daily routine, say what your favourite school subject is and why, …” Those are not inherently engaging outcomes to the students. I understand that a thematic approach to preparing units of work may help with covering the vocabulary related to the familiar environment in the first learning years for instance but I don’t see how the students can be seriously and irrevocably interested in an outcome such as “describing clothes.”

A notional-functional topic is not an outcome. An outcome has to have meaningfulness and negotiation as unconditional factors.

Hence, my opinion is that the Task-Based approach is the most modern and appropriate way of teaching because it is argued that meaningfulness should come first in the design of an outcome (an end product as I like to call it) and later on in the unfolding of the unit, a focus on form will arise from the student’s output. Accuracy is not left out, it is just later on in the pace.

Within a Task-Based unit and guided by a meaningful end product, students will inevitably use the communico-functional approach but it is not the be and all. It is only one of the means to get to the outcome.

As the task-based methodology is a student-based, gap-rich and meaning-based approach, it is truly worth exploring.


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