Topics, situations, notions, functions

Topics, situations, notions, functions
Unit 1: Topics and situations
Language has traditionally been segmented into sounds, vocabulary, grammar, but it may
equally well be taught through topics.
Another possibility is to base the language round situations. For example – Unit 1 of a
coursebook might deal with the topic “ home “, a situation is “describing different rooms”,
“describing furniture” etc.
In some ways topics and situations are more difficult to teach than words or structures, in that
they involve whole discourse, with longer and more complicated language constructs. On the
other hand, the learner is immediately engaging with language that expresses meanings in
Introducing a new topic or situation
New topics and situations need to be presented in much the same way as new language items or
texts (see Module 1 Presentations and explanations). The presentation of topics or situations
may be approached from different directions; for example:
1. Take the topic or situation, do a task based on it, eliciting from the learners or teaching
any necessary new language, possibly going on later to study a text.
2. Teach the new language through the topic, situation or a text.
3. Go straight into a text, using it both to teach new language and to explore the relevant
topic/ situation.
Some ideas for presentation of new topics or situations
Write the name of the topic in the middle of the board and invite the class to
brainstorm all the associated words they can think of.
Write the name of the topic in the middle of the board and ask the class what they
know about it or what they would like to know.
Describe a communicative situation and characters and invite the class to suggest
orally what the characters will say.
Give the title of a text and invite the class to write down sentences or expressions
they expect will occur within it.
Define briefly the opening event and characters in a communicative situation and
ask the class to imagine what will happen next.
Present a recorded dialogue and ask the class to tell you where they think it is
taking place and who the characters are.
Present a text, ask for an appropriate title.
Express your own, or someone else’s, opinions about a topic, invite discussion.
Teach a selection of words and expressions, ask the class what they think the
situation or topic is.
Cambridge University Press 2000
Unit 2: What are notions and functions?
Notions and functions are rather more precise categories than “topics and situations”.
Topics and situations are communicative events.
Notions and functions are the ways particular meanings are realized in language.
For example – a topic is “the family”, a situation is “visiting a friend’s home”, notions and
functions may be things like “time past” or “inviting”. “Time past” may include past tenses,
phrases …, “inviting” may include phrases like “Would you like to …?”, “I suggest…”.
The difference between a notion and a function
A notion is a concept, or idea: it may be quite specific (e.g. vocabulary –dog, house etc) or it
may be very general – time, size, emotion, movement.
A function on the other hand is some kind of communicative act – e.g. suggesting, promising,
apologizing, greeting, etc.
Unit 3: Teaching chunks of language; from text to task
Topics, situations, notions and functions should be taught (it is more effective) as meaningful
chunks of language in context (samples of language used by people within a specific interactive
situation), rather than decontextualized items such as lists of vocabulary, or grammatical
Some techniques of teaching such samples contextualized within texts.
Learning by heart
Learning by heart is not the field of language teaching.
The situation
The situation is the best way of language teaching.,
e.g. foreign tourists are trying to buy some necessary equipment in a shop; a student teacher is
trying to explain something to a child, helped by the class teacher; a driver has been stopped by
a police officer for a traffic offence and is trying to explain why he or she is innocent…
The characters: excited, apathetic, annoyed, pleased, tired, nervous…..
The relationships: authoritative-deferential, aggressive-defensive, affectionate…
Attitude to the problem: the problem may be seen as: trivial; distressing; funny…
Varying a theme
Take the basic text and elaborate on it.
Rather than answering comprehension questions on a text, the class may be invited to vary and
extend it, leading to further exploration of the kind of language being learned. They might:
- create a new text on a similar topic;
- suggest other ways the characters could have expressed the same notions or functions;
what difference would these changes have made?
- suggest other ways the meeting might have developed, and how the characters might
have expressed themselves;
re-present the original text in a different way; if it was a diary entry, foe example, the
reconstruct the dialogue, or vice versa.
Further reading
Long, M.H. and Crookes, G. (1992) “Three approaches to task-based syllabus design”,
TESOL Quarterly, 26, 1, 27-56.
Maley, A. and Duff, A. (1978) Variations on a Theme, Cambridge: CUP.
Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy: A Pespective, Oxford: OUP.
Ur, P. (1988) Grammar Practice Activities, Cambridge: CUP.
Van Ek,J.A. (1990) The Threshold Level in a European Unit-Credit System for Modern
Language Learning by Adults, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
Widdowson, H.G. (1989) “Knowledge of language and ability for use”, Applied
Linguistics, 10, 2, 128-37.
Wilkins, D.A. (1976) Notional Syllabuses, Oxford: OUP.
Willis, D. (1990) The Lexical Syllabus, London: Collins: Ch.5.
Ресурс – Ur Penny, A Course of Language Teaching, CUP, 2008 – 373.
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