View Content #25798

Content Type3
TitleGrammar and the Functional Language Approach

By Stephanie Knight, CASLS Assistant Director

The assertion that higher-order thinking inspires learning and engagement is neither new nor unexpected. Various frameworks for learning (See: Bloom’s Taxonomy, Costa’s Levels of Thinking) and frameworks for curriculum development (See: Project-Based Learning, International Baccalaureate, the flipped classroom movement) urge educators to engage their learners actively in cognitive functions that surpass memorization and recognition. However, a well-established tradition and conceptualization of what language learning entails actively works to suppress such an approach. Despite a rise in communicative approaches in the classroom, anecdotal evidence points to the fact that language learners still expect language learning to involve a great deal of rote memorization of vocabulary and verb charts.

A function-based instructional approach has the potential to combat both the need for tons of rote memorization and, hopefully, the perception that the quickest path to language proficiency is a path paved in verb drills. Simply put, a functional approach limits the grammar and vocabulary learners are exposed to by identifying the words and structures that are absolutely necessary to engage in language functions. Consider, for example, a lesson about greeting peers. Learners only need first and second person singular forms of the verb “to be” to learn how to greet peers, not all forms. By limiting the information to what learners need to know to communicate, teachers foment a situation in which learners’ working memories become less encumbered by language memorization and more encumbered by appropriate and creative language use. That is, learners have more potential to engage in higher-order thinking than in a lesson in which memorization is central to success.

Truly embracing a function-based instructional approach to language learning requires a shift from paradigms that are ingrained in the traditions of language instruction. For example, though it is a commonly held belief that learners should be exposed to vocabulary and grammar in context, it is often grammar and vocabulary that determine the context of communication in textbooks and the like, and not the other way around. This tendency leads to the superimposition of contexts that might not accurately reflect communication “in the wild.” A common representation of this tendency is the common approach to using one’s daily routine to teach about reflexive verbs. On the surface, this trend is logical. Verbs like get dressed, wake up, and shower are related to one’s daily routine. However, people rarely actually use them when responding to the question “What have you done so far today?” They are, however, salient when considering the context of babysitting and telling the children to get ready for the day or get ready for bed.

How do we then divorce ourselves from the power of a tradition of when and how to teach specific content (a tradition that is obviously not working given drops in enrollment discussed in Flaherty, 2018)? Slowly. Begin by picking one or two language functions and really limit the vocabulary and grammar to what learners actually need to engage in that function. Instead of teaching the rest of the possible content that is tangentially related, devote time to more meaningful and intentional practice in the classroom. If we do that, we may just turn more students into life-long communicators.


Blooms Taxonomy:

Costa’s Levels of Thinking:

Project-based Learning:

Flipped classrooms:

International Baccalaureate:


Flaherty, C. (2018). L'œuf ou la Poule? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from
SourceCASLS Topic of the Week
Inputdate2018-10-04 14:05:32
Lastmodifieddate2018-10-08 16:58:23
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Publishdate2018-10-08 02:15:01
Displaydate2018-10-08 00:00:00