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Nov. 2005, Volume 2, No.11 (Serial No.

23) Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN1539-8072,USA

The Functional Approach: Material and Methods

Huijuan Sui* Heilongjiang Traditional Chinese Medical University

Ru Wang** Harbin Medical University

Abstract: From 1970 onwards, Halliday worked on the functional aspect of grammar. He mentioned the
language as a form of “doing”rather than a form of “knowing”. He believes that language is what it is because it
has to serve certain function. In other words, social demands on language have helped to shape its structure. This
theory distinguishes linguistic behavior potential from actual linguistic behavior. That means the speaker can do
many things in certain language: making an invitation, expressing hope, inquiry, agreement, refuse and etc.
Therefore EFL teaching is to develop the abilities to communicate with others, that is, listening, speaking, reading,
writing and translating. This paper wants to discuss Halliday’s theory about the functional approach and how to
make good use of it to the language learning and teaching.
Key words: the functional approach EFL student-centered

1. The Role of the Student: Student-centered

After the Second World War, the countries all over the world developed FL education in order to meet the
needs of politics, economy, military, science, tour, and culture. But the FL education was not satisfactory at that
time, especially, students could not communicate with others in foreign language after learning several years. In
the middle of the 1960s, the crisis of the western education made people realize the importance of FL education
and had a slogan “Student-centered”, at the same time, people should value the factors of the learners, intelligence,
feeling, age, sex, and interests.
This is a necessary feature of any classroom where the classroom is learner rather than teacher -centered.
Among other things, it means to encourage students to state their opinions, to talk about their own experience, and
for whatever they say, even accurately, to be treated with respect by the teacher. For example, when students finish
answering the questions, the teacher had better say, “Thank you!”(Not “Yes”or “No”). If the teacher said “Yes”,
other students will give the similar answer to it. If the teacher said “No”, the students will lack of courage to
answer questions in the next class.
There is today an increasing emphasis on involving students in decisions affecting their own learning-getting
them to take responsibility for their own learning decisions, and to consciously develop learning skills.

2. The Tasks of the Teachers

The traditional approach to teaching was that the focus was on the learning and teaching of language forms or
structures. The teacher’ s usual practice was first, to break the text into sentences and analyze each of them

Huijuan Sui (1954-), female, professor of English Department, Heilongjiang Traditional Chinese Medical University; Research
field: American literature; Address: English Department, Heilongjiang Traditional Chinese Medical University, P.R.China; Postcode:
Ru Wang (1968-), female, Master of American literature, English teacher of Harbin Medical University; Research field: American
literature; Address: Foreign Language Department, Harbin Medical University, Heilongjiang Province, P.R.China; Postcode:150086.

The Functional Approach: Material and Methods

grammatically; then, to explain and have the students practice the important words and phrases, called language points;
and finally, to make some general remarks on the life of the author, and the background and stylistic features of the
text. The assumption was that grammatical analysis of sentences and explanation and practice of important words and
phrases would naturally lead to the thorough understanding of the text. As a result of this approach, students read not
to obtain new information or message but to learn new words and phrases and sentence patterns. According to
Halliday’s functional approach, it views language as a form of “doing”rather than “knowing”. Therefore the teacher’ s
task is to develop the competence to use language, not to let the students know the language knowledge.
The teacher’ s role in the genuine student-centered orientation is not a single-minded act of lesson-based
teaching, but multiple, as shown in Figure I: (Gu Yueguo, 1999)
what the learner can already do

the learner what the learner does before what the

classroom learning what the learner does with learner is
leaning process what the teacher does with going to be
what the learner does after class able to do

Figure1 Process of learning

That is, a competent and responsible teacher should be assess or (assess what manager (manage all the
resources and classroom activities) information provide and friend to the students (Gu Yueguo).
Therefore, in classroom, the students will be engaged in diverse activities. They will have free conversations
and debates about weather, current affairs, TV shows and public media. The teacher, just as the film producer, will
remain the dominant role of the stage. Without the teacher, the students’activity will be confused. And “Absolute
freedom in learning may be good for the strongest, but it can never be good for the middling and the weak”(Wang
Zongyan, 1998). Besides that, the teacher should also be an educator of moral principles, and developing minds.

3. How EFL Can Be Taught in a Functional Approach

Unlike structural approach, the functional approach is a model of performance. It is concerned with meaning,
function, and language in use. It is an important tool for interpreting texts. According to Halliday (1985), the
functional approach has the following three characteristic features:
1) It is based on systemic theory: Systemic theory is a theory of meaning as choice. It means starting with the
most general features and proceeding step by step so as to become even more specific.
2) It is functional in three distincts: First, it is concerned with the way language is organized to fulfil
communicative functions. Second, it aims to account for three basic kinds of meaning, the ideational, the
interpersonal and the textual. Third, each element in a language is explained by reference to its function in the
total linguistic system.
3) It is discourse approach. It aims to provide two levels of discourse analysis: the first is the understanding
of the text. The second is the evaluation of the text.
Halliday’s theory makes us think over in EFL teaching.
1) Use, not just study. Modern methods give priority to classroom activities that encourage students to use
the language rather than merely study it.
2) Exchange of information. Communicative activity also necessitates a focus not just on the forms of
language, but on the information that is accessed through it.
3) Skill integration. Language learning, listening, speaking, reading, writing and translating are seen as

The Functional Approach: Material and Methods

mutually supportive.
4) Grammar is only a tool to use language well, no need spending much time on actual explanation.
Of course, people communicate with one another not only in language, but also with their body and mind.

4. Conclusion

The functional approach, as a linguistic theory to account for the complexity of language through one
perspective, has a contribution to make to the teaching of languages, but it has its own limitations. In the teaching
of English in the Chinese context, we should pay attention not to adopt one model as the sole basis for practical
decisions. We can look for the model in linguistics to guide our practice of language teaching.

1. Yueguo Gu. Reflections on Writing Teacher Guide to Active English. 1999.
2. Shichun Gui. Applied Linguistics. Hunan Educational Press. 1988.
3. Zhuanglin Hu. Halliday’ s Functional Grammar in Lingu istics: A Course Book. Peking University Press. 1998: 393-396.
4. Zhuanglin Hu. Systemic-Functional Grammar and the Teaching of Advanced EFL in Language System and Function. Peking
University Press. 1990: 142-156.
5. Mingcai Sui. Principle and Practice of Applies Linguistics. Northeast Normal University Press. 1999.
6. Zongyan Wang. Opinions on English Language Teaching in China in Linguistic and application of Language. Shanghai
Foreign Educational Press. 1998: 24-32.
7. Zhong Yang & Shaojie Zhang. Generative Grammar and TEFL in Studies in Theories and Linguistic Applications. Northeast
Normal University Press. 1995: 284-300.
(Edited by Nina Liu, Xiao Li and Iris)