What is a Functional Notional Syllabus in SLA? What are the Limitations of a Functional Notional Syllabus?

Functional Notional Syllabus is a syllabus in which the language content is arranged according to the meanings that a learner needs to express through language and the functions the learner will use the target language for. It is a product-oriented, content based syllabus where “meaning” is permanent. It views language as a living, dynamic, complex phenomenon and relies on the learner’s capacity for analyzing language for himself. “Functions” may be described as a communicative purpose for which we use language. However, “notions” are the conceptual meanings (objects, entities, states of affairs, logical relationships and so on). A notional syllabus is contrasted with a grammatical syllabus on structural syllabus or a situational syllabus.

The famous linguists Finacchiaro and Brunfit suggest that functional-notionalism has “tremendous merit” of placing the students and their communicative purpose at the centre of the curriculum. They list the following benefits of adopting a functional-notional orientation.

(a)  It sets realistic learning tasks.
(b)  It provides for the teaching of day to day or real-world language.
(c)  It leads us to emphasize receptive activities before rushing learners into premature performance.
(d)  It recognizes that the speaker must have a real purpose of speaking and something to talk about.
(e)  Communication will be intrinsically/ naturally motivating because it expresses basic communicative functions.
(f)   It enables teachers to exploit sound psycho-linguistic, socio-linguistic, linguistic and educational principles.
(g)  It can develop naturally from existing teaching methodology
(h)  It enables a spiral curriculum to be used that reintroduces grammatical, topical and cultural materials.
(i)    It allows the development of flexible, modular courses.
(j)    It provides for the widespread promotion of foreign language courses.


Syllabus planner find that when turning from structurally-based syllabus design to the design of syllabuses based on functional-notional criteria, the selection and grading of items become much more complex. Decisions about which items to include in the syllabus can no longer be made on linguistic grounds alone, and designers need to include items which they imagine will help learners to carry out the communicative purposes.

The selection and grading of items for a functional-notional syllabus relies on such considerations as the need of the learners, both in terms of classroom functions and in the “real world”, usefulness, coverage, interest or relevance and complexity of form.

In developing functional-notional syllabuses, designers also need to look beyond linguistic notions of simplicity and difficulty when it comes to grading items. Observing grammatical criteria, it is possible to say that simple subject+ verb+ object (SVO) structures should be taught before more complex clausal structures involving such things as relativization (relative clause).

However, the grading of functional items becomes much more complex because, there are few apparent objective means for deciding that one functional form, for instance, “apologizing” is either simpler or more difficult than another item such as “requesting.”

Many of the criticisms which were made of grammatical syllabuses have also been made of functional-notional syllabuses. Widdowson pointed out that inventories of functions and notions do not necessarily reflect the way languages are learned more than do inventories of grammatical points and lexical items. He also claims that dividing language into discrete units of whatever type misrepresents the nature of language as communication.

Another criticism of functional-notional syllabuses is that it deals with the components of discourse but may not deal with the discourse itself.
Total communication is not I it, because communication is qualitative and infinite, a syllabus is qualitative and infinite.