The notional-functional syllabus was an innovation developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Europe. The pragmatic focus of this innovation has to this day had an influence on language teaching.
In TESOL, “notions” is a synonym for the word “context” or “setting.” Notion has to do with what is called pragmatics in language acquisition but the setting can be intellectual rather than a physical setting. As such, a notional-functional syllabus is focused on the various situations in which language is used.
There are two levels at which notions take place. General notions are highly abstract philosophically concepts such as existence, space, and time. Normally, TESOL does not deal with such concepts except when teaching about temporal relational terms such as before, after, during, etc.
The second level of notions is specific notions. Specific notions deal with clearly defined fixed situations. Examples of specific notions include animals, politics, education, and sports. Although these can still be considered abstract that are not nearly as abstract as general notions. As such it is better to look at general and specific notions as ideas along with a continuum rather as either/or concepts.
The functional aspect of the notional-functional syllabus relates to how language is used. Prior to this focus on function, language was taught with a focus on grammar and learning was organized around grammar use. In a functional focus, language is used to do any and all of the following
As you can see, there is almost an infinity amount of variety when combining the notion with the function. This leads to our need to understand what a syllabus is.
Syllabus is the European term for what is called curriculum in America. A syllabus/curriculum has been defined on this site before. In short, a syllabus/curriculum is a systematic plan toward achieving educational goals. Often, the syllabus/curriculum has goals/objectives that are in reality a combination of a notion and an or function. Below are some examples. The brackets indicated what the preceding phrase is, whether it’s a function or a notion.
- Introduce self [function] to other people [notion]
- Ask for information [function] at a bank [notion]
- Give directions [function]
- Read the text [function] and answer [function] the questions [notion]
From the examples, it is clear that you can have function with a notion, a function alone, or several functions with a notion. Without getting too technical there is endless potential in designing a syllabus/curriculum with this framework in mind.
There is little difference of notional-functional syllabus from the development of regular objectives in a curriculum. If you are familiar with how objectives are made you know objectives have an action, proficiency, and condition.
The “action” of a regular objective is in many ways the same as the “function” of a functional-notional syllabus. In addition, the “condition” of a regular objective is similar to the “notion” of a notional-functional syllabus. Notional-Functional objectives do not address proficiency in their objectives. As such, it is common for different fields to discover similar concepts while still giving these new concepts different names.