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TKT Module 1: Describing language and language skills


Understanding functions lies at the heart of a communicative approach to teaching.


What are functions?

Function is the name we give to a communicative act.
For example, if someone says:
    Would you like another cup?

  1. We can describe the grammar and lexis:
    A question form of a modal auxiliary verb in the second person (Would you like) + a determiner representing addition (another) + a common, countable noun meaning a container for hot drinks (cup).
    This is an example of formal analysis.
  2. We can describe and transcribe how the sentence sounds, too:
    /wʊd ju ˈlaɪk ə.ˈnʌð.ə kʌp/ and we can draw a line to show the change of tone (rising at the end, probably) to describe the intonation.  We can even suggest that the main stress will fall on the word cup and the second syllable of another is also stressed.
    This is another example of formal analysis.

But that still doesn't tell us what the speaker is doing in the language.  In this example, the speaker is making a polite offer.  That is the communicative act or function of the sentence.
If we change the sentence very slightly to:
    Would John like another cup?
we change the communicative act from an offer to a request for information but the formal analysis of the sentence would be almost the same.


Stop and check

Here's another example.  What are the functions of these two sentences?

  1. Do you need any help?
  2. Do you need some help?

Click here when you have an answer.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • analysing functions: function, exponent, realisation
  • form and function
  • adjacency pairs
  • intention
  • context and setting
  • relationships
  • media

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.

function and exponent

Function and exponent

This describes what the speaker / writer wants to communicate.  For example, if someone says:
    What time is it?
he or she is probably asking for a piece of factual information.  We shall see that this is not the end of the story but it is possible to describe the function as Asking for information.
There are hundreds of possible functions that we can perform in all languages and it's quite easy to find lists which include items such as
    giving / getting permission
    asking for / giving factual information
    apologising / accepting apologies
    expressing hopes and wishes
and so on.
Two key publications are from the Council of Europe and are available on the web:
Waystage 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Threshold 1990 by Van Ek and Trim
Waystage contains a long list of functions and notions for lower levels and Threshold does the same for more advanced learners.
This is the word we use to describe the actual language we use to communicate a function.  For example, if someone says:
    It's very cold in here
the exponent can be described as a positive (affirmative) statement using the dummy it, an adverb intensifier, an adjective and a prepositional phrase.
The function of the sentence can be
    to tell someone something about the temperature
    to ask someone to close the window or put on the heating
    to explain why you are putting on a coat.
It may even be
    advice to put on your coat.
This is the verb we use to connect function and exponent.  For example, we can say:
The function of apologising may be realised by using a one-word statement like
or be quite elaborately realised as in, e.g.:
    I really am awfully sorry about that.  However can you forgive me?


One exponent, many functions

One form or exponent can, as we saw above, realise many functions
Here are some examples.

This exponent ... ... can mean ... ... and realise the function of ...
He is having a shower He is in the bathroom
So I won't disturb him
Please leave a message with me
giving factual information about another person's whereabouts now or later
explaining inaction
requesting action
He should be there I am obliging him to be there
I deduce that he is there
I advise that he be there
expressing obligation
expressing logical deduction
expressing advice
Is this your coat? I want to know if it is your coat
I want to move it because I'd like to sit here
I want to you to move it because I'd like to sit here
asking for factual information
asking for permission
requesting action
It's broken That's a pity.  I can't use it now
You have been careless
expressing disappointment
expressing a complaint

You can see from these examples that one form can have more than one meaning.  The meaning may be:



If this is true, how on earth do people ever understand each other? Well, how do they? Think for a minute and then see the answer.


Adjacency pairs

Functions often come in pairs, because one function often requires its counterpart(s).  For example, asking for someone's name is a useful function to control but less so if you don't know how to respond by introducing yourself.  Here are some more:

apologising accepting or rejecting apologies
asking for permission granting or denying permission
asking directions giving directions
expressing anger placating

and, of course, it makes sense to teach and practise them together.  There's not much point in being able to ask for permission three different ways if you are unlikely to understand the response.

one and many

One function, many forms

The other side of the coin is that we can use a number of exponents to realise the same function.  If I want to advise you, I can say:
    You should ...
    You ought to ...
    Do you think it wouldn't be a good idea to ...
Here's another set of examples.

The function ... ... meaning ... ... could be achieved by ...
asking for permission Let me go now Can I go?
Would it be OK if I left?
I'm going if it's OK with you.
interrupting I want to say something Could I just say that ...
Stop right there!
Can I stop you a moment?
requesting action I want you to close the window Please shut the window
It's cold in here
Do you think we could have the window shut?
forgiving I forgive you That's OK
It's not a problem
Don't worry
It doesn't matter


Choosing the form

If this is true, how on earth do we choose the right form to realise the function?  Well, how do we?  Think for a minute and then see the answer.

Think what these might be.  Try to find an implication for each of the four factors and then compare your list.

There are lots of guides on this site which you can follow to learn more about functions in English.  A good place to start is the initial plus section.  That has a whole section on teaching functions.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A 10-item quiz
Test 2 A matching task
Test 3 A matching task

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to receptive skills.