How to teach functional language + ideas for activities.

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Functional language is probably the most important part of teaching English. It’s what your students need for everyday communication: buying products, ordering food, asking for advice, asking for and giving directions, discussing solutions, complaining, etc.

But it’s not the easiest skill to teach. There aren’t too many lesson resources available for teaching functional language, and teachers usually have to make their own materials. But if you have Situations you have plenty to choose from.

So, let’s take a look at why and how to teach functional language. At the end of the article we also have some ideas for communicative activities for you.

Why is it important to teach functional language?

Functional language is the most important part of teaching English. Students need functional language to communicate in everyday situations:

  • whenever they talk to a native speaker
  • on holiday
  • when living abroad
  • talking on the phone
  • at work

Sometimes teachers focus on grammar and vocabulary not paying enough attention to communication. Of course, if your syllabus requires you to squeeze in 100 hours of teaching material into 50 lessons, you make choices. And sometimes, especially in exam prep classes, functional language is at the very bottom of your list.

And you may think that if your students are at B1 or even B2 level, surely they know how to make a complaint? So you leave this topic out. But in reality, it often looks different: students know how to write long essays, discuss art, talk about abstract topics, use 10 different phrasal verbs to describe a photo, but when they’re faced with talking to a native speaker in the simplest situation, they freeze. And suddenly they don’t know what to say. All those phrasal verbs, conditionals, inversion and essay writing skills are not enough. And it’s time to go back to the basics.

Situations Living Abroad

What to remember when teaching functional language?

There are a few points you should always keep in mind when teaching functional language.


Always present functional language in context. The best way to do it is through a dialogue with the most important phrases highlighted. It could be written or in a video or audio format. However, always provide a written transcript as well. Make sure the students understand the phrases and the context they’re used in.

Pronunciation & tone

Even if you think having the right accent is not important, it’s undeniable that having proper pronunciation is essential. So get those phrases practised and make your students feel confident when using them. When you practise pronunciation don’t forget about the tone – make questions sound like questions and make sure your students don’t sound too angry because of their tone (especially if they’re requesting something!).  Especially if they’re communicating in the UK, where politeness is taken really seriously.

Formal vs informal language

Making a distinction between what’s formal and what’s informal language is another important point to keep in mind. This will save your students from embarrassment or even trouble.


If we could point out one area of English which is often neglected, it would be asking questions. Generally, practising questions rarely goes beyond gap-fill grammar exercises. We focus a lot on students producing full sentences to answer our questions, but we forget to practise asking questions. Read on to find out what activities work great for practising questions.


Teach students how to say something, but don’t forget to train their listening skills, as well. If they can’t understand what someone else is saying to them, it doesn’t matter how good their spoken language is.

Ideas for activities to practise functional language.

Role plays

This is definitely the most effective way of practising functional language. It’s especially useful for practising asking questions. Read more about using role plays HERE. If you have Situations, you’re getting 30 Role Plays, ready to be used.

React to problems

This is a great warmer or revision activity.

On small pieces of paper, write a few problems that students are likely to face in an English-speaking country, e.g.:

“You have to make an appointment ASAP.”

“You’re in a restaurant and your table is dirty.”

“Your car stopped working.”

Cut them out and distribute them among the students. Their task is to react to these problems by saying something or asking a question.

You can make this activity longer by turning it into a role play. Put the students into pairs and ask them to role play these situations.

In any of our Situations packs you get 80 React Cards.


Prepare a few photos of people in different situations. Ask the students to think of dialogues between them.

Practising asking questions

On the board write a few situations you want to practise, such as: going to a bank, renting a house, travelling by plane, etc. Give students some time to come up with questions that are usually asked in these situations.

If you’re looking for ready-to-use materials to teach functional language, check out Situations.

Situations bundle