Project 40 Essay 5

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Teaching knowledge about language in schools

4o logo 1972–2012

March 2014

Beverly Derewianka and Sally HumphreyDr Beverly Derewianka

Professor of Language Education, University of Woolongong (left)

Dr Sally Humphrey

Senior Lecturer in Literacy Education, Australian Catholic University

In the final essay of the Project 40 series, Dr Beverly Derewianka (above left), author and Professor of Language Education, joins Dr Sally Humphrey (on right) to explore the growth and development of teaching knowledge about language in schools.

A functional model of language

Sally Humphrey

This essay introduces some key aspects of the functional approach to language, an approach that has informed literacy and language education in Australia and internationally over the past forty years. During this time, classroom teachers have been provided with a great many resources for developing their knowledge and applying the functional approach through the publications, professional learning experiences and conversations enabled by the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia or PETAA.



John Callow’s (2013) publication, The Shape of Texts to Come, and explores semiotic systems beyond verbal language


The metafunctions, are used to organise chapters in a number of PETAA publications, including A New Grammar Companion by Beverly Derewianka (2012) and Grammar and Meaning by Humphrey, Droga and Feez (2012)


The enduring publication, Exploring how Texts Work by Beverly Derewianka, (1990) is a great introduction to text types for learning in the primary years

When we talk about the functional approach we are talking about a theory or a model of language, as well as a particular practice of teaching language and language education. The model of language is systemic functional linguistics or SFL, which is sometimes known as functional grammar. The SFL model was developed by Professor Michael Halliday, a leading figure in modern linguistics and more generally, social semiotics. Semiotics, or systems of signs, is the name given to all modes of communication, including verbal language but also images, gesture, sound and digital affordances such as hyperlinks. 1

One of the most exciting things for teachers about the functional model is that it deals with language and other semiotic systems not just in terms of their forms but also in terms of their meaning. So language is described as a meaning-making resource, with different systems organised according to the different ways they make meaning. So we have systems for expressing and developing ideas; systems for interacting with others and systems for organising cohesive written, spoken or multimodal texts. 2

Another important aspect the functional model of language is that it considers how the choices of language we make from the systems are related to the context of language use. The context has a powerful influence over the choices of language that we make, and the choices of language we make also influence the context.

We can think about the context in terms of the broad overall purposes which language achieves in a culture and in terms of the more specific influences on the text. Firstly, we vary our patterns of language according to the purposes for which we communicate. In school learning and teaching, for example, explaining phenomena is an important part of building and demonstrating knowledge. Other important academic purposes include analysing a poem or drama performance or giving instructions on what to do. The way we go about achieving these purposes results in particular recognisable types of text. We call these genres, and they’re shaped by the broad context. 3

As well as the purpose, we also vary our language according to particular aspects of the more immediate context of the text. This level of context in language is called the register and there are three register variables. One consideration is what we are communicating about — the topic or more technically, the field. If we return to the example of explaining, we use different language to explain phenomena in maths to the way we do in history. In maths, for example, we may use the present tense to explain ongoing occurrences but in history we may typically use the past tense. The more deeply we develop our knowledge of the field, the more specialised and technical our language becomes.

The second consideration is the who, the audience or the tenor. This refers to the roles and relationships that people are playing in an interaction. As teachers we adopt an expert role in order to achieve purpose such as explaining phenomenon, and we support our students to adopt that expert role as well. But when we go into the staffroom we may adopt a more familiar role with our colleagues; we may use language colloquially and we may express opinions that are not backed up with reasoning or evidence.

The third variable is the mode, and the mode is the how, if you like. There are many modes at play in creating text in the 21st century. For example, as well as the words we use to explain phenomena to students in class, we may use diagrams and moving images from a video; we probably also use gestures and our tone of voice also contributes to the overall text. However, when students write an explanation to show their understandings, they need to distribute the meanings across fewer modes, perhaps only words and diagrams. As students move into the middle years of schooling we need to support them in developing this written mode, which involves dense and more abstract language.

A functional model of language

Beverly Derewianka

When I was at school, grammar was taught by labeling the ‘parts of speech’ in sentences such as:

Study lest you fail.

Oh! that he were here!

Robert caught a mouse in a trap.

While this gave us a rudimentary terminology for talking about language, research in the 1960s indicated that traditional school grammars did little to enhance students’ literacy development. For the next few decades, grammar virtually disappeared from the curriculum.

In the meantime, however, a great deal of research was being carried out into developing a model of language that is relevant for today’s students. Rather than fragmenting language into individual words and learning a set of rules for ‘correct speech’, Halliday’s functional approach started with the functions that language performs in our lives. He identifies three main functions:

  • The first deals with how we use language to represent our experience of the world — allowing us to express ideas concerning the doings and happenings, the participants in these doings and happenings, and the surrounding details such as when, where and how the activity is taking place.
  • Another function of language is to enable us to interact with others — to take on different roles, to develop relationships with others, to express our emotions, opinions and judgements, and to engage with alternative viewpoints and possibilities.
  • And finally, language functions to organize our ideas and interactions into texts — spoken texts, written texts, visual texts and multimodal texts, using a range of media.

We can think of each of these functions as forming a set of resources that we draw on in creating various kinds of meanings. We make choices from each of these systems of resources depending on the particular context. When composing a persuasive piece of writing, for example, students would need to draw on resources for expressing and connecting their ideas about the field or topic in question; they would also need to draw on interpersonal resources to adopt a strong stance and create an engaging tenor; and they would need to use certain resources to organise the argument into a coherent, well-organised text reflecting control over the written mode.

Such a model connects directly with the kinds of language that students need in order to succeed in schooling and beyond. It is an approach that sees language as a resource for making meaning and as a dynamic system of choices. The job of teachers is to make sure that all students are constantly expanding their repertoire of choices in order to meet the language demands of schooling.


The role of language in education is discussed more fully by Emeritus Professor Frances Christie in Project 40 — Part 3: Writing development as a necessary dimension of language and literacy education.


PETAA publications such as Pauline Gibbons’ (1991) Learning to Learn in a Second Language, Marjorie Hertzberg’s (2012) Teaching English Language Learners in Mainstream Classes and Paul Dufficy’s (2005) Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms focus on the needs of learners from English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD)

A functional approach to classroom practice

Sally Humphrey

In addition to referring to a model of language, which describes texts in relation to their context, a functional approach also refers to a practice of teaching and learning. The functional approach to pedagogy relates to the ways that we support our students to learn language, to learn about language and to learn through language. 5

Halliday was always interested in the role of language in education and when he came to Australia in the 1970s, he organised a language in education conference in Sydney. At that conference a number of linguists and teachers came together and shared their understandings of issues related to language and language learning. This group included James Martin, Gunther Kress, Frances Christie and Joan Rothery, all of whom have had a great impact on developments in language education and semiotics within Australia and internationally.

One of the central concerns of these people was to provide equitable outcomes for students from diverse linguistic and socio economic backgrounds. 6 Research told us that neither traditional approaches, which taught Latin-based grammar, or progressive whole language approaches, which did not include explicit instruction in language, provided sufficient support for students learning the language of school learning — which really is ‘the language of power’. This dense and abstract language is not just picked up from through everyday communication, or even learned from being immersed in it. So, the functional model was really relevant for equity because it could really make clear the way you use language in different contexts.

A functional approach to classroom practice

Beverly Derewianka

Not only have there been significant changes in the way we think and talk about language in schools, there has also been a huge shift in the way we teach about language.

Again, in the past students were asked, for example, to underline the noun or verb in a series of unrelated, inauthentic sentences. They would do exercises from grammar books that bore little relationship to the language that they needed for school and in their daily lives. And mostly they were bored and saw such activities as an irrelevant chore.

Over the past few decades, however, researchers and teachers have been working together to develop an approach that explicitly teaches students the language they need in order to operate effectively in educational contexts. This work has drawn primarily on a Vygotskian theory of learning, where students learn through collaborative engagement in tasks with guidance and input from more experienced others.

An example of such an approach is the teaching-learning cycle developed by Dr Joan Rothery and colleagues. Within the context of a unit of work, the teacher identifies a relevant purpose for which students will need to use language, for example

  • to explain how something works,
  • to analyse a problem,
  • to respond to a literary text,
  • to argue for a position, and so on.

Throughout the cycle, the teacher builds up the language the students need in order to build their understanding of the field of knowledge being developed. This might involve, for example, becoming familiar with key vocabulary, or developing technical understandings, or being supported in reading selected passages from a textbook, or learning how to take notes.

Students also need to know how to shape their knowledge of the topic into a well structured text. Depending on the genre, students might be guided to observe how a model text is organized into certain stages and phases to achieve its purpose. These observations can be drawn on as the teacher and students jointly construct a similar text, with the teacher taking the students’ contributions and demonstrating how to organize them into a cohesive written text.

During this process, the teacher will be drawing students’ attention to specific language features that are relevant to the task. This might involve language resources for creating coherent texts, or developing paragraphs, or connecting ideas in more complex ways, or extending sentences to include more specific information, or addressing the needs and interests of the reader. At the same time, students will be provided with tools for investigating language in context and will be developing a shared language for talking about language.

Such classroom practices — where relevant language is taught explicitly and meaningfully in the context of authentic classroom tasks — is a far cry from the sterile practices of many traditional grammar classrooms. Teachers implementing a functional approach report that the students are engaged, are reading more confidently, are developing a greater range of vocabulary, and are writing more successfully. And above all, they are enjoying having a way of thinking and talking about language that makes sense to them. 

Students’ ability to use language effectively depends on the teacher’s understanding of how language works. And this is where PETAA has been at the forefront internationally in supporting teachers’ professional learning.


PETAA has brought understandings from genre-based approaches to teachers through books such as Jennifer Hammond (2001) Scaffolding: Teaching and Learning in Language and Literacy Education, Joanna Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton (2010) Conversations about Text: Teaching Grammar Using Literary Texts and through many PETAA Papers and PENs over these years.


Lorraine MacDonald’s (2013) A Literature companion for teachers has shown how relevant the functional model is to the appreciation and creation of literature.

PETAA’s contribution

Sally Humphrey

One of the most successful practices of systemic functional linguistics is the genre-based Teaching-Learning cycle, which was developed by Joan Rothery, through her work with Jim Martin and colleagues at the Disadvantaged Schools Program in Sydney.

The Teaching-Learning cycle introduces students to the purposes, stages and key language features carefully and explicitly. Through this cycle students gradually take control of their literacy practice through initial modelling and guided practice with their teacher.

All through the 1980s and 1990s these educational linguists worked really closely with the teachers and students in to investigate practices which could use the functional model to assist disadvantaged students. We have learned so much from teachers and students in primary and secondary schools — Lakemba, Marrickville, Dulwich Hill, Kogarah, Cleveland St, Wiley Park — and many, many more.

So the practice fed back into the theory and the functional model grew and continues to grow — from its initial focus on grammar at clause level, to the focus on genres for schooling, to language beyond the clause, what we call discourse semantics and to multimodal contexts. In recent years schools like Belmore Boys and Richmond High schools are putting these expanded models into practice in embedding literacies into their disciplines and are having a great impact on their students’ learning.

And PETAA has been really important to this growth — constantly feeding practice, not only in Australia but all over the world. The challenge with a model as rich as systemic functional linguistics is ‘How do we get it into the classroom?’ PETAA has been a leader in taking the functional approach — that is the model and the practice — to places that are really exciting, both within Australia and internationally. From the beginning PETAA publications have made accessible to teachers the many dimensions of the model, for example, the work of genres, the work of the patterns of language within the clause, the work of the meta-functions within and beyond clauses. It has also opened up the multimodal aspect of the semiotic systems and ways of integrating language, literacy and literature in the classroom. The future of language education in the 21st century does indeed look promising.

PETAA’s contribution

Beverly Derewianka

Australia is recognised as a world leader in its work on a more relevant, useful and theoretically coherent way of thinking about language in educational contexts. For some decades now, researchers and practitioners have been drawing on the insights of Halliday and his colleagues to develop a robust theory of language for the classroom — from the level of the text down to ‘chunks of meaning’ in a clause. The role of PETAA has been absolutely central in making these understandings available to the profession through its publications and professional learning workshops.

As far back as 1988, PETAA broke new ground with its publication of English Grammar: A functional approach by John Collerson. Since then it has consistently provided teachers with the latest in research and practice in the field of language education. These publications have informed syllabus development in all states of Australia and are increasingly in demand from regions such as Scandinavia, the UK, South East Asia, the USA and South America. Whenever I work with teachers in such areas, I am constantly surprised at their familiarity with PETAA publications. They often express their admiration for a professional association that provides so much high quality material for teachers and lament the fact that they have no equivalent in their own country.

For my part, and on behalf of language and literacy educators in Australia, I would like to express my appreciation for the support that PETAA has provided over the years in fostering teachers’ understanding about language and its role in students’ literacy development.