Language Development from the SFL Perspective

by Ruslana Westerlund, Ed. D., WIDA at Wisconsin Center for Education Research 

The purpose of this post is to share theoretical thoughts on language development from sociocultural perspective (contrastive to psycholinguistic view), namely, Systemic Functional Linguistics.  This blog, hence, will serve as a vessel for capturing syntheses from my own readings of SFL scholars.  As an explicit disclaimer, this blog will not address teaching strategies for language development, except for a couple of implications for teachers as a conclusion.  If interested on strategies for teaching writing from SFL perspective, you are welcome to visit this blog here and here  and reading is here.

SFL is concerned not with how language users follow rules, but how people construe meanings, enact interpersonal relationships, and create discourse itself of various kinds.  This approach to language views language development not as a linear process, but as an extension of multilingual learners’ functional range in a diversity of contexts that expand through the years of schooling (Christie & Derewianka, 2008).  This theory of language places primary emphasis not on the language users’ knowledge of rules but on the speakers’ meaning making potential, i.e., what a language user can mean, rather than how much language they can produce due to neurologically-based constraints.   In this view, language development is not concerned with an increase of sentence length, but with the development of individual students’ multilingual meaning making potential as part of collective.  When children learn other languages, then their language development is the development of their multilingual voice, an increased complexity of identity and stance, and their positioning and ability to take on a variety of roles in a growing range of contexts (Byrnes, 2013).  The question becomes not how much language students have but what they can do with it and how meaningfully students can participate in various learning contexts.

View of Lang Devel SFL
SFL Model of Language Development (Based on Byrnes, 2013).

This view of language challenges the deficit view which is commonly held of language learners and their linguistic repertoires.  Instead, it is related to the range of authentic learning opportunities students are provided to participate in and how well they are supported to do so.   It does not treat school discourses as more valuable than students’ linguistic repertoires but views language development as a diversification of opportunities for participation in a variety of contexts, in and outside of school.  Table 1 captures basic tenets of SFL.

1. SFL scope is wide in that it sets out to explain how humans make meaning through language and other semiotic resources, and to understand the relationship between language and society (Coffin and Donohue, 2005).
2.  SFL analytical framework allows its users to make meaning of texts by the language choices the author is making. Students have to be “ideologically armed to defend against undemocratic and discriminatory practices and that their “defense will be effective only if it is informed defense” (Halliday, 1996, p. 367, emphasis in original).
3. SFL’s theoretical framework and analytical tools are not only the analysis of linguistic resources but, also it provides a framework to analyze their “social, cultural and ideological meanings.”  “SFL analysis of text is not reducible to the analysis of linguistic form and structure, detached from its context of use.” (Coffin & Donohue, 2012, p. 65).
4. Language is the “essential condition of learning, the process by which experience becomes knowledge” (Halliday, 1993, p. 94).
5.  Language is a principal resource for making meaning, and it serves human beings to negotiate, construct, organize, and change the nature of social experience.
6. All learning is fundamentally a linguistic process in three interrelated dimensions: learning language, learning through language, and learning about language.
7. One of the central ideas to SFL is that language is an interlocking system of options that allows its users to choose for different purposes (Martin, 2012).  We make choices when using language depending on the context.
8. Language function is to make meanings (e.g., experiential, interpersonal, logical, textual meanings, (Halliday & Hasan, 1985).  These meanings are influenced by the social and cultural context in which they are exchanged.  Every sentence is multifunctional.
9.  Mary Macken-Horarik: “All language use is context-bound, hence language always occurs as socially meaningful, coherent text, that is, as a particular genre. Not all members of society hold equal power. One means towards attaining greater power – greater degrees of freedom in action – is to have competence in the use of powerful kinds of texts in a society. Genre-theory holds out the promise of enabling teachers to understand forms of writing, and of their power, and to describe genres with sufficient detail and clarity for teachers to use as the basis for a teachable writing curriculum. All texts are entirely intermeshed with the social context in which they are produced.”

This video from a Panel Discussion: Revisiting complementary distributions of Halliday and Vygotsky to a language-based theory of learning provides a synthesis of SFL where Heidi Byrnes responds to Gordon Wells’ critique of Halliday’s ideas.


In his book Learning How to Mean, Halliday sets out provide a first ever account of language development from the sociocultural perspective.   He focuses on answering the question not which sounds the child produces first and how those sounds turn into words and sentences but “what the child has learned to do my means of language” (p. 6).  He rejects the notion of language acquisition because from functional view, children “make their own language” agentively.  We are not acquiring grammar structures out of the ‘mental grammar’, a static, packaged inventory of structures to be acquired through input.  It is our own making of meaning through language that we pursue.  This is positioned in huge contrast with the prevalent view of the American psycholinguistics. And yet, Krashen’s  theory of ‘learning’ v. ‘acquisition’ has taken a firm hold of many teachers’ minds for decades.

Halliday acquistion v. development
Halliday, M. A. K. Learning How To Mean.

Heidi Byrnes explicates Halliday’s agentive notion of language development by extrapolating on the SFL three metafunctions.  Whenever we speak or write, we construe experience, enact interpersonal relationships, and construct discourse itself in various texts.   In the phrase, “language construes experience”, there is an interpretive, a creative, and agentive notion of what language is” (Byrnes, 2013).

A few other highlights from SFL as contrasted with psycholinguistic view of language:


  • Language enacts interpersonal relationships. It does so simultaneously.  There is no separation of pragmatics.  They are inherently together.  The way they are realized is in a textual environment.

When people learn languages, they build up their personalized meaning potentials. Language is a resource.  Language is not a thing to be learned.  It’s an available semiotic [meaning making] resource.

  • Language learners build up their personal potentials by gradually expanding their registerial potential.  They expand their registerial repertoires.  What does that mean?  They can take on more and more roles.  There is activism in language, not a neutral possession of grammatical structures. “They can take on growing roles in a growing range of contexts becoming semiotically more and more empowered” (Byrnes, 2013). And for multilingual learners, the potential for meaning making expands to other languages and with it “the challenge to come to use it for one’s personal good as well as for the good of others and society”.
  • It is through language that social empowerment is possible and the ethical responsibility goes with exactly that: if you are in an environment to enable that empowerment, then you have a responsibility to see to it that to the best of our abilities and with given constraints, we will enable our learners to give access to empowering abilities that come with the expansion of the semiotic resources that go with language.  That doesn’t mean that language is the only thing, but in an education system, which we are talking about here, language will have of necessity a very strong role to play (Byrnes, 2013).
  • Grammar is a resource, but it’s not a decontextualized resource.  YOU make situated choices, based on who you are, what you want to accomplish, and what relationship you want to establish with the person.
  • Language development is not about having less or more language.  Language development is about how many spaces we can occupy.  “Our view is that ESL learners’ success in school is largely related to the opportunities they have to participate in a range of authentic learning contexts and meaning-making, and the support – or scaffolding – that they are given to do so successfully in English [and other languages].” Hammond & Gibbons

Language education of minoritized students should not be about language correction, dialect eradication or teaching of a more superior language variety privileged in school.  It should be about EXPANDING their meaning meaning making potential and how many spaces students can occupy.

Language is a social action.  Language is not a thing to be learned.  Language is a resource among many.  It is a tool in the learner’s hands to take on various roles and occupy various spaces in and outside of school.

SFL-based perspective on the goal of language development is about becoming a sophisticated person who can use various resources to create their own stance and positioning.

For teachers, this means providing opportunities for language learners to become members of discourse communities, specific to their disciplines, and learn to control and manipulate a variety of registers required by the disciplines.   Gibbons (2006) suggests that the question we should ask ourselves is “what are the processes that allow for ESL students to become active participants in the cultures of school, and what opportunities are there (or could be) for engagement in practice?” (p. 44). The onus is on teachers to enable our learners to gain access to empowering capabilities that come with the expansion of new semiotic resources that go with language.


Accurso, K. (2013, March 16). Heidi Byrnes – NASFLA [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wells, G. (1994). The complementary contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky to a “Language-based theory of learning” in Dialogic inquiry: Toward a sociocultural practice and theory of education (p. 3-50). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Canvas.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1993). Towards a language-based theory of learning, Linguistics and Education

Halliday M. A. K. (1976). Learning how to mean: explorations in the development of language.  London: Edward Arnold

The rest of the references are forthcoming


Slaves or Workers: “Grammatical Choices as Moral Choices” in History Textbooks

by Ruslana Westerlund

The New York Times published an op-ed in 2015 analyzing the language used in the Texas History texas historytextbooks published by McGraw-Hill Education. The “Grammatical choices as moral choices” phrase in my title came from that article. The NYT piece references this original post where Coby Burren, a 15 year old student, discovers that the authors in the Texas history textbook called “slaves” as “workers.” In addition, the whole conversation about “workers” is situated in the story on immigration portraying African slaves as immigrants who came from Africa as workers. This is an obvious case of erasure of African American version of history.  His mom created a brief video and posted it on Facebook to show the audience the actual evidence of the textbook. 

One job authors of history books have is to produce a textbook.  That entails a reconstruction of the past to tell their readers of “how things really were” and “to tell how it actually happened” (Coffin, 1998).  However, during that reconstruction, “re-versioning” also happens, and new(ish) versions of history are created.  The history is tinted through the lens of the author who makes grammatical choices that indeed reflect their moral choices.  In other words, an author’s bias is written into the history.  Also, when history textbook authors reconstruct their events, they also evaluate and re-evaluate them.  What kind of language resources are available to them to reconstruct and re-evaluate the past in ways that suits their agenda?  In her work on analyzing language of historic narratives, which I addressed in this blog, Coffin quotes Burke who said,

“More and more historians are coming to realize that their work does not reproduce ‘what actually happened’ so much as to represent it from a particular point of view. To communicate this awareness to readers of history, traditional forms of narrative are inadequate. Historical narrators need to find a way of making themselves visible in their narrative, not out of self indulgence but as a warning to their reader that they are not omniscient or impartial and that other interpretations besides theirs are possible. (Burke, 1991, 239)

Even though the C3 Framework for State’s Social Studies Standards encourages teachers to work with primary sources, the reality of most classrooms is that teachers still use textbooks.

Despite the changing attitudes to the nature of historic knowledge such as that the US history, for example, is whitewashed, not much analysis of historic writing, however, has been carried out (Coffin, 1998).  However, as teachers of history, whose job is to develop critical thinkers who can formulate balanced judgments about the value of differing interpretations of historic events in relation to their historical context and to “pose questions about a topic in United States history, gather and organize a variety of primary and secondary sources related to the questions, analyze sources for credibility and bias …” (Minnesota Social Studies Standards, the role that language plays in the construal of those interpretations and bias is not fully exploited by teachers.

I had an opportunity to present to a class of 7th graders on how they can “see through language” and uncover author’s bias by using a very short text (Figure 1).  They analyzed text without any problems and came to the conclusion that the reason authors write the way they do is because they do not like painting the history of their own country in a negative light.  As a result, in this particular text they analyzed (Figure 1), slave owners get the credit for treating slaves with kindness such as providing shelter and clothing (part 1 of text below), but when it comes to negative actions such as whippings, torture, and branding – the agency is no longer made visible.  We don’t want to name the bad guy. The exercise that I shared with students along with the “comprehension” questions are below.

Read the text and stop before the word “however”.  Circle who is doing the action. Then tell your partner what kind of action is being done.  Then read after “However”, who is doing the action?  Why no people are mentioned here?

Figure 1. Text for Identifying Bias 

Some slave owners reported that their masters treated them kindly.  To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves (STOP READING).  However, sever treatment was very common.  Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.  

Source: How Texas Teaches History, The New York Times, October 21, 2015

Students spend a great deal of time answering comprehension questions about historic events.  ELLs often fill out worksheets to provide definitions of key vocabulary.  Instead,  we should teach them to understand perspectives and some facts are not as black and white and not that objective.  Here’s a starting point for some of these questions (Figure 2):  This set of questions deals with the topic of Westward Expansion, the topic my son will be studying soon in his class.  I so wish his teacher engaged in these sorts of conversations with my son.  

Figure 2. Suggested Language-Focused Questions for Critical Reading of Primary Sources

Suggested Language-Focused Questions for Critical Reading of Primary Sources
  1. What are we reading?  How is reading history different from reading fiction?
  2. When was it written?  Who wrote this?  Why was it written? (More questions for how to source, corroborate, contextualize are in the resources for further reading).
  3. How are settlers named? (e.g. brave explorers, determined White settlers)
  4. How are Native Americans named? (e.g. uncivilized savages or indigenous people)
  5. How are events described and named?  (e.g. invasion, settlement or expansion)?
  6. How is the territory they are expanding into named? (e.g. Frontier? or A Crossroads of Cultures?)
  7. How are their actions described (e.g. journeyed or invaded)?
  8. What facts are included?  What facts are excluded?
  9. How does the author construct perspective through those choices in Qs 3-9?
  10. What language resources do authors use to justify White settlers’ actions?  
  11. How are Native Americans depicted in photographs?  
  12. Whose histories and experiences are included or omitted?
  13. Who benefits from these portrayals?
  14. What other interpretations are possible or what can be interrogated?
  15. Is this context part of the reader’s experience, knowledge or personal history?

Teachers and students need to have a shared metalanguage to be able to understand and talk about the choices that authors make when they create their texts.  Systemic Functional Linguistics provides a practical toolkit for teachers and students to analyze texts looking through the language lens.  SFL asks students to always see language in context.  SFL also asks students to think why out of all the choices that the author could have made, they made only those choices?  de Oliveira (2010), in her work with teachers during the California History Project, produced an analysis of authors’ choices in discourse analysis of history texts from the SFL perspective by focusing on how authors used noun groups to package, condense, expand, and structure reasoning.

Before looking at individual words, it is important to talk about the context of what we are reading.  The skills for contextualizing source are extremely important for all students as they develop skills to think like historians.  After setting up the context, the next step is to look at sentences and then words WITHIN those sentences, not pulled out and worksheeted to death. For example, teach students to look at the whole sentence Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner.  Then ask students “who did that?” question which will lead you to teach them the metalanguage for passive voice  –  a critical resource of many history and science textbooks.  Students need to know the author made the choice to use passive voice were broken apart instead of active slave owners broke families apart to hide who committed such heinous act.  In the clause “the removal of Indigenous children from their families” includes nominalization, a grammatical resource for turning an action to remove into a thing removal and discuss what function that achieved for the author.  Why didn’t the author use the verb?  What different meanings would have been achieved?  Please don’t pull out your dusty grammar books and start creating worksheets on passive and active voice.  TEACH LANGUAGE IN CONTEXT.  There is no need to drill grammatical terms without any purpose.  The only reason we need those terms is to have a shared metalanguage to use when looking at texts critically.  After children understand what those terms are, they can create their own metalanguage as documented in several studies (Meg Gebhard, personal communication).

By taking time to look at texts critically in such a way that students will be able to “see through language” (Schleppegrell, 2017), we develop a generation of thinkers – a skill so important today in the time of “alternate facts”.

References and Resources for Further Reading:

C3 Framework for State’s Social Studies Standards

Coffin, C. (2006). Historical Discourse.  Continuum.

Coffin, C. (1998).  Reconstruals of the Past: Settlement or Invasion?  The Role of Judgement Analysis.  Paper presented for the American Association for Applied Linguistics.  Retrieved from

deOliveria, L. (2010). Nouns in history:  Packaging Information, Expanding
Explanations, and Structuring Reasoning. The History Teacher (43)2

Schleppegrell, M. (2017) Linguistic tools for supporting emergent critical language awareness in the elementary school. In Harman, R. (2017) Bilingual students and social equity.  Springer.

Stanford History Education Group

Reading Like a Historian

Beyond Grammar Correction: Developing Writers Through Genre Approach

By Ruslana Westerlund

I’ve been thinking about the act of writing for a while now. What is writing? What does it mean to be a writer? What are the linguistic and cultural challenges to writing for multilingual writers? In this blog, I’ll talk about what writing means to me.  I’ll share a few personal challenges of being a bicultural writer as well as what influences continue to shape my view of writing. I will also argue for a more complex view of language development for multilingual learners drawing on Systemic Functional Linguistics. I’ll provide implications for multilingual learners throughout each point.

Those who read my blog know that I am a Ukrainian American who grew up in the 70s and 80s in Ukraine which was then called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I went to school in the 80s. I always say that half of my education was Soviet propaganda. Despite that, I have always considered myself a creative writer and have written poems about Mayakovsky and the Communist Party in 10th grade (instead of an exposition with claim and evidence). After emigrating from Ukraine in 1995, I wrote about immigration, the cities I visited, nostalgia, my homeland, and educational inequity of ELs. Then poetry writing came to an abrupt end when I began writing my dissertation and then transitioned to blogging. While poetry was comfortable and cathartic, dissertation writing introduced a wave of challenges, both linguistic and cultural, of which I’ll write below.

Challenge 1: Comfortable Genres

Writing a dissertation was challenging for several reasons. First, it goes back to my 10th grade class when a teacher asked me to write an exposition on the Communist Party as portrayed in Mayakovsky’s poetry. I hated writing expositions. Why? Because it’s hard work! Instead, I asked to write a poem concerning the Communist party to which he agreed. It was a genre I was comfortable with. Exposition required a set of skills that I hadn’t developed.

Implications for ELLs:

For culturally and linguistically diverse learners in your classrooms, we allow them, out of the goodness of our hearts, to write in genres which they would prefer to ease their way into writing, to ease their stress and anxiety. While you may do that at the beginning of their writing development, it is important to remember that we may be doing a disservice to them.  I recommend the three E’s: Expect they can do it, Explicitly teach a variety of genres, and thus, you’ll Expand their writing repertoires. If all students do is write poems about the water cycle in science, when will they engage in the disciplinary literacy of writing in ways which the science discipline values?

Disciplinary literacy is defined as reasoning, thinking, reading, writing, speaking and acting in ways that that discipline values. Science is full of its own set of genres and we don’t need to borrow from language arts if we want to meet the science standards.  The Next Generation Science Standards, Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information is expecting students to write genres that are intrinsic to science and engineering.

NGSS practice 8

The reason for problematizing the “familiar and the known genres” is to expand students’ meaning potential (using Halliday’s concept). If all we ask students to do is only one or two types of genres, we are not expanding students’ repertoires. This also has implications of how we view language development.

The question becomes not how long their sentences are but what they can DO with language and which writing spaces they can occupy.

Challenge 2: Writing Requires Knowledge Building

Another reason my dissertation writing proved to be challenging was because it first required me to build ideas and knowledge of the topic I was writing about. I vividly remember sitting down at my desk and starting to write and I had a very rudimentary level of knowledge on that topic. Because the topic was new to me, my writing consisted of eighty percent of reading, thinking and only then “writing”, typing your thoughts down and revising them constantly.  You can say that’s it’s stating the obvious.  However, we often do that with ELLs.

Being a writer, also means being a reader and a thinker, an inquirer and a seeker.

Implications for ELLs:

We often ask English language learners to write quite prematurely. Supplying them with a set of sentence frames or a graphic organizer is not sufficient if writing requires new knowledge. They need to build the field first, have an experience, develop ideas, listen to a guest speaker, read multimodal texts, develop oral language through a series of interactive activities which help students create meaning together, clarify their thinking, and build knowledge together. This phase of the cycle may take several lessons.  One example of well-scaffolded writing in science can be found here. One approach that illustrates these steps well is called the Teaching and Learning Cycle.

Teaching and Learning Cycle (Adapted from Rothery, 1996)


Challenge 3: Playing Guessing Games 

The other reason for the challenge with my dissertation was that it was a genre I’ve never encountered before. So, my awesome adviser Dr. Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco suggested I study mentor texts and she explicitly modeled paragraph openers for me in the Methodology section.  I read and made notes of how dissertations were written. In that process, I have noticed to construct knowledge on the topic, generalizations and abstractions were construed through various language resources. The interpersonal is achieved not through emotive appeal but through an objective stance and research citations with a dose of evaluation (e.g. significant body of research, an important issue). In other words, your personal opinions are not stated as “In my opinion….” but through “According to so and so…” ,” A vast body of research claims that… “. Those are still your opinions, however they are stated as facts using the logical appeal through research citation, etc. I’ve noticed that dissertation had a lot of redundancy in it.  Things were repeated many times on purpose.

Implications for ELLs:

English learners need to learn that different genres are construed through different language choices depending on the field (what we are talking about), the audience (who we are talking to), and the mode (the channel of communication), all guided by the purpose. For a more expanded explanation, see here.  One teacher commented that arguments in language arts are not the same as arguments in science.  No one is interested in your opinion in science.  You have to use evidence to back up your claim. But students are often left to figure out that mystery on their own because rarely do we engage our students or ourselves in the metalinguistic comparisons of genres in how the disciplines define them.

Challenge 4: Know Your Audience

When I was writing my dissertation, I had a particular audience in mind.  I was writing to teachers and researchers and my language choices had to match my audience.  I remember learning not to assume that people knew much about my topic and that required of me to explicitly relate the knowledge in such a way that it would help my readers learn from my dissertation.

To help students write to a particular audience, ask them to reflect on how they speak to different people. Students can contextualize language use by reflecting on how we greet different people (a principal, our friends in the lunchroom or our family members at home). We, as their teachers, can bring that language awareness to the surface and bring it into writing.

Here are some differences in the language choices my son makes. These examples illustrate different choices of words for two different audiences. My son, who is a sixth grader, allowed me to share this language with you, my readers. He said, when I text my friends or talk to them, I don’t use the language in the left column.

Friends Frens (my son’s language used in Instagram and texting because it’s the “Twenty One Pilots thing”)
Peers You guys
Adolescents Teens
Exhausted Pooped
Energized Hyper
Thank you! Thx
So eager Dying to…
Good-looking girl Shawty
Awesome Lit

When asking my 6th grader if he carries those words into writing from texting, he gave the “Duh” look and said, “No, mom. I know that those words are for my friends. I know my teacher’s expectations.” He also knows his mom’s expectations! Look at the example below. Remember: field, tenor, and mode? The mode is the same (texting) but the audience is different (his mom) and the tenor is to appeal to his mom, so use of research in texting is intentional because of those two variables. I bet you he doesn’t cite research to his friends.

text from Nicky.png

Implications for ELLs:

The question becomes, “Do English learners who represent various cultural practices and worldviews, know what’s in our heads as a teacher?” Way too often, we ask them to be mind readers. We say “Write an argument persuading your principal that we need more playground time”, and give them a sentence frame “I think… ” “In my opinion…” or a graphic organizer. But we rarely provide explicit instruction by deconstructing mentor persuasive texts to analyze the authors’ choices. How do authors “sound convincing”? What is that language?  How do authors present opinions in a “neutral, authoritative” way? How do authors create logical appeal? Or the emotive appeal? How does language construe those appeals? Below are some examples of language choices for arguments with examples for those three appeals.

(Source: Westerlund, R. (2016). Focus on Writing with a Purpose. WCER, Madison, WI.)

Discourse Dimension:
  • Connectives to sequence claims (e.g., first, second, third, finally, in conclusion, to summarize, therefore) to present counter-claims (e.g., however, nevertheless, on the other hand) to show relationships of similarity or difference (similarly, moreover, nevertheless, despite this, on the other hand).
  • Summary statements used to pull ideas together
Sentence Dimension:
  • A variety of tenses may be used depending on the purpose (past tense to summarize past, present tenses to state the present, if-then clauses to state real or imagined effects)
  • Modality to present arguments or claims as possibilities rather than facts (it is likely that, it may be that)
Word/Phrase Level Dimension:
  • Topic-specific vocabulary (racism, segregation, racial divide, hatred) to speak with authority
  • Evaluative language indicating writer’s personal belief or stance (e.g., it is extremely unlikely)
  • Emotive language to create emotional appeal (e.g. devastating, heart-wrenching)
  • Language referring to research or statistics to create logical appeal (e.g., research studies have found that… Twenty percent of students reported that…)
  • Language to create moral appeal (e.g. it is our duty to…)
  • Language choices to connect with the audience (e.g., peers v. adolescents)
  • Modal verbs to call to action (we must act now, we should not stop…)
Instructional implications: How can I make these language features more explicit to my English learners? What activities should I consider to help my ELs choose language specific to audience?

Our students are capable of learning that when we write, we make choices and those choices, including pronoun use, active or passive voice, modals “represent relations between writers and the world we live in. Word choice and sentence structure are an expression of the way we attend to the words of others, the way we position ourselves in relation to others” (Micciche, 2004, p. 719).

An approach to making writing expectations explicit is described in the research study by Myhill and her colleagues (2016) Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing. They use Carter and McCarthy’s distinction between the grammar of structure, which is concerned with language a system of grammatical structures and the grammar of choice which describes how those grammatical structures construe different meanings. The article describes an approach of using dialogic teaching to talk about language choices we make as writers, to develop metalinguistic awareness in students to help them move beyond writers as users of structures and into writers as decision makers about their choices of language.

The dialogic approach encourages teachers and students to talk about writing and

  • ask students to reflect on the choices they make and justify their choices
  • support writers to see the connection between the grammatical feature and its effect in shaping meaning
  • encourage language play and language contextualization.

Writing is also talking about writing and reflecting on the choices we make and how they impact our readers. Writing involves thinking about the reader. Being able to engage students in a dialogic talk about writing has implications on the teachers’ capacity to recognize and manage metalanguage about writing.

Challenge 5: The Loss of The Inner Voice

After overcoming linguistic challenges of the structure of the dissertation and the order of the sections – that’s when I discovered that each institution has its own preferred style for organizing the textual features of the dissertation genre and that they are not universal – I have come face to face with a much bigger challenge, that of cultural style of writing required by an American dissertation genre. I became acutely aware of that when the edits came back which were mainly about the types of sentences that were allowed. They had to be short sentences with maybe one or two coordinating conjunctions. I remember writing long-winded sentences with several embedded clauses drawing on what I thought was good writing in my Master’s Thesis in the Cherkassy University I had graduated from. I remember resisting that convention because to me it wasn’t just writing different types of sentences. Writing in that genre was similar to putting on clothes that you didn’t feel comfortable in. But you have to wear that suit for people to take you seriously at a job interview before you even say a word.

So, writing in L2 is best described as what Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) said of second language learning as “participation and (re)construction of selves”. In their article, the authors argue for the inadequacy of the acquisition metaphor and propose language as participation metaphor. While the acquisition process merely focuses on us acquiring grammatical structures, the participation process stresses contextualization of language use and engagement with the certain community. It means taking on those values and practices and not merely using L2 grammar. So, when we write, we choose to participate in that culture. Pavlenko describes that stage as the loss of one’s inner voice.

If we want to understand multilingual learners’ challenges more comprehensively, we need to see beyond their grammar and sentences and into those spaces where cultural tensions happen. This may be more true for the adolescents than younger writers who are figuring out their identity and writing becomes a contested space for them. The contestation may include both the language choices and the gains and losses during the process of writing in another language.

Writing in another language also means writing in another culture.

All of the challenges listed can become opportunities. By challenging students to step out of their comfort zones and write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts, we expand their range of spaces they can occupy. By teaching how to contextualize language, we give space to sociolinguistics in our classrooms because it’s already there represented by our students who speak various languages and dialects. By making language choices explicit through a systematic approach, we empower them to recognize when someone tries to manipulate them with messages on billboards and advertisements. By engaging with adolescent writers about the gains and losses of writing in another culture, we allow for critical conversations about the intersection of language, culture, and identity.


Micciche, L. 2004. “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar.” College Composition and Communication 55 (4): 716–737

Myhill D., Jones, S. & Wilson, A. (2016). Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing. Research Papers in Education, 31(1), 23-44, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2016.1106694

Pavlenko, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (2000). Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves. In Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 155-177

Westerlund, R. (2016). WIDA Focus on: Writing with a Purpose. WCER. Madison, WI

From Speaking to Writing in a Science Classroom

By Katy J. Kobany

Cumulative Project for EDUC 731: Responsive Pedagogy for ELLs, Bethel University, Teacher: Dr. Ruslana Westerlund

Academic standards

8323: Water, which covers the majority of the Earth’s surface, circulates through the crust, oceans and atmosphere in what is known as the water cycle.

Essential question(s)

  • Where is water found on Earth and how does it get there?


Content and language learning objectives

Water Cycle Mini Unit
Science Activities and Outcomes Language Outcomes
Students will…

  • Experience the water cycle through two “different (though related) science experiments” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).
  • Utilize resources to understand the water cycle and define key vocabulary terms.
  •  Compare the water cycle to the experiments.
  • Produce a written explanation of the water cycle.
  • Create a drawing of the water cycle to support the written explanation.
Students will…

  • Share observations using informal register during the experiment
  • Write a cyclical science explanation involving some causality
  • Use comparative language when comparing the water cycle with the experiments that the students completed (similar to the …, different from …, unlike the water cycle, my experiment...)
  • Express understanding of water movement using verbs expand and cool, evaporate, condense, precipitate, form into, is transformed by…
  • Key concepts vocabulary: evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy

Sequence of Activities Modeled after the Mode Continuum (Gibbons, 2015)

visual repr of activities

Activity 1: Doing an Experiment – Distillation and Solar Stills

Description and Rationale: Students will engage in one of two science experiments that model the main processes of the water cycle.  Experiment one involves distilling mock ocean water through boiling.  Experiment two involves the creation of a solar still.

This activity sets up a “genuine communicative situation” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

Groups of students will have different, though related, experiences, which will give rise to authentic classroom discussion.  In this activity, students may not have specific nominalized vocabulary such as “precipitation” or “condensation” and will instead describe the experiments orally using an informal register.

In this way, students will have a chance to develop the ideas around the key concepts prior to introducing them (Gibbons, 2015). The purpose of the experiment is to learn the scientific concepts behind the water cycle.  Students can use all of their language resources to build that knowledge and the precision of their language use is not as important here.  It will be more important when they get to share their ideas later in the lesson.

ELs who studied the water cycle in their previous schools or have home or community knowledge, will be encouraged to draw on their knowledge of science in this lesson.

In this activity, students will work in small groups.

Teacher Roles Student Roles
Teacher Role: Arrange appropriate groups, provide materials and general instructions for the experiments, encourage small group, student-to-student discussion through discovery and inquiry.  The teacher encourages the students to both do and think about science (Gibbons, 2015).  The teacher’s role is very active during teacher-guided reporting.  Instead of guiding students from the periphery, teachers are mediating the discussion and supporting language learning. Student Role: Challenge each other’s ideas when participating in experiment, dialogue with peers about the experiment, thereby attempting to explain to other students what they see happening.


Activity 2: Adding New Language to Known Concepts

Rationale: At this stage, students will be learning the science terms of the known concepts in the previous activity (energy, evaporation, condensation, precipitation) related to the water cycle. This terminology will be drawn from and related to the experiments the students engaged in from the first activity.

By sequencing this activity after the experiments, students will be “given an opportunity to develop some [understanding] before they are expected to understand and use more scientific discourse and vocabulary” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

For ELs, it may be useful to know that these nominalized words that pack science concepts into them such as evaporation can be unpacked through the verbs: (evaporate, condense, precipitate)

The teacher works with a mentor text similar to this one, highlight language resources that pack scientific concepts.  Teacher points out that there is a lot more language in this text than just key concepts.

The Water Cycle stages are: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and surface run off/ground water.  The water cycle is also known as the hydrologic cycle. There is not a starting point to the water cylce. It is a continuous movement of water that is driven by the sun. Water from bodies of water such as oceans, river, and lakes is evaporated into the air. Condensation will form and cloud particles will grow causing precipitation to fall from the sky as surface runofff and back into the bodies of water.  Evaporation is water molecules that escape the earth’s surface and enter the atmosphere. Condensation is water vapor in the air that turns into liquid droplets as the air expands and cools. Precipitation is water droplets that become heavy and fall back to the earth’s surface from clouds.

Emma, Nate, Marcus, and Samantha in Mrs. Villarreal class

Rationale & Teacher Role: In this activity, the teacher’s role is to introduce new academic language that aligns with the student experience in activity one.  This is a “[brief introduction]” necessary for the entire class (Gibbons, 2015, p. 83).  All students will participate in this activity, which involves direct instruction.  For the majority of the class, no individual is at an advantage as the academic concepts should be new.  Both ELs and native speakers will jointly acquire the new language.

Activity 3: Teacher-Guided Reporting

Description and Rationale: In this activity, students are encouraged to use a take on an expert role which will require them to use more academic and precise language to describe the science experiments they conducted.  This provides an opportunity for students to practice the new terminology introduced in activity two.

In this way, the activity is providing a bridge to written language and encourages students to use a more sophisticated register to describe the water cycle process.  The reporting process is intentionally more open ended than a traditional “IRE/F” pattern in order to encourage extended responses (Gibbons, 2015, p. 88-89).

In this stage, students will also reach toward the language objective of utilizing connectives for comparing and contrasting the water cycle with the experiments that the students completed. This will be a large group activity.

Teacher Roles Student Roles
 “In teacher-guided reporting, the role of the teacher is to help children make sense of learning activities through talking with them, and in this process, introduce new language” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 87).  The teacher needs to be an active listener and facilitator in order to scaffold and support students as they make attempts to speak scientifically.

Specifically, the teacher is not correcting students’ language but building on students’ ideas and re-voicing using precise language needed to sound like an expert.  The teacher will “rebroadcast” an idea by re-voicing or ask a student to re-voice or paraphrase to give the student’s idea more exposure so everyone can hear it and think about it again MacDonald, R., Cook, H. & Miller, E. (2014).  The main purpose of this is to help students make their ideas visible and clearly articulated for the other students to hear.

Students describe the experiments from activity one.  In this activity students are the “[experts],” sharing their own experiences with the experiments sharing their experiences and articulating their findings while stretching their use of academic language (Gibbons, 2015, p. 89).  MacDonald, R., Cook, H. & Miller, E. (2016) suggest students can restate or summarize an idea, support an idea, articulate their idea for others to hear it and learn from the student expert use of language.

Activity 3 Grouping Configuration: Groups of Students Share Their Learning with the Whole Class

Rationale & Teacher Role: In this activity, the teacher’s role is to help actively facilitate, model, and guide an academic discussion of the experiences in activity one.  Student groups from activity one will, “with the help of the teacher, [share] their learning with the whole class” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 83).  Because each group participated in a different experiment, each group contains information that is necessary for shaping the understanding of the entire class community.  This necessitates that students report to the entire class instead of simply refining their language in small groups without sharing aloud.  Additionally,

Gibbons (2015) study showed that students who listened to other student reports during a teacher guided reporting activity improved their own writing.  I anticipate the same result by having small groups report to the class as a whole.  Because the students are the experts in this activity, ELs are able to contribute and co-construct their knowledge alongside native English speakers with the active support of the teacher.

Activity 4: Modeling and Deconstructing the Genre

Rationale: Students will work with a science mentor text that models the cyclical explanation that students will write for their performance assessment at the conclusion of the activities.  The text will be read aloud and presented as factual information (Gibbons, 2015).  Language associated with the explanation will be introduced including time connectives and causal relationships necessary to structure a cyclical explanation of the water cycle.  Students will examine the text for structure (order, sequencing of paragraphs, sentences, verbs in present tense and vocabulary) and discuss these items. Round out the activity with an after reading strategy (ex. Cloze) to have students practice the concept of a cyclical explanation using academic language. This will be a large group activity.

Activity 4 Grouping Configuration:  Whole Class

Rationale & Teacher Role: The teacher’s role in this activity begins with modeling the process of reading and deconstructing a text.  Since this is a new way to analyze a text, it is necessary for the activity to begin with the entire group working together on a passage appropriate to the content and reading skills of the class.

During this back-and-forth instruction students are “[introduced to] some meta-language,” connectives, organization, structure, and grammar that is necessary to consider how a cyclical explanation will later be constructed by the students themselves (Gibbons, 2015, p. 115).

All students need to be guided through this process, both native and non-native speakers, who would be less familiar with language awareness in science texts.  Because this process will be new to all students, ELs and non-native speakers will be working collaboratively within the whole group and able to participate equally with the support of the teacher.

Student Roles:  Take on the role of students who are building language awareness within the whole group to understand language choices of a cyclical explanation.  This activity will support the work necessary for activity four and activity five as well as serve as an example for the performance assessment.

Activity 5: Teacher-Guided Reporting

Rationale: It is important to support students’ conceptual and linguistic development through Teacher-Guided Reporting more than once in a series of lessons.   The shifting in register from the language of “here and now” to the language of scientific generalizations is a shift that needs to be scaffolded by talking which is guided by the teacher.  The teacher expands students’ repertoire by recasting and revoicing what the student is contributing to reflect the more written-like language of the Mode Continuum.

Activity 6: Journal Writing

Rationale: After completing the previous activities, students are ready to use the rehearsed oral language to write open-ended journal responses about the water cycle.  This journal will provide an important resource necessary for students to complete the performance assessment of writing a cyclical explanation of the water cycle and producing a graphic representation that supports the written text of their explanation.

Teacher Role: Create a prompt that encourages and does not limit student responses (use “paragraph openers”).  Invite well-thought responses by planning enough time for the activity.  The prompt needs to model for students the kinds of writing that will be used in the assessment tool.

Student Roles: Utilize the knowledge gained from participating in the previous activities to craft a response that utilizes new language. Students take on the role of scientists who use graphic and written representations of their knowledge about the water cycle.

Grouping Configuration: Individual

Rationale & Teacher Role: Because this activity is the last in the sequence that precedes it, students are asked to work alone under the assumption that they are ready based on the previous supports.

Without the five activities that came before, students would be unprepared to tackle this activity effectively.

Writing for this activity and the performance task that follows is, “linguistically the most demanding” and is built towards throughout the cycle (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

Throughout these sequenced activities students have been supported as they transitioned from the informal, oral end of the language continuum to the more sophisticated academic writing end of the continuum.

Since this activity is the last before the performance assessment, students are formatively assessed on their ability to write about the standard in order for the teacher to determine if students are individually ready for the assessment and whether or not the activities the teacher facilitated were supportive enough to prepare students for the tasks.

Success Criteria – Assessment Tool

Description: Students will write a cyclical explanation of the water cycle and include a diagram of the cycle that supports their explanation.  Students will be assessed on both content and language objectives using the rubric shown below.

Success Criteria Beginning Developing Accomplished
Key Concepts Accurately uses less than 50% of the academic concepts to describe the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy) Accurately uses more than 50%, but less than 100% of the academic concepts to describe the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy) Accurately uses all of the academic concepts to name the stages when describing the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy)
Language of Cyclical Explanation Two or more of the following statements are true about the explanation:

-Statement to identify the phenomenon is is mostly accurate.

-Explanation of the water cycle phenomenon is mostly accurate.

– Stages of the water cycle are mostly ordered correctly.

– Describes the cycle using linear language suggesting that it starts and ends.

One of the following statements are true about the explanation:

– Statement to identify the phenomenon is is mostly accurate.

– Explanation of the water cycle phenomenon is mostly accurate.

– Stages of the water cycle are mostly ordered correctly.

– Describes the cycle using linear language suggesting that it starts and ends.

Accurately identifies and explains the phenomenon of the water cycle, appropriately orders stages in the cycle using time connectives and proceeds to explain the endlessness of the cycle.
Graphical Representation Two or more of the following statements are true about the picture:

– Accurately depicts more than 50%, but less than 100% of the key vocabulary terms.

Does not show the recursive nature of the water cycle.

– Does not include the energy source for the cycle.

One of the following statements are true about the picture:

– Accurately depicts more than 50%, but less than 100% of the key vocabulary terms.

Does not show the recursive nature of the water cycle.

– Does not include the energy source for the cycle.

Picture supports explanation by highlighting the key vocabulary and showing the recursive nature of the water cycle.  Picture includes energy source for the cycle.


Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

MacDonald, R., Cook, H., & Miller, E. (201). Doing and talking science: A teacher’s guide to meaning-making with English learners. University of Wisconsin, Madison.

What Does Language Do in History?

By Ruslana Westerlund

aboriginal generation stolen

History is often studied as facts, events or lives of historical figures.  We study history to understand the past or even predict the future.   If we want to build democratic classrooms, history needs to be problematized.  This is not a new idea.  We ask students to answer questions such as whose history are we studying?  Who wrote the history?  Which perspectives are presented and whose are misrepresented?  Whose voices are included and whose voices are excluded?  In addition, is the historical portrayal of events objective or subjective?  Can historians be free of bias?

To answer those questions, we must look at the language used in history.  Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, what does language DO in history?  Even more importantly, what do authors do when they write history?

Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, WHAT DOES LANGUAGE DO IN HISTORY?  

I do not find a traditional view of language to be of particular relevance to investigate historical texts, authors’ biases, and their subjectivity.   What can the work of categorizing nouns and verbs and prepositions yield, afterall?   In your defense, you’ll say we don’t do grammar in history.  You might say that you cover vocabulary or concepts.  But I find that limiting as well.  Lately, I’ve been using Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a view of language as a meaning making resource (not a set of rules to be followed) and a robust set of tools to do the critical discourse analysis of any text, but especially such value-laded texts as historical narratives.  SFL asks questions like What language choices did the author make to portray certain events?  Did the authors depict those events as settlements or invasions?  Who are the perpetrators in the historic events?  How do we know?  What textual features did the author choose to make us believe that?  How are the indigenous people portrayed?   As trespassers or as natives?  What do adjectives do in history?  How do they depict certain people or events?  

I will draw on Caroline Coffin‘s work who studies history discourses through SFL.  I find her work to be particularly useful here.  She is at the Open University, UK.  If you are interested in the critical discourse analysis of historical genres from the SFL perspective in the United States, Mary Schleppegrell has done great work with history texts and history teachers and their students.  Coffin astutely observed that while there are many engaged in enacting critical reading of the genres of historical writing, most have not given much attention to the linguistic strategies and resources that constitute the “voice of history” and “which linguistic resources are used by the authors to persuade the readers of the validity of their claims” (Coffin, 1998, p.2).   In other words, we talk about perspectives in history, but not many of us actually know how to teach the students how those perspectives are constructed so they can be reconstructed.  History teachers are not language teachers after all, so it is understandable why they have not investigated those linguistic resources.  It is the job of the English Language Arts teacher to teach passive voice, afterall, or is it?

Let’s look at this text together.  If you follow my Facebook group Reclaiming the Language of Social Justice, you might have seen this text before.

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. Assimilation was based on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority, which proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or, where possible, should be assimilated into the white community.

Source: Australians Together. The Stolen Generations

From the perspective of what is the language of history, we are used to looking at language and say that words like assimilation, elimination, black inferiority, Indigenous people – those are important words to comprehend this text, according to that view.  If I ask the question What does language DO in history, then the comprehension questions get us to problematize this text.  Let’s look at the noun phrase the forcible removal.   The word remove was turned into a noun removal – a very common feature of academic writing called nominalization – to create a certain level of abstraction.  So, what does the process of nominalizing the verb into a noun did in this sentence?  The answer to that question can be answered by asking one more question:  WHO REMOVED THE INDIGENOUS CHILDREN FROM THEIR FAMILIES?

You can’t answer that question, can you?  So, what does language do in history?  In this one sentence, the language choices made by this author hide the perpetrator.  How can students re-write history, the same fact, indeed to expose the perpetrator?  White people or Christians or …..  removed the indigenous children by force from their families.  All of a sudden, we get a different perspective, right?

For a more detailed analysis of language resources in history, I would recommend learning about James Martin and Peter White’s (2005) Appraisal System which uses discourse semantics, an approach that foregrounds meaning before looking at structures which construe those meanings.

One of my favorite SFL scholars Ruqaiya Hasan writes on three types of literacy (2011): functional, reproductive and reflective.  We need all three, but we particularly need Reflective literacy when we read or write historical genres which enables our students to think like this:

“… it becomes important to ask whose point of view does the writing represent, whose point of view is implied in which reading? It is from this kind of deeper understanding of what ‘the’ text means that we can move to explanation questions. For example, pupils would not simply note the way a text is structured, but they would also ask why it is structured in the way it is; if the structure were to be changed, what would change, for whom, and at what price?  They would not simply observe whose voice(s) underlie messages of what category, they would also ask why these voices and these messages go together, what (potentially relevant) voices are absent and why. This is indeed to question the very norms of discourse.  


Just as a teacher will need a good deal of expertise and understanding of language as a meaning potential in order to be able to help develop this kind of discursive perspective in her pupils, so also she will need to be deeply familiar with the nature of the disciplines she is to discuss with her class: what issues does it problematize. What methods for the resolution of such problems were employed in the past and what today? What counts as a fact and why? What sort of evidence upholds the status of a fact as fact?”

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education. p. 199

I will leave you with a classroom resource to see how the teacher engages her students in analyzing historic perspectives using SFL.   SFL uses simple terms like participants, processes, and circumstances to refer to meaning making resources in texts.  In this example, the teacher is focusing on how we talk about participants in texts as the students construe perspectives across the text.

Critical  Conversations About Texts 


Coffin, C. (1998).  Reconstruals of the Past: Settlement or Invasion?  The Role of Judgement Analysis.  Paper presented for the American Association for Applied Linguistics.  Retrieved from

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education.  Learning and Teaching in Society.  Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan.  Vol. 3. J. Webster (Ed.).  Equinox Publishers

Martin, J. & White, P. (2005).  The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. Palgrave Macmillan

Rossbridge, J. & Rushton, K. (n.d.) The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. PETAA Paper 196. Available here.

Schleppegrell, M.  (2008).  Literacy in History.  Language and Meaning.  Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 31(2). pp. 174–187 Retrieved from

SFL: A Living Theory of the Living Language

By Ruslana Westerlund, a self-taught SFL Learner.

Language is for the living of lifeFor the past 3 years, I’ve been learning about Systemic Functional Linguistics.  I was drawn to this theory because it offered a refreshing description of language as a dynamic resource for making meaning as opposed to a set of rules prescribed by a committee.  I resonated with this theory because of how close the theory was to the actual language people used on a daily basis.  Also, being a bicultural citizen of this world, I have begun to observe how language changes in different cultural contexts and how the rules that I learned in my grammar studies over the course of 5 years, were constantly “broken” by the native speakers, who, supposedly, created them.  As will be defined further in my post,  the SFL’s idea of “tenor” (role relationships, awareness of audience, your own voice and identity you are construing with your language resources) became increasingly important to me in my professional email exchanges, before I knew it was called “tenor”, one of the three variables of SFL’s register.  I have discovered tenor through my use of the strong modality when I would overuse should, need to, have to and even a must – those are reserved for very rare communication exchanges that upset supervisors (who didn’t mind coming off as upset) were allowed to use.  The tenor also became clear to me when I learned that using the word please at the beginning of each command was not sufficient in the Midwestern, indirect culture where requests are construed as suggestions and not as direct commands (unless you are a parent who lost patience with their children).  From my most recent memory, I was presenting to a room of 175 teachers, and I wanted them to have different people at the table, representing diverse perspectives.  I wrote on the slide, “Before you sit down, please make sure you have the following people at your table: someone with language knowledge, someone in an administrative role, ect.”  My good friend corrected me and said, “We can’t be that pushy, Ru.  You can’t say Please make sure here, to these teachers.  You should say, “Try to have the following people at the table” which only suggests and not commands.

Through multiple revisions to my requests and suggestions, I learned that bicultural people don’t construe the identity they want.  They construe the identity that is acceptable within the culture where they live and want to be successful within.

Systemic Functional Linguistics answered many of those questions for me (though I still have some unanswered), because SFL does not describe the grammar of the ideal.  It describes the real.  It is a theory (a description) of the living language, as a dynamic system of choices in various configurations of register, as will be described below.

As mentioned above, Halliday’s theory of language is not purely theoretical.  It is a description of how language works.  He observed and documented (versus theorized only) the real language.  He observed his son Nigel and learned that Nigel developed his language in interactions with others, to get things done with language, as he was learning how to mean.

In addition, Halliday was also invested in describing how language and society are connected.  His theory of language was framed by the issues of social justice: why are certain people discriminated against because of variations in their language use, how language and society are connected, and how power and language are closely intertwined.   Some applications of his theory contributed to combating linguistic prejudices in education and beyond (e.g., Martin, Rose, Humphrey, Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, Gebhard, Harman, Brisk, and others).  Below I will describe the theory the way I understand it.  Putting my own learning into my own words, clarifies my knowledge and understanding of this roomy theory.  Also, please notice that I am not citing sources because my goal is not to come off as expert, but as a synthesis of my thoughts, a reflection of learning.  Again, if I were to be writing for a peer reviewed journal, the choice of language would have had to match the field of SFL, the tenor construed by language of a person who has taken on an expert role, and a mode of a scholarly academic journal writing expectations.  Also, please note that I am a completely self-taught learner of SFL, without any formal training during a course of a systematic study.  I do, however, have an opportunity to be continuously coached by Sally Humphrey (and others), an SFL knowledge builder from the Australian Catholic University.  The journey of learning has consisted of inquiry-based, driven by self-directed questions.  Having Sally to answer them has been of tremendous help.  I owe you Sally.  Thank you for answering my question on meta-redundancy of the SFL model with a cup of hot chocolate on Leichhardt Street.


Systemic Functional Linguistics describes language at three strata: genre – the context of culture, register – the context of situation, and the level of lexicogrammar.  The smallest level of language resources is the level of sounds.  Genre sets up the context of culture, e.g. Midwestern culture of communication.  Language choices at the smaller levels will be situated in that larger context of culture.  Register is the next strata.  It’s the context of the immediate situation.

SFL model of language (Hood)

Register is comprised of 3 variables: field, tenor, and mode.  These three dimensions of register are closely related and they are always present in each instance of language use.  Those three variables define the context of the immediate situation but always situated in the larger context of culture which is the genre.  In every exchange, we talk about something (field such as weather), with someone (tenor such as your coworkers to ease a tension before a meeting) and use language either in speaking or writing (mode such as casual chat or small talk).  The big idea of the register in SFL is that we make choices at those three dimensions and those choices are dynamic, but systematic, not random.  Below each register variable will be described.


Field is what’s going on, the topic in the exchange such as linguistics or coffee or puzzle construction or magnetic field or constructing a robotic arm in a science classroom, anything that serves as the central content in which language is situated.  Field expresses the “happenings and doings” of the exchange (Derewianka, 2014).  The resources that are used in the field are participants (the whos or the whats expressed through noun phrases), processes (actions, expressed through verb groups), and circumstances (the wheres and the hows, expressed through adverbials).


Tenor is concerned with the role relationships of those involved in language use, with the audience and voice.  Tenor is present regardless whether the exchange is a monolog or a dialog.  Tenor points to the fact that all of language is dialogic and even heteroglossic, similar to how Bakhtin spoke of all language use.   We use a particular tenor to construe our identity or position ourselves as self-confident and direct or timid and suggestive. We often talk to an audience full of people, even if the audience has the n of one.  In classroom contexts, students use tenor to take on expert roles when presenting their knowledge or engaging in debates.


The mode is concerned with what role language plays.  It’s more nuanced than just is it spoken or written?  Is it spoken-like (but written) or is written-like (but spoken)?  Are we texting, posting a facebook update or lecturing?  Halliday called attention to – and he was the first one to do it – the difference between written and spoken language.  He said (paraphrased) that written language is not spoken language written down.  It is a distinctly different activity that humans engage in.  Spoken languages existed long before written systems were created to encode the culture’s knowledge.  Written language is a more recent invention.  We don’t just use different language when we speak or when we write.  We do different things when we engage in those different modes.   But the mode of language is not dichotomous: spoken or written.  This brings me to the mode continuum (Martin, 1985).   The mode continuum places language use from language as action to language as reflection.  The mode continuum is defined by the distance between language and the social process occurring.  It also can be described as the “experiential distance”.  In the action end, language is part of the social process, while at the reflection end, language constitutes the social process.  Language as reflection, constructs the experiences.  In the language as action end of the continuum, the context helps the language such as pointing or the presence of people or things in the action.  In the language as reflection end, the language has to do the heavy lifting because there is not much in the context to help.  The language resources, therefore, have to be strategically selected for the experience to be construed so that the reader or listener can understand what’s going on.

The language as action can also be described using the words of Mary Macken-Horarik (1996) as the language of “here and now, you and me”.

The language accompanying action may not require complete sentences, precise words, and even objects might not need to be named.  We can use words like they and this thing, does this stuff and people can understand us because the context helps to fill in those gaps.  The language as reflection is constructed through language of abstraction and precision, because the context is not there to help.

language as action v language as reflection.PNG

Source: Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton PETAA Paper 196 The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. Available here.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.  Using Halliday’s words, language development is the expansion of meaning making potential.  We should not privilege language as reflection (e.g. language of textbooks) over the language as action (e.g. language of doing science), but should build on resources used in language as action to develop language used in reflecting on and constructing experiences.  For more information on how teachers can use the language as action to language as reflection continuum, please consult this resource.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.

To summarize, I’ll use Ruqaiya Hasan’s words: language is for the living of life, not for the production of structures.  We use language to do things with.  And yes, we can end sentences with prepositions, depending on our audience and our identity.  Some of us take on the rebel identity because we want to contest the artificial rules which do not reflect the living language, like Halliday and Hasan did.  They didn’t explicitly contest them (although Hasan did in her book Language and Society which I quoted widely on my Reclaiming the Language for Social Justice page), but by describing the language in its real actual use, they gave permission for us to say, “Wait a minute, but in this situation, with this audience, to construe this identity, we can even split infinitives.” Wink, if you hear me.

Bad Hombres, Baskets of Deplorables and the Everyday Language of White Racism

The Educational Linguist

During this week’s presidential debate my social media exploded with commentary about Donald Trump’s use of the term “bad hombres.” Many linguistics immediately saw this as an example of Mock Spanish, most notably developed in Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism. In the CNN panel discussion that followed the debate Trump supporters insisted that “bad hombres” is not racist and criticized Hillary Clinton supporters for being so easily offended.

This is precisely the power of Mock Spanish. White people can use Mock Spanish to position themselves as cool and funny while being able to hide behind the shield of plausible deniability against charges of racism. In the case of Trump, he was able to use “bad hombres” within a discussion of immigration policy to strategically conjured up images of violent Latinxs who are destroying nice white communities by supposedly giving heroin to white teenagers while being…

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