Language Development from the SFL Perspective

by Ruslana Westerlund, Ed. D.

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 critical reading of social studies 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.

“This [language acquisition] seems rather unfortunate term because it suggests that language is some kind of a commodity to be acquired, and although metaphor is innocent enough in itself, if it is taken too literally the consequences can be rather harmful. The use of this metaphor has led to the belief in what is known as a ‘deficit theory’ of language learning, as a means of explaining how children come to fail in school: the suggestion that certain children, perhaps because of their social background, have not acquired enough of this commodity called language, and in order to help them we must send relief supplies. The implication is that there is a gap to be filled, and from this derive various compensatory practices that may be largely irrelevant to children’s needs. Now this is a false and misleading view of language and educational failure; and while one should not make much of one item of terminology, we prefer … ‘language development'” Halliday, (1978). (p. 16)

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 (1974) Learning How To Mean p. I
Halliday acquistion v. development
Halliday (1974). 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.  We 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

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978).  Language as Social Semiotic. 

The rest of the references are forthcoming


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