Topic outline

  • Functional Grammar for Teachers

  • Topic 1


    • Take a few moments to think about how a small child learns its first language. Do we teach our children letter names, phonetics and formal grammatical rules first? - Of course not, they usually experience fully functional and context specific language right from the start. In addition, pre-school children who are shown books and read to regularly can experience the functionality of suitable written texts even though they cannot read them in detail alone at first. In fact, such children will typically have around 1000 hours experience of valuable contextual interaction with books before they start normal primary education. Learners who may have missed this contextual preparation can often face substantial difficulties in a school or class environment, especially when having to compete with more confident peers.

      So why do we often concentrate so much on abstract vocabulary lists, phonetic rules, 'a' for apple, 'b' for ball or other out of context phrases and formal grammatical rules when teaching literacy or when introducing a second language for the first time? Or, what should we do if some learners are slow to make progress in reading, writing and language activities in traditional mainstream classrooms? It could be that we might sometimes even underestimate their abilities on possibly false assumptions. Of course grammatic and structural knowledge may be quite important in learning any language really well, but what exactly is 'the grammar' and which specific grammar are we actually speaking about? Is there only one pure kind of grammar? Traditional 'school' grammar originated with the ancient Greek and Latin scholars and was adapted to other common languages over the course of our history by academics and mainly for their own academic purposes (Coffin et al, 2009). You may be surprised to know that there are also various alternative systems of grammar, which may sometimes suit teachers and learners better and which could make much more sense to novice language learners.

      Consider these simple groups of words;

      A big book , John's new bike , the dark old house .

      Rather than talking about traditional nouns, verbs and adjectives etc. think about the whole meaning of these words as a functional group when they appear. They can not only describe tangible real objects, but also abstract concepts or ideas such as;

      the baking of cakes , a funny feeling , the art of motorcycle maintenance .

      Such a word group represents an easily identifiable 'participant' in the action of a story, in an explanation or in some other text. Not only that, it's quite easy to associate them with real objects and experiences. Single isolated words alone and out of context do not actually carry very much real meaning as such. So why not present learners with ready-made functional building blocks of words which can be recognised as a unit for their meaning in real texts or situations? Functional blocks of meaning to choose, adapt and use in contexts learners relate to and understand. Such blocks belong to an alternative 'functional grammar'.



      When do small children really start to learn to read?

      It's probably much earlier than you think. Many children will have over 1000 hours experience of social interaction with books and rich language before they start primary school.

      Others might have had very little or no exposure to books and limited language experience!

      Children or even adult learners with widely differing experience of text and language can often be expected to compete unfairly in an integrated classroom. How can the enormous gap in ability be closed?

      Functional Grammar is quite tightly bound to 'actual meaning' in texts and we can use it to teach second languages in a way that parallels the ways in which humans naturally learn to speak a first language. This strategy can also be used when teaching basic reading and writing skills too.

    • OK, but how can understanding this Functional Grammar help with my everyday language teaching? What relevance does it have?

      Consider the little boy in the photo. When he eventually starts his first school day, he'll already know much about the function of books and the purpose of the symbols on their pages. He may even be able to recognise some words, word-groups or simple phrases connected to the pictures in his favourite books and he'll probably be keen to learn more. Above everything, he'll be well equipped to grasp newly learnt letter names, phonetics and punctuation at school to build words and sentences.

      Now consider the difficulties possibly faced by a child from a home with few or no books, older learners who have fallen behind, learners from contrasting cultural backgrounds or just any person starting to learn a new language for the very first time. To these learners, learning abstract grammar and pronunciation rules may appear strange and insurmountable. However, it is possible to teach any learner to read (or say) an existing short text or language extract in a meaningful context within say an hour. Once this ability is anchored, we can then progress to look at details of structure using functional techniques later. Although perhaps for some 'at odds' with traditional schooling, this 'top down' approach mirrors natural first language acquistion more closely.

      'Functional grammar' can support traditional grammar and phonetics to help us think about the very nature of human language, its potential for making meaning and its successful aquisition and use by learners. This broader analysis may also highlight important aspects of the human learning process which we might otherwise take for granted. The form of functional grammar (SFG) which has influenced this website is a part of the Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) theory of language and meaning. SFL theory links language forms directly with the meanings they present, and it offers ways of talking about language that can help learners to directly relate to language and content (Schleppengrell in Coffin et al, 2010). SFL is a fairly complex and widely embracing academic linguistic theory but we will be greatly simplifying its concepts for the purposes of this website. In spite of this, it really has a great deal to offer for effective teaching of language and literacy.

  • Topic 2

    How to get going with using SFL

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    So let's build a sentence

    Some more 'building blocks'

    are described

    in this section
    redblock greenblock blueblock

    If you think about it, grouping words in the manner shown above is not so unfamiliar. In fact, most of us do it unconsciously and without even realising it.

    Take the famous joke by comedian Groucho Marx
    (As in Fontaine, 2012 p3) ;

    Artwork (c) Alison Price
    "This morning, I shot an elephant in my pyjamas!" What he was doing in my pyjamas, I'll never know.

    The joke only works because we can instantly recognise the function of the word group 'in my pyjamas' and, for the purpose of the joke, attribute an alternative absurd meaning to it. There is no actual punctuation in traditional grammar to help identify this word group but proficient readers can recognise and see such blocks of meaning instantly. This is no easy task for many learners with poor language or literacy skills, so why not actually teach the language in similar chunks of functional meaning?

    The 'experiential' in Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) identifies real functional building blocks of word-groups rather than the more abstract traditional concepts such as verb, noun, adjective etc. A basic phrase or sentence can thus be broken up into three basic types of building blocks as follows:


    'Who or What'

    A nominal wordgroup (NG) - The actors and objects which take part in the action;



    'Does, makes or is (by something or someone)'

    A verbal wordgroup (VG) - The action being done or taking place - (Note: 'to be' might also be considered as an 'action of being');


    'When, where, how'

    An adjectival wordgroup (AG) - Factors restricting the space and time boundaries of the action and participants. An important property of circumstances is that they can often be left out of a sentence without affecting its grammatical completeness. They can be added by asking questions about the sentence. e.g.WHERE did it take place?

    We now have word group types which can relate to not only objects, people and ideas, but also actions, states of being, time, manner and places. In fact everything we want to talk, read or write about!

    Note: It's not really necessary to teach very young learners the jargon or 'Meta-Language'.
    For example you could use:

    'who or what' , 'the doing and being words' and 'when, where and how'


    An example sentence as functional building blocks

    (does / is)

    Annie and Bridget


    in London.

    Using coloured marker pens, students can search real texts and identify some of the blocks of words which have been introduced and rehearsed in advance.

    How to determine the type and function of word groups:

    The colours used here are arbitary, but you may like to think of the scheme as follows:

    Red (the participant) something standing still or stable and awaiting interaction
    Green (the process) movement, change and/or action
    Blue (the circumstance) the background sky which frames the contextual landscape

    Thanks to Ruth Mulvad ( for introducing us to this Metaphor. The colour code was originally suggested by Ruth French, the metaphor first used as part of Lexis Education's professional development programme for teachers. (

    Constructing and de-constructing text
    Using the 'experiential' (FIELD)

    • Nested structures

      The scheme can be applied to more complicated structures whereby a whole sentence or clause might itself behave like a participant. This is often referred to as a 'projected' clause (Butt et al, 2000 p.50).

      Projected Clause

      Hector said [[ that he'd be coming on November 5th ]].

      The role of word groups often becomes clearer by asking questions. e.g. What did Hector say? - "That he'd be coming on November 5th". In fact, asking questions in this manner about such a text can be an excellent way of enhancing students' understanding of the meaning. It is customary in SFL to mark such embedded clauses with double square brackets as shown above.

      It can be noted that the ability to embed such clauses when constructing original texts is something many proficient learners have acquired without any explicit teaching. On the other hand, very many weaker readers and writers may never acquire this ability unless they actually explicitly practice deconstruction of existing texts. It can thus be particularly helpful for those learners who might read very little independently.


      If you like the idea of grouping words like this, there is free software for presenting texts and sentence building puzzles to learners in this manner. Puzzles are based on the popular 'Hot Potatoes' software. Click on the screenshot above to try an example puzzle. Students attempt puzzles starting with 'blocks of meaning' as above, then single words, followed by fragmented word spelling patterns and finally writing for themselves. This is a 'top down' approach rather than the 'bottom up' traditional approach.

      Demos -

      Tutorial Videos -


  • Topic 3

    An example L2 learning plan

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    • Functional Grammar looks at language in context and thus focuses on the actual function of words and word patterns. This allows students to get meaning from texts and in turn compose their own quality texts in similar and related contexts.

      The following example was used with adolescent learners of 'English as a Second Language' in connection with a specially made 'teen-soap' video series. The framework can be easily adapted using other media and texts more suited to the actual target learners.

      1. Prepare for reading - Discuss the context and introduce key wordage

      Choose a suitable text. Its context is then discussed in relation to the learners' own experiences and existing knowledge.
      Key concepts and wordings may be introduced as building blocks taken from real sentences.
      Example computer 'vocab/phrase' games
      Graphic courtesy of Moura School

      2. Detailed Reading - Search for Wordage in Texts

      Now the real text (written, audio, video) is read out and listened to. Pauses are made to identify and show students word-groups with meaning. Later on students can search for and identify the word groups themselves.
      Example search and highlight

      3. Reconstruct the Text

      Parts of the original text can be written on strips as sentences and then cut up as functional word groups. This can also be done with computer software (see J-Mix link below). Students can thus recontsruct the text using the blocks of meaning (Stage 1). The strips may then be divided down further into individual words (Stage 2) or even syllables and the reconstruction repeated.

      Click here to read the eBook and press the black 'building brick', then click the 'potato' icons

      Download free S4L software

      Student now writes sentences his/herself (Wiki - requires login A/C)
      Teacher gives guidance on errors and students repeat J-Mix games until accuracy improves.

      4. Recount - Construct a New Text

      Finally and using the meanings they have learnt, students attempt to build their own texts. Teachers or peers should help them to gradually improve any grammatical errors.
      Example framework construction and rewrite

      5.(Optional) Alternative Context - Construct a New Similar Text

      Optionally, the students can be asked to imagine themselves in a situation similar to the story and to recount the events from their own perspective.


    • Free Resources

      The learning activities as part of an actual on-line language course:

      Free eBooks using Functional Grammar:

      Click to open 'Stories 4 Learning' eBook

      Click to open 'Stories 4 Learning' free software website

    • Such learning cycles may be repeated as required using a small but interesting section from the original text.

      The word grouping and function of some 'real' texts may be quite complex in practice. However, any text can be analysed and broken down to extract similar smaller and understandable functional blocks. Using this concept, students can be encouraged to build their own complex and communicative sentences based on the meaning content they have understood. It doesn't matter if they make grammatical errors at first, it's more important that they recount in their own words. After all, isn't this just what small children do when learning to speak their first language by understanding snippets of 'adult talk' and then trying out the wordage for themselves?

      Student attempt:

      Participant Process Participant

      Annie's friend Bridget


      a pen pal
      from Argentina name Hector.

      The above sentence has errors but is understandable, conveys mutual meaning and is therefore functional. The student can freely construct such sentences without formally learning traditional grammar. It is important however that the teacher (or even a peer) give feedback on the errors and that the student corrects his/her attempts personally or in a collaborative group. An on-line editor on an interactive whiteboard (e.g. in the Moodle VLE), arranging strips of paper or even a traditional blackboard is an ideal environment for this activity.

      Teacher's verbal feedback and student's own correction:

      Participant Process Participant

      Annie's friend Bridget


      a pen pal
      from Argentina name called Hector.

      The 'father of SFL', Michael Halliday, spent much time analysing the progress of his own young son's speech patterns (Halliday, 1976) and the gradual improvements made in response to adult feedback. In a similar manner, as shown here by repeating the above stages of attempt, feedback and correction, a student can learn language and writing in a natural manner.

      The quantity and order of participants, process and circumstance in real texts may of course vary considerably to that shown here. However, the basic stucture illustrated is easy to understand and a good starting point for students to recall the interactions and actions of characters from for example a text or a film sequence themselves.

      Longer sentences and shift of emphasis

      It's also possible to daisy-chain blocks, such as extra circumstances......

      Participant Process Participant Circumstance-1

      Annie's friend Bridget

      was doing

      her daily routine

      on her exercise bike
      in the living room.

      Or we might move or add a circumstance at the start of the sentence......

      Circumstance(s) Participant Process Participant

      On the 5th of November in a small flat in London,

      Annie's friend Bridget
      was doing
      her daily exercises.

      This shifts the emphasis onto the time and place rather than Bridget and her exercises. In other words this sets the topic or 'theme' of the sentence. This is a skill that more advanced students will find useful when they attempt to write fuller cohesive texts and which will be explained later.

    • Recalling Events and Story Writing:

      Students can link their sentences to recall events in the form of a short story. They should always rewrite their texts if they have used the framework and can then slowly progress to concentrate on improving the overall readability (cohesion) of their texts as will be shown in section 3. (Theme & Rheme)

  • Topic 4

    Theoretical Basis

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    Learning a language is not just learning vocabulary and grammar!


    Taken from 'Blott' (c) Adam Price -

    To speak and understand both a first and foreign language a learner should know which wordings (or grammatic structures) are appropriate for expressing meaning in a particular cultural situation, context or 'genre'. Linguist M.A.K. Halliday considered these choices in his Systemic Functional Linguistic (SFL) theory and an ever increasing number of linguistic researchers and language teachers continue to expand and eloborate on his lifelong work.

    Halliday has often written that learning a language is actually learning how to mean in context’. The successful use of language would then be seen as learning how to make choices from varying language forms appropriate to various contextual situations or 'genres'. Methodically learning traditional school-book grammar alone does not offer very much help in making these choices. However, Systemic Functional Grammar can be most useful in analysing the idea of language choice as an intuitive human social skill which we normally unconsiously learn by real language exposure and practice in context.

    In SFL the scope of language choice and form can be broken into three important areas as follows:


    The actual experiences and content in the text. The experiential and ideational meaning.


    Language use according to the situated relationship of the author to the reader (or audience). The interpersonal relationships, interactions and overall mood.


    How textual (including spoken) language is actually 'stitched together'. The various roles given to language and communication by human beings.

    Using a language is about making meaning in social contexts in which all three of these dimensions play a role and this ‘learning how to mean’ (Halliday, 1975) can be compared to the extended and natural social processes a human child will go through to learn, expand and develop its own first language skills in relationship to family, friends, peers, strangers and even surroundings or objects.

    So what implications does this have for first and second language tuition?

    Genre based Teaching Strategies

    ‘…the content of a language program might usefully be organised around the teaching of whole texts or media in individual contexts.’ These 'texts' might in reality actually be a broad range of media such as video or audio and not exclusively written materials. Students are then simultaneously: 'learning language, learning through language and learning about language'. (Halliday, 1980) This is because the focus is on the text as a whole in context rather than single rules of grammar and word meanings.

    However, most teachers want their students to be both accurate and fluent, so the language teacher faces an educational paradox (Butt et al, 2000, p.41):

    • If learning activities focus only on correct language use, there is a risk of limiting the language varieties available and students will often be restricted to minimal responses or even no response at all.
    • If learning activities focus only on simple communicative phrases, students may spontaneously respond with more confidence but never learn the more abstract, accurate and effective use of the language.

    One way of addressing this paradox is to design cycles of teaching and learning around the use of whole texts in context. The cycle takes students through a range of activities which addresses both accurate and fluent language. This method of tuition is often referred to as 'genre based tuition' (See 'The Sydney School' and Martin, 1993) and 'text modelling' (Burns, 2001).

    Some examples of common genres:

    Procedure e.g. Recipe, Building Instructions, User Manual
    Description Newspaper Article, Report, Advertisment
    Recount Personal, Recall of events - Story, News Item,
    Exposition Formal Letter, Student Essay

    For each of the above genres, a specific style, medium and choice of language will be normally expected in the social context. Many learners may typically learn the expected structure and language content of these genres implicitly by just reading and then writing in context. Others may never master this language choice skill. Traditional grammar and vocabulary alone offer little help.

    Example Genre Type : Recount of a Film

    An example course for adolescent EFL learners based on a TV video "teen sit-com" :

    The cyclic approach to gradually improving literacy and language skills is based on ideas originally proposed by Joan Rothery (see Rose & Martin, 2012 p62-67). A teaching cycle adapted from this strategy is illustrated below and has been used successfully for adolescent students with low literacy skills and who had previously shown little motivation with traditional course materials. The author's materials are based upon a specially made video series called 'extr@' from Channel 4 TV (UK) in the style of popular commercial US TV productions. Such material is contextually familiar and has proven engaging for typical adolescent learners. It is based on social contexts and popular entertainment media the author's students typically comprehend and are familiar with. Any media or text genre may actually be used for the modelling depending on the social contexts best suited to the particular students. The activities will then involve four kinds of social interaction which support the learner's language development through a combination of:


    1. Context exploration

    View the film, pictures and/or play key vocabulary games
    2. Explicit instruction

    Read script text, teacher demonstrates sentences, students find and mark 'building block' word groups.
    3. Guided practice and joint construction

    Teacher and student build sentences together using the functional building blocks.
    4. Independent application of newly acquired knowledge

    Student attempts to build sentences alone on which the teacher or peers will give feedback.





    The roles of teacher and student may shift during the learning process between collaboration, direct teaching, strategic guidance and independent work. It might be useful to investigate the concept of "proximal learning" (L.Vygotsky ,1978) and "scaffolding" (Bruner,1978) in order to understand this mechanism.

    Students in this example have learnt to construct recounts of the film material they have watched using functional building blocks to construct basic sentences. These describe and recount events in the film which relate to their own social and experiential contexts. (SFL: field) They will thus typically use advanced grammatical forms (e.g. past tense and passives) right from the start.

    The vocabulary games presented elsewhere on this site are designed to stimulate semiotic learning as an integral part of such a teaching cycle. The use of representative graphics and audio files avoids the traditional non-contextual word to word translated vocabulary lists. The games lend themselves to learn participants and circumstances by looking and listening, as these can often be depicted well pictorially. Processes are perhaps better learnt by practising real sentences and texts in context.

  • Topic 5

    Improving writing skills

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    How to write coherent texts by using 'Theme' and 'Rheme' (MODE)

    The blocks of word groups used to construct simple phrases and sentences allow pupils to quickly assemble functional communicative language snippets. However, novice students often have difficulty in producing coherent, understandable and logical full texts. A different method of dividing sentences or phrases into functional blocks can prove useful in improving student writing styles. The phrase or sentence will now be split into a 'Theme' and a 'Rheme'.

    Nearly all phrases or utterances have a topical or textual theme. This is mostly simply the starting point of a phrase. e.g.

    Annie and Bridget
    live in a flat in London.


    Our topical theme is thus the two young women 'Annie and Bridget' because they are the starting point of what we are going to say and that with which the whole phrase is concerned with. The rest of the sentence is then simply referred to as the 'Rheme'.(Halliday, 1994)

    If the sentence illustrated is to be part of an understandable and coherent story or recount, we will need to develop the course of the text in a logical manner. Using the concept of 'thematic' development, we can construct further sentences which develop our starting theme of 'Annie and Bridget'.
    In the second sentence, we again use 'Annie and Bridget' as our 'Theme' but this time we replace them with the pronoun 'they' and provide additional information about a new person (Nick) in the following 'Rheme'.

    Annie and Bridget
    live in a flat in London.
    have a neighbour called Nick.

    This vertical progression based on an initial topical theme forms the basis of constructing sentences which deliver information in an even and progressive manner. This may be repeated several times, but excessive use will perhaps result in an essay which resembles a shopping list. This can be avoided by using 'Rheme-Theme' transfers as below.

    Annie and Bridget
    live in a flat in London.
    have a neighbour called Nick.
    He likes Bridget a lot.

    This time we simply take the previous 'Rheme' (Nick) and transfer it to the subsequent 'Theme' as the pronoun 'he'. We can then continue by developing 'Nick' as the 'Theme'.

    If the next sentence cannot be linked either as a thematic development or a rheme-theme transfer, then a new paragraph should be started. In the example below a rheme-theme transfer takes place immediately after the first line of the second paragraph and then we continue with a thematic development about 'Hector'.

    Annie and Bridget
    live in a flat in London.
    have a neighbour called Nick.
    He likes Bridget a lot.


    One day
    a letter arrived from Hector.
    was Bridget's pen pal seven years ago.
    can only speak a little English.

    The table constructions are easy to setup as templates in text editors or Moodle's on-line editor and can assist students greatly in avoiding the production of disjointed and difficult to read texts.

    A typical flow chart for a possible thematic progression...

    Thanks are due to all who have kindly contributed to and corrected this webpage. Please feel free to contact the author with any queries or personal feedback. Mail concerning any unintentional errors and ommissions is also welcome.


    Functional Grammar for Teachers - Part 2 (Click here)

  • Topic 6

    Further reading recommendations and references

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    Bruner, J.S., 1983

    Child's Talk: Learning to use language. New York, Norton
    * Butt,D., et al, 2000 Using functional grammar. Sydney: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.
    Burns,A., 2001

    ‘Genre-Based Approaches to Writing and Beginning Adult ESL Learners’ in Candlin,C.N. and Mercer,N. , ‘English Language Teaching in its Social Context’. London, Routledge.

    * Coffin,C. et al, 2009
    Exploring English Grammar- From formal to functional - Caroline Coffin, Jim Donohue, Sarah North. - London, Routledge -
    * Coffin et al, 2010
    Language support in EAL contexts. Why systemic functional linguistics? (Special Issue of NALDIC Quarterly). NALDIC, Reading, UK.
    Fontaine, L., 2012
    Analysing English Grammar - A Systemic Functional Approach, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

    Halliday M.A.K., 1980

    Three aspects of children’s language development. In Oral and written language development research: Impact on schools. Y M Goodman et al (eds) Newark,DE: International Reading Association.

    Halliday, M.A.K., 1994

    An introduction to functional grammar. 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

    Halliday,M.A.K., 1975

    Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold.

    Jänke L, 2007
    "Wir müssen Stolzkreisläufe aufbauen" - We should build cycles of pride - Lutz Jänke, Mitteilungsblatt der BD Zürich 4/07 (in German)

    Martin,J., 1993

    Genre and literacy – modelling context in educational linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. 13, 141-172

    Oldenburg, R. 2000 Celebrating the 3rd Place: Inspiring stories about the "Great Good Places" at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe & Company. ISBN 978-1569246122.
    * Rose D., 2008
    Reading to Learn - Accelerating the learning and closing the gap.
    * Rose, D. & Martin, J.R. 2012
    Learning to Write, Reading to Learn. Genre, Knowledge and Pedagogy in the Sydney School. Equinox, Sheffield.

    Vygotsky,L., 1978

    Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    * Whittaker et al, (2008)
    Language and Literacy, Functional Approaches (2008) - edited by Rahel Whittaker, Mick O'Donnell & Anne McCabe - London, Continuum. ISBN 9781847065704

    * Recommended introductory reading
  • Topic 7

    External Video Links

    Note: These links are to external resources and their content belongs to authors external to this website.

    'Sydney School' - Genre Pedagogy Teaching Example

    A practical example of scaffolding young learners in learning to write textual procedures independently.

    Mary Schleppengrell on using Functional Grammar in Teaching

    Professor Schleppegrell reports on her involvment in the use of Functional Grammar by teachers in schools in Michigan USA.

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