An introduction to systemic functional grammar – By Phil Chappell

Right after I published a post on grammar and the verbs in English, Joanne Pettis asked for a text on Systemic Functional Grammar. I was fortunate enough to receive the following tweet:

Phil kindly agreed to write a guest blog post on SFG. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and also that you find it useful and helpful!

An introduction to systemic functional grammar

By Phil Chappell

There is a lot of misunderstanding among the ELT community about functional grammar. I won’t go through these ideas in any detail here; the main thing I want to do in this post is to show its usefulness for language teachers, no matter what kind of program you are teaching in, no matter what level your learners are, and no matter what methodology you subscribe to. So, what is functional grammar?

Defining Functional Grammar

Put simply, Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar based on the view that language is a system for making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language, we make choices from sets of available options. This is contrary to the traditional view of grammar as sets of rules. Functional assumes that every time we make a choice from the available options, we are doing so in order to fulfill a communicative purpose. And Grammar simply refers to the fact that there is an overall organisation to all of these possible options.

History of SFG in Language Teaching

Now by itself, this brief explanation may not be revealing anything especially new for teachers who teach both form and function of language. Indeed, those who do may not know that these terms originated in the work of Michael Halliday, the founder of SFG, and whose work was pivotal for the early moves to Communicative Language Teaching. Michael Halliday’s work in linguistics was highly influential around the time that language teaching was starting to shift its emphasis on mastery of language structures to mastery of communicative competence. Halliday himself developed his interest in linguistics and grammar through language teaching, first by teaching Chinese to English speakers, and later on teaching English and Russian to Chinese speakers. Indeed, Halliday’s functional grammar and theory of systemic functional linguistics has been a foundation for communicative language teaching; it also underpins the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.

The theory behind SFG

But it’s not all just form and function to express meanings. SFG helps teachers and their learners work with whole stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate in the target language. This is made possible by the linguistic theory underpinning SFG, known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Different cultural and social contexts lead speakers and writers to choose differently from the repertoire of language that they have at their disposal. SFG is an extremely useful tool to help teachers make sense of how language works in different social and cultural contexts, and thus be better equipped to help their learners understand these differences. This can refer to spoken or written texts (as SFG is based on the notion of text), and can range from everyday casual talk, through to a formal interview, a short email message, or an academic paper. In a nutshell, SFG helps us describe how language is used between people, which contrasts with traditional grammar that prescribes rules for using language.

Text and Context

By using systemic functional grammar (SFG), the teacher has a powerful tool with which to mediate her/his explanations of language, and thus mediate the learner’s understandings of how to use the language they are in the process of learning. This tool is the bridge between context and text – between the sociocultural setting in which the speaker is conducting her/his activity and the language that is a part of that activity. The tool is called Register, and gives the teacher the ability to pick away at the context of language use and identify:

  • the field: what is going on in the activity
  • the tenor: who is taking part in the activity
  • the mode: the part language plays in the activity.

So, each time you present a text to your learners, you can start with establishing the context, as above, and then proceed to highlight whatever grammar is important in each of the three areas.

An integrated grammar

Looked at individually, it is possible to, for example, identify the kinds of vocabulary that is relevant to the field, the kinds of interpersonal language that is appropriate for the tenor, and the kinds of textual features (say, cohesive devices) that are going to help the spoken or written text along. The Field might be a group of friends talking about the Australian Open tennis tournament, and therefore the vocabulary is mostly related to tennis things, people and actions. The Tenor is close friends who see each other regularly and thus have a lot of common understandings. The interpersonal language will be informal, without much language of power or authority, and possibly banter and joking. The Mode is likely face to face spoken language with speakers able to give each other immediate feedback.

Taken together, SFG provides a rubric for language teachers to plan their teaching around (be they spur of the moment explanations, or whole lessons) and for language learners to sort out in their own minds where, when and how language can be used to successfully communicate across social and cultural settings.

To come: putting SFG to work in language lessons. Some practical applications.

In the meantime, see my colleague, Annabelle Lukin’s video introducing SFG.


Phil Chappell

About the author

Phil Chappell is a Lecturer in Macquarie University’s Linguistics department where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. His current research interests are in dialogic approaches to classroom learning and teaching, the role of linguistics in TESOL preparation programs, and novice teacher cognition. He taught English for many years in Asia and Australia before entering the wild world of academia.

17 thoughts on “An introduction to systemic functional grammar – By Phil Chappell

  1. the approach of functional grammar is so interesting and looks similar to the competence
    based approach, what we look for is the strategies to work out these golden ideas

    1. Hi Hagar,

      This seems to be the question that we’re all trying to answer so far. Theoretically, it works wonderfully. When it comes to the practical application of it, I believe there are very few language teachers who are able to apply it in their lessons to test its effectiveness for many different reasons: restrictions on account of the method of the school, lack of information and the fact that they learned languages differently.

      Perhaps if we had more people using it, we’d be able to start discussing it more often and coming to some conclusions, right?!

      I wish I had an answer to your question at this moment. Maybe in the future I might… or someone else!

      Thanks for your visit!

  2. I believe you are right and that SFG is a crucial competence of ELT teachers and trainers around the would. However, SFG, the CEF, and derived learning objectives can over simplify the needs of learners. Many resources has been developed along this approach but they lack the flexibility to address unique shortcomings or goals among groups. In short, the performance objectives (or learning objectives) have been made much easier, but the assessment is still a grey area. I believe we have reached the limit of assessment and the teacher/trainer must have the ability to add the pragmatic and semantic nuances needed to develop effective education. I guess my question is… are you able to use your experience to point the way in certain context or are you dedicated to bringing the entire field toward a baseline of effective EL education? We certainly need your thoughts and guidance.

  3. hai mr. chappell.. now, iam writing my thesis, it is about :an analysis of student’s ability in identifying the use of transitivity in narrative text. i would love to know, how to assess and collecting the data? i’m still confuse about it. i have a planned to analyze a short story with transitivity, and my advisor said to find how to assess them. would you mind to inform me about the source, or maybe we can communicate on email.. thank you very much

  4. I hope I’m not entering the conversation too late. I’ve been an adult ESL and fourth grade teacher for nine years and have had great success in teaching English language learners in a mainstream classroom using SFL. Eugenia, your question is loaded, but I’ll try to be brief while still showing that it is possible.

    In my context(U.S. public school), state tests are king. My approach to teaching using SFL was to teach students how to write open responses, analyze complex texts, and write persuasively while also exposing them to metalanguage. For example, my fourth graders understood what Theme and Rheme were and were able to identify Themes in short passages to help them identify the main idea as a pre-reading exercise. I would also address the different ways of developing Theme to help strengthen their long essay exercises. A last example is teaching them about the different processes to identify the purpose behind a piece of writing.

    I would love to start a mastermind group of language teachers where we can discuss how we’re actually applying the theories of SFL in the classroom. Please feel free to contact me on twitter @thesharonknight.

  5. Hello everyone. Please can you discuss the role of grammar in discourse analysis. I am writing a term paper on it. And I have been having problem with it. Please help

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