An introduction to systemic functional grammar

phil-chappellThis guest post is by Phil Chappell. Phil taught English for many years in Asia and Australia, and is now a Lecturer in Macquarie University’s Linguistics department, where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. You can find out more about him here, or follow him on Twitter, @TESOLatMQ, where he is a font of knowledge and useful links – his newsletter, English Language Teaching Resources, is highly recommended.


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.

Henrick_Oprea_biggerSpecial note: This post first appeared on Henrick Oprea’s thought-provoking ELT blog, Doing some Thinking, which is well worth exploring. Henrick is a teacher, teacher trainer, and Director of Studies in Brazil, and a active member of the international ELT community. You can follow him on Twitter: @hoprea 

4 thoughts on “An introduction to systemic functional grammar

  1. Ben Naismith

    Hi Phil, thanks for taking the time to write this post, and I’ve been watching all the SFG videos from one of your colleagues at Macquarie. I was griping a bit on my blog about my inability to apply SFG to my teaching and @SophiKhan4 kindly posted this link. I’ll definitely give your ideas a shot and see how it goes.

    Just wondering though, do you/have you ever tried raising learners’ awareness of the different processes in transitivity (without all the terminology), e.g. types of meaning of certain structures, verb patterns, etc.? Also, (how) can knowledge of mood and residue help learners?

    Looking forward to future posts on practical applications,


    1. philchappell

      Hi Ben
      Thanks for the reminder that I was going to write a follow up post with some practical applications, which I’ll do in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, your questions are good ones to get the ball rolling.

      Yes, I have spent time raising students’ awareness of process types, and also participant types, in an effort to lead students to an understanding that grammar is not a set of abstract rules, but a way of showing how language works communicatively – how it functions to encode the meanings that we want to make. One obvious application is to show how material processes, realised as action verbs, are used in preponderance in some texts, such as narratives, but that relational processes, realised as relating verbs, are used more in other kinds of texts, such as reports. This, together with turning processes into participants via nominalisation, can help enormously when you are working with learners who tend to use a more narrative style of writing in their academic papers. This is just one example, I also like raising students’ awareness of the different process types in their creative writing. Pointing out that a “feeling verb” is in a different category to a “saying verb”, for example, and then having students brainstorm more verbs for each category helps them make their written (or spoken) texts more cohesive as they use more variety of process types.

      Mood is also a useful area to focus on to show how variety and choice is a cornerstone of the English language. Together with speech functions, you can raise students’ awareness of the fact that interaction usually involves either the exchange of information or the exchange of goods and services (through requesting these or offering them), and the language that we choose to enact these speech functions can have an enormous impact on the interpersonal relations we set up between ourselves and our audience (whether a speaking partner, a reader, a large audience, etc). Depending on the context, “Give us a hand, will you?” could be quite OK and even a way to affirm a friendship, or it could be totally unexpected and might even sever a formal relationship if the receiver of the request is affronted by such informality. The default pattern of [request information through the interrogative], [give information through the declarative], [request services through a modal interrogative or a command] obviously isn’t how we really speak, and we’ll use the declarative to request a service (It’s hot in here, isn’t it? = Open the window), for example, depending on the context.

      Anyway, I’ll do my best to cover these points with more practical applications in my follow up post, Ben. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful to you and others.


  2. #AusELT Post author

    Hi Ben, Just noticed this comment and not sure that Phil Chappell has, as this was a guest post, though perhaps you have been in touch further on Twitter. I’ll ask him to check in just in case. Thanks for commenting!


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