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date: 25 February 2024

Systemic Functional Linguistics in Teacher Educationfree

Systemic Functional Linguistics in Teacher Educationfree

  • Luciana C. de OliveiraLuciana C. de OliveiraUniversity of Miami
  •  and Sharon L. SmithSharon L. SmithUniversity of Miami


Systemic functional linguistics (SFL), a meaning-based theory of language, has been used throughout the world as a discourse analytic approach and, more recently, as a framework for implementing pedagogy in the classroom. SFL has much to offer teachers as a pedagogical approach. The integration of SFL into teacher education and continuing professional learning has been shown to have a positive impact on developing teachers’ knowledge about language, their ability to instruct students by focusing on language and literacy development, and their focus on critical components of language for diverse learners. SFL theory does not provide teacher educators with a developed curriculum for implementation; therefore, the ways in which it has been used across teacher education have varied depending on teachers’ level of instruction (elementary, secondary, or tertiary), familiarity with SFL concepts, and preservice or in-service status. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to SFL inclusion in teacher education, but some principles derived from SFL in teacher education literature may enable teacher educators to consider how this theory of language and pedagogical framework can be used in teacher education programs.


  • Professional Learning and Development
  • Languages and Literacies


Repeated calls for greater attention to Halliday’s (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014) meaning-based theory of language, systemic functional linguistics (SFL), emphasize the need to support teachers to focus on understanding how academic language works across the curriculum and grade levels with students (Mohan, Leung, & Davison, 2001; Schleppegrell, 2004). Hyland (2007) argues that teacher education programs, particularly in the United States, have not attended to an SFL perspective of genre theory and genre-based pedagogy and calls for such emphasis. Integrating SFL into teacher education and continuing professional learning can have a significant impact on developing teachers’ knowledge about language and positively affect educators’ ability to design instruction that supports critical language and literacy development for diverse learners (Brisk, 2014; Gebhard, Chen, Graham, & Gunawan, 2013; Harman, 2018; Schleppegrell, 2002; Schulze, 2015).

Language plays a crucial role in one’s social, educational, and occupational lives, and with our increasingly global world, the mastery of reading and writing skills has become essential. Literacy is directly impacted by language, as the texts that one reads, and in turn produces, are elements of a linguistic system (Sebba, 2015). Language is a crucial tool to effectively participate in society, allowing one to communicate ideas, to develop knowledge, and to solve problems across numerous, diverse circumstances (National Commission on Writing, 2018); in the arena of education, the impact of language and literacy on student academic success and learning across content areas has been widely documented and acknowledged by countries all over the world (e.g., European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2012; Graham & Perin, 2007; Matthews, Kizzie, Rowley, & Cortina, 2010; Purpura, Logan, Hassinger-Das, & Napoli, 2017; Rose & Martin, 2012; Sverdlov, Aram, & Levin, 2014; US Department of Education, 2017).

In order to facilitate learning, teachers need to hold a broad and extensive understanding of language and the specific academic language demands of their respective content areas (Schulze, 2015). Globalization and the increasingly diverse learning environments around the world have drawn attention to the need for educators to be prepared in linguistic competences (Lucas & Villegas, 2013). Teachers need to be prepared to work with a wide variety of students in ways that facilitate their knowledge about language (KAL; de Oliveira & Ma, 2018). KAL, a concept common in various parts of the world, encompasses both an understanding of the nature of language and functional language skills (de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Derewianka, 2012). Especially in multilingual contexts, educators need to be knowledgeable about the language in and through which they are teaching (Daniello, Turgut, & Brisk, 2014), as they are faced with an additional task of scaffolding students’ learning about not only content and the language that supports different genres, but also students’ knowledge about a new language. A comprehensive KAL can help teachers scaffold diverse students in content and language learning (Fenwick, Humphrey, Quinn, & Endicott, 2014; Schleppegrell, 2012). Their knowledge and ideas about learning—in this specific context, their knowledge about and conceptualization of language—play a central role on shaping student learning outcomes (Arthur-Kelly, 2017).

However, many teachers do not have the necessary KAL and understanding of how meaning is construed through texts, and the concern with the quality of literacy instruction and students’ literacy abilities has been brought to the spotlight (Daniello et al., 2014; Gilbert & Graham, 2010; Macken-Horarik, Love, & Unsworth, 2011). Teacher education and professional development programs often do not focus on explicitly teaching the language and structure of texts (de Oliveira, 2011; Gebhard, Demers, & Castillo-Rosenthal, 2008), contributing to this limited KAL (Ogle & Lang, 2007; Allington, 2005). As the responsibility of teacher education programs to prepare future educators for teaching literacy is brought to the spotlight, one emerging approach that has shown promise to develop this crucial KAL across multiple contexts is the use of pedagogies that draw on SFL to develop a deeper knowledge of language and to facilitate literacy instruction.

This article provides a systematic overview of SFL and teacher education. It begins by providing a brief history of SFL, from its origins as a discourse analysis tool for researchers to its numerous applicabilities that currently exist, including an approach that educators can use to teach students literacy. Next, it highlights the foundational concepts of SFL, including the three metafunctions that serve to develop meanings in text, genre, and the teaching–learning cycle (TLC). This article outlines and synthesizes research all around the globe on SFL and teacher education. The objective of this article is not only to highlight the impact of SFL-informed KAL teacher education on pre- and in-service teachers, their teaching, and their students but also to provide teacher educators with some considerations for practice, and teacher education researchers with some considerations and possible directions for future investigation vis-à-vis SFL and teacher education. The article concludes with a discussion of principles of SFL in teacher education and highlights the need for further work in this area.

History and Foundations of Systemic Functional Linguistics

Systemic functional linguistics (SFL; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014) is a meaning-based theory of language that sees language as the realization of meaning in context. A language is a resource for making meaning, and meaning resides in systemic patterns of choice. According to SFL, the grammar of a language represents system networks, not an inventory of structures (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). Texts are instances of the systemic choices being made, and writers make meaning choices that serve particular functions.

Genre, or the realization of the context of culture, is represented by the culturally expected structure of types of texts and the ways in which register variables are realized (Eggins, 2004; Martin & Rose, 2007, 2008). Register, or the realization of the context of situation, is represented by choices of field, tenor, and mode (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). The field concerns what the language is being used to talk about. The mode concerns “the role language plays in the interaction,” whether it is written or spoken. Finally, the tenor concerns the “role relationships [play] between the interactants” (Eggins, 2004, p. 90). These three variables determine what Halliday calls the three metafunctions in language (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014).

The three metafunctions are the ideational, interpersonal, and textual. These three metafunctions characterize the lexicogrammatical resources of every language (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). These three kinds of meanings are realized as instances in the lexicogrammatical patterns that are seen in a text. These meanings correspond to the register variables field, tenor, and mode and lie behind the various functional approaches to language. Thus, we can look at the contextual factors behind a composition—genre and register in Martin and Rose’s (2007, 2008) terms—but we also should understand the language features that realize the specific registers and genres under consideration, viewing language from the roles they play across and within metafunctions.


The ideational metafunction realizes the ways in which the clause represents the experiences an author or speaker expresses (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014) and is connected to the register variable field. Lexicogrammatically speaking, we are concerned here with the Participants (typically expressed through nouns) engaged in some kinds of Processes (typically expressed through verbs) under certain Circumstances (typically expressed through prepositional and adverbial phrases) (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). There are four major process types: doing (realized by action verbs such as participate and run), sensing (realized by thinking and feeling verbs such as think and know), being (realized by relating verbs such as be and have), and saying (realized by verbal verbs like say and tell). Participants are the entities involved in the process, typically realized in noun groups (e.g., the dog, they, the Industrial Revolution, photosynthesis), and these participants take on different semantic roles in different process types. Participants in material processes can be Actors (the one who does the action); Goal (the one who is affected by the action); Recipient (the one who receives something); and Beneficiary (the one for whom something is done) (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). Participants in sensing processes include Senser (the one who does the sensing) and Phenomenon (what is perceived, thought, or appreciated). Participants in being processes carry several roles, depending on the kind of clause in which the being process is used: (a) Carrier, an entity being described, and Attribute, the description of the entity; (b) Possessor, the one owning or containing something, and Possessed, the thing owned or contained; and (c) Token, an entity being equated with another, and Value, the other description. Participants in saying processes include Sayer (the one who communicates), Addressee (the one receiving the message), and Verbiage or Message (what is said). Processes also take place around circumstances (of time, space, conditions, purpose, etc.), typically realized in adverbs (e.g., finally, separately) or prepositional phrases (e.g., around the corner, with a fork). Transitivity analysis of participants, processes, and circumstances in clauses reveals how content is presented.

The interpersonal metafunction refers to how a clause is represented as an exchange between speaker and listener or reader and writer (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014) and is connected to the register variable tenor. Lexicogrammatically, one aspect that we analyze is related to the presence or absence of the subject and finite elements of the clauses and in what order they occur with respect to one another (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). These are important because they realize the grammatical choice of the mood of a clause: either declarative, interrogative, or imperative. The mood system allows us to make statements (typically expressed in declarative mood), ask questions (typically expressed in interrogative mood), and declare commands (typically expressed in imperative mood). Another aspect is modality, an area that concerns the different ways in which someone expresses evaluation, attitudes, and judgments of various kinds. The modality system allows us to express possibility, certainty, normality, usuality, necessity, and obligation. This system includes modal verbs (e.g., should, might, could), modal adjectives (e.g., frequent, usual), modal adverbs (e.g., probably, certainly, typically), and modal nouns (e.g., condition, necessity). Evaluative vocabulary enables the construction of stance and judgment. Mood, modality, and evaluative vocabulary express interpersonal meanings that enact a relationship between reader and listener and writer and speaker.

The textual metafunction realizes how the clause is expressed as a message (Eggins, 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014) and is connected to the register variable mode. Lexicogrammatically, we analyze the text related to the ways in which the Theme and the New are instantiated in each clause. The Theme is the first experiential element of the clause and the New encompasses the remaining bit of the clause (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). Additionally, it is useful to track the thematic development through texts, which, in part, helps organize the overall text as it moves from stage to stage and within the stage. We also can discuss hyper-Themes and macro-Themes, where hyper-Themes serve as organizers of paragraphs, typically called topic sentences, and macro-Themes are referred to as “higher-level Themes” that “predict hyper-Themes” (Martin & Rose, 2007, p. 197). Movements within stages are also called phases (Martin & Rose, 2008). Another important area of textual meaning is cohesion, the way a text hangs together with the support of cohesive devices such as pronouns (e.g., they, that, her), synonyms and substitutes (e.g., exemplar-ideal; The Declaration of Independence—this document), and connectors (e.g., and, despite, if).

Figure 1. The SFL genre strata model (adapted from Martin & Rose, 2008, p. 17).

The relationships between genre, register, and language can be visually represented via a figure such as the one adapted here from Martin and Rose (2008, p. 17) and presented as Figure 1. This figure presents a series of three co-tangential circles, with genre as the largest circle, register (field, mode, and tenor) as the next largest, and the three metafunction variables as the smallest circle. This figure illustrates that genre is realized by choices in the register variables: field, mode, and tenor. In turn, register is realized as choices among the three metafunction variables: interpersonal, textual, and ideational. The crisscrossed line in the middle of the figure represents the interrelationship among each of these different levels of linguistic analysis and the metaredundancy (Martin & Rose, 2007) across each of the levels. For example, the interpersonal language choices are realizations of the tenor that the writer and speaker are expressing, which is also a realization of the genre in which the writer and speaker are constructing their text.


SFL as a model of language was elaborated through the 1980s and 1990s by Martin and his students as they developed discourse semantics resources for analyzing meaning beyond the clause. A level of genre was added to the model with the goal of specifying how a given culture organizes meaning potentials into recurrent configurations of meaning and through stages in each genre. The idea of stages comes from the notion that we have to move in steps to achieve overall goals within a written text or spoken interaction.

Genre is a recurrent configuration of meanings, described as a staged goal-oriented social process (Martin, 2009, p. 13). It is

staged: because it usually takes us more than one phase of meaning to work through a genre,

goal-oriented: because unfolding phases are designed to accomplish something and we feel a sense of frustration or incompleteness if we are stopped, and

social: because we undertake genres interactively with others.

For the past 40 years, since the 1980s, teachers and functional linguists in Australia have collaborated to apply a genre-based approach designed to enhance literacy teaching and learning across grade levels. The first phase of this work started at the primary school level in the 1980s and the second phase moved to the secondary level in the 1990s (Rose & Martin, 2012). These efforts included mapping school subject matter as families of genres. Models of the role played by language and other communicative modes in knowledge construction were therefore developed as part of these efforts (Martin, 2009). The third phase has focused on designing a methodology for integrating reading and writing with curriculum knowledge in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, known as reading to learn (Rose, 2011; Rose & Martin, 2012). This genre work, initially developed in Australia, made it possible to be explicit about what had to be taught and learned across the curriculum in schooling contexts.

Teaching–Learning Cycle

Over time, genre theory developed applications to pedagogy, initially drawing on insights into spoken language development in the home (Painter, 1991, 1998). Drawing on the notion that effective teaching involves providing learners with explicit knowledge about language, the teaching–learning cycle (TLC) was first developed by Rothery for application of a genre-based approach to writing instruction (Rothery, 1989, 1994). The TLC applies the principle “guidance through interaction in the context of shared experience” (Martin & Rose, 2005, p. 253). This principle refers to the guidance provided by teachers in talking, reading, and writing about a specific text in the context of a shared experience—a common text, movie, or reading. This means that students write about something that they shared as an activity.

Though the TLC has gone through modifications over time (e.g., Derewianka & Jones, 2012; Martin & Rose, 2005), the focus of the model has remained constant. The TLC takes writers through the phases of deconstructing mentor texts, joint construction, and independent construction, allowing students different points of entry and enabling teachers to start at any one of these phases. This process can be recursive and repeated as students become more familiar with specific genres. Setting context is important to build with students as they think of the specific context for writing a specific genre within other possible contexts. The notion of building field at all phases is key, as students develop their knowledge of the content and context of particular texts. Students also build a critical orientation to text by not just learning about the genre, but by being critical of its usage. Starting with the deconstruction phase, the TLC aims to provide students with teacher interaction, guidance, and support as students go through these phases. Most recently, after their work in K–5 classrooms, both Brisk (2014) and de Oliveira (2017) included an additional, optional phase entitled collaborative construction, to be explained.

Figure 2. Teaching–learning cycle.


Teachers introduce mentor texts in a specific genre that students are expected to read and write (e.g., imaginative recount, procedural recount, biographical recount); guide students to deconstruct model texts through demonstration, modeling, and discussions about their purpose, text structures (stages), and language features typical of a specific genre; and build up students’ knowledge of the content information (i.e., building field). As Figure 2 shows, this is when a detailed reading of the text helps teachers and students to discuss the content, interpretation, and organization of the text, using the questions provided as a guide.

Joint Construction

Teachers and students work together to write a text in the same genre. In this phase, the teacher and students co-construct texts that are similar to the mentor texts that they already learned in the deconstruction phase. Students start using the language features of the specific genre about which they are learning. In co-constructing texts, teachers are expected to provide a bridge for students between their everyday language and the academic language of school so attention will be directed to text organizational issues such as purpose, stages, and language features. The teacher is typically in front of the room scribing while everyone is writing together.

Collaborative Construction

This phase was added as a bridge between the joint construction and independent construction phases, especially for students in grades K–2 who are novice writers. Students work with other students in pairs or small groups to construct a text together, brainstorming and negotiating ideas, writing, revising, etc. Teachers continue to support collaborative pairs or groups as needed.

Independent Construction

After completing the aforementioned phases, students are ready to work independently to construct their own texts in the specific genre. Teachers are expected to minimize their support, scaffolding, and guidance so students have more opportunities for their independent writing of the specific genre.

These phases of the TLC start with the whole text as the unit in focus rather than individual sentences. Thus these phases enable teachers to support their students in developing their knowledge and control of school genres across disciplines.

Reading to Learn

The teaching–learning cycle (TLC) applied to writing was modified and further developed to focus on reading (see Martin & Rose [2005] for a complete description). The reading-to-learn cycle (see Figure 3) is concerned with three basic questions: (a) which language features will be focused on at each step, (b) how the teacher will prepare students to identify linguistic features, and (c) how teachers will elaborate on linguistic features. A scaffolding interaction cycle—a three-move cycle of prepare, identify, and elaborate—includes a sequence of activities to intensify and extend the support provided by genre-based pedagogy (Martin & Rose, 2005).

Figure 3. Reading-to-learn cycle (based on Martin & Rose, 2005, p. 261).

Comprehending a text first involves learners recognizing its genre and field and having enough experience to interpret the field as it unfolds through the text. However, some learners may have less familiarity with or little background knowledge of a specific genre required to comprehend academic texts in schooling. As Figure 3 shows, the reading-to-learn cycle begins with “Prepare before Reading.” In this phase, in order for learners to start comprehending a text, teachers provide students with the background students need to understand the sequences of events that will unfold in the text. Through discussions of what the text is about, teachers support students to build up their knowledge of the field—or the content presented in the text. Drawing on their general understanding of the text, students will be able to follow the reading of the text without struggling to work out what is taking place, to recognize letter patterns, or to decode unfamiliar words.

Figure 3 shows the six phases of the reading-to-learn cycle in a circle. Starting from the top, this cycle begins with “Prepare before Reading” and then goes clockwise to “Detailed Reading,” “Sentence or Note Making,” “Joint Rewriting,” “Individual Rewriting,” and “Independent Writing.” Finishing the last phase, the reading-to-learn cycle starts again on the first phase, “Prepare before Reading.” These six phases of the cycle give teachers a framework to provide students with more intensive scaffolding support in reading and making sense of the text, co-constructing another example of the same genre, and independently writing in the same genre on their own.

Systemic Functional Linguistics in Teacher Education

Systemic functional linguistics (SFL) theory has existed for around 50 years (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014), and it has been applied by educational linguists in academic settings for around 30 years (Colombi, 2009; Gebhard, 2010; Hasan, 2011); however, only recently has a body of literature emerged that focuses on how SFL has been used in teacher education programs. Although SFL theory is utilized by academics all over the world (McCabe, 2017; Oteiza, 2006; Vian, Anglada, Moyano, & Romero, 2009), the majority of the research that has been carried out specifically on SFL in teacher education is situated in Australia (e.g., Fenwick et al., 2014; Humphrey, 2018; Macnaught, Maton, Martin, & Matruglio, 2013; Martin, 2009; Rose & Martin, 2012; Thwaite, 2015) and in North America (e.g., Accurso, Gebhard, & Purington, 2017; Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Achugar, Schleppegrell, & Oteiza, 2007; Aguirre-Muñoz, Park, Amabisca, & Boscardin, 2008; Berg & Huang, 2015; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Brisk & Zisselsberger, 2011; Carpenter, Achugar, Walter, & Earhart, 2015; Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006; Daniello, 2012; Daniello et al., 2014; de Oliveira, 2011; de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Fang, 2013; Gebhard, Harman, & Seger, 2007; Gebhard, Willett, Jimenez, & Piedra, 2011; Gebhard et al., 2013; Macken-Horarik, Devereux, Trimingham-Jack, & Wilson, 2006; O’Hallaron, 2014; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). This article now provides a review of literature on SFL in teacher education, focusing on two main categories of findings that emerged from the literature: (a) teacher preparation to implement SFL-based pedagogies, and (b) teacher implementation of SFL-based pedagogies.

Teacher Preparation to Implement SFL-Based Pedagogies

SFL has been used in the education and professional development of both in-service (e.g., Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; Achugar et al., 2007; de Oliveira, 2011; Berg & Huang, 2015; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018) and preservice teachers (e.g., Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Fenwick et al., 2014; Gebhard et al., 2013; Macken-Horarik et al., 2006) across a wide variety of contexts. This pedagogical approach has been used with teachers across grade levels, including a range of elementary (e.g., Brisk & Parra, 2018; Gebhard et al., 2007) and secondary educators (e.g., Accurso et al., 2017; Achugar et al., 2007; Carpenter et al., 2015). Since language plays a part in every academic subject, SFL has been used to educate teachers in content areas, focusing on teaching functional language-based pedagogies in English language arts (ELA) (e.g., Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Gebhard et al., 2007; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018), social studies (e.g., Achugar et al., 2007; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Carpenter et al., 2015; Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006), science (e.g., Brisk & Parra, 2018; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018), mathematics (e.g., de Oliveira, Sembiante, & Ramirez, 2018; O’Hallaron, 2007), and other areas such as visual arts, computing and technology, family and consumer sciences, theater and drama, health, music, special education, and world languages (e.g., Berg & Huang, 2015). Because of the affordances of SFL to teach knowledge about language (KAL), it lends itself to second-language (L2) teaching (McCabe, 2017), and a large portion of the literature on SFL in teacher education has focused on working with teachers to use SFL-grounded pedagogies in multilingual contexts to support linguistically diverse learners with varying levels of language proficiency.

Pre-service Teacher Education

This emerging body of literature shows how many teacher educators have worked with first-year undergraduate through master’s-level preservice teachers to develop their KAL in various disciplines (Fenwick et al., 2014; Gebhard et al., 2013; Macken-Horarik et al., 2006; Thwaite, 2015). Researchers in this area have worked to develop conceptual tools to engage future educators, to foster their KAL across disciplines, and to facilitate these pre-service teachers’ own praxis. Education students were exposed to KAL at both the grammatical and discourse levels (Christie & Derewianka, 2008; Thwaite, 2015); the key concepts taught included functions of grammar, text structures (e.g., the ways that different genres are organized), language features (e.g., grammatical metaphor, nominalization, elaboration, Theme and new progression), academic language, metalanguage (de Oliveira & Ma, 2018), and authentic language use (Fenwick et al., 2014), or what Achugar and Carpenter (2018) call “grammar in the wild.” These activities incorporated elements of the teaching–learning cycle (TLC) (e.g., building the field or knowledge of content, deconstruction, co-construction and independent construction of text), critical analysis, reflection, conceptualization, and application of language.

These studies show how teacher candidates first had the opportunity to learn about SFL constructs and strategies, activities, and methods to apply these concepts. Fenwick et al. (2014) discuss how they taught functional grammar after teaching traditional grammar in order to demonstrate how SFL “often extends ideas and concepts so that language use in context can be identified and discussed” (p. 9). After seeing SFL constructs in action, pre-service teachers then had the opportunity to practice engaging with these conceptual tools and apply their KAL in a discipline context (e.g., math; Accurso et al., 2017). Thwaite (2015) shows how students applied this KAL through discussing their own practice, and other studies demonstrate students’ application of KAL through analyzing texts and teaching a lesson informed by SFL pedagogy, all while receiving scaffolding from teacher educators (Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Fenwick et al., 2014).

The aim of developing teacher candidates’ KAL is (a) to enable them to analyze texts across a variety of disciplines in order to recognize meaning and content and to identify power relationships embedded in language, (b) to provide them with a way to talk about language and how meaning is created in texts (de Oliveira & Schleppegrell, 2015), and (c) to supply them with a way to scaffold students’ learning about and through language (de Oliveira & Ma, 2018; Gebhard et al., 2013). Developing this KAL based on critical SFL pedagogies is also focused on changing deficit views of emerging bilinguals (EBs) and highlighting critical issues for these students (de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Harman & Simmons, 2014). While these teacher education programs had numerous positive impacts (outlined in “In-Service Teacher Education”), it does not mean that they were without complications. de Oliveira and Avalos (2018) discuss the challenges teacher educators face when trying to prepare preservice teachers for real-world teaching while at the same time working to develop these future educators’ KAL and how it works.

In-Service Teacher Education

Teacher education does not end with graduation, and this body of work shows how multiple teacher educators have implemented SFL-based professional development initiatives for in-service teachers (Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; de Oliveira, 2011; Daniello, 2012; Gebhard et al., 2007; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). In the United States, Brisk and colleagues (e.g., Brisk & Parra, 2018; Brisk & Zisselsberger, 2011) have developed a school–university partnership to facilitate an in-service teacher professional development initiative in Massachusetts. Over a 7-year span, this professional development program based out of Boston College has focused on educating monolingual elementary teachers on SFL-based pedagogies to prepare them to teach writing across disciplinary texts (e.g., ELA, science, social studies) to EB K–5 students (Brisk & Parra, 2018). During annual summer institutes, Brisk and colleagues introduced teachers to key SFL concepts to facilitate KAL, focusing on the elements of genre-based pedagogy, and provided them with strategies for teaching the different genres common at the elementary level, specifically the TLC (Brisk, 2014; Brisk & Parra, 2018). They also held monthly meetings with grade-level teacher teams and conducted weekly classroom observations to support learning and application. As the partnership progressed, the Boston College team also helped teachers develop writing content grounded in KAL and genre-based pedagogy. These SFL pedagogies facilitated elementary EBs’ classroom participation, and their writing samples began to show improvement after teachers implemented SFL-based pedagogies into their writing lessons (Brisk & Zisselsberger, 2011). Since the initiation of the collaboration with Brisk and colleagues, the elementary school in which they are carrying out in-service teacher education has earned the highest rating in the state due to EB’s sustained improvement in English language proficiency (Brisk & Parra, 2018; Harman, 2018).

Another SFL-based teacher education initiative, the ACCELA Alliance (Access to Critical Content and English Language Acquisition), is led by Gebhard and colleagues (e.g., Gebhard, 2010; Gebhard et al., 2011; Gebhard et al., 2013; Shin, Gebhard, & Seger, 2010). These researchers and teacher educators work with in-service teachers to design academic literacy interventions using SFL tools (Gebhard, 2010). EBs were able to analyze and produce more coherent academic texts as a result of SFL-based classroom pedagogy (e.g., Gebhard, 2010; Gebhard & Martin, 2010; Gebhard et al., 2007).

Schleppegrell and colleagues (e.g., O’Hallaron, 2014; Palincsar & Schleppegrell, 2014, Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018), based out of California, have also worked with implementing SFL-informed professional development in school contexts. Studies that have looked at the impact of the California History Project have also shown that EBs appeared to greatly benefit from their teachers’ SFL-based professional development (Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006), evidenced by their scores on state exams (Achugar et al., 2007).

Schleppegrell has continued this initial SFL-based work in Michigan (e.g., Palincsar & Schleppegrell, 2014; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). This three-year project drew on design-based research (DBR) (diSessa & Cobb, 2004; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003) to promote teachers’ use of SFL metalanguage in order to facilitate meaningful interactions and learning through and about language, using SFL conceptual tools to demonstrate the meaning making affordances found within ELA and science texts. During this DBR project, identification of instructional needs to design lessons and reading and writing units for ELA and science to guide teachers (O’Hallaron, 2014; Palincsar & Schleppegrell, 2014; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). Schleppegrell and colleagues have also carried out other professional development initiatives, such as the California History Project. This in-service teacher education (e.g., Achugar et al., 2007; Carpenter et al., 2015; Fang, Schleppegrell, & Cox, 2006; Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006) provided history teachers with SFL tools to deconstruct the meaning in history texts. Other in-service teacher education initiatives using SFL pedagogies that are documented in literature have similar characteristics to these three larger aforementioned professional learning efforts in the United States (e.g., Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; de Oliveira, 2011; Berg & Huang, 2015).

In Australia, Rose and Martin (2012) and Humphrey and colleagues (e.g., Humphrey, 2013, 2015, 2018; Humphrey & Robinson, 2012) also provided SFL-informed professional development to in-service teachers, including workshops, team teaching, and program development. Some of this took place at the whole school level, while other mentoring (observing, co-teaching, providing feedback) took place with available and willing individual teachers (Humphrey, 2018).

Teacher Implementation of SFL-Based Instruction

The studies highlighted in the previous section on preparing teachers to implement SFL-based pedagogies focus on developing knowledge about language (KAL) at the grammatical and discourse levels and demonstrating strategies, such as the teaching–learning cycle (TLC), to provide teachers with specific resources to develop students’ literacy and language in a variety of contexts. Research shows that this approach can have a positive impact on pre- and in-service teachers’ KAL and their ability to design and implement instruction that supports diverse students’ KAL and literacy development (Schulze, 2015). Three categories of impacts of SFL in teacher education emerged from the literature: (a) impact on teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about language, which can sometimes result in (b) an impact on teachers’ instruction, which can in turn (c) impact student learning.

Impact on Teachers’ Knowledge About and Attitudes Toward Language

The use of SFL in teacher education resulted in pre- and in-service teachers’ development of KAL (e.g., Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Fenwick et al., 2014; Macnaught et al., 2013; Thwaite, 2015), shifting their conceptions of grammar (Gebhard et al., 2013) and their attitudes toward language (e.g., Brisk & Parra, 2018; Fenwick et al., 2014; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018).

Knowledge About Language

Teachers were able to develop an awareness of the importance of language across content areas (Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; Brisk & Parra, 2018), a deep KAL (e.g., Berg & Huang, 2015; Carpenter et al., 2015; Gebhard & Martin, 2010), and understand grammar and how it is intertwined with register and genre in a more functional way (Gebhard et al., 2013). Throughout education programs, teachers learned how to “use grammar to think” (Halliday, 2002), allowing them to focus on and critically analyze the different meaning-making choices authors chose to include in their texts (Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Berg & Huang, 2015). Studies showed that teachers developed KAL in the following areas: genre, register, tenor, functions of discourse moves, dynamic aspects of discourse, knowledge construction, and word classes in context (e.g., Carpenter et al., 2015; Daniello, 2012; Daniello et al., 2014; Macken-Horarik et al., 2006; Thwaite, 2015).

Fenwick et al. (2014) discuss that after receiving SFL instruction, 79% of pre-service teachers demonstrated deep knowledge, contrasting with 54% who did not. A deep KAL and precise theoretical understandings allowed students to make informed generalizations and explanations about the text and authors’ specific language choices, such as nominalization (Fenwick et al., 2014; Macnaught et al., 2013). Nominalization refers to the expression as a noun or nominal group of what would in everyday language be presented as a verb, an adjective, or a conjunction. Such grammatical metaphors are typical of academic discourse.

In addition to a deep KAL, teachers also developed a more intuitive KAL that allowed them to quickly assess students’ depth of understanding through language patterns in student texts (Macnaught et al., 2013). De Oliveira and Avalos (2018) argue that developing a shared KAL among teachers through SFL pedagogies can support their literacy instruction, especially critical KAL instruction (Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Carpenter et al., 2015). While most of the studies only reported positive results, a couple mention challenges vis-à-vis teachers acquiring a complete deep knowledge due to the brevity of the implementation, such as teachers not being able to move between levels of the language theory (e.g., Fenwick et al., 2014).

Attitudes Toward Language

This approach had the benefit of positioning teachers as writing instructors (Brisk & Parra, 2018) and fostering teacher dispositions that engaged with student contributions (Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). Brisk and Zisselsberger (2011) recount how elementary teachers in Boston, after receiving instruction in SFL pedagogies, reported developing higher levels of confidence in their abilities to plan and teach (a) a wider range of genres, (b) specific text organization, and (c) language features as a result of the professional development initiative. Teachers perceived positive changes in their practices due to their professional development (Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; Berg & Huang, 2015; Carpenter et al., 2015). In Australia, Fenwick et al. (2014) recount how as a result of this teacher education, the amount of pre-service teachers who did not feel confident about their KAL decreased from 62% at the beginning of the unit to 2% at the end of the unit. In addition to confidence in their KAL, teachers also appeared to have a higher confidence in their teaching, as SFL supplied them with a knowledge of what to teach (Aguirre-Muñoz et al., 2008; Brisk & Parra, 2018).

While the majority of studies reported teachers valuing the opportunity to learn and apply their KAL (e.g., Fenwick et al., 2014), some teacher educators also experienced resistance to learning this approach, such as a dislike for a new metalanguage, one of the central concepts of SFL (de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018; Daniello et al., 2014). Others experienced confusion about what SFL theory is and how it can be integrated with other theories (e.g., Daniello et al., 2014; Gebhard, 2010).

Impact on Teachers’ Instruction

When teachers have had a chance to implement SFL-based instruction in their classrooms following pre-service teacher education or in-service professional learning, they develop linguistic knowledge that had an impact on both their instruction and on students’ learning (de Oliveira, 2011); a developed KAL appeared to promote rigorous classroom instruction during which teachers were able to engage students in rich conversations about learning (Achugar et al., 2007; Daniello et al., 2014). SFL-based in-service teacher education initiatives have also shown benefits beyond changes to classroom practices (de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018); they have also shown how collaborative professional development of this type can facilitate a positive school culture (Brisk & Parra, 2018).

Approaches for Teaching Language and Literacy

One of the main impacts seen across research was the implementation of a genre-based approach to teaching writing in classrooms (Accurso et al., 2017; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Daniello, 2014; Macken-Horarik et al., 2006). After being exposed to SFL instruction, teachers across studies showed an increased focus on genre and language (Daniello et al., 2014), often building curriculum around genre. Instead of working with isolated sentences, texts were examined for purpose and structure at the text, sentence, and word levels (Brisk & Parra, 2018).

When working with genre, teachers also utilized direct and explicit instruction to integrate academic language and content (Macnaught et al., 2013; Berg & Huang, 2015). Fenwick et al. (2014) argue that a functional approach to language is ideal for teaching the disciplinary language of content areas. Since language and content cannot be separated in SFL theory, teachers worked to connect writing to disciplinary instruction and embedded language learning throughout lessons (Brisk & Parra, 2018; Carpenter et al., 2015).

Strategies and Tools for Teaching Language and Literacy

A large portion of the literature that discusses teachers’ instruction mentions their implementation of the different phases of the TLC (e.g., de Oliveira, Jones, & Arana, 2018). This conceptual tool allowed teachers to develop their students’ writing across different genres in a variety of content areas (Brisk & Parra, 2018), unpacking and repacking knowledge through deliberate selection of texts and direct instruction (Macnaught et al., 2013). Since the TLC is a tool and not a main objective, teachers were able to adapt the cycle to their classrooms after learning about SFL theory and pedagogy (de Oliveira et al., 2018; Brisk & Parra, 2018). In de Oliveira and Avalos’s (2018) study, the focal teacher adapted the TLC to work with just introductory paragraphs.

Teachers developed students’ content knowledge, as proposed by Derewianka and Jones (2012), before engaging in the joint deconstruction phase of the TLC, which allowed teachers to break down a mentor text in order to explicitly teach students what needed to be included in each genre or phase (e.g., Daniello et al., 2014). Using the joint construction phase allowed teachers to scaffold students with higher-level texts (e.g., Macnaught et al., 2013), and independent construction allowed students the opportunity to practice what they were learning (e.g., Brisk & Parra, 2018; Macnaught et al., 2013). During the entire cycle, teachers’ new knowledge of language helped them differentiate instruction, especially for their emerging bilingual students (Berg & Huang, 2015).

Metalanguage was another tool that teachers frequently utilized after participating in SFL teacher education. Grounded in their KAL (Macnaught et al., 2013), this conceptual tool appeared to facilitate teachers’ identification and articulation of language across different genres and various literacy demands (Gebhard et al., 2013; Macken-Horarik et al., 2006). In addition, a metalanguage allowed teachers and students to engage in critical analysis of their own and other texts (Humphrey, 2018), connecting language choices with different meanings (Macnaught et al., 2013). These findings are supported by other studies that show how a metalanguage can have benefits for the teaching and learning of academic literacy (e.g., Achugar et al., 2007; Byrnes, Maxim, & Norris, 2010).

Instructional Challenges

Even with professional development or teacher education classes, studies have shown ways in which teachers still encounter challenges. For example, after being taught genre-based pedagogy, some teachers appeared to struggle with the tendency to present genres as a fixed set of rules (Brisk & Zisselsberger, 2011; Gebhard, 2010). The extent to which they developed their use of SFL metalanguage and other tools was influenced by their teaching contexts (Gebhard et al., 2013).

Impact on Student Learning

The impact of pre- and in-service teacher education programs on teachers’ instruction and scaffolding appears also to lead to an impact on student learning (e.g., Macnaught et al., 2013). The literature discusses how students gained knowledge and confidence in writing, increasing their proficiency and purposefulness (Daniello et al., 2014; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018). Some students discussed how direct instruction through deconstruction helped them understand and develop a better understanding of purpose (de Oliveira & Avalos, 2018), and others demonstrated the ability to recognize and discuss meaning in the language that engages interpersonally. The SFL metalanguage appeared to be a resource that enabled students to focus on specific meanings in texts (Accurso et al., 2017; Schleppegrell & Moore, 2018).

Studies also show that SFL-informed pedagogies appear to have had a positive impact on student achievement (e.g. Achugar et al., 2007; Humphrey, 2018; Humphrey & Macnaught, 2016). Schleppegrell and colleagues’ work with history teachers in California demonstrates this, as the students whose teachers participated in their SFL professional development showed more improvement on the state standardized tests when compared with the students from classes whose teachers did not partake in the SFL-based professional development (Achugar et al., 2007). Humphrey and colleagues’ research (Humphrey, 2018; Humphrey & Macnaught, 2016) also reports findings of growth evidenced by the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) writing assessment. These scholars attribute this increase in student achievement to their teachers’ use of SFL-informed scaffolding strategies and metalanguage (Humphrey, 2018).

Suggestions for Incorporating SFL in Teacher Education

This article shows that when teachers are prepared to apply SFL in their classrooms, they are able to facilitate classroom instruction that integrates SFL concepts and helps students access language through reading and writing activities. Because SFL theory does not provide teacher educators or teachers with a developed curriculum or mode of instruction (Daniello et al., 2014), the ways in which it has been applied in teacher education have varied, depending on teachers’ level of instruction (elementary, secondary, or tertiary), familiarity with SFL concepts, and pre-service or in-service status. Based on the studies reviewed in this article, we cannot provide a “one-size-fits-all” approach to SFL inclusion in teacher education. However, we provide some principles derived from the SFL in teacher education literature and implementation by de Oliveira and Avalos (2018).

Principles of SFL Applied to Teacher Education

Principle 1: Language and Content Cannot Be Separated

Content and context cannot be separated, as content is expressed through language. Disciplinary learning in school is dependent on language. Language is not the only means through which learning occurs, but it is certainly the most important element of learning, as learning language and learning through language occur simultaneously (Halliday, 1993). Language is the “essential condition of learning, the process by which experience becomes knowledge” (Halliday, 1993, p. 94).

Principle 2: Disciplinary Knowledge and Information Is Condensed Through Complex Clause Structures, Different From Students’ Everyday Language

Academic language constructs disciplinary knowledge in complex clause structures. Academic language is difficult for all students and is the kind of language students learn at school, different from the everyday language they use for spoken communication (Schleppegrell, 2004). In order for teachers and students to understand how content is constructed through academic language, they must know how to identify and use these complex clause structures. For example, academic language used to represent and teach subject matter dissociates actors from actions with the construction of “things” through the use of nominalization, a resource used in many academic and scientific genres (e.g., Halliday & Martin, 1993; Martin, 1993; Schleppegrell, 2004; Unsworth, 1999).

Principle 3: Developing a Meaning-Based Metalanguage Enables Teachers to Recognize How Meanings Are Construed in Different Content Areas and How Power Is Expressed in Language

When teachers develop specific ways to talk about the interconnection of content and language with students, both groups can engage in analyzing the ways language is powerful in constructing knowledge and discussing how they can also participate in that construction (Athanases & de Oliveira, 2011; de Oliveira & Schleppegrell, 2015). This also enables teachers to encourage a reflective attitude on the part of students and to help them recognize how language choices create meanings of different kinds and the power of those choices (Achugar et al., 2007; Harman, 2018). By providing engaging activities that enable students to interact and build on their language resources, additional language resources are created via socialization into a community of learners around academic texts (Schleppegrell, 2013). Thus, teachers can focus on how concepts are presented and developed and give students tools for learning from other texts.

Principle 4: A Genre-Based Approach to Writing Instruction Provides Guidance Through Interaction in the Context of Shared Experience

The notion of guidance through interaction in the context of shared experience based on an SFL genre-based approach is the driving force behind a teaching–learning cycle (TLC) (Martin & Rose, 2005; Rothery, 1996). As already discussed, the TLC can be recursive and repeated as students become more familiar with specific genres. The notion of building field at all phases is key. Building field refers to students’ development of their knowledge of the content and context of particular texts. Students also build a critical orientation to text by not just learning about the genre, but by also being critical of its usage. Regardless of whichever phase is introduced first, the TLC aims to provide students with teacher interaction, guidance, and support as they go through each phase.

Principle 5: Disciplinary Practices of Subject Areas Guide Instruction

Different disciplines present unique challenges to students and teachers, and much of the challenge is semiotic (Schleppegrell, 2007). For instance, at the secondary level, history and other areas of social studies are presented in textbooks and primary source documents composed of dense and abstract language. To learn history, students have to be able to read difficult texts, engage in discussion of complex issues, and write in ways that present their judgments and perspectives, while simultaneously reporting on what they have learned. It is imperative that students are not only to understand sequences of events and the roles historical participants played in those events, but also to recognize the authorial interpretation, which is an integral part of all historical reporting (de Oliveira, 2010). Although typically these tasks are difficult for students, teachers may use SFL to understand and explicitly teach how language is used to make meaning in history and social studies texts as well as to provide meaningful writing instruction when using the TLC.

Principle 6: Language Dissection Enables Teachers and Students to Develop Knowledge About Language

Language dissection is an approach to language analysis that teachers can use with students to make the language used in texts explicit. KAL is essential for teachers to be able to effectively integrate a focus on language into their routine teaching practices (Gebhard et al., 2013; Macken-Horarik et al., 2011; Schulze, 2015). Teachers are taught to “dissect” the language in written and spoken texts using SFL tools. Table 1 presents the three areas of meaning and metafunctions, questions to guide language dissection, and the focus of the analysis.

Table 1. Areas of Meaning, Questions, and Focus of Analysis.

Area of Meaning

Question to Guide Language Dissection

Focus of Analysis

Presenting content:

What is going on in the text?

Sentence constituents: Participants, processes, circumstances

Ideational metafunction

Enacting a relationship with the reader:

What is the perspective of the author?

Mood choices:



Interpersonal metafunction



Constructing a cohesive message:

How is the text organized?



Textual metafunction

Note. Table is based on de Oliveira and Schleppegrell (2015)

Principle 7: Apprenticing Teachers Into SFL Theory and Practice Incorporates Teaching Lessons That Apply SFL Pedagogy

To better prepare teachers for application of SFL theory into their own classrooms, teacher educators should apprentice them into the theory and practice by not only providing them with opportunities to carry out language dissection with texts they use with students, but also to plan lessons that address what they find through their language dissection. During this entire process, they should receive scaffolding from teacher educators. Teachers can identify the language patterns prevalent in the texts they use most frequently in their classes so that they may design instruction to make those linguistic features visible to students (Schulze, 2015). Mentor lessons, similar to mentor texts for students to deconstruct within the TLC, can serve as models for teachers to see SFL tools in an authentic teaching context and can provide ideas, as teachers work to develop their own lessons.


This article responds to a call for greater attention to systemic functional linguistics (SFL) as a meaning-based theory of language that provides a framework for teacher education on knowledge of language (KAL) grounded in meaning and how language functions across content areas (e.g., Hyland, 2007; Schleppegrell, 2004). After demonstrating the need for this type of approach and providing the history and theoretical foundations of SFL, we provide a systematic overview of the body of literature on SFL in teacher education and some principles for teacher educators to follow when implementing SFL in teacher education programs. This emerging body of literature is still in its fledgling stages, with the majority of the work being published in the 2000s and beyond. Although literature reviewed in this article demonstrates a clear need for teachers to have a deep KAL in order to support their diverse learners and appears to indicate that utilizing an SFL-based pedagogical approach to develop academic language and literacy can have significant impacts (e.g., Achugar & Carpenter, 2018; Brisk & Parra, 2018; Humphrey & Macnaught, 2016), there is still a lot of investigation that needs to take place. Recognizing the importance of students’ language and literacy skills and the implications of their learning on all stakeholders, next steps in research become paramount.


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