September 2021
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Greta Perris and Sandra Zappa-Hollman, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Greta Perris

Sandra Zappa-Hollman


What makes a text sound academic? In this article, we illustrate how we have used Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) in our teaching to help our students address this question insightfully through engaging in text analysis. We draw from examples from an EAP course for multilingual students taught by Greta and a graduate level course on EAP teaching taught by Sandra. Our intention is to inspire readers to consider drawing on SFL frameworks to engage in teaching pedagogies that make visible and explicit the discoursal and linguistic features of texts. The value of student-led analyses lies in how they enhance learners’ language awareness empowering them to become critical language users. We begin with a brief overview of key SFL principles and concepts, and we follow with examples of how we have used SFL in our respective teaching contexts. We conclude by noting the usefulness of SFL as a pedagogical approach for teachers and students with some final thoughts and recommend readings in the references section.

Overview of SFL

SFL, originally developed by linguist Michael Halliday, is an appliable theory of language that has been successfully used in educational contexts. While traditional/formal grammar focuses on how language is formed, functional grammar focuses on how language is used (Coffin, Donohue, & North, 2009). That is, SFL is concerned with revealing the interactions between the texts and the contexts in which these are produced. This brings us to the notion of language choice. From a functional perspective, languages are complex semiotic systems of choices that are available to their users. These choices depend on the context of culture (genre) and the context of situation (register) of any given text. They have an impact on how we make meaning across three metafunctions: 1) ideational, which refers to the content or ideas we wish to communicate; 2) interpersonal, which refers to the relationship between author and audience; and 3) textual, which refers to the way the message is organized and delivered. In addition to the metalanguage used in traditional grammarsuch as clause, noun, and conjunctionfunctional grammar uses additional SFL-specific metalanguage (see Figure 1 for selected examples). The latter has a central role in clarifying the connection between meaning and form. One of the first steps in discovering how language works is the ability to talk about it. In short, systemic functional grammar “is a way of describing and analyzing lexical and grammatical choices from the systems of wording, the lexicogrammar, so that we can become aware of and investigate how language is being used to realize meaning in texts” (Butt et al., 2012, p. 26).

Greta’s EAP Class

The multilingual international students in this context are enrolled in first-year, credit-bearing courses in a Bachelor of Science program, which includes subject-matter and EAP courses. The two courses I teach are connected over two academic semesters and focus on reading and writing in academic and professional registers. In semester one, students are introduced to SFL concepts (and other compatible concepts; see Figure 1) and genres typically encountered in science disciplines (e.g., description, explanation, and argumentation). In semester two, students deepen their knowledge of SFL by carrying out a discourse analysis research project.

The curriculum draws on SFL genre-based pedagogies to support students’ academic literacies development. The three metafunctions have a central role in the sequential organization of the curriculum, as well as in text analysis tasks. As shown in Figure 1, in these courses, the metafunctions are recontextualized in adapted language, using more familiar terms, as content, organization, and interpersonal positioning. The metafunctions are represented together with selected language features typically associated with each.

Figure 1

SFL and Compatible Metalanguage Across the Recontextualized Metafunctions

In my teaching, I highlight two SFL-inspired teaching tools that help scaffold students’ text analysis skills: the Spoken-to-Written continuum and the Academic Register Framework.

Spoken-to-Written Continuum

An effective way to draw students’ attention to the impact linguistic choices have on meaning is by comparing their use across different text types on the same topic. For example, we demonstrate how a phenomenon is represented in a research article compared to a blog or a textbook. We compare such texts by mapping them onto the Spoken-to-Written continuum (Eggins, 2004), shown in Figure 2. We discuss which linguistic features are more prominent in each text; what their effect is on content, interpersonal positioning, and organization meanings; and, as a result, which one sounds more written-like or spoken-like. These analysis tasks support students’ developing awareness of how language is linked to context and how linguistic variations across the three metafunctions (i.e., content, interpersonal positioning, and organization) impact the meaning of each text.

Figure 2

Working with the Spoken-to-Written Continuum

Academic Register Framework

To further scaffold the students’ textual analysis skills, my colleagues and I developed a customized frame of reference for discourse analysis, which we refer to as the Academic Register Framework (ARF; further details in Martin et al., in preparation). The framework is informed by the SFL concepts taught in semester one, the Spoken-to-Written continuum, the notion of register, and other register framework models in the literature (see Gebhard, 2019, p. 31). Its organization follows the three recontextualized metafunctions - content, interpersonal positioning and organization - imagined along a continuum: only content is shown in Figure 3. The bullet points represent the language patterns typically associated with ‘less academic’ and ‘more academic’ writing and, in bold, some of the effects these features have on the text. Together with the notion of genre, the ARF helps students further relate their findings to the audience and purpose of a text.

Figure 3

Academic Register Framework: Content

Student-written Example

In Semester 2, students conduct discourse analysis of two science texts from distinct genres and produce a research report (IMRaD) of about 1,500 words. Figure 4 shows an excerpt from a student’s Discussion section. The student examined the use of nominalization in academic and non-academic writing through a comparative discourse analysis of research articles and popular scientific news. Selecting short paragraphs from the introductory stages of each text, the student used a word frequency approach to carry out the analysis. The excerpt in Figure 4 shows how functional grammar helped the student develop the strategies to unpack disciplinary texts effectively (emphasis in blue and underlining throughout the text are mine).

Figure 4

Student-written Example

By using the adverbs ‘surprisingly’ and ‘only’ to discuss results that did not quite match their hypothesis, the excerpt suggests the student had an already formed expectation of the frequency of nominalizations in academic texts (see Figure 3). To explore the surprising findings, the student pursued the analysis beyond word frequency and examined the meaning of the words. They identified ‘common’ (student’s own label) and ‘specialized’ nominalizations. The student demonstrates a heightened awareness of variations between different levels of abstractionsome more valued in academic settings. By pointing to the repetitive style of non-academic writing, they hint at the cognitive load it implies for its non-specialist audience. Building on their knowledge of SFL and drawing on the ARF, the student was able to engage in deep sophisticated analysis and understanding of academic writing.

Sandra’s Graduate TESL Class

My graduate course seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice in teaching EAP. Students taking this course are typically completing either master or doctoral studies in TESL, and many of them are in-service teachers. A key learning outcome is to gain a firm understanding about several related topics. These include integrating language and content instruction; approaching and analyzing academic language from a functional perspective; and exploring how, as educators, we might draw on and utilize the meaning-making ways learners bring to the classroom.

We begin the course by questioning our ways of thinking about language, challenging the notion that language is merely a conduit of information, and instead viewing it as a resource for meaning-making. We refer to the Spoken-to-Written continuum (see Figure 2) as a heuristic that helps us understand the range of possibilities language users have to produce texts according to the situations in which they are embedded. We delve into the notion of register and use it as a framework to gain awareness of how texts simultaneously construe three kinds of meanings. We read and discuss how, as a language theory, SFL offers a handy toolkit to uncover all sorts of meanings in texts. For instance, we analyze how information order in a sentence impacts what gets emphasized and how this further shapes the meaning of the text. We learn about the system of transitivity, which allows us to answer questions such as, who is participating in this text (participants), what is happening (processes), and in what circumstances. We discuss how analyzing texts for their patterns of participants, processes, and circumstances is useful for text comprehension. To facilitate making connections between theory (what we read and discuss) and practice (how we apply it to concrete teaching situations), we engage in various mini-application tasks. These activities also scaffold the completion of assignments for this course, which offer more structured and cognitively demanding opportunities to connect theory into practice. One such example is the short text analysis assignment described below.

Text Analysis Assignment

Engaging in the analysis of a short text gives my graduate TESL students an opportunity to put into practice some of the recently developed knowledge about SFL tools to make more informed decisions about teaching material choices, such as what reading texts to use with their EAP students. We discuss how analyzing texts can be challenging, yet it is through this kind of activity that one can become more conscious of the aspects of a text one needs to focus on during instruction or even whether a particular text is suitable for instruction at all.

The assignment involves

1. selecting a text from a disciplinary textbook (e.g., biology, physics, anthropology, sociology, etc.) that my students would use with EAP learners. The text should be around 500 words (to keep the analysis manageable), and it should be a complete text, not be part of a text (otherwise analyzing genre structure is not possible).

2. analyzing the text for its overall genre and particular register features.

I provide my students with detailed instructions, including a framework and examples of the types of analyses they are expected to perform. In addition, the mini-analyses tasks done throughout our class also contribute as models for how to approach such analysis in a bigger text. Figure 5 is an extract from a text analysis task completed by one of my students. The extract illustrates how, using SFL tools for text analysis, they were able to identify patterns of participants (e.g., types of nouns such as concrete vs. abstract) in a biology text. In addition, the extract illustrates how the language features and structures chosen (e.g., large noun groups and nominalized forms) contributed to construing the academic tone of this particular text. The analysis also includes the student’s evaluation about the suitability of the text for a first-year university audience.

Figure 5

Sample Graduate Student Analysis of Participants in a Biology Text

The next example, Figure 6, illustrates another student’s analysis of interpersonal aspects in a short text about feminist anthropology selected from an anthropology textbook for undergraduate studies.

Figure 6

Sample Graduate Student Analysis of Interpersonal Positioning Features

The analyses demonstrated in Figures 5 and 6 reveal that the graduate TESL students were able to identify, describe and in some cases also explain the reason why certain choices were made in the texts they selected. Through this kind of analysis, the students also demonstrated how they were able to apply their recently developed SFL toolkit to explain how particular choices of form contributed to creating specific meanings. Students’ reflections on this assignment suggest that they find this type of analysis beneficial for their professional development: “This has been an excellent exercise in textbook analysis. (…) I learned a lot from the two chapters we used to guide our analysis, and I would definitely use these chapters to develop instructional materials for text analysis for students in EAP programs.” Another student highlighted that engaging in the text analysis made her realize that “instead of choosing several general texts to teach different features to ELLs, it is better to select a single text to teach several aspects of a language, and thus encourage the learners to get intensively engaged with the text.” Students are also often surprised when they realize that a carefully selected text can be a wonderful resource to support language learners’ development and that engaging their students in some form of analysis will also make them critical thinkers.

Concluding Thoughts

In EAP contexts, learners are expected to develop the kind of academic language valued in their respective disciplines. The linguistic features that ‘make a text sound academic’ vary greatly across disciplines and within disciplines (e.g., a chemistry lab report vs. a research article). To uncover the linguistic patterns and organization typically associated with disciplinary genres, analysis of disciplinary texts is, then, a central aspect in EAP. The examples from our teaching demonstrate that answering the common question “What makes a text sound academic?” goes well beyond the typical underdeveloped answer of “formal language choices make texts sound academic.” We showed that SFL is indeed a robust linguistic framework that equips instructors and students to engage in detailed, insightful analysis of texts and to answer questions they would not have been able to answer before. These are orientations to language and analysis skills that students can transfer beyond the EAP class, in academic and professional settings, empowering learners to engage in communication as critical language users.


Butt, D., Fahey, R., Feez, S., & Spinks, S. (2012). Using functional grammar: An explorer’s guide (3rd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Coffin, C., Donohue, J., & North, S. (2009). Exploring English grammar: From formal to functional (1st ed.). Routledge.

Eggins, S. (2004). An introduction to systemic functional linguistics (2nd ed.). Continuum.

Gebhard, M. (2019). Teaching and researching ELLs’ disciplinary literacies: Systemic functional linguistics in action in the context of U.S. school reform (1st ed.). Routledge.

Martin, J. L., Perris, G., Shoecraft, K. (in preparation.) Academic Register Framework.

Greta Perris is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include language socialization and SFL- and genre-informed teaching and learning in EAP contexts.

Sandra Zappa-Hollman is Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on academic discourse socialization, integrated language and content instruction, and functional approaches to language pedagogy.
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