Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Using Functional Grammar to Teach Academic Literacy Skills to Adults with Language-Related Learning Difficulties

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Using Functional Grammar to Teach Academic Literacy Skills to Adults with Language-Related Learning Difficulties

Article excerpt

Introduction

The particular Functional Grammar referred to in the program in this study is Systemic Functional linguistics (SFL), which has great potential for teaching writing skills to adults with language-related learning difficulties. The present study aims to show that teaching fundamental semantic and grammatical strategies to a student with language-related learning difficulties will assist the ease and effectiveness of teaching textual skills necessary for the writing skills required for university level essay writing.

The program evolved over time and I have since used it with students other than the student referred to in this study. I have drawn heavily on the work of Halliday (1994), Derewianka (1998) and Butt, Fahey, Feez, Spinks, and Yallop (2000) for the development of the program. My own contribution is the use of tangible teaching materials in a very structured, yet flexible, approach.

The aim of this approach is not to teach students to be linguists, but to improve their overall confidence and competence in both writing and reading. For writing the aim is to give them linguistically-based strategies to approach a writing task, and for reading the aim is to enable them to unpack a complex piece of writing with reasonable accuracy; that is, to be able to read for meaning. Therefore the emphasis is on strategies that can be used for working something out. Before describing the case study and the program, I will present a brief overview of how SFL conceptualises language.

Systemic Functional Linguistics

SFL takes a functional approach to language and views functions as being 'built in to language as the fundamental organising principle of the linguistic system' (Halliday, 1981, p. 33). From the perspective of SFL, the primary organising principle of the resources of the language system is choice. That is, linguistic resources are viewed from the point of view of what options or choices are available for realising meanings. Grammatical organisation is viewed as being a secondary organising principle, in that structural specifications realise the options in the system. The emphasis on meaning rather than on grammar alone in the current program reflects these underlying organising principles.

Halliday (1978; also in Halliday & Hasan, 1985) asserts that there is a systematic relationship between the social environment in which language occurs and the functional organisation of the linguistic system itself. As Matthiessen (1995, p. 33) puts it: 'context determines systems in language; but it is also construed by them'. Halliday postulates a simple framework in which to conceptualise the context of situation, that is, the immediate environment in which a particular instance of language is actually occurring, namely the field (what is happening), tenor (who is taking part) and mode (role assigned to language) of discourse. To illustrate the immediate environment in which a particular instance of language occurs, I will describe the field, tenor and mode for a tertiary level Social Science essay, as this is type of text analysed in the present study. (See Table 1.)

The three aspects of context of situation influence our language choices because they reflect the main functions of language. Halliday (1973) proposes three major underlying functional components of language which he called metafunctions: ideational, interpersonal and textual, which operate simultaneously. The first two reflect the two basic purposes of language, namely 'to understand the environment' or in Matthiessen's terms 'the construal of experience' (1995, p. 3) and secondly 'to act on the others in it' or again in Matthiessen's terms 'the enactment of roles and relations' (1995, p. 3). Field and tenor, respectively, are expressed through these metafunctions. The third metafunctional component, the textual, 'breathes relevance into the other two' (Halliday, 1994, p. …

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