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Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners

Module 5 – Teaching and Learning Disciplinary Literacies at the Secondary Level: A Meaning-Making Perspective

By Meg Gebhard & Chalais Carter

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |    PART 3    |    REFERENCES



This module explores the challenges many multilingual    learners, often known as English Learners, face as they navigate public schooling and prepare for their futures. It will prepare you to set high expectations and provide high levels of scaffolding in order to enable them to read, write, and critique complex disciplinary texts at the secondary level while simultaneously maintaining a strong sense of the value of their linguistic and cultural resources in a multilingual world.

As a way of understanding and addressing these challenges, the module introduces a contextualized theory of language and other meaning-making resources, developed by Michael Halliday, called systemic functional linguistics (SFL). The SFL approach, originally developed in Australia to respond to inequities in Australian K–12 schools, supports learners in shifting their way of using language from the more everyday forms that are used in recounting events and telling stories to more discipline-specific forms that are essential for developing subject-matter knowledge at the secondary level in mathematics, the sciences, history, and language arts.


In Australia, researchers and teacher educators have developed an SFL-informed approach to designing curriculum and instruction, and teachers in Australia have used SFL to develop a deeper understanding of how disciplinary literacy practices work in order to be better prepared to design educational resources with an approach called the teaching and learning cycle (TLC). The work of Australian SFL scholars has been adapted in the United States by some educators  to support teachers and their students in negotiating the demands of various high-stakes school reforms from a critical perspective (e.g., English-only mandates, new standards, testing systems).

This module is based on a series of conversations Aída Walqui had in August 2020 with Jennifer Hammond, University of Technology, Sydney; Beverly Derewianka, University of Wollongong, Australia; and Meg Gebhard, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In these conversations, these scholars explain what SFL is and discuss the potential of SFL-informed pedagogy. Hammond and Derewianka discuss how Australian researchers and educators developed their SFL-informed approach and use the TLC. Gebhard discusses the US adaptation of the work of Australian SFL scholars. Drawing on all three of these conversations, this module introduces SFL concepts and the Teaching and Learing Cycle.

The goal of this module is to equip you with explicit knowledge of how language and other meaning-making systems such as images, graphs, and equations work in the types of texts teachers routinely require their students to read, write, and critically discuss at the secondary level. This module also introduces you to an approach to designing curriculum, instruction, and assessments in ways that draw on students’ home language, culture, and interests as they prepare for their future. Specifically, this module will enable you to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the embedded contexts that shape the academic trajectories of English Learners? What are the characteristics of the community and institutional contexts in which you teach or are conducting fieldwork as part of earning your teaching credentials or completing your degree?

  2. How has grammar been conceptualized in the field of second-language learning? What is Halliday’s meaning-making perspective of language? How is this conception of grammar used in the TLC?

  3. How can you use the TLC to support English Learners’ disciplinary literacy development, an equity agenda, and your professional development?



    In line with Guadalupe Valdés’s conversation with Aída Walqui, the terms we use to talk about learners matter. We use the term multilingual to capture the languages and varieties of languages students use in valuable ways in and outside of school.

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