RESOURCES

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

Part 2: Systemic Functional Linguistics and a Meaning-Making Perspective of Language

 

Part 1 built on the topic of creating learning contexts in schools that provide high challenge and high support for English Learners. Part 2 focuses more squarely on Michael Halliday’s theory of systemic functional linguistics (SFL), a meaning-making perspective for conceptualizing language, and the differences between everyday literacy practices and more discipline-specific ones. Parts 1 and 2 will prepare you to explore how you can put Halliday’s theories into practice in Part 3.
 

As you work through Part 2, keep the following guiding questions in mind:
 

  • What are some of the differences between everyday and disciplinary literacy practices?
     

  • What is grammar? What is a meaning-making perspective of grammar as described by Halliday’s theory of SFL?
     

  • How have researchers and teacher educators used SFL to teach challenging disciplinary ? A genre is a type of text that fulfills a specific purpose (e.g., tells a story, supports an argument, compares diverse versions of the same event), and because of this purpose, a text in a particular genre has an expected organizational structure that distinguishes it from other types of texts that have other purposes (e.g., personal narratives, science reports, historical arguments, political arguments).
     

  • How have researchers and educators used SFL to teach challenging disciplinary registers? Register refers to a sentence- or clause-level language choice, such as choosing a technical term (e.g., subtract as opposed to take away) and the use of passive constructions (e.g., the difference is determined by subtracting the two decimals).
     

To explore these questions, you will explore and discuss the differences between everyday and disciplinary discourses, and watch and discuss a video that introduces SFL and a meaning-making perspective of language. You will facilitate your individual and group work by using talking-to-learn practices and recording key ideas in note catchers.

 

Activity 2.1: Develop an understanding of the difference between everyday and discipline-specific meaning-making practices

Participants will: engage in comparing two texts (outside of class)

Duration: 10 minutes

​Directions

  • Individually, compare and contrast two texts produced in an upper elementary school. These texts come from a unit focusing on the scientific method and the genre of a science report.

Activity 1.8 Note Catcher

Text 1: “Ava’s” text

Text 2: “Meg’s” text

We chewed gum and then blew bubbles. [Ava points to a bubble on the paper.] Look! . . . Like, Trident is really great and, like, we blew the biggest bubble with that. So that’s what we did. And it’s so cool we got to have gum in school!

As illustrated in the graph, the data show that Trident chewing gum produced the largest bubbles in this experiment. These results were unexpected because we hypothesized that the brand of gum would not be a factor in the size of the bubble we blew.

Source: Gebhard, M., & Blaisdell, N. (in press). Halliday’s SFL in the classroom: A critical perspective. In T. Rogers & D. Yaden (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (4th ed.). Elsevier.

This example comes from an elementary classroom in which students were required to conduct an experiment as a way of developing an understanding of the scientific method. One group of 4th grade students, five girls, decided to test which brand of bubble gum would enable them to blow the biggest bubble. After buying packages of Bubble Yum, Bazooka, and Trident bubble gum, the girls developed a procedure for chewing the gum for so many seconds, blowing bubbles, and then placing their bubbles on pieces of paper. They then measured the diameter of each bubble and recorded the data in a table.
 

Their next task was to write a laboratory report on a poster for a science fair open house. In explaining their impressive research design, Ava explained their project orally (Text 1). Meg asked her to consider how scientists, using the language of the scientific method, might describe the same experience. Meg offered an example (Text 2). Ava’s response was to laugh out loud and declare, “I’m not talking like that! What do you think I am — a geek?!”
 

This short interaction reveals how different meaning-making choices in the form of gestures, graphs, words, and grammatical patterns reflect different ways of
 

  • constructing ideas and experiences;

  • enacting voice, identity, and relationship with others; and

  • managing the flow of extended discourse when communicating for a specific purpose and audience.
     

Ava’s response to Meg’s suggestions for revision indicates that she had an awareness of how language choices function, especially regarding issues of identity, given that she was not willing to speak like someone she characterized as “a geek.” And perhaps she had a point. As a 4th grader, her group’s ability to design a very clever experiment met age-appropriate expectations regarding developing a beginning understanding of the scientific method.
 

However, many essential questions remain:
 

  • How can teachers prepare all students to read, write, and critique increasingly technical texts as they transition from elementary to secondary school?

  • How can teachers prepare students to become generators of knowledge in a rapidly changing social, economic, and political world?

  • How can teachers teach disciplinary literacies in ways that draw on students’ multilingual resources in culturally sustaining ways?

Activity 2.2: Note the differences between two texts from an upper elementary science class

Participants will: engage in individual reading and taking notes (outside class

Duration: 30 minutes

Video: Chapter 2 of Teaching and Researching ELLs’ Disciplinary Literacy Practices (Gebhard, 2019), with a focus on pages 30–33 and Table 2.1

In this activity you will read and take notes to explore the differences between everyday ways of making sense of phenomenon and more discipline-specific ways associated with the scientific method.

Directions

  • Use the Activity 2.2 note catcher to record notes regarding the following questions:

    • Describe Ava’s use of language and multimodal resources in Text 1.

      • How does she construct ideas or the content of her text?

      • How does she construct her voice and enact interpersonal dynamics with her audience?

      • How does she manage the flow of information across several sentences?

      • How does she use multimodal resources?

    • Describe Meg’s use of language and multimodal resources in Text 2.

      • How does she construct ideas or the content of her text?

      • How does she construct her voice and enact interpersonal dynamics with her audience?

      • How does she manage the flow of information across several sentences?

      • How does she use multimodal resources?
         

  • Skim Chapter 2 of Teaching and Researching ELLs’ Disciplinary Literacy Practices (Gebhard, 2019), with a focus on pages 30–33 and Table 2.1. Based on your reading, add additional notes to the Activity 2.2 note catcher regarding the differences between Text 1 and Text 2.

Activity 2.2 Note Catcher

Text 1: Ava’s text

We chewed gum and then blew bubbles. [Ava points to a bubble on the paper.] Look! . . . Like, Trident is really great and, like, we blew the biggest bubble with that. So that’s what we did. And it’s so cool we got to have gum in school!

Prompt

Notes

How does she construct ideas or the content of her text?

How does she construct her voice and enact interpersonal dynamics with her audience?

How does she manage the flow of information across several sentences?

How does she use multimodal resources?

Text 2: Meg’s text

As illustrated in the graph, the data show that Trident chewing gum produced the largest bubbles in this experiment. These results were unexpected because we hypothesized that the brand of gum would not be a factor in the size of the bubble we blew.

Prompt

Notes

How does she construct ideas or the content of her text?

How does she construct her voice and enact interpersonal dynamics with her audience?

How does she manage the flow of information across several sentences?

How does she use multimodal resources?

After the group discussion in Activity 2.3, add any new topics and ideas you would like to keep track of.

Activity 2.3: Discuss the differences between everyday and disciplinary discourses

Participants will: engage in small group discussion

Duration: 20 minutes

​Directions

  • In groups of 3–4, share and discuss the notes you took in Activity 2.2 regarding the differences between Texts 1 and 2.
     

  • Use the add/agree/disagree/pass participation structure to guide your discussion and to practice using Hammond’s talking-to-learn principles.
     

  • As new topics are discussed, add them to your Activity 2.2 note catcher.

Some possible responses

Ava’s text recounts a set of events by using predominantly a subject-verb-object pattern. A recount is a common genre used in and outside of school. Beginning with the pronoun we, her point of departure was herself and her group. In constructing their experiences orally, Ava used we as well as concrete words such as gum and bubble to convey what her group did, using verbs in the past tense to express everyday activities (e.g., chewed, blew). Regarding voice, she made linguistic choices that conveyed excitement and investment in this project as an engaged student to an adult she most likely positioned in a teacher role (e.g., look, really great, so cool). She also managed the flow of information by repeating keywords to stay on topic and build information over several sentences. Last, regarding managing the flow of her talk, she used oral discourse markers such as like and so to connect ideas in an additive fashion.

Meg’s text, about the very same events, used language and other meaning-making systems, such as a graph, to construct a more scientific and technical explanation, a genre typically used in school and in the workplace. For example, in explaining the results of the experiment empirically, Meg began with a focus on the data displayed in the graph to make the data and not a human actor the “doer,” or agent, in the sentence (As illustrated in the graph, the data show that Trident chewing gum produced the largest bubbles in this experiment). This distinction is important because a central premise of the scientific method is close observation and letting the data speak for itself, which theoretically leads to less human bias. Meg’s verb choices (e.g., show, hypothesized) also convey a more empirical, as opposed to personal, experience, as do the use of abstract nouns such as experiment and results.

Moreover, Meg’s sentence patterns are more varied and longer than the simple subject-verb-object patterns found in Ava’s text. For example, scientific discourse at the secondary level, in college, and in the workplace typically packs more information into sentences by using adjectives in longer noun groups and by using prepositional phrases (e.g., the largest bubbles in this experiment). Meg’s text also packs more information into a single sentence by using subordinating clauses beginning with that. Regarding voice, aspects of identity, and the relationship between interlocutors, Meg’s text is more formal and neutral in ways that construct greater social distance and authority rather than excitement and personal investment (e.g., these results were unexpected). Last, regarding managing the flow of information, Meg selected the conjunction because to explain rather than stringing ideas together using and.

 

Source: Gebhard, M., & Blaisdell, N. (in press). Halliday’s SFL in the classroom: A critical perspective. In T. Rogers & D. Yaden (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (4th ed.). Elsevier.

Activity 2.4: Brainstorm your associations with the word grammar

Participants will: engage in brainstorming and reflection (outside of class)

Duration: 10 minutes

​Directions

  • Individually, brainstorm words you associate with the word grammar. Use the Activity 2.4 note catcher to record your thoughts.
     

  • Describe how you were taught grammar when you were learning your home language or an additional language. What do you remember?
     

  • How effective was this approach in teaching you to read, write, and discuss challenging extended texts?
     

  • What do you think a meaning-making perspective of grammar is?

Activity 2.4 Note Catcher

Prompt

Notes

Individually, brainstorm words you associate with the word grammar.

Describe how you were taught grammar when you were learning your home language or an additional language. What do you remember?

How effective was this approach in teaching you to read, write, and discuss challenging extended texts?

What do you think a meaning-making perspective of grammar is?

After the group discussion in Activity 2.5, add any new topics and ideas you would like to keep track of.

Activity 2.5: Discuss your conception of grammar

Participants will: engage in small group discussion

Duration: 20 minutes

​Directions

  • In groups of 3–4, share and discuss the notes you took in Activity 2.4 regarding your associations with the word grammar.
     

  • Use the add/agree/disagree/pass participation structure to guide your discussion and to practice using Hammond’s talking-to-learn principles.
     

  • As new topics are discussed, add them to your Activity 2.4 note catcher.

Some possible responses

  • When I think of the word I think of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and things like that — I am not sure what they have to do with teaching math.
    — “Hunter Reed,” pre-service secondary math teacher

     

  • When I learned Spanish in middle and high school, I had to memorize a lot of vocabulary and grammar rules. I got mostly As, but I still can’t speak it or really use it, even after studying it for years.
    — “Peter Green,” pre-service secondary science teacher

     

  • It really bugs me when people have bad grammar. We need to get back to the basics and learn proper English.
    — “George Williams,” pre-service secondary history teacher

     

  • I think grammar is waste of time. I never was taught grammar, and I have always loved reading and writing. If anything, I think it gets in the way of me communicating and being creative.
    — “Alexandra Costa,” pre-service secondary English language arts teacher

 

Changing conceptions of grammar in education

Historically, the teaching and learning of grammar in schools has taken different forms:
 

Traditional perspective. This approach teaches parts of speech (e.g., noun, verb, preposition, adjective, adverb) and prescriptive rules (e.g., don’t split an infinitive, don’t end a sentence with a preposition). This approach has given grammar a bad name because it imposes arbitrary rules that people don’t follow and discriminates against varieties of world languages.

Behavioral perspective. This approach focuses on drilling and practicing linguistic forms, beginning with the teaching of speaking and listening and, later, reading and writing. The focus of instruction is typically on isolated grammatical forms, not meaning.

Psycholinguistic perspective. This approach focuses on natural communication based on the assumption that first- and second-language acquisition follow more or less the same processes because humans are innately endowed with the capacity to acquire the grammatical structures of all languages. From this perspective, grammatical competence develops in stages, following the rules governing all languages. Therefore, teachers are encouraged to focus on authentic communication and provide ample linguistic input, output, and feedback to cognitive language centers. Teachers are often encouraged to avoid explicit grammar instruction.

Functional or meaning-making perspective. This approach suggests oral and written languages, as well as other nonverbal and computer-mediated systems, have evolved over time to perform different functions in response to the social context in which they are used and learned at home, at school, at work, and in different communities. This perspective suggests learners need access to specific ways of using language and other meaning-making systems if they are to develop them. They also need teachers to provide models, explicit instructions, and opportunities for critical reflection regarding meaning-making choices in context.

Source: Gebhard, M. (2019). Teaching and researching ELLs’ disciplinary literacies: Systemic functional linguistics in action in the context of U.S. school reform (p. 44). Routledge.

Activity 2.6: Develop an understanding of a meaning-making perspective of grammatical resources in context

Participants will: engage in watching a video and taking notes (outside of class)

Duration: 1 hour

Video: A Meaning-Oriented Model of Language for the Classroom

In this activity you will watch and take notes on a video regarding Halliday’s theory of systemic functional linguistics (SFL) as presented by Beverly Derewianka in her conversation with Aída Walqui.

Directions

  • Individually, watch the first half (00:00–22:30) of Aída Walqui’s conversation with Beverly Derewianka, Professor Emeritus from the University of Wollongong, Australia.
     

  • After you have watched the video once, watch it again. This time, use the Activity 2.6 note catcher to take notes regarding the development of a meaning-making perspective of language based on Halliday’s theory of SFL. Focus on the following main ideas:

    • the role of choice in meaning-making;

    • the role of context in Halliday’s model of language;

    • genres (e.g., recounts, narratives, descriptions, reports, explanations, arguments) and their functions in context, and then patterns in their parts (e.g., organizational structures, sentences, clauses, words, word parts, sounds); and

    • the three major functions of language and other meaning-making resources:

      • to construct ideas and experiences (the ideational function),

      • to interact with others and enact social roles (the interpersonal function), and

      • to manage the flow of an oral, written, or multimodal text (the textual function).

Activity 2.6 Note Catcher

Prompt

Notes

The role of choice in meaning-making

The role of context in Halliday’s model of language

Genres (e.g., recounts, narratives, descriptions, reports, explanations, arguments) and their functions in context, and then patterns in their parts (e.g., organizational structures, sentences, clauses, words, word parts, sounds)

The three major functions of language and other meaning-making resources:

  • to construct ideas and experiences (the ideational function),

  • to interact with others and enact social roles (the interpersonal function), and

  • to manage the flow of an oral, written, or multimodal text (the textual function).

If you skim Chapters 1 and 2 of Teaching and Researching ELLs’ Disciplinary Literacies (Gebhard, 2019), add any new topics and ideas you would like to keep track of.

After the group discussion in Activity 2.7, add any new topics and ideas you would like to keep track of.

Additional reading

Skim Chapters 1 and 2 of Teaching and Researching ELLs’ Disciplinary Literacies (Gebhard, 2019) and add additional definitions and reactions to your notes for this activity.


Activity 2.7: Discuss Derewianka’s explanation of a meaning-making perspective of language

Participants will: engage in small group discussion

Duration: 30 minutes

​Directions

  • In groups of 3–4, share and discuss the notes you took in Activity 2.6 regarding Derewianka’s explanation of a meaning-making perspective of language.
     

  • Use the add/agree/disagree/pass participation structure to guide your discussion and to practice using Hammond’s talking-to-learn principles.
     

  • As new topics are discussed, add them to the Activity 2.6 note catcher.

Some concluding thoughts regarding SFL

  • All three functions of language — the ideational, interpersonal, and textual — operate simultaneously in oral, written, and multimodal texts (e.g., Derewianka & Jones, 2016).
     

  • All sociolinguistic practices, including oral, written, multimodal, and multilingual texts, are highly complex, but they are complex in different ways (e.g., Gebhard, 2019).
     

  • Multilingualism and varieties of national languages are valuable meaning-making resources, not deficits to overcome (Baker-Bell, 2020; García & Wei, 2014; Gebhard, 2019).
     

  • Students need access and scaffolding to learn to read, write, and critique disciplinary discourses. No one learns to read, write, and talk like a scientist, mathematician, historian, or literary critic at home. This happens in school over time.
     

  • The linguistic choices language users make and others attend to, consciously and unconsciously, reflect the social, political, and historical context in which we have been socialized and in which communication takes place. Therefore, teachers and students should critically examine their ideological beliefs around language variation and deficit assumptions regarding what counts as “proper,” “correct,” or “cognitively demanding” language. For example, regarding translanguaging, see Ofelia García’s conversation with Aída Walqui; regarding African American English, see Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy by April Baker-Bell (2020); and for a discussion of raciolinguistics in general, see the article “Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education” by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (2015).
     

  • Teachers can guide students in reflecting critically on the linguistic choices speakers and writers, including themselves, make in relation to their purposes, audiences, and the political contexts in which communication takes place. In this respect, SFL practices can support teachers and students in developing a critical awareness of language (e.g., Gebhard & Graham, 2018; Harman, 2018). However, this awareness alone is not enough to change long-standing inequities (Luke, 2018). More sustained action is needed at the institutional level, as made clear by Celine’s editorial (Gebhard, 2019).

Additional reading

  • Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching language in context. Oxford University Press.
     

  • Gebhard, M. (2019). Teaching and Researching ELLs’ Disciplinary Literacy Development. See Chapters 4 and 5 for a detailed discussion of genres, registers, and the use of the teaching and learning cycle in US K–12 schools.