Systemic functional linguistics in the Australian Curriculum: English

The Australian Curriculum: English (AC:E) combines traditional Latin-based grammar with Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) theory. The syllabus-supporting material refers to traditional grammar as ‘standard grammatical terminology’, and to SFL as its ‘contextual framework’. Functional grammar is introduced across all three English strands Language, Literature and Literacy starting in the Foundation year. However, the curriculum language and terminology does not always make this explicit (Exley, 2016). This is because a conscious attempt was made to write content descriptors that ‘describe the knowledge, understanding, skills and processes that teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn’ in a metalanguage readily accessible to all teachers.

This post assesses the relevance of the functional model of language (SFL) across all 237 AC:E content descriptors for primary schools (Foundation to Year 6). The analysis is based on AC:E (v8.1) content descriptors and elaborations that are thematically grouped by year level, English strand and sub-strand by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The ‘English: Sequence of content‘ document is annotated using three levels of SFL relevance:

  1. not applicable (red)
  2. somewhat applicable (orange)
  3. very applicable (green).

Here are some examples for how SFL terminology has been translated in the Australian Curriculum (Derewianka, 2012; Exley, 2016):

The Register of language is described in the following words:

  • Field – ‘topics at hand
  • Tenor – ‘relationships between the language users
  • Mode – ‘modalities or channels of communication

Metafunctions of language are specifically addressed in the following Language sub-strands:

  • Expressing and developing ideas unpacks the functions of language, i.e. ideational, interpersonal and textual
  • Text structure and organisation unpacks the thematic structures of text, i.e. how to create coherent and cohesive texts
  • Language for interaction unpacks the ‘Mood system’ and ‘System of Appraisal’ of language (Martin & White, 2005), language functions that establish and maintain relationships, including expressing graduations in feelings, emotions, opinions and judgements (Tenor).

The examples for AC:E language relating to the ‘System of Appraisal’ analysing Attitude, Graduation and Engagement (Martin & White, 2005) are compiled by Beryl Exley (2016):

  • appreciating … the qualities of people’ (ACELA1462) – i.e. expressing ‘judgement’
  • evaluations of characters’ (ACELA1477) – i.e. expressing ‘judgement’
  • judgement about … events’ (ACELA1484) – i.e. expressing ‘appreciation’
  • exploring examples of language which demonstrate a range of … positions’ (ACELA1484)- i.e. expressing ‘appreciation’
  • feelings’ (ACELA1484, ACELA1518) – i.e. expressing ‘affect’
  • engages us emotionally’ (ACELT1606) – i.e. expressing ‘affect’ and ‘engagement’
  • empathy’ (ACELT1610, ACELY1698, ACELA1518) – i.e. expressing ‘affect’ and ‘engagement’
  • identifying the narrative voice’ (ACELT1610, ACELY1698) – i.e. expressing ‘focus’ and ‘engagement’
  • point/s of view’ and ‘viewpoints of others’ (ACELT1603, ACELT1609, ACELY1698, ACELA1518) – i.e. expressing ‘appreciation’
  • concern for their welfare’ (ACELA1518) – i.e. expressing ‘affect’
  • make connections between students’ own experiences and those of characters and events represented in texts’ (ACELT1613) – i.e. expressing ‘engagement’
  • attitudes we may develop towards characters’ (ACELT1613) – i.e. expressing ‘judgement’ and ‘engagement’
  • build emotional connection’ (ACELT1617) – i.e. expressing ‘affect’ and ‘engagement’

Statistical analysis of the 237 annotated AC:E primary school content descriptors (CD) highlights some interesting facts. Teaching and learning opportunities related to the functional model of language increase from Foundation (12 or 33% of all CD) to Year 6 (21 or 67% of all CD). Only half of all AC:E CD in the Foundation year have no links to SFL. This number is gradually reduced to just 13% in Year 6! A more detailed analysis of CD by English strand and sub-strands highlights that SFL teaching and learning is very applicable across all three strands: Language (47%), Literature (62%), and Literacy (44%). However, due to the large number of Language CD (49%), nearly half of all very applicable CD (47%) fall into the Language Strand.

Systematic functional linguistics relevance to Australian Curriculum (v8.1): English content descriptors

Systematic functional linguistics relevance to Australian Curriculum (v8.1): English content descriptors by English strand

Systematic functional linguistics relevance to Australian Curriculum (v8.1): English content descriptors by Sub-strands

The results suggest that SFL, in particular transitivity, system of appraisal, and genre writing approaches, plays a significant role in the teaching and learning of English at Australian primary schools. The functional model of language is particular important in the AC:E Language strand, most prominently in the sub-strands “Expressing and developing ideas“, “Text structure and organisation“, and “Language for interaction“. Beverly Derewianka (2012) explains that the new Language strand, designed to teach and learn specific knowledge about the English language, requires a robust, future-oriented, unifying model of language that can meaningfully link grammatical form with function from the level of discourse (genre) to individual phonemes. This is achieved through the introduction of SFL, as this functional model adequately describes how language is used in social contexts.


  • Derewianka, B. (2012). Knowledge about language in the Australian curriculum: English. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 35(2), 127-146.
  • Exley, B. (2016). Secret squirrel stuff in the Australian curriculum English: The genesis of the ‘new’ grammar. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 39(1), 74.
  • Martin, J.R. & White, P.R.R. (2005). The language of evaluation: Appraisal in English. London: Palgrave.

Very relevant AC:E content descriptors by year level:

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Functional grammar – Processes M&M poster

Linguistic transitivity explores how language is used to interpret and communicate our experience of the world around us. Our experience of reality is translated in terms of Processes. Michael Halliday, the father of  systematic functional linguistics, divided the transitivity process in into three components:

  1. the Process itself,
  2. the Participants in the process,
  3. and Circumstances associated with the Process.

As discussed in an earlier post that suggest a colour key for these components, Processes are generally realised by verbs and verbal groups. Processes define the kind of event being described, what is “going on”. They are generally the first thing to look for, when performing functional grammar analysis. This is because participants are identified by the Processes they are involved in.

Halliday differentiates six process types (1976). Leong Ping Alvin, in his blog posts on transitivity, developed a helpful mnemonic that is here applied and expanded into an “M&M VERB” poster as a teaching resource:

What do you see here? M&M talking (VERBalising) with each other – MMVERB

Here is a short description of the M&M VERBs. Examples can be brainstormed with the literacy learners and results compiled as a poster.

Processes Explanation Examples
Material process of doing (physical actions) give, take, write
Mental processes of perception, cognition, affection like, think, see
Verbal processes of communication say, explain, ask,
Existential processes signalled by there … exist, there is …
Relational processes of being and having  be, have, become
Behavioural  processes of human behaviour  laugh, cry, breathe 


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Montessori grammar symbols and colours

In researching the conventions in functional grammar colour-coding, I came across Montessori’s grammar pedagogy. Montessori associated geometric shapes and colours with the building blocks of traditional grammar creating semiotically-rich classroom manipulatives.

In 1923, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky created a questionnaire that asks participants to fill out three geometric shapes (triangle, square, circle) with one of three primary colours yellow, red and blue. While concerns can be raised about presenting the “correct” order of answers, the primary colour-geometry relationship that came out proved very influential and can be found in all of Kandinsky’s paintings.

Kandinsky’s questionnaire. 1923. Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recreated an online version of Kandinsky’s original questionnaire. This could be a great starting point and teaching and learning resource for getting student’s to think about colour-shape- and ultimately grammar associations.

Kandinsky’s student Monica Ullmann‐Broner took a step further in 1931 and associated additional “secondary” geometrical forms with secondary colours.

Monica Ullman-Broner’s secondary form-colour associations. 1931. Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin

Inspired by his contemporaries in Weimar, Maria Montessori designed objects to recontextualise formal grammar for pedagogic discourse. She came up with nine grammar symbols still used today in Montessori schools to represent “nine parts of speech” (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, article, pronoun, conjunction, preposition and interjection). Montessori further groups these into four “functional families” (‘noun family’ – noun, adjective, article, pronoun; ‘verb family’ -verb, adverb; ‘the servants’ – conjunction, preposition, and ‘special case’ – interjection). The system uses three variables: colour, shape and size. The resulting grammar symbols can be compiled into a chart. Differently-sized sets of grammar symbols can further be combined into advanced grammar symbols that facilitate semiotic discussion of more complex grammatical concepts.

Montessori ‘noun family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori ‘verb family, the servants, and special case’ grammar symbols (

Montessori advanced ‘noun family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori special ‘verb family’ grammar symbols (

Montessori advanced ‘verb family’ grammar symbols (

  • Verbs are depicted in red as circles or spheres. The verb is considered to be the central word (latin verbum) and to depict movement, actions, like a ball or the planets.
  • Nouns are depicted in black-blue as triangles or pyramids. The noun is considered stable like a pyramid. The pronoun is purple because it links the noun (blue-black) with the verb (red) (see Feez, 2007, p.361).
  • Modifiers reflect the shape and colour of their “parent element”, but are lighter in colours (blue for adjectives, orange for adverbs) and smaller in size.
  • Conjunctions are depicted as pink rectangles. The shape is considered to symbolise a hyphen.
  • Prepositions are depicted as green crescents. The shape is considered to symbolises a bridge.
  • Interjections are the special case, combining circle and square in golden colour.

It is fascinating to realise how much didactic thought Maria Montessori put into recontextualising abstract formal grammar into pedagogical manipulatives. One might ask why SFL did not adopt these semiotic colours in their transitivity system, making Processes red, Participants blue, and Circumstances … well I guess yellow/golden because they make situations special? However, as Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen conclude in their seminal analysis of colour as a semiotic mode: “Colour does what people do with it” (2002, p.350). So, perhaps it is then best to have children invest into their own grammar symbols and colours?


  • Feez, S. (2007). Montessori’s mediation of meaning: a social semiotic perspective. Learning to read with grammatics. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 312-366.
  • Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2002). Colour as a semiotic mode: notes for a grammar of colour. Visual communication, 1(3), 343-368.

Functional grammar Popplet

Popplet is an interactive app designed for the iPad and web browser and can be used by students to capture and organise ideas. Popplet offers an exciting information and communications technology (ICT) alternative to highlighting functional “chunk of meaning” as explored in previous print-based and kinesthetic activities.

In Popplet, the teacher can write a few sentences from children’s literature loved by the class (e.g. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, 1957) into boxes that differentiate the functional elements Participants, Attributes, Processes, and Circumstances.

Example of functional grammar Popplet task.

Next, the students on iPads or on the interactive white board are tasked to colour in the frames of the boxes (simple click) using the functional grammar colour key and to explain their choices.

Example of functional grammar Popplet completed task.

The original idea of using Popplet as an ICT approach for students to demonstrate understanding of functional grammar was developed by Krystal Laspas (2014). Krystal goes one step further by asking the students to look for “other words” that can replace those of individual boxes in linked black boxes. An alternative extension idea would be to allow students to change the original text, to ask them to make it more personal while remaining key features such as the rhymes.

Example of functional grammar Popplet extension activity.

Popplet is a great format for this extension activity. The words and phrases can be changed with a single click. At the end, the students are required to review any potential functional changes in their sentences. For example, the last part of the sentence has changed from “the winning-est winner” (Participant) “of all“(Circumstances) to “the most famous” (Attribute) “Australian” (Participant).

In reference to Luke (and Freebody’s) Four Resources Model (2000), this extension activity is designed to provide literacy learners with opportunities to progress from ‘code breakers’ and ‘text participants’ (semantic competence) to become ‘text users’ (pragmatic competence) and ‘text analysts’ (coding competence). In terms of the six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (Seely-Flint, Kitson, Lowe, & Shaw, 2014), the extension activity provides authentic opportunities for students to work with multi-modal texts and student-led inquiry by creating their own meaningful adaptations. In conclusion, the students are asked to work with functional grammar to express themselves.

Any Popplet can be shared by creating a link, by inviting collaborators. Popplets can be duplicated for groups of students to allow for simultaneous and individual work and assessment.


  • Dr. Seuss Enterprises. (1957). Oh, the places you’ll go! Random House Inc., New York.
  • Laspas, K. (2014). Using literature and applications to demonstrate understanding of functional grammar. Website
  • Luke, A. (2000). Critical literacy in Australia: A matter of context and standpoint. Journal of adolescent & adult literacy, 43(5), 448-461.
  • Seely-Flint, A., Kitson, L. A., Lowe, K., & Shaw, K. (2014). Literacy in Australia: Pedagogies for engagement. John Wiley & Sons.

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Six guiding principles for literacy education

Amy Seely-Flint, Lisbeth Kitson, Kaye Lowe and Kylie Shaw set out to define guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (2014). The authors take a broad perspective of literacy development in Australia, and conclude with Six Guiding Principles. These principles are used to categorise my blog entries, further complemented by Peter Freebody and Allan Luke’s Four Resources (Luke, 2000) and ACARA’s Six Language Modes (2017).

The six guiding principles are also a useful tool for evaluating the quality of literacy teaching and learning resources. They are therefore summarised below.

Six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century (adapted by author from Seely-Flint, Kitson, Lowe, & Shaw, 2014)

1. Literacy practices are socially and culturally constructed

Literacy practices are developed through social interaction in groups of readers and writers. Cultural and linguistic diversity in the classroom is approached as a valuable resource for exploring multi-faceted interpretations of texts. Literacy practices develop skills for social purposes, where situation and group-specific expectations define the genre (social purpose) and register (field, tenor, mode) of language.

2. Literacy practices are purposeful

Literacy practices serve meaningful purposes and goals, in particular the expression and connection of ideas, interaction with others, and writing of cohesive texts. Purposeful literacy practices are inclusive and responsive to literacy learners’ lives. Literacy at school is practiced in a cross-disciplinary context, as emphasised in the Australian Curriculum general capability ‘literacy’. Literacy is required to make meaning from diverse texts, in “reading to learn”. Literacy enables learning experiences beyond the immediate circumstances in which students live. Literacy is a practical skillset that greatly facilitates and enables the organisation and documentation of learning. Finally, literacy is used in communication and for entertainment.

3. Literacy practices contain ideologies and values

Literacy practices are influenced by social and cultural context and practices. They are based on and reflect different axiologies, ontologies and epistemologies. Responsive literacy teaching must acknowledge and build on the values, ideologies and beliefs of the school community. At the same time, critical literacy approaches can empower learners to become responsible global citizens by investigating identity, gender, social and political structures.

4. Literacy practices are learned through inquiry

Literacy practices are developed through student inquiry and problem-solving, where meaning is made from stimulus material and observations, through documentation, text analysis and synthesis. This approach is in alignment with the four-tiered approach to early reading instruction widely practised in Australian schools (Luke, 2000). While literacy learners inquire, student explorations are strategically guided by the teacher and syllabus in ways that expand their knowledge, understanding and skills.

5. Literacy practices invite readers and writers to use their background knowledge and cultural understandings to make sense of texts

Literacy learners bring different funds of knowledge and experience to school, upon which literacy practices draw and build on. Literacy practices must acknowledge the cultural capital of all learners to support them in their process of building on existing knowledge, and to facilitate their engagement with unfamiliar aspects and practices around literacy development.

6. Literacy practices expand to include everyday texts and multimodal texts

Literacy practices makes use of environmental and everyday texts, including visual, auditory and spatial modes, either standalone or in any possible combinations. In the twenty-first century, texts are increasingly digital and interactive in nature and require different literacy skills to print-based texts. Modern literacy practices therefore involves six language modes: listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts (ACARA, 2017).


Functional grammar Word People

Word People is a kinesthetic teaching and learning activity in which students act out sentence structures. The activity can be particularly popular with students who face difficulties in reading and writing. The original idea of acting out “human sentences” with colour-coded cards was developed to explore simple, compound, and complex sentence structures.

Word people activity exploring formal sentence structures

However, the activity can be easily adapted to functional elements in sentences using subject matter representations through Participants, Attributes, Processes, and Circumstances. Student groups of four could act out their “chunk of meaning”, while holding a colour-coded cards (see previous post for colour key).

This activity is particularly suitable for clauses with action processes, as illustrated by the (traditional grammar) example above. The performing students are encouraged to create their own sentences and think about action process they can easily act out. The audience is asked to guess the sentence.


  • Humphrey, S., Droga, L., & Feez, S. (2012). Grammar and meaning. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association Australia. (in particular pages 13-15)
  • Walter, J. (n.d.). “Word People”. Acting out sentence structure. Presentation

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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Functional grammar Silly Rainbow Sentences

Silly Rainbow Sentences is a common teaching and learning activity, where words or part of simple sentences are color coded. Students draw a full set of colour cards and align these according to the colours of the rainbow. They then write down the sentence and read it out loud. These sentences are syntactically correct, but semantically incorrect and often quite funny. Many examples and variations of this activity can be found on Pinterest.

The Silly Rainbow Sentences activity can be adapted to explore systemic functional properties and characteristics of language by using the colour-coded key for functional elements Participants, Attributes, Processes and Circumstances introduced in a previous post. A functional approach to Silly Rainbow Sentences works best if a particular language aspect or functions guides the construction of the original set of sentences.

For example, the topic could be clauses with relation processes. As part of a student-led investigation, the students are asked to write down their own set of sentences on coloured cards.

Original sentences written on colour-coded cards

The cards are collected, shuffled and distributed. The students create sentences following the same colour sequence, e.g.:

Functional Silly Rainbow Sentences

In some cases, the students will have to make informed decisions around verbs, singular and plural to create grammatically correct sentences (corrections in black).

This activity can be expanded by asking the student (or student groups) to trade cards in order to form semantically correct sentences. This promotes interaction and peer discussion, making the literacy activity socially more meaningful.

Further reading:

  • Exley, B., & Kervin, L. (2013). Playing with grammar in the early years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. (in particular Chapter 4, Colour coding: meanings in clauses)

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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Mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms

Students need opportunities to develop knowledge, understanding and skills of the functional and the formal nature of language. In a previous post, we explored the idea of introducing young learners to experiential functions of text through the systemic functional linguistics (SFL)  metalanguage of Processes, Participants, and Circumstances.

These “chunks of meaning” (Derewianka, 2011, p.55) correspond to traditional grammatical forms. For example, Participants (people, places, things) correspond to nouns, noun groups and pronouns. Processes (actions) correspond to verbs and verb groups. Surrounding Circumstances that detail the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ correspond to adverbs and adverbial groups. In a more advanced functional analysis, we can further differentiate Participant from its description, introducing the functional category of Attributes. Attributes take the form of adjectives and adjectival groups.

There are a lot of possible written text-based teaching and learning activities around mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms, some of which will be explored in coming posts (1, 2). However, these require some sort of legend or key. The following key is proposed, indicating traditional (mostly word-based) grammar forms by typographical emphasis (bold, italic, underline). This requires text formatting which can be performed by the teacher in advance. The functional elements, which often involve multiple words in a row, can be highlighted by the students using colours. This approach allows student to focus on mapping functional elements of language. At the same time, they are provided with an opportunity to develop an understanding of the formal nature of language.

Key for working with functional and formal grammar

Applied to the opening sentences of ‘The secret garden’, this would look like:

Mapping functional meaning and grammatical forms using typographical emphasis (teacher) and highlighting (students)

The developed key is an example for the practical implementation of a continuum in approaches to describing language. As proponents of functional grammar argue, it is important not to “abandon
traditional grammar but [… to] build on it” (Derewianka & Jones, 2010, p.10).


  • Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2010). From traditional grammar to functional grammar: Bridging the divide. NALDIC Quarterly, 8 (1), 6-17.
  • Derewianka, B. M. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers. Primary English Teaching Association Australia.
  • Hodgson Burnett, F. (1911). The secret garden. Project Gutenberg EBook.

Further reading:

  • Exley, B., & Kervin, L. (2013). Playing with grammar in the early years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. (in particular Chapter 4, Colour coding: meanings in clauses)

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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Experiential language functions through visual texts

In systemic functional linguistics (SFL), the first function of language is to express an Experience. An Experience can describe an event or state and is represented in texts in terms of Processes, Participants, and Circumstances.

A fantastic way to introduce young learners to experiential functions of text and the SFL metalanguage of Processes, Participants, and Circumstances is by analysing visual texts and asking the questions of:

  1. What can you see in the picture?
  2. Who or what are the main Participants? (Who is acting? Who is receiving? Who is perceiving?)
  3. What Processes are the Participants engaged in? (What actions? What interactions? What reactions?)
  4. What can you tell about the Circumstances? (When is …? Where is …? How is …? Why is …? With what is …?)

Images that illustrate well-loved narratives such as fairy tales make great resources for visual texts. However, this activity can also be used to compare functional linguistic choices of different genres and text types.

Little Red Riding Hood is talking to the bad wolf in the wood

Little Red Riding Hood is talking to the bad wolf in the wood

Further reading:

  • Humphrey, S., Droga, L., & Feez, S. (2012). Grammar and meaning. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association Australia. (in particular pages 13-15)

Relevance to Australian Curriculum content descriptors:

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