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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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.

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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