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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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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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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