SFL and Foreign Language Teaching: Possibilities

Systemic Functional Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching - Anne McCabe

Anne McCabe [+-]
Saint Louis University
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Anne McCabe is a faculty member of the English Department at Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus, Spain, where she teaches linguistics, ESL and writing pedagogy to undergraduate and graduate students. She has published widely on application of Systemic Functional Linguistics to analysis of educational and media texts including An Introduction to Linguistics and Language Studies (Equinox).


Heidi Byrnes (2009: 5) explains that the SFL perspective on “learning ‘the grammar’ of a language is not about learning to adhere to rules, but learning to turn experience and human existence into meaning by using the resources that the grammar of a particular language makes available”. What it means to teach grammar as resource has been clearly modelled through genre-based pedagogy, moving from higher stratas (encompassing genres and registers) to lower ones (lexicogrammar and phonology). However, foreign language teaching has long been dominated by movement from the opposite direction, where more ‘traditional’ approaches to grammar descriptions are in the fore. Burns and Knox (2005: 256) suggest that SFL “is still very much in its infancy” in English foreign language teaching, where “considerable tensions exist for language teachers wanting to use SFL when institutional requirements, course material and textbooks, and student expectations are primarily based on dominant traditional grammatical frameworks”. As Derewianka and Jones (2010: 10) explain “[w]hile traditional grammar is familiar, SFG [systemic functional grammar] requires a different way of thinking about language”. Halliday himself recognized the difficulty of the endeavour, in this case referring to the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language: linguistics does not yet offer, at this time, the help that is really needed. It is nearly a hundred years since Edward Sapir observed that every language had “a certain cut”, its unique blend of semantic, lexicogrammatical and phonological styles, and its “characterology” in Prague School terms. We ought to be able to model this for teachers, but as yet we can’t. It is highly complex and highly abstract – the semiotic analogue of the interlocking material forces of a very sophisticated machine, a musical instrument, or a species of living organism – the essential catness of a cat, for example (Halliday, 2014: 5). This chapter explores the possibilities of using systemic functional grammar as a basis for teaching foreign languages by drawing on the material presented in the first four chapters, providing recommendations for further research and theoretical considerations.

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McCabe, Anne. SFL and Foreign Language Teaching: Possibilities. Systemic Functional Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Sep 2025. ISBN 9781000000000. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=42811. Date accessed: 15 Jun 2024 doi: 10.1558/equinox.42811. Sep 2025

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