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ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 26 (January 2018)

Phil Chappell: An Introduction to Systemic Functional Grammar

ETAS Journal, Volume 30, Number 3, (Summer 2013), p. 24

Grammar- some people love it and some people hate it, others manage to understand it just enough to get by.

As language teachers, there is no way around it because our students expect us to be experts on all grammar points and be able to explain them in a way that everybody understands, not to mention the expectation that we have an inexhaustible mental list of examples to rattle off at a moment’s notice.

Phil Chappell reminds us about systemic functional grammar in his short, but potent article. Before exploring the history of systemic functional grammar or SFG, he gives a succinct definition which might bring back fond or nightmarish memories of detailed text analysis if you majored in applied linguistics. If not, the definition might spark interest in those yearning for another means to meet the needs of knowledge-hungry students.  

As Phil explains, SFG emphasises the meaning of language and looks at different layers to analyse that meaning. This type of analysis offers teachers and students greater insights into language and an alternative perspective on how we use words to portray our thoughts. If you and your students want to delve further into the meaning of a text, it is worth a try.

I recommend reading this article because I think everyone could benefit from remembering a forgotten or finding out about a new tool to use in the classroom. In addition to his reference, I would also suggest poking around on the International Systemic Functional Linguistics Association’s website:

Susanne Oswald

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

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An Introduction to Systemic Functional Grammar

By Phil Chappel

There is a lot of misunderstanding in the ELT community about functional grammar. I won’t go through these ideas in any detail here; the main thing I want to do in this paper is to show the usefulness of functional grammar for language teachers, no matter what kind of programme you  are teaching in, no matter what level your learners are, and no matter what methodology you subscribe to. So, what is functional grammar?

Defining Systemic Functional Grammar

Put simply, Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar based on the view that language is a system for making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language, we make choices from sets of available options. This is contrary to the traditional view of grammar as sets of rules. Functional assumes that every time we make a choice from the available options, we are doing so in order to fulfil a communicative purpose. And Grammar simply refers to the fact that there is an overall organisation to all of these possible options.

History of SFG in language teaching

Now, by itself, this brief explanation may not be revealing anything especially new for teachers who teach both form and function of language. Indeed, those who do may not know that these terms originated in the work of Michael Halliday, the founder of   SFG and whose work was pivotal for the early moves to Communicative Language Teaching. Michael Halliday’s work in linguistics was highly influential around the time that language teaching was starting to shift its emphasis on mastery of language structures to mastery of communicative competence. Halliday himself developed his interest in linguistics and grammar through language teaching, first by teaching Chinese to English speakers, and later on by teaching English and Russian to Chinese speakers. Indeed, Halliday’s functional grammar and theory of Systemic Functional Linguistics has been a foundation for communicative language teaching; it also underpins the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.

The theory behind SFG

But it’s not all just form and function to express meanings. SFG helps teachers and their learners work with whole stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate in the target language.

This is made possible by the linguistic theory underpinning SFG, known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Different cultural and social contexts lead speakers and writers to choose differently from the repertoire of language that they have at their disposal. SFG is an extremely useful tool to help teachers make sense of how language works in different social and cultural contexts and thus be better equipped to help their learners understand these differences. This can refer to spoken or written texts (as SFG is based on the notion of text) and can range from everyday casual talk through to a formal interview, a short email message, or an academic paper. In a nutshell, SFG helps us describe how language is used between people, which contrasts with traditional grammar that prescribes rules for using language.

Text and context

By using SFG, the teacher has a powerful tool with which to mediate his or her explanations of language, and thus mediate the learner’s understandings of how to use the language they are in the process of learning. This tool is the bridge between text and context – between the sociocultural setting in which the speaker is conducting his or her activity and the language that is a part of that activity. The tool is called Register, and gives the teacher the ability   to pick away at the context of language use and identify the:

Field: what is going on in the activity

Tenor: who is taking part in the activity

Mode: the part language plays in the activity

So, each time you present a text to your learners, you can start with establishing the context, as above, and then proceed   to highlight whatever grammar is important in each of the three areas.

An integrated grammar

Looked at individually, it is possible, for example, to identify the kinds of vocabulary that are relevant to the field, the kinds of interpersonal language that are appropriate for the tenor, and the kinds of textual features (say, cohesive devices) that are going to help the spoken or written text along. The Field might be a group of friends talking about the Australian Open tennis tournament and, therefore, the vocabulary   is mostly related to tennis things, people, and actions. The Tenor is close friends who see each other regularly and thus have a lot of common understandings. The interpersonal language will be informal, without much language of power or authority, and possibly with banter and joking. The Mode is likely face-to-face spoken language with speakers able to give each other immediate feedback.

Taken together, SFG provides a rubric for language teachers to plan their teaching around (be they spur of the moment explanations or whole lessons) and for language learners to sort out in their own minds where, when, and how language can be used to successfully communicate across social and cultural settings.


Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). Introduction to functional grammar (2nd ed.). London, UK: Edward Arnold.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared originally as a guest post on Henrick Oprea’s blog Doing some thinking: General thoughts on Education and ESOL ( on February 7, 2013, and on #AusELT ( on February 22, 2013, and is reprinted with permission of the Author.

About the Author

Phil Chappell is a Lecturer at Macquarie University’s Linguistics Department in New South Wales, Australia, where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. His current research interests are in dialogic approaches to classroom learning and teaching, the role of linguistics in TESOL preparation programs programmes, and novice teacher cognition. He taught English for many years in Asia and Australia before entering the wild world of academia.