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Systemic Functional Linguistics for the self-taught – Part 1

By Laetitia Monbec

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The recent BALEAP ResTES brought together a few Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) practitioners/scholars to discuss the power of the theory for scholarship and the impact it can have on professional practice and on student learning. This blog picks up a few of the thought-provoking themes that were discussed by the participants (and a few other sources mentioned below) such as the challenges in exploring and recontextualizing SFL for a practitioner without traditional training in the theory. 

This blog consists of two posts which can be read independently of each other.

Part 1 is practical and provides a scaffolded and systematic reading path through some of the rich SFL literature to guide the self-taught and prevent discouraging wrong turns or dead ends when exploring the theory. The reading path takes the reader from accessible to denser literature across different types of publications such as textbooks, educational applications, sociological texts, and materials/teacher guides.

Part 2 aims to (re)-cast the theory as less intimidating and impenetrable by shifting the focus from its technicality to its transformative potential. To do this, the blog post interrogates the notion of the self-taught, and the discourse of SFL recontextualization by practitioners and argues that recontextualization can be both rigorous and creative.

Part 1: A reading path for the Systemic Functional Linguistics self-taught

SFL is known as an ‘extravagant’ theory in that it has a ‘rich and interrelated architecture’ (Bartlett & O’Grady, 2017, p.7) but for many educators, including the speakers and many of the participants in the recent BALEAP resTES on SFL, the theory is eminently usable in classroom and scholarship. As Halliday (2006) conceived it and SFL scholars expanded it, SFL is appliable.

 “an ‘appliable’ linguistics – a comprehensive and theoretically powerful model of language which [..] would be capable of being applied to the problems, both research problems and practical problems, that are being faced all the time by the many groups of people in our modern society who are in some way or other having to engage with language.” (Halliday, 2006)

There are many reasons why SFL is well-liked by language and literacy educators, and why it is part of the EAP Knowledge base (Ding & Bruce, 2017). As a theory of language which was initially devised for solving language teaching problems (Halliday, 2007), SFL provides a focus on meaning-making rather than on an idealized language competence and it sees language as a social semiotics, rather than a set of rules in the mind. SFL conceptualises language as construing our social world and relations. Concretely, its comprehensive and coherent structure enables teachers to organise language syllabi at whole text, paragraph and clause level, and to raise awareness about the simultaneous ideational, interpersonal and textual meanings language makes. The pedagogical application of the theory is also extremely well developed and researched, with for example, the genre-based literacy programs of the Sydney School and the Teaching and Learning Cycle, or the Reading to Learn Programme which draw on a Vygotskyan socio-constructivist theory of learning where students engage in collaborative and scaffolded tasks until they perform independently. These practical applications in a range of educational settings (EAP, EAL, Primary, Secondary, Tertiary literacy, CLIL, EMI and more) are described and evaluated in great details in the literature. Perhaps less well-known among practitioners is that this theory and its application are devised for social change. The Sydney School pedagogy was devised as ‘subversive’, in the sense that it aims to show disenfranchised students how to achieve learning outcomes by giving them access to powerful/dominant discourse. This social justice purpose should resonate with EAP practitioners, and beyond.

However, despite these clear merits, SFL has a reputation as daunting or unnecessarily complex for practitioners and classroom use.  It is often associated with notions such as difficult, dense, technical, confusing (all these were mentioned during the resTES) or worse, not worth the effort.

Developing cumulative knowledge in SFL presents some challenges for the practitioner. Decades of theoretical and applied work in various settings have created a wealth of literature which can be confusing to navigate. The issue with knowing what to read in SFL often comes back in conversations with practitioners, as it did in the resTES. In his recent (highly recommended) blog on recontextualising SFL in his EAP practice, Rob Playfair showcases these challenges very clearly. He begins by retelling his own false start in the SFL literature (he started with Halliday & Matthiessen’s Introduction to Functional Grammar, a logical but ill-fated choice) and goes on to describe a more successful and rewarding account of his implementation of Jennifer Walsh Marr’s (2021) SFL-inspired hero moves in his teaching, along with the reading of Geoff Thomson’s Introducing Functional Grammar. The blog shows how re-orienting his reading to a more accessible textbook, discussing his ideas about recontextualisation with colleagues, contacting scholars/practitioners like Jennifer and trusting his understanding of his context led to a more satisfying outcome. Another highly recommended blog is Joanne Raynor’s (on this website) who reflects on taking on the role of an SFL champion in her institution. She explains how she has organized SFL reading groups and discussions and shows that collaborative exploration can provide some support to develop one’s confidence with the theory.

One way to address some of these challenges is to provide a scaffolded path through the literature, a path which keeps practitioners from false starts and wrong turns, at least at the beginning of their exploration. In An Introduction to a Reflexive Sociology (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), Loic Wacquant suggests a readers’ pathway through Pierre Bourdieu’s notoriously prolific and dense body of work, arguing that “For the novice, finding an entry point into Bourdieu’s sprawling work poses the thorny problem of where to start.” (1992, p.261). In an attempt to make the work accessible to those without the legitimate access and socialization into the theory (through for example the possibility to follow an official syllabus and have access to experts), Wacquant suggests a fairly short bibliography based on personal preference and sequenced according to accessibility and length. The chapter was an inspiration for this blog as it is easy to draw a parallel between the ‘thorny problem’ Wacquant discussed and the challenges that the SFL literature present the SFL self-taught.

‘How to read SFL’: A sequenced reading list for the self-taught

The pathway below is devised according to two main classifications: the nature of the text (its focus), and its semantic gravity and density (its accessibility, adapted from Maton, 2014). A few key texts were selected and organized on a semantic cline to visualize these two aspects (see Figure 1 below), to provide a starting point, and a way forward that (it is hoped) can make the theoretical input inspiring, manageable and cumulative rather than off-putting. It is somewhat personal: my first reading in SFL was Christie and Derewianka’s (2008) brilliant and accessible School discourse: learning to write across the years of schooling, followed by Hasan, Matthiessen, and Webster’s (2007). Continuing Discourse on Language: A Functional Perspective (Volume 1) which indicates a slightly haphazard path and a steep increase in technicality … (several chapters in Continuing Discourse were really out of reach). What specifically sustained my interest in SFL after that were Halliday and Martin’s (1993) description of academic/scientific discourse, Rose’s Reading to Learn programme, and Martin and Rose’s pedagogic publications. Specifically, it is the explicit social justice aim of the Sydney School which provided motivation to read further, as I could see how relevant it was in the Hong Kong Higher Education context in which I taught (Monbec, 2020). This potential for working towards social justice and social change in and from our classrooms is still what I see as the core aim of SFL and its pedagogical applications.

Devising this reading path was a difficult exercise as I could only mention a few titles and have had to leave out a great amount of very influential SFL authors and texts. Comments and suggestions to develop this reading list are very welcome. 

The first distinction is the nature of the text with four broad types:

The textbooks which detail the theory (coded in yellow in Figure 1). These are the publications where lexicogrammar, discourse semantics, and genre are theorized and detailed. In this category, we find Halliday & Matthiessen’s Introduction to Functional Grammar (2014) and Martin’s (1992) English Text: System and Structure, Martin and White’s (2005) Language of evaluation, but also more accessible texts such as Eggins’ (2004) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics.

The applied texts, which provide brief overviews of the theory but mostly report on educational applications (coded in green) demonstrate how SFL-informed pedagogy has been deployed in a range of educational settings. They show how, with SFL, the distinction between theoretical and applied linguistics makes little sense. In this category, we find Sally Humphrey’s (2016) Academic literacies in the middle years: A framework for enhancing teacher knowledge and student achievement and Dreyfus et al.’s (2015) Genre pedagogy in higher education: The SLATE project. In this section we also find an increasing range of publications emanating from classroom-based research (Liardet, 2016; Purser, Dreyfus & Jones, 2020; Monbec, 2020; Walsh Marr, 2021; Shoecraft, Martin & Perris, 2022 among others –see classroom-based SFL scholarship at the end of this blog).

The more sociological texts, coded in purple, are those that explain the purpose of an SFL approach in education, and the role SFL can play in applied linguistics. This type is not very visible in the SFL literature, especially for the self-taught, and yet it is crucial because it concerns the broad purpose of SFL, its political orientation, its social justice impetus, and how this ontology of language has potential to address educational issues such as lack of access and inequality. For many readers, these texts might be where the technicality starts making sense in relation to the theory’s purpose. It is through these readings that one can see how SFL can help reconceptualize a field like EAP as not solely pragmatically concerned with students’ communicative effectiveness, but also as a site where critical literacy can be taught and agency can be developed. In this category, a reader could start with Jim Martin’s (1998) Linguistics and the Consumer as a key text to understand the social justice aspirations of SFL theory and SFL-informed pedagogy and the resistance to SFL.

The pedagogical texts, including teachers’ guides and materials. These either guide the teachers through steps in the recontextualization process, or present its result through teaching materials. Recently, resources from the Write it Right project, in Australia, have been digitized and provided open access on the Educational Semiotics Website (see below). Other resources in this category include Derewianka and Jones’ (2016) Teaching Language in Context. They are coded in pink in Figure 1.

The second distinction is semantic gravity and density, the Legitimation Code Theory dimension which describes the relative contextualization and density of knowledge (Maton, 2014). In Figure 1, the texts are sequenced along a semantics cline. At the top of the cline, texts are increasingly abstract, decontextualized, dense and technical (SG-, SD+). At the lower end of the cline, texts are more accessible, and more contextualized in specific educational settings, and provide examples of curriculum, assessment, classroom materials and text analysis (SG+, SD-). Anyone accessing SFL through its most famous textbook, IFG, might just flail because of its very abstract and incredibly dense content (Rob is certainly not the first reader to find IFG hard going). However, much of this content knowledge is accessible at stronger semantic gravity and lower semantic density in, for example, Suzanne Eggins’ (2004) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics and overviewed in many of the application texts. In the same way, the Discourse Semantics strata described in Martin’s (1992) English Text can be found in Martin and Rose’s (2007) Working with Discourse with the concepts being deployed on a range of more accessible key post-apartheid texts in the south African context.

A potential reading path:

A self-taught might progress from the lower end of the cline (SG+, SD-) to the upper end (SG-, SD+) picking from the four types of texts, emphasizing the applied and pedagogical texts, first, and the sociological, to develop a strong understanding that SFL constitutes a dramatic shift in language conception, and even more importantly, to get a sense of its potential use for developing critical literacy in EAP/Academic writing classrooms.

In Figure 1, the semantic cline has been divided by dotted lines into 3 heuristic levels. The self-taught might want to explore the sources in the stronger SG level first, and then explore higher up the cline. I am not suggesting a set path to allow for personal preferences and personal contexts (a reader might select short pieces for example). Unfortunately, many of these sources are not open access, so additional open access resources are provided below in the form of video resources. A selection of recent practitioners’ publications are provided  at the end of the blog (suggestions are very welcome here too).

SFL resources for the self-taught

The paragraphs below describe a few of these resources to inform a reader’s decisions.

A good place to start is with a Teacher’s guide like Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching language in context. Oxford University Press or Derewianka, B. (1990). Exploring how texts work. Heinemann

Although these are aimed at school curriculum rather than tertiary levels, much of the information is directly usable in EAP classrooms, for example, how to use the teaching and learning cycle and how to analyse a text with students.

Then see the approach as it looks like in materials at:

These resources, especially the Write it Right project for secondary schools in Australia are provided here open-access. Thank you to the several people involved in the Educational Semiotics Website for compiling and sharing this. The tertiary resources produced by the Learning Centre at Sydney University, closed down despite its huge influence, will soon be available to continue serving students and educators globally.

Martin, J. R. (2009). Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective. Linguistics and education20(1), 10-21

This article gives a good grounding in SFL/Genre pedagogy (also known as Sydney School Genre-based programme). Here both the theory, and the application are described along with its aim. The same is done with much greater detail in the book Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. London: Equinox.

Bartlett, T. (2014). Analysing power in language: A practical guide. Routledge

This provides an overview of the theory and application to discourse analysis, with a focus on the way language construes relations of power. This is particularly useful for practitioners who want to bring in elements of critical literacy in their teaching.

Lukin, A. (2018). War and its ideologies: A social-semiotic theory and description. Springer

A fascinating discussion of ways language relates to ideology. The book uses the example of the discourse of war to show how language legitimises acts of violence.

Both Bartlett (2014) and Lukin (2018) can inspire tangible ways to engage EAP students in critical discourse analysis. These books show what should be (or can be) taught about language.

Dreyfus, S. J., et al. (2015). Genre pedagogy in higher education: The SLATE project. Palgrave Macmillan and Coffin, C., & Donohue, J. (2014). A language as social semiotic based approach to teaching and learning in higher education. John Wiley & Sons Inc

Both books provide very useful overviews of the theory, and case studies of applications in a range of tertiary contexts in HK (SLATE) and in the UK (LASS). The LASS book, more specifically, argues for a wider role for language in teaching and learning in Higher Education through the concept of semiotic mediation.

Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2003). Working with discourse: Meaning beyond the clause. Bloomsbury Publishing

This book unpacks discourse semantics (presented more theoretically in English Text) through the analysis of post-Apartheid texts.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (1993/2003). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. Routledge

These chapters detail key contributions of Halliday and Martin regarding the evolution of the language of science, the notions of congruent and incongruent grammar, and grammatical metaphor.

Collected Works of MAK Halliday, edited by Jonathan J. Webster, London: Continuum.

Halliday wrote a great deal about sociolinguistics as well as linguistics. In the Collected Works, edited by Jonathan J. Webster, chapters from Language and Society (2009), from Language and Education (2007) and On Language and Linguistics (Vol.3, 2003) are enlightening as to the role of language in society, in learning, and in reproducing relations of power.

Hasan, R. (2009). Semantic variation: Meaning in society and in sociolinguistics (Vol. 2). London: Equinox.

Ruqaiya Hasan is an essential SFL linguist, perhaps not as well-known by practitioners in comparison with MAK Halliday or Jim Martin. However, her work is really fundamental for a language educator concerned with social change. One of her significant contributions is the concept of semantic variation through which she demonstrated language is key to social reproduction and evidenced linguistically Basil Bernstein’s elaborated and restricted codes through statistical studies of mother-child interactions. These studies are detailed in several chapters of Semantic Variation: Meaning in Society and in Sociolinguistics edited by Jonathan J. Webster, a collection which is immensely inspiring for its theoretical range, the significant findings detailed, and the great care taken to demonstrate a new methodology for sociolinguistic enquiry. Appreciating Ruqaiya Hasan’s writing and her thinking might take a bit of time but is very rewarding.

Learning about a theory like SFL is an endeavor that accompanies and enriches one’s practice throughout a whole career; it is not a one-off learning event. It is a theory that is perhaps more akin to a musical instrument than a lens (see Nick Hopwood’s blog ‘Theory as a lens or a musical instrument’ on this). Starting with the appropriate texts and following a scaffolded sequence, which encompasses theory, application, pedagogical materials and social purpose, however, means we can apply some concepts fairly quickly in our teaching and our scholarship. This can enrich our practice with an awareness of the way language works which might truly benefit our students beyond the few hours we see them. It takes both creativity and sensibility to select the right tool and adapt it for our given teaching or research issue but over time, we can build confidence and ability to do this. Halliday warns that when exploring language, “the payoff may be quite far away in time…and quite oblique” (Halliday, 2007, p.15). With SFL, finding the creative recontextualization that fits our students’ needs and our context is where the fun lies, especially if we are concerned with the transformative power of theory and education. Engaging with a linguistics theory like SFL is worth the effort; first, academic literacy has a crucially important role in students’ success and SFL can offer useful solutions. Equally importantly, because of EAP’s ties with linguistic imperialism (O’Regan, 2021) engaging with SFL is also I believe a possible way towards reconciling our professional practice with our values because of the nature of the theory.

Recontextualization and its discourse is the object of the second post: SFL for the self-taught: Exploring the SFL recontextualization discourse.


Bartlett, T., & O’ Grady, G. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge handbook of systemic functional linguistics. Abingdon, UK: Routledge

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to a reflexive sociology. University of Chicago press.

Ding, A., & Bruce, I. (2017). The English for academic purposes practitioner. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Halliday, M.A.K. (2006) “Working with meaning: Towards an applicable linguistics’. Inaugural lecture to mark the launch of the Halliday Centre for Intelligent applications of language studies at the City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

Halliday, M. A. K., Matthiessen, C. M. (2014). An introduction to functional grammar. Routledge.

Hopwood, N (2021).

Maton, K. (2013). Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. Routledge.

Monbec, L. (2020). Systemic Functional Linguistics for the EGAP module: Revisiting the common core. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43.

O’Regan, J. P. (2021). Global English and political economy. Routledge.

Playfair, R. (2022, January 22). Teaching Theory in EAP.

Raynor, J. (2022, March 31). Being a Teaching and Learning Champion in SFL.

Thompson, G. (2013). Introducing functional grammar. Routledge.

Walsh Marr, J. (2021) Moving from Form to Function: Leveraging SFL Metalanguage to Illuminate Features and Functions of Texts in First Year University EAP. In MacDiarmid, C. and MacDonald, J. J. (eds). Pedagogies in English for Academic Purposes: Teaching and Learning in International Contexts. Bloomsbury.

Additional Resources

Open access online and video resources: (Annabelle Lukin’s videos on SFL) (for background) convened by the Educational Semiotics Special Interest Group of the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ASFLA) (PETAA videos on SFL in Primary English Teaching) Main SFL website maintained by Mick O’Donnell (Alvin Leong’s SFL resource) (ASFLA (Latin American Association) (Christian Matthiessen’s youtube channel) (SFL Interest Group) (SFL Interest Group’s youtube channel) (short videos of JR Martin on SFL theory and application)

Bibliographies: (Jim Martin’s Bibliography) (SFL theory for research within educational contexts) (Educational resources, compiled by John Knox) (Open Access resources on the Reading to Learn programme, David Rose)

SFL Theses:

Repository of SFL thesis, collected by Mick O’Donnell

Classroom-based SFL scholarship/ SFL scholarship by practitioners:

Cheung, L. M. E. (2022). Evaluative patterns in the concluding components of expounding essays (SFLIG 2021 Special Issue): from the perspectives of Rhetorical Structure Theory and APPRAISAL.

Liardét, C. L. (2016). Grammatical metaphor: Distinguishing success. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 22, 109-118.

Monbec, L. (2020). Systemic Functional Linguistics for the EGAP module: Revisiting the common core. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43.

Purser, E., Dreyfus, S., & Jones, P. (2020). Big ideas & sharp focus: Researching and developing students’ academic writing across the disciplines. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43, 100807.

Shoecraft, K., Martin, J. L., & Perris, G. (2022). EAP Learners as Discourse Analysts: Empowering Emergent Multilingual Students. BC TEAL Journal, 7(1), 23-41.

Szenes, E., & Tilakaratna, N. (2021). Deconstructing critical reflection in social work and business: Negotiating emotions and opinions in reflective writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 49, 100931.

Walsh Marr, J. (2021). Moving from Form to Function: Leveraging SFL Metalanguage to Illuminate Features and Functions of Texts in First-Year University EAP. In C. MacDiarmid & J.J. MacDonald (Eds), Pedagogies in English for Academic Purposes: Teaching and Learning in International Contexts (pp. 43–58). London: Bloomsbury Academic

Walsh Marr, J. & Martin, J. L. (2021). Pomp and Circumstances: From Research, in Practice, for Students. Íkala, 26(1), 227-242.

Walsh Marr, J. (2019). Making the mechanics of paraphrasing more explicit through grammatical metaphor. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 42, 100783.

Walsh Marr, J & Mahmood, F. (2021).  Looking past limiting conditions; prioritizing meaning in EAP.  Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 100979.

Walsh Marr, J. (2021).  Moving from Form to Function: Leveraging SFL metalanguage to illuminate features and functions of texts in first year university EAP.  In C. MacDiarmid and J. J. MacDonald (Eds.), Pedagogies in English for Academic Purposes: Teaching and Learning in International Contexts. London: Bloomsbury.

Walsh Marr, J. (2019). Making the Mechanics of Paraphrasing more Explicit through Grammatical Metaphor. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 100783.


Laetitia Monbec is a senior lecturer at the Centre for English Language and Communication at the National University of Singapore. She has developed EAP, ESP and CLIL curriculum. Her research interests are in Academic writing, social semiotics and multimodality, critical thinking and critical literacy, and cumulative learning.

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