Laetitia Monbec, with grateful acknowledgement of Rob Playfair’s participation.

In part 1, A reading path for the SFL self-taught, the aim was to provide resources to explore SFL theory and its implementation, for practitioners with no formal training in functional linguistics. The concept of the self-taught was used, but left unquestioned. In this second post the aim is to critically examine this notion along with the discourse of recontextualization of SFL, what shapes them, and what their impact might be on the use of SFL in the field.

Part 2: Exploring the discourse of SFL recontextualization

In Distinction, Bourdieu (2010) analyses the concept of the autodidact/self-taught. He analyses the discourses and practices that legitimize certain types of cultural artefacts and tastes in different social classes, showing how the ‘distinguished’ culture of the dominant classes can alienate those, like the self-taught, who have not been socialized to feel a legitimate relation to it. In Part 1, Rob’s (Playfair, 2022a) and Joanne’s (Raynor, 2022) experiences with SFL recontextualization in their EAP context was briefly described. They demonstrated exemplary reflective, collegial, scholarly practices and the specific challenges they faced, but they also both raised the issue of their legitimacy in using SFL in the classroom and in classroom-based practitioner-led research. Rob, in particular, explicitly questioned his creative liberty with the theory and wondered ‘where [..] the line between recontextualising and mangling’ is. These concerns about technical accuracy are common in practitioners who want to use SFL in their practice, and reveal issues related to legitimacy. Rob is concerned about losing the connection to the overall architecture and in so doing, hindering the power of the theory during recontextualization: “if I mangle / fudge it too much it won’t have that generative power and become just another random language point in the tradition of any EFL Coursebook” (Playfair, 2022b). These concerns also relate to an understanding of SFL implementation as requiring “a deep understanding of the theory”, and the need to “teach it quite systematically in our contexts” (Playfair, 2022b). The worry is also associated with gaining acceptance into a group of knowers, the ‘SFL community’, perhaps perceived as more homogeneous than it really is. This is quite understandable, especially when we acknowledge that SFL is so often characterized as difficult, technical, or intricate (these terms were used by the participants in the recent BALEAP resTES on SFL in scholarship when asked how they would describe SFL).

However, it is important to question this discourse around SFL to understand how it may shape our conception of the theory itself, and of the legitimacy of a self-taught educator to apply it. Below, it is argued that this constellation of meanings is a form of legitimation discourse, constructed and reproduced, which might position SFL unfavorably in the EAP/Academic Writing knowledge base.

One way to think about this is to attribute practitioners’ worry to the fact they exhibit some of the traits Bourdieu has described about the self-taught (Bourdieu in the way he challenges assumptions, and in his seeming dismissal of the agent’s self-awareness and understanding, can make for uncomfortable reading as in the following quote, but the points made are valid and useful to think with nevertheless):

 “Because he has not acquired his culture in the legitimate order established by the educational system, the autodidact constantly betrays, by his very anxiety about the right classification, the arbitrariness of his classification and therefore of his knowledge – a collection of unstrung pearls, accumulated in the course of an uncharted exploration […].” (Bourdieu, 2010, p.328)

There is truth in this, exploring a theory like SFL without an established syllabus and an expert as a guide is fraught with challenges and it is reasonable to express self-doubt and to feel one’s knowledge is ‘a collection of unstrung pearls’. But the trouble with this understanding is that it contributes to a discourse around recontextualization which emphasizes the practitioners’ shortcomings and deficit, and which by the same token positions SFL as a technical, difficult or impenetrable theory – a discourse which can impress upon EAP practitioners that one must be an insider or be vetted in order to legitimately use SFL in practice.  From this perspective, as Bourdieu explains in Distinction, this characterization of the self-taught can be seen as shaped by the tacit definitions of insider/outsider (legitimate/less legitimate user) boundaries construed through the discourse one uses to relate to the theory.

There are a few possible reasons why this discourse exists and is perpetuated around SFL. 

First, many elements of the theory are genuinely complex. The practitioner self-taught might feel this characterization is a necessary step in gaining acceptance as it shows one’s clear-sightedness about the theory. However, having acknowledged the extravagance, intricacy and technicality of the theory, this blog argues that for educational applications, SFL is actually not that complex. In fact, the overall premise (which is what should not be ‘mangled’) is very accessible to both teachers and students (although admittedly it does constitute a significant shift in terms of conceptualization of language). In applying SFL in a language classroom, it is these basic ideas which are crucial to keep in sight:

  • Language is a social semiotics resource that we draw on depending on context.
  • Our choices/selections from the resources reflect and construe the context of communication including power relations, values and norms. This process is not often conscious, but can be made more so (or slowed down) through teaching deliberate ‘choice making’.
  • Language can be analysed and taught at whole text, paragraph and sentence level with a focus on how users make meanings to achieve a communication purpose (rather than how they apply rules).
  • Meaning-making can also be categorized and taught according to types of meanings: ideational, interpersonal and textual.
  • This theory is a social theory of language: its theoretical constructs extend into the social context (genre and register in Martin’s model) which means that:
    • 1. Analyzing genre, register and language realizations in a text ensures both the social and language can be kept in sight.
    • 2. By extension, teaching language is (or can be) teaching how language construes our world, our norms, values, and our ways of thinking about the world and each other.
    • 3. By the same token, teaching language is (or can be) teaching (critical) discourse analysis and has transformative potential.

Secondly, and related to this previous point, it is possible to see a recontextualisation discourse which emphasizes the difficulty and the importance of technical accuracy, as a form of resistance to a linguistics that is social and political and aims to effect social change by empowering disadvantaged students. This is what Jim Martin explains in Linguistics and the consumer (1998). In the article, Martin goes over the facets and motivations for the resistance he and his colleagues encountered when implementing SFL/Genre in the Australian schooling system, a context where progressive educators had dismissed and eradicated Knowledge about Language from teacher training programmes and curriculum. In Martin’s view, the resistance stemmed mostly from the potential of an SFL/Genre approach to level the educational playing field for disenfranchised students, thereby threatening middle class children’s advantage in school achievement. While the settings and times are different, the paper shows how easily a discourse can become naturalized and assumed to reflect the nature of SFL, rather than be critically analyzed for what it is – an ideologically motivated narrative. Unfortunately, as we have witnessed in the last few years, it is not unusual for technicality or complexity to be used as an othering strategy, or as reasons to be suspicious of concepts or initiatives.

Finally, at times, this discourse may also be reproduced not by ‘opponents’ but, more or less consciously, by practitioners who use SFL themselves. Perhaps because an ability to engage with such a theory sets people apart and acts as epistemic and intellectual capital. This is not a criticism on individuals, but rather an observation that this characterization of the theory as ‘impenetrable’ means SFL is a valued capital, a ‘rare goods’ (Bourdieu, 2010, p.242) around which struggles gather, whether this comes from a place of reverence for the theory, or from a more insecure motivation. Both motivations are understandable. Many find uplifting inspiration in the theory’s social justice ambition, and also beauty in the technicality and the intricacy of its analyses. Beyond knowledge, SFL is also made up of knowers, SFL scholars who have accrued considerable respect and regard over their careers. There are strong intellectual, personal and ethical affiliations there that might also sustain such characterization. Whatever the motivation may be, it is important to recognize that the way SFL and its recontextualization are characterized can have a detrimental impact on practitioners’ attempts to apply SFL, and therefore on the potential for SFL to be more widely used.

A focus on technical accuracy is justified in theoretical discussions, but in the context of teaching, it can act as a gatekeeping device or a deterrent, excluding practitioners who might otherwise make SFL useful to solve educational problems, as it was intended. Once we recognize that very few people can (or would) claim mastery over every intricate corner and debates of the theory, and that practitioners are therefore placing unreasonable and unnecessary demands on themselves (with regards to SFL but not as much it seems when other theories employed in our practice are concerned), we can then seriously turn to concrete ways to learn the basic premise of SFL, the main elements that are relevant in our context, and recontextualize aspects of the theory in our practice.

As Jim R. Martin wrote: ‘keep it simple; make it work’ (Martin, 1998 p.418)

Recontextualisation of theory into teaching or scholarly practices is mediated by institutional context and ideology (Bernstein, 2000). Decisions we make in our classrooms are influenced by a range of factors. Following Bernstein’s (2000) recontextualization step 1 from theory to curriculum, and step 2 from curriculum to classroom practice, key factors to consider are of course our own knowledge of the theory but also of our teaching context, the learners’ needs, the teaching team’s background and their preparedness to deliver this approach (Monbec, 2020). Some may argue that a teacher can simply follow someone else’s recontextualization (provided that adequate SFL-inspired textbooks are readily available) without needing to involve themselves in individual exploration of the theory, However, there is great professional satisfaction and increased agency in seeing these decisions as part of one’s practice. The work done by the ‘Sydney School’ provides a very useful model to follow (some of these resources are accessible via Part 1 of this blog post), but each recontextualization remains a creative endeavor, not in the sense that it distorts, but in the sense that it requires context-specific adaptation that ‘make it work’.

The key point in recontextualization is mentioned by Rob when he hopes that it is possible to keep the essence of SFL, a social theory of language conceived as social action, while recontextualizing it to suit our students’ needs. As he demonstrates, it is also possible to make SFL useful even early in our study of the theory – we needn’t wait years to try it. Rob shows an excellent example of this through his second attempt with thematic progression, which after discussion with colleagues and careful adaptation leads to a much more satisfying experience for him and his students.  As he writes, “the best adaptations, like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, can keep the wit and joy of the original whilst bringing our new perspectives through the new context’. Sharing these stories is also a way to re-shape the discourse around SFL and to shift our perceptions.  One of the aims of the resTES was for SFL practitioners/scholars to present SFL as highly usable in classroom scholarship, disrupt the notion that SFL is intimidating and reassure self-taught practitioners that the task is far from insurmountable.

An analysis and mapping of different types of SFL recontextualizations in EAP would be very useful for practitioners, but (as far as I know) it has not yet been done. It is hoped that the examples provided in Part 1 of this blog will be useful to support practitioners’ attempts.  In the meantime, keeping a critical eye on the discourse surrounding SFL and its theorists, as well as amplifying a welcoming, supportive and inclusive discourse around SFL will be helpful. The theory has much to offer to language teachers and students.

References

Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity: Theory, research, critique (Vol. 5). Rowman & Littlefield.

Bourdieu, P. (2010). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Abingdon: Routledge Classics.

Martin, J. R. (1998). Linguistics and the consumer: The practice of theory. Linguistics and education, 9(4), 411-448.

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

Playfair, R. (2022a, January 22). Teaching Theory in EAP. https://twewp.wordpress.com/2022/01/22/teaching-theory-in-eap/

Playfair, R. personal communication, May 18, 2022b.

Raynor, J. (2022). Being a Teaching and Learning Champion in SFL. https://baleapresearchandpublications.wpcomstaging.com/2022/03/31/being-a-teaching-learning-champion/

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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. elclm@nus.edu.sg

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