Why do I use SFL in my teaching?

The first #SFLchat has begun, and it has had a good start. The first question is, “Why do you use SFL for teaching?” I can’t really answer this question in a Tweet, so I decided, following the general advice of my colleague Angus Grieve-Smith, that I blog rather than thread.

After my first semester in graduate school linguistics, I was frustrated. My introduction to linguistics proper had taught me a great deal of new theory. It was one of the most exciting and interesting times of my life. But I was struggling to understand how I could apply this new knowledge–and especially in my classroom. As part of my graduate study, I had a teaching assistantship in first-year composition. And since language was a central topic in the curriculum, I was eager to incorporate what I was learning in my linguistics courses. But that was easier said than done.

I was trained in the Minimalist program for syntax and exposed mostly to a generativist perspective on language. We read Pinker’s The Language Instinct, drew binary-branching trees, and modeled meaning in first-order logic and later Lambda calculus (the latter eludes me a bit still, I will admit). Trying to apply this knowledge in the teaching of writing was a challenge. Some elements of my lexical semantics class helped, but in general, knowledge about language was not easily or immediately applicable to language education–something that struck me as odd. Margie Berns’s Sociolinguistics course was the one area where my newfound knowledge about language was applicable, but it was disorienting. After Intro to Ling chipped away at prescriptivism, Sociolinguistics reframed standard English for me in a way that I still wrestle with. The course radically changed my pedagogy and philosophy of education.

But I was still frustrated because, while Sociolinguistics gave me a necessary new frame for writing curricula and assessment, the day-to-day instruction of writing still lacked something.  Sociolinguistics demonstrated the oppressive nature of standard English over other varieties of English and over other minority languages. So should I teach standard English or not? And if yes, then how to do it ethically? And what should I teach about standard English? I was confused. And frustrated. I didn’t know what to say.

So I crafted an independent study one summer. My Anthro Ling professor, Myrdenne Anderson, directed it. I called it, Linguistics of Teacher Talk. I literally just wanted to know what to say and how to say it in my classroom–hence the scope of the course. Anderson, a brilliant researcher and renaissance woman who has a greater breadth of knowledge than anyone I’ve ever known, recommended a book to me: Classroom Discourse Analysis by Frances Christie.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Christie’s book was my introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). I wanted to know more, and I don’t know who introduced us (probably Anderson), but I met Luciana de Oliveira, the only scholar of SFL at Purdue. de Oliveira changed my professional life. In the time I was there, I was able to take two of her courses on SFL–that was all the formal instruction, by the way, many of us North Americans got in SFL. So apologies to my Australian colleagues who get stupid questions from me. de Oliviera organized a research group I worked in, read my Masters thesis, co-chaired my dissertation committee, and mentored me throughout the majority of my graduate school, teaching me SFL throughout. And she introduced me to SFL genre pedagogy.

SFL genre pedagogy was what I had been looking for ever since I became a teacher of writing. It was the answer to most of my questions. Being introduced to it was akin to a religious conversion experience–and that’s something I’m not particularly comfortable with, but it’s true. I suppose it’s like that for a lot of people when you find an answer to a big question.

Being introduced to SFL genre pedagogy helped me realize that my big question was bigger than just the can of worms that Sociolinguistics opened up. It was personal. It sat at the core of who I am. It was growing up in rural Indiana. It was the people I grew up with, some of them children of poverty. Most of us didn’t come from money, at least. We were the kids of factory workers and farmers. And academia, the gatekeeper to lives many of us wanted to pursue, was shrouded in mystery. It was the mismatch of cultures. I won’t pretend to be of the culture I grew up in; I didn’t fit in there. It was the fact that I could write a research paper, but I didn’t (and still don’t) know what to say when all the men stood around the chicken fryer and talked. That genre eludes me to this day. But even if I could write a research paper, I didn’t really understand why I was any good at it. I didn’t really know how academia worked, and a lot of my high school and undergraduate work betrays my misunderstanding of the rules of the academic game.

And still, even though I never fit, I never lost a sense of values my home culture taught me–and immense respect for practicality and straightforwardness. Finally, when it came to it, I knew that in my current way of teaching, I couldn’t help my students learn how to write because in every student, I saw someone I grew up with and I heard their objections, questioning the practicality and wanting to know what was expected of them really.

Write this research paper.

Why? What good is that gonna do me?

You don’t have the right tone. It needs to be more formal.

Well, how do you make it more formal?

This is choppy and doesn’t flow well.

Well, how do you make it flow?

I didn’t have answers to these questions that satisfied me or some of my students. But SFL changed that.

Why? What good is that gonna do me?

Writing this research paper will enable you to write papers in other classes that are in the same or similar genre–because you will know the goal, the audience, the stages, and the language necessary to succeed in that genre. And that will enable you to earn your degree to get the job you want and the social status you want. And the money and time you want to do the things  you want. Knowing how to write a research paper gives you more power to succeed in college so that you can have more power over your future. There will still be challenges, prejudices, and systemic discrimination that can hold you back, but knowing this genre will give you the ability to resist these challenges because you will be able to demonstrate your skills and knowledge in a way that the academy respects. And that can give you a better chance at succeeding in getting what the college grants–a degree.

Well, how do you make it more formal?

You complete all of the stages of the genre, accomplish the goal of the genre, and address the audience of the genre by making the appropriate language choices we’ve discussed–Declarative Mood to demonstrate knowledge; median-high Modality to express your relative certainty about your argument; Material and Relational Processes to classify things and ideas and to show causal connections; abstract and general Actors, Identifieds, and Carriers to argue and defend generalizable claims; orbital Thematic organization to structure the text so that a single thesis can be defended with multiple arguments.

Well, how do you make it flow?

You complete all of the stages of the genre, accomplish the goal of the genre, address the audience of the genre by making the appropriate language choices we’ve discussed–orbital, linear, and static Thematic organization for differing purposes, depending on your paragraph or textual goal; and use of cohesive devices like substitution, repetition, hyponymny, and meronymny, to connect different parts of the text to other parts of the text, creating a unified meaning throughout.

And then, the objection from colleagues.

Why use that complex language?

Because that’s what that functional components of written language are called.  And the kids I grew up with would understand that. They didn’t demand less complex terminology when they were learning how to fix their cars, tractors, or lawnmowers or when they were learning how to take care of their livestock. Language and writing are at least as complex as these things.

So why do I use SFL in my teaching?

Because now I can teach my students what to write so that they can have a better chance at doing what they want with their lives.

Because it demystifies the academy so that you know what to say, how to say it, what it means, and how it gets to mean that.

Because one professor taught me how it could empower students of many backgrounds.

Because if students have to use language as a tool to accomplish the goals of school, they should know a lot about that tool if they are going to use it well.

Because it answered my questions. And gave me new ones to pursue.


Top 5 Reasons Why I Do Twitter Chats

I am co-moderating and co-organizing three academic Twitter chats this semester–#Lingchat, #FYCchat, and the newly minted #SFLchat. It’s a lot to do in terms of social media engagement and planning. But I enjoy it–I told a colleague it’s my way to “productively procrastinate.”

Kidding aside, there are some good reasons why I do academic Twitter chats and have been doing them since I joined Twitter in 2013. And I think those reasons might resonate with some people who already participate in them–and they might encourage others to join in.

  1. They are convenient. Any academic who wants to contribute to their field or wants to keep up with developments in their field has several options. They can read or publish in journals in their field. They can attend conferences. They can join professional organizations. They can participate in webinars. But each of these has limitations. Journals are periodic and only allow delayed communication. Conferences are annual.  Professional organizations might offer listservs or newsletters, but most forms of communication will be  asynchronous. Webinars are great, but might cost money and sometimes are just a presentation. Twitter chats are weekly or bi-weekly, mostly synchronous, and free.
  2.  They help me understand my field of study. I’m early in my career–just two years out from my dissertation. Even then, I only know my subfield–genre theory in Systemic Functional Linguistics–fairly well. But the larger field of linguistics, or even the larger field of Systemic Functional Linguistics or genre studies, are still something of a mystery. Sure, I know our general disciplinary narratives. I know big names. But I still have big questions: Where are we going? What are we doing? Why are we doing it?  What I have always loved about the academy was the ability to think and speak freely in order to better understand the world. And while the halls of the academy–or the local watering hole–are good venues for this kind of informal academic discourse, Twitter chats enable it on a broader scale, exposing their participants to the unconventional view or the new idea. It is what I value most about academic Twitter chats.
  3. They improve my teaching. Obviously chats like #FYCchat are expressly designed to support professional development of teachers. And they do a great job of doing that–it’s why Trent M. Kays and I revived #FYCchat after it went on hiatus. We share resources on these chats and discuss important issues in our practice. I have used some of the ideas I’ve gotten from those chats. So there’s the explicit aspect of the chat that promotes the sharing of pedagogy. But on another level, even the more theoretical chats like #Lingchat and #SFLchat are spaces for me to practice my teaching–because sometimes mine is the unconventional view or the new idea. And I have to explain it to people who haven’t heard of it. In 140 characters. It forces recontextualization in a way that mirrors, in some ways, the classroom. Any time you get to practice teaching, like any craft, you get a little better. And Twitter chats give you a space to do that.
  4. They provide me with a community of colleagues, mentors, and mentees. We meet around a hashtag. That hashtag is our common idea, our focal point. That’s why we are there, initially. But then, as you participate more, you build what Karl Maton calls “sociality.” The community forms through the sharing of ideas and practices, through the support of each other, and through the resolution of disagreements (more later). As we learn more about each other, we develop relationships of different kinds. I have many colleagues on these chats, but I’ve also been mentored by people and mentored people myself through these chats. And those relationships have extended beyond the Twitter timeline, to long emails, conversations, and presentations at conferences. That community matters to me. And I’m personally and professionally grateful to have them in my life.
  5. They are challenging. I’m argumentative on Twitter. Sometimes too much so, and that gets me in trouble. But even if you’re not, Twitter chats will challenge you because they attract voices and views from literally all around the world. Most chats develop as supportive communities, but sometimes there are disagreements. And like any community, those disagreements can only be resolved by the members themselves. Fortunately, most (if not all) of my disagreements have been resolved well, and I learned something, and I like to think the other person did as well. But for me, what has mattered is that those debates have continued to influence my own thinking and research. I regularly think about how so-and-so from the chat would respond to some idea I’ve had. And sometimes that has changed my view or practice. I am–at least I like to think–more open-minded towards views because of the challenge that Twitter chats offer to my own views.

Like many things in life, Twitter chats are what you make of them–so your experience may vary. But these are the reasons why I spend some time every week on Twitter talking to people around the world about linguistics and teaching writing. If you haven’t participated in a Twitter chat, I encourage you to try one out. Here’s a good list to start from–or ask someone who participates about dates and times. Hope to see you there!

The Linguistics of Formative Assessment

We know from research how important formative assessment is to instruction and student learning. But sometimes questions and statements we make as teachers fail to elicit a verbal response from students. When this happens, we can try to use non-verbal cues to gauge student understanding for a response. We might also consider how the kinds of language choices we make may not function in ways we intend. Perhaps one of the most notorious phrases that fails to adequately assess students’ formative knowledge is:

(1) Does that make sense?


4C13 from afar: Twitter & Collaboration

In lieu of a more complete, short essay (coming soon), I offer today a few thoughts on the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Twitter is my CCCC News Wire

I get all my news on the conference from the 4C13 hashtag on Twitter. I also have been browsingthe resources uploaded onto the NCTE site for the convention. I’m indebted to the fellow scholars tweeting about it, especially @webbsusa, who tweeted a fascinating talk by Dr. Victor Villanueva entitled: “Toward a Political Economy of Basic Writing Programs.”

Collaboration between Rhet Comp and Education

Villanueva discussed the need for Basic Writing (and Rhet Comp) to engage in more collaboration with other disciplines. While it seems Villanueva may have seen this need as a way to legitimize the course and empower its students, I contend that this collaboration needs to happen because related disciplines have a lot to offer Rhet Comp and vice versa. Education and Linguistics are the first places where more collaboration needs to happen. (more…)


I will be presenting at two conferences this semester. First, I will be presenting with a colleague at the Indiana State English Learner conference, sharing some SFL applications for implementing the Common Core State Standards when teaching writing to English Learners. Secondly, I will be presenting an ecocritical analysis of the lyricism and essays of Rich Mullins at the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature annual conference. Finally, my first publication, co-written with a colleague, will be coming out in June. It is a chapter in the edited volume, Genre Pedagogy Across the Curriculum: Theory and Application in U.S. Classrooms and Contexts. Overall, it is shaping up to be a very productive semester. Cheers!