New Directions in EAP: Reflections on Teaching a Systemic Functional Linguistics-themed EAP Course

by Chris Bedwell



As English language teachers, it is important to be able to draw upon a range of approaches and ideas to assist learners in their programs of study. With a greater array of resources, we are then in a better position to respond to the various needs of our students. In this regard, ideas from systemic functional linguistics (SFL) have proven useful on the EAP course I have been teaching these past several semesters. SFL itself is based upon detailed observations of how context-dependent language is actually used and takes note of the various linguistic patterns that emerge. It does not, therefore, represent a methodology in itself, although insights derived from it can be used to inform classroom materials and tasks. The hope, then, is that through the use of such informed content, student learning may be enhanced or at least made more efficient.

Many teachers will have experienced some contact with ideas consistent with an SFL view of language, perhaps via pre- or in-service ELT training courses, even if participants might not recognise them as such. For example, most, if not all, contemporary textbooks on discourse analysis reference Halliday’s seminal work in SFL. Similarly, EAP exercises which seek to highlight features of a text such as its organization, clause relationships or use of nominalisation draw upon SFL-inspired notions such as Theme and Rheme, the rank scale, the verbal group or the nominal group. As a relative newcomer to systemic functional linguistics, it has been an instructive experience to teach on a course which highlights some of these features. In particular, I would like to highlight three exercise types that many of my students seem to find challenging, and have subsequently claimed as beneficial, in improving their knowledge of academic English.


Area #1 – Thematic progression 

The first feature of interest concerns paragraph construction and the three types of thematic progression described in the tutorial notes, namely linear, zigzag and fan. It is instructive to show these patterns to non-native English-speaking tertiary level students for several reasons. Firstly, the patterns provide students with options for developing their own ideas within the paragraph itself and thereby overcoming any potential writer’s block. Secondly, the patterns naturally invite elaboration and exemplification simply by virtue of their links with previous sentences. This, in itself, allows for a better-evidenced piece of academic work. Thirdly, the patterns highlight possible points of contrast with textual structures in their own mother language (which may be recorded in a different orthography). Armed with this knowledge, students would hopefully be better equipped to select a pattern that is appropriate to their needs (and avoid one that is inappropriate).


Area #2 – Sentence analysis 

The second SFL-informed exercise which has proven beneficial lies within the area of sentence analysis. In one useful exercise, multiple authentic complex sentences are given to the learners along with the instruction to locate the central ‘event’ verb. Since several verbal groups are present, students have to negotiate with each other as to the best option. Even for relatively sophisticated learners, this can prove a challenging task. Since academic texts are typically replete with such complex sentences, the students receive useful practice in identifying the essential process which drives the text. This can also help learners query a text’s central purpose or assist in the efficient summarising of disciplinary content.


Area #3 – The nominal group 

The third area of demonstrable value concerns the nominal group, and its various pre- and post-modifying elements. Again, academic English contains a relatively high proportion of nominalised text, which can therefore make decoding it quite difficult. Since these modifiers may also contain nouns, the question then arises as to which of these various nouns in the nominal group is central (the ‘Thing’ or headnoun), and how we can know this. Once again, the exercise is an interesting and challenging one. Since the headnoun often (but not always) agrees with the subsequent verb, this can also lead to some profitable class discussion where this is not the case.



Not all areas of SFL would lend themselves comfortably to EAP or ELT in general, and much of the meta-language requires some serious study and practice. Indeed, many tutors would choose not to impose further additional linguistic complications on their students. However, some of the insights SFL provides can be used to highlight subtle features of texts and inform novel tasks. Exercises, such as those mentioned above, require close attention and thought from students without necessarily burdening them with extensive production. Thus, the ideas that SFL inspires can add to the range of tools that teachers may usefully deploy in the ELT classroom and beyond.

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