Systemic functional linguistics in language education

Author: Gordon Tucker


Through its emphasis on the functional basis of language structure and the view of language as meaning potential, systemic functional linguistics (SFL) provides a useful tool for those who wish to analyse texts. It is predominantly a socially oriented theory of language the task of which is to explain how meanings are made and exchanged through the resource of grammar and lexis.

Table of contents


The contribution of systemic functional linguistics (SFL) to language education is centred predominantly on the theory's relevance to the explanation and interpretation of texts. It is therefore a general assumption of linguists/ teachers working within this tradition that the primary 'learning outcome' of courses in SFL will be an awareness of the role of lexicogrammar (the integrated system of grammar and lexis) in the production and negotiation of the social meanings that are realised in both spoken and written texts.

At the heart of the theory is a functional account of lexicogrammar which systematically relates language structure to language function and to the meaning potential available to speakers of a language. Meaning is taken in a wider sense than is generally covered by other linguistic theories, incorporating the expression of ideational, interpersonal and textual meaning into its account of the organisation of the lexicogrammar of a language (Halliday 1994). All three 'strands' of meaning are seen as contributing simultaneously to the structure of clauses. Ultimately, however, these choices in meaning contribute to the overall meaning of discourses (Martin 1992).

Considerable emphasis in teaching is therefore given to the exploration of how the functional elements of language structure realise available options from the three general areas of meaning referred to above. Texts may then be analysed in terms of the range and nature of such options. In the teaching and learning environment this clearly requires a constant alternation between the development of descriptive and analytical skills and their application to a range of text types. A typical exercise might involve, for example, the comparative analysis of lexicogrammatical features in horoscopes and weather forecasts, or in recipes and instruction manuals.

In the context of the wider language education curriculum, systemic theory, description and methodology is particularly suited to socially oriented linguistic investigation. The application of SFL is advocated, for example, within the linguistic discipline of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995:10) which investigates, amongst other social phenomena, the construction of ideology in discourse. There is also a considerable SFL tradition in the field of educational linguistics and literacy.

Beyond its more general aim of developing an awareness of the functional organisation of language, SFL seeks to provide students with an appropriate analytical and interpretative framework for the insightful analysis of text and discourse from a social perspective. This emphasis on text is seen in the kinds of text-based discussion and activities suggested in the growing number of SFL course textbooks, e.g. Eggins (1994) and Thompson (1994). An informative website on all aspects and applications of SFL is found at


Eggins, S. (1994) An introduction to systemic functional linguistics. London: Pinter

Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language. London: Longman

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) (2nd Edition) An introduction to functional grammar. London: Arnold

Martin, J.R. (1992) English text: system and structure. Philadelphia and Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Thompson, G. (1994) Introducing functional grammar. London: Edward Arnold

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from