The Application of Systemic Functional Linguistics to Teaching L2 Academic Writing

Bowers, Susan (2012). The Application of Systemic Functional Linguistics to Teaching L2 Academic Writing. EdD thesis The Open University.



Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) is a functional approach to grammar, originating with Michael Halliday (1985, An Introduction to Functional Grammar). This study looks at the effect of incorporating SFL ideas into a more traditional Communicative course, working with a teacher and students at the University of Barcelona.

Classroom material was designed, based around texts from an exhibition on Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. Two experimental groups and two control groups, from intermediate and advanced levels, taught by the same teacher, participated in the research. The experimental groups used the materials (representing about 10 hours of class time) in combination with their normal English course, while the control groups followed the traditional course only. The pre-test-post-test methodology involved the students in all 4 groups writing an essay before and after the course, and these texts formed the basis of the data analysis.

The data analysis stage explored the use of the SFL concepts of Theme and Thematic progression (the way that the Themes are linked) within the organisation of the student texts, and the contribution of these features to the development of cohesion. The methodology was therefore quantitative, with some qualitative material in the form of questionnaires for the students and written feedback from the teacher.

Quantitative results showed that the use of the materials, which were designed around a text-based approach to language learning, affected choices of both Theme type and Thematic progression. Within Theme type, interpersonal Theme changes were more apparent and more systematic (across all groups) than changes elsewhere, and may be linked to Thematic progression. Results for Thematic progression showed an increase in the number of post-test cross-referential Themes for both experimental and control groups, and a decline in the use of constant Theme for all groups except the intermediate control.

An awareness and effective management of Thematic choice and progression, together with related cohesive devices within a text, are therefore interpreted as important features of academic writing, and explicit teaching of them appears to contribute to the production of more successful texts in this context. Overall, teacher and student responses were positive, especially in the case of the intermediate group: the materials were seen as challenging, but interesting and useful.

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