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Using functional grammar to teach academic literacy skills to adults with language-related learning difficulties.


The particular Functional Grammar referred to in the program in this study is Systemic Functional linguistics (SFL), which has great potential for teaching writing skills to adults with language-related learning difficulties. The present study aims to show that teaching fundamental semantic and grammatical strategies to a student with language-related learning difficulties will assist the ease and effectiveness of teaching textual skills necessary for the writing skills required for university level essay writing.

The program evolved over time and I have since used it with students other than the student referred to in this study. I have drawn heavily on the work of Halliday (1994), Derewianka (1998) and Butt, Fahey, Feez, Spinks, and Yallop (2000) for the development of the program. My own contribution is the use of tangible teaching materials in a very structured, yet flexible, approach.

The aim of this approach is not to teach students to be linguists, but to improve their overall confidence and competence in both writing and reading. For writing the aim is to give them linguistically-based strategies to approach a writing task, and for reading the aim is to enable them to unpack a complex piece of writing with reasonable accuracy; that is, to be able to read for meaning. Therefore the emphasis is on strategies that can be used for working something out. Before describing the case study and the program, I will present a brief overview of how SFL conceptualises language.

Systemic Functional Linguistics

SFL takes a functional approach to language and views functions as being 'built in to language as the fundamental organising principle of the linguistic system' (Halliday, 1981, p. 33). From the perspective of SFL, the primary organising principle of the resources of the language system is choice. That is, linguistic resources are viewed from the point of view of what options or choices are available for realising meanings. Grammatical organisation is viewed as being a secondary organising principle, in that structural specifications realise the options in the system. The emphasis on meaning rather than on grammar alone in the current program reflects these underlying organising principles.

Halliday (1978; also in Halliday & Hasan, 1985) asserts that there is a systematic relationship between the social environment in which language occurs and the functional organisation of the linguistic system itself. As Matthiessen (1995, p. 33) puts it: 'context determines systems in language; but it is also construed by them'. Halliday postulates a simple framework in which to conceptualise the context of situation, that is, the immediate environment in which a particular instance of language is actually occurring, namely the field (what is happening), tenor (who is taking part) and mode (role assigned to language) of discourse. To illustrate the immediate environment in which a particular instance of language occurs, I will describe the field, tenor and mode for a tertiary level Social Science essay, as this is type of text analysed in the present study. (See Table 1.)

The three aspects of context of situation influence our language choices because they reflect the main functions of language. Halliday (1973) proposes three major underlying functional components of language which he called metafunctions: ideational, interpersonal and textual, which operate simultaneously. The first two reflect the two basic purposes of language, namely 'to understand the environment' or in Matthiessen's terms 'the construal of experience' (1995, p. 3) and secondly 'to act on the others in it' or again in Matthiessen's terms 'the enactment of roles and relations' (1995, p. 3). Field and tenor, respectively, are expressed through these metafunctions. The third metafunctional component, the textual, 'breathes relevance into the other two' (Halliday, 1994, p. xiii) or, as Matthiessen (1995, p. 18) states, is a resource for 'presenting interpersonal and ideational meanings as information organised into text in context'. The mode of discourse is expressed through the textual metafunction.

The ideational metafunction is the component of the linguistic system that is concerned with 'the function that language has of being ABOUT something' (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, p. 26). It is comprised of two separate resources, the experiential and the logical. The experiential system is 'more directly concerned with the representation of experience' and the logical aspect 'expresses the abstract logical relations which derive only indirectly from experience' (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, p. 26). The interpersonal metafunction is concerned with 'the social, expressive and connotative functions of language, with expressing the speaker's "angle": his attitudes and judgements, his encoding of the role relationships in the situation, and his motive in saying anything at all' (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, p. 27). The role of the third metafunction, the textual, is to make 'the difference between language in the abstract and language in use' (Halliday, 1977, p. 181). It has been referred to as the 'enabling' metafunction (Halliday, 1978). In the present program, basic experiential and logical resources (and some interpersonal resources) are taught before concentrating on textual resources, since the textual metafunction organises ideational and interpersonal meanings into text. If a student has little awareness of ideational resources, textual resources are more difficult to explain meaningfully.

Not only can the overall organisation of linguistic resources be interpreted according to functional diversification, but also simultaneously in terms of orders of abstraction (Matthiessen, 1995, p. 3). The ordering of the subsystems of language in terms of symbolic abstraction is referred to as stratification, with language involving three strata: semantics (the system of meaning), lexicogrammar (the system of wordings) and phonology (the system of sounding) or graphology (the system of writing), with each stratum recoding or 'mapping onto' the next one. This symbolic recoding from one stratum to the next is referred to as realisation. This relationship is shown in the following diagram, Figure 2. In the present program, the focus is on the strata of meaning (semantics) and wording (grammar).


As well as describing simultaneous metafunctional layering and orders of abstraction in terms of strata, the linguistic system can be further interpreted in terms of constituency. The rank scale refers to the hierarchy of units through which the system of each stratum is distributed (Matthiessen, 1995, p. 10). In English the rank scale of the lexicogrammatical stratum comprises clauses, groups, words, and morphemes. A unit of a particular rank will 'serve to realise a functional element in a unit of the rank immediately above; a group will serve to realise an element of clause structure, a word will serve to realise an element of group structure, and a morpheme will serve to realise an element of word structure' (Matthiessen, 1995, p. 21). In the present program, the focus is on clauses, groups and words.

Case study background

Over a period of a year, I provided private one-to-one tutoring for a mature-aged university student who has language-based learning difficulties. She had enrolled in a university Social Science course with essay-based assessment. She was aware whilst attempting her first essay that she found it difficult to formulate her ideas when dealing with high-level abstract concepts and to put her ideas coherently into writing. Consequently she enrolled in two non-award writing skills workshops at the same university. Having completed both of these short workshop series, she realised that her difficulties were more deep-seated than those being addressed in the workshops and sought further help. This is when she started working with me. Initially we covered planning and structuring the essay in great detail, addressing the demands of the question, critical analysis, reading for the main point and extracting the overall argument. However it became clear that helping her understand how meaning is made in a detailed and systematic way was necessary if she was to improve sufficiently to have any confidence or independence in her writing and critical reading. When she first started the program, she was not able to identify a verb in a sentence and had no intuitive sense of how to chunk the constituents of a clause.

After a few months of learning Functional Grammar with the program, the student's language skills (including reading, comprehension, ability to sort information, written expression and text development) showed improvement. The program, unlike approaches focusing on traditional grammar, emphasises the importance of focusing on the meaning as the way to think about language (in this case written texts), rather than thinking in terms of rules related to the grammar. Throughout this period, we applied the knowledge she was gaining to writing tasks.

Description of the program

The program involves three phases: Grammar I Part 1 (constituents of the clause), Grammar I Part 2 (clause combining) and Grammar II (theme and cohesion).

1. Grammar I Part 1

Initially the notion of the clause is introduced: the idea that the clause is the basic unit of meaning in English and that it conveys a message. The constituents of a clause at the semantic stratum, or level of meaning, (i.e. Participant, Process and Circumstance) are then discussed. Processes are expressions of happening, doing, being, saying and thinking. Participants are persons, places or objects that are involved in the 'goings-on' of the Process. Circumstances express the circumstances in which the 'goings-on' are occurring (Butt et al., 2000).

In order to tangibly represent the strata of meaning and grammar, two sets of colour-coded boxes are introduced. Firstly a set of boxes about the size of small shoe boxes are presented to represent meaning (semantic stratum). Each of the three constituents of the clause at the level of meaning are coded with a different colour (red = Participant, blue = Process, yellow = Circumstance). Each 'meaning' box is labelled with the constituent name and each box has a question on the back that provides a probe for determining the constituent (i.e. Participant: who/what?; Process: what's happening?; Circumstance: under what circumstances? (when?, where?, why?, how?)). The various possible configurations of constituents are then discussed (e.g. Participant + Process + Participant; Participant + Process + Participant + Circumstance etc).

Secondly a set of smaller colour-coded boxes is introduced to represent grammar. The colours chosen for the grammar boxes relate them to the relevant constituent in the clause at the semantic stratum (namely, red = noun group; blue = verb group; yellow = prepositional phrases; yellow = adverbial group). The usual expression of constituents of meaning in relation to grammar is then explained. This is demonstrated by putting the smaller boxes inside the larger boxes (the noun group box (red) inside the Participant box (red); the verb group box (blue) inside the Process box (blue); the prepositional phrase box (yellow) inside the Circumstance box (yellow); the adverbial group box (yellow) inside the Circumstance box (yellow); and also the noun group box (red) inside the Circumstance box (yellow), because a noun group, whilst generally expressing a Participant, can also express a Circumstance). Also at this stage the fact that a complete clause could in fact go in a Participant box is mentioned briefly.

Once an overall sense of constituency is established by chunking many simple sentences (with only one clause), using small cards with the wording for each constituent, the idea of Participant roles is introduced. The central focus on the Process in the clause is stressed in relation to the different types of roles that Participants can have depending on the Process with which they are involved. I have used the simplified terms for these (Action, Saying, Sensing and Relating verbs) proposed by Derewianka (1998, p. 84-86). Students match cards labelled with the different Participant roles with corresponding Process types. Next, different types of verb groups in simple sentences are identified.

For the saying and sensing verbs, another special feature is introduced: projection. Projection is a particular logico-semantic relationship between clauses in which the 'secondary clause is projected through the primary clause, which instates it as (a) a locution or (b) an idea' (Halliday, 1994, p. 219). This is a particularly important feature for writing essays, where students must be able to refer to authors' ideas. The primary clause (or projecting clause) refers to the author (e.g. Smith argues) and the secondary clause refers to whatever the author has argued (e.g. that the results are invalid). Also more complicated verb groups are introduced (e.g. He will have taken all the books back to the library by now./She might have been pretending). The notions of tense and modality (i.e. the resources by which language expresses the grey area between 'yes' and 'no') that relate to the elements of a verb group are explained in general terms only. A text is then analysed, in order to identify all verb groups.

Having focused on Processes, the different grammatical possibilities for Participants are now introduced. The fact that, in most situations, noun groups grammatically express a Participant is further discussed. Characteristics of a noun group are also explained, namely that a noun group contains a noun word (the 'thing') and may or may not contain some modification. Such modification may be in the form of a word, a phrase or a clause. Words involved in such modification are located before the noun word and phrases and clauses are located after the noun word. Phrases and clauses that are involved in this sort of modification are referred to as being embedded (in other words, rankshifted or functioning as a constituent in a nominal group), for example, the phrase on the hill in The house on the hill is for sale., and the clause that had just been cleaned in They drove the car that had just been cleaned. Sometimes whole clauses express Participants. These clauses are also embedded, for example, What I want in What I want is a really good cup of tea.

Noun groups are analysed using boxes to represent the relevant components. Three small boxes are joined by Velcro dots and labelled: modification, noun ('thing') and modification. Inside the first box are two smaller boxes. These are labelled: 'pointing word' (for deictics) and 'word (s)' (for numeratives, epithets and classifiers). Inside the third box are two smaller boxes labelled 'embedded phrase' and 'embedded clause'. The second box (noun ['thing']) does not contain any smaller boxes. Again small cards to put in the boxes are used to analyse a variety of noun groups (identified within the context of a complete sentence). Next a simple text is analysed focusing on noun groups. Complex noun groups as Participants and clauses acting as an entire Participant are also identified in sentences.

The next focus of the program is Circumstances. Different types of Circumstances (slightly adapted/simplified from SFL) are introduced, focusing on the types that answer the questions 'when', 'where', 'why' and 'how'. The different grammatical structures that express Circumstances are discussed, namely prepositional phrases, adverbial groups and sometimes noun groups. Again this is practised in sentences and in a simple text.

Revision texts are then analysed for Processes, Participants and Circumstances. At this stage all clause boundaries are identified for the student. Similar revision activities are given throughout the next stage of the program as well. After the introduction and practice of clause combining, clause boundary identification is also included in these activities.

2. Grammar I Part 2

The next stage in the program is to introduce clause combining. Again, identification activities with sentences and simple texts are practised. Some explanations of clause combinations are taken from Derewianka (1998). Stylistic uses of sentence types from Peters (1985, p. 104) are also emphasised, namely that simple sentences help 'isolate one point amid longer sentences', points in compound sentences have an 'equal claim on the reader's attention' and complex sentences 'structure your points into a hierarchy'. Sentences can also be compound complex. Although this terminology (i.e. simple, compound and complex) is not part of SFL, it is a useful way to refer to stylistic variations in writing simply.

In my approach (cf. Derewianka, 1998), compound sentences equate with paratactic clause relationships (i.e. a relationship between clauses in which each has equal status) and complex sentences equate with hypotactic clause relationships (i.e. a relationship between clauses in which one clause is dependent on another clause). Derewianka also refers to embedded clauses and projection (see Derewianka, 1998, pp. 97-98), but does not relate them to the terms simple, compound and complex.

Peters (1985, p. 103) includes embedding in her examples of complex sentences on the basis that one 'unit is elevated to the status of chief point, and the other(s) made subordinate or dependent'. However this approach does not allow hypotaxis to be sufficiently distinct from embedding (in which a clause is not dependent on another clause, but instead is a constituent within the structure of a group (Halliday, 1994, p. 242)). I, therefore, decided that from the perspective of SFL it is more consistent to call sentences with embedding 'simple sentences with embedding', 'compound sentences with embedding' or 'complex sentences with embedding'. Since the aim of my program is to focus on the linguistic features that are important and useful for writing, and therefore text development, the distinction between hypotactic clauses and embedding needs to be clear to students because hypotactic clauses have potential thematic significance (see Grammar II).

Next the logic of structural conjunctions based on Halliday (1994) and Matthiessen (1995) is introduced in a simple way. Explanations for each type of logic are provided: Elaboration (i.e. one clause elaborates on another clause by 'further specifying or describing it' (Halliday, 1994, p. 225)), Extension (i.e. one clause extends the meaning of another clause by 'adding something new to it' (Halliday, 1994, p. 230)) and Enhancement (i.e. one clause enhances another clause by 'qualifying it in one of a number of possible ways: by reference to time, place, manner, cause or condition' (Halliday, 1994, p. 232)). The understanding of conjunctions is systematically built up through a series of activities.

The notion of cohesive Adjuncts (called text connectives, following Derewianka, 1998) is then introduced. Whilst structural conjunctions express the logic between clauses within a clause complex or sentence, text connectives express the logic between sentences (e.g. Furthermore; By contrast). The same types of logic that were explained for conjunctions also apply to text connectives. Previous texts are revisited in order to identify text connectives between sentences. Emphasis is placed on their relation to the development of the flow of ideas in a text.

3. Grammar II

This phase of the program involves Theme and Cohesion. In terms of grammar, Theme is the beginning of the clause and provides the local context in which the clause is to be interpreted. The Theme can often be a single element in the clause structure, in which case it is the first experiential element of the clause (e.g. Participant or Circumstance). This simple Theme is referred to as a topical Theme. Multiple Themes, as well as involving the topical Theme, involve either textual Themes (including conjunctions and text connectives) and/or interpersonal Themes (not generally found in essay writing). Cohesion refers to the non-structural semantic relationships between parts of the text, that is, relationships that are unrelated to grammatical structure.

Having spent a considerable amount of time on Grammar I, the concepts introduced in this section can be dealt with relatively easily. Theme is introduced by looking at various texts that develop differently. The fact that Theme is a principle that applies to a whole essay (Theme = Thesis Statement); to a paragraph within the essay (Theme = Topic Sentence); and to a clause within the paragraph is explained. The notion of Theme is discussed in terms of effective and less effective writing through comparison of texts. The next step involves discussing ways in which knowledge of Theme can help improve someone's writing. The methods for improving the flow of ideas in poorly written paragraphs are then discussed.

Next the notion of cohesion is discussed. Various concepts are explained simply: synonyms (words similar in meaning), hyponyms (words that are members of the same class), meronyms (words with part-whole relationships), lexical co-occurrence (words that are related by virtue of the fact that they occur in the same real-life situations and the texts that describe them), repetition and use of pronouns for reference. Texts are analysed extensively in terms of each of these features. The emphasis here is on the fact that these are the features of meaning that we respond to when we are categorising information and sorting it into a logical order for the purposes of coherently structuring a piece of writing, for example, an essay.

Data: student's writing samples before and after program

As chance would have it, the student re-enrolled in a Social Science course that she had been enrolled in before the program and had withdrawn from. Before withdrawing she had completed the first essay task. For this reason, my data in this case study includes two essays (the same task, namely a critical review of an article) written a year apart--one just prior to starting work with Functional Grammar and the other written after a year of weekly sessions.

Student's writing before Functional Grammar program

Sample A: Extract from critical review of one article (clauses)

1. If you support cultural relativism to the extreme point

2. you only believe

3. a culture should be judged solely by their own standards.

4. Where does one stand

5. where unrest, hostility violence result from the attitude.

6. This bring the need for human rights.

7. Human rights also challenge many of the tenets of cultural relativism and therefore Smith's argument.

8. Into todays world human rights advocates believe in the rights of the individual rather than the rights of a culture.

9. Human rights creates a international social justice system that is supposed to be superior to a particular countries' culture and religion.

10. As human rights <<>> are 'inalienable and international'

11. states Jones

12. they go beyond the cultures rights

13. the culture is no longer the decider of what is normal or deviant moral or immoral within it's society.

Note: Names of authors referred to have been changed, typo/spelling mistake corrected (strikethrough for error) no other changes

In terms of SFL, the thematic progression of this extract does not effectively reveal the development of the text. This is shown by the topical Themes in each clause (1-13): you; you; a culture; Where; unrest, hostility violence; This; Human rights; In todays world; Human rights; human rights; states; they; the culture. The use of the active form of verbs has led to you being thematic in clauses 1 and 2. The repetition of you does not provide a relevant point of departure for either clause. Where in clause 4 is part of an interrogative form that is not only inappropriate in an essay, but also unclearly stated. The extended reference, indicated by This in clause 6, is unclear. In clause 7 Human rights, which had been introduced in the non-Theme part of clause 6, is thematic. There is then a marked Theme (i.e. a Theme that is not the subject) in clause 8 (In today's world), which interrupts this progression as if to change the direction of the text development. However it is not effective in signalling for the reader the direction in which the argument is progressing. This lack of clarity about the direction of the argument is further compounded by the return to human rights (clauses 9, 10 and 12 [they]).

Another feature of Sample A is that there are no text connectives to signal the logic that connects parts of the text. There are signals in the form of the two dependent clauses presented as Theme in a clause complex (or sentence), namely If you support cultural relativism to the extreme point, and As human rights are 'inalienable and international'. However the second of these does not contribute to the coherent flow of ideas in the passage.

Student's writing after Functional Grammar program

Sample B: Extract from critical review of one article (clauses)

a. Conversely the idealised body shape in Fiji is the robust form

b. which may be considered by US standards as overweight.

c. Linguistic evidence specifically language of insults indicates

d. there is a distaste for thin or obese body types.

e. The regard for particular body qualities <<>> are associated with key cultural traits--proficient working abilities and evidence of nurturance by the community.

f. <<which includes sturdy calves and a well formed body>>

g. Social relationships and community interdependence is key to Fijian culture.

h. Fijians, dissimilar to the American, do not seek to attain the ideal body type as an individual goal.

i. Community connection to the social network and the power of the community to nurture is encoded and symbolised by a robust body form.

j. The care taking in the community is the role of the social network as a whole

k. in which all individual partake.

l. By contrast with the Americans, credit associated with attainment of the idealised body shape is attributed not to the individual but to the community.

m. Hence what particular body type is idealised and what this is read into the body morphology in terms of social mores differs between American and Fijian culture.

n. The Fijian body has the potential to show the accumulation of the communities nurturing efforts.

o. Neglect too is read from the body

p. a thin body or weight loss can symbolise social or material loss

q. which in turn reflects negatively on the society.

Note: Names of authors referred to have been changed, no other changes

In Sample B, by contrast with Sample A, the thematic progression is more effective as an indicator of the textual development, specifically the foregrounding of the argument. This is apparent in the topical Themes in each clause, as shown in Table 1.

Also two text connectives (Conversely in clause a; Hence in clause m) and a marked Theme in clause l (i.e. Circumstance as Theme: By contrast with the Americans) are used effectively. Another difference between the extracts is that, whereas Sample A has only one passive form (clause 3), Sample B has four instances (e.g. Neglect too is read from the body). Another feature demonstrating greater grammatical proficiency is that in clause m the Theme is a Participant, which is successfully expressed by embedded clauses.

Apart from the increased fluency and coherence in the student's later writing compared with her earlier attempt, there was also evidence of critical analysis throughout the essay from which Sample B was taken.

Table 1. Themes in Sample B

a. the idealised body shape in Fiji

b. which

c. Linguistic evidence specifically language of insults

d. there

e. The regard for particular body qualities

f. which

g. Social relationships and community interdependence

h. Fijians, dissimilar to the American

i. Community connection to the social network and the power of the community to nurture

j. The care taking in the community

k. in which all individual

l. By contrast with the Americans

m. what particular body type is idealised and what this is read into the body morphology in terms of social mores

n. The Fijian body

o. Neglect too

p. a thin body or weight loss

q. which


For the student in the present study, the program was conducted in conjunction with discussion of critical analysis and study/work organisation skills (which were not strong before starting the tutoring and are still developing). She is still keen to develop and strengthen her writing, reading, structuring/categorising and study management skills. However, she is achieving solid Passes now.

The Functional Grammar program has application, not only for adults with language-related learning difficulties who are endeavouring to undertake tertiary education, but also for adults involved in any writing in the workplace. Another group for whom an appropriately modified program has potential is school children with no identifiable language difficulties. For this group, general understanding of grammar and ability to read for meaning could be enhanced. The physical props used in the program, which make abstract notions more understandable, would benefit children with all learning styles; the program could also potentially help children with language difficulties. Another group who could find the program helpful is non-native speakers of English involved in tertiary education. I am currently investigating the application of the program to this group.


Butt, D., Fahey, R., Feez, S., Spinks, S. & Yallop, C. (2000) Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer's Guide, 2nd edition. Sydney, NCELTR, Macquarie University.

Derewianka, B. (1998) A Grammar Companion for Primary Teachers. Newtown, Primary English Teaching Association.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London, Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1977) Text as semantic choice in social contexts. In T.A. van Dijk & J. Petofi, de Gruyter (eds), Grammars and Descriptions. Berlin.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London, Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1981) Text semantics and clause grammar: some patterns of Realization. In J.E. Copeland & P.W. Davis (eds), The Seventh LACUS Forum. Columbia, S.C, Hornbeam Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 2nd edition. London, Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1976) Cohesion in English. London, Longman.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-Semiotic Perspective. Geelong, Vic, Deakin University Press.

Matthiessen, C. (1995) Lexicogrammatical Cartography: English Systems. Tokyo, International Language Sciences.

Peters, P. (1985) Strategies for student writers. Milton, John Wiley & Sons.

Virginia Stuart-Smith

Macquarie University
Table 1. Field, Tenor and Mode of the essays in the present study

Field of discourse educational activity in response to a
 specific question which has been set
 in a context of course material related to a
 particular discipline

Tenor of discourse institutionalised relationship (student to
 teacher sets question; student is required to
 fulfil demands of question

Mode of discourse written to be read; text is whole of relevant
 specific guidelines for requirements avail
 persuasive with rational argument
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Author:Stuart-Smith, Virginia
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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