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Is Grammar Really 'Cutting Edge'?

I grew up in a generation that missed out on explicit grammar education. I recall only one lesson when my wonderful Year 6 teacher introduced us to clauses. I think I spent most of the lesson amazed at the double meaning in the film 'the Santa Clause' with Tim Allan. I can't honestly say I remembered much about why we had clauses, where to find them or if they were very important at all (other than to make brilliant movie titles!). However, this all changed when a few years ago I was completing a Masters of Education and enrolled in a unit titled 'Systemic Functional Linguistics'. I was drawn to the word 'functional' in the title. If grammar was anything to me at this point in my teaching career it definitely was not functional. While studying this unit, my eyes opened to the wonderful world of functional grammar.

Falling for functional grammar

What I learnt has directly affected my teaching. The Australian Curriculum is built on both a traditional and functional approach to language (Exley, Kervin & Mantei, 2015) and this is cutting edge stuff! It is the first curriculum in the world to do this and we, as the educators, have the enormous task of teaching from both standpoints. Traditional grammar classifies words, such as nouns, verbs or adjectives. Functional grammar focuses on the function of words in texts. That is, functional grammar is a descriptive approach to language (Butt, Fahey, Feez & Spinks, 2012).

Grammar is at the core of what we do as teachers (Coffin, Donohue & North, 2013). When we teach a student to read, we are teaching them how to understand the grammar of written text. When we teach students to write, we are showing them how to manipulate grammar conventions. As soon as a student opens their mouth to ask a question, have a discussion or share an idea they are using their knowledge of grammar to do so.

When I realised how entrenched everyday life is with grammar, it became apparent to me that grammar teaching is not something to 'fit in' to my timetable. It is something that I am already doing. What I required was to use the metalanguage of grammar to make the 'hidden grammar messages' of texts clear to students (Derewianka, 2011).

The metalanguage of functional grammar

By using grammar metalanguage, we are able to make grammar conventions and meanings clear to students so that our teaching of writing, reading and speaking can be more focused and effective (Martin, Matthiessen & Painter, 1997). The best place to start is at the most fundamental meaning structure, the clause (Butt et al., 2012).

A basic feature of functional grammar is being able to colour in! This is otherwise called, completing a transitivity analysis. The whole point of an analysis is to pull apart the clause into the smaller parts of meaning, the groups of words or phrases which have meaning on their own.

The three components of a clause are, the process (usually a verbal group), the participant (mostly nominal/noun groups), and circumstance (prepositional phrases, adverbial groups and sometimes nominal groups). These are each colour coded in a specific way according to their purpose. The participant is red, the process is green, and the circumstance is blue. Sticking to these colours means that you are doing the same thing as linguists around the world!

Process        A Happening
Participant    Who/What
Circumstance   Where, When, How ...

Each clause has only one process. It may have more than one participant, and more than one circumstance or none.

Colouring clauses

Now that you have a basic understanding of the three constitute parts of a clause, see if you can locate them in this clause from the book, Clancy and Milly and The Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson (2009).

Clancy's mother leads him from room to room.

You should begin by highlighting the process, in green, because this is the key component of a clause. 'Leads' is the process. Next, I would use the process to form my questions when assisting students to locate the other components. To identify the participant, I would ask, 'Who leads?'. Clearly it is 'Clancy's mother' so I would highlight that in red. I can ask that question again rephrasing it as, "Who is being led?'. Now the answer is 'him' (Clancy). I would also highlight that in red. To identify the circumstance I ask, 'Where was he led?' and the words 'from room to room' can be highlighted in blue.
Clancy's      leads     him           from room to
mother                                room.

Participant   Process   Participant   Circumstance
(RED)         (GREEN)   (RED)         (BLUE)

What does this look like in teaching and learning?

The components of the clause must be taught in every year level of primary school according to the Australian National Curriculum (ACARA, 2015), as listed below:

Foundation: Recognise that sentences are key units for expressing ideas (ACELA1435)

Year 1: Identify the parts of a simple sentence that represent 'What's happening?', 'What state is being described?', 'Who or what is involved?' and the surrounding circumstances (ACELA1451)

Year 2: Understand that simple connections can be made between ideas by using a compound sentence with two or more clauses usually linked by a coordinating conjunction (ACELA1467)

Year 3: Understand that a clause is a unit of grammar usually containing a subject and a verb and that these need to be in agreement (ACELA1481)

Year 4: Understand that the meaning of sentences can be enriched through the use of noun groups/phrases and verb groups/phrases and prepositional phrases (ACELA1493)

Year 5: Understand the difference between main and subordinate clauses and that a complex sentence involves at least one subordinate clause (ACELA1507)

Year 6: Investigate how complex sentences can be used in a variety of ways to elaborate, extend and explain ideas (ACELA1522)

What better way to analyse clauses than by inquiring into how writing works. Using questions to identify parts of the clause is the perfect way to begin an inquiry, and colouring-in is part of the fun.

1. What is happening? (Process)

2. Who/what is it happening to/by? (Participant)

3. Where/when/ how is it happening? (Circumstance)

If you are searching for ways to integrate this into your teaching, here are my top tips.

* During shared/modelled reading When reading a text aloud to students take one or two sentences and inquire into them. What's happening? Who or what is it happening to? When, where and how is it happening? For older students, compare the author's choice of sentences. When does the author use simple sentences or clauses? When does the author use compound or complex sentences with extended noun or verb phrases? How does this choice effect the reader and text?

* Patterned writing

After analysing a text, from a quality piece of literature, guide students through patterned writing using this text. This is a great way to extend student vocabulary and sentence structure in a scaffolded way.

* Code student writing

When conferencing with students I will colourin a few sentences with their help. This makes it clear to students what their goals could be. As you conference, questions could include: What types of sentences have you written? Are you using a variety of processes? Are you punctuating correctly to show meaningful sentences? Do your sentences always start with the participant, or have you used a variety of ways to start a sentence? Have you used the correct process (verb) for the subject of the sentence? Have you written any compound or complex sentences?

* Set writing goals

Give students the opportunity to compare their writing to that found in a quality text. As students do this, assist them to identify possible writing goals, based on the grammatical structures they have observed. The focus may be, for example, to enrich meaning by including noun or verb phrases, or to include compound sentences in their writing.

By using a functional grammar approach, I hope that a passion for language will be sparked in you as it was in me. By inquiring into language in this way we can uncover depths of meaning in texts, improve student comprehension and ultimately increase students' literacy levels.


ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2015). F-10 curriculum. Retrieved from:

Butt, D., Fahey, R., Feez, S., & Spinks, S. (2012). Using functional grammar: an explorer's guide. South Yarra, Vic: Palgrave Macmillan.Coffin, C., Donohue, J., & North, S. (2013). Exploring English grammar: From formal to functional. Routledge.

Derewianka, B.M. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association

Exley, B., Kervin, L., & Mantei, J. (2015). Exploring with grammar in the primary years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators' Association.

Gleeson, L., & Blackwood, F. (2009). Clancy & Millie and the very fine house. Surry Hills, N.S.W: Little Hare Books.

Martin, J., Matthiessen, C., & Painter, C. (1997). Working with functional grammar. London: Arnold.

Elizabeth Baker has presented on a range of literacy topics at conferences and teacher professional developments. She most recently presented a workshop on functional grammar at the 2016 ALEA/AATE English Literacy Conference in Hobart. She is an ALEA ACT local council member and co-ordinates International Literacy Day celebrations. Elizabeth has completed a Masters of Education, focusing on literacy education and a Masters of Teacher Librarianship, through QUT. She currently teaches at Duffy Primary School in the ACT. Email:

Caption: Students analyse the clauses in a text by colouring the Components
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Author:Baker, Elizabeth
Publication:Practical Literacy
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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