The systemic functional model (e.g. Halliday and Hasan 1985, Halliday and Matthiessen 2004), on which all Lexis Education’s courses are based, has had an enormous impact on educational contexts in Australia and around the world. Genre-based pedagogy, where the teaching of grammar is part of an explicit pedagogy around language, is now a widely accepted part of many teachers’ practice. Teachers have found invaluable one of its central ideas, which is about making explicit the generic structure of key curriculum texts.
Such explicit teaching can produce significant improvements in the students’ comprehending and writing of texts, as is shown in the following case study, which focusses on the narrative genre.
In this context, an English teacher scaffolds her 12-year-old students in extending their understanding about how to write a ‘spooky story’. Drawing on Spine Chilling Stories (Rothery and Stevenson 1994), she focuses on key structural elements of the narrative genre:
- complications; and
Other key features explored were the evaluation stage, which can surface at different points in the narrative, and the notion of building tension.
Throughout this unit, the teacher drew on the grammar work she had already undertaken with the students (e.g. different process types) and extended that knowledge through a focus on nominal groups.
One of the challenges for the teacher with this class of 31 was their wide-ranging abilities in writing narratives. Some already had a high degree of control whereas others would struggle even with the simplest of narratives. As a way of ascertaining the students’ capabilities, the teacher collected samples of all the students’ independent writing of a ‘spooky story’. Later, these were compared with the texts produced after explicit teaching of the lexicogrammatical elements outlined above.
An early focus in this unit was the dual function of evaluation in a narrative – expressing the thoughts and feelings of the characters and creating tension – and the lexicogrammatical resources for expressing those meanings. The class discussed the role of different process types in a narrative, exploring the function of mental processes in evaluation and the way particular choices of action processes create tension.
This metalinguistic focus then shifted to the nominal group; the function of nominal groups in narratives and in written language, and the structure of the nominal group itself. Examples from various texts were analysed according to the nominal group’s functional elements: deictic, epithets, classifiers, the head noun and qualifiers. The teacher mediated these more technical terms with more common-sense ones: pointer for deictic and describer for epithet. The class also compared the length of nominal groups from more spoken texts with more written ones. This kind of metalinguistic conversation became a central part of their talk around how particular texts are constructed.
As with other students mentioned here, these students managed the technicality of the metalanguage with ease once they were explicitly taught it, as is evident from the following texts:
This story is really terrible. The first thing you notice about it is the orientation. All it tells us is that one night someone called Alana went for a ride on her bike, When was it set? Who is Alana and how old is she? What kind of bike was it? Why was she going for a ride? It doesn’t make you want to read on. Also it has no foreshadowing or evaluation.
I certainly have quite a few criticisms to make because this particular story does not explain things well such as ‘the ghost melted’. I think that they could have added more intense epithets to increase the suspense and horror … I would’ve written something like ‘the pale terrifying ghost melted away before my eyes into thin air’ if I were the author.
Both these students have started critically analysing the choices of authors and have a grammatical basis for doing so. They have moved beyond common-sense understandings to what Macken-Horarik (1996) calls ‘specialized domains’, where the students are taking on the role of ‘incumbent expert’ and are doing so with the confidence developed through their understanding of how the grammar is working to make particular meanings. This ability to reflect on their own and other’s use of language was achieved by all the students in the class.
The development of nominal groups, inclusion of evaluation, and repetition to reinforce an unusual event is clear when comparing two narratives by an ESL student, written four months apart:
One day, her mother was go to the bookroom and get the key. She looking at the door, then she see the fire, she said very loudly `help! help!’ but no-one hear her…
At midnight the horrible, deep wailing sound began again, it was getting louder and louder, deep and deeper. I opened my eye. ‘Yh.’ The horrible ghastly face setting on my eyes…
What became apparent to the teacher and students by the end of this explicit linguistic focus on narratives was that all the students had much more control of their narrative writing and were able to create suspense and horror, as an extract from another student shows:
The crisp sound of Matt’s jumpy feet on the grass and the old rusty swinging chair on the balcony were the only sounds Matt heard through the suffocating darkness of the night. He ignored the thick dripping sound and the sudden warmth of another person at his back.
How did the students respond to this level of technicality and focus on lexicogrammar from a functional perspective? Did it stifle their creativity, a claim that has been levelled against the teaching of grammar? The following text presents one student’s evaluation.
I really enjoyed everything we did leading up to writing the story and I believe it did help me a lot to make my second story much more exciting than my first story. In my second story I had built up my nominal groups a heap more than in my first story and that gave it more description and I think more tension.
And the last word from the teacher:
These stories were by far the most imaginative, tightly constructed texts I had read by students in my twenty years of teaching.