Keynote Speakers

Jim Donohue, Queen Mary University London

Donna R. Miller, University of Bologna

Wolfgang Zydatiss, Humboldt University Berlin


Jim Donohue

Text, context and practice in a language as social semiotic-based approach to teaching and learning in higher education

The systemic functional linguistics hypothesis of ‘context-metafunctional resonance’ (Hasan, 2014:127) is a powerful expression of how texts simultaneously instantiate the language system, construe participation in social practices and realise context. In this presentation, I would like to reflect on the relation between text, context and practice in a language as social semiotic-based approach to teaching and learning in several different university contexts.

In 2014, Caroline Coffin and I published an account of such an approach in social science-related programmes in two British universities: one face-to-face and the other distance (Coffin and Donohue, 2014). This presentation will draw on the subsequent experience of attempting to transfer our approach into the curriculum areas of engineering and computer science in a different British face-to-face university.

Issues which have emerged in the course of this work, some of which will be considered in this presentation, are:

  • How to identify need and build partnerships in a teaching and learning environment from a text-in-context perspective
  • How to engage meaningfully with advanced and unfamiliar contexts of disciplinary knowledge, particularly when instantiated in multimodal texts.
  • How to recontextualise the advanced and unfamiliar knowledge of SFL meaningfully for disciplinary participants in those contexts.
  • How to decide where in the relationship between context, practice and text, energy is best invested; for example, in close analysis of assignment texts or in designing changes in feedback practices.
  • How, when analysing a student’s text, to take account of the likelihood that a student’s participation in an assessment task is influenced by their experience of multiple other contexts, previously and currently.
  • How to bridge the gap between the synoptic nature of a text analysis and the dynamic nature of meaning making.
  • How to trace ontogenetic development through assessment tasks and practices.
  • How to evaluate the impact of language-based innovations in teaching and learning in higher education.

Coffin, C. and Donohue, J. (2014) A language as social semiotic-based approach to teaching and learning in higher education (Language Learning Monograph Series). Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: Wiley‐Blackwell. Also published in the journal, Language Learning 64, 2014, (Supplement 1).

Hasan, R. (2014) Towards a paradigmatic description of context: systems, metafunctions, and semantics. In Functional Linguistics (2014) 2:9, pp. 121-182; Springer. Revised and reprinted in Hasan, R. (2016) Context in the system and process of language: The collected works of Ruqaiya Hasan, Volume 4, (ed. Webster, J.), pp. 389-470; Sheffield, UK: Equinox.

Jim Donohue works at Queen Mary University of London, as a member of the Learning Development/Thinking Writing team in Academic Development, focusing on the role of writing in learning and teaching. Between 2006-14, he was Head of Open English Language Teaching in the Department of Languages at The Open University UK. He has researched in the fields of academic and professional communication drawing on systemic functional linguistics and Paulo Freirean perspectives.

Jim is co-author of A language as social semiotic-based approach to teaching and learning in higher education ((Wiley‐Blackwell, 2014, with Coffin) and Exploring Grammar: From Formal to Functional (Routledge, 2009, with Coffin and North). He has published in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (and was co-editor with Coffin of the special issue, English for Academic Purposes: contributions from Systemic Functional Linguistics and Academic Literacies), Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, English for Specific Purposes, and Writing & Pedagogy.

Donna R. Miller

Systemic Socio-Semantic Stylistics and Literacy: Taking up the fruitful challenges of the specialized knowledge of verbal art

“The value of a theory lies in the use that can be made of it” (Halliday 1985: 7). Literacy development is of course among the most vital of such uses and SFL has indubitably forged new paths in appliable and socially accountable (cf. Matthiessen 2012) language education through the explicit, ‘visible’ teaching of knowledge about language required for such development. Typically the impetus is located in Australia in the 1980s. Further back in time, however, Hasan was engaging with analogous issues with reference to a specialized, and indeed ‘special’, register: verbal art.
In her inspiring reflections on her career, ‘A Timeless Journey’, written in 2011, Hasan makes immediately clear that from the early ‘60s she was grappling with what to her was the vital question of

[…] how to conceptualize the ‘teaching of literature’ at the university level so as to enable the students to produce their own reasoned analysis of a literary work; this was essential if they were to free themselves from simply following renowned critics […]. (Hasan 2011a: xv)

For her, the question was of the highest importance, “socially, morally and pedagogically”. Subsequently, her ‘liberating’ pedagogic aim is reasserted in her crucial call for a reflection literacy which would “[…] ideally produce in the pupils a disposition to distrust doxic knowledge. i.e. knowledge whose sole authority is the authority of someone in authority” (Hasan 2011b[1996]: 199).

Hasan’s verbal art journey extended well over fifty years: from her work on her PhD thesis (1964), to at least our last personal discussions in January of 2015 on her descriptive and analytical framework for its study. This surely sustains her claim that “of all the applications of linguistics, that to the study of literature is potentially the most challenging and most fruitful” (Hasan 1975: 49) and bids us to engage with it unreservedly.

This talk offers a taste of Hasan’s rich thought on language-in-literature literacy as the prime mover of her systemic functional grammatics-based framework of Systemic Socio-Semantic Stylistics (Hasan (1989[1985]). It also fine-tunes the model with Jakobson’s “pervasive parallelism” (e.g. Miller 2016), putting it forward as an effective tool for both (1) engendering multifaceted specialised knowledge of the contextualized literature text, and, (2) guiding advanced EFL students towards language and literature literacy (Miller & Luporini forthcoming). This twofold task is briefly shown at work in the undergraduate university classroom, through learning tasks that orient students to the pervasive patterns in one text and how they function to foreground its deepest meanings. But how effective our practices are proving to be cannot simply be affirmed. Thus select results of data collected to help answer this question are also in some measure pondered.


Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) Systemic background’, in J.D. Benson & W.S. Greaves (eds), Systemic Perspectives on Discourse, Vol. 1 of Selected Theoretical Papers from the 9th International Systemic Workshop. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1–15.

Hasan, R. (1964) ‘A Linguistic Study of Contrasting Linguistic features in the Style of Two Contemporary English Prose Writers’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Hasan, R. (1975) ‘The place of stylistics in the study of verbal art’, in H. Ringborn (ed.), Style and text: Studies presented to Nils Erik Enviste. Skriptor, Stockholm, pp. 49-62.

Hasan, R. (1989[1985]) Language, Linguistics and Verbal Art. Oxford: OUP.

Hasan, R. (2011a) ‘A Timeless Journey: On the Past and Future of Present Knowledge’, In Selected Works of Ruqaiya
Hasan on Applied Linguistics (pp. xiv-xliii). Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Hasan, R., (2011b [1996]) ‘Literacy, everyday talk and society’, in J.J. Webster (ed.), Language and Education: Learning and Teaching in Society, Vol. 3 of The Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan. Sheffield: Equinox, 169-206.

Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2012) ‘Systemic Functional Linguistics as appliable linguistics: social accountability and critical approaches’. D.E.L.T.A. 28 (Especial), 435-471.

Miller, D.R. (2016) ‘Jakobson’s place in Hasan’s Social Semiotic Stylistics: “pervasive parallelism” as symbolic articulation of theme’, in Boucher, W. and Liang, J. (eds) Society in Language, Language in Society: Essays in Honour of Ruqaiya Hasan. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 59-80.

Miller, D.R., & Luporini, A. (forthcoming) ‘Systemic Socio-Semantic Stylistics (SSS) as appliable linguistics: the cases of literary criticism and language teaching/ learning’, in A. Sellami Baklouti & L. Fontaine (eds) Perspectives from Systemic Functional Linguistics. An Appliable Theory of Language. London & New York: Routledge.

Donna R. Miller holds the Chair of English Linguistics at the Department of modern languages, literatures and cultures of the University of Bologna, where she heads the Department’s Centre for Linguistic-Cultural Studies (CeSLiC). Her research has largely focused, in an SFL perspective, on register analysis, particularly in institutional text types and literature; many of these studies are corpus-assisted and focus on the grammar of speaker evaluation in terms of APPRAISAL SYSTEMS.

As her chapters in the Routledge Handbook of SFL (2017) and the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook of SFL testify, in recent years Miller has actively taken up the defence of Ruqaiya Hasan’s framework for the study of Verbal Art and has also been reflecting intensely on Jakobson’s place within it. In addition, she and A. Luporini investigate how this frontline stylistics might achieve its social accountability in the university context of the teaching/ learning of L2 English in the forthcoming “Systemic Socio-Semantic Stylistics (SSS) as appliable linguistics: the cases of literary criticism and language teaching/ learning”, in Sellami Baklouti and Fontaine (eds), Perspectives from Systemic Functional Linguistics: An Appliable Theory of Language, Routledge.

Wolfgang Zydatiss

Academic literacy in the educational system: A functional linguistics perspective on the German CLIL programmes

The so-called ′bilingual tracks′ of the secondary schools have become a huge success in the German educational system, particularly since the curricular concept of using a foreign language for subject matter teaching has undergone functional differentiation – ranging (at the extremes) from ′two-way immersion′ beginning in the primary school to ′bilingual modules′ at all types of general or vocational schooling. In the European context these programmes are known under the name of ′CLIL′ (= content and language integrated learning). The ′bilingual wings′ were started in the late 1960s putting reconciliation between France and Germany at the top of the political agenda. Meanwhile a sort of ′integrated bilingual didactics′ has come about for the curricular concept, which may serve as a model for a new development in the educational system as a whole (using German as the medium of instruction): namely the systematic and cumulative integration of content and language teaching (what we call ′fachbezogene Bildungssprache′ and ′Durchgängige sprachliche Bildung′ – clearly a reference to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s notion of education, ie. Bildung).

This is where functional linguistics will come in: According to Systemic Functional Linguistics (short SFL: Halliday), and the educational linguistics based on it, there is a strong correlation between knowledge building and the linguistic resources available to learners in developing ′academic literacy′. SFL also tells us that there is variation of context-embedded language use (′register′ being the fundamental theoretical concept), calling for appropriateness in terms of linguistic and textual conventions as well as addressees’ expectations. These aspects are crucial for educational processes, because academic language (ie. ′CALP′ or the ′language of schooling′: Cummins; Schleppegrell) is not identical with ′everyday / colloquial / commonsense language′ or ′BICS′ (that is, the vernacular). Taking the growing heterogeneity of our classrooms into account plus the obvious changes of a so-called knowledge society the educational field faces a number of severe challenges (which will probably create a considerable amount of resistance):

  • the progressive development of academic literacy across the various domains of the curriculum and across the different types of schooling and/or vocational training,
  • the acceptance of the discursive genre linked to sociocultural phenomena as the basic unit of the communicative use of language (instead of the sentence and of algorithmic rules, as in formal-structuralist linguistics),
  • the abolition of the mental set related to the notion of ′cultural capital′ (Bourdieu) built up mainly in the home during the pre-school years, thereby explicitly promoting the status of ′generic learning′ as a duty of our schools (esp. with regard to generic writing and the role of language awareness),
  • the creation of open minds for language-sensitive approaches to teaching curricular content, including various kinds of ′scaffolding′ given to learners (Gibbons, Hammond, Thürmann) to accomplish curricular (esp. text-bound) tasks,
  • the acceptance of ′verbal thinking′ as the species-specific synthesis of language and thought (note also Vygotsky’s concept of ′cognitive-cultural tools′), thus paying due attention to cognitive operations cropping up in subject matter teaching (the so-called ′academic discourse functions′: Dalton-Puffer, Zydatiß) as well as
  • the introduction of different testing procedures regarding learners’ performance, for example by way of ′formative assessment′ drawing upon generic scales and descriptors.

The talk will provide ample evidence, data and references to the points mentioned above.


Cope, Bill & Kalantzis, Mary (1993) The Powers of Literacy. A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing. London: Falmer Press.
Gibbons, Pauline (2009) English Learners’ Academic Literacy and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: E. Arnold.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1993) Towards a language-based theory of learning. Linguistics and Education 5, 93-116.
Schleppegrell, Mary (2010) The Language of Schooling. A Functional Linguistics Perspective. New York & London: Routledge [2004: Lawrence Erlbaum].
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978) Mind in Society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wolfgang Zydatiss was trained as a teacher of chemistry and English in Berlin, where he taught a number of subjects for several years at different types of school (interrupted by spells as an assistant teacher of German in Edinburgh and London). He then did linguistics at postgraduate level at Edinburgh University, before he accepted the post of EFL education – first at Berlin’s College of Education, later on at Berlin’s Free University. He now works (as a so-called “senior professor”) at Berlin’s Humboldt University focusing on ‘content and language integrated learning’ (= CLIL). He has published widely on various questions of the EFL curriculum. His present-day research interests relate mainly to a language-sensitive approach to subject-matter teaching in English-medium instruction at the different branches of the German school system (functional linguistics plus sociocultural theory being considered solid theoretical foundations for this endeavour).