EML504 Language & language development
Module 1 Understanding approaches to TESOL
Overview | Introduction | Skinner | Chomsky | Sociolinguistics | Interactionism | Language and culture | Social learning theory | Module 2

Theories of language  
 Halliday's Theory - language as a social semiotic

Halliday's  theory of "language as a social semiotic" is a very sophisticated, elaborate, "extravagant" (Halliday 1994) sociocultural theory of language, which really builds upon, extends, earlier theories of language and culture and language as social interaction. Its sophistication is in the way Halliday specifies the semiotics of the culture at the level of grammatical constituent, at the level of clause.

Towards Critical Literacies

A theory which can specify semiotic meanings, or cultural signs, at the level of clause is a powerful tool for critical literacy. Janks (1999) gives a very clear outline of different understandings of different views of "critical literacies". Her outline is a useful frame for reading Halliday's philosophies and the functional grammar most associated with his name, together with the views of literacies and related pedagogies which are based on that grammar (Cope & Kalantzis (eds) 2000; Kress & van Leeuwen 1996; Unsworth 1993; and others). Janks writes:

Critical literacy education, based on a sociocultural theory of language, is particularly concerned with teaching learners to understand and manage the relationship between language and power. This theory argues that the use of language is a form of social practice and that all social practices are embedded in specific sociohistorical contexts where existing social relations are reproduced or contested and where different interests are served.   
If one looks across the different realisations of critical literacy, it is possible to argue that different versions foreground one or other of domination, diversity, access or design/creativity. For example the work that flows from Lancaster focuses on critical discourse analysis and deconstruction in order to understand how language works to position readers - its focus is on language and domination. The genre theorists have done important work making the features of dominant genres explicit, in order to give students from marginalised discourses greater access to them. The New Literacy Studies show the importance of recognising diversity. The New London Group's work in multiliteracies foregrounds the multiplicity of semiotic systems across diverse cultural locations now made more salient by the new technologies. The focus here is on diversity and design. Design, in particular, focuses on creativity and change (Janks 1999).  

Unsworth (1999) follows the theme of "multiliteracies". He writes:

The literacies involved in schooling and in social life are complex social practices involving the interpretation, production and use of a range of meaning making systems, including language and image. These are negotiated in a range of formats from traditional page-based material to screen-based electronic multimedia………..What is involved is learning new meaning-based grammatical and structural descriptions of visual and verbal text designed to enhance the effective and critical use of multiliteracies. (Unsworth 1999) http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/EDUP4012Outline2000/EDUP4012OUTLINE2000.html

Inevitably a discussion of sociocultural theories demands some definition of what we mean by culture.  My discussions of "culture" so far have treated "culture" as though its meanings are self-evident, transparent, although Lemke's chapter locates the meaning of "culture" with systems of "meaning-making".  Lankshear with, Gee, Knobel & Searle (1997) (See your Booklet) offer a number of different definitions of "culture".  However, I shall use the term, following Lemke and Huisman (1998), "loosely and holistically" because they articulate the particular view of  culture which underpins Halliday's theory.  Rosemary Huisman writes:

a culture...is constituted of semiotic acts, meaningful acts, realized in all the material possibilities of the culture (including social relations and bodily behaviour). Of these possibilities for realization, language is undoubtedly the most complex. Halliday's description of 'language as a social semiotic' means that, in his model of language, semantic acts, meaningful acts in language, are semiotic acts, socially meaningful behaviour (Huisman 1998: 8).

The importance of context and language function are theorised far more comprehensively in Halliday's work, than in Austin's Speech Act Theory. Michael Halliday's name is almost synonymous with systemic functional linguistics.  As you would be aware from the other references to systemic linguistics the foundation of the theory is that language, in all its cultural and social forms, is about achieving cultural and social purposes, through the kinds of meaning making resources available in the culture.

Across cultural groups, and within subgroups of those groups, there will be recognisable, and specifiable, ways in which meanings are made; there are identifiable patterns to our interactions because they have served our culture historically. We could also discern, should we set out as historical scholars, or historical anthropologists, gradual changes in how we have achieved our meaning making acts (spoken, written and visual). And we could, I am certain, identify historical changes wrought from all kinds of sources which brought those changes. When I was an undergraduate forty years ago our English Literature class had a tutorial called 'the dating class' (yes, it did cause little sniggers). In the class we were supposed to be able to date a piece of writing (from the sixteenth to the twentieth century) within a decade. Sometimes I got it right - usually when I recognised the piece - and then I would be able to draw on my knowledge of the era and explain how the text was representative. I often wondered about the value of the exercise, apart from building knowledge and honing our skills in argument and explanation and making us feel clever. Now I see what I learnt in terms of sociocultural contexts and the kinds of meaning making resources, grammatical and textual, available in those different eras. The social purposes of those communities were achieved in specific textual ways, and those textual practices changed as the communities changed. Our study wasn't framed like that (classes were always a test); but classes might have been framed like that, the only reason the activities made sense is because of the links between context and ways of making meaning.

The literature we examined in our classes were demonstrations of the processes of reproduction and change in meaning making. We are now living in an age of staggering change; but the speed of change must have been similarly staggering during the Industrial Revolution; or at times of great explorations, migrations and catastrophes. The author's represented in Cope and Kalantzis (eds) (2000) are theorising these very things. They conceptualise reproduction and change in terms of Available Design and The Redesigned (which then becomes Available Design). They are driven, too, by concern for personal lives and the future. The Multiliteracies Project is about the interactional nature of personal lives and meaning making potentials of cultures.
If we put all of this together and consider the student who crosses cultural boundaries then it is little wonder that "culture shock" features in the literature of language teaching (Brick 1991; Hernandez 1997). If we are dislocated from the signs we have lived by, the sign systems embedded in our daily lives, then we will experience some trauma. Even if those signs are disrupted, rather than dislocated, we are still likely to feel some confusion.
The concept of "meaning potential" is the foundation of Michael Halliday's theory of language. Unlike Chomsky's view of language as a syntactic system innate in the mind, Halliday's theory of language is as a set of finite interlocking systems of semantic choices, which are realised in wordings, or lexicogrammatical structures: in vocabulary and syntax.
 Hasan argues that language is not a capacity we carry around in our brains, rather, it is a resource, a cultural resource (Hasan 1996).
In Halliday's theory, language is firmly embedded in cultural acts. In fact, Halliday, following Malinowski's (1923) argument that language is a mode of behaviour, writes that there is no such thing as a "purely" grammatical element.


The most basic grammatical structure (S)ubject (V)erb (O)bject derives from our experience of the world, of someone [or thing, or abstraction] doing something to someone or thing, or abstraction (Halliday 1973: 31). 

This puts a very different interpretation on linguistic universals. Rather than being an innate syntactic structure in our brains this kernel structure is based on our human experience of the world. 

Hockett (1966), in his summary of linguistic universals included the item:

Every language has as distinction between one-referent and two-referent predicators. In Mary is singing the predicator is singing is of the one referent sort (and Mary is the referent); In John struck Bill, the predictor is of the two-referent sort.
In systemics the referents are called participants, and they will have identifiable semantic roles: they might be represented as Actors (as Mary is an Actor in Hockett's) sentence. They might be an represented as Agents (as John is an Agent in Hockett's example; or they might be represented as the Affecteds, as Bill is the Affected in Hockett's sentence). They might be engaged in a Creative Process (Verb) as Mary is; or they might be engaged in a Material Action Process (Verb) as John is. John's Action is "dispositive" (about control) and it is Goal directed.

With these grammatical examples in mind, together with the theory that such universal grammatical structures derive from behaviour, and in turn construct our behaviour symbolically through our interactions from babyhood, I hope you have the foundational idea of Halliday's socicultural theory of language. I shall illustrate a little more.

Take for example tiny babies. From the beginning they are involved in someone doing something to them or for them; or they are doing something themselves. They are participants in processes. Through their daily activities they are involved in processes by themselves, such as gurgling, smiling, crying, crawling. These are one participant processes. (Traditionally such processes were classified as intransitive verbs.) The participant in these processes are Actors. These examples are mostly material action processes, but crying is a behavioural processes, which is an action, but it has a mental process element in it.

But there are also processes in which someone else is involved. For example, the parent pats the baby's back. This is still a material (action) process but two participants are involved in it. In such a situation One participant will be the Actor, or Agent, and the other will be the Affected. Some processes are thus restricted to one or two participants.

Others might have, inherently, either one or two participants. From earliest days the baby lives this knowledge. The baby might lift her head; or the parent might lift her head. In either case the baby is the one who 'acts' the process. From the beginning, then the baby 'understands', bodily, about what linguists call the ergative (which is when there is an outside Causer, or Initiator, of the action.) The baby, 'knows', too, when she has control, agency, over her own actions, and when someone else assumes power over them.

Thus we might glimpse how language is an expression of the social semiotic:
And each 'choice' we make, occurs within an environment of other 'choices', for the terms of the systems are mutually exclusive and dependent. And though the baby 'understands' about being an Actor, or an Agent, or an Affected, as she learns to speak she learns when she speaks, that there are options about what is reflected in the linguistic event: She might say, 'I was taken to school', so the Agent is left implicit. She might say, 'I was taken to school by my Mum.' Or she might say, 'Mum took me to school.' The event in the real world, the thesis is the same; but the linguistic event indicates the way language makes our reality: the way it 'constructs' what we see. Similarly she might say, 'Mum chopped quickly', or 'Mum chopped the wood quickly'. In all processes the 'participants' are cast in semantic roles derived experientially: they are roles such as Beneficiary, Benefactor, Sayer, Senser, Affected, Goal, Agent, Initiator, Attributor, Initiator, Medium (when we are the Actors of the process, but there is a separate Initiator, so we are really the Medium of the action). Eventually the child learns too, that ideas, metaphenomenon, have power to be Actors and Agents, and can put humans in the role of the Affected. Thus she might say, 'The idea that I was going to boarding school (Causer) kept me (Medium) awake all night.' However, if she says, 'The idea that I was going to boarding school gave me bad dreams,' then the roles change to Benefactor and Receiver. She is still in a position of powerlessness, as anyone knows if they have accepted the role of Receiver of unwanted gifts. If she had said, 'When the idea of going to boarding school gave me bad dreams I got up and finished reading my book,' then she would have been reassuming the roles of Actor: and her role of Receiver has been distanced to the temporal circumstances of her Actor roles.

This is a brief introduction to Halliday's model of the  ideational or cognitive function of language which derives from what he has called the system of  transitivity. This system maps the finite choices we have for representing participants (Subjects and Objects) and processes (Verbs). Hopefully it will give you an idea of how our daily cultural actions are instantiated in our linguistic relationships and choices and hopefully it will give you an idea of what a fine-grained model this is for tracking the way linguistic interactions are about cultural meanings, and how they might shape not just our mental development (as in Vygotsky's theory) but our behaviours, our beliefs and attitudes and our sense of who we are.

Mary                          is singing

[W}e are also conscious of .... invisible racial discourses which underpin representations of both European and Aboriginal races and which maintain relationships of hegemony and subjugation. For example, we are conscious of  the way subjugating discourses about Aboriginal cultures derive from the invisibility of European ‘whiteness’ as a racialised category which is normative (hooks 1994; Morrison 1992; Giroux 1991). We are conscious of how the invisibility of ‘whiteness’ is one of the ways ‘whiteness’ is maintained as normative; we are conscious that residual colonial discourses in our contemporary Australia are partially reproduced by representations of ‘whiteness’ as normative. We are conscious that ‘whiteness’ as normative is also maintained by the negation of other races (Fanon 1967/1952), by their representation as inferior, as inadequate (Cazden 2000, Taylor 1994) which has disastrous psychological, educational, social, political and economic consequences (Jones & Phillip 2000). 
In systemic theory the ideational function is one of three language functions, which are all mapped together at the level of the clause. The other functions are the interpersonal and the textual. This is a tripartite model of language.   

As you might see, even from such a small example of real language, in a seemingly neutral representation of linguistic knowledge, systemic theory is a powerful tool in critical literacy as it allows us to detail, for example, how agency is represented in texts and how our attitudes and judgements are represented to shape the reader's attitudes and judgements.  

Cope and Kalantzis write: 

Transitivity indicates how much agency and effect one designs into sentence.  John struck Mary' has more effect on Mary than 'John struck at Mary', and John struck Mary' has more agency than 'Mary was struck.’ Since we humans connect agency and effect with responsibility and blame in many domains (discourses), these are not just matters of grammar. There are ways of Designing language to engage in actions like blaming, avoiding blame, or backgrounding certain things against others.  
(Cope and Kalantzsis, in Cope and Kalantzsis (eds) 2000: 28)
P. Jones & J. Phillip (1999). Towards a Grammar for the 21st Century. Paper presented at ISFC26, July, Singapore. (Reproduced with permission.)
Functional Grammar

Structurally Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) works from the classifications of traditional grammar; those classifications were, in any case, 'functional'. We can see this by considering the parallels between the traditional grammatical classifications and the constituent elements of clauses which we identify with the systemic functional categories which realise or achieve one of the three macro-functions of language. The functional terminology is significant because it makes explicit the behavioural, functional, origins of grammar.

The ideational, or cognitive function of language is realised by choices of process (verb) type; subject and object choices are to do with "participants" and their semantic roles; and "circumstances"  are to do with adverbial choice:

The interpersonal function is to do with the kinds of communication roles chosen, together with ways of assessing usuality and probability: The textual function of language
B. Derewianka (1991). A functional model of language. English literacy round table papers. Sydney: NSW Board of Studies, pp. 1-26.
If you wish to learn more about the Functional Grammar then we chosen this sound reading as an introduction, and reference for you. It is an very refined tool for critical literacy, as it allows us to specify the kinds of cultural meanings which are instatiated in the grammar of  texts. It is a very satisfactory grammar because it takes us from the level of sentence (where other grammars finished) and allows us to examine textual structures. Should you wish to learn more about functional grammar then there are some very good links developed and generously made available by Len Unsworth of Sydney University.

Len Unsworth's SFL Links:
Transitivity: http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/EDUP3022Session5.html
Mood and Modality: http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/Mood_%26_Modality.html
Clauses: http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/EDUP3022Session3.html
Theme and Rheme: http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/EDUP3022Session4.html
Nominal groups - Nouns more than the names of things: http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/EDUP3022Session6.html
Introduction to a Functional Model:  http://www.edfac.usyd.edu.au/staff/unswortl/IntroductionFunctional_Mo.html
There are also some amazing American sites where you can test your grammar knowledge in quizzes. They are traditional grammar exercises, but systemic functional grammar basically uses traditional grammatical categories. The one thing that is different is that in the systemic functional model is that structures containing participle verbs are classified as clauses, whereas in the quizzes they are classified as phrases. Processes (verbs) in SFL are very important realisations of meaning, so they are always noted.


Quizzes - Visit one site and you will find many links (at least a thousand!)
Entering one of these sites is like entering the valley of the Pied Piper -
You might be lost in Cyberspace for a very long time
Gleeson, M (1998). Learn About Australia while studying grammar. http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/quizzes/9801/mg-australia.html
This is really a multiple choice vocabulary-syntax quiz. You could easily develop something similar that was pencil and paper, and linked, for example, to cohesive features of a text.
Hardy, D. ()Interactive Quizzes. Northern Illinois University. (Last modified) [Accessed 2 May 2001] http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/quiz_list.stm
This site is worth visiting. It offers quizzes in traditional grammatical categories. Some of the quizzes have been designed by students. You might find some interesting ideas for constructing quizzes for a text-based functional grammar.
(2001) Self Study Quizzes for ESL students (Copyright (C) 1995-2001)
There are over 1000 quizzes, designed by various people. (Take your lunch and a cup of tea.)
Bradley, l. (1998) One Word Two Meanings   [Accessed 2 May 2001]
This is very good for a light hearted vocabulary game. (I wish I knew how to program for such games!)

Grammar and Writing
A guide to Grammar and Writing http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm
An Account of Coherence  [Accessed 2 may 2001]
We shall use these exercises in EML505, but you might like to look at them for classroom ideas.

Discourses and language variations

Systemic theory shows us how our language interactions are transmitters and reproducers, and disrupters, of our cultural and social practices. Perhaps the behaviours Charles Hockett represented in his most erudite chapter are not so far away.

If you think about it, we are born into stories which are already partly told. The embryonic shape of our story awaits in the room that has been prepared for us. That shape will probably be even more definite now that parents can choose to know the sex of their child months before it is born. Recently a young father remarked to me, as we watched his two children play, "You know Robbie is always running around; by this age [20 months] Catherine was really interested in books." I did point out that he and his partner had read to Catherine while she was still wrapped in a shawl. Catherine slept in a room with a bookcase overloaded with books (not all hers). There is not even a book shelf in Robbie's room. Robbie has a huge box of toys, many of which are trucks, cars and trains. It is not that I am making a case for a deterministic socialisation theory, but I do suggest, following a sociocultural theory of language interaction, that children become good at reading the signs. They learn how they are expected to be. They become cultural subjects.

This is not surprising. After all, they engage with the signs of their milieu through their daily interactions in the institutions of family and childcare. The things that are focused for them, the things which give their lives order and predictability, meaning, are embedded in their social interactions and the language which structures those interactions. Fairclough writes of how this kind of interaction functions: "social institutions are articulated in the social formation" Fairclough 1992: 63).

Halliday's theory is not just a theory of language, it is a theory of behaviour; not in the sense of Skinner's theory of behaviour, but in how, through interactions we become cultural subjects, so that our lives embody our culture with all its complexities, ambiguities and contradictions, its potential for agencies, or lack of them.

Even in the children of this one family I have mentioned it is possible to see cultural dynamics at play, as through family interactions the children are gaining access to different kinds of agencies and behaviours. At the back of it I already hear discourses about boys and girls and differential literacy development. This is about  Available Designs in 2001. 1966 does not seem so far away; although Robbie's and Catherine's father had not yet been born. As Cope and Kalantzis (2000) argue we need some Redesigns for social futures. Transformed Practice is an important goal.
In this sociocultural theory, one of the dominant ways cultural patterns are maintained, reproduced, transmitted - and disrupted - is through what has been called "discursive formations", or orders of discourse (Foucault 1972, 1973; Threadgold 1991; Fairclough 1992).

I have mentioned an educational discourse, which is also marked by a gendered discourse. Hockett's sample sentences represent a gendered discourse. Discourses are institutionalised habits of thinking and behaving and thus representing aspects of social and cultural practices so that ways of being and associated social structures and behaviours seem natural, unremarkable. Discourses are ideologically marked and to do with power.

Gee writes:
A discourse is a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or 'social network'   (Gee 1990: 143).
However, the process of identification may be, usually is, unconscious. Because they are ideological constructs, they are naturalised and invisible. I am sure Hockett had no idea that he was subject to, and spoken by, a gendered discourse.
Here are some points Fairclough has made about the meaning of  "Discourse": Fairclough is careful not to suggest that discourses are socially determining, even though they tend to be consistent and durable. He writes of educational settings which are both sustained by discourses and which also might transform them through interactions:
Change comes through contestations of discourses. All cultures are heteroglossic, many voiced. We live and act by exchanging those voices, or discourses.
How many discourses can you identify operating in  
  •  your personal life?
  •  the media? 
  •  your educational site?

When I was growing up in Australia in the forties and fifties, there was the discourses on the settlement of Australia; the glory of the Empire; the heroism of war; the value of being 'pure'; the responsibility of young women because men were controlled by sexual desires; the horror of being a spinster; the value of the least person in the eyes of God; the value of education; the virtue of obedience and of being ladylike; the sanctity of truthfulness and keeping your word; the dignity of labour....

Some of these remain, although in different forms. I am more conscious now of monetary discourses, of globalisation, ways of representing refugees, discourses of social justice; of colonial and postcolonial discourses. I am bothered by discourses of 'English as an international language' when "the spread of English" is represented as "natural, neutral and beneficial" (Pennycook 1994).

In the last few years I have become aware of racial discourses which maintain the invisibility of whiteness, and gendered discourses which maintain the invisibility of heterosexuality.

Discourses in Adult-child interactions
Ruqiaya Hasan (1986) The ontogenesis of ideology: An interpretation of mother child talk.

Before asking you to read an extract from Halliday it should be helpful to illustrate the way discourses are mediated within the home through family interactions. Hasan is a systemic linguist who has conducted extensive studies of family and child interactions. Her 1986 study focuses on the ideology of women's work in the home. She defined ideology as a "system of ideas which appears as if inevitable". She was especially interested in the systems of ideas about women's work as they were reproduced and transmitted to children in natural interactions between mother and child in the privacy of the home.

What Hasan (1986) found was a consistent semantic frame, a coding orientation which represented women's work as "non-work". This was constituted through conversations between the mother and child about the father's 'being at work', and his work, in the waged economy was consistently valued above all the work she accomplished in the home.

The study illustrates how family interactions of the most apparently simple kind transmit and maintain ideas and attitudes, circulating at higher institutional levels. It also validates the systemic functional model, as a representation of semantic choices
and thus its usefulness as a research tool for social interactions.


Geoff Williams (2000). The production of pedagogic discourse.

Geoff Williams focused on interactions between parent (usually mother) and child during book readings. Williams had multiple interests in doing the research. Fundamentally the research was about:

The ways in which joint-book reading is re-contextualized into school literacy practices from its origins in domestic life. I am particularly interested in the possibility of different variants of joint book-reading occurring in families in different locations, and how these variants are positioned in relation to pedagogic discourses of early literacy development (Williams 2000: 89).
Again the research instrument was systemic linguistics as a refined model for analysing interactions during the book reading sessions. Williams used an linguistic model developed by Hasan to record choice variations in dyad interactions.

There were twenty children in the study, divided into two groups according to the "variations in social locations" which were identified according to the parents' occupation. The groups were "lower-autonomy professional group" and "higher-autonomy professional group". The divisions should not be seen crudely as social class divisions: the sampling ws not about categorising people, but about "class relations and class processes" (O'Connell 1982, cited in Williams 119).
There are often warm and fuzzy ideas about the efficacy of joint book reading with young children. There are the common sense views of children with such experiences being "advantaged". Brice Heath's study (1982) suggested that, if by "advantaged" we mean that the child will make an easy and successful transition to school literacy, the outcomes are not so simple. William's study takes into account Brice Heath's conclusions that the way families "take from books" can  parallel the literacy pedagogy of schools, in which case the common sense view is vindicated. Or the interactions can be quite different. The joint book reading itself is not the issue. The issue is the nature of the family interactions during the readings - and at other times - and how closely they accord with school literacy interactions.

One of the differences between Brice Heath's and Williams' study are:

Bernstein's model is about how official pedagogic discourses (of educational systems) recontextualise local pedagogic discourses (of the family) in a regulatory way to do with "the social division of labour within a social formation". Bernstein argued that the regulatory function of "the pedagogic device" is about "who may have access to what knowledge, and who may have access to discursive power" (Williams 2000: 111). Bernstein suggests (1990) "it is possible to distinguish between families 'with respect to the extent to which the "local [family] pedagogic practice" is embedded in an "official pedagogic discourse"' (cited in Williams 2000: 113).

 To take such a possibility into account Williams also collected interaction data from school activities of joint book reading.

The outcomes of Williams' study reveal that in both family groups there were great similarities in interaction patterns, in terms of time spent with books  and the number of the interactions. There were, however, a couple of differences in interaction patterns which were crucial to the parallel with the school discourses. The match was between the Higher-Autonomy Professional group and the school discourse.


Can you predict what the significant interactional differences might be?  

Record your ideas.

The differences were to do with such interactions as,
the "way mothers implicated some aspect of the child's subjective consciousness in the talk. Formally, this is the feature [prefaced: subjective: other: child] selected by the mother. In example 4, Message 01 is an example of this choices: 'Who do you think's got the right story?'...The median of the LAP group was 2.50 and the HAP group 14.50 (p<.023). analysis of the classroom discourse again show that this was a resource teachers frequently selected (Williams 2000: 108).
There was also a significant difference from the choice from [prefaced] resources,
[prefaced:interpersonal:nonattitudinal:modal] the selection of this feature is exemplified by a message such as a mother's comment, 'I think he's using it as a paintbrush' (Williams 2000:109)
Williams did do more delicate analyses, but this might give you some idea of the subtle aspects of how family interactions might be imbricated in wider social formations. One of the other important features of Bernstein's model of the "pedagogic device" is to do with regulation through evaluation. Williams also speculates on the foundations of the pedagogic device of joint book readings and how they have been socially distributed so that some social locations have access to them and others do not.

On his comparative analyses of joint book readings and the relationships of the sample groups to the official regulatory discourses of the "pedagogic device" as modelled by Bernstein, Williams writes:

A 'mirror' relation is created for the HAP group, but a distortion relation for the LAP group. The distortion is not just one of isolated specific aspects of interaction such as frequency of questions, even types of questions, nor of the tenor of relations between mother and child. It rather concerns a difference in the development of literate subjectivities within the social groups through joint book-reading. Where interactive language plays a reasonably prominent part in joint-bookreading in the home, the activity appears to be a very similar set of interpretive practices when it is recontextualized in schooling. The evidence of this study suggests that this 'mirror' relation only holds for members of the HAP group. For members of the LAP group the basis for misrecognition is effectively laid.  

One interesting aspect of HAP practice is that it appears to be an exaggerated version of school practice. HAP mothers generally foreground the individuation of consciousness through joint-bookreading more intensively than do the K[indergarten] teachers. In this specific respect the findings contrast with results from Hasan's study, where the school practice was an exaggerated form of HAP practice. A plausible reading of the reason for this difference is that the idealized subjects of pedagogic discourse, projected back to the HAP group, act to magnify crucial aspects of interaction in joint book-reading, but in so doing it is actually re-adopting features which were earlier derived from this region of social class practices for use in literacy pedagogy. This is a particularly intense form of partnership (Williams 2000: 118).  


This is a meticulous study of the relationship between pedagogic discourses and social class discourses. It shows how subjectivities and the reproduction of social class formations are constructed within the most protected and private domestic settings: mothers interacting with their children reading books.

Another important issue which arises from the study is the construction of different kinds of literary subjectivities through interactions which focus on the readers' consciousness of their own role in judgements and forming inferences: some children are constructed to be conscious of themselves as "thinkers". NB Williams makes no value judgements on the differences in family interactions - he is interested in how social formations are maintained and reproduced through educational discourses.

How do you think the social formations Williams identifies might be disrupted in the interests of a more just distribution of knowledge?  

What kinds of interactions do you encourage in joint book readings?  

Who might be included in your comments and questions?  

Who might be excluded?  

If possible record a book reading/text reading session and then consider the interactions in the light of Williams' arguments about the construction of subjectivities:   

  • Reflect on what your interactions might teach the students about their own mental process, social efficacy and agency.

These readings have been selected to consolidate your understandings of Halliday's sociocultural theory as explained so far.  The article by Courts is especially significant because it takes up the issue of dialect variations and the relationship of those variations to access to social status and power.

Halliday's (1978) chapter is very dense, as he considers the relationship between language, culture and social situation and explains the child's pre-language communication system in this context. He also considers the child's emergent meaning making within this context. He also considers the relationship between dialectal varieties, social class coding orientations and access to education. the work of Bernstein is again drawn upon, together with that of Benjamin Whorf.

Painter's (1999) chapter has been selected because it explicates Bernstein's work on what he called "elaborated" and "restricted" "coding orientations", which you should find helpful. It is one of the finest summations of Bernstein's early work on coding orientations which I have read. His early work and interpretations of it appear in many language text books - and the representations are often distorted and misleading.; this one is very precise and balanced.

The extract from Kress's chapter (2000)  has been selected because visual literacy is important and Kress uses a model of visual grammar based on the same kinds of  functions as Halliday's language model.

Lankshear et al (1997) examine different views of culture, discuss the meanings of Discourse, consider how we develop concepts (which is significant in terms of how vocabulary develops). But above all the authors examine the way  language variation, including dialect variations, are linked to access to knowledge and power.

Nakata's chapter (2000) has been included because it offers a different perspective on the best practice for teaching Torres Strait bidialectal/bilingual students.

Courts (1997) examines meanings of Discourse/discourse and also discusses the issue of dialectal variations. TESOL teachers are always faced with the issue of WHICH English? The accent and dialect we speak signifies our social identities. Some accents and dialects are stigmatised, they are non-hegemonic; some are hegemonic. Courts deals with these issues: the relationship between accent, dialect and access to power.

Study Suggestions
M.A.K. Halliday (1978). A functional approach to language and language development. In Language as social semiotic. London: Edward Arnold. pp. 16-35.
The child learns his mother tongue in the context of behavioural settings where the norms of his culture are acted out for him and enunciated for him in settings of parental control, instruction, personal interaction and the like; and, reciprocally he is 'socialized' into the value systems and behaviour patterns of the culture through the use of language at the same time as he is learning it (Halliday 1978: 23).  
  C. Painter. (1999). Bernstein: cultural reproduction through language. In Learning Through Language in Early Childhood. Open Linguistics Series. General Editor, Robin Fawcett. London: Cassell. pp. 32-36.
It is interesting that Painter's account of a child learning the language which is represented in this text, includes details of the language features which shows the child in the processes of learning a universalistic code of language (elaborated code), which will eventually give him the option of knowledge outside of the everyday, commonsense world. As with the children in Williams' Higher Autonomy Professional group, the child of Painter's study learns, in the everyday interactions of the family, the language of official instruction which will give him access to educational success. G. Kress (2000) Potentials and limitations of semiotic modes, in Cope & Kalantzis (Eds) 2000, Ch 9, pp. 193-202
The material so far has stressed the primacy of language; but other modes are also important semiotic systems. Kress, and his colleague, van Leeuwen (1996), have been applying the principles of Halliday's tripartite functional grammar to visual images. Thus they take into account the ideational (cognitive content), the interpersonal and textual functions of images. In this chapter Kress identifies these functions in visual grammar as the "three communicational demands": F. Christie (1998). Learning the literacies of primary and secondary schooling. In Literacy and schooling. F. Christie & R. Misson (eds). London: Routledge pp. 47-73.
This reading has been chosen to illustrate how different grammatical choices make different meanings; and to illustrate the relationship between context of situation,  the social purposes of texts, their structures and their grammatical features. It should show you that language is a resource for cultural meanings, rather than a capacity that we carry around in our heads. The thing is, some people have been born into access to those meanings and others have not. It is our responsibility to teach explicitly what some have learnt implicitly. C. Lankshear with, P. J. Gee, M.  Knobel. & C. Searle (1997). Language and cultural process. In Changing literacies. Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press, pp. 11-37. 
Few would deny that these children [Aboriginal children] have the right to learn SE [Standard English]., which is after all a prerequisite for equal participation in areas such as employment and further education. Yet AE-speaking [Aboriginal English] children should also have the right to education in their own dialect, and to learn SE as a second dialect (D. Eades 1993, cited in Lankshear et al: 36).
This reading has been selected because the authors: Dialectal variations are such a critical issue, because attitudes to dialectal variations are very strong. It is very hard for many people to accept that varieties which have been called "incorrect" are valid languages. In the seventies we began using the terms standard and non-standard dialects (Trudgill 1975) (Eades has maintained that label). However, the more recent terms are "dominant" and "non-dominant" dialects, as a way of signifying that such language variations are directly related with the distributions of power. Link:
Eades, D. A matter of survival - Aboriginal english [Accessed 30 April 2001]
This article is a good introduction to the dialect variant of Aboriginal English. You may also wish to brewse the following site:
Language Varieties. http://www.une.edu.au/langnet/links.htm  [Accessed 30 April 2001]  


M. Nakata (2000). History, cultural diversity and English language teaching, in Cope & Kalantzis (Eds) 2000, Ch 5,  pp. 106-120.
It would not be right to complete this topic without considering a different perspective on the education of Aboriginal students and how best to give them access to the Standard English which, as Eades argues, no one would question their right to it. Nakata argues for the necessity of good English teachers and education in English. He laments the historical lack of quality English teaching, but it is quite possible the students have not had good bilingual education either. Whatever is the case, communities have the right to choose the kinds of programs they see as best; programs with community support and decision making are far more likely to achieve success. The issue of indigenous education is extremely difficult.

J. Taylor (2001). Purnululu School Policy (Reproduced with permission.) 
This policy document has been selected because it represents another Aboriginal perspective on the relationship between English and Aboriginal languages, including Kriol.

Courts, P. (1997). Dialects and Discourses. In Multicultural literacies: Dialect, discourse and diversity. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 37-62.
This is a substantial article, it examines issues to do with dialect variations in a very illuminating way within a historical perspective. What has been called Standard English, and Dominant English is here called, "edited English". That is the most neutral classification I have found. Courts also examines "discourse systems" and spends time explaining Gee's use of Discourse/discourse. Gee's usage does seem to be very wide-spread so that language teachers should be familiar with it.

Perhaps attitudes to dialectal differences are changing in Australia for the better:
  • The NSW K-6 English Syllabus (1998), for example, states that home varieties of language should be respected.
  • Monty Boori Prior last year won three literary awards for his novel The Binna Binna Man (2000) which is written in Aboriginal English.
Sociocultural theory and views language and literacy teaching

Unsworth (1993) takes up the theme that students differential access to the linguistic system and forms of knowledge are to do with their positions in the "social system" and argues for the necessity of teaching explicitly towards independent learning. The question of access to hegemonic and privileged knowledge formations in the social system is a particularly important aspect of critical literacy.  Unsworth writes:

  • Since learning and literacy are socially constructed, the 'what' of our learning cannot be separated from the 'how'.
  • Since different key learning areas and social contexts have their own dominant grammatical and generic forms (text types) and grammatical structures, we need to abandon the notion of a singular basic literacy in favour of the development of multiple literacies.
  • Since language is not an inert container for meaning, it is our selection of particular grammatical and generic structures that constructs particular meanings.

  • Since children's access to the linguistic system and to different forms of knowledge is a function of their position in the social system, there needs to be a strategic link between explicit teaching and opportunities for children's independent learning (Unsworth in Unsworth (Ed), 1993: vii-viii). 

    Lankshear and Snyder with Green (2000) summarise some of these important issues in moving the emphasis in language and literacy teaching from "the mind" to the "sociocultural", in which, through the dynamic processes of intersubjectivities cultural processes are mediated, produced, reproduced, or disrupted. They write:

    While current technological changes and related changes in social practices beyond the school are now forcing us to challenge some of our conventional assumptions about literacy, another challenge to long-held beliefs about literacy has been developing within literacy theory since the 1960s and 70s. This is what has become known as a 'sociocultural approach' to literacy. 
    ' Traditionally, literacy has been thought of 'as a largely psychological ability - something true about our heads' (Gee, Hull & Lankshear 1996: 1). That is, to become literate is to have something done to our brains, so that we achieve a special kind of cognitive 'faculty' or inner capacity.   This view reflects the domination of psychology in educational theory and research throughout this century. Being literate has been seen as a matter of cracking the alphabetic code, word-formation skills, phonics, grammar, and comprehension skills. According to this view, encoding and decoding skills serve as building blocks for doing other things and for accessing meanings. For instance, once people are literate, they can get on with learning through the medium of texts - by studying subjects in a curriculum, or by other print-mediated means. When people are literate, they can use 'it' (the skill repertoire, the ability) as a 'tool' to pursue all sorts of 'goods' (employment, knowledge, recreational pleasure, personal development, economic growth, innovation). But to 'get literate' in the first place is seen from this perspective as a matter of inserting the necessary skills into people's heads. There are debates about how best to achieve this (for example, phonics, letter recognition, 'letter chunking'), but those debating the most effective way all share the idea of literacy as basically a 'head thing', a psychological ability.   

    By contrast, understanding literacy as sociocultural practice means that reading and writing can be understood and acquired only within the context of the social, cultural, political, economic and historical practices to which they are integral. This idea was captured by Brian Street's (1984) distinction between the 'autonomous' and 'ideological' models of literacy. Incidentally, the 'sociocultural practice' view of human activity applies equally well to literacy technology and learning. From the sociocultural standpoint, literacy is best understood as 'shorthand for the social practices of reading and writing' (Street 1984: 1). As such, literacy is really 'literacies' as print-based activities take many different forms-some of which are very unlike others in terms of purposes and the kinds of texts involved. According to a sociocultural approach, these differences must he seen as residing in the literacies themselves, rather than outside or independently of them, as we never learn, teach or employ literacy 'skills' in context-free ways, but always within some context of practice. Different social practices - different contexts of practice - 'embed' different forms of literacy.   

    The relationship between human practice and producing and sharing meanings underlies the sociocultural view. Human practices are meaningful ways of doing things, of getting things done (Franklin 1990). For example, social practices of cooking-feeding-eating are not mere 'biologically necessary acts'. They are saturated with cultural meanings, and different groups practise 'cooking-feeding-eating' in different ways. The practice (not one practice, in fact, but many practices) means different things to different groups. And these different meanings do not exist just in the head, and are not produced just in the head. There is a head component, of course, but the 'meaning-making' is based largely in the material practices that take place in the social-cultural settings of the groups involved.   

    According to the sociocultural view, the same is true for literacy as for practices like cooking-feeding-eating. Reading or writing is always reading or writing something in particular with understanding. Different kinds of text require 'somewhat different backgrounds and somewhat different skills' if they are to be read meaningfully (Lankshear and Snyder with Green 2000: 27-29).

    P. Jones (2000). Sociocultural theory. Chapter 2 of PhD project. (Reproduced with permission of the author.)
    This is a very extensive and up-to-date- coverage of the field.
    Please complete Assignment 1