Text and Teaching EFL

For Systemic Functional Linguistics, text is “language that is functional” (H & H, p10). A text has a purpose and a goal. The implications of this were made clear for me in a recent listening lesson. As is their wont, the textbook listening exercise ended with a joke. While, I suppose, this is intended to keep the teacher amused, the student got quite upset that he wasn’t able to follow this particular listening as it was presented. It occurred to me that his problem was not one of vocabulary, he could understand the words well enough, but was instead one of interpretation. He was frustrated because he could ‘get’ the text.

The exercise was a normal EFL exercise to listen to a story and answer some questions about the situation. In other words, the student was trying naturally enough to interpret the text as a straight information-giving text. Yet, when we went back and reinterpreted the text as a joke it suddenly ‘made sense’. We were able to follow the text as each stage unfolded, leading to the final ‘joke’, and could unpack certain key items that ‘signalled’ that text as a joke. It was only then that the student was able to fully access the text. And he told me that was the case. It made me realise the importance for the interpretation of a text of viewing it both as a product, as having some goal or function, and as a process, of unfolding elements leading to that goal. Without keeping this in mind, it seems pointless studying the grammar and vocabulary of a text and miss what it is actually trying to do.

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