Process + Circumstance v Process

Here are some examples that came up in a business class that might cause problems for students but can be clearly explained:

1. I passed on the idea.

  • I (Participant) passed (Process) on the idea (Circumstance) because I didn’t think it would work.
  • I (Participant) passed on (Process) the idea (Participant) to management because I thought it was good.

2. We went over the bridge.

  • We (Participant) went (Process) over the bridge (Circumstance) driving from North Sydney.
  • We (Participant) went over (Process) the bridge (Participant) that we were designing.

3. I looked up the picture.

  • I (Participant) looked (Process) up the picture (Circumstance) to see how the frame was hung.
  • I (Participant) looked up (Process) the picture (Participant) to see who the artist was.

It might also be helpful to point out the phonological changes that can reflect the patterning of the ideational and textual meanings:

  • I passed / on the idea
  • I passed on the idea/



Interpersonal modal Adjunct v Experiential Circumstance

I always do that. (Adjunct)
I do that all the time. (Circumstance)

I usually do that. (Adjunct)
I do that almost everyday. (Circumstance)

I often do that. (Adjunct)
I do that at times. (Circumstance)

I sometimes do that. (Adjunct)
I do that now and then. (Circumstance)

I rarely do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that much. (Circumstance)

I never do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that at all. (Circumstance)

Activity: Verbal group, discourse and Harry Potter

If we teach ‘the tenses’ separately, I think students might not get the interaction between them and how they are used in discourse for different effects. Here is an activity I’ve used with Upper Intermediate – Advanced students, though you could use it in a more simplified form for lower levels. The activity compares the first paragraph of each of the Harry Potter novels and the tense choices made for each one and why.

Here is the first book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Here we can see it is the primary past that is mainly used, with one modal ‘would’. Taking it a rank up to clause, we can also see that it is mainly relational clauses. The first book of a series like this establishes the tone and introduces the characters. The Dursleys are ‘proud’, ‘normal’ and not ‘strange or mysterious’, to be compared of course with the characters to come. The opening establishes a simple tension between the two worlds.

The second book is slightly different:

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

Here the past-in past is mainly used. The tense choice in the opening here provides a continuity link between the action in the first book (secondary past) and the action to come (primary past). On a higher rank, we have also shifted from relational clauses (establishing character) to material clauses (continuing story).

Here is the third opening:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Here we have a much more complicated interplay of primary past and hypotactic expansion of the verbal group. Whereas the first book introduced the characters and the second built on the story, the third book now expands on the character of Harry, reflected in the language choices. Notice also the shift from relational ‘was’ to mental processes ‘hated’, ‘wanted’.

By the fourth book, the characters, story and Harry are fully established and so there is a shift in tone from this narrow focus to introduce the wider wizarding community and the larger story arc that is to come:

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle house was now damp, derelict and unoccupied.

Here we have an interaction between the main action of the story (primary past) and its causes (past-in past). This presages the story arc of Dumbledore delving into Tom Riddle’s past and his evolution into Voldemort.

Book Five sees a pause in the story and back to the Dursley’s:

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald lay parched and yellowing – for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown open in the hope of tempting in a non-existent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

After all the Horwarts action of the first four books and battle within the wizarding world that is to come, here is the mid-point between them. The past-in present takes us out of the main story and gives us a respite away from all the drama, almost like taking a breather before your second wind. Literally the calm before the storm.

Here is the penultimate sixth book:

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the president of a far-distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a long, tiring and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why every one of them was the government’s fault.

In this book, all the various strands of the story that have been introduced so far come together and move towards the final denouement and showdown with Voldemort that will come in the final book. Here also, all of the primary and secondary tense choices, as well as expansion, that have been made previously are used in one long passage. This almost creates a kind of exophoric cohesive tie to the other six books – not of reference or collocation but of tense choice.

The seventh book is the final battle:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Here we have the primary past. It is literally and metaphorically a final showdown. We have no more need of background. Only the primary past is needed.

I think this exercise is useful for demonstrating that tense choices are also discourse choices and it is the interaction of these choices that is important. Notice also how the passages get progressively longer, reflecting the increasing ages of the characters and the increasing complexity of the story.


Materials idea

A great place to find simple texts for classroom use is the website My Life Is Average. It’s a site where people post about the funny little things that happen in ordinary life. They mostly seem to be written by high school kids so tend to be short with simple, casual lexis. One I often use in class is:

Today, I wore different colored socks to school. Nobody noticed.

The texts often have a clear generic pattern of a very simple recount:

  1. Orientation (Today)
  2. Events in chronological order (I wore…socks)
  3. Comment (Nobody noticed)

They can easily be used for nearly every level in adult classes.



I came across this question the other day in an Elementary class:

What are you wearing?

It appears quite straightforward and grammatically of course it is, coming in a textbook unit on present progressive. Usually, that’s as far as it goes. Thinking about it further on an expression plane, however, it struck me that the question can be a lot more complex that it was presented in the textbook (plus, it always seemed like a pretty pointless question – you can see me after all. If not, it’s kind of creepy. I always add the Circumstance to the party). The question does actually have at least three distinct meanings differentiated by expression:

  1. What are you wearing? (focus on clothes in general)
  2. What are you wearing? (that I am not, or compared)
  3. What are you wearing? (tell me the truth)
  4. What are you wearing? (why are you wearing that?)

These meanings are often just put down to ‘nuance’ and seen as unimportant or too subtle/difficult for elementary learners but, personally, I think they are a fundamental part of the ‘meaning’ of the question and, as such, constrain or influence the answer. For question 1. we might just answer factually whereas question 2., with the interpersonal emphasis, might be an indirect request for help in choosing something. Question 4. instead might focus on justifying a choice (why, what’s wrong with it?).

The question for me is whether these differences are, in fact, too difficult for foreign language learners.There seem to be several issues at play. Firstly, with the influence or interference of the L1, do L2 learners construe the expression plane differently and instead use different, lexico-grammatical, resources to express the differing meanings:

  1. what clothes are you wearing?
  2. Are you wearing that? I can’t decide!
  3. Why are you wearing that?

Or is it merely because EFL has not, traditionally, treated the expression plane as a systemic resource for meaning and the students are simply unaware of this?


Polite requests

Many EFL textbook activities include some section on ‘polite requests’. Recently, I’ve found the word ‘polite’ problematic. Here is a simple activity I do that highlights this, I think, effectively. On five pieces of paper write five increasing amounts of money, eg. 10c, $1, $10, $100, $1000. In pairs, one student picks a piece of paper and requests to borrow that amount from the other student. Invariably, I’ve noticed that (Japanese) students will vary their level of politeness according to the person they are talking to and not according to the amount that is written on the card. If they are in the same pairs, they will often use the same request for each amount of money. They are often surprised when I point out that, in English, we might expect a more polite form for a larger amount of money. What this means for the classroom, I think, is that the very word ‘polite’ can often have very different connotations for the teacher and the students.

Take the phrase ‘just being polite’, for example. In English, this generally means small talk without any real deeper meaning. What I think it also means is that English places value on the very act of talking itself, which itself varies regionally. If you go into an Australian clothes shop you are often met with a barrage of conversation. This, for the staff, is just ‘being polite’. In a Japanese shop the opposite is true. You are met with one word ‘irrashaimase’, regardless of the type of shop. I read somewhere (I forget exactly where) that the highest level of politeness when offering tea is to anticipate the other’s needs and pour silently. The culture values not speaking as a marker of ‘politeness’. This can, of course, make ‘conversation’ classes challenging…


Genre and classroom practice

Genre, as defined by SFL, is “a staged, goal-oriented, purposeful activity in which speakers engage as members of our culture” (Martin). For EFL classes, the implications of this definition are problematic for classroom practice. Apart from cultural factors affecting classroom pedagogy (see Holliday, A., 1994, Appropriate Methodology and Social Context, C.U.P.), I’ve been interested in how perceptions of the classroom as a genre affect the ‘goal-oriented’ part of the definition. Basically, what is the goal of the EFL classroom?

Quite often in EFL classes within a Japanese context there can be a clash between these different perception of ‘goal’ for the classroom. Recently, I had a new Business English student starting. As background, I was told the student a high-level English speaker in upper management of an electronics company and wanted to focus on native-speed listening and communication. As an activity, we tried matching famous companies with their perceived qualities as brands. It soon became apparent that our expectations of the activity completely differed. Within a Business context, we might expect some discussion and justification for opinions given or decisions made. For this student, however, the goal of the ‘classroom’ was to give the correct answer. Which she did. In single-words.

For that student, the activity was successfully completed. For myself, it was not. This is a common occurrence in a Japanese context where learners do not focus on the content but solely on the surface grammar. This can result in exchanges such as this from another low-level student full of false starts, backtracking, rephrasing as the student searches for the ‘correct’ answer:

Q: What did you have for dinner last night?

A: I? have…had…I had?…I had pizza.

The appropriate answer as an informal exchange would be just ‘Pizza’. This is where I think a Systemic Functional approach can be particularly beneficial: to raise awareness of how the lexico-grammar is affected by the stratum above and below and that the ‘correct’ answer depends on the wider context.


Error Correction & SFL

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about error correction techniques for speaking classes. One study (Lyster, R. & Ranta, L. 1997, ‘Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition 19/1: 37-61) classified correction into six types:

  1. Explicit correction
  2. Recasts
  3. Clarification requests
  4. Metalinguistic feedback
  5. Elicitation
  6. Repetition

As a student of Japanese as a Foreign Language, and living in Japan, I’ve noticed from my own language-learning experience that the first two are by far the most common techniques used and also, as Lyster & Ranta also found, the least effective. The problem is that they focus solely on the form of the utterance. By doing so, I think they relegate, or give the appearance of relegating, the learner’s move into a second-order register. For the learner trying to focus on a primary register of meaning and content this can be frustrating (and possibly slightly demeaning).

Rather than focus on the form of the error then, I’ve recently begun trying to focus on the content as way of developing greater delicacy in the student’s linguistic system. To do this I try to focus on the error as if it were an actual discourse move and from there try to build the range of options available to the student. It is similar to the concept of scaffolding in a Vygoskian sense:

  1. Highlight the error as it relates to meaning;
  2. Negotiate more options of a greater delicacy;
  3. Rephrase

Some examples. One common Ideational problem for Japanese (and many other) EFL learners is not distinguishing between count/mass with mental processes, for example *I like dog. In this case, I ask the student questions like how long they have eaten dog or what it tastes like, focusing on the meaning of the clause, which leads to confusion. Then, I demonstrate the functional difference between dog/dogs and the fact that for count nouns the plural is often the unmarked, general form (chickens are stupid v chicken is delicious) which is the reason for the confusion. Then, we restate the original utterance with greater delicacy, I like dogs.

Another example, this time Interpersonal, is where learners will omit the Finite and Subject in wh-question leading to errors such as what time get up? Here, rather than just providing the correct form, I’ll try to illustrate why it is dis-functional. First, I will get the student to ask the question again and highlight the fact that without the Subject we don’t know who the question is directed at. Then, without the Finite we don’t know the time that the question refers to, today, tomorrow or everyday. In this way, we can build up the elements of the Interpersonal clause.

A final Textual error is a common example of L1 transference from Japanese. When asked about the weekend, some learners will produce *Tomorrow is play tennis. Japanese uses a topic marker, -wa, whereas English uses position. Also the Subject may be omitted if it is understood from context. Thus, the Japanese is Ashita-wa tennis suru (tomorrow-topic tennis will do). First, highlight the error by, perhaps, pretending not to understand. Then, illustrate the difference between I will play tennis tomorrow (Subject as unmarked Theme) and Tomorrow, I will play tennis (Circumstance as marked Theme). Finally, rephrase the original utterence.