Activity: Consensus decision

A very important language skill is being able to work with others to make a decision or consensus. This is an activity I did with an Intermediate class to demonstrate the use of modality in making a decision. The text comes from the Clockwise series.

First, to set the context, I asked the students to write down a place they’d like to go to in Japan for an Autumn weekend trip away. Then, I put students with different cities in pairs. I then told the students to imagine they were going away together and had to agree on which city – in could be one of the two they’d written down or a third they decide on. As they were talking I made a mini corpus of language they used:

why do you
I don’t go
where do you
anywhere is OK
I have delicious food
There are good
It is a little expensive
How much can we
Autumn is best
We can see
Would you change

We then come back as a group and look at the examples that I wrote down. I point out that it is mainly in Primary tense (in bold) with only three examples of modality in the whole conversation (underlined). While there is some evaluative language (OK, delicious, best), it might come across as a little too direct or strong. Putting them back into pairs, I ask them try and see if they can make them ‘softer’. After that we discuss it as a group.

Then, the listening is of two university students looking at the classifieds and discussing whether to buy a car or a motorbike. We do the listening exercise in several stages, focussing on tenor/interpersonal choices:

1. Genre: What is the goal of the conversation? How does the conversation progress? How does it end (what is the function of the joke)?

2. Register:
Tenor: Who is talking? Power? Contact? Affect?

3. Semantics:
Interpersonal: How does Yvonne give commands, eg ‘ask Ali’, ‘take lessons’, ‘sell it’? What is the function of ‘No’?

4. Lexico-grammar:
Interpersonal: What modality is used? How?


After listening (and look at the transcript perhaps), we look at the mini corpus and discuss what other choices they could have made.

Last, I put them into new pairs and repeat the first exercise of choosing a weekend destination.


Directions Game

I added a game to the Resources page that practises giving directions. I use it especially with Junior/Senior High School kids. Usually the language of commands is introducted, understandable enough, with giving directions around town (turn left at High Street). The problem, however, is that Japan doesn’t have any real street names. There is a conceptual problem as the activity doesn’t match their own schema of ‘giving directions’. I’ve found a way around this is to create a new schema of ‘game’ with a grid layout:

Student A: Where is the strawberry?

Student B: Go straight. Turn left at C. Turn right at A. Turn left at V. Go straight. It’s number 24.

The students enjoyed the ‘game’ element (I put them into teams and made it a race) and it seemed to make more sense to them.

Activity: tenor, language choice and procedures

Here is an slightly different take on teaching the genre of procedures. The lesson was on giving ‘how-to’ instructions, for example ‘how to buy a ticket at train station’ or ‘how to make cup noodles’. Usually I would just teach the features of this genre, i.e. imperative Mood, temporal conjunctions, but this time, taking a cue from an interesting paper by Kawashima¹ on Japanese and English women’s magazines, we focused instead on tenor relations. Within register, tenor operates along three dimensions: power, contact and affect. We focused mainly on the first of these.

Power refers mainly to ideas of authority, status and expertise. These, however, are also influenced by the culture within which they operate which conditions the settings that are most appropriate for that context. This, in turn, influences the language choices from the lexico-grammar. Kawashima points out that, while women’s magazines in Japan and Australia ostensibly operate under the same genre, the differences in tenor greatly affect the language choices. The language used in Cleo in Australia stems from an tension between expert-novice power relations on the one hand yet close contact and familiarity on the other. Japanese magazines on the other hand stem more from the assumption of ‘distant’ relations situating the reader as outsider.

For the lesson, we took as a text first a very simple recipe for making baked fish. Before we looked at the text, however, we discussed the tenor choices that might be assumed for a ‘recipe’ text and how they might differ between English and Japanese. We then looked at how these are expressed in the lexico-grammatical choices in the text. The difference is quite clear. English uses directly congruent Imperative forms to express the commands (bake) whereas Japanese uses grammatical metaphor to express the commands as Statements (焼くyaku – ‘(you) will bake’). The effect of this is to make the English recipe sound more of a collaborative effort whereas the Japanese recipe implicitly assumes that only the reader will be making the recipe with the writer in the position of outside expert imparting information.

The students found this approach interesting and led to a lot of classroom discussion of other situations where this tenor positioning may affect language choices in other ‘how-to’ situations which was impressive considering it’s an Elementary-level class.

1. Kawashima, K (2005) “Interpersonal Relationships in Japanese and Australian Women’s Magazines: A Case Study”, Proceedings of the 2004 Conference of the Australian Linguistics Society

Activity: Jobs – have to/get to and appraisal

For Elementary and pre-Intermediate students, ‘jobs’ are often used to introduce various grammatical structures, especially, to compare ‘have to’ (A police officer has to arrest people) with ‘must’ (A police officer must be brave). This comparison, to me, doesn’t seem to make sense as the two language items belong to two separate systems (one is verbal expansion and the other is modality). A better comparison it seems to me, and one that is not often highlighted, is that between ‘have to’ and ‘get to’ and a way to introduce the concept of appraisal in a simple way.

Materials: a set of ‘jobs’ cards (about 10 cards – I’ve found that the cards from Let’s Go 3 work well) and some A4 paper.

Stage 1: Group

First, go through the ‘jobs’ cards and ask “What’s this?”/”What’s he/she doing?”-type questions. At the same time, on a piece of paper, write down any vocabulary that students don’t know, concentrating in particular on collocations. This is the list we made:

do an experiment (scientist)
put flowers in a vase (florist)
deliver packages (postal worker)
a briefcase (businesswoman)
a stethoscope (doctor)
a cash register (shop clerk)
a drill (dentist)
take/make an appointment (secretary)
an assembly line (factory workers)

This list forms a mini classroom corpus.

Stage 2: content plane – lexico-grammar

In Stage 1, the language used was mostly relational processes (He is a researcher). Here, we can expand this into a clause including experiential Process + Circumstance:

He is working + as a researcher
He is working + in a lab
He is working + with equipment
He is working + on an experiment
He is working + at Sony

This can be done for each card, incorporating the language items from the classroom corpus if appropriate.

Next, a game can be played using the langauge items from the classroom corpus – lay the cards on the table and ask “Who…?”-questions (Who is doing an experiment?). The first student to answer gets the card.

Stage 3 – content plane – semantics

Thus far, we have been merely describing the jobs but we may also wish to add some of our own opinion about the jobs. First, on an A4 piece of paper, draw two faces as such:

Then, discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of each job for you personally (She gets to be creative, he has to stand up all day).

Stage 4 – content plane – textual semantics

Once we have discussed all the jobs cards, have the students choose their dream job, which may or may not be from the jobs listed. After some preparation time to look up any vocabulary they might need, the students justify to the class why their dream job is best. This might take the form of a discussion genre:

  1. Introduction: State the dream job
  2. Statement: Describe the job in general terms
  3. Arguments for: Give the advantages of the job
  4. Arguments against: Give possible disadvantages of the job
  5. Concluding statement: Give the best reason for deciding on this job.

Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.

Activity: Polite requests and grammatical metaphor

We often try to introduce students, especially in higher Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels,  to ‘Could you …’ type polite requests  but I’ve found that textbooks do not always explain quite adequately exactly WHY one form is more polite than another. This is a simple little activity that might make it a little clearer and students have found helpful.

First, think about household requests (field), like hang the washing out, do the washing up, etc. and write each request on a piece of small paper. Next, write on the whiteboard the following:

1. Open the door please.
2. Will you open the door please?
3. Can you open the door please?
4. Could you open the door please?
5. Would you mind opening the door please?
6. You wouldn’t mind opening the door would you please?

The activity is then very simple. A student picks up a piece of paper with an activity written (‘turn on the heater’), rolls a dice (‘5’) and uses the corresponding form from the list (Would you turn on the heater please?).

Either before or after the activity we can look at just why some forms appear more polite than others. Students often assume that one form is inherently more polite than another but this is not really the case. I think the answer is in different forms of grammatical metaphor. In terms of the discourse semantics  of exchange all six of the requests above are exactly the same – a demand for service. In only first one, however, does the lexico-grammar match the semantics with an imperative clause. From there we go through a series of changes through grammatical metaphor that puts distance between the discourse function and lexico-grammatical form.

From 1. to 2. we change from imperative to interrogative clause. Then, in 3., we change the element of modality and then from 3. to 4. there is a further shift from present to past tense. This use of the past tense for politeness, by putting (metaphorical) distance between the speaker and the lexico-grammar, is often new to most students but can be an important part of politeness in English (compare Do you want…? with Did you want…? for example). Then, in 5., there is an example of nominalisation (open opening) and a shift from a material Process to a mental one (mind). Finally, there is a change from an interrogative clause to a declarative clause + tag.

Activity: SFL for Elementary classes (simple dialogues)

Here is an activity I did with some Junior High School students using simple dialogues to highlight register choices of field, tenor and mode, and the three metafunctions of Ideational, Interpersonal and Textual meanings. The dialogues are people looking for lost items around a house and could also be easily adapted for elementary adult learners.

First, we reviewed some of the Ideational choices of Circumstantial Participants in Relational clauses with a simple picture dictionary game of rooms in a house. The teacher asks “Where is x?” and the first student to raise their hand and answer correctly (“On the table.”) gets a point. Then we can place these within the context of a dialogue.

To highlight register choices the students are shown three pictures featuring two people looking for items around a house. The teacher could ask questions such as “Where are they/What is it” (field), “Who are they/How old” (tenor) and “What are they doing” (mode). The students then listen to the dialogues and match them to the pictures. The dialogues are:

Dialogue 1:
A: Where is my hat? (said in a slightly angry voice)
B: It’s in the cupboard.

Dialogue 2:
A: Where are my keys? (exasperated)
B: They’re on the table. (‘Not again’ tone of voice)

Dialogue 3:
A: Where’s my purse? (angry, impatient)
B: It’s under the sofa.

To highlight Ideational choices, students are given a piece of paper with the following printed:

Dialogue 1:
A: W                     i        m                 h                     ?
B: I`      i                      t                c                           .

The students must listen again and complete the missing words. Repeat for all three dialogues.

To highlight Interpersonal meanings, students listen again and draw intonation patterns over the dialogues they have just written and note that all of them have a low pitch reflecting the tenor values (Dialogue 1-low falling; Dialogue 2-low even; Dialogue 3-low rising/falling).

To highlight Textual choices of given-new, the students listen again and mark which words are stressed and how these also relate to tenor choices:

Dialogue 1: hat – table (medium stress)
Dialogue 2: Where – table (low stress)
Dialogue 3: Where – purse – under – sofa (high stress)

The students can then practise the dialogues in pairs.

I think this type of simple activity using short dialogues is useful as the students listen to each dialogue multiple times but each time they are listening for something different so it doesn’t become repetitive.

Activity: Register and text

I’ve been doing a lot of activities recently trying to get students thinking about how context affects language choice. Here is one featuring three texts related to travel – two from a tourist booklet and one from the SMH travel section. Here are the texts:

Text 1:

The Upper Mountains continue to be very popular with many visitors to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Day trippers come to roam and take in all that is wonderful about our villages. Others come for the challenge of an 8 hour bush walk or rock climbing.

(imag free guide, 2008)

Text 2:

Megalong Books

Full range of books for adults and children.

Friendly service.

Orders taken.


(Printed in imag)

Text 3:

Tipping Point

In the wacky world of gratuities, it’s hard to know how much to give to whom, writes Peter Preston.

If it’s Monday, it must be Belgium; so plan to leave 10 per cent on the brasserie plate. Tomorrow, in France, we’ll do service compris, though a few more euros more may reward an unlikely smile or a spurt of speed. Wednesday? Spain, where those who run restaurants themselves insist that 3 per cent or 4 per cent is quite enough…Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of tipping.

(Sydney Morning Herald, 2008)

After looking briefly at the three texts, we discuss the field, tenor and mode of each of them. To make it simpler for EFL classes I often refer to it as the ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the text.

FIELD (what): The domain for texts 1 & 3 is ‘travel/tourism’ while text 2 is commercial (although being in a travel magazine and located in a predominantly tourist area it could be said that it also falls within the ‘tourism’ domain). Text 1 is perhaps written by a tourist board for promotional purposes and the goal-orientation could be persuading tourist to visit the region. Text 2 is an advertisement, essentially informing potential customers of its existence. Text 3 is a newspaper travel article, so its purpose is entertaining regular readers.

TENOR (who): The social distance for Text 1 would be medium: it is appealing to people with an interest in travel but also wants its appeal to be broad to encourage new visitors. Text 2 is a vendor-customer relationship but at maximum social distance – it wants as many customers as possible but perhaps would have few repeat customers. Text 3, on the other hand, despite being a newspaper text, might have the closest social distance – it has a known demographic and a regular readership.

MODE (How): All three texts are written and have a similar language role, yet they do differ when it comes to how they are organised.

After looking at the field, tenor and mode, we then go on to discuss how these affect the language choices in the texts. In particular, it’s interesting how these register choices affect the length and complexity of the words and sentences in each text. It is a useful activity because many EFL learners come to class with pre-conceived ideas of language that are often very structural – that language is just a set of structures to be learnt independent of any social context. For the same reason it can also be challenging.

Activity: verbal and relational clauses

Here is a quick activity I often do with young learners or lower level students. It’s a quick way to highlight the difference between relational and verbal clauses.

All you need is two sets of animal cards (or any semantic set really), one with the picture and one with the name of the animal printed. The game is then a simple pelmanism game but, as they turn over each card, they have to say either ‘This is (Process: relational) a dog’ for the picture or ‘This says (Process: verbal) “dog”‘ for the printed word. It’s useful also to point out the difference between the relational ‘a dog’ with the article and how the verbal “dog” is said exactly as it is written without the article.

Activity: Written Movie Review

Here is a very short text from that shows nicely the Generic Structure Potential (GSP) of Written Movie Reviews:

“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”

The premise is strained in this Disney film about the holocaust, but the approach is fresh, the acting believable and somehow it all works.

Opens Sunday.

The text starts with a simple title. I think this simplicity is an important point as it indicates that this is a short summary rather than full-length review, which often have a small evaluative sub-heading:

The Tree of Life
Family story imbued with a new perspective

One of the best movies you’ve never heard of

The title is then followed by a general evaluation of the film as a whole (the premise is strained), which could be called an Ideational Evaluation, I guess. Then comes a Description of the story (film about the holocaust) and a detailed evaluation of different elements within the film (the approach, the acting). The end of the text is signalled by the author’s opinion of the film, or Interpersonal Evaluation (somehow it all works).

The GSP of movie review texts would thus be:

  • {Heading
  • (Sub-heading)}
  • {Ideational Evaluation – general
  • Description
  • Ideational Evaluation – detailed
  • Interpersonal Evaluation}
  • {Details}