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.

Modality – ability

One last category of modality is that of ability/potentiality, which may be expressed either subjective explicit (she can/can’t...) or objective explicit (she is/isn’t able to…). As H & M (p. 621) put it, ability “is on the fringe of the modality system” yet I think the implications of this for EFL learning are not highlighted often enough. Ability is mostly introduced with the ‘I can play tennis’-type lessons, which may be true (if unnatural), but the importance of ability lying outside the main system of modality is seen, for example, if we compare requests such as ‘Could you help me?‘, which is a neutral acknowledgement that you have the ability to help me, against ‘Would you help me?‘ which, being in the main system of modality, is asserting my opinion that you should help me.

Another classroom activity I use to introduce this difference is by drawing a squiggle on a piece of paper. We can then see who has the best imagination by making a list of what it possibly could be: a butterfly, a map, a doodle, etc. The point here is that it not our own personal opinion, we are merely making a list. Then, students can choose what they see as the best choice of what it might be, introducing personal responsibility for a decision. This activity can be adapted for business or higher level students with a role play activity discussing changes to an office building to make it more environmentally friendly by first listing the possible options (we could install double glazing) and then offering a personal assessment of that choice (it would save electricity, it might be expensive).


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: 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.


Activity: Finite as negotiation

Here’s an activity adapted from Jones’ ‘Functional Grammar in the ESL classroom’ but one I’ve used especially for Junior High young learners (or possibly false beginner adults). It features the Finite as a resource for arguing a proposition, and some basic grammatical metaphor. The activity is a conversation:
A: Do you want a sandwich?
B: No, I don’t. Thanks.
A: What do you want then?
B: I want a hotdog.
A: You don’t want a sandwich?
B: No, I want a hotdog.
A: You don’t want a hotdog!
B: Yes, I do. I do want a hotdog!
A: No, you don’t.
B: Yes, I do!
A: Do not!
B: Do too!
A: Don’t!
B: Do!

The activity is then to gradually scaffold the conversation. First, go through the conversation together bit by bit, focusing especially on intonation and stress to emphasize the marked Finite and polarity Then, blank out all of the ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s on a separate sheet and have the students write them back in. As a kind of game, the students then role-play the conversation and the winner can be whoever is loudest at the end. The students enjoy it as they get the shout but it also highlights the Finite as the nub of negotiation.


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: I wish I could fly

Here is a quick and simple activity for Elementary or Junior High students that highlights the importance of stress for New information. It followed on from a lesson using “I wish…”.
First, at the top of the whiteboard, write the following three sentences:
1. I wish I could fly.
2. I wish I could fly.
3. I wish I could fly.
The student’s form two lines at the rear of the class. The teacher then says one of the sentences. The front two students run and write the number of the sentence and back. The first student back is the winner. That student then comes out of the line and says the next sentence. The team with all students out of the line is the winner.

Further to this game, another activity that then puts the Expression into the context of a dialogue was to put students into pairs and practise a dialogue such as:

A: I wish I could play the piano!

b: Well, I wish I could play the drums!


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: 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.