For SFL, a text can be defined as “a unit of language in use” (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, p. 1) and is distinguished from non-text by the two-fold concept of unity: unity of structure and unity of texture (Halliday & Hasan, 1985). This can also be termed as coherence and cohesion.

Cohesion is concerned with how the text ties together internally and is formed when one element of a text is dependent for its interpretation on another (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). Without it the surface features of a text may not relate to each other and it is thus central to the way in which text is produced and comprehended. According to Halliday & Hasan (1976), cohesion can be divided into grammatical and lexical cohesion.

Grammatical cohesion consists of:

  • cohesion between messages, or the system of CONJUNCTION (e.g. but, so)
  • cohesion in meaning, or REFERENCE (e.g. he, she, this)
  • cohesion in wording, which consists of ELLIPSIS (e.g. Yes, I am [O]) and SUBSTITUTION (e.g. one, some, no)

Lexical cohesion also consists of three parts:

  • elaborating which may also be divided into:
    • identity, which consists of REPETITION (e.g. bear – bear) and SYNONYMY (e.g. sound – noise)
    • attribution, or HYPONOMY (e.g. tree – oak)
  • extending, or MERONYMY (e.g. tree – trunk)
  • enhancing, or COLLOCATION (e.g. smoke – fire)


Here are some examples with the cohesion underlined.


John walked to town, because he wanted some fried chicken.


John lives near the park. He often goes there.

Types of reference

  1. Exophoric – refers to outside the text

John borrowed some money from me.

     2. Endophoric – refers to within the text

           a. Anaphoric – refers back to previous text

I saw John. I asked him for the money.

           b. Cataphoric – refers forward to text

This will surprise you. He paid me back!


Most of the students had an ice-cream but Eva didn’t have an ice-cream.


John loves fried chicken. He has some every day.


John ran to the shop and then he ran home.

Synonymy / Hyponomy / Meronymy

Eva walked to town and strolled around the park.

She looked up at the autumn trees. The oaks had a beautiful colour.

She climbed up a tree and sat on the branch.


It was hot. John was sweating.


Here is an example of cohesion in a sports text:

スクリーンショット 2015-03-24 19.17.48


Halliday, M., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English: Longman.

Halliday, M., & Hasan, R. (1985). Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective: Deakin University Press.

Daily Routines as a genre

We often use ‘Daily Routines’ lessons to introduce or practise the simple present. Recently, however, I’ve tried looking from a genre perspective and asking what, exactly, is the purpose of these kinds of text. Who, also, is the audience? They are, I think, a kind of report genre with evaluative lexis. You can find these kinds of texts in, for example, city guides for expats (“What’s it like living in …?”). A good site is matadornetwork which has a whole series of “A day in the life of an expat in…” texts. They’re great for higher level students. Another idea is university career guides that often have overviews of different kinds of jobs and what they involve.

For lower or beginner level students I’ve found the genre approach particularly useful in enabling the students to think about the purpose of their writing. A simple GSP for a report is a General Opening followed by a Sequence of Related Statements. To adapt this for a Daily Routines text I tell the students they are writing a letter to a foreign pen-pal, explaining their daily life. The opening then establishes the evaluative mood (I am busy everyday) while the sequence expands on and explains the opening (I get up really early at 6am and rush around getting ready for work). We also group the sequence (into morning, afternoon, evening, etc) and show how changes in Theme can highlight the change from one group to the next.


The Alphabet Song

Here, in Japan, there are two versions of the Alphabet Song. There’s the familiar one:

W-X-Y- and Z–,
Now I know my A,B,C,
Won’t you come and sing with me?

The version used in most Japanese schools, however, is:

Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.

Now I know my A,B,C,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.)

This got me wondering what exactly the function of the ABC song actually is. You might think that it is obviously to teach children the alphabet but I’m not sure this is the case. If it were, then the Japanese version is much clearer and does perform, and is designed to perform, this function. Yet the original version is quite different. I personally think that the role of teaching the alphabet for the original version is, in fact, secondary. I think the primary function of the ABC song, and similar nursery rhymes, is to teach fundamental concepts of how a text is constructed – it provides a bridge between the spoken and written worlds.

Firstly the original version rhymes. Each line ends with a lengthened /i:/ sound. Textually, this introduces the concept of rhyme as a resource for cohesion across a text. Secondly, it introduces the concept of rhythm, in this case a regular trochaic (strong + weak) pattern, introducing rhythm as a resource for cohesion within a text. These two together provide some idea of generic coherence – they hold it together as a text and we can recognise it as such.

The second part of the song provides a link between the stratum of Expression and that of Content. Both the rhythm and the rhyme are the same yet it is now mapped onto the lexico-grammar. This demonstrates formally the interaction between the two stratum and how lexico-grammar is realised through Expression. Semantically it also introduces a basic clause relation of statement + suggestion (in the form of Now that…Why don’t...).

I think then that the ABC song does, in fact, do more than just teach the alphabet. It introduces the fundamental concepts of texture and textuality and the operation of the three stratum of Expression, Content and Context. The importance of songs and nursery rhymes is also well-recognised in L1 acquisition (see Guardian) and it would be interesting to see any effects on L2 acquisition. The Japanese version of the ABC song, however, is quite different.

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}


Semantically, the clause is an “interactive event involving speaker, or writer, and audience” (H & M, p.106). The move in this event is whether we want to initiate or have to respond. This may seem a rather obvious point, that we speak to someone who is listening, but it one that is often overlooked, especially within EFL. Looking at the two sentences below might help demonstrate the importance of this concept of exchange more clearly:

  1. It is a pen.
  2. This is a pen.

These two might commonly be found in beginner EFL or young learner texts yet rarely is the difference between them made clear. The first is how you might respond within an exchange to provide new information:

A: What’s that you’ve got there?

B: (It’s) a pen.

This is also evident in written text. The following headline (from is, in fact, a response to an assumed question on the part of the reader signalled intertextually by a picture which takes the role of initiating the exchange:

Picture: (What’s this?)

Headline: It’s a pen! It’s a bullet! It writes upside down and underwater! It’s a bullet pen!

The second example, however, is how we might initiate an exchange, explicitly drawing attention to the topic of discussion and inviting a response:

Jack: This is an astronaut pen. It writes upside down. They use this in space.

Jerry: Wow.

(Seinfeld, S3, E3)

From these two examples we can see that the move of the exchange, whether to initiate or respond, can thus influence the lexico-grammatical choices made within the clause. The choice between it and this is not the result of sentence-level rules but is instead dependent on how the clause functions within the exchange. It also demonstrates the interactive nature of the exchange, that “the speaker adopts for himself a particular speech role, and in doing so assigns to the listener a complementary role which he wishes him to adopt in his turn” (H & M, p.106). The added consequence of this is that the choices available for the response are constrained by those made in the initial move (see also Eggins & Slade, 1997, p.181-2).

There are two types of initiation: open, which is dependent on whether it is an offer, a command, a statement or a question and generally takes the form of a major clause, or a response request, which is the function of the tag question. I think it is important for learners to be aware that the tag question is not just a request for a response, as it is generally presented in textbooks, but it may also function as a request to not respond, to close down the conversation.

There are also two types of response: expected or discretionary. How the two functions of response operate may vary according to nature of the interaction. In the case of an offer, the response may be either one of acceptance or rejection:

              Offer:                    Would you like it?

              Acceptance:        Yes, please.

              Rejection:            No, thanks.

Where a demand is made, the response may be either an undertaking or a refusal:

               Command:           Give it to me!

              Undertaking:       Here you are.

              Refusal:                I won’t!

For questions, we may have either an answer or a disclaimer:

              Question:            What is it?

              Answer:               A teapot.

              Disclaimer:          I don’t know.

For statements, there may be either a response or a contradiction:

              Statement:          He’s giving it to her.

              Response:            Is he?

              Contradiction:     No, he isn’t.

(all examples from H & M, p.108)

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One of the key aspects of Systemic Functional Linguistics for EFL teaching is the notion of the language as an exchange, that “the clause is organised as an interactive event” (H & M, p.106). At a semantic level, language simultaneously operates through a system of three speech-act functions:

  • Move – initiating or responding;
  • Role – giving or demanding, and;
  • Commodity – information or goods & services.

This is the fundamental system of exchange in language. The importance of this for EFL is that all the seemingly infinite number of social functions of language we might initiate, such as requesting something or borrowing a pen or giving instructions, may in fact be reducible to just two combinations of role and commodity:

1.  Propositions

  • Giving information – It’s a pen.
  • Demanding information – What is it?/ Is it a pen?

2. Proposals

    • Demanding goods & services – Give me a pen!
    • Giving goods & services – Would you like a pen?

Essentially, everything within the clause is semantically related to one of these four functions. We may want to expand this with regards to how sure we are (Admittedly, it almost certainly must not be a pen) but it is still just giving information.

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.

Text and EFL

A text may be seen as both a product, or an instance of language in time, and a process, an unfolding of language through time. I think there are a number of implications of this for EFL.

Firstly, if we look at the text as a product then we must also consider the function of that text in relation to the listener/reader. In other words, what is the goal of the text? Why am I speaking or writing?

Secondly, it affects how text is treated in class. What is generally ignored in EFL classes is how text is also the result of a process – a realisation of choices made at other levels of stratification. It also ignores the importance of how the text progresses, or unfolds, through time and how, through the dialogical nature of text, this unfolding is affected by the writer’s (or speaker’s) perception of the audience. It also ignores the function of the text in relation to other texts within the culture. For EFL, it is important to consider text both as a product and as a process – to “think of the text dynamically, as an ongoing process of meaning” (H & M, p524).

Thrirdly, I  think it is important to consider the EFL lesson itself as a text. That is, the lesson is affected by the participants’ perceptions of the context in which the lesson takes place and what they feel is appropriate for that context. For example, in a Japanese context a lesson constitutes a ‘public’ space. As such, many students feel that the use of silence is a perfectly valid (or at least available) strategy for dealing with the potential loss of face that a foreign language environment, especially one with a foreign teacher, can produce. The lesson as text thus needs to be negotiated over time to meet the expectations of students, the instructor, and also the institution in which it takes place. It is also, however, affected by the wider cultural context in which it takes place. At many Japanese universities and colleges, for example, EVERY student graduates and as such the students do not view the lesson as a ‘learning’ context where participation is required but instead view it as a ‘public performance’ context where the only goal is attendance. The challenge for the teacher here is to re-negotiate the lesson-as-text. (See also King, J. (2013). “Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities.” Applied linguistics, 34(3), 325-343.)

One implication of this I think is that the SFL conception of genre teaching might require a slight shift. Often it is taken to mean something like ‘the teaching of genres’ where texts like narrative, or recount are explicitly taught using the genre cycle developed in Australia in the 1980’s (for an overview see Martin, J. R. (2009). “Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective”. Linguistics and Education, 20(1), 10-21.). That approach would be appropriate for a Second Language Learning context where learners are expected (and expecting) to become members of the target language community. For a Foreign Language Learning context, however, this may not be the case (see Ryan, S. (2009). “Self and identity in L2 motivation in Japan: The ideal L2 self and Japanese learners of English”. Motivation, language identity and the L2 self, 120-143.) . Instead, it may be more useful to see the lesson itself as the genre and evaluate learners not on how well they produce an independent ‘text’ but on how well they are able to negotiate the demands of the lesson as it unfolds through time and interact with the participants in it.

Text and SFL (1).

What is a text? A text is basically “language that is doing some job in some context” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p10). A text may be written or spoken, long or short, but must be ‘functional’. A single sentence can not generally be considered a text. “I’m in the bath”, for example, is not a text but the famous dialogue here is:

  • A: The phone’s ringing.
  • B: I’m in the bath!
  • A: Ok.

This implies that both spoken and written text is essentially interactive – just as a speaker has a listener, a writer has an imagined reader – and has a goal or purpose. It also implies that texts take place, function, within particular contexts, or register, and those contexts affect the choices made within the texts.

A text can be recognised as such through ‘textuality’. This is the external and internal factors that bind it as text. The first can be called its coherence, which has two parts. The first is generic coherence which gives the text a sense of completeness – we can recognise a staged conversation of ‘request followed by refusal followed by acknowledgement’ – and the second is register coherence – we know it is a casual conversation.

As well as this, a text has what is termed cohesion. This is what ties a text together internally. At first glance the conversation above does not seem to have any internal ties to make it cohesive but, looking more closely, we could say that both ‘the phone’ and ‘the bath’ refer to shared experience of household routines and thus join the two statements together (cf ‘a phone’ and ‘a bath’).