Suggestions for teaching Systemics

This page contains various suggestions by teachers as to how Systemics can be taught in the classroom. If you want to add a suggestion, please email Judith Diamondstone at Any updates/additions can be sent directly to the site maintainer, Mick O'Donnell, at

From: Carolyn Hartnett
Instit: College of the Mainland, Texas City, Texas.
DATE: 8/29/97 9:59 PM

Topic: Teaching Information Structure

I'm experimenting with first-year composition classes in a community college in Texas. First the students draft an essay in some genre I've taught. Then on an overhead I present a few sequences of sentences from the exercise books I hate, mostly without context. I also show a decent example from typical student writing from a previous semester. Together, we label information alphabetically. (Information I define very loosely, and it ends up being mostly noun phrases, but also adjectives and such.) For example, the first thing mentioned is A, and it is A on every mention of it. The next item mentioned is B, and so on.

Then students see how in good writing the new information is often introduced at the end of one sentence and referred to at the beginning of the next. They also see problems when something new and unknown is mentioned without clarification.

Then, the students quickly go to their own work, marking it the same way. The best students immediately and independently want to make some revisions without any intervention by me. They do get the point.

I do not use terms like Theme, Rheme, or N-Rheme, just the beginning and ending of sentences.

We do this as revision, before editing for things like complete sentence structure and subject-verb agreement, for which I use tag questions.

This method works well enough--better than anything else I've tried--that I am continuing it, but I am constantly refining the whole process and am eager for your suggestions.

From: Katina Zammit (
Lecturer - Language and Literacy
Faculty of Education - Primary Division
University of Western Sydney, Macarthur

Topic: Teaching Ideas

I have been very interested in the discussion about teaching SFG/SFL in classrooms and what is relevant etc. I have worked with teachers in classrooms and in my own classroom introducing and working on grammar with primary school children. When considering what aspects of SFG might be taught I have always come from meeting the needs of the students in the class/es as perceived by the teacher/s and myself. It is also always presented in relation to a particular field being studied by the class and relevant focus genre. The current climate in NSW re SFG and grammar in general necessitates this reinforcement so that SFG teaching is kept in context and not decontextualised into grammar activities isolated from text. This would result in it being the equivalent of traditional grmmar activities of the 60's ( and some today!)

This does mean that teachers have to have a knowledge of language to draw upon and use when determining what their students need and what/how they might be taught/ learn. SFG can inform practice but should not drive it.

eg I have been working with some teachers refining some ideas worked on a few years ago, where the concern was students (11-12 year olds) reading dense authentic text and finding information in books related to the theme of the class. We have been working on paragraph previews (Hyper-themes)- reading text, completeing tasks, using them for their own independent consturctions, critiquing texts in relation to the organisation in assisting the reader to find information. WE are now investigating what consitutes the main idea of a paragraph - which is intoruding children to grammatical metaphor and nominalisation.

When working with teachers, in general, they can really see the relevance of Theme at the different levels of discourse and clause, for students reading of texts. In Report based texts, in particular, the Theme-Rheme structure can enhance stuednts skimming, scanning and note-taking when they are extracting information from authentic texts. TEaching children about Theme-Rheme assists them to take notes without wrting slabs, but as with everything it is a beginning not an end in itself.

The least accessible and of less practical use to them is knowledge of Mood - Subject and Finite. While Speech functions and modality is found useful.

From: "Geoffrey Williams" (

Topic: Teaching the critical distinctions A few comments on a couple of exploratory ways into teaching an aspect of Mood/speech function relations we have used in the *Children's development of knowledge about language* project here. These experiences were with a group of 12 year olds, who had previously worked on aspects of the grammar for 12 months. (ie, this is not where I would start with a new group - these kids were members of a voluntary after-school grammar club.)

We first talked about how they would ask for a drink at a party under different contextual conditions: requests to an old friend, request to friend's mother, request to a possible new friend ... etc. Much joking and dramatization, of course! We made a list of all of the examples, then discussed their arrangement on 'a cline of politeness' (critically!). We reached fairly clear agreement on the relative position of most of the instances, then made a move into the grammar of Mood to try to describe what features varied. We discussed different Mood configurations, identifying Subject and Finite, and effects of Mood Adjuncts of possibility. Subsequently some of the children critiqued what we had done because they said that one could have the same grammar but use different tones of voice, and this would make a difference to how polite a message would seem to an addressee. That is, they were convined that the Mood grammar made a difference but not all of the difference. (help: who has done any work with kids on Tone and Key?) About half of the group was content to leave the analysis up to that point but I remember one in particular who was very frustrated that we didn't take it any further because he felt the description to be incomplete.

The other way in was through a short narrative, and different codings of tenor of relationship through the grammar of Mood. We read Italo Calvino's retelling of The North Wind's Gift, which is rich in examples of tenor in various contexts, including the same character being involved in different tenor relations. In this case we concentrated on grammatical realizations of demand for service and effects of variation on tenor, especially a reader's construal of power relations. Subsequently we used other examples from Aidan Chambers' The present takers, especially to talk about shifts in tenor/grammar as a particular conversation 'stiffened' into confrontation between two parents.