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Systemic functional linguistics and the teaching of literature in urban school classrooms

Ruth Harman, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this current era of rapid demographic shifts and high stakes school reform, studies that explore the academic and social responses of students to critical language pedagogies are very much needed as resources for education policymakers and teachers. Through a combined ethnographic and systemic functional linguistic approach, this study explores the textual and classroom process of 5th-grade Puerto Rican students engaged in a SFL-based curricular unit on literature. Three interrelated questions guide the research: how SFL-based pedagogy supports students in developing an understanding of how to write literature and to accomplish social and political goals; and on a wider level, how institutional policies and practices constrain and facilitate teachers in developing such pedagogies. To address these issues, the dissertation draws on a critical sociocultural theory of language and literacy that sees language as a semiotic process and text as a web of previous texts and contexts woven together for a specific communicative purpose. To analyze ethnographic and classroom data, the study draws on concepts from Bloome and Egan Robertson (1993), Dyson (1997, 2003), and Keene and Zimmermann (1997). The comparative SFL analysis of literary source texts and students' writing is based on the work of Eggins (2004), Halliday and Matthiesen (2004), and Thompson (1996). Analysis of the data reveals that students in this SFL-based curricular unit learned in very different ways to interweave patterns of meaning from literary source texts into their literary and other academic writing. Furthermore, the students' access to a wide variety of literature and scaffolding activities afforded them different entry points into literature that resonated most strongly for each of them (Dyson, 2003). On an ethnographic level, a history of school-university-partnerships and school reform initiatives in the research site facilitated teachers' implementation of critical language-based curricula. Implications of this study for K–12 practitioners and researchers are discussed at length. They include the importance of the explicit use of intertextuality in heightening students' awareness of language as a pliable repertoire of choices and the crucial role school-university alliances need to play in supporting teachers and students in urban school classrooms.

Subject Area

Language arts|Bilingual education

Recommended Citation

Harman, Ruth, "Systemic functional linguistics and the teaching of literature in urban school classrooms" (2008). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3325151.