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In a quest to learn more about systemic-functional linguistics I came across ‘Realisation(s): Systemic-Functional Linguistics and the Language Classroom’ by Anne Burns and John Knox. In actual fact this article got me thinking more about issues with MAs than with using SFL in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure that was their intention!

Synopsis:
Burns and Knox are teacher educators. The research presented in this article was undertaken to explore the impact their teaching on MATESOL courses actually had on their students’ classroom practice. In short, how far (if at all) is the theoretical knowledge gained on an MA transferred into teaching practice?

The theory in question for this study was SFL, used as a basis for a grammar course. Burns and Knox offer a brief yet concise introduction to this theory, illustrating to good effect that SFL is a text-based theory of language and that “the perspective on grammar taken in SFL is semantic and functional. Grammatical elements are identified and classified in terms of the kind of meaning they are expressing and the grammatical role they are playing, rather than their grammatical class” (p.239). Pedagogically this is normally delivered in four stages: a text that delivers the context and that acts as a model for what the students need to produce. The production is then highly scaffolded so that the teacher leads a construction of a text simulating the model, then students work together to construct their text and finally they do so independently.

Burns and Knox chose two of their high achieving students to observe and enter into a dialogue with regarding the deployment of SFL theory in the classroom. Their research practice “focused on exploring the participants’ perspectives through narrative and descriptive methods in order to gain understanding of the meanings they attributed to their pedagogical actions” (p.240). The teachers were each observed four times and were also interviewed.

What emerged from the initial observations was that the new KAL (knowledge about learning) that the teachers had acquired on their MA had little impact on their teaching practice. It was only with subsequent observations that the teachers started to implement this newly acquired knowledge. What was also evident was that there are other factors hampering the utilisation of KAL in classrooms including institutional constraints.

In conclusion Burns and Knox re-evaluate their MA course and realise that what is needed is the provision of ‘explicit tools for pedagogy’ (p.257), that teachers themselves need more scaffolded guidance on how to make complex theory translate into classroom practice. They also call for further research to be performed by teacher educators to assess the impact MA teaching has on language teaching practices.

Reading this article has raised some interesting questions for me. I think it is commendable to want to explore how far the theory taught on MAs is practically applied and extremely worthwhile to do so. The most unappealing factor of an MA in TESOL for me has been that traditionally there has been no practical element to it. I have always thought it a shame that studying an MA would not necessarily make you more ‘valued’, or indeed ‘valuable’ as a teacher. In my previous teaching role in FE it seemed that it was not possible to be both a practitioner and an academic, certainly holding an MA did not tick the required boxes in terms of professional teaching qualifications. What enthuses me about teaching EAP is that I am encouraged to be both practitioner and academic. It is telling that Burns and Knox consider themselves to be ‘former teachers’ (p.254). I think there is something inherently wrong in this. It opens up a hierarchy; a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach. Is it naive to think that teacher educators would be more aware of their students’ needs and anxieties if they were still connected to the classroom themselves?

It is of concern that to some degree Burns and Knox are guilty of positioning themselves in such a hierarchy and run the risk of being change enforcers rather than teacher educators. By their own admission new KAL had no impact in the classroom until the teachers were observed. Would the teachers have chosen to employ SFL pedagogy if not slightly under pressure to do so? Or is it simply that the teachers felt unsure and unsupported in translating theory into practice and therefore needed that extra intervention? Perhaps it was both? While Burns and Knox conclude that theory needs to be complemented with pedagogical tools, it is still not REAL application. Practitioners and theorists need to work together to realise how theory can be transferred into practice. Is this the real answer – that the best place to work it out is in the classroom, not the lecture theatre?

Another issue that reading this article raised for me is the constraints institutional pressures place on teachers and their ability to effect change in the classroom. One of the teachers studied felt that they were “required to teach pre-specified grammar points that she saw as traditional. She was not entirely convinced that the syllabus met students needs and felt under considerable pressure to cover the content in a short period” (p.243). Sometimes, especially on large pre-sessional courses, I question why we can’t trust teachers to teach. Why are we so prescriptive? Would a bit of management unplugged hurt?

Finally, through their discussion of the observations and subsequent dialogues, Burns and Knox do a good job of giving an insight into how to employ SFL in the language classroom. As a result it has made me question how I am going to approach grammar in my in-sessional classes. Along with asking academics to question how far they help or hinder their students’ ability to apply the theory they are taught, my questioning of my own teaching practice probably was Burns’s and Knox’s intention!

Burns, A. & Knox, J. (2005) Realisation(s): Systemic-Functional Linguistics and the Language Classroom. In N. Bartels (Ed), Researching Applied Linguistics in Language Teacher Education. New York: Springer

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