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Investigating Language in Action E854

A dialectical approach deploying Italian and English in the teaching of basic SFL
concepts in order to improve the writing skills in the academic register of a young
Italian woman a case study.

Identify the problem

I was contacted by a young woman who wants to enrol on a postgraduate course in a
British University. However, to do so she needs to score at least 7.0 in the Academic
IELTS test. A result that, given the difficulties she experiences in academic writing, she
is afraid she may not match. For this reason she asked me whether I could teach her
how to write a good essay in English1. After some reflection, I realized that this could
be a good chance to concretize my studies of Applied Linguistics. In fact, experiencing
teaching firsthand I would have the opportunity of making theory relevant and turned
to practical advantage (Widdowson:2010:10).

Since we do not live very near, we settled on the use of Skype in screen sharing
modality to have daily on-line teaching sessions of about an hour. Such sessions will
comprise clarification of any linguistic doubts; explanation in plain English of SFG
concepts particularly useful to better understand how to build an effectively flowing
academic text; and the provision on my part of detailed feedback on her work.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my 3 month course I intend to collect the
following data:


Time limit

1 essay in English
1 essay in English
1 essay in Italian

500-600 words
500-600 words
500-600 words


Obviously, throughout the course there will be other works that my student will be
asked to carry out. This to check if and how understanding informs the development of
her writing skills. In fact, according to Brumfit, to really learn a language, formal
components have to be contextualized into active meaning systems by repeated use

However, due to time and space constrains, these additional assignments will be used
only to illustrate particularly interesting improvements in the use of English my student

Investigating Language in Action E854

might present.

Investigate the problem: methods

From a cursory look at some of my students previous works, both in Italian and in
English, important aspects affecting her performance appear to be rooted not in a
language but in language (E854-SG:2009:10). Since Italian and English pertain,
broadly speaking, to the same western socio-cultural context, the academic register in
the two languages presents forms and structures that are very similar. As a result, and
given that academic language proficiency transfers across languages
(Cummins:2000:173-189), to make more effective the acquisition of new concepts,
linguistic aspects which affect both the languages in similar ways will be initially
explained in the students L1.

The first aim of my project will be to help my student to assimilate the concept of genre.
In fact, while she appears to be sufficiently aware that whenever she produces a text she
is doing this with a social purpose, she finds it difficult to relate such purposes with the
corresponding sanctioned forms (Coffin at all, 2009:245).

Then, to help her to write her ideas down on paper into chunks of text more tightly
linked and logically flowing, register analysis with a particular focus on the textual
meta-function of mode will represent a major tool in my project. In fact, features of
communicative distance like macro and hyper themes, cohesive devices,
nominalisations and lexical sets (Coffin et al, 2009,433) will be explained in common
terms to my student. This to assist her in the building up of a meta-language which
should provide her with tools and concepts able to successfully guide her through the
writing process (Hurry et all:2010:161), and that should also help her to better
understand my analysis and feedback on her works.

Understand the problem: contextual concepts and theoretical frameworks

That a graduate student cum laude, a student that just ended successfully her master3 in
Teaching Italian to Speakers of Other Languages, may find it so difficult to write even a
relatively short piece of academic text may appear startling. However, we should
consider that, in Italy, the idea of officially assessing the preparation of a student
through the use of written assignments to be carried out at home is simply regarded as
naively unpractical. In fact, they say, in such a way authorship cannot be ascertained.
This social practice favours then the formation of a context of situation in which
students in their university career have to sit a vast number of oral exams and almost
none written2.. Consequently they have no necessity to get to grips with that particular
way in which field, tenor, and mode tend to map one onto another in academic writing
(Martin :2010:25).

Investigating Language in Action E854

However, the inability to write in a clearly focused and well structured way when
requested to can lead some people to experience a loss of self-esteem and confidence
at least, my student already appears a little disheartened. For this reason I think that it is
important to assist her in realizing that her present situation is simply the outcome of a
series of contextual factors, and doesnt necessarily involve a deficit on her part
(Street:2010:202). In this respect, SFG with its particular attention to the relation
between form, function and context (E854-SG:2009:125) could then help her both to
perceive more clearly the dynamics of such a situation, and more rapidly also adapt to
the new contextual factors.

Since my student experiences problems also in writing in the academic register in

Italian, I consider SFG a very effective way also to help her to improve her writing
skills independently of the language. In fact, given that SFG focuses on the function that
the different constituents have in a text, such functional knowledge can be more easily
transferred from a language into another. Especially if, as it is the case between English
and Italian, the concepts of genre, theme, cohesive device, nominalisation, and lexical
set, are often used in the same ways.

Theme usage in English and Italian:

Effective usage
The radio.
The radio is nowadays one of those electronic gadgets that....
La radio
La radio oggigiorno uno di quei dispositivi elettronici che...

Less effective usage

The radio
When I was young, my uncle used to listen to the radio...
La radio
Quando ero giovane, mio zio era solito alscoltare la radio...

Im aware that from a strictly academic point of view English SFG and Italian SFG
should not so easily equated. Indeed, as far as I know, a SFG of Italian doesnt even
exist. However, given that in Applied Linguistics there is always a physiological breach
between theory and practice (Widdowson:2010:17) Im here making such a
simplification to ease learning. In fact students who want to acquire a foreign language
are not necessarily interested also in a detailed study of linguistics.

Related with this last point is another possible drawback of SFG. In fact, since it looks
at text constituents from several points of view, labels have a tendency to multiply
(Coffin et al: 2009:396-397) which could be confusing for learners with not linguistic
expertise. Anyway, since I will focus only on genre and mode, and I will provide a
simplified and on a needs-only base description of the relevant SFG concepts, such
complexity should on the whole be successfully kept at bay.

Investigating Language in Action E854

Address the problem

Since Ive just started to analyse some essays that my student had written by herself
before she contacted me, any inquiry into them is necessarily very partial, if not outright
impressionistic. However, from this preliminary evaluation, a possible routine that could
be both feasible and effective could be based on teaching sessions devoted to help my
student to develop a meta-language about the language itself. In this way the inner
mechanisms of language that usually go unnoticed could be made explicit to help my
student to internalize them more easily (Hurry et al:2010:163). In addition, such
theoretical sessions should also be immediately put into practice. In fact, if it was lack
of practice lack of any necessity to practice to be more precise that prevented my
student from developing her skills in academic writing, now the necessity to practice,
and at the same time the opportunity to practice following functional principles able to
guide her efforts rather than only offering her a dry list of rules (Coffin et al:2009:232),
could make her more aware of how and why language works as it does.

The time table for the proposed project

Teaching will take place from March the 20th to June the 20th. During this period the
majority of the students works will be commented and analysed extensively.
From June the 20th to July the 10th also a thorough analysis of the end of course works
will be carried out. Then all the data will be compared and cross-analysed in order to
highlight interesting areas relating both the improvement of my students writing skills
and, if it will be the case, the lack of it.
Finally, I plan to organize the seven week period devoted to writing the project in the
following way:
1st week:
2nd 3rd week:
4th 5th and 6th week:
7th week:

sketching out and overall organization of my ECA.

first draft.
second and final draft.
check of references. Proofreading. Polishing.

Words: 1546

Note 1

Investigating Language in Action E854

Here I use the potentially contentious term English to refer to Standard English.

Note 2
Often even the written ones simply present multiple answers to fill out, or answers to very precise
questions in which debate is never presented as a possibility.

Note 3
This is a one year course which is worth 30 credits in the ECTS .

Brumfit, C.J. (2010) The theory of practice in Cook and North (2010) Applied
Linguistic in Action, a Reader, Routledge and The Open University.
Coffin, C. Danohue, J. North, S. (2009) Exploring English Grammar Routledge,
London and New York.
Cummins, J. (2000) Language, power, and pedagogy: bilingual children in the crossfire
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Cambrian Printers Ltd.
Hurri, J. Nunes, T. Bryant, P. Pretzlik, U. Parker, M. Curno, Tamsin and Midgley, L.
in Cook, G. North, S. (2010) Applied Linguistics in Action, a Reader, Routledge and
The Open University, extracts from Transforming research on morphology into teacher
practice, Research Papers in Education 20 (2) 197-206, Taylor and Francis, 2005.
Martin, J. Language, register and genre in Coffin et al (2010) Applied Linguistics
Methods, a Reader, Routledge and The Open University 2010.
Open University (2009) E854 Investigating Language in Action, Study Guide The Open
University, Milton Keynes.
Street, B. Adopting an ethnographic perspective in research and pedagogy in Coffin et
al (2010) Applied Linguistics Methods, a Reader, Routledge and The Open University
Widdowson, H. (2010) Language, linguistics, and education in Cook and North
(2010) Applied Linguistic in Action, a Reader, Routledge and The Open University.

Investigating Language in Action E854

Sample B TMA 3 Feedback
You have identified an area for research that is of clear practical significance, and is
susceptible to methods of analysis that are very well supported in the module materials.
The methods that you propose to use in the investigation are very well suited to this
problem, though you could provide more detail on the actual methods of analysis you
will employ within the context of SFL.
You make good use of the module materials to support the proposal.
Your timetable for the project is fine.
Your grade of 78 is equivalent to "Good" on the scale described on page 6 of the
Assessment Guide.
See also the detailed comments inserted in the assignment.