Functional Grammar and Writing Workshop: A Hybrid Approach to Teaching Literacy to English Language Learners

I suggest that students must be taught the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life, not by being forced to attend to hollow, inane, decontextualised sub-skills, but rather within the context of meaningful communicative endeavours; that they must be allowed the resource of the teacher’s expert knowledge, while being helped to acknowledge their own ‘expertness’ as well; and that even while students are assisted in learning the culture of power, they must also be helped to learn about the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent.

Lisa Delpit on Power and Pedagogy

As an English Language Development (ELD) teacher in an international school in the capital of Europe, I get students from a very wide range of educational systems. These 8-12 year old elementary students come to me in their first year of academic English and, for most of them, their first year in an international school setting. In the quote above, Delpit refers primarily to the ways race and class influence how students understand and access the expectations of the dominant culture; in my context, students and parents come from all over the world with a multitude of expectations of what “schooling” and “language learning” mean.  As well as introducing my students to the language, it is also necessary to take the products my school values as assessment tools and break them down to their functions and communicative purposes. Additionally, it is important to honour the voices of all students and help them develop an understanding of the writer’s process from the beginning of their language learning journey. In this post I’ll explain how my colleague and I merged the methodologies of Functional Grammar based literacy instruction and the Writing Workshop model in my Foundational ELD classroom.

One of the key elements of academic literacy assessment for all students (at least in my context) is the narrative writing prompt. Different education systems place value on different assessment tools; students come with varying degrees of experience with writing narratives, with the many of them having no experience with writing a cold prompt in an assessment context. Therefore, in order for students to ever be able to effectively demonstrate their English skills in my school context, they have to be taught the narrative genre as part of learning the language.

My school context favours an explicit approach to exploring the communicative purpose(s) of a given genre using an instructional method based on “Functional Grammar.” Using this methodology, we approach a genre from the perspective of how and what a writer wishes to communicate (for example, does the writer wish to persuade or provide instructions?). Additionally, we understand that different genre forms demand different language functions (how do we use tense in a persuasive text as opposed to an instructional text? How do clause structures differ in the two genres?). Furthermore, traditional parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, prepositions or adverbs are taught to students in terms of their functional purpose within a sentence. For example:

Im so excited, because my best friend from summer camp is going to visit me in Portugal next April.

In the sentence above, I colour-coded words and phrases according to their function. We define the functional sections as follows:

Participant = answers the questions “Who?” or “What?”
Process = answers the question “What’s happening?”
Circumstance = answers the questions “Where?” “When?” “Why?” or “How?”

In this way, students not only know traditional grammar terms, but also how they function in larger chunks of meaning within a sentence. Further, this process teaches students how to analyse their writing to determine if they have made an error.

In my context, we approach instruction using a gradual release of responsibility framework involving phases of modelling, collaborating, scaffolding, and independent practice of the genre with feedback. Almost immediately, ELD students can be communicators in this new language and as such they need instruction on the writer’s process, as well as the stylistic qualities of good writing and how to clarify one’s writing through editing. To this end, my students benefit from an intentional merger of the structure and formula of the Functional Grammar and Writing Workshop methodologies. The merger looks something like this:

Community “Talking” Circle 10 – 15 minutes
Adapted from the “Positive Discipline” framework, the “talking” circle gives students accessible, repeated and predictable language structures and allows them to share their feelings and thoughts in a safe and caring context.

Dance Break 2 minutes
A brain break, mostly for the grade 3&4 students.

Lesson 10 – 15 minutes
This is the traditional mini-lesson scheme. The mini-lessons are the time to introduce the modelled texts, discuss issues of grammar and structure of the genre, present important elements such as theme, stance or characterisation, etc. My mini-lesson structure looks more or less like this:

Screenshot 2019-04-30 at 22.40.15

Independent Writing and Conferring time 20 minutes
During this time, students may write on a topic of their choice, using the elements highlighted in the mini-lesson. Additionally students will use this time throughout the unit for repeated practice. For conferring, I float between students, providing individual support (as illustrated in this post) and feedback on specific errors or successes.

Sharing time 10 minutes
One thing the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life challenge really highlighted for me was the undeniable importance of sharing one’s writing with others. While it may seem like a sacrifice-able add-on at the end of the lesson, I have found sharing time to be enjoyable and enormously helpful in boosting my students’ confidence in their writing and spoken communication.

In this way, I aim to combine two approaches to literacy instruction. My goal is to make expectations and purposes for “the genres of schooling” explicit, while also promoting student voice and ownership of their writing. Students become members of their English language community by understanding how to produce language for “valued” assessment practices, while at the same time developing and supporting others as writers and artists in their learning community.

Many thanks to Matt Hajdun (@HajdunHomeroom) for his expertise on the Writing Workshop model and for his collaboration, guidance and support in developing this hybrid program.

Follow the author of this post on Twitter @Learn_thru_it .




12 thoughts on “Functional Grammar and Writing Workshop: A Hybrid Approach to Teaching Literacy to English Language Learners

  1. What a complex and fascinating approach. As I read, I realized exactly how much I take for granted in my own teaching, and I began to wonder where my learners would benefit from me being more explicit, especially since many of them have not mastered complex grammar for one reason or another. I also appreciate the way you create a hybrid model here. I know that in some ways I shy away from things like functional grammar because of what I’m afraid we will lose in the classroom. This post helps me rethink that. Finally, I love that you started with Lisa Delpit – haven’t read her in years, but she made an impression on me in grad school that’s been hard to shake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know of many people who use Functional Grammar in their literacy teaching in K-12 in North America? My impression is it’s not very popular in Canada and the US (whereas it’s been used in CLIL contexts in Europe since the 70s and it’s used a fair amount in some parts of Australia).


  2. Hi, Julie.
    Thank you for this article. I like your coding system and use something very similar:
    Noun = who or what
    Verb = What the noun is doing (or as you said, what is happening)
    Details = when, where, how, why,

    I know that our process has been informed by the GREAT Jeff Anderson’s book, Mechanically Inclined. Keep up the great work, Julie.


    1. Hi tancma.

      Thank you very much for reading my post and for your comment.

      I have not read Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, however, having briefly skimmed it, his work is focused on traditional grammar, which is not what I am trying to explain here. My training in Functional Grammar is through the How Language Works, Literacy for Learning, and TES-MC courses from Lexis Education ( which are based on the Systemic Functional Linguistic research by Michael Halliday, Ruqaiya Hassan and JR Martin, to name just a few.

      It is important to point out that in functional grammar, the participant, or “who or what” is more than just the noun, as it can include an entire nominal group. For example, “A single, amazingly beautiful, red sycamore leaf” is all included as part of the participant (the “who or what”). As the nominal group can act as the subject, the object or the predicate nominative, we count all three functions as the participant. In the sentence “He drew a single, amazingly beautiful, red sycamore leaf,” “He” and “a single, amazingly beautiful, red sycamore leaf” are both labeled the participant because both are entities involved in the “process” (what’s happening). The kind of process determines what kind of participants they are. An explanation of the different participants gets rather involved, so instead I’ll just refer you to this article for further explanation:

      Process is not shorthand for “verb” either as, in Functional Grammar, Processes describe mental, material, verbal or relational events/states. Furthermore, the Process does not have to be a single verb, but could also be a complex verb group, for example, “will attempt to draw.” Again, the shorthand is better explained in this article:

      Again, thank you very much for reading and commenting! 🙂


  3. Thank you for your response. I’ve heard of “How Language Works”. I need to participate in their PD.

    When you use these terms with students, do they understand this heavy abstract language? What grade are you teaching? When you teach beginners, is this the process you use as well, Julie?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HI tancma,

      These are really good questions! They are the first questions that many of us have asked when we first learn Functional Grammar.

      At my school, this system is used from the early years (Kindergarten or Grade 1) as a fundamental part of the literacy program for all students. My classroom is a “beginner” English class (although we use the term Foundational) for students aged 8-12 and I start using the terms as soon as I start introducing the parts of a sentence. We don’t teach the students the super technical elements; we simply start with the terms participant, process and circumstance. I also teach nouns and verbs as parts of participants and processes. For example, currently I am teaching my students modal verbs so I would talk about how modal verbs “help” the main verb and they are the process.

      I think your question has inspired me to write another post on teaching Functional Grammar to young beginner English students! This is especially because the methods I use are very visual (colours and charts) and I can’t include them in a comment response. Briefly, in the beginning, the method looks something like this:
      – Students see colour coded sentences such as “I like ice cream” “I am shy” “I have a dog”
      – Students are introduced to the verb/process. Personally I always start with be, have, like because our first unit involves writing about ourselves and our families
      – Students are introduced to participants, first through subject pronouns
      – Students study the sentences using the questions “Who or what?”
      – Students study participants through nouns and “pointers” (a term for words that specify)
      – Students study participants through describers (a term for adjectives)

      So, at the end of this first unit, students should begin to understand that the sentence “I have a shy brother” is colour coded Red – Green – Red; answers the questions “who or what” – have – “who or what”; includes a subject pronoun; includes a describer; includes a pointer.

      All of this is an introduction to the terms and I do not expect them to know them all by the end of the first unit. I repeat these terms all year, adding new learning (circumstances, tenses, modals) with each unit.

      As I said, you have inspired me to write a new post on this topic, but I hope this answer is helpful. I really appreciate your questions and your care and interest to read and respond to my post and comments. Thank you so much!



  4. Thank you for so many great ideas and insights. Your approach to grammar interests me, especially coding the words and phrases according to function– it makes it less abstract for students for sure. The Power of Grammar by May Ehrenworth and Vicky Vinton anchors my grammar instruction, and I like how your ideas fold into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was unfamiliar with functional grammar, but I adore the way you encourage students to think about the participant, the process, and the circumstance. My goodness… that’s so clear!

    Thanks for providing us with so much insight into working with EAL students.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this very interesting article. I am not a teacher in a school. But I read out to my son who has Retinitis pigmentosa from the time he could understand. He completed his PhD in English literature in 2016 and is working as Assistant professor in the Department of European studies in our university. I would like to know about these terms.
    ‘modelling, collaborating, scaffolding’
    Thank you.


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