SFL Genre Pedagogy: The Key to Integrating Language and Content

When I conduct bilingual education training for teachers in Taiwan, I usually have the participants discuss their feelings about this statement: It is the job of the bilingual teacher to teach the English language.

Since my audience is typically content teachers, most disagree. When asked why they disagree, they answer, “That’s the English teacher’s job!”

In contrast with these participants, I agree with the statement. I believe it IS the job of the bilingual teacher to teach the English language—the English language of their subject.

I take this position based on the principles of systemic functional linguistics (SFL).


The TESOL Teacher Educator Interest Section (TEIS) hosted a webinar with Dr. Maria Estela Brisk titled SFL Genre Pedagogy: Teaching Writing to Students of all Ages. While she focused on writing specifically, I think the content applies to all types of language production, and I believe the concepts she discussed in regard to SFL are critical knowledge for bilingual teachers.

I want to specifically highlight two points from the video to illustrate why I believe bilingual education teachers should know about and teach the English language.

Every subject has it’s own language

Maria Estela Brisk explaining SFL in a TESOL webinar.

SFL puts the text as the focal point for understanding language (as seen in the picture above). The characteristics of the text are determined by the context of culture. In bilingual education, we can interpret culture as the subject or academic discipline.

Every academic discipline has their own ways of organizing text about their subject, be it oral texts or written texts. This organization is called genre in SFL.

English teachers focus on general language use. They do not have the time to teach the genres of every subject. If bilingual teachers do not teach the subject-specific ways of creating oral or written texts for communication in the subject area, no one will. Which brings us to the second point…

Students have to be taught to produce language, not just told

Maria Estela Brisk explaining the teaching cycle.

Participants in bilingual education workshops are often concerned that Taiwanese students do not have enough English ability to communicate in a bilingual classroom—they don’t. Yet, at the same time, they say it is not their job to teach language.

There is a disconnect between these two ideas.

If the goal is for students to be able to use English in the content classroom, we have to teach them how, not just tell them to. Students will not just magically one day be able to use English without being taught, just like students will not magically know how to do chemistry. Explicit teaching matters!

However, this isn’t to say that bilingual teachers will teach like English teachers—they shouldn’t—but it also doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach language. They must teach language in subject-specific ways that are aligned with the purpose of communicating about the subject, an idea that SFL brings to the forefront.

Teacher educators’ role in teacher SFL genre pedagogy

It is not good enough for a bilingual education teacher to simply be a user of language. Teacher educators must guide bilingual education teachers to also be analyzers of language and teachers of language. Teachers must be able to analyze the subject-specific ways language is used in their disciplines using the principles of SFL. Once teachers become language-aware, they can then teach language to their students using SFL genre pedagogy in a way that integrates content and language.

Dr. Maria Estela Brisk gives a brilliant introduction to these concepts and provides a good starting point for teacher educators to begin to consider how they can convince bilingual education teachers that they ARE teachers of language—the language of their subject.

The Importance of Teaching Morphemic Awareness

A morpheme is a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (Google’s English dictionary via Oxford Languages). For example, the English word incoming has three morphemes: in, come, ing.

In the above webinar, Dr. Michelle Benegas discusses the idea that ALL teachers (not just language teachers) must be aware of and provide instruction in morphemes.


She cites Nagy and Anderson’s (1984) findings that 60% of words students encounter in third through ninth grade can be predicted by their morphemes.

That makes morphemes a powerful tool for bilingual students in their content courses.

I’d like to highlight two points in the webinar for bilingual teacher educators and content teachers.

For bilingual teacher educators, building teachers’ language awareness should be a key component of any bilingual education teacher preparation program.

Dr. Benegas provides an excellent exercise to help teachers become aware of morphemes (~8:06 in the video). The exercise asks teachers to examine a list of medical words using lists of common prefixes, suffixes, and roots. The lists she used in the webinar came from the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Science website.

In a teacher preparation class, teacher educators could take their teachers through a similar exercise. Alternatively, the teachers could be asked to examine words they may teach in their classes. This will help the teachers become aware of how they may leverage morphemic awareness in their future classrooms.

For bilingual teachers, the word dissection exercise (21:09 in the video) may be useful when learning academic vocabulary in the content classroom. The activity asks students to cut words into pieces and define each of the morphemes using a graphic organizer.

Because this exercise is simple with low prep, I could see it being easily implemented into any content classroom. Further, if implemented across the curriculum, students will quickly build their morphemic awareness and be able to utilize it in all academic areas, thus enhancing their academic literacy development.