Do you want some context with that?

“Chicken.”

“What?”

“Chicken”

This was the discussion that my husband and I had tonight. My husband is sitting on the sofa watching TV and I am in the next room working on my laptop. Sufficed to say I have little, to no idea what he is talking about. Had he drifted off to sleep and was sleep talking? Had he decided on a pet name for me? Are we playing a game of associations?

What problem can you see here?

No context.

Our language functions in a context. Every text we consume or create is found in a context of culture and a context of situation.

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A context of culture allows for cultural norms to create meaning in texts. A few blog posts ago I shared the story of my mother arriving at a birthday party with an empty plate. I’m sure many people would have similar anecdotes about clashes in culture.

A common cultural context mix up in my home is when I offer my husband food. This might sound strange. How can asking if someone wants food be situated in a context of culture? Let me explain.

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In most European cultures it is impolite to not offer food. It is also impolite to directly tell someone you are hungry. Neither of these actions are impolite in Australian culture. I grew up in a household where I was constantly offered food, often given it when I refused and I would always accept and eat it. Otherwise I would look rude. My husband was not raised in this culture. In Australian culture you refuse food when you aren’t hungry and you get a bit sick of it when you are given food if you have said, “I’m not hungry!”. The mismatch between my husband’s culture and mine led to many ridiculous arguments around food which went like this:

Him: “But I said I’m NOT HUNGRY!”

Me: “Yes, so I just brought you two little sandwiches! Why won’t you eat the food I made you! Don’t you LOVE me?”

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As well being situated in a context of culture, texts are also embedded in a context of situation. When there is a misread or mismatch of situation is when situational comedy occurs. Take this ad for example:

There is a mismatch between the situation of the verbal text  and the visual. The situation between the two doctors gives very different meaning to the verbal text; “well that killed him”. We love to laugh a situational context mix-ups! Oh what a bunch of grammar geeks we are!

What does this all have to do with teaching? Well watch out I’m pulling out my soap box and I’m about to test out its sturdiness.

Books. Good quality picture books. Novels. Real world texts.

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This is where grammar teaching belongs. Grammar lives in a context. That is where grammar is born and develops. Grammar gets its meaning from its context. Therefore, grammar teaching should never be in isolation. There should never be a lesson on Monday at 9:30am labelled “grammar” because grammar education needs to happen in context.

When I analyse texts using a transitivity analysis I NEVER just make up a sentence and go for it. I always use quality texts. To be completely honest I mostly use picture books. This is because picture books are a gold mine for great language. On one page of a picture book you will find the most refined literature. The text on one page of a good quality picture book can be a teaching resource for a week…or even a term! By opening my student’s eyes to the grammatical features used by published authors I am able to dramatically improve their writing. When we copy the skills of those that are better than us in anything our skills will improve.

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If I want a really great meal I don’t head to Maccas, I go to a fine dining restaurant. Yes, in both places I will eat. But in one of those places my meal will be expertly crafted by a professional. It I want my students to learn to be writers I won’t feed them the McDonalds of texts (blackline masters and text books) I will take my students to dinner at a 3 hatted restaurant (expertly crafted, edited, reviewed and awarded books).

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And I don’t just reserve picture books for junior school students. My Year 5 class had an amazing time pulling apart the sentences in Uno’s Garden by Graham Base. They were wowed by the vocabulary in Memorial by Gary Crew. They studied the narrative structure in Possum Magic by Mem Fox. Because quality literature is quality literature. It doesn’t matter how old you are.

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So, in everything I rant on about, if you take away one thing I hope it is this. Use books. Spend your hard earned teacher dollars on quality literature (or a library card). It will be your best investment.

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Oh and if you are still wondering about the “chicken”. That was for the shopping list. If only I had known that then, I would have grabbed a pen to write it down instead of typing this post. Context is causing dramas again!


If you are wondering where to start looking to find a list of good quality books I highly recommend Reading Australia. Not only does this site showcase great examples of literature it also has units of work written on a variety of books. Winner!


For more on using a functional approach to grammar have a look at these books:

Butt, D. F., Rhondda; Feez, Susan; Spinks, Sue. (2012). Using functional grammar: an explorer’s guide. South Yarra, Vic: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coffin, C., Donohue, J., & North, S. (2013). Exploring English grammar: From formal to functional. Routledge.

Derewianka, Beverly M. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association

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