Tasks as meaning making social practices: a
functional model and analysis.
Bernard Mohan, King's College London &
University of British Columbia
in collaboration with
Tammy Slater, Iowa State University.
Describing purpose in tasks
• Purposeful tasks cannot be described
adequately as causal experiments with
independent and dependent variables:
“Social behaviour is the structured product of
the joint actions of intelligent and
knowledgeable agents acting to further some
end or other. It is not the effects of causes”
Research on teaching English language learners
(ELLs) in the content areas (Janzen, 2008)
• Children of immigrants are 20% of the U.S. school
population & have a high risk of academic failure.
• Content areas require academic literacy in English
not just a basic knowledge of the language.
• Most content-area teachers are not trained to work
with ELLs [but ELLs spend more time in content
classes than in English classes].
Therefore, a major need is to support and assess
language and meaning/content in academic content
Formative classroom assessment of
meaning in content tasks
• “… tasks and questions prompt learners to
demonstrate their knowledge, understanding,
and skills. What learners say and do is then
observed…, and judgments are made about
how learning can be improved. …”
• A synthesis of more than 4000 research
studies shows that formative assessment for
learning practices can double the rate of
student learning. (William 2007/8)
The ‘gap’ in assessing wording and meaning in tasks
‘a piece of classroom work that involves learners in …mobilizing
their grammatical knowledge in order to express meaning, and in
which the intention is to convey meaning rather than to
manipulate form” (Nunan 2004:4).
Major Assessment measures in TBLT research:
Accuracy (errors in language form)
Complexity (syntactic T-units etc.)
Fluency of speech.
Needed: a linguistic theory and analysis of meaning-making in
texts and tasks.
Meaning-making and communicative
competence assessment .
• CC testing model (Canale & Swain, 1980)
• Grammatical competence is knowledge of rules of
morphology, syntax etc.
• Discourse competence is mastery of the rules of discourse
• Sociolinguistic competence is mastery of sociocultural rules
• Bachman & Palmer (1996) CC model adds more competences.
• In effect, these rule models mark for grammar errors,
discourse errors, sociolinguistic errors, etc.
• They do NOT address meaning-making in text and context.
• They do not address purpose in task.
Systemic Functional Linguistics model of
language and text (discourse)
Language as a resource for making meaning
Language form related to meaning
Text makes meaning using language resources in
Relates language system to text and values both
Language learning as extending resources for
making meaning in context
Evaluate text as making meaning with resources in
Genre PLUS Register (Language as a resource
for learning content)
• Learning to write in a content area requires not only
learning its genres but also learning the content area
itself, learning the 'Field' of the content area. (In
other words, you need to know something about the
topic you are writing on.) This means that we must
not only research genres, we must also research
registers, in the sense of how language is developed
as a resource for learning a content area, and more
widely for learning culture.
Systemic Linguistics as a Theory of Learning
• The distinctive characteristic of human learning is
that it is a process of making meaning, a semiotic
process, and the prototypical form of human
semiotic is language.(Halliday 1993:93)
• Since language is … also the primary evidence we
have for judging what that person has learnt, it is
helpful to conceive of learning in linguistic terms.
(Halliday 1998:1) Knowledge is meaning, a resource
for understanding and acting on the world.
• Can we show how task is a learning process by
showing how it is a process of making meaning?
Register as Learning language, Learning through
language, and Learning about language
• Culture is seen semiotically as sets of meaning systems
realised in language. A sub-domain of culture (a social
practice) is realised in a register.
• Ideational meaning represents human experience and
constructs the taxonomies, ordered progressions and logical
relations of disciplinary knowledge.
• The young child learns the language system and culture
system through processes of conversation in an implicit
dialectic between system and process, theory and practice.
Education uses a more explicit dialectic by reflection on
language, learning and meaning/content.
SOCIAL Linguistics Sociology Ethnography
PRACTICE Halliday Goffman Spradley
(1999) (1974) (1980)
THEORY Context of Frame Cultural
PRACTICE Context of Action Cultural
situation strip behaviour
Relating context of situation to register
meanings in text.
CONTEXT OF REGISTER MEANINGS
SITUATION IN TEXT
*FIELD: topic, social *Ideational: to represent
TENOR: social roles and Interpersonal: to enable
*MODE: medium and *Textual: to achieve
role of language coherence in text
MODE continuum. Action & Reflection. (Gibbons 2002: 40)
Action discourse - in magnetism task
Text 1: (spoken by three 10-year-old students, with accompanying
action) This ...no, it doesn't go...try that.
Reflection discourse (specific)
Text 2: (spoken by one student about the action, after the event) We
tried a pin... some iron filings...the magnet didn't attract the pin.
Reflection discourse (general, in part)
Text 3: (written by the same student) We discovered that a magnet
attracts some kinds of metal. It attracted the iron filings, but not the pin.
Reflection discourse (general).
Text 4: (taken from a child's encyclopedia).A magnet...is able to pick up,
or attract, a piece of steel or iron because its magnetic field flows into
the steel or iron, turning it into a temporary magnet. Magnetic
attraction occurs only between ferrous materials.
SOCIAL DISCOURSE Magnetism
THEORY General Explanation
Reflection (3 & 4)
Specific Recount of
Reflection Experiment (2)
PRACTICE Action Experimental
"Theory and practice are dialectically related,
with theory being developed and tested by
application in and reflection upon practice“.
Context and text are dialectically related
Continuum of knowledge (and meaning) from action to
reflection (after Charles Taylor)
Engaged purposeful agency in
context (typical of tasks) Theoretical knowing
• Knowing expressed in • Knowing expressed in
purposeful doing. explicit statements.
• Unreflective and practical. • Reflective, self-conscious.
• Ordinary being and doing in • Decontextualised
• '...things [and their • Abstract definitions.
meanings+ show up for us … Disengaged, disinterested.
according to their relevance
for our purposes.' (Abbey
FIELD: IDEATIONAL MEANING
Ideational meaning covers three main realms of experience.
Each main realm roughly correlates with a main class of verbs
(note the colours!).
-The identification and classification of things, qualities,
or processes: verbs of being and having.
-The representation of events and activity sequences:
verbs of doing and happening
- Human consciousness, including mental and verbal
processes: verbs of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and
Science theory discourse includes two
types of patterns (Halliday, 1998):
• taxonomies of technical terms (e.g. a magnet
has two poles, north and south.)
• sequences of reasoning (e.g. causal
explanations)(e.g. north attracts south, or
north repels north)
Also, scientists inquire into science research
questions, linking together taxonomies and causal
Teachers guide learners to inquire into science
questions and link these things together e.g.
Teacher: I want you thinking about (Inquiry) what
things (Taxonomy) are attracted to the magnets
In science practice (e.g. experiments),
taxonomies relate to actual things and explanations
relate to actual processes.
A Knowledge Framework Heuristic for Field and
Ideation in Magnetism
Classification Principles Evaluation
‘Magnets have ‘South and Inquiry:
north and south repel’ Explaining
south poles’ how you know
Description Sequence Choice
‘This is north’ ‘It repelled’ Inquiry:
CASE 1 – Magnetism: Task learning as
engaged purposeful doing in context
How do tasks use ideational meaning to:
• build a simple theory of magnetism in a scientific
• link the theory’s technical terms and meanings with
students' practical experience.
• formatively assess learners' understanding?
Note the theory-practice dialectic e.g. how in these
tasks the magnets make the texts comprehensible
Using A Wand
Magnet to lift an
What does a magnet attract?
Teacher: I want you thinking about what things
are attracted to the magnets… and why. What
is similar about all these things?...
Abby: (trying a magnet on a key) Hey it doesn’t.
Teacher: It doesn’t. Why doesn’t the key… what
do you think Janie?
Janie: It doesn’t. That key’s small.
Attracting and repelling
Teacher: Your experiment today is to discover which
sides of the bar magnet, the norths and the souths,
which ones repel and which ones attract. You’re
going to put the two south poles together. Then
you’re going to put the two north poles together, and
then you’re going to put the north pole and the
south pole together and observe what they do.
What’s the rule of when things are attracted and
when they are repelling?
Teacher What’s the rule? S S means?
Teacher: Repel. N N means?
Teacher: N S means?
Teacher: What’s the rule? What poles attract? ...
You just use your letters…You put the
letters of the two poles that attract.
Teacher: Opposite? Opposites attract.… Okay
Floating Ring magnets
Ring Magnets: Where are the poles? Eliciting
Teacher: So… what happened here?
Students: It repelled.
Teacher: They’re repelling. Right. They were
repelling and I’m going to turn this one over.
What do we call this? North or south?
Teacher: North. It doesn’t matter. I’m turning it
Eliciting reflective reasons for answers
Teacher: Okay. So tell me about these magnets?
Do they have a north and south?
Teacher: How do we know?
Jack: Because we tried it out.
Teacher: And? What did we discover?...
Jack: Because if you turn it around it won’t
attract [sc. it repels] and if you turn it around
*sc. again+ it’ll attract.
Task as doing, meaning-making and
• Task as purposeful doing. Evidence from meaning
analysis of task data (ideational, action/reflection).
• Task as meaning-making. Builds and rebuilds theory.
Similar evidence. Meaning-making shows how task is
a learning process.
• Each task is a theory-practice cycle which builds
meanings for later tasks, reinterpreting things (like
magnets), actions/events, circumstances.
• The task series builds the theory and practice of a
social practice (e.g. magnetism).
Case 2. TASK REFLEXIVITY. Learners' formative
assessment of academic discourse in content tasks.
• Study : online discussion (OD) of assigned readings in a
graduate applied linguistics course with ELLs and English
speakers (Mohan & Luo 2005). Data : OD itself and interviews
where students reflected on OD.
• Graduate online discussion is an advanced case of the use of
academic discourse in content tasks. How did the students
regard OD? The students viewed OD positively compared with
classroom discussion , thus giving it a favourable formative
assessment. We will examine this further, showing how the
OD data fits our model of action and reflection and an
ideational frame of meaning.
Action and reflection (“Mode Continuum”) in Online discourse .
Text 1. Actual Online discussion.
‘Hi, I would also like to share my point of view about the
article by Carter. I do agree with Natasha that teachers
should be aware of the educational background of their
Text 2. Interview about online discussion.
‘... at the beginning, I was a little bit reluctant. I didn’t want to
participate [in OD]’.
Text 3. Interview about online discussion
‘[OD] improves English, especially the writing skills.’
Qualitative study of online discussion
SOCIAL QUALITATIVE DISCOURSE OF
PRACTICE RESEARCH REGISTER
THEORY Interview General Reflection on
Specific Reflection on
PRACTICE Observation Actual online discussion
General Reflection on Online Discussion (OD).
A Frame of Three Realms of Experience
‘... *OD+ should be somehow between casual and
‘*OD+ improves English, especially the writing skills.’
FEELING and SAYING
‘...ESL students, to a certain extent, would feel more
comfortable and less inhibited communicating their
ideas *in OD+.’
Dialectical progress in OD
• ...at the beginning, I was a little bit reluctant. I didn’t want
to participate [in OD], but as soon as I got acquainted with
other students, I felt very comfortable. I could ask any
• Student B: [OD] provides more chances for those less
proficient ESL student to construct meanings with
adequate length of time, especially when they are too shy
or lacking confidence of expressing themselves in
public.[ESL students] will find [OD] as a supportive
community where they can be scaffolded by the other
more proficient students and develop their language
competence as time goes by.
OD scaffolding: functional
academic recast of causality
• Student A (ESL): Learning environment is crucial for language
learning. ESL students have more chance to expose to the
language. Everyday, they can access to English-speaking mass
media easily. However, in the context of EFL, ...English
becomes a Forgotten Language (EFL) to students because they
do not have any access to the language.
• Student B (Native speaker): From your previous message it
seems that a students' learning environment is key to
language acquisition, but the accessibility of the language also
seems to play an integral role.
Case 3. TASK RESISTANCE. Learners' negative
formative assessment of project-based learning.
• Beckett (1999). Secondary school ELLs
engaged in project work in an ESL program
aimed at academic content tasks e.g. group
chooses a social issue, surveys media, does
interview survey, analyses results, reports
findings in class presentation. But 80% of
students were not in favour of project work,
stating that it distracted them from learning
English grammar and vocabulary.
Task resistance: can action research help?
• Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry
undertaken by participants in order to improve the rationality
and justice of their own practices, their understanding of
these practices and the situations in which the practices are
carried out. (Carr & Kemmis 1986: 162)
• Kurt Lewin, ‘father of action research’, regarded:
"theory and practice as dialectically related, with theory being
developed and tested by application in and reflection upon
practice“. (Carr & Kemmis 1986:4 4)
The 'Project Framework'
• Beckett and Slater (2005) developed a
recording system, the 'Project Framework', to
help ELLs become more 'reflective
practitioners': a planning graphic to help
students categorize target language, content,
and academic thinking skills relevant to their
goals, and a project diary for students to
summarise weekly the language, content and
academic skills they have been using.
Beckett and Slater (2005).
Japanese students in a 14-week, content-based ESL
course at a Canadian University. Students were not
familiar with a content-based academic discourse
The students worked in small groups to choose,
develop and present a term project. All students
used the Project Framework on a weekly basis to
record their learning experiences.
Data: students’ weekly portfolios of their research
projects, end-of-term reflections, student interviews.
Data analysis showed that the majority of the
students (79%) clearly acknowledged that they saw
how they learned language, subject matter content,
and academic skills simultaneously
Learner action in project-based learning (PBL):
group presentation of project on the brain.
S: To stop the brain’s aging, we can use our
bodies and our heads. Like walking make the
circulation of the blood better. If we supply
nutrition to our brain cells, we can prevent the
destroy of the cells…
T: [RECAST] So, we can prevent our brains from
getting weak by being physically and mentally
LEARNER REFLECTION ON PBL
Tako: I learned English by going to conversations
class, essay writing, and . . .So, I didn’t believe her
[the teacher] when she said we can learn English
this way, too.
She explained it in class and showed it to us by the
visual [the Project Framework].
She told us to learn to speak when talking
to the librarian and presentation, learn to write when
we take notes and write report.
I did that and I understand she taught us the new
way. Now, I know how to learn English another way.
Learner’s action research on Project-based learning
SOCIAL DISCOURSE OF
THEORY General Reflection Learn English another
on PBL way. ..learn to speak
when … presentation
on PBL I did that
PRACTICE Actual PBL To stop the brain’s
• Focus on the importance of academic content tasks and their
formative assessment in terms of meaning.
• Task as a process of learning language and meaning/content
• Task learning as a process of meaning making
• SFL and register as a theory and analysis of task learning as
• 1)Task and agency - task learning as engaged purposive doing
• 2)Task and reflexivity - knowing what you are doing
• 3)Task and resistance - re-interpreting what you are doing
Register analysis of ideational meaning plus
action/reflection can trace the theory/practice dialectic of
learning in tasks and can trace meaning-based formative
The task concept is a very rich and valuable one (agency,
meaning-making and reflexivity…). Register analysis of
language as a means of learning in tasks extends the
significance and contribution of TBLT research to education
as a whole.
Meaning-based formative assessment of tasks can make a
major contribution to student learning.
• Clare Painter (1999) Learning through
language in Early Childhood. London & New
York: Continuum Press.
An exceptionally clear presentation of SFL as a
theory of learning and of register along with a
detailed analysis of the development of
ideational meaning in early childhood.