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Developing instructional theory through design-based research on SFL approaches
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This paper shows how a design-based research process yielded research findings, materials, and instructional theory over a three-year project to develop SFL-based approaches to engaging English Learners (ELs) in talk about language and meaning. We worked collaboratively with teachers and literacy coaches at six elementary schools with high proportions of ELs, supporting them in using SFL metalanguage to engage in grade-appropriate literacy activities in reading texts and responding with subject-specific arguments in English language arts and science. We began with a theory of change and design principles that drew on previous research, and applied these principles in designing activities and evaluating them as we observed teachers’ enactment. This enabled us to recognize shortcomings and return to our principles to re-evaluate and develop them further. Through this process we developed new instructional theory about productive ways SFL can be used to support students’ engagement in subject-specific literacy practices.

Taking a design-based research approach offers several affordances for the use of SFL to support students in literacy development. While prior research using SFL offers valuable insights for thinking about how this linguistic theory can contribute to instructional practice, each new context of application requires that the SFL metalanguage be situated in ways that enable it to support students in focusing on meanings that connect with teachers’ goals and disciplinary expectations. The presentation will report on the ways we investigated and iteratively built on curricular approaches that emerged out of collaboration between teachers and researchers. It will also demonstrate how the work benefitted from the varied perspectives offered by linguists, literacy experts, and experienced teachers on the research team. Curricular approaches based in SFL that show promise for further development and dissemination in other contexts will be presented, with critical reflection on the work and directions for future work proposed for discussion.


SFL is a high-level theory of language that has to be made relevant to achieving disciplinary goals in order to fulfill its promise as a resource for meaning-making in classrooms. This presentation describes features of a design-based research process that support the development of instructional theory using SFL.

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