Language as a Functional Resource

Teachers must consider many factors when planning and teaching, but two are likely at the forefront. One is pedagogical content knowledge, which refers to teachers’ understanding of specific subject matter. The other is pedagogical language knowledge, which refers to teachers’ awareness of the language students need to master the content (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014). Pedagogical language knowledge, however, extends beyond simply teaching content-specific vocabulary or defining unfamiliar words. It means understanding the types of texts used within a subject area, the structure of those texts, and the language that is unique to them. For example, the language used when teaching third-grade students how to interpret various types of graphs is different than the language used when teaching those same students how to interpret symbols on a map.

Defining pedagogical language knowledge is a good place to start, but it shouldn’t end there. Teachers must also assess their beliefs about how students learn and then honestly evaluate their teaching methods. For example, do they favor whole-group lessons followed by independent work, or do they promote an environment in which “knowledge is interpreted within a community” (Gleeson, 2015, p. 111)? A study of teachers in New Zealand revealed that what they teach often determines how they teach. In one secondary school, teachers who taught subjects such as chemistry or statistics, where acquiring content is key, were less likely to include small-group activities and discussions than those who taught more conversation-based subjects such as economics or religion (Gleeson, 2015).

How teachers teach does matter in promoting language development. When teachers view language as a functional resource, an approach supported by linguist Michael Halliday, learning happens through language. In the classroom, the language as a functional resource approach is evident in hands-on, cooperative learning during which the teacher acts as a facilitator while students engage in small-group discussions and investigative activities (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014). Teachers who promote this type of learning scaffold language development. For example, they build background knowledge and model how to deconstruct text to better understand it. Learning becomes a social transaction between the teacher and the students, as well as between the students themselves.

Students learn best in a classroom where the teacher encourages discussion and teamwork. A collaborative approach supports the understanding of content, develops literacy skills, and increases access to social and academic language. With careful self-reflection of their beliefs about successful teaching methods, even teachers of more traditionally lecture-type subjects such as math can adopt the language as a functional resource approach to promote student learning.


Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Gleeson, M. (2015). ‘It’s the nature of the subject’: Secondary teachers’ disciplinary beliefs and decisions about teaching academic language in their content classes. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 38(2), 104-114.

Published by Melissa

I am a certified general education and special education teacher with a master's degree in literacy education. I currently co-teach 2nd grade in the morning and provide ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I love my job!

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