Accelerated Literacy Practitioners' Association Australia

Honouring Michael Halliday

We were deeply saddened recently to hear of the passing of Michael (MAK) Halliday. In using the Accelerated Literacy approach, we owe an immeasurable debt to Halliday's intellectual legacy, and particularly to his work in educational linguistics. 

Wendy Cowey has written a personal reflection on the impact that Halliday had on her own work as a teacher, which she shares with us here.

Some reflections

Michael Halliday: 13 April 1925 – 14 April 2018

Accelerated Literacy teachers will be familiar with analysing the texts that they use as the focus of teaching sequences. Understanding how language is used in the study text, how it makes meaning and how to interpret it is the foundation on which every teaching sequence is constructed. Systemic Functional Grammar, developed by Michael Halliday is the means we have for carrying out these text analyses. In fact, the early teaching sequence diagrams included text analysis as the first step in the sequence. It was, and is still, that important.

When I heard of Michael Halliday’s death recently, I felt shocked of course, but even more I felt gratitude for his life and the way his work on Systemic Functional Grammar contributed to our ability to teach literacy. The only way I could think of to share the significance of Halliday’s work and the way in which it enabled the teaching method we now call the Accelerated Literacy Program is through an analogy.

One memorable day, when I was 14 years old, I received in the mail, my very first pair of pink, plastic framed spectacles.

I carried them outside, away from observers, into the scrub near our house. It was the same scrub that I had been playing in, roaming through and loving for many of those 14 years but on this day, through the lenses of these glasses, it seemed that I had entered a different, vibrant new reality. In this world trees had individual leaves, the horizon had edges, the familiar scrub became more detailed in a way that I had not realised was possible. There were other benefits of course but that day remains in my memory. It was the same world but my ability to see it and appreciate it had changed. 

Fast forward to 1992, when I started working at the University of Canberra Schools and Community Centre (SCC) as a tutor in the Parents as Tutors Program. At that time, I was already a capable literacy teacher, but it was there, though working with Studies in Advanced Literacy students and attending lectures in that subject that I first encountered Systemic Functional Grammar, and with my colleagues at the SCC, saw a whole world of teaching possibilities unfold.

It is not exaggerating to say that it was a similar experience to wearing my first glasses.  The actual words in the oral and written texts around me were the same but the lenses through which I viewed them changed my perspective completely. Verbs were not just ‘doing words’, for goodness sake! Adjectives were much more than ‘describing words’ and so on. My whole understanding of language came into focus in a way that hadn’t been possible before. It was as momentous a time as when I realised trees had separate leaves. 

I realise that this is a largely personal account of my reflections on hearing of the death of Michael Halliday. I share it simply to record the way in which his work contributed to the development of the program we teach today.

Wendy Cowey 

For an account of Halliday's life and the reach of his influence you might also like to read this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.