Helping Literacy Learners find Structure in English: Modified Functional Grammar


by Jean Campbell

Jean Campbell has a passion for helping ESL literacy learners and literacy teachers excel. She is the Literacy Coordinator for the Saskatoon Open Door Society where she has taught LINC literacy-designated classes for 19 years. She has a Master’s Degree in TESOL and wrote and teaches the U of S CerTESL course Literacy in TESL.

When I look at my personal TESL/ESL library, why is the Grammar section the largest?

It’s because it’s the area I feel the most insecure about. It’s where I think I may need the most support. If a question arises, I need to have at least 10 resources to go and check with. 

The very concept of teaching grammar has always been scary for me. Do I understand enough about grammar to accurately explain it to another person? Then, what do I do if I need to explain grammar to someone who speaks a different language? What if they’ve never read or written anything AND have no English? How do I teach them English grammar?  Yikes!

Many dictionaries describe grammar as the “rules of language” (…wouldn’t it be nice if there were actually rules?!) When I started teaching literacy learners, I made far too many assumptions about what they knew about language, about English, about learning, and about knowledge. I developed 3 questions that I still continually ask myself in relation to my learners:  

      1. “Do they really NEED to know this?”
      2. “What do they need to know before they can do this?”
      3. “Is this level appropriate?”

With those questions in mind, I simplified the idea of grammar for myself. When thinking about these low-level literacy learners, I could define grammar as: understanding the essential structures that are the basis for communicating.

Fortunately, at CLB 1-1L my learners didn’t need to know a lot of grammar information. But they did need to know how to put words together to say, understand or write short bits of information (2-5 words at this level). These bits of information would include words; word order; actions; doers of action; recipients of action and some extra info such as time and location (appropriate at this level). 

Knowing how to talk about this information with students was also tricky. For learners who don’t know how to analyze their own language and don’t know much English, I can’t start off with talking about ‘recipients of action’ or even the typical ‘object’ label that I had been taught in school. What terms would my learners understand? Metalanguage to talk about language in the classroom can be very complicated and nebulous. Answering my 3 questions again in terms of metalanguage meant that at the Foundation level I taught the words: line; letter; space; capital; word; period; sentence; question. At 1L, I added: question mark; comma; chart; form. At 2L, I added: verb; vowel (if they were ready).

Before I started teaching Literacy learners, I had been exposed to Functional Grammar from a number of sources. The terminology of Functional Grammar (e.g. Subject; Verb; Object; Complement; Adverbial) and the amount of detail required was beyond what my Foundation (FL) – 1L students could manage and beyond what they needed. However the idea that understanding how words FUNCTIONED in a sentence rang true for beginner learners. Showing them the structure that would give them confidence to communicate what they needed to at such a low level was freeing. Using labels to describe the FUNCTIONS that would reflect the questions I consistently asked them in class, helped them structure words. It is “modified” Functional Grammar because it is not the ‘official functional grammar’ but has been adapted for the needs of low-level literacy learners.

The following is an introduction to what I have found works in my Literacy classroom. The focus here is on FL and 1L learners (modified Functional Grammar works very well at 2L and 3L and helps them learn to read and write for meaning, but I’ll save that for another time). I’ve used and revised and experimented over 18 years teaching Literacy learners. I’d like to share my results, so far.

Functional Grammar: What do your learners need to be able to do with language?

Adult literacy learners who have no L1 literacy skills experience unique problems when learning English. Many of them are in the early stages of learning English and have developed strong oral skills by using the language rather than analyzing it. Since few Literacy Learners will pursue academic training, they don’t need the language of grammar analysis.

In early literacy levels, limit the meta-language to 4 main concepts (SUBJECT / VERB / OBJECT / ADVERBIAL). Refer to them, by the function they represent in the sentence: WHO-WHAT / DO (eventually referred to as a verb in order to make use of many textbooks)/ WHO-WHAT / WHEN-WHERE. These terms and this broad structure lets literacy learners relate more easily to the grammar.

What learners can do with functional grammar
Fig. 1 Writing sentences & stories using Functional Grammar – 1L

Putting simple sentences together at the WORD level is appropriate for literacy learners working at the later stages of FL and in CLB 1L. These learners can select one word for the SUBJECT (by answering the question: WHO? or WHAT?); the VERB (What does the subject DO? in simple present and simple past, moving into present progressive and future), and the OBJECT ( to answer the question: WHO? or WHAT?). The questions: WHO;  DO;  WHAT, are answered in that order to produce a simple sentence, one word at a time at high CLB Foundation L. At CLB 1L, learners can incorporate word chunks (multi-word chunks that function in the same way).

Toward the completion of CLB 1L, learners can also add adverbials that they know (such as: yesterday, here, sometimes). The meta-language needed is question words [“who”; “do”; “what”; “when”; “where”; and, maybe, “how”] which are all among the list of the most common 60 words used in English and therefore part of their sight word list. 

An example of the process for beginners

For ELLs who are not L1 literate, it’s important to teach listening and speaking before reading and writing. Before a learner can learn to decode and read, they must know that what they are seeing on the page are real English words. Fortunately, this is a natural progression. Because literacy learners value listening and speaking more, they are attuned to the oral skills. They naturally build their listening and speaking skills in order to communicate. Functional Grammar helps ELLs to transfer what they hear and say into written form.

Use Functional Grammar to Communicate with Meaning

Before learning to create and understand sentences, higher-FL and CLB 1L literacy learners start to identify new vocabulary. They start to associate words with a picture and then print (copy) when supported by that picture. To aid their memory, and add interest, it’s important to make words relevant and meaningful to each learner. Completing a form relating to personal preference and action makes words meaningful (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Creating sentences that are personally relevant

Follow-up opportunities are critical to repeat and reinforce the structures introduced by Functional Grammar. Integrate all the skills. There are endless ideas for follow-up. Don’t leave one activity as an end in itself. For example, as follow-up for the chart: 1. Have students report orally the chart results (Fig. 2), i.e. say the sentences; 2. Listening to others say their sentences and use their envelope of word cards to create the sentence they heard; 3. Use word cards to create their own sentences from their own chart; 4. Write the sentences. 5. Exchange seats and read others sentences (select an illustrative picture to place beside the sentence to show understanding). 6. Peer-correct using the original chart by checking for: word order; words copied correctly; sentences reflect “X” on the chart, etc. 7. Communicate (speaking or writing) about another student using “You like carrots” at low levels or if learning a new structure (e.g. noun-verb agreement) such as “Ali likes carrots”.

At the FL and beginner 1L levels, learners might learn 10-15 new written vocabulary words per month and then recycle words from previous months (for example: pronouns, a few verbs, personal information words, the days, the months, basic time, numbers 1 – 12; a few relevant adjectives are types of words familiar from FL level). This vocabulary is used to create 3-word sentences. They would practice making these sentences orally first, stimulated by a visual.

Fig. 3.Understanding sentence word order

Using a colour-coded chart lets learners select one word from each section (SVO) to make sentences. First orally, then in writing, learners see the number of sentences possible by following a SVO/ Who-Do-What word order.

Using the illustrated chart as a model, learners would begin to associate the words they are saying to the printed words on cards that can be manipulated. Incorporating the use of multiple senses reinforces memory and processing.

The chart also categorizes types of information that is often requested in information questions.

e.g. Question:  WHAT do you like?  Answer: learner looks down the “WHAT” column to see which vegetables they marked with an X.  The X indicates an answer. 

Sentence: I like carrots.   Q:  What do you like?   Acarrots.  Since questions and answers is a typical technique used during classroom learning, it is critical for learners to be able to understand the information questions words (used to identify sentence elements in Functional Grammar); know the meaning of the words (“Who” asks about people; “When” asks about time; etc); understand that the question word used indicates the kind of information the questioner is looking for; understand question formation and answers; and identify the types of information given in a sentence. 

Fig. 4. Using manipulatives reinforces memory
Fig. 5 Expanding skill, recycling vocabulary, patterning sentences

Learners sort their set of words by colour, to make a simple sentence [patterned; copied; and supported by visuals]. Eventually, they will be able to comprehend these words and self-correct so that the visuals match the meaning of the sentence (Fig. 4). Learners then move from word-calling (just reading the words aloud with little evidence of comprehension) the words on each card, to discriminating because they actually understand the meaning of the sentences. For example, “I cook lettuce.” is a grammatically-accurate sentence, but not a true or logical one. As learners progress, they can supply more words per sentence and write more sentences. At FL and CLB 1L, they use a word pool with visuals to refer to.

Communicative activities, such as this interview (Fig. 5) can be done in a simpler form very early in their learning and be adapted throughout the literacy levels. It is set up to follow the Who-Do-What pattern and coloured appropriately. Filling out the chart uses all four macro-skills, allowing literacy learners to use their listening-speaking strengths while working on their reading and writing skills. Once the information is collected, ELLs transfer that information into a story about the person they interviewed using patterned sentences. This writing becomes new reading material and is circulated among their classmates.

Reading skills are reinforced as vocabulary is recycled but made meaningful as these personalized stories are about friends they know.

This type of activity can easily be adjusted to specific learner levels within a multilevel class. The way the survey is set up makes it easy to do the follow-up writing:   _____ Who (name) ______Do (verb)  ______  What? (vegetable)… and expand as learners are able.

Fig. 6 Use the same vocabulary to teach a new grammar point

During CLB1L, learners start creating sentences and work on word order. They deal with basic grammar concepts, such as, noun/verb agreement, introduced here (Fig. 6), or simple present and past verbs. Following the Who-Do-What pattern, 1 grammar point can be added and practiced at a time.

Fig. 7 Adding ADVERIALS in a new position
Fig. 8 Writing with phrases: noun; verb; adverb

Word Wall Charts are useful tools to organize /structure their vocabulary and stimulate sentence writing; understanding in reading; and provide the basis for question formation. As described on the podcast, a word wall chart might look like the colour-coded charts in Figures 7 and 8. If you have multi-level literacy classes the colour coding and visuals provide support for the lower-level learners. These learners also have the option to create shorter sentences using the basic Who-Do-What pattern whereas the higher-level students can be adventuresome and creative and write sentences with more information. The categorized Word Wall supports this and gives them confidence that their resulting sentences will be correct. Leaving some cards blank gives higher-level learners a chance to experiment and try other vocabulary words.

As literacy learners progress, their sentences become longer. By adding familiar phrases as an adverbial indicating ‘WHERE? (Fig. 8), the need for patterning gradually becomes less. To add variety to sentences, they can vary the position of some types of adverbials in the sentence (Fig. 7). These word chunks can be used as a unit to fulfill a ‘sentence function.’ 

To add detail, literacy learners can transfer their oral descriptive ability to the nouns in the Who, What, and phrases. Using noun phrases lets learners give more information without repetition (Fig. 8).

Fig. 9 LEA writing using familiar vocabulary and sentence patterns

Very early in CLB 1L literacy learners who have been following the Who-Do-What writing process can use it to create meaningful writing. By actually doing an activity such as making a vegetable salad, they can use patterned sentences to describe the process. Once written, this document becomes a good source of reading material (Fig. 9).

By using a modified Functional Grammar, your beginner learners will increase their understanding of English structures and gain confidence when communicating. I hope you’ll find it useful for working with your literacy learners. If you have questions, please e-mail

References and Credits

Visuals: Charts created by Jean Campbell. Photos taken by Jean Campbell or Jordanna Campbell, used with permission.

*Some ideas by this author previously appeared in:

  1. Campbell, Jean (2012). Scaffolding the ‘learning to read’ and ‘learning to write’ process for Non L1 literacy learners in Phase 1 Initial and Developing. TESL 36: TESL Literacy Resources. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.

  2. Campbell, Jean (2015). Teach Grammar to Beginners? Yikes! Share Emagazine, TESL Canada. May 2015.

  3. Campbell, Jean (2017). Tutela Webinar: Literacy Series Part 5: Learning to Read: Word Calling and Beyond.

  4. Campbell, Jean (2017). Tutela Webinar: Literacy Series Part 3: Scaffolding their Learning – Breaking Down the Task.

  5. Conference Workshop Presentations at: TESL Saskatchewan, North Battleford SK (2012); TESL Canada, Kamloops BC (2012); TESL Saskatchewan, Saskatoon ( 2008); TESL Canada, Winnipeg MB ( 2006); TESL Canada, Regina (2014); LESSLA, St. Augustine, FL (2015); TESL Alberta, Edmonton (2017).

One thought on “Helping Literacy Learners find Structure in English: Modified Functional Grammar

  1. You are a treasure for all ESL literacy teachers out there! I will read and reread your blog to help me do a better job of teaching my students better sentence structure without that extra baggage from traditional grammar lessons. Thanks!

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