Field, tenor and mode – a literacy framework for all subjects

Literacy is a focus for every teacher, regardless of whether we are teaching primary school or high school, regardless of what subject we teach. Without strong literacy skills, our students cannot access the curriculum. Reading comprehension and writing are essential to succeed to every aspect of education.

One challenge I have always grappled with is how to create writers. I often feel like I have to continuously give scaffolds; a sheet to tell students this is how this text is supposed to be structured, you need to write this in this paragraph, make sure you use these connectives, etc, etc ,etc. I always asked how can I gradually remove these scaffolds so that students are 100% independent? It feels like I constantly have to provide scaffolds.

I think a reason why is the way I (and other teachers) approach extended writing. Too much focus has been on the overall text structure (eg.In a scientific investigation report, there is an aim, equipment then method. The method has to start with a verb and be in present tense.) There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say to students “Use PEEL to write your paragraphs. You need to write this paragraph so that it starts with a point, then elaboration, then provide an example then a sentence that links to the question. Throw in a complex sentence because you know, NAPLAN (Australian teachers will understand the NAPLAN bit).” But why do we have to write in complex sentences? Why do we use nominalisation? The PEEL stuff and text structure do not teach students why some words and sentence structures are favoured for particular texts and purposes, particularly academic texts.

So what else what needs to be done? I think the field-tenor-mode framework needs to be the overarching strategy. I came across field, tenor and mode a few years ago and am currently doing a refresher course. Field, tenor and mode are components of linguistics. Every text, regardless of subject, can be viewed from the field-tenor-mode framework. To put it simply, field is the subject matter of the text; tenor is the relationship between the author and the audience; and mode is how the text is constructed, particularly whether it is written-like or spoken-like. I think tenor is something that schools do not do well. The relationship between the author and the audience is essential is what words you choose. For an example, an email to a friend and a book review have very different relationships between the audience and the author. Frankly, schools don’t do audience very well. Very rarely do students know the audience of their extended writing.

Mode can help students in moving their writing towards being more written-like. Many, many students write texts in a spoken-like manner when formal, academic texts need to be written-like. This is where the complex sentences come in. Written-like texts are more lexically dense. To write a text that is lexically dense requires complex sentences, which may also require nominalisation. Designing activities where students can learn this will enable them to know why and when certain sentence structures need to be utilised.

So I am now using the field-tenor-mode framework for my students whenever they are composing any text, for any subject. Here are some resources I have created so far. All resources can be used for any subject.

  • A short video to explain field, tenor and mode to students


field tenor mode text composition planning sheet

Text composition planning sheet

21 thoughts on “Field, tenor and mode – a literacy framework for all subjects

  1. Alice, this fits in perfectly with what I have been learning in my PETAA ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course. What and excellent chart. I’m going to share this with the other participants.

    • Thanks for your comment. I did a course in grammar and teaching a few years ago and now doing a refresher course. I think teachers need to move beyond just teaching the text structure and identifying types of sentences. Field, tenor and mode give students the tools to decide on language choices.

  2. As in “The relationship between the author and the audience is essential is what words you choose.”, essential for/to?

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  4. I’m a high school student and I was looking for the meanings of these terms and this post was literally the only one that explained them so well. Thank you! ☺☺

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  6. Hi Alice, I remember you from Day 1 of one of our courses and so pleased to see what you are doing with your knowledge of grammar. A participant in a current course used you as a reference so of course I just had to see what you were doing. Great work – keep it up. Kathy

  7. Hi Alice,
    I know you posted this back in 2016 but I have only just stumbled across your work in my own exploration of approaching literacy across the whole school through this linguistics model. I had already used field/mode/tenor to assist our students with the new Reading to Write and Craft of Writing modules in English so it was fascinating seeing you using it in this way. Thanks for the share. 🙂

  8. Hello Alice,
    Been tasked to craft a syllabus on English Discourse for our college students, and this one is of tremendous help. It simplifies the explanation on the subject. Thx!

  9. hi Alice, thank you very much this approach is very helpful for me. would you mind if I use this approach for my research?

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