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

Running to read, write, listen and speak

Literacy in science has always been a huge focus for me. Not only is literacy a priority area for our school, but I like to be educating my students so they are young scientists and there’s nothing more important to a scientist than to be able to understand and communicate their ideas clearly.

I personally find reading and writing to be the easiest to integrate into high school science. However, listening and speaking are a little harder for me to embed. Just a few days ago I remembered a strategy called running dictation which I learnt from an English as a Second Language consultant a few years ago.

Running dictation is a game that students play in groups to practise their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The teacher puts a short passage somewhere in the classroom (in my case it was a passage on the atmosphere). Each group of students selects a reader and the rest are writers. The readers in each group need to run (or in my classroom, walk very fast as I don’t want any injures) to the passage, read it silently to themselves, remember as much as possible, run back to their team, recite what they remember to their team and the rest of the team writes it down. The first team that gets everything correct (the words, spelling, punctuation, etc) wins. You might think it’s a noisy game but because each team doesn’t want the others to hear and steal their work, they work very quietly. I did this with Year 8s the other day and they absolutely loved it. I like how it allows students the opportunities to work together as a team and speak about science.

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

Year 8 students in a running dictation activity

I know running dictation isn’t new but I haven’t seen it used in science classes so I’d thought this blog might give other science teachers some ideas for literacy. I find that running dictation allows students to read, write listen and speak science in a fun way. It’s gets them up and moving and doesn’t make literacy seem like a drag like it sometimes is.

In future lessons I’m going to try some of these other ideas for running dictation to make it more challenging for my students.

Using PowerPoint to tackle misconceptions and embed literacy in science

Many people frown upon PowerPoint, It has become rather unfashionable these days. Search ‘PowerPoint’ in Google and you’ll get websites with titles like:

“Be Less Boring: The 4 Best Alternatives to PowerPoint”

“Hate PowerPoint? Here are 5 Web-based Alternatives”

“5 PowerPoint Alternatives to Wake Up Your Presentations”

Anyway, since PowerPoint has been getting such a negative spin lately, I’d like to share some a learning activity that uses PowerPoint a little differently.

My Year 8 class are currently learning about states of matter and the particle model. It is one of the most conceptually difficult science topics for middle school students. The most difficult aspect is probably because the particle model is an abstract concept. There are also many misconceptions associated with this topic. Let’s take particles of water as an example. Students often think that:

  • particles in ice, liquid water and steam are physically different from each other

  • particles change in size as water changes from ice, liquid water and steam

There are also a few conceptually difficult ideas that students need to grasp such as:

  • Particles are inside objects (as opposed to particles actually making up the object)

  • One particle of water is actually two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom

  • The behaviour of the particles that cannot be seen is directly related to the behaviour of the macroscopic object they make up

  • The particle model is a model and every model has limitations in what they can explain

This is one of those topics where a lot of regular and frequent formative assessment is very  beneficial as it allows you as the teacher to identify and tackle any misconceptions as they happen with each student. This is one of those topics where you don’t want to find out your students have completely misunderstood particle model at an end-of-topic test.

So with my Year 8s I decided to use PowerPoint to identify misconceptions. Their PowerPoint task looks something like this:

This is an unfinished audio slideshow made by some of my Year 8 students

This activity was done over three lessons, spanning three weeks. At the end of each of these lessons, students upload their progress onto Edmodo and I give them feedback based on the medals and missions model.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

screenshot of feedback

And here’s my feedback to them on Edmodo.

And here’s my feedback to another group. From their progress I was able to pick up on one of their misconceptions.

screenshot of feedback on Edmodo

From my observations of my Year 8 students doing this activity, I have found that they actively engage with the text when they are finding images to match different sections of the text. In their groups they were often arguing and justifying to  each other which images were the best to use. I also think that this activity allows students to ‘talk science’, which will be particularly beneficial for students learning English as a second language. Setting aside time where students practise using scientific metalanguage to talk about science with each other is also something that is often neglected in high school science.

During this activity, it is also the students who are working the hardest to learn. It isn’t me showing pictures of circles and talking about the particle model. It is them talking about it and me regularly checking their understanding.

So don’t just think of PowerPoint as a boring presentation tool. It can be used as a very easy way to create a student-centred learning environment that frees up the teacher to tackle student misconceptions.

Learning about sound waves with English Language Learners

Sound waves and waves in general are concepts that I’ve found many students have difficulty understanding. These are concepts that deal with understanding how energy is transmitted from one place to another through a scientific model. Why are these concepts difficult? Firstly it is abstract. You can’t see waves. When you speak or hear music you can’t see the waves coming out from the source and travelling to your ear. You can’t see the vibrations of particles. Secondly learning about the transmission of waves comes with a lot of academic language. Here’s just a sample of academic scientific jargon you’ll hear when you sit in a lesson learning about waves:

  • Equilibrium

  • Particles

  • Transmission

  • Transfer

  • Amplitude

  • Frequency

  • Period

  • Wavelength

  • Compression

  • Rarefaction

Due to this, learning about waves is particularly challenging for students who are also English language learners. Not only do they have to deal with difficult and abstract scientific concepts, they also have to deal with the intense bombardment of academic language.

This year I have a Year 9 class who are students learning English as a second language. I didn’t want to start the topic with a waveform diagram and pointing out what is an amplitude, etc. I planned a learning sequence that will move them from concrete to abstract, and from everyday language to academic language.

The first concept I wanted them to understand is that sound is vibration, or things shaking back-and-forth very quickly. We used the good ol’ tin can phones for this. We also did an experiment where students used a vibrating tuning forks to tickle their noses and make tiny splashes with a beaker of water (I thought they would find these experiments too boring, but they absolutely loved it). Every single student left that lesson knowing that sound is caused by vibrations.

The second concept I wanted them to understand is that we can represent sounds as waves. Students used Audacity to record their voices and experiment with how the loudness and pitch of their voice affected how the sound wave looked like on Audacity. We also experimented on whether saying “Hello, My name is ____” in English and students’ first languages had a difference in pitch.

Here’s a video on Audacity. It’s a free program that can be downloaded.

Students worked out from this Audacity activity that the higher pitched their voices were the more squashy the waves were. They also worked out the louder their voices were the taller the waves. I was happy for them to use the words “squashy” and “high” to describe the waves for the time being.

The following lesson I introduced frequency and amplitude. By now the students had a conceptual understanding of the relationship between sound and vibrations, the relationship between pitch and “squashiness” and the relationship between volume and the tallness of waves. They now just had to replace “squashy” with frequency and tallness with amplitude.

I really like the strategy of teaching a concept with everyday language first and then introducing the scientific terms after students have actually understood it. Science is hard enough without a bunch of difficult words bombarding students as well.

Using technology to enhance the learning of scientific language

I have always found teaching the separations topic in year 7 science difficult. This is the topic where students learn a range of separation techniques like sieving, filtering, evaporation and distillation. Students have to be able to explain how this separation techniques work based on the physical and chemical properties of substances, which at times involve them having a good understanding of particle and atomic theory. One barrier to this topic is the large amounts of scientific technical language. Students have to know the definitions of these words and know how to use them in their scientific explanations – solution, suspension, solute, solvent, dissolve, soluble, insoluble. These words are just a small proportion of the entire list of terms students are expected to learn.

So with my Year 7s this year I decided to test out how online tools can help make the learning of these words easier and more effective for students. Previously I’ll use a lot of literacy strategies like barrier games, spelling games and concentration games to give students lots of practice at using the words. This year I decided to do it a little bit different. Here’s what I did.

1)      Introduce the need to separate mixtures in the context of obtaining clean, drinking water by using an adaptation of the river story.

2)      Students played a game to learn the definitions of solution, suspension, solute and solvent using Student Response Network. These PowerPoint slides were used to play the game:

3)      Students then performed an experiment to have hands on experience on solutes, solvents, suspensions and solutions.

4) Students then used a science dictionary to construct a table of terms and definitions.

Excel illustrated science dictionary

4)      Students worked in groups using the table of terms and definitions to create multiple choice questions for each term via Each group uploaded their quiz for the rest of the class to complete. I chose because it is easy to use for Year 7s, doesn’t require registration of any sign up and it gives students a URL to share their quiz with others.

I found that this sequence of activities exposed students to these terms multiple times without being too repetitive. In their weekly tests, this group of year 7s have grasped the definitions of these terms and are able to use them in a scientific context more readily than other groups of year 7 classes I have taught previously.

Teaching writing – a high school perspective

For many high school teachers, teaching students how to write can be a challenge. I have often found it a challenge to have my students write sustained pieces of text. But in recent weeks I have had some successes.

I have a Year 7 science class that consists of students who need additional support in literacy. Many of these students are also learning English as a second language. One of the first things they learn in Year 7 is to write an experiment report (Think back to high school science. It is the report that has Aim, Equipment, Method, Results, Conclusion). This week they completed their assessment task on writing an experiment report on an experiment they did that separated sand and salt. I was so impressed that all students were able to write the experiment report independently. In previous times I have had other students who had higher literacy skills that could not do it as well as these Year 7s. So what did I do different?

I have used the strategy of deconstruction, group construction and independent construction for a few years now. Whenever we need to write something, we look at an example first and deconstruct the structure and language features of the text. Then we try to write one together as a class and in small groups. This is followed by the students writing independently. I have always emphasised purpose and audience when I set a writing task for my students.


In the past many students still struggled with the last step of writing independently. What I did different this time was to provide students with more opportunities of writing independently and marking their work immediately during the lesson. In high school we often mark student work after the lesson and provide students with written feedback. From this experience I found that marking the piece of writing with the student watching and getting the student to correct their writing then and there is more beneficial than collecting the students’ work, marking it then having the student read the written corrections and comments. I used the strategy of getting the students to read out a sentence/paragraph that contains a mistake. Nine times out of ten, they pick up the mistake when they read it out loud. You cannot do this if the feedback is delayed. The opportunity for students to self correct would have passed.

I followed a very similar process with my Year 10s. My Year 10s are writing a persuasive text on whether space research is a waste of money. Like the Year 7s we looked at a sample persuasive text to analyse the structure and language features. They then worked in small groups to write a persuasive text on whether they believed the Big Bang theory explains the origin of the universe. Like the Year 7s I marked their writing with them. Since they had 1:1 laptops I used Track Changes and Comments in Microsoft Word to make corrections and record comments on what they have done well and what they need to improve on while I’m speaking to them. Students also marked each other’s writing using marking criteria.

In light of these reflections I think immediate feedback is the key. Teachers need to provide students with more opportunities to discuss their work with them and with other students very shortly after completing the task. Once again the difficulty of implementing this will be time and the pressure to ‘teach the content’. But the way I see it, what is the point of ‘pushing through the content’ when students cannot clearly articulate their understanding.