Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy


Education, Educational Leadership & Policy Studies

Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Rebecca Rogers, Ph.D.


Matthew Davis, Ph.D.

Lisa Dorner, Ph.D.

Kim Song, Ph.D.


This practitioner research study (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) traced the journey toward critical literacy of a group of seven emergent bilinguals and me, their teacher, over the course of a four-month unit on argument as part of our English for Speakers of Other Languages 3 (ESOL3) class. Many of these students, like many emergent bilinguals in the United States, had been disempowered because they had not had access to the academic texts of school. As part of this research, students worked with tools of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to analyze the interpersonal, ideational and textual metafunctions of argumentation in lessons on consumerism, protest, debate and a project of their choice. Also in this study, I describe my own learning of critical SFL as it empowered me to more fully understand language choices and guided my lessons.

Using fieldnotes, my researcher’s journal, transcripts, and student work samples, I explored the following research questions: (1) What transformations occurred when middle school emergent bilinguals were invited to critically analyze discourse practices as part of their ESOL 3 class? What patterns of interactions, discourses and stances emerged as salient? and (2) In what ways can this critical language awareness support their literacy development and mastery of academic language? Through inferential analysis guided by these research questions, the themes of power and choice at the individual, school and district level arose and proved key in creating an environment ripe for student learning. A critical approach, which draws on power, voice, and identity, supported my students’ engagement with spoken and written texts. Often time, it is thought that students who struggle with English Language Arts, especially long-term English learners, must learn the ‘basics’ before proceeding to ‘critical’ literacies. Yet, what I have shown is a critical genre approach was the gateway for my emergent bilinguals to advance their academic literacies, written argumentations, and agency as people. In addition, I have demonstrated the power of context-rich practitioner research. Throughout the study, using a critical SFL lens while teaching made possible the layers of analysis and adaptation both before and during each class necessary to more fully engage emergent bilinguals to construct, deconstruct, critique and reshape academic language in contexts they found meaningful.