It’s in the text

Using the Field-Tenor-Mode matrix to support EAL writing and textual analysis

Language curricula in international education place increasing significance on student ability to produce and analyse a range of text types. The Language Acquisition and Language B Courses of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma Programmes are good examples of this trend. 

Chris Jay reports how the “Field-Tenor-Mode” analytical approach can build understanding of English texts.


In the production and analysis of text, a number of socio-cultural challenges can arise, as for many students their main encounters with the target language are limited to the classroom environment. Additionally, for students who have some exposure to English outside of the classroom, this is often limited to a narrow range of experiences.

As a result, teachers may often find that students frequently write in the style, and utilise the language features, with which they have had the most success in the past. The outcome of this can be teachers receiving letters to the editor that read like an informal email to a friend or, alternatively, a blog post that is overly formal.

Cultural reversion

A further challenge in teaching text writing, is that students sometimes revert to the conventions of a text type familiar to them from their first language and culture. For example, the start of a letter in Korean or Chinese has features that would seem quite out of place or unusual if they were writing for their English class.

Meeting the challenge

To address these challenges, teachers need to provide relevant scaffolds, detailing how different texts are supposed to be structured and what students need to include. However, as they move forward and we aim to develop independent learners and slowly remove these kinds of support structures, teachers may ask themselves, “What is an effective framework for doing this?”

The Field-Tenor-Mode

The Field-Tenor-Mode approach to text analysis and, ultimately, to text production is straightforward and effective:

  1. Field (what) is the subject matter of the text
  2. Tenor (who) is the relationship between those involved in the communicative act, e.g. writer and reader, speaker and listener
  3. Mode (how) refers to text construction, looking at whether it is based on written or spoken forms of communication
A continuum

Having a continuum visible in the classroom allows students to identify language features and actually plot on it where the 3 elements of the text lie.

They begin to establish patterns associated with different text types and styles of writing.

As familiarity with the framework increases, its application becomes more immediate, and students transition from simply identifying features to actually analysing them.


To better illustrate, let’s say, students were blindly presented with two texts, one being a transcript of commentary from a football match and the other a news report of the same game. Looking at Field, the former would contain everyday football language. However, in the latter we could expect to see more specialised language resulting from the analysis.

As for tenor, in the transcript examples of colloquial language, dialect and contractions would place it on the left of the continuum, while the report is likely to be more formal, informed and unfamiliar due to the greater social distance between the author and the audience. Finally, the mode of the transcript would be spoken and spontaneous, in contrast to the more reflective written report.

Benefits of Field-Tenor-Mode analysis

Using Field-Tenor-Mode maximises the positives of prior learning, limits first language interference, reduces the need for teacher scaffolds and allows students more effectively to analyse and produce texts. Furthermore, its use can have a positive impact on students across the curriculum, as its application is easily extended to the Humanities and Sciences.

FTM and IB Approaches to Learning

With many IB schools looking to further embed the ‘Approaches to Teaching and Learning’ (ATLs), the Field-Tenor-Mode approach engages students as inquirers and thinkers, while at the same time creating great opportunities for peer collaboration.

Finally, as many students aim to move from Language Acquisition to Language and Literature classes, this framework provides an excellent bridge and means to develop their conceptual understanding.




Chris Jay teaches at the Independent Schools Foundation (ISF) Academy, Hong Kong






FEATURE IMAGE: mohamed_hassas – Pixabay

Continuum framework: What’s language doing here?