Halliday  “function” categories
7 Functions of Language expressed at the sentence level

Instrumental: I want a banana

Regulatory:  “First I … you need a rake and you have to build over the rake.”

Interactional:  “Do you like cricket too Henry?”

Personal:  “I know that song ‘cause we sang it at Kindergarten.”

Heuristic:  “We could make a water thing to tell how much rain we got.”

Imaginative: “Alice the camel has one hump, one hump, one hump.”

Representational:  “It is raining really heavy and heavy all day.”

The context for this chart from Michael Halliday is from a 1969 article in Educational Review titled “Relevant Models of Language,” which appeared in Language Development: A Reader for Teachers edited by Brenda Miller Power an Ruth Shagoury Hubbard, Merrill Prentice Hall, 2002

The chapter begins with a question asked by a teacher of English: “What is language?”, to which Halliday responds: “Why do you want to know?” Halliday’s point is that it matters why you want/need to define language. He takes the perspective of the child learning language: that is, the child’s “Model” of language internalized as a result of his experience. “The child knows what language is because he knows what language does.” [that is, the function(s) of language]. Halliday goes on to write:

“….The determining elements of the young child’s experience are the successful demands on language that he himself has made, the particularneeds that have been satisfied by language for him. He has used language in many ways—for the satisfaction of material and intellectual needs, the mediation of personal relationships, the expression of feelings, and so on. Language in all these uses has come within his own direct experience and because of this he is subconsciously aware that language has many function that affect him personally.”

“…We shall try to identify the models of language with which the normal child is endowed by the time he comes to school at the age of 5, the assumption being that if the teacher’s own ”received” conception of language is in some ways less rich or less diversified it will be irrelevant to the educational task.”

Halliday then goes on to describe “models” of language the child brings to school: Instrumental, Regulatory, Interactional, Personal, Heuristic, Imaginative, and Representational. See the chart above for the categories, the functions they are designed to achieve, and examples.

Language Use and Learning

In the same text on Language Development: A Reader for Teachers, Gay Su Pinnell describes “Ways to Look at the Functions” of Children’s Language”* in which she offers examples based on classroom observations, a process for doing those observations, and ways to enhance children’s 7 functional uses of language.

*Taken from Observing the Language Learner (pp. 57-72), A. Jaggar and M. T. Smith-Burke (Eds., Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1985

There are many texts and example that address the relationship between oral language and school success, some of which we will refer to as to move to our next level of oral language—discourse. Many of these are from the 1970’s beginning with a seminal work by Cazden and Hymes in 1972 (Functions of Language in the Classroom). The date is mentioned not to suggest that these sources, ideas, and concerns are outdated; but, rather, to suggest that language use and school success is an old and ongoing topic of interest and importance. More recent texts include:

The Art of Discussion-Based Teaching by John E. Henning (2008) and

Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (2001)


The Functions of Language (at the sentence level): Some examples and excerpts from Halliday.

So, when a child uses a sentence we need to pay attention to its function, not just its form.
Below are added details from the Halliday chapter, including direct comments that I believe have implications for the adults in the child’s environment who model the functions of language. Note that these examples are at the sentence level, but they only take on meaning as they function as part of a discourse

Instrumental: Language is used as a means of getting things done.
I want… a car, boat, treat…. I want to…go home, find a book…

“Success in this use of language does not in any way depend on the production of well-formed adult sentences; a carefully contextualized yell may have substantially the same effect…”

Regulatory: Language is used to regulate the behavior of others.

You shouldn’t….tear the paper,
go there; use that pencil, take that book..

While this function of language, in the child’s experience, may initially be used by adults, the child learns to use it, too.

….“The child applies awareness [of adult regulatory language] in his own attempts to control his peers and siblings, and this in turn provides the basis for an essential component in his range of linguistic skills, the language of rules and instructions. Whereas at first he can make only simple unstructured demands, he learns as time goes on to give ordered sequences of instruction and then progresses to the further stage where he can convert sets of instructions into rules, including conditional rules, as in explain the principles of a game. This is regulatory model of language continues to be elaborated, and his experience of the potentialities of language in this use further increases the value of the model…..”

Interactional: Language is used to address social interactions—both personal and group interactions.
Let’s work on this together.
We can do this.
You don’t belong here.

“Language is used to define and consolidate the group, to include and to exclude, showing who is “one of us” and who is not, to impose status, and to contest status that is imposed….”

Personal: Language is used reflect self, his/her personality, uniqueness
I’m good at math.
I like to play dominoes.
I think school is fun.

“We are not talking here merely of “expressive” language—language used for the direct expression of feelings and attitudes–but also of the personal element in the interactional function of language, since the shaping of the self through interaction with others is very much language-mediated process.”

Heuristic. Language used to explore one’s environment—language as a means of investigating reality, a way of learning about things.
I have a question?
Do that mean…?
Oh, look, there’s a frog.

“The young child is very well aware of how to use language to learn, and maybe quite conscious of this aspect of language before he reaches school; many children already control a meta-language for the heuristic functions of language, in that they know what a “question” is, what an “answer” is, what “knowing” and “understanding” mean, and they can talk about these things without difficulty.”

Imaginative. Language used to create his/her own “environment” as he/she can image it to be.
Hi, Mr. Pepperoni Pants.
This is a zigo.
The request of the buggy coming right up. Humming…
Once there was a big tree house…

“Another element of meta-language, with words like story, make up, and pretend.”

Representational: Language used to communicate about something, for expressing propositions.

Mars is a million miles away.
The zoo has many wild animals.
Molly is sick.

“The child is aware that he can convey a message in language; a message which has specific reference to the processes, persons, objects, abstractions, qualities, states, and relations in the real world around him.”

* * * *

More example as we move to the next section on oral language development and skills: The Discourse Level.