Field, Tenor, Mode & the Web

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Field, Tenor, Mode and the Web

How can we characterize language use? One way is to look at the relationship between language forms and the features of the context. We call this relationship 'linguistic register.' The descriptive categories we use are Field, Tenor, and Mode.

Based on Halliday's theory of language variation, we can describe web materials. In this course, our focus is on materials designed for language and literacy learning. Essentially, we are characterizing language use supported by the technology. Our approach is to examine the relationship between the language (of users and on the web site) and the context of its use. This is known as linguistic register. Here is a summary of the descriptive categories to be used:


Field refers to the subject matter or topic. Field answers the question: "What is happening?" "What is the activity?" "What is the text/multimedia about?" We examine a language/literacy project on the web to find out its content and aims. The description of the content should be clear and detailed enough to give readers a sense that they have explored the site themselves. At this juncture we can begin to suggest how the content affects the vocabulary used. Finally, we address the question, what difference does the web make in the development of the content of the project? That is, what advantage does this environment have over more traditional contexts for learning this subject matter?


Tenor refers to the roles of the participants in an interaction. Tenor answers the question: "Who are participating and what is their relative status or power?" Examining the web site, we describe how learners interact with the material (who is in control?), or how students interact with one another and with teachers or others who are collaborating on the web. We should offer some insight into the relative status among any and all the participants. Does the designer control the action? Does the user have some agency in the activity? In short, how interactive is the site? And, how is the technology shaping or changing participation structures for learning?


Mode refers to the channel of communication. Mode answers the questions: "What is the language doing?" Examining the material once more, we look more closely at the language itself. We describe the code (language) used—e.g., English, Korean, Spanish, sign language, or mixed codes. We describe the means (sometimes called the channel of communication): whether the communication is spoken or written, whether the site presents graphics or images, and whether there is a combination of these semiotic systems. We discuss the function of each system and point out which predominates. We ask, is the communication exchange different from other types of human interaction? What features are in these forms of communication that differ from other types of speaking and writing?

These three descriptive categories should lead us to a final evaluative comment about the pedagogical effectiveness of the material examined. Are there opportunities for users to be active learners? Does the material lend itself to achieving the stated goals? Does computer support enhance the achievement of these goals?

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