Vale Michael ‘M.A.K’ Halliday

Published date: 18 April 2018

It is with great sadness that PETAA has learned of the passing of Professor Michael 'M.A.K' Halliday.

There would be few teachers of English in Australia today whose contribution to their students’ learning has not been enhanced in some way by knowledge or understanding derived from Professor Halliday’s inspiring and expansive description of language and how it works.

Both the foundations and much of the impact of Professor Halliday’s inestimable contribution to our understanding of human meaning-making can be found in the area of language learning and teaching.

By observing his infant son learning to interact with others through language, Professor Halliday was able not only to reveal the origins of language and learning in infancy, but also to bring into view the nature of language itself.

Early in his career, as Professor Halliday often emphasised, he was a language teacher, which may explain why so many teachers have developed such a close connection with his work.

Later, he devised and led projects which produced literacy resources for schools, including the well-known Breakthrough to Literacy materials. Literacy resources for schools continue to be developed in the Halliday tradition, all of them designed to enhance student achievement, especially the achievement of students facing barriers to learning.

A concern with practical applications of the study of language, especially to advance social justice, is a constant thread in Professor Halliday’s work, and in the work of his colleagues and students.

Australian teachers of English and their students have been conspicuous beneficiaries of practical outcomes derived from the work of Professor Halliday. Since the 1970s each new generation of Halliday-inspired scholars and educators have contributed to language and literacy education in all states of Australia with the goal of improving educational outcomes for all Australian students no matter their background.

Most recently, the contribution of Halliday’s description of language can be seen in the Language and Literacy strands of the Australian Curriculum: English and the Literacy general capability. Together they reflect the three dimensions of language learning famously identified by Professor Halliday as learning language (Literacy strand), learning about language (Language strand) and learning through language (Literacy general capability).

Moreover, the emphasis is on learning about and learning to use whole purposeful texts rather than on language fragments isolated from meaningful use.

Professor Halliday’s influence has a strong presence in the trajectory of PETAA publications and workshops over the last three decades. PETAA publications and PETAA professional learning have played a leading role in sharing with teachers ways in which Professor Halliday’s description of language can be used to help students successfully meet the demands of the school curriculum.

As Professor Halliday so eloquently pointed out: “When children learn language, they are not simply engaging in one kind of learning among many; rather, they are learning the foundation of learning itself.”

Professor Halliday’s legacy will continue to be a reminder into the future of the role of English teaching in laying the foundation for our students’ learning, while also providing us with the tools we need to pursue this work in ways that achieve the best possible educational outcomes for our students.

Halliday’s influence and the emergence of language and literacy education, explained