#Take5 #39 The best way to surf the reflective wave?

This month’s #Take5 blog is brought to you from Ian Johnson, Learning Development Tutor, University of Portsmouth. Ian discusses an interesting, dynamic reflective process that makes reflection move beyond performance to something useful and meaningful.

Reflective Practice – ‘Surfing the Wave’

Teaching students how to reflect in writing can be a thorny issue for disciplinary staff and learning developers alike, and one that often raises more questions than answers.

Why is reflection so often uncomfortable for students? In theory, freedom from the dreaded academic mantra ‘never write in first person’ could be so liberating, but more often, it feels like a bad case of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, with the shackles of the ‘academic essay’ genre eventually becoming a comfort blanket, impossible to shake off.

The problems experienced by students in reflection seem to take one of two polar forms. Firstly, students might remain chained to the traditional essay genre, and produce theory-heavy work with only tokenistic reflection. At the opposite pole, students may throw off the restraints, produce fantastic first-person narrative, but miss the opportunity to connect their experiences to the wider context or the theory that sits behind them.

In this blog, I will explore a method that has proved useful in helping students to calibrate theory and practice in their reflections, namely the visual metaphor of a ‘wave’, developed out of Karl Maton’s (2013) concept of ‘semantic waves’ (more below).

Bridging disciplinary boundaries?

“Reflection” doubtless holds very different meanings across disciplines. When teaching reflection, either as a disciplinary practice (my preference) or a more generic ‘academic skill’, one can question whether it works better with a model for reflection, or without. Learning Developers seek to emancipate students as a core value, so to wed them to one reflective model would run against that principle.

That said, the model I will outline – ‘Waves of Reflection’ (Kirk, 2017) – is one that, from personal classroom experience, meets the ‘what works most often’ criterion. In the spirit of all I’ve said, however, I would recommend presenting it to students as one of a number of choices for how they can tackle reflection, from which to make their own decision.

The model is based on ideas that have interested practitioners in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) for several years. It uses tenets from Maton’s ‘Legitimation Code Theory’ (2013), developed at University of Sydney. Its applicability to reflective activities in EAP is well-versed by Steve Kirk of Durham University (see here, for example, or Kirk’s slides from the 2017 BALEAP conference). The question of interest here, however, is how the Learning Developer can usefully deploy it as part of their toolbox.

Waving up, waving down

Maton used the idea of ‘semantic gravity’, meaning “the degree of context embeddedness” (Kirk, 2017) of a piece of knowledge. Knowledge which is ‘Semantic Gravity plus’ (SG+) is rooted in everyday life experience. Conversely, ‘Semantic Gravity minus’ (SG-) knowledge is deeply theoretical. Reflection often calls for students to explain something that happened in personal experience (SG+), move outwards to consider that in light of context and other events, and then discuss theory that sits behind or could explain it (SG-). Maton’s principles therefore led on to the idea of ‘semantic waves’ – a literal wave that can be drawn across a piece of writing, showing how we can ‘wave up’ from practice to theory, and ‘wave down again’ from the theory to the real world, to produce cycles of reflection.

Let’s take a look at what this looks like. In classes, I visualise these ideas for students like this:

image1 matons

 Image 1: Maton’s conceptions of the knowledge-context relationship

And I have then developed the following model to apply the theory to reflective writing:

image2 the

Image 2: The knowledge wave as applied to reflective writing

Often when students see this second slide, it produces the type of ‘eureka’ or ‘aaaahhh’ moment that teachers dream of being able to conjure up daily, but getting to that point needs careful preparation.

Making it work in class

Use of ‘waves of reflection’ tends to work best if it is scaffolded beforehand with an activity to get students to consider, first in writing and then through conversation with others, a ‘critical incident’ within their practice-based experience. I leave the meaning of critical incident as open as possible, to let students decide what they’d like to focus on, but make clear that it should be something that they don’t mind sharing within the safe space of that class (I suggest an informal chat about group confidentiality to begin with). The written element of the task deliberately encourages initially quite shallow reflection, through questions like:

  • ‘What happened?’, ‘
  • ‘What action did you take at the time and/or afterwards?’, ‘
  • ‘What were the results of your actions?’
  • ‘What did you learn about yourself or your practice’?

As the students begin to discuss their answers, and crucially, still without showing them the ‘waves’ model yet, I begin to encourage dialogue that moves up the wave, to generalisations behind the experience, and possible theories that explain it. This can get quite messy and unpredictable and needs thinking on your feet, but try to be OK with it – the students always buy into the process and come up with interesting scenarios. When that’s done, you show the wave model above, and the learners can quickly understand how it works, because they have just ‘done’ the process verbally. If you have the time (usual ‘50 minute workshop’ constraints duly noted), you can then get the students to develop what’s been spoken about, into a paragraph or two, using the wave as the basis.

Pre-prepared examples can also work really well in a class like this, emphasising how waves can move upwards to theory, and downwards to practice:

image3 wavingup

Image 3: Waving up  

image4 wavingdown

Image 4: Waving down

This year I have also added this excellent little video, produced by Lucy McNaught of Auckland University of Technology, and endorsed by the Legitimation Code Theory Centre, to the presentation.

Lecturers say …

An academic who collaborated with me to embed this session within their taught unit said: “I use the wave model to ensure students can complete the reflective cycle within their academic work. It encourages students to present concepts in abstract/theoretical terms and then provide a specific example. I even built a little graphic of the semantic wave with example sentence starters for each part. Although I wondered if this might have been overly directive, it was gratefully received by the students and helped to convey general academic principles which I know will serve them at every level of study.”

Another mused on the merits of the wave concept compared to the more traditional cyclical reflective models: “for me the key difference using semantic waves offers an opportunity to build a deeper and more sustained approach to relate to what directly impacts upon practice. It works best for me in my Initial Teacher Training cohort who are working in practice alongside study. This model enables them to make meaning, to truly understand the much used term ‘theory into practice’ and to develop this in context – the idea that teaching is loaded with socially and institutionally symbolic terminology (jargon) appeals to this process – in this model they are asked to unpack these terms and to internalise this and challenge ways of knowing and ways of doing.”

Inherent in both quotes is the realisation among the academics who collaborated, that their discipline may be laden with jargon and terminology that can befuddle students. Such matters might be passed off (in Lea and Street’s classic terminology) as more transparent under a ‘socialisation’ model, or as ‘the support tutor’s business’ under a ‘study skills’ model. What we see here is, in contrast, augurs favourably, in that the subject lecturers begin to adopt ‘academic literacies’ thinking through the approach taken.

Good for the EAP goose, good for the LD gander?

ALDinHE and BALEAP have collaborated to produce a special issue of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education (Special Edition, Academic Literacies: https://journal.aldinhe.ac.uk/index.php/jldhe/issue/view/29). There, questions are asked about what the two ‘same but different’ fields can offer each other. Within the issue’s community-sourced literature review of academic literacies (Hilsdon, Malone & Syska, 2019), I have argued, taking inspiration from a paper by Coffin and Donohue (2012), that while Maton’s ‘Legitimation Code Theory’ ideas have caught on in EAP, LD ought to be taking just as much interest in them. This is because they are grounded in principles of ‘knowers’ (i.e. person-centred) as well as ‘knowledge’ (more text centred). The outline I have given here is just one example of how LD practitioners can weave LCT into their work. It would be great to hear how this has happened elsewhere, whether for the teaching of reflection, or anything else.


Ian is a Learning Development Tutor of four years’ experience, within the School of Education and Sociology at University of Portsmouth, as well as an EdD research student working towards a thesis on ‘the value of Learning Development work in undergraduate Higher Education’. In 2015 he ‘crossed the frontier’ from EAP into LD work and counts semantic waves as one of the most transferable concepts between the two fields. Ian says:

Please feel free to use any of the slides to teach reflection to students, if you feel them to be an option that could work in your context (I can provide originals if you email me: ian.johnson@port.ac.uk) . However, please ensure that Maton (for LCT principles), Kirk (for application of LCT to reflective writing), McNaught (for the video) and myself for anything else, are credited (see references below). The copyright for the slides is owned by University of Portsmouth. 


Coffin, C. & Donohue, J. (2012). Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics: how do they relate? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(1), 64-75. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2011.11.004

Hilsdon, J., Malone, C. & Syska, A. (2019, in press). Academic Literacies twenty years on: a community-sourced literature review. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 15 (November 2019). Retrieved from: https://journal.aldinhe.ac.uk/index.php/jldhe/article/view/567/pdf

Kirk, S. (2017). ‘Waves of Reflection: seeing knowledges in academic writing’. Proceedings of the 2015 BALEAP conference. Reading: Garnet Publishing. Online draft version available at: http://legitimationcodetheory.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2017Kirk.pdf

Maton, K. (2013). Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building. Linguistics and Education, 24(1), 8-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2012.005

McNaught, L. / Academic Writing AUT. (2018). Reflective writing . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-NPNeNtr_8

6 thoughts on “#Take5 #39 The best way to surf the reflective wave?”

  1. That’s brilliant, the model is very intuitive and I can imagine the clear ‘Aha’ moments among the students when it’s explained to them. I do wonder, however, how do you help your students develop the critical vocabulary necessary to produce good reflection? Something that goes beyond ‘this was useful because it relates to my topic/practice’ or ‘this wasn’t useful because it’s not relevant…’?

    1. This is an interesting question Alicja and I’m aware of it perhaps being a bit overlooked in the approach I’ve suggested here. Our university does have fairly generic sheets of phrases/language for reflection that we can offer as support, but I think this is always a tricky one – i.e how much focus on the thinking processes needed vs how much on the way you write it? The class activity above could be extended into a second session where students try to write up their own critical incident reflection, after learning about the wave, etc, and then do peer/group critique where part of it is ‘identify phrases that have been used which could be useful for reflective writing in general’

  2. Rachel Stead

    Hi Ian, such a joy to read this as I remember our conversation in Portsmouth a few months back when I mentioned Maton’s semantic waves in relation to my use of Lego Serious Play with developing reflective thinking in students. Would be great to chat more about this sometime! Great piece. Love the model. Would love to try out with my current foundation students.
    thanks so much.

  3. Thanks for this Rachel. Hope this all goes well with your foundation students if and when you eventually try it. I am doing a presentation on this for one of the 3pm ALDinHE webinars next week (Weds I think but check the schedule). Everything Maton says makes so much sense but LD hasn’t drawn upon it that much yet, that I know of, and should do more!

  4. Daniel O'Sullivan

    Hi Ian, thanks for a great post. The notion of the semantic wave has been a game-changer for me. I’ve been using it for years and I’ve created a video that draws tacitly on the LCT dimension of Semantics and introduces students to the concept semantic wave (see https://vimeo.com/207029935). This was designed specifically for students on a bridging/pre-sessional course at an Australian institution. Elements of this work were included in the publication by Ingold & O’Sullivan, available at the LCT website https://legitimationcodetheory.com/

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