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Discourse Analysis, Advanced Learners
and the Cambridge CPE Exam
by Alex Case
- 1

Even a cursory listen to native speakers having a natural informal conversation shows clearly that people do not speak in a series of grammatically formed sentences. At the same time, it is also obvious that an extended text, whether spoken or written, is not a random collection of unconnected sentences (NB. 'text' is used in this essay to refer to any piece of language used for analysis). Historically, the grammar-translation approach was guilty of treating language as both of the above. Parts of audio-lingualism was very much the same, although at least students did have the benefit of responding to questions and taking part in extended, if artificially created, dialogues, although neither the students nor the practitioners were expected to involve themselves in analysis of the structures involved. Discourse Analysis is, very generally, an attempt tackle the two very important points in the first two sentences above, i.e. to look at language at the 'beyond sentence' level. Because of this, since the coining of the name in the early fifties, and its gradual development as a science in its own right since then, it has been of vital interest for the ELT profession.

My own interest in this area comes from two distinct sources. My own scientific background, specifically in Physics, has made react somewhat against the 'eclectic approach' as it is sometimes interpreted, as relying too much on intuition- whereas many of the great scientific theories such as those of relativity are very much counter-intuitive. This has given me a great interest in more theoretical approaches to language and to 'action research' in my own classroom. This has come together with a realisation that many of my students' problems with language and precisely those of 'discourse'.

This essay aims to examine the methods and conclusions of Discourse Analysis, and to examine the relevance of these for high-level students, and more specifically those studying for the Cambridge CPE. These will each be discussed in turn.

Theoretical Background
The first approach of Discourse Analysis looks at the fact that the natural unit of a conversation is not the sentence, and asks what it could be. The answer is said to be (1) 'the turn'. This itself leads to the question of how speakers know when and how to take turns. There seems to be no one simple answer, but lack of this knowledge can be considered a reason why non-native speakers find it difficult to join conversations with native speakers.

The next point of analysis is to see if any patterns emerge in the language used in these turns. By looking at the functions of the language used, familiar patterns of response appear such as 'statement of opinion' followed by 'agreement/ disagreement'.

The idea of each piece of language used having a function is very familiar in the world of English teaching, and teachers are used to teaching from textbooks that have at least in part a functional syllabus. What is not so obvious is that there is no single function for a single piece of language such as the traditional sentence stems. The question is then, how do native speakers interpret the language correctly? One theory is based on the assumption that people are 'co-operating in order to communicate' (2). Another similar theory is based on the concept of 'politeness' (1).

Two more things shared by the people communicating through a piece of discourse are a context and a shared knowledge of the world. Lack of knowledge of these through the use of extracts removed from their original context or the lack of shared knowledge a language learner can suffer from can make understanding difficult, if not impossible.

Another approach is to look at the 'beyond sentence grammar' i.e. the formal links between sentences. Formal links are known as cohesive devices, and can be subdivided as below:

Referring expressions, such as 'it' and 'that', which refer to other things defined in different parts of the sentence or text. This can be sub-divided into anaphoric reference, where the thing is defined earlier, and cataphoric reference where it is defined later. In a similar manner, we can avoid the repetition of whole stretches of language by substitution by words such as 'do' and 'so'. At other times we can miss the known part out, known as ellipsis. One pattern that often appears in texts is the use of similar tenses over long stretches of language. Another is lexical chains, such as chains of synonyms used to refer to the same thing. Finally, links are maintained between sentences and clauses by the use of conjunctions.

Finally, as well as the formal links between sentences and paragraphs extended texts often seem to have an overall form, for example the well known 'introduction, points for, points against, conclusion' structure for a discursive essay.

Discourse analysis in the CPE exam
There are three main questions:

1. What examples of discourse discussed above are found in the texts in the exam?

2. Are these tested in the questions?

3. Do these things need teaching, and if so how?

Paper One- Reading
Despite the name, Section A is a multiple choice test of vocabulary using unconnected sentences, and hence cannot be considered discourse . Section B, however, contains three extended written texts on which students must answer multiple choice questions. The first two passages are always 'non-fiction aimed at the general educated reader' (all quotes from Cambridge CPE Handbook (3) until stated otherwise) and the third from a 'novel or literary work'. A detailed analysis of a past paper is included in appendix 1.

Summarising the results given, looking at the text as a piece of discourse rather than as individual sentences and pieces of vocabulary could be directly used to fully or partially answer four of the six questions given. Most surprisingly for me, these included lexical sets and the overall structure of the text. This result has made me re-think the importance of looking at texts as discourse in my classes. For example, books such as Advanced Masterclass (4) and Distinction (5) contain exercises along the lines of 'find all the words to do with.....' and I have used these in class, but have always considered them more as vocabulary extension, and very much as an optional extra for actual reading comprehension. In fact, looking at lexical chains seems to aid comprehension. In a similar way, I will consider using more activities such as labelling paragraphs by purpose, putting jumbled texts into order etc.

The next obvious question is whether students have any problems with these questions, and therefore how much time should be spent on practice of these points of discourse. My general experience is that by the level of proficiency most students tend to have a good instinctive grasp of these points, most especially referring words and ellipsis, and would be more likely to fail on not knowing the meaning of 'fortuitous' in question 30, whereas at FCE level it is often worth spending more time on these with activities such as placing missing sentences back into texts.

Paper Two- Writing
Candidates might have to write a description, a discursive essay, a narrative, a letter, a report or a short article.

Seeing as students at this level have already reached a level of fluent communication, another factor comes into play- that of producing a 'negative impact' in a receiver; due to clumsy style, flat speech, lack of accuracy etc. Lack of knowledge of features of discourse such as formality and overall format of different genres of writing can be a large factor in this. This effect is generally strongest in writing with a very fixed and well known format- most especially formal letters, but also reports, discursive essays and articles. The format of an article in English, for example, tends to be to give all the important, new information at the beginning- filling in background, history and details later on. This format and that of discursive essays are less applicable to other languages than might be assumed. I have found that French students, for example, can often produce almost unreadable discursive essays simply because of this fact.
As well as these general matters, writers need to consider the target audience. In terms of the exam, the discursive essay and the description suffer from this not being given. An overall format for the description also seems to be a good example of where a student's own common sense, when guided by the teacher if necessary, is a better guide than native speaker models, and I have in fact found this to work well.

Paper 3- Use of English
Question 1, which is a cloze exercise with a whole text, tests referring expressions very thoroughly. In the June 1992 exam, 6 of the 20 questions were actually referring words. As in the Reading paper, however, I would not expect to find students having the most problems with these. Even the handbook suggests that 'this part of the paper should not be over practised, as it is unlikely to raise learners' language awareness'. In contrast, Questions 2 and 4 (key word transformations) , are a continual fund of unknown and often useful structures and fixed expressions for the students, despite the fact that they are single sentences without context.

Section B is the summary. The text from 1992 has again been analysed for referring words, ellipsis etc. (see appendix 1). The comprehension questions seem deliberately designed to test meaning in context e.g. What is 'this litany' and why is it 'unruffled'? Again, however, students less seem to lack the ability to guess meaning from context than the vocabulary with which to rephrase them in their own words, something with which a native speaker might also be expected to struggle. A teacher can help students by 'guiding' them as much as possible to an answer, and I have found that throwing students into a task such as this without lots of preparation can quickly ruin self-confidence.
This leads on to the task of summarising one particular aspect of the text in 60-90 words. The given aim is to test 'clarity, coherence and conciseness' of the piece of writing. How this does so in a way the writing paper does not remains unstated. It can be a good opportunity for the teacher to concentrate on conjunctions, however, as the students are not expected to come up with their own opinions. Good practice for this can be giving the full summary in short, unconnected sentences and asking the students to join them into one five sentence paragraph.

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