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Applying Discourse Analysis in the
Classroom with a Specific Focus
on Teaching Discourse Markers
by Ceri Millward
- 1

Introduction

The introduction of discourse analysis into the classroom has, despite its relative novelty, added a new frame to the understanding of language and its usage, and in this sense has given the teacher new tools with which to cater for students' needs. If we consider that comprehension and understanding are the primary concerns behind most forms of communication, be they written or oral, formal or informal, then our focus as teachers should be centred on ensuring that our students manage to acquire the skills necessary for such comprehension.

Furthermore, discourse analysis can bring to the forefront considerations that may be of use in terms of the students' use of the target language. In this sense it is important to be acquainted with any potential similarities, or differences, between the students' L1 and the L2 they are learning. In this paper we shall look at discourse analysis, focusing on the use of cohesive devises and more specifically on discourse markers as a useful tool to enable students to make logical connections and coherent stretches of both written and spoken discourse.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis can be characterised as the study of the relationship between language and the contexts in which it is used. Crystal (1992:25) defines discourse as, 'a continuous stretch of language larger than a sentence, often constituting a coherent unit'. In practical terms it centres on the actual operation of language, beyond the restrictions of grammar. Its overriding focus is on context and on the behavioural patterns that structure the social functions of a language, above and beyond the construction of structural models.

Any communicative function must include grammatical and phonological elements, but in real life situations: context, situation, purpose, pitch, intonation and gesture can play a decisive role in the process of comprehension. Given that the goal behind any communicative interaction is to get a message across, there can be no doubt that a coherent message will also be a more effective and efficient one. So much is this so, that in one's native language, we can consider that there is an innate expectation of coherence and meaning when performing the act of reading or listening.

Before analysing the differences between oral and written discourse we need to look at some general aspects of discourse. Discourse may have any number of interlocutors, from a single signpost to a heated parliamentary debate. Discourse may vary in degrees of formality and structure, as well as in the object it pursues.
When interpreting discourse, a certain amount of procedures are activated within the listener/reader, which facilitate its interpretation. The listener/reader will search for coherence, and meaning, within the linguistic and contextual knowledge of the language and the situation, as well as in the conceptual and formal schemata at his disposal.

The objective of discourse analysis is, therefore, to make explicit the interaction of all these factors that lead to coherence. In order to achieve this, spoken and written language must be dissected in various ways to permit a better understanding of discourse.

Spoken Discourse

Spoken discourse, especially conversation, is possibly the form of discourse that poses the greatest problems in terms of analysis given its apparently unstructured nature. The number of interlocutors may vary and the use of non-verbal expressions can add to the difficulty of its analysis, given the use of 'talking turns' as McCarthy (1991:69) calls them, and the real possibility of interruptions and interjections, which nonetheless are part of discourse.

Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) suggest a three tier approach, beginning-middle-end, to focus on the distinct 'moves' that take place in discourse, be they 'question-answer-comment' as in a classroom environment, or 'command-acknowledgment-polite formality', as occurs in a shop between the client and the shopkeeper. What is more, there is no need for the moves to be verbal, as a grunt of approval or a mere 'uh-huh' may serve as a 'move' in many cases.

Written Discourse

When analysing a written text, the situation would seem different, as we are dealing with a structured, pre-planned, possibly revised discourse from one sole interlocutor. Furthermore, writing can be construed as more of a stand alone medium, as compared to spoken discourse, which is more contextual or situational. Another important difference lies in that written discourse does not allow for the possibility of playing with intonation and pitch, which can serve as discourse markers in verbal discourse.

Having said this, we must not assume that an excerpt of speech will be necessarily more complex than an excerpt of written discourse; taken out of context they should both pose similar problems. It would seem clear that in terms of analysis, a sentence will be a more effective unit of discourse within written discourse, as compared with spoken discourse, but in terms of written discourse analysis a paragraph or a longer section may prove to be more effective.

Assuming that discourse, of any kind, can be fragmented into sections, or 'moves', understanding the meaning of the discourse requires that the segments not only explain the purpose but that they be coherent, to avoid misunderstanding the message. Furthermore, these segments must be signalled, to ensure that other parties understand them as such. The use of 'cohesive devices', or clues, in discourse can therefore serve to send signals as to the fact that these sections are differentiated, and as to how this should be interpreted.

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