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Discourse in Writing
by Emma Worrall
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In this essay I will attempt explain the meaning of discourse and how it is analysed. Then I will look at writing theories of discourse and some of the reasons that students need to understand and use discourse in their writing and the problems they face. Then I will focus on discourse markers in writing (also referred to as connectives and linking devices) and theories of how we can help students to improve in this area.

What is Discourse?

Discourse is natural spoken or written language, with meaning being transferred through the sentences of a text, in context. The study of discourse, or 'discourse analysis' is concerned with "the study of the relationship between language and the contexts in which it is used" (McCarthy 1991: 5). Discourse was inspired by the work on the different disciplines of linguistics, semiotics, psychology, anthropology and sociology during the 1960s and 1970s. It looks at (and aims to identify) discourse norms. These are the underlying rules which speakers and writers adhere to and the realisations of these norms and what the actual language forms are which reflect those rules. It does not try to provide a method for teaching, but it tries to provide ways of describing and understanding how language is used. Discourse analysis is interested in what language 'does' or is 'doing' rather than just the functions it performs and the grammar and lexical forms used (McCarthy 1991).

Discourse analysis is mainly concerned with spoken and written communication which are the two main things that our students are exposed to. For example, we take part in a wide range of spoken interaction on a daily basis and each of those spoken interactions will have their own "formulae and conventions which we follow; they will have different ways of opening and closing the encounter, different role relationships, different purposes and different settings" (McCarthy 1991: 8). A discourse analyst is interested in every one of these different factors and tries to account for them with sets of descriptive labels. However, discourse analysis is also directly concerned with the written and printed words we consume daily. For example, newspapers, letters, recipes, stories, notices, leaflets and instructions. As McCarthy says (1991: 12) we usually expect these written texts to be "coherent, meaningful communications in which the words and/or sentences are linked to one another in a fashion that corresponds to conventional formulae, just as we do with speech; therefore discourse analysts are equally interested in the organisation of written interaction".

Discourse and Writing

Firstly, we must consider the norms and rules that people adhere to when they create texts and the problems that these may cause for the learner of English. McCarthy (1991: 25) says "most texts display links from sentence to sentence in terms of grammatical features such as pronominalisation, ellipsis, and conjunction of various kinds". The various linguistic devices that we use to create a text should include the following: 'coherence' or the way a sentence makes sense or 'hangs together'; 'cohesive markers' which create links across the boundaries of sentences and also chain together related items. But, making sense of a text is also dependent on our interpretation of it which can also be done based upon our own personal schemata (our shared knowledge of a subject). As we process texts, we also recognise 'textual patterns' which are manifested in functional relationships between the parts of a text (phrases, clauses, sentences or groups of sentences, or as McCarthy (1991: 28) calls them "textual segments"). Readers interpret the relationships between textual segments, questioning the text as it unfolds. This is also aided by signalling devices which guide us in interpreting these relationships. Conjunctions, or discourse markers signal relationships between segments of a discourse. They organise and 'manage' extended stretches of discourse, helping to make the text cohesive and coherent. As the sub-aim of my observed lesson is a writing theme based on the interaction of a set of discourse markers within a written text, I have concentrated on discourse theories of writing rather than speaking. Writing is an important part of the First Certificate Exam course and is an area where students often need lots of learner training.

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