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Discourse for teaching purposes
by
Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 1

Introduction

A cursory glance over old and newly produced EFL coursebooks attests to the assertion that too much reliance has been placed on the traditional "text" format as the primary source of information about how language is used and functions. Here, it will be argued that English language teaching is deprived of discourse as "live language" and "grammar above the sentence," being characterised instead by a slavish adherence to "form," which leads to stilted language and other features that are not typical of natural language use. Much of the discussion that ensues is based on Millrood's article, "Discourse for Teaching Purposes" (2002), which appeared in Research Methodology: Discourse in Teaching A Foreign Language (Tambov State University).

Defining discourse

Discourse can be defined as a pattern of verbal behaviour but, at the same time, it can be viewed as a verbal form of social behaviour, an instance of communicative language use, and the process of unfolding an idea into a text (Brown & Yule, 1983; Cook, 1989; Nunan, 1993). According to Millrood (2002), the difference between discourse and text is that discourse is a "live language," whereas a text is a "monument to life." 'Discourse processes can certainly be reconstructed from texts, but one needs insight and intuition in order to interpret movement cast in stone' (ibid.). Many texts, however perfect, fail to give readers a true picture of how language works. A very serious problem in EFL teaching, which the present paper sets out to explore, is the unfair representation of communicative reality, which is mainly based on "perfect texts" rather than on discourse processes. This means that genuine communication is treated as 'movement cast in stone', to hark back to Millrood's metaphor.

Aspects of discourse analysis

Discourse as "live language" can be analysed from at least seven perspectives: context, clause, cohesion, coherence, cognition, communication, competence (ibid.).
Context is a property of discourse, since no language can ever be produced without a situational setting, i.e., a communicative context. In both oral and written discourse, what is often needed in order to follow and develop the message is for interlocutors to constantly relate to a "shared context." This element of discourse, however, is often neglected, with an emphasis on grammatical accuracy and lexical correctness.

A clause is another aspect of discourse analysis, since a "sentence" as a meaningful unit of written texts does not exist in the process of discourse production. Even written discourse processes are unthinkable without twisting sentences as ways of looking for a better form of expression. This process goes even further in oral discourse, where clear sentence boundaries are rare. Thus, clauses pay a far greater role in understanding discourse structure.

Discourse cohesion helps understand the way discourse structure emerges. Cohesion can be achieved by using formal devices, such as conjunctions or the density of topical vocabulary.

Coherence is what makes the whole communicative piece hang together.

Cognition in discourse manifests itself in the very ideas that are produced while and for communicating a message. Through discourse is revealed the pattern in which the world is modelled in the speaker's / writer's mind. Discourse discloses knowledge, beliefs, doubts, attitudes and propositions.

The communication aspect of discourse shows the nature of language-in-action, which is less organised, produced under time pressure and with a certain shared context that allows for the use of elliptical structures, incomplete sentences, self-repairs, as well as for other features of spoken discourse.

The competence aspect of discourse not only concerns the degree to which components of communicative competence emerge in the course of communication, but can also be a manifestation of competence in language users, if it functions as an observable successful language behaviour leading to a target outcome of communicative interaction.

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