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Discourse for teaching purposes
by
Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 2

Spoken discourse and teaching

Spoken discourse is important in teaching English communicatively. There have been some attempts at describing oral discourse grammar for teaching purposes (McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 207-218). In terms of content, spoken discourse activities in EFL coursebooks have so far dealt with service encounters (e.g., at a shop), problem-solving situations, information exchange, casual talk etc. Yet, spoken discourse in real life situations is not systematically presented by materials writers and language teachers. Let us explore the areas where this is observed.

Elliptical structures in spoken discourse

Here is an example of casual talk, "Preparing for a party" (found in McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 208). What characterises the extract below is the use of elliptical structures, e.g. "Don't have to…" Omitted elements, however, can easily be reconstructed from context. The same holds for repetitions, long pauses, seemingly irrelevant words etc. All these characteristics of genuine discourse are often ignored by coursebook writers or, at best, they are tackled in an unsystematic way. As Gabrielatos (2002) notes, 'if learners expect over-explicit messages, they may be confused and discouraged by the elliptical nature of everyday language'.

A: Now I think you'd better start the rice
B: Yeah…what you got there…(pause)
B: Will it all fit in the one
A: No you'll have to do two separate ones
C: Right…what next…(pause)
C: Foreign body in there
B: It's the raisins
C: Oh is it oh it's rice with raisins in it
B: No no no it's not supposed to be [laughs] erm
C: There must be a raisin for it being in there
D: D' you want a biscuit
C: Erm
D: Biscuit
C: Er yeah
D: All right


Conventions of correctness in discourse

In spoken discourse, like in written discourse, there are some conventions of what is correct. For instance, in expressing futurity, "to be going to" is associated with intention, while "will do" is supposed to express decision-making. This distinction, though, has no merit, unless it is embedded, thus enacted, in a natural discourse such as in a restaurant:

A: [to her friend] I'm gonna have the deep-fried mushrooms, you like mushrooms don't you?
[A couple of minutes later]
A: [to the waiter] I'll have the deep-fried mushrooms with erm an old time burger, can I have cheese on it?
(found in McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 213)

Obviously, "to be going to" is addressed to a friend sharing one's intention to choose certain food, while "will" is addressed to a waiter, since it is more proper for giving food order.

Length and content in discourse

In real life, spoken discourse such as in buying or selling things, or in having other business done, is characterised by short dialogues, which are grammatically and semantically simple. Yet, in coursebooks, such dialogues are misrepresented as quite long texts which are grammatically and lexically complex, thus misleading learners of English (Taborn, 1983).

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