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Discourse in Writing
by Emma Worrall
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Why do students need to understand and use discourse?

As a teacher, I have found that most students' writing at the FCE level tends to lack a clear structure and they often lack a sense of cohesion. At sentence level there are often coherence and accuracy problems but overall the students manage to convey the main message. White and Arndt (1991:4) say "readers expect writers to use language which is clear, unambiguous, and appropriate to the context and type of text concerned". They also say that if writers fail to observe accepted writing conventions they "produce writing which is unsatisfactory and ineffective" (White and Arndt 1991:4). Thornbury says (1997: 140) "As readers, we assume that the organisation of the text is not arbitrary, but that it serves to convey the writer's intention- that it makes the writer's intention coherent". This brings us to the question of the target reader. As many students need English for their work it is important to recognise the target reader and what knowledge those readers share with the writer and how much of that knowledge is exclusive to only the writer. We must then consider not only the clear linking of the information of written work but also clear structure, punctuation, paragraphs etc. But, unfortunately, from the point of view of the students and the teacher in a language classroom, Nunan says (1991: 88) that when students do writing,

"teachers tend to view the resulting texts as final products to evaluate,
which conveys to the students the message that the function of writing is to produce texts for teachers to evaluate, not to communicate meaningfully with another person".

It is up to the teacher to convey to the students that they must consider the target reader of any written work that they produce and to encourage 'good' writing habits. In the case of the FCE, students have to learn to write a cohesive, coherent text using different styles. Students need to be able to plan, draft and redraft their texts in order to be proficient in writing skills. Nunan says that skilled writers will revise their writing at all levels of lexis, sentence and discourse so writing classes should not just be concerned with the "mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary" ( Nunan 1991: 90).

Nunan (1990) concludes that writing as a skill is difficult for a lot of people in L1 let alone foreign learners of a language writing in L2. So, although most people will have some difficulties in writing in L2, it is the role of the teacher to guide the learners looking at writing both as a product (where the learner imitates, copies and transforms models of correct language) and as a process (i.e. the cognitive processes which competent writer go through in order to achieve their objectives in a text).


Problems with discourse and writing

One of problems I have noticed in my students written work is the lack of or misuse of discourse markers. There are various theories of this which I shall now address. It has been suggested by Crewe, Wright and Young (1985: 61) that many linkers are "abstract and opaque text organizers and not fixed, concrete lexical items". In theory, writers may make any links between the stages of their writing as long as it makes sense to them. But, what happens when the expectations of the reader and the writer do not coincide? As Crewe says "there is a communication breakdown on the grounds of 'illogicality'" (Crewe 1990:316). He says we could quite easily resolve an incomprehensible link by simply ignoring it or by replacing it. Several studies conducted (for example in Cohen et al, 1979) have shown that ESL readers encounter difficulties when dealing with cohesive links and that readers constantly reformulate what they have read in order to make sense of it. However, some studies suggest that, although linking devices can improve the coherence of a text, ESL students will often leave them out of their writing altogether rather than risk confusing the reader. This is something that many of my colleagues and I have experienced, especially with exam classes. If no linking devices exist then the reader can, in most cases, supply the linking devices based on their own 'schemata' of the topic or situation presented. So, here we are left with the problem of the actual relevance of discourse markers to ESL students when both non-native and native English speakers are able to process texts which do not contain any linking devices.

Some of the problems students have with discourse markers are outlined by W.J.Crewe (1990). Students often confuse discourse markers. It does not help when they are taught lists of them in the classroom as in their attempts to use a variety of discourse markers they often unwittingly reorient the whole structure of the argument. I must admit I have attempted to teach my students discourse markers in this way! Equally, gap fill exercises, he says, become meaningless when we realise that "the same lexical item may have a range of semantic values" (Crewe 1990: 319), which does not address the issue of the fact that alternative lexical items "might represent different or illogical progressions of the argument". Here, Dubin and Olshtain (in Zamel 1984:112) say "The most important characteristic of cohesion is the fact that it does not constitute a class of items but rather a set of relations". Often, students rely too much on connectives and in doing so they are apparently imposing a logicality on their writing where actually there is no logicality. Thus the cohesion and coherence may be unstable. Just because a writer's work contains logical connectives does not mean that the text will be logical. As Harnett says (1986:143)

"Cohesive ties do not create relationships(although they can stimulate their invention); rather they express cohesive relationships that already exist in the writer's thinking. Cohesion reflects mental processes which both writers and readers perform. Although cohesive, devices are visible signs of the relationships that they signal, they are best only indicators of them. A cohesive device can mislead readers if it signals a relationship that is not intended or has multiple interpretations".

Thornbury (1997: 126) reiterates this by saying that "Cohesion alone is not enough to make a text coherent". Texts have an internal logic, which the reader recognises even without the aid of explicit cohesive devices. Students need to be able to analyse the 'deep structure' of a text as there are a number of other linguistic devices that affect the extent to which groups of sentences hold together and form a complete and cohesive text such as reference words (e.g. pronoun reference, article reference, ellipsis etc) lexical sets, lexical repetition as well as conjunctions. It is not sufficient to try to make ones writing cohesive (or appear cohesive) by simply using a 'sprinkling' of discourse markers. In fact, as Crewe points out, students sometimes over-use discourse markers in an attempt to make their writing seem more 'professional'.

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