in Writing by Emma Worrall
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.
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,
to view the resulting texts as final products to evaluate,
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).
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'.
Some possible solutions to the problems
So, how can we address the over-use and misuse of linkers in our students' work? Crewe (1990: 321) outlines three pedagogical approaches which represent what he describes as "three stages of awareness that connectives have a textual meaning and are not just surface-level fillers". He refers to these three approaches as 'reductionist', 'expansionist' and 'deductionist'.
The reductionist approach suggests that students should be presented with a small subset of a long list of linkers and over time students should become more aware of their semantic and discoursal value.. A shorter list would have the advantage of "allowing the contrasts between the connectives to be more easily stressed" (Crewe 1990: 322). Crewe develops this further with his table of conjunctive relations (which he bases on Halliday and Hassan's table, 1976 in Crewe, 1990). He describes three problematic areas of conceptual categories: "Additive", "Adversative" and "Causal" and within those areas there are fourteen logical linkers. He suggests that advanced ESL students would be able to master these before progressing to more abstract ones (see appendix 6)
The expansionist approach encourages "Explicit markers" (Crewe 1990: 322) which are expressions which explicitly state the connection with either the preceding or following textual matter. Most of these expressions would contain the reference word 'this'. Some examples that Crewe lists are 'because of this', 'for this purpose', as a result of this'.
The criticism of the above two approaches is that they work backwards from lexis to discourse. Rather than concentrating on the discourse first they only consider the methods of controlling output. As they focus at the level of lexis the logical development of the argument or discussion is taken for granted.
To try to remedy this defect, Crewe presents a third approach: The 'deductionist' approach "begins by obliging the students before the writing process (within the essay plan, for example) to state the connection between the stages in the argument" (Crewe 1990: 323). If we do this first we can use lexical selections from a more complex list where, rather than having opaque terms like 'additive' and 'adversative' as the category titles, the sections could be labelled with discourse questions. Crewe (1990: 323) suggests some of the following:
Crewe says that the "schema" above will ultimately need to contain a full range of discourse "moves" (1990: 323), for example, listing, comparing, exemplifying, showing consequence, rephrasing, and concluding.
A further suggestion Crewe makes for teachers can help students by encouraging them to avoid using linkers in their first writing drafts and asking other students to analyse the logical progression of their argument before deciding on the suitability of possible linkers. Although this method counters the idea of looking at discourse first and then selecting the supporting words after, it is probably better than accepting students' work which has not been assessed for any logicality at all.
Crewe concludes that students need to be aware of the problems of using linkers in their writing and, therefore, they need more rigorous training which would oblige the students to think through their argument first and then decide how they might reinforce it with linkers. I would like to pursue some of the ideas that Crewe mentions in further FCE writing based classes. For example, doing a letter or essay without any linking devices and asking the students, in groups, to evaluate their work together, deciding on the types of discourse markers they should use. I also want to encourage the students to create a personal 'database' of linking devices that we use in the class so that they may refer to them in future classes and when revising for the exam. In general, I would like to do more group writing activities, whether it be peer correction or collaborative writing to give students more creative space and confidence in their work.
A. Battersby Instant
Grammar Lessons, 1996, Language Teaching
Lesson plan - preliminary information
on the whole, but, unfortunately, except for, however, although, besides, in conclusion, also, as I see it, for example, despite, taking everything into consideration, another point in favour, a further disadvantage
1) To produce a cohesive written text using some of the above discourse markers (stage 6).
2) The students will work collaboratively to produce their work. (see stage 6)
3) The students will
be able to peer correct their completed work after regrouping to form
their completed essays.
Writing is an integral part of the First Certificate Exam course and students must learn to write in a very specific way and fulfil certain requirements. This is often very challenging for students as general English courses (which most of the students at Hyland Language Centre are generally used to) do not expect such requirements (for example, formal letter writing) .In Paper 2, Part 2 the students have a choice of compositions questions of which they must answer one question. A discursive essay is part of those choices. We have recently been practising other writing activities and we have already looked at some of the linking devices used in informal letter writing The FCE Gold course book looks at the discursive essay in unit 12, but I wanted to contrast informal letter writing with a composition of a more formal style for this class. The students have also been introduced to the various requirements that they should fulfil in their compositions, such as content, style and register, and target reader and they have seen examples of past papers (in the FCE Examiner's booklet) with examples of students' work which passed or failed and the bands (grades) which they were given.
Looking back on my first year of teaching the FCE (last year) I should have perhaps started focussing on the writing part of the exam a lot earlier in the course. So, this year I have decided to place more emphasis on writing from the beginning, hoping to develop 'good habits' from the start, by encouraging the students to follow a rigid procedure when tackling any writing exercise (for example, writing a plan, checking the style and register required and using linking devices to ensure cohesion and logic to their work). As I usually gave written compositions for homework on last year's course, I decided to give students the chance to work collaboratively in this class and use their own interlanguage to create a text which will involve the students making decisions on "word order, cohesion and sequences of tenses in discourse" (McCarthy 1991:153). As McCarthy says, the decision-making processes are brought to the surface and individuals will have to "explain their choices, a process more motivating to learners than having to explain the choices of an invisible, unknown author." (McCarthy 1991:154). Another advantage of having students work in groups is that students may be encouraged to take more 'risks' (J. Hatfield 1992). Quieter, more reserved students who are often put off by speaking in front of the class or teacher are able to contribute valid knowledge and opinions in a small group setting with less pressure on their spoken performance.
I chose my material from another source Instant Grammar Lessons (Battersby 1996) which has suitable activities for FCE. The idea I have used is based on a dictogloss style activity incorporating a 'bottom-up' approach but in a written rather than audio form. Using a dictogloss (or dovetailing as it is known. See stage 6) type activity can encourage learners to call upon their linguistic resources, considering the various language options open to them and it encourages the learners to discover what they do and do not know about English.
I chose the discursive essay from Instant Grammar Lessons (1996 unit 2.1) which compares the advantages and disadvantages of watching television and reading books. However, there were certain things on the original text which I wanted to adapt because I felt that the 'reproduction of text' style activity chosen called for a simpler version, I wanted it to be challenging but not demotivating. I changed some of the vocabulary and phrases which I thought would hinder the reproduction of the text (see stage 5) for example, "well-stocked". I also felt it was necessary to change the phrase about television licences as it was not culturally relevant to the students. I reduced some of the longer sections in order for the students to have similar length paragraphs to reconstruct. I removed the sentence in line 10 because I thought the idea of a question would distract from the idea of using discourse markers, so I rewrote the sentence adding another discourse marker (i.e. "Besides" see Main Aims). I removed one of the discourse markers in case it might confuse the students. I reduced the amount of sentences that the students would have to reproduce to make it a more manageable task, leaving the groups of students with the first and last two sentence cards. I should point out that this class will be mostly experimental for me and the students, and although the students have already been exposed to some activities of the lesson plan in previous lessons (see stages 2 and 4) we were looking at an informal letter context.
White board, board pens, blutak, pencils, white paper strips, help cards, essay photocopied on card and cut into strips for each group, discourse markers on large pieces of card, photocopies of the essay in paragraphs (enough for each student), 2 x copies of the essay on OHTs (one with the discourse markers underlined, see appendix ) , OHP.
1) The students will
find the task challenging but not too difficult as to be demotivating.
Anticipated Problems and Possible Solutions
Problem: Classroom management problems. The students will be working at small, individual tables and with small pieces of card. The regrouping process may cause confusion as may the removal of some cards from the essays (see stages 2 ) and later the dovetailing activity (see stage 6) where students will reform their essays. As the teacher working with 4 small groups will be time-consuming .
large pieces of card and blutak for the students to stick the pieces of
card to. Provide a model of the essays on the board and demonstrate how
the students must reform their completed sentences to allow for more student
autonomy and to give them a further opportunity to collaborate in groups
in order to follow instructions given by the teacher. Students in each
group will be asked to reproduce their part of the essay twice on two
different red boards so that when students regroup for the dovetailing
process (see stage 6) they will have two complete essays to look at instead
of 5 or 6 students trying to look at one finished essay.
Solution: Tell students the first sentence card and then ask them to identify the last sentence card before they go on to complete the rest of the essay.
Problem: Although there are 11 students in my FCE group they may not all attend the class.
Solution: Split the class into slightly bigger groups and ask all the students in each group to write one/two missing sentences each.
Problem: Students may be familiar with discourse markers but may not know how to use them effectively. Questions may arise over the positions of discourse markers and students may want to discuss others which have not been included in the list (see main aims)
Solution: Briefly discuss the various positions of the chosen discourse markers, making a note on the board next to each discourse marker, but steer students away from introducing others explaining that we can look at any others in another lesson.
Problem: Some of the discourse markers may cause problems for the students for example "despite" which is less complicated to use in Spanish than in English. I also predict that "a further disadvantage" may cause problems i.e. that students may think it is a contrast and "of course". which students may think is a contrast when it is used more in generalisations. Students may not understand why the various discourse markers are in the alloted categories.
Solution: Use "a further advantage as an example of a discourse marker and elicit the unnecessary word (i.e. "further") and elicit the purpose of "further" (addition). Prepare to explain the problem discourse markers and if necessary give further explanation via example sentences.
Problem: Some groups may finish the sentence reproduction (see stage 5) before other groups.
Solution: The fast finishers should provide help to the other group completing the same missing sentences. Or if their are only 2 groups ask students to choose two or three discourse markers which are either new to them or they do not use and note them in their notebooks with an example sentence.
Problem: Students may not have had enough time to absorb the content of the essay and will have extra difficulties reproducing their missing sentences.
Solution: "Help Cards" (see appendix) will be provided (two per missing sentences). The first help card will contain several content words from the original sentence card to help jog the students' memories. If the students still have problems recalling the nature of the missing sentences the second help card will provide the content words again with the category of discourse marker which was used in the original. Students will also be informed of the need to keep the meaning of the original but that they are not expected to reproduce the text word for word.
Problem: Students may not finish stages 6 and 7 before the end of the class.
Solution: The aim of the class is not to rush the students through the writing stages but to let them work at their own pace. Obviously, if students are really struggling they will need extra help from the teacher. If students do not get to the comparing stage I will write up their work and we can look at their work as the first part of the follow-up lesson as a whole class, checking for problems and errors.
The group has only
been together for 3 weeks but already most of the regular students have
built up a good rapport with each other. At the beginning of the course
many students expressed a need for writing and listening practise in particular.
They respond well to visual based activities and we have discussed the
need for well-organised notes.
Ricardo: Has also studied at Hyland before so is used to the learner training that we employ here. He is very quiet in class but speaks carefully and accurately and feels more comfortable working in small groups. His writing is also strong and he has applied, to recent homework, some structures and discourse markers that we have already looked at.
Enrique: Is also quiet in class and will not readily volunteer opinions. He also seems to work well in small groups. His written work is fairly good and his listening skills too.
Marta: She is fairly confident in class and speaks with a good deal of accuracy. Her writing is well-structured. However, she has missed some classes (she works for a law firm and has said that she is fairly busy with her work).
Beatriz: Started the beginning of the year in a level below FCE but has been allowed to go to the FCE level because she is doing extra conversation classes. She has missed lots of classes and has only produced one piece of writing where she relied heavily on Spanish translation of phrases and she did not use many discourse markers.
María José: Like Beatriz, she was in the level below FCE and is following a conversation course, however, she is quiet in class and I suspect it is because she has been told that the FCE class is a trial to see how she gets on along with her conversation classes and she is worried that her level is noticeably lower than the others in the class. Her written work also relied heavily on Spanish translation and showed that she needs lots of learner training in the written part of the course.
Miguel Angel: Is a very confident student who has a tendency to dominate open class and small group discussions. He works well with María because she is confident too and she does not allow him to dominate the conversation. His written work is good. He has to write in English for his job (he is training to be an air traffic controller) so he is used to formal writing.
Olga: She has missed much of the course so far and she has given me one piece of writing which needed work, especially on the structure and linking phrases. Given her attendance so far, she will need to do a lot of catching up.
Elena: She has only recently joined the course (two classes) and she has not produced any written work yet. She is also fairly quiet in class but speaks fairly accurately.
Verónica: Has also recently joined the class. Her written work is okay and she speaks fairly accurately.
Virgínia: She is the youngest of the class. She is a very confident speaker and her writing, though lacking the maturity of the others' writing is well-thought out and very accurate.
The students will discuss the following question "Which do you prefer doing in your free time, reading books or watching television? Why?". If students do not use specific vocabulary from the essay which I think they might find difficult (i.e. current affairs and soap operas), I will introduce the words in the class during feedback by asking about the students favourite types of TV programmes and books.
Stage 2 Ordering the article
Students will be given the sentences of an essay (see appendix) cut up on strips of card. Students will be told the number of the first paragraph to help them start. The teacher will monitor help and encourage the students to reassess sentences put in the wrong order. Students will blutak their ordered essay onto large pieces of card.
Stage 3 Checking
The students will check the original essay (in paragraph form) on an OHP (see appendix 4a). Students are given their own copy of the original essay for them to assess and mark any queries
Stage 4 Personal
Students will give an affective response to the article by ticking the things they agree with and crossing the things they do not agree with and putting a question mark next to anything they do not understand. Students will discus in their groups how many things they agreed and disagreed with and will help with question marks before checking with the teacher.
Stage 5 Language Work
Ask students how they put the essay together. Ask what linking devices are then they will highlight the linking devices that they recognise on their photocopy of the essay. Students then check their linking device choices against those underlined on another OHT copy of the essay (see appendix 4b). The teacher demonstrates one example of a discourse marker for each category. Students will then go to the board and stick cards with the linking devices written on, under the correct categories of discourse markers on the board. If any corrections are to be made students will be encouraged to work it out for themselves.
Stage 6 Group Writing
Students in group(s) A will remove the following sentence cards: 9,5 and 8. Students in group(s) B will remove sentences 7,2 and 10 from their essays (see appendix 2). They will have strips of paper to write their new sentences on and they will be told that they have to reproduce the missing sentences from their essays, whilst keeping the same meaning and using appropriate linking devices (which will be on the cards on the board for the duration of the exercise) and that they will have the use of the help cards if they struggle to reproduce the sentences. Any fast finishing groups will help the other group or they will be asked to choose 2 or 3 discourse markers, that are new or which they never use, to copy into their notebooks with example sentences.
Stage 7 Dovetailing
The students will regroup and be shown, via the model on the board, how to rearrange their sentences. The original sentences (apart from the first and last two sentence cards) will be discarded and students will replace them with their versions of the essay, thus sentences 9,7,5,2,8 and 10 will be the students own work.
Stage 8 Homework
Aim: To consolidate/practise
and give students the opportunity to reproduce the discourse markers in
a further discursive essay model
Cut up text
It should be noted that the 'sentence' numbers correspond to the order of the sentences which were taken away from the students' original essays, and not the actual number printed on the strips.