Discourse for teaching purposes


 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 play 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.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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).

Let us compare the following two examples of conversations. In the first dialogue, which is taken from a coursebook on colloquial English and part of which is given below, the scene is set in a French confectioner’s shop in New Oxford Street. The second dialogue is natural.

 Dialogue 1

 Shop-girl (approaching): Are you being attended to, ladies?

Mrs Brooke: No, not yet. Show me some Easter eggs, please.

Shop-girl (pointing to a display of Easter eggs on the counter): In chocolate or marzipan? How do you like these?

Mrs Brooke (to her companion): They are too large, aren’t they? (She looks round). Why, here are some at sixpence; they will do splendidly.

Shop-girl: Shall I mix in some of these plover’s eggs?

Mrs Brooke: Oh, how beautifully speckled they are! They look perfectly real, don’t they? Are they filled with cream?

Shop-girl: No, madam, they are solid chocolate. Anything else, please?

Mrs Brooke: What does such an Easter-hare come to?

Shop-girl: That one is two and nine.

Mrs Brooke: What do they contain?

Shop-girl: Oh, they are empty, you know. They have to be filled first. I can fill them for you with pralines or mixed chocolates or fondants, as you desire.

 Dialogue 2

 Customer: Do you have any chocolate eggs?

Assistant: Yes. One?

Customer: Two, please.

Assistant: 20p, please.

Customer: Thank you.

Assistant: Thank you. ‘Bye.

(from Taborn, 1983: 207-208)

 A “typical discourse”

 Anyone can imagine a typical dialogue at the doctor’s and compare it to the one given below:

 D: What’s the problem?

P: …it’s a week of sore throat

D: hm

P: which turned into a cold

D: A cold you mean what? Stuffy nose?

P: Stuffy nose, Yeah. Not a chest cold.

D: And a cough? Any fever?

P: Not that I know of

D: How about your ears?

P: I haven’t got any problems

D: How do you feel?

P: Tired. I couldn’t sleep

D: Because of the cough

(adapted from Bonvillain, 2000: 373)

 Natural dialogues contain not only certain features of spoken language, such as elliptical structures, but also more distinct social roles of the participants. Here, the doctor is very particular about details necessary to diagnose the patient, while the latter is describing the symptoms to get more help. Such functions are neglected in coursebook materials.

 Full replies in discourse

 Another tendency exhibited by EFL coursebooks is the overuse of full replies beginning with “yes” or “no,” or “yes, I do” or “no, I don’t.”

 Betty: Good morning. Do you sell oranges?

Assistant: Yes, we do.

Peter: Do you sell ice-cream, too?

Assistant: No, I’m sorry, we don’t.

(from Taborn, 1983: 211)

 This form is very widely used by foreign learners, and is also very common in textbooks. However, it is highly unlikely that one will ever come across such forms in native speakers’ everyday language.


 Listening to each other in discourse

 In textbook conversations, it is assumed that people actually listen to each other when they talk, and that questions are immediately answered and requests attended to. The following natural dialogue gives the lie to this assumption:

 Father: Are you going out this evening?

Lucy: Where did I put my green skirt?

Ben: Pass the salt, Lucy.

Mother: She can never find that skirt.

Lucy: I think I put it in the wash.

Father: There you are (passing the salt).

(Crystal, 1995: 112)

 In real life, people talk to each other simultaneously, interrupt each other, continue others’ phrases and give multiple answers to one and the same question (Crystal, 1995: 110).

 Precision in natural discourse

 Another assumption that permeates communication is that using words precisely is what is necessary for effective talk. In reality, though, there is a great deal of exaggeration, generalisation, vagueness and ambiguity involved. These devices are called “hedges.” I think it probably is the money…and the chap used to spend about a thousand a year…and he’s been to the last two or three tournaments…and this is about 50 per cent of his normal…(Crystal, 1995: 117).


 What one can glean from this brief discussion is that the language used in EFL coursebooks has been based on an idealised “native speaker” model, existing above regional varieties and cultures (Alptekin, 2002). Such a native speaker, though, is a non-existent abstraction. The real native speaker is a person who relies on someone else to complete his / her utterances, who seldom or never finishes the sentence, who speaks very quickly, talks vaguely, and forgets what he or she wants to say (Crystal, 1995: 119). In this light, EFL coursebooks should be based not on “hunches” and introspection, but on real communicative data. Natural speech is dramatically different from an “ideal coursebook dialogue,” which not only fails to square with reality but also leads to misunderstandings as to the “mechanics” of genuine communication. Unless coursebooks expose learners to the real language, it will be impossible to foster communicative and sociolinguistic competence.


 Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT. ELT Journal. 56(1), 57-64.

  • Bonvillain, N. (2000). Language, Culture and Communication: The Meaning of Messages. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

  • Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse analysis. Cambridge: CUP.

  • Cook, G. (1989). Discourse.  Oxford: OUP.

  • Crystal, D. (1995). In search of English: a traveller’s guide. ELT Journal. Vol. 49/2. Oxford: OUP.

  • Gabrielatos, C. (2002). Inference: Procedures and Implications for ELT. In Research Methodology: Discourse in Teaching A Foreign Language. Tambov: Tambov State University Press.

  • McCarthy, N., and R. Carter. (1995). Spoken grammar: what is it and how can we Teach it? ELT Journal. Vol. 49/3. Oxford: OUP.

  • Millrood, R. P. (2002). Discourse for teaching purposes. In Research Methodology: Discourse in Teaching A Foreign Language. Tambov: Tambov State University Press.

  • Nunan, D. (1993). Discourse analysis. Penguin Books.

  • Taborn, S. (1983). The transactional dialogue: misjudged, misused, misunderstood. ELT Journal. Vol. 37/3. Oxford: OUP.


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas