Academic Discourse: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Discourse: Definition…
  • 1:11 Types of Discourse
  • 2:16 Elements of Academic Discourse
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we cover the concept of academic discourse and how it varies from traditional communication. In addition to defining academic discourse, we provide examples of how it can be used properly as well as misused. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Discourse: Definition and Components

Have you ever entered into a conversation and had absolutely no clue what people were talking about? It happens to me surprisingly often, the price of not being particularly into many aspects of popular culture. For instance, say you've never seen an incredibly popular show that involves a fair amount of dragons and sword fights. If several of your friends are talking about it, you'll feel rather left out. Not only will you not know the plot of this show, but you won't know the characters, the setting, and some of the terminology they use. They will be engaged in a discourse and you'll be left out. You'll go home and cry yourself to sleep, swearing to watch the show while cuddling Mr. Fuzzums…not that this is what I do.

First thing first, we have to understand discourse. If we want to be fancy and pretend we're linguists for a bit we would define it this way: discourse is putting words and sentences together to clearly communicate complex ideas. It contains several elements: structure and organization, manner of speaking, complexity, intelligibility, and audience. While it is good to know the formal definition, if you think of discourse as the process of communication you'll be all right.

Types of Discourse

The next step is differentiating academic discourse from other types, such as common and formal. Common discourse is a term given to generic interpersonal communication. If we were to chat about the weather, that would be a common discourse. The rules regarding this type of communication are fairly broad and grasped by most adults.

Formal discourse is communication that has greater rules surrounding it, such as when discussing business matters at work. This level of communication has more specialized terminology (business words like profits, margin, and water cooler) and greater rules with regards to communication. For example, you shouldn't speak to the president of the company you work for the same way you would speak to your friends.

Finally, academic discourse is the specific style of communication used in the academic world. Academic discourse involves how we alter our communication when engaged in academic discussions. Some examples of academic communication are textbooks, presentations, dissertations, research articles, and lectures. If you've had experience with these, you'll understand how they can be different.

Elements of Academic Discourse

Let's go through some of the elements of discourse and provide examples of how academic communication is different.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Academic Discourse:

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster or other type of graphic organizer in which you define discourse. Tip: Make sure to list the specific elements of discourse.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately three to five paragraphs in which you describe and differentiate between common discourse, formal discourse, and academic discourse.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay that explains the elements of academic discourse. Tip: It is especially helpful to provide examples of each element.

Writing Prompt 1:

Think about a subject or topic that interests you and that you know a lot about. It could even be a sport or a hobby. Write a few sentences about it using common discourse. Then, revise those sentences into academic discourse. (Tip: Be sure to read over the elements of academic discourse to ensure that your revised sentences incorporate them.) In what ways are your sentences for common discourse different than those for academic discourse?

Discussion Prompt 1:

In an online discussion forum or in an in-person classroom, discuss the following questions: How should a teacher or professor best use academic discourse to connect with his or her student audience? How should the tone and manner of speech come across to the audience? What should be avoided?

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