Providing Explicit Instruction in Content-Specific Discourse Skills

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Helping students learn to communicate in different content areas often involves teaching them discursive strategies specific to different disciplines. This lesson discusses explicit instruction in content-specific discourse skills.

Understanding Discourse

As teachers, we often have a responsibility to teach students to understand so many different disciplines, categories of information, and schools of thought.

Regardless of the specific subject we are teaching at any given time, one concept that we want to familiarize our students with is discourse. In general, discourse describes how we communicate in particular contexts.

Discourse can happen orally, in conversations about books and literature. It can also happen in writing; producing technical manuals about different scientific topics is a form of discursive practice.

When students learn to participate in the discursive techniques of a content area, they are better equipped to read, write, speak and listen to others speaking about the topic.

Some students naturally pick up on the practices of discourse in specific content areas, but many students benefit from explicit, or direct and clear, instruction in content-specific discourse skills.

Vocabulary Development

One of the first steps to providing explicit instruction in content-specific discourse skills is helping your students develop vocabulary.

Think of a unit you are teaching. In social studies, students might need to learn words to describe geographical formations. In math, students benefit from learning words to describe geometric functions or shapes.

Procedural Vocabulary

A lot of the vocabulary we teach our students is procedural vocabulary, or the words we use to organize and negotiate meaning within a specific subject area.

For example, if students are learning about ancient history, words like ''archaeology'' and ''excavation,'' which show them exactly how knowledge is acquired within the content area.

Procedural vocabulary is often associated with verbs, and is therefore conducive to kinesthetic teaching; let your students act out the discourse-specific procedures they are learning about.

Declarative Vocabulary

Declarative vocabulary, or the words we use to make clear statements about a topic, is also really important to participation in content-specific discourse. In the same ancient history unit, declarative words might include ''artifact'' or ''altar.''

These words are often best taught visually, by helping students form images and content maps that allow them to better understand and recall the words.

Forms and Functions in Content Areas

Another part of content-specific discourse has to do with learning the different forms and functions of communication that are considered permissive and normative.

In this case, form has to do with exactly how people in the content area tend to communicate. In literature, for instance, ideas may be communicated via fiction; this same form is inappropriate in the context of medical study, on the other hand.

Function relates to the purpose of a type of communication. What is the discourse being conducted for? What are its short term and long term goals?

Form and function are often interconnected. For instance, if the purpose, or function, of discourse is to convince another person of an historic causality chain, the proper form might be a persuasive essay, written in formal but comprehensible language.


There are also different genres associated with different content areas, and your students will benefit from exploring these genres. To teach students about different genres, it is often helpful to have them read widely within a content area, and listen to experts in that field speak.

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