Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.
What Is Discourse?
When was the last time you had a conversation with someone, either through writing or in person? It was probably pretty recently. Whenever you communicate with someone about a topic, either in writing or speaking, you are participating in discourse. Since communication happens all the time, discourse is a huge part of our everyday lives. It's absolutely vital, especially as part of the language learning process.
There are two overarching types of language instruction. The first is explicit, or formal instruction. This is probably the type of instruction you think of automatically that involves vocabulary lists and looking at specific tenses or conjugations. The second is implicit, or communication-based instruction. When using discourse as a tool in the classroom, it falls under the implicit instruction umbrella because the focus is on fluid communication rather than specific grammar or a subset of vocabulary.
There has been a lot of research about language acquisition. One of the most famous theories on the topic is one by Dr. Stephen Krashen, from the University of Southern California. As part of his Theory of Second Language Acquisition, he argues that there are two systems involved in language learning: acquisition and learning. Acquisition is a product of subconscious processes, such as what occurs through implicit instructions, while learning is a product of explicit instructions.
What Krashen's theory tells us is that discourse, as part of implicit language instruction, actually plays a different role in language learning than explicit instruction. The emphasis in discourse is communication. As students practice more discourse, their language use becomes more fluid. Discourse also helps them practice communication strategies for when they need to discuss a concept they are less familiar with.
Whether you're communicating in your native language or a second language, sometimes you are going to want to talk about something that you just don't have the words for. In these situations, people fall back on different communication strategies to get their point across. These can include paraphrasing, substitution of a known word or phrase, or circumlocution. Circumlocution is when you go the long way around the concept. For example, if you didn't know the word ''blueberry,'' you might say 'small blue round fruit that grows on bushes.' It takes more effort, but with circumlocution you can use words you do know to get the point across regarding a word you don't know.
With more discourse and communication practice, the need for these strategies dwindles. However, regardless of your fluency in a language, there will always come a time when you need to use them. That's why it is important to practice them as part of fluid communication, so that you can continue your conversation even if you can't find exactly the right word.
Discourse in the Classroom
Discourse is a useful tool in both native and second language classrooms. In either case, the communication strategies tend to be the same, and implicit instruction is equally important for any language learning. In a classroom setting, of course, it's best used to compliment explicit instruction. Communication activities can easily be tailored to suit the topic being taught at the time.
For example, if you are doing a unit on food words, you might pair your students and ask them each to share a favorite recipe. In a second language classroom, make sure they are using exclusively the target language, and not falling back on their native language. This encourages practice of communication strategies. The focus in this activity is on what is being communicated. Even though it's tied into the main unit, students are not given exactly what they need to be saying, and they are being expected to use what they know to get their point across. This is what makes it a discourse-based activity.
Tying discourse into the main topic of study doesn't sacrifice the quality or benefits of the discourse. It still encourages fluid communication and implicit learning, and it provides a way for students to practice using the language as they would outside of the classroom. In this way, the discourse encourages language development just as it does in non-classroom settings.
All right, let's take a moment or two to review what we've learned. In this lesson, we learned about discourse, which is whenever you communicate with someone about a topic, either in writing or speaking. As a result, discourse falls under the category of implicit, meaning communication-based instruction, rather than explicit, meaning formal instruction, when used in a classroom as a form of instruction. Discourse plays a vital role in the language development process.
In the context of Stephen Krashen's theory, discourse encourages acquisition of a language, which is a product of subconscious processes, rather than the learning, which is what takes place under explicit instruction. Since the emphasis in discourse is on communication, it encourages the use of communication strategies, such as paraphrasing and circumlocution, which is when you go the long way of defining a concept. After all, when you are having a conversation, you aren't going to want to stop and look up a word. You have to use the language to know to find a substitution for, or a way around, that word.
Discourse is everywhere in all aspects of life, and it can be especially useful as a tool in the classroom, regardless of whether your students are learning their native language or a foreign one. By having students practice communication, you encourage fluency and help them practice using the language as they would in a non-classroom setting. This is true even if your discourse activities are tied into the curriculum.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack