Text, text, text . . . we claim to know what it means, but what does it mean? Comprehension is one thing, but trying to get to the heart of the writer’s message—including the message the writer herself is trying to hide—requires a different skill set beyond what we generally consider to be “L2 education”. Enter discourse, that friend of linguists and litterateurs alike; University of Tsukuba instructor Michael Tesseron thinks we should have our charges handle it head-on, lest it handle us!
Discourse analysis and beyond
We live in times more exciting than anyone apart from Orwell could have imagined. The revelations about the NSA surveillance programs and the disclosures by Wikileaks have radically changed perceptions about information gathering and dissemination. The function of information as a tool used to persuade, to shape opinions or perpetuate stereotypes is clearly apparent.
Texts may convey meanings that are not always obvious (Paltridge, 2006), and raising learner awareness about this can be beneficial (Fenton-Smith, 2013). Now it is time to create a curriculum that reflects this. To this end, discourse analysis, text structuring strategies, document classification, and other basic techniques of information management should be an integral component of any compulsory L2 course. This will develop critical thinking and an awareness of the function of discourse beyond the all too familiar comprehension skills.
Critical discourse analysis can be applied easily to class materials at all levels of ability. For example, at its most basic level, we can teach students how to become more aware of persuasive elements in a television commercial. Understanding the emotive language in a newspaper column can help illuminate subtexts, such as the nationalist undercurrents to hosting international sporting events. More advanced classes can compare the structure of academic journal articles with other media, with the aim being that learners approach subsequent texts differently, and hopefully develop the appropriate reading strategies in dealing with them.
At the lexical level, this approach may aid learners in improving not only their vocabulary, but also their knowledge of how certain words and phrases function within a text beyond “definitions”. Learners are also encouraged to respond to the subject matter in any way they deem to be appropriate. In doing so, they can engage with each other and discover more about what is conveyed in the materials they routinely encounter in their environment.
Paltridge, B. (2006). Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Fenton-Smith, B. (2013). The application of discourse analysis. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.) Applied linguistics and materials development (pp. 127-141). London: Bloomsbury.