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).
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
AS/SA nº 15,
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 pay 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
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
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
AS/SA nº 15,
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: 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
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)
AS/SA nº 15,
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.
Shop-girl (approaching): Are you being attended to,
Mrs Brooke: No, not yet. Show me some Easter eggs,
Shop-girl (pointing to a display of Easter eggs on
the counter): In chocolate or marzipan? How do you like
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?
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.
Customer: Do you have any chocolate eggs?
Customer: Two, please.
Assistant: 20p, please.
Customer: Thank you.
Assistant: Thank you. `Bye. (from Taborn, 1983: 207-208)
AS/SA nº 15,
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
P: which turned into a cold
D: A cold you mean what?
P: Stuffy nose, Yeah. Not a chest cold.
a cough? Any fever?
P: Not that I know of
D: How about your
P: I haven't got any problems
D: How do you feel?
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
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?
Yes, we do.
Peter: Do you sell ice-cream, too?
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.
AS/SA nº 15,
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
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
Father: There you are (passing the salt). (Crystal,
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
fogets 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
AS/SA nº 15,
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.
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
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
Taborn, S. (1983). The transactional dialogue:
misjudged, misused, misunderstood. ELT Journal. Vol. 37/3. Oxford: OUP.
to the editors
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