Discourse analysis in the classroom?

I think that, at best, discourse analysis in class will be fragmentary and inconsistent because this field cannot be/ is not adequately covered in realistic teacher education, and at present it is under-represented in teachable materials or accessible methodology.

As a practical example I would like to examine some materials I wrote a couple of years ago for a coursebook on a unit on politics.

I had included a manifesto for a US state-level green party. At the time I found that the text could form the basis of work on all of the following:

  • Clear and eye-catching headings.
  • We + ‘power’ verb • Careful and effective use of will, must and should
  • Appropriate adjective + noun collocations
  • The ‘three point’ technique of persuasive discourse

Is this discourse analysis or merely a collection of grammatical and lexical exercises pertaining to the text? Is there a difference? Feeling that, despite the analysis of certain grammatical, lexical, and discursive features, it was maybe too undisciplined, I looked again at the manifesto to apply to it a structural analysis.

I found that this was actually rather straightforward and simple. If we look at the first four points the structural form is highly repetitious and only actually comprises of two moves: let’s call them ‘claim’ (Cl) and ‘proposal’ (Pr). This is consistent throughout.

1.(Cl) Every human being deserves a say in the decisions that affect their lives and not be subject to the will of another. (Pr) Therefore, we will work to increase public participation at every level of government and to ensure that our public representatives are fully accountable to the people who elect them. We will also work to create new types of political organizations which expand the process of participatory democracy by directly including citizens in the decision-making process.

2.(Cl) All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. (P) We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, barriers such as racism and class oppression, sexism and homophobia, ageism and disability, which act to deny fair treatment and equal justice under the law.

3. (Cl) Human societies must operate with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. (Pr) We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society which utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation. To this end we must practice agriculture which replenishes the soil; move to an energy efficient economy; and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems.

4. (Cl) It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence. (Pr) We will work to demilitarize, and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments. We recognize the need for self-defense and the defense of others who are in helpless situations. We promote non-violent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and will guide our actions toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

Ok – so no big deal. But would this way of looking at the text have changed the way I would have approached the materials? I think so. I had included an ‘insert the heading’ activity. It isn’t a particularly taxing activity, maybe useful for developing fast scanning skills. It may have been better to have jigsawed the ‘claims’ and ‘proposals’ and have the students match them back together. This would be slightly more taxing but also serve to loop the structural form to the students without, as it were, preaching it.

It would also help on this small but important point: each ‘proposal’ sentence starts with we will, we shall or we must. I had covered this in Subtle uses of must, should and will, but didn’t know how to term this feature other than ‘verbs of power’ (something I was hoping my editor would improve upon). It is obvious now that I should have called this feature ‘we+ proposal verb’. This seems like a tiny point but shows to me how approaching the text from the viewpoint of discourse analysis rather than a purely lexical standpoint can subtly alter and inform such decisions. Whereas I previously would have searched a text for lexical and grammatical features I will now take a slightly different initial view and look first for patterns in the form and structure of a text.