Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom: Volume 1. The Spoken Language

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom: Volume 1. The Spoken Language

Heidi Riggenbach (1999)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. ix + 222
ISBN 0-472-08541-7
US $24.95

When most ESL teachers think of discourse analysis, they think of impractical and non-applicable information for their language classroom, which, not incidentally, is difficult to read because it is so technical. With Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom, Heidi Riggenbach presents a comprehensive rationale and a sound procedure for integrating basic discourse analysis techniques into a language classroom in an eminently readable form.

The book is divided into two parts, overview and activities. In the overview (the first two chapters), this discourse analysis approach is situated in the literature. In the activities section (the second two chapters), examples and templates of activities which can be done or adapted to language classrooms are given. There are also four appendices and a very good table of contents for general topics.

Each of the four chapters has a short annotated bibliography of suggested readings and a longer bibliography of references. These offer a wealth of reading for those who want to pursue a topic further. Each chapter ends with a series of questions meant for discussion by in-service or pre-service teachers. These questions guide content review and offer opportunities for thoughtful discussion of principles introduced in each chapter.

Chapter 1 relates the development of discourse analysis activities to the four components of communicative competence: sociolinguistic, linguistic, discourse, and strategic competence. Riggenbach then proceeds to link discourse analysis activities to current trends in ESL instruction, from Brown’s (1991) learner motivation, focus on the learner, and content/task-based subject matter themes to the experiential learning/learner as researcher model. She also describes materials design and teachers’ preference parameters, such as student populations, course and syllabus design, and teacher styles. Then she shows how a discourse analysis activity can enhance classrooms as students take on the various roles of discourse analysts and teachers assume the roles of co-researchers and facilitators. One important feature introduced in this chapter and reoccurring throughout the text for each sample activity is a continuum of macro-level structures (e.g., the social milieu influencing language) and micro-level structures (e.g., the linguistic constituents of language). This reminds readers that any specific piece of language can be located on a continuum of linguistic instance affected by social situation. [-1-]

Chapter 2 situates Riggenbach’s classroom approach to discourse analysis firmly in the qualitative tradition and states her belief that use of structured tasks with a focused research question can set up conditions in which “even a novice language researcher can undertake a discourse analysis project” (p. 37). Data collection issues in qualitative research (such as interviewing, structuring and standardization of the interviews) and role relations in interviewing are discussed. Issues dealing with spoken language, such as the “perfect” native speaker, video- and audio-taping, the limitations of observation skills with spoken language, and use of transcripts of spoken language are then discussed competently.

The final section of chapter 2 unveils Riggenbach’s six-step, data-driven approach for conducting discourse analysis activities: predict, plan, collect data, analyze, generate, review. In the first step learners make predictions about the target structure. In the second step they set up a research plan that will lend itself to yielding the target structure. Step three has the learners “observing and/or recording the target structure in its discourse environment” (p. 45). In step four, the learners analyze results and form conclusions. In step five, they discuss the target structure and practice it in an appropriate environment. The final step is a review in which learners summarize their findings and ask if the data conforms to the conclusions from step four. These steps can then be written out in four- to six-page chapters. This is an excellent activity template that will help language learners use authentic language in an authentic context.

Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of spoken discourse and conversation in particular and describes how researchers and language educators have analyzed them, both at a micro and macro level. In this chapter the activities are more at an oral skill, macro level. Suggestions for developing original activities are then discussed. The roles which students will assume during the first 14 example discourse analysis projects are given and defined. They are: conversational analysts, sociolinguists, speech event analysts, ethnographers, and stylisticians. Having students take on these roles means that novices are taking over the roles of experts without background experience, a somewhat risky enterprise, and one which would require a lot of teacher facilitating. Also, an activity of the register analysis type (activities 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) must always be seen as only a sliver of what the registers may in fact be. This is because comprehensive register analysis requires a quantitative approach with a massive corpus because register distinctions “are based on differences in the relative distribution of linguistic features, which in turn reflect differences in their communicative purposes and situations” (Biber, 1994, p. 35). The activities themselves are clearly outlined through all six stages. Additionally, the activities are representative and transparent enough to allow for many other similar investigations to be done with only a slight change of discourse focus.

The last chapter of the book follows the previous chapter’s format of a discussion of the skills to be used in discourse analysis projects, suggestions for developing original activities, and sample activities. In this chapter the more traditionally taught skill areas of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are discussed. Each micro skill has four activities exemplifying the application of Riggenbach’s approach. These micro skill discourse analysis techniques are probably the most accessible and adaptable for language teachers and students. [-2-]

The four appendices offer a) a sample handout for one of the activities discussed earlier, b) samples of student data with transcript conventions, c) excerpts from student-made chapters, and d) a sample of the learner/teacher feedback section. These are useful in order to see the accuracy level of the student’s transcription and the depth of the analysis done by the students.

The book has two major omissions. One is the lack of an index for cross-referencing specific topics. This is a surprising omission for a teacher resource book because language teachers often need quick access to specific ideas and activities appropriate for use with an imposed syllabus or textbook.

The other serious omission is the curious absence, from both the annotated suggested readings and the bibliographies, of the large body of work in corpus linguistics from both sides of the Atlantic. Relevant research which should have been included could start with Douglas Biber’s (1994) seminal yet sometimes difficult body of research on register studies and language variation, Tottie’s (1991) complete but highly focused Negation in English Speech and Writing: A Study in Variation, and other research using corpus-based techniques. Another highly relevant, unmentioned work based on corpora is Stenstrom’s (1994) An Introduction to Spoken Interaction. This exclusion of extensive research based on principled corpora is regrettable.

This book is a welcome addition to an in-service or pre-service teacher’s bookshelf. Its major strength is the flexibility of the approach and sample activities, which can be used as part of a course or as a basis for designing a whole course. In conclusion, both the approach and the sample activities are sound for wading in the tide pools of spoken language analysis.


Biber, D. (1994). An analytical framework for register studies. In Biber, D. and Finegan, E. (Eds.). Sociolinguistic perspectives on register (pp. 31-56). New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, H. D. (1991). TESOL at twenty-five: What are the issues? TESOL Quarterly, 25, 245-260.

Stenstrom, A.-B. (1994). An introduction to spoken interaction. London: Longman.

Tottie, G. (1991). Negation in English speech and writing: A study in variation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Jim Bame
Utah State University

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