Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom Volume 2: Genres of Writing

September 2004 — Volume 8, Number 2

Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom Volume 2: Genres of Writing

Ann Wennerstrom (2003)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. iii-iv + 193
ISBN: 0-472-08919-6

Teaching the skills of discourse analysis offers the possibilities of students developing analytical skills that will help them understand and complete class assignments while providing skills that will transfer to other classes and settings. In presenting the theoretical background and practical activities to implement such an approach, Ann Wennerstrom provides the necessary fundamentals for teachers to adopt or adapt this approach. She guides her readers through the steps to illustrate how the approach works. The ultimate goal is to enable second language writers to develop their analytical skills enabling them to use their previous language knowledge to learn the language and language uses they will need to write English effectively.

Wennerstrom establishes the basis for this approach by reviewing the theoretical background for genre and discourse analysis in Part 1, Theoretical Background, which comprises Chapter 1, Discourse Analysis and Second Language Writing; Chapter 2, Genres of Writing; and Chapter 3, The Writing Class. Part 2 provides practical guidance for the implementation of this analytical approach with two general categories of writing. Chapter 4 deals with Writing in Everyday Life, and Chapter 5 treats Academic Writing.

Chapter 1 establishes the essential vocabulary and rationale for using a discourse analytical approach in second language writing classes for high intermediate and advanced students. Analyzing discourse, defined as “authentic language as it occurs in context” (p. 3), will enable students to adjust to the different demands of language use they will face to function and succeed in different situations. Discourse analysis combines several dimension of language use include the lexical, grammatical, rhetorical, social and cultural contexts as it examines naturally occurring language within the context of use. Consequently, discourse analysis can give students a means to understand cultural differences in constructing communication while identifying the language and structures used.

In Chapter 2, The Genres of Writing, Wennerstrom presents two documents, a recipe and a formal letter. These serve to introduce elements of genre such as structure and vocabulary that distinguish genres. With this foundation laid, she proceeds to elaborate the importance of genre in society, education, and in ESL Writing. Genre’s role in society involves shaping linguistic messages to achieve communicative purposes. Therefore, using genres in education and more specifically in ESL writing serves to enable students to learn how to structure their discourse according to the patterns used in different communicative settings and for different communicative purposes. [-1-]

Having discussed genre theory and discourse analysis and argued for the importance of using this approach for education, the author concludes the argument in Chapter 3, The Writing Class. In this chapter, emphasis shifts from why to how to. The chapter contains sections devoted to implementing a discourse analysis approach, organizing effective writing groups, supporting the learning process, the final product, and creating and adapting materials.

The discourse analysis approach has teachers play a supporting role for the students who take on the roles of language researchers. Students work in teams where possible during the process of discovery, consolidation, and production. The activities are structured in seven steps: initial discussion, data collection, discourse analysis, project design, drafting, reviewing, and revision. The chapter unfolds the seven activities in more detail where the author stresses the importance of not simplifying materials, the use of several discourse analysis activities, the writing of several drafts, and the shifting of analytical focus with each revision. In organizing effective writing groups, the author provides several points for making the groups work including learner training and distributing the drafts in advance. The learning process gains support through different activities that include field trips, guest speakers, surveys, vocabulary logs, corpus searches, and other languages skills where the author provides suggestions for using the grammar that arises from the different genre. The final product can take the shape through student editing in compiling portfolios or in publication which produce the materials for assessment. The final section of the chapter spells out how the material can be found and how the students can create original materials.

Part 2 provides the specifics for the theoretical framework in part one. It is divided into the two sections: writing for everyday life and academic writing.

Chapter 4, Writing in Everyday Life, presents activities for students in private or community based ESL programs. The activities reflect a community orientation and can be adjusted for different student groups. The chapter details five assignments: informational brochures, formal letters, recipes, photo documentaries, and children’s stories. Each writing assignment is described in detail following the seven steps previously detailed along with a corpus search. The activities include grammar points specific to the genre as with subject-verb agreement and present tense use in writing photo captions. Several practical adaptations are provided and suggestions for adapting the activities or omitting them for students who might find some analyses difficult.

In Academic Writing, the final chapter, the author demonstrates how to use five genres for discourse analyses activities. The five genres with major assignments are: college application essays, class syllabi, email requests, descriptions of graphs, and research abstracts. The author notes that similar activities could be done with many other genres student will encounter such as exams, tests, lab reports, and essays. Each assignment includes three to four discourse analysis activities that explicitly focus attention on lexico-grammatical features of the texts. One genre is included for consciousness raising, class syllabi, while the others result in a product either in a template collection or an accomplished project, a research abstract. Again, the author provides many practical adaptations for teachers thinking of using or adapting the activities. This chapter concludes the book. [-2-]

The book contains a clearly written theoretical overview that logically precedes the practical activities. The theoretical presentation includes discussion questions along with a very informative annotated bibliography which gives splendid guidance for further reading because she describes each source incisively for the target audience. Following a consistent plan, the practical chapters describe clearly the procedures used and many useful suggestions for locating materials and making full use of them. In detailing how to make full use of the materials, the writer guides us through pragmatic, semantic, and grammatical elements of the many genres while pinpointing features specific to these genres.

The guidelines for the activities show a respect for teachers. Teachers are encouraged to use of adjust the activities to fit their students. The activities themselves are described in details that enable a teacher to picture how the activity can be done with suggestions for adjustment. Some of the suggested charts, grammar activities tied to the genre and peer editing activities appear well thought out. The activities fit logically and clearly within the discourse analysis framework presented at the beginning of the book. Thus the book achieves a nice wedding of theoretical and practical.

While these strengths make it attractive, the book seems to leave out addressing the more mainstream concerns of ESL writing classes. I think few, if any, of the genres suggested fit into the curricula of many ESL programs. The first three academic genres, college application essays, class syllabi, and email requests, seem more appropriate to study skill classes. Admittedly, the application essay has elements of a traditional assignment. If a teacher doesn’t have graduate students, for the research abstract genre, the book has little direct application for the writing teacher in many ESL programs. This is not to say that they cannot adapt the activities included as suggested. Instead, it makes the book less immediately useful for many teachers in those settings. A key element in discourse analysis is the use of corpus searches which Wennerstrom promotes through the use of the COBUILD demonstration program, which at this writing, through no fault of the author, is currently unavailable although the website page states that they are working on making the service available again. Finally, for such an otherwise well-written book, I was surprised the book did not have a concluding chapter.

I am not sure about the audience for the book because it doesn’t really have the heft to be the text for an ESL writing class or a teacher training class. It would not work well for a methodology class though it might work in an ESL writing methodology class as a supplemental textbook. Teachers in private programs might find it useful especially for adult or community classes, but teachers in academically focused classes might not find enough of the kinds of writing their students actually do.

While I have some reservations about the book, I found myself thinking about and making notes on how to adapt or use activities from the book and look forward to trying them out. For someone looking for a quick and understandable introduction to discourse analysis for writing, the first three chapters serve very well, and the annotated bibliographies at the end of the chapters suggest further possibilities for the reader who desires to go further. The experienced teacher will find many useful ideas to expand their teaching repertoire. The novice teacher will find good suggestions for structuring activities for maximum student involvement. The teacher trainer will not find this book a stand-alone text but a useful resource for expanding upon theory. Clearly, Wennerstrom gave a great deal of thought to the book and it comes through in the clear writing and well-structured chapters and activities.

John Graney
Santa Fe Community College

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