Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Beyond the Sentence

As teachers, and even more so as teachers of a second language, it’s difficult to take ourselves, and thus our students, beyond the concept of the sentence. A habit throughout the ESL world is the act of teaching sentences, as opposed teaching cohesive, coherent, and well-linked writing.

If one looks inside the average curriculum document, learning objectives assigned to writing are often less about writing and more about discreet grammar points. Phrases like, the student will write a sentence using a superlative, or the student will effectively use adverbial clauses in a sentence are commonplace. This is where teachers must charge themselves with the responsibility of going deeper.

Language, in its purest form, is not a series of isolated sentences: it is text. Second language teachers must prioritize the engagement of texts in their students. It is important for all of us to instill within our students the queries of purpose and context. Students must go beyond grammar points and design sentences to fit their purposes and combine them to communicate contextualized meanings. This work takes the act of discourse apart to show both how it is structured and how it services communication.

Beyond The Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis by Scott Thornbury is a book that attempts to guide teachers through all of the above. Starting with an analysis of genus, he goes on to look at how we assemble text. After showing how this affects our work as second language teachers, he provides some practical classroom activities to help students effectively work with texts.
Starting with an examination of genre, Thornbury goes on to examine how people structure written and spoken text. He demonstrates how these insights affect our work as teachers and suggests practical activities that can be used in the classroom to help students work with texts. Below is an extended excerpt from Thornbury's book:

Text, n. A continuous piece of spoken or written language, especially one with a recognizable beginning and ending.
Language is realized, first and foremost, as text. Not as isolated sounds, or words, or sentences, but as whole texts. And users of language have to cope with the texts. They have to make sense of them and they have to produce them.

This is as true for second language users as it is for first language users. As teachers of second language users, therefore, our top priority is to help our learners engage with texts. 
Going ‘beyond the sentence’ in order to explore the structure and purpose of whole texts falls within the orbit of what is called discourse analysis. Put simply, discourse is he way that language – either spoken or written – is used for communicative effect in a real-world situation. One way of looking at the distinction between discourse and text is to think of discourse as the process and the text as the product.

This book aims to address these issues. By the end, you will have a better idea of:

  • What a text is and what its characteristic features are
  • How to categorize and describe texts, e.g. according to genre, function, organization and style
  • How to find, select and adapt texts
  • How to exploit texts for language teaching skills and development purposes
  • How to unpack the hidden messages of texts How to use literary texts in the classroom
  • How to evaluate and use learners’ texts

Beyond the Sentence is well worth reading, easy to move through, and filled with many practical exercises that will surely help our students.

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