Discourse and Pragmatics in Language Teaching – 3000 word essay

Discourse and Pragmatics in Language Teaching


Breen describes discourse and pragmatics as a large field with “several overlapping and competing definitions deriving from a range of analytical and theoretical positions” (Breen 2004: 309). Primarily, however, definitions of discourse focus on analyzing text in context, rather than isolated grammatical analysis of sentences. Definitions of pragmatics focus on the study of language in use – utterances by speakers, with all the implications beyond literal semantic meanings this entails. The focus of this study, which is inevitably limited to what is possible within the assigned word count, will be on how discourse and pragmatics can relate to the teaching of vocabulary.

The first section outlines definitions of discourse and pragmatics, considering how they impact on language teaching. This includes Brown and Yule’s distinction between ‘interactional’ and ‘transactional’ functions (Brown & Yule 21983: 1-2), Grice’s ‘co-operative principle’ (Cutting 2003: 36), and McCarthy’s connection of discourse analysis to studies of ideology and power (McCarthy 2007: 54). For the next section, two relevant pieces of ELT vocabulary material have been selected (Appendices 1-4). They are analyzed` and evaluated in relation to how they can develop discourse and pragmatic skills. This section brings in further relevant elements such as coherence and cohesion (Tanskanen 2006: 17). Next, ideas for how the material could be implemented and improved are proposed, and finally a conclusion brings the research together and suggests directions for further study.

1. Explain what you understand to be the principal aspects of discourse and pragmatics, as they impact on language teaching.

Michael McCarthy provides a useful introductory definition of discourse as:

The study of language independently of the notion of the sentence. This usually involves studying longer (spoken and written) texts, but, above all, it involves examining the relationship between a text and the situation in which it occurs. (McCarthy 2007: 48)

He emphasizes here the principal aspect of studying how language is used within a particular context, rather than analyzing it in isolation as a formal structure. Brown and Yule offer a similar starting point, “the analysis of discourse is necessarily the analysis of language in use” (Brown & Yule 1983: 1). Carter takes the definition further to illustrate how discourse analysis is a relatively new approach compared to the dominance of studying “grammar and vocabulary…confined to the more manageable and researchable units such as phonemes and speech segments” (Carter 1997: xiii). Discourse analysis involves the study of both written and spoken texts and although there are overlaps, as McCarthy has argued, “it is widely agreed that there is no simple, single difference between speech and writing” (McCarthy 2007: 49), there are features that are more common in each mode, as Brown and Yule suggest, “it is clear that spoken and written language make somewhat different demands on language-producers” (Brown & Yule 1983: 4). They give the example of facial expressions, which can be part of a discourse analysis of speech (Brown & Yule 1983: 4).

Definitions of pragmatics also emphasize use and context. Kasper and Rose draw on Crystal to define it primarily as “language from the point of view of users, especially of the choices they make…using language in social interaction” (Crystal 1997, cited in Kasper & Rose 2001: 2). While discourse analysis can be summarized as the study of language in use, pragmatics can be summarized as the study of the meaning of utterances. It is important here to make a distinction between ‘utterances’ as “sequences of words written or spoken in specific contexts” (McCarthy 2007: 48) and ‘sentences’ as “sequences of words, conforming, or not to the rules of grammar” (McCarthy 2007: 48).

For example, in the exchange:

A: There’s a lot of washing up to be done.
B: I’m watching TV

An analysis of the sentences purely syntactically and formally may well focus on how they are well-formed, but would completely miss the social context of the conversation. An analysis of the utterances based on discourse analysis and pragmatics would focus on how language is used in context. In this case, A’s statement in the passive voice, is intended as, or at least interpreted as, a request, ‘will you please do some washing up?’ or a command ‘do the washing up!’ This is done without using interrogatives or imperatives, but instead based on shared social assumptions of politeness and indirectness in communication. B’s response is similarly indirect, using a simple statement to function, presumably, as a refusal, ‘no!’ and a reason for this.

Brown and Yule define the ‘interactional’ function of language as that “involved in expressing social relations and personal attitudes” (Brown & Yule 1983:1), and a focus on this function here could include an analysis of how language is used to negotiate a domestic relationship. This is defined against the ‘transactional’ function, “used to convey factual or propositional information” (Brown & Yule 1983: 2). However, as they also point out (Brown & Yule 1983: 1), the functions are usually mixed up in everyday discourse. In this case, language is used transactionally – both statements communicate information, but also have implications as interaction.

The exchange could also be analyzed according to Grice’s maxims of the ‘co-operative principle’, which are outlined by Cutting as quantity, quality, relevance and manner. She explains:

Grice said that hearer’s assume that speakers observe the co-operative principle, and that is knowledge of the four maxims that allows hearers to draw inferences about the speakers’ intentions and implied meaning. (Cutting 2003: 36)

In this case, B, in Grice’s terms (see Cutting 2003: 39), flouts (rather than violates) the maxim of relevance. B’s response is based on understanding that A will know what is implied, even though, literally, it seems an irrelevant response.

This example reveals the importance of discourse and pragmatics in language teaching. While the pragmatic context is clear to both speakers, it may not be to language learners, who, even if they can completely understand the formal structure of the sentences, need to also understand them as utterances, functioning in specific ways in a specific social context. The importance of the social function of language has been acknowledged in the development of communicative teaching resources, raising questions outlined by McCarthy, “How does communication actually take place? Knowledge of sentences may not be enough to cover the wide range of resources speakers and writers make use of in creating and receiving real messages” (McCarthy 2007: 53). Richards and Rodgers have argued that discourse analysis is an important part of the development of communicative language teaching methodologies (Richards & Rodgers 2007: 161). Others have used it as a way of analyzing classroom interactions such as the routines and cultures of social interchange (Breen 2004: 310). Breen also points out how “ideas of social theorists such as Foucault (1972 and 1984) and Bourdieu (1991) have led to an extension of [discourse analysis] to refer to how human knowledge and capabilities of everyday practice are themselves constructed and sustained through discourse” (Breen 2004: 310). McCarthy also highlights how discourse analysis can be used in relation to studies of ideology, “language is never neutral but bound up with particular ways of seeing the world” (McCarthy 2007: 54). Critical Discourse Analysis, or CDA, focuses on illuminating and highlighting the ideology of text producers (McCarthy 2007: 54), while others have been critical of this approach, because of its “lack of rigour” for example (McCarthy 2007: 55).

A focus on discourse and pragmatics as language in use then, is a vital element of language teaching and learning, developing constantly in different ways. The focus of this study will be how it can be developed in relation to the study of vocabulary in the classroom, and I will now go on to discuss some examples of ELT material.

2. Select two pieces of published ELT material which both focus on one of the following areas.

I have chosen the area of Vocabulary and included the material as Appendices.

3. Evaluate the pieces of material you have chosen, with particular regard to the extent to which they are likely to develop discourse and pragmatic skills

Pragmatics is relevant to the learning of vocabulary as it is not only the literal meaning of words that must be learnt, but also the way the words are used in context, including for example idiomatic uses, or varying forms of politeness. Appendix 1 shows a page of exercises which are used primarily to develop discourse and pragmatic skills. Exercise 6 (Appendix 1) teaches collocation of word pairs. ‘Sick and tired’ is used in idiomatic English for example, rather than ‘tired and sick’. As this is a pragmatic, rather than grammatical, rule, then the exercise is effective in teaching what McCarthy defines as aspects of discourse that will not be transferred from the first language so needs to be specifically focused on in classroom activities (McCarthy 2007: 53).

The exercise also suggests a difference between coherence and cohesion, which is a key debate in discourse studies. As Taskanen defines it:

Cohesion refers to the grammatical and lexical elements on the surface of a text which can form connections between parts of text. Coherence, on the other hand, resides not in the text, but is rather the outcome of a dialogue between the text and its listener or reader. (Tanskanen 2006: 7)

Brown and Yule identify the elements of cohesion under the headings of “lexical relationships, reference, substitution and ellipsis” (Brown & Yule 1983: 192) but also raise the question of whether cohesion is necessary for coherence, arguing that “cohesion cannot guarantee identification as text” (Brown & Yule 1983: 193). Tanskanen is critical of Brown and Yule suggesting that it is “difficult to find data that would show coherence without cohesion” (Tanskanen 2006: 17), yet, as shown in this exercise, it is not hard to find data for the inverse, utterances that are grammatically coherent yet pragmatically incohesive. ‘I’m tired and sick of you’ would be cohesive grammatically yet not coherent in the same way as ‘I’m sick and tired on you’, which relies on extra social shared knowledge, taught effectively by the exercise.

The ‘7 Speaking’ exercise (Appendix 1) teaches, firstly, how there are differences between written and spoken modes, as has been shown by, among others, McCarthy (McCarthy 2007: 49). In this case, the rhythmic aspect of spoken language is emphasized, “when people give a talk, they usually divide what they say into small chunks, with a brief pause between each chunk” (Appendix 1). This immediately develops pragmatic awareness of how language is uttered in a real-life situation, and the exercise teaches (in 7 a. and 7 b.) how to recognize elements such as intonation, pause and stress, and mark them on a written text. Question 7 c. develops this further by allowing the students to put the learnt language features into practice. The emphasis on communication in this exercise suggests a communicational teaching methodology, “teaching on communicative proficiency rather than on mastery of structures” (Richards & Rodgers 2007: 153), where pragmatic skills are vital.

The second example (Appendices 2-4) shows how language studied as discourse, “using context” (Appendix 3) is important for learning vocabulary. The exercise teaches vocabulary specifically by relating it to the context of the text it is taken from, “go back to the story and read each sentence that has a vocabulary word. If you still cannot tell the meaning, look for clues that come in the sentences before and after” (Appendix 3). This shows how vocabulary is taught both at the level of the sentence, but also, beyond the sentence, at the level of discourse. This teaches the ambiguity and context-specificity of meaning. ‘Crew’ for example could have many meanings semantically, but the pirate context is necessary here to understand it as “a group of people who work together on a ship” (Appendix 3). The exercise also specifically teaches synonyms, “words that have the same or almost the same meaning” (Appendix 4). This also suggests the importance of discourse and pragmatics, as different synonyms, while having the same meaning, would express different social attitudes or relationships in texts. To use the synonyms ‘mama’ or ‘mother’ for example would imply the same reference, yet a different level of formality in pragmatic meaning. This exercise reveals how, for example, ‘robber’ and ‘pirate’ have similar meanings, yet would be used to express different attitudes. ‘Pirate’ has associations of glamour and romance, while ‘robber’ has associations of crime and immorality. Here, the ideological aspect of pragmatics is being taught. As argued above, language is never neutral but encodes particular values and attitudes, dependent on social context, and this exercise on synonyms teaches this in an effective way.

4. Reflect on how the materials and practices could be improved on and implemented in the language classroom, with particular regard to developing discourse and pragmatic skills.

Exercise 6 in Appendix 1 is aimed at speakers who already have knowledge of vocabulary and grammatical rules but are still coming to terms with the stylistic features of pragmatic utterances. The exercise is effective in illustrating the collocation of word pairs. It allows students to learn vocabulary in the context of idiomatic discourse rather than in isolation, and it consolidates knowledge through repeated drill-like exercises. On the other hand however, the exercise is also limited. There is limited scope for imagination or creativity on behalf of the students, who just have to fill in the boxes with the right words. There is no opportunity for different students to tailor the exercise to their own needs or level. The teacher’s role is also limited mainly to telling the students if they are right, and there is little opportunity for interaction between the students. While the exercise does teach the importance of language in use, it does not effectively adopt a communicative teaching methodology where, for example, “information sharing, negotiation of meaning, and interaction” is foregrounded (Richards & Rodgers 2007: 165). There is little sense of what Breen and Candlin describe as the “learner as negotiator” (Breen & Candlin 1980: 110). The exercise seems more appropriate for an individual learner than for engaging a diverse class.

Exercise 7 also effectively highlights the pragmatic features of language, but it adopts a slightly different strategy in that it encourages more interaction and speaking. 7 c is ‘task based’ in the sense described by Raptou, “students are forced to negotiate meaning because they must make what they are saying comprehensible to others in order to accomplish the task” (Raptou 2001: 2). In the development of pragmatics and discourse skills, I would argue, more communicational activities such as this should be used, as discourse and pragmatics are, as has been argued throughout, such a vital aspect of communication. The word pair exercise for example could have been replaced with an ‘information gap’ activity, where one student knows the answer and another must find it from them, creating more student interaction, a more engaging environment and the necessity of putting language into action. On the other hand, this raises the issue of the balance between accuracy and fluency, as outlined by Thornbury:

For a long time language teaching operated on the basis that accuracy should precede fluency, and that the only speaking learners were allowed was the oral manipulation of recently taught grammar structures. (Thornbury 2008: 115)

Communicative methodologies challenge this assumption, focusing on “communicational competence” (Richards & Rodgers 2007: 155) over accuracy. It could be argued that this exercise as a whole (Appendix 1) includes a good balance of thorough repetition and more free presentations to enable both accuracy and fluency.

The second example (Appendices 2-4) is aimed at a less advanced learner, who is still coming to terms with learning basic vocabulary. The layout and design style suggest it is also aimed at younger learners. It functions effectively to explicitly teach new vocabulary while communicating an implicit understanding of the necessity of context for understanding meaning pragmatically. It does this in a simple and clear way but is again open to similar criticisms. There is no real opportunity for creativity, imagination or student-centred input in the task. This could be because a certain level of vocabulary knowledge is necessary before more communicative approaches can be adopted. I would suggest adding sections where students could try and think of their own synonyms and more discussion of the different context in which these synonyms would be used. This would help develop pragmatic understanding of elements such as social convention and politeness, as discussed by Cutting (Cutting 2003: 42).

5. Conclusion

It has been argued throughout this project that discourse and pragmatics are vital aspects of language learning. Students must learn not only formal rules of grammar but also pragmatic uses of language, and texts in the context of broader discourses. The initial definition used was ”examining the relationship between a text and the situation in which it occurs” (McCarthy 2007: 48), and it is this relation between text and a broader social context that is important in many different ways. It includes, as has been argued, an analysis of how language is used in everyday utterances, using theories such as Grice’s ‘co-operative principle’ or Brown and Yule’s distinctions between ‘interactional’ and ‘transactional’ functions. Further study could include other ways in which the functions of language have been defined (Brown & Yule 1983: 1), and critiques of Grice’s maxims (Cutting 2003: 41).

The implications of synonyms, beyond literal meaning, was a key factor which emerged from the research into discourse and pragmatics in vocabulary learning specifically. The different associations of ‘robber’ and ‘pirate’ for example, pointed to how discourse analysis can introduce studies of the ideological content of words, even at a very early stage. Differences between, say, ‘man’ and ‘bloke’ could introduce the relations of vocabulary to social conventions, levels of politeness, idiolects and attitudes. The data set here was small, and research could be expanded to include more vocabulary teaching material. Another key factor that emerged was the idiomatic use of vocabulary and, again, much more data could be amassed to analyze teaching methodologies for this. The selected material here was useful in examining how discourse and pragmatics are incorporated into vocabulary learning but the suggestions for improvements made have mainly focused on the incorporation of more communicative approaches, which would offer the potential of more student-centred learning, and more flexible work. A final area, which would be relevant to research further is the discourse and pragmatics of the language teaching classroom itself (Breen 2004), and how this also affects what is learnt.

Word Count = 3078


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.

Brown, G. & Yule, G. (1983) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: CUP.

Breen, M. (2004) ‘Navigating the Discourse: On What is Learned in the Language Classroom’ in English Language Teaching in Its Social Context: A Reader Eds. C. Candlin and N. Mercer. London and New York: Routledge. pp.306-323.

Breen, M. & Candlin, C.N. (1980) ‘The Essentials of a Communicative Curriculum in Language Teaching’ Applied Linguistics 1 (2). pp.89-112.

Carter, R. (1997) Investigating English Discourse: Language, Literacy and Culture. London: Routledge.

Cutting, J (2003) Pragmatics and Discourse: A Resource Book for Students. London. Routledge

Crystal, D. (Ed.) (1997) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. New York. CUP.

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock

_______ (1984) ‘The Order of Discourse’ in Language and Politics. Ed. M. Shapiro. Oxford: Blackwell

McCarthy, M. (2007) ‘Discourse’ in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. 9th Edition. Eds. R.Carter & D. Numan. Cambridge: CUP. pp.48-56.

Raptou, V. (2001) ‘Using Information Gap Activities in the Second Language Classroom’, http://www.caslt.org/Print/gapp.htm. [Accessed 19th Jan 2010].

Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (2007) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: CUP.

Rose, K. & Kasper, G. (2001) Pragmatics in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Tanskanen, S. (2006) Collaborating Toward Coherence: Lexical Cohesion in English Discourse. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Thornbury, S. (2008) How to Teach Speaking. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Watkins, P. (2009) ‘Teaching Language in Use’ lecture notes, unpublished material.

Appendix 1

Appendix 2


Appendix 4