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Discourse Analysis in the Classroom: Working with Student-Generated Texts

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Abstract

This paper looks at project using real-life language data collected by learners themselves. Tape recorders were used by students to record conversations, and these texts were worked with in a variety of ways in and out of the classroom. The procedure used was based on one originally suggested by Clennell (1997: 118, 1999: 85-87). The fact that the texts were generated by students themselves gave them an intrinsic interest, and analysing them became a 'communicatively real' activity. Students were in control of the texts at every stage, from collection to analysis, giving them a strong sense of identification with the task. The analysis consisted of identifying possible communication breakdowns and the reasons for them; identifying differences between what students heard on their tapes and what the teacher heard, leading to individualised improvement plans; and investigation of alternative ways of representing similar meanings through comparison of student output with native speaker output.
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Discourse Analysis in the Classroom:
Working with Student-Generated Texts
Michael Carroll
Kyoto University of Education, Japan
Abstract
This paper looks at project using real-life language data collected by learners themselves. Tape record-
ers were used by students to record conversations, and these texts were worked with in a variety of ways in and
out of the classroom. The procedure used was based on one originally suggested by Clennell (1997: 118, 1999:
85-87). The fact that the texts were generated by students themselves gave them an intrinsic interest, and
analysing them became a ‘communicatively real’ activity. Students were in control of the texts at every stage,
from collection to analysis, giving them a strong sense of identification with the task. The analysis consisted of
identifying possible communication breakdowns and the reasons for them; identifying differences between what
students heard on their tapes and what the teacher heard, leading to individualised improvement plans; and
investigation of alternative ways of representing similar meanings through comparison of student output with
native speaker output.
Introduction
The continuing shift in language teaching from the notion of the teacher as imparter of knowledge to that of
teachers and learners collaborating in the investigation of their subject and the development of skills, (Hirvela,
1999; Wilhelm 1999, Carroll 2000, 1994b) has led to the search for materials derived in some way from learner
interests (Nunan 1988: 62; Carroll 1994a, p. 137). Leech points out that one source of data for this kind of ‘discov-
ery learning’ is computer corpora (Leech 1997, p. 3). Others are collections of tape-recordings with their transcrip-
tions such as Carter and McCarthy (1997). Other researchers, most notably Suzanne Eggins (1997, p. 315) and
Heidi Riggenbach (1999. p. 45)have further advocated the use of learners own recorded texts for intensive analysis.
Carter and McCarthy (1997, p. 7) note the difficulties of collecting natural spoken language data, and the
resultant emphasis on ‘large quantities of broadcast talk [which] can be collected easily [ … ] and similarly [ … ]
lectures, discussions, meetings in formal settings or speakers narrating or reporting straight into a microphone.’
Nevertheless, it is precisely the more difficult to collect, conversational data that is most interesting and has the
greatest potential as classroom material. Moreover, even the more easily collectible natural data is in fact not so
easily encountered by EFL students.
Natural conversation is of course not easy for language learners to listen to, or to make sense of. Neverthe-
less, there are good reasons for making the attempt. By looking at how language is actually used students may be
better able to connect what they learn in the classroom with what they hear, or would hear, in real communication
situations.
One way of doing this is to use published collections of such authentic speech, such as Carter and McCarthy’s
‘Exploring Spoken English’ (1997). This collection contains recorded conversations across a variety of genres,
unscripted and unrehearsed. By listening to the conversations, and following the transcripts and explanations
students can come to be aware of features of English as used by proficient speakers that they may never before have
considered. For example repetition, grammatical ‘mistakes’, unfinished ‘sentences’, and finishing of others’ utter-
ances are all evident in the tape-recorded conversations.
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However, such materials have some problems. First, of course, they are difficult to listen to, particularly for
students used to the artificially slow pace of textbook materials, and indeed many teachers’ speech. This problem
is well addressed, in Carter and McCarthy, by the provision of transcripts and by detailed focus on short stretches
of the texts.
A more important drawback, though, is that like all textbook materials the conversations are inevitably
decontextualised. That is, they are taken out of the time and place in which they took place and brought into the
classroom as specimens for study. The observers (the students) have no obvious connection with the people and
events recorded.
Asking students themselves to collect the language data both renders it less difficult to hear and contextualises
it. When the recording is brought into the classroom some of its context comes with it, in the form of the person
who recorded it. If the student is also a participant in the conversation then it is even more context-embedded, even
as a subject of classroom study.
The Students
Twenty five 2nd year students in a national university in Japan took part in the project. 20 were English
majors, and 5 were majoring in other subjects. Four students had spent a year or more in an American or Australian
high school. All of the students were familiar with journal writing and 14 had previously done some simple
transcription.
The Activity
The procedure is quite simple. (Clennell 1997, p. 110; 1999, pp. 85-87) To begin with, examples of tape-
recordings and transcripts are analysed in class. Though difficult, the Carter and McCarthy book is useful for this.
Once the procedure has been done once, though, previous students’ tapes and transcripts are more accessible. The
analysis can look at whatever features the teacher would like to focus on, but may include differences between
learner-talk and proficient speaker-talk, phrasing and pausing, non-standard expressions, mis-hearings, grammati-
cal issues and so on. Students are then asked to make a similar tape-recording, transcript and analysis.
Modeling
Students listened to a recorded conversation, and then listened again with the help of a transcript. They then
discussed, with the help of the teacher, features of the conversation (for example unfinished sentences,• eerrors’,
difficult to hear items and so on. Following this they tape-recorded their own conversation with a classmate,
transcribed some of it in class, and discussed the transcription process and communication issues arising out of the
transcriptions. Topics were given by the teacher: eg. a funny story; should students have part-time jobs?; my
favourite … . The questions for discussion included following:
Were there any misunderstandings?
What would you do differently next time?
What was interesting about the tape and transcript?
Doing
Students took a tape recorder and recorded a conversation in which they themselves took part (with a person
who uses English easily, a native speaker or highly proficient speaker). They then listened to the tape recording and
identified communication or miscommunication issues. They transcribed the part of the conversation just before
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and just after the issue and commented on the transcription. They were instructed to transcribe only what they
could actually hear on the tape, not to summarise what they had intended to say, and not to ‘correct’ any errors.
They were asked to transcribe no more than 30 seconds of conversation.
Reflecting and Learning
After the teacher had listened to the tape and added to or commented on the transcription, students wrote a
report on what they had found from doing the recording and transcribing task, and presented their transcript and
report to the rest of the class.
Findings and Discussion
The data referred to in the following comes from students’ reports on the activity, from students’ own tran-
scripts, and from the teacher’s re-assessment of the latter where there were discrepancies.
The fundamental aim of this sort of exercise is to stimulate students’ awareness, or conciousness as it is
referred to by James (1998, p. 260), of their own use of language and that of others with whom they interact. Some
students are more able than others to do this with skill from the beginning, and some aspects of communication are
more easily identified than others. There are therefore two levels of learning. The first consists of those items
noticed by students themselves, in their reports on the interactions. These learnings are important. Since they
come from students themselves they are likely to be remembered. The second level of learning comes from those
aspects of the communication pointed out by the teacher. These learnings are also valuable since they constitute
things that the students had not noticed by themselves, but which they can see clearly in the transcripts, and hear
clearly on the tapes, once they are made aware of them.
Student-Initiated Observations
Students evaluated their own communication patterns, and some linked these evaluations with the specific
items they had covered in the course textbook.
When I asked Chieko, ‘You have your band, don’t you?’ I knew she has her band so I lower the tone in the
end. I’ve been thinking that this system of “tag question” is interesting. This time I noticed that there is the same
system of that in Japanese. I’ve thought English which have this system is special but I know it’s natural.’
In this conversation I noticed a lot. The difference of speaking without any grammatical mistakes, but I also
noticed that having a conversation is interesting and we can know grammar that we don’t notice by only myself.
We care less about grammar in speaking than writing except when we want to emphasise what we want or we
think the companions might misunderstand the meaning.
In this conversation we use present simple. We learned this from the textbook, page 11. It’s a very simple
form. So we had no mistake in grammar.
Some students pointed out English-Japanese translation issues, becoming aware in a practical, concrete way
of the connection between their knowledge of English and their own way of using it.
First of all, on the third line, when she said “No”, I thought she disagreed with us, that is, she thought
Japanese wear kimono many times. But from the next sentence, I found that she agreed with me. There is a
difference in the use of “yes”, or “no” for responding between English and Japanese, so I think I misunderstood at
that time.
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Some students became aware of stylistic differences in speech patterns among proficient speakers of English
He talks like a teacher!
Other students noticed communication strategies that proficient speakers used, and compared them with
their own strategies. (See also Eaves-Walton, 1999, p. 8)
I noticed Ingrid’s colloquial expressions. For example ‘’I’m just wondering”, “You know” and “I mean”. I
never use these phrases, but I want to.
Also I noticed the great role of nodding. Nodding shows understanding or agreement to a speaker as well as
encouraging him/her to keep talking. And the words “um” and “ah” give speaker a time to think about what to say
next.
Teacher Interpretations
A wealth of linguistic behaviour was evident in the tapes and transcripts of just this small group.
Strategies Proficient Speakers Use to Facilitate Communication: Filling in gaps and guessing meaning
S: Do you remember my house? And in front of my house, there are many houses?
J: Yes, yeah
S: There wasn’t a house in front of our house
J: When you bought it?
N: I don’t have enough time to … to
K: time to … time to … time to enjoy yourself?
N: Yes, yes!
N: It is the celebration for my …twen … twenty … I’m going …
W: Oh! Twentieth birthday?
Simplifying their English
W: Oh, wow … [laughter] please send me a photo … [laughter] … I would like to see!
Changing sentence in mid-construction, and self-correcting
S: They wants … City wants them to move
J: so … they had them … (so) [they] bought … [they] built more houses for the people to live in?
N2: they gonna … he gonna be a rich …
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Interrupting the topic and then returning to it
S: They wants … City wants them to move … because they’re gonna … build a road, big road, and … bridge,
to the bridge
J: uh-huh. Look
S: Oh, beautiful
J: so … they had them … (so) [they] bought … [they] built more houses for the people to live in?
Repeating the whole phrase after a pause, to preserve the integrity of the phrase
Compare N: No, but now Japanese people don’t … … … wear … … … kimono so much
With W: ‘To the … to the shrine’
The student pauses between words, and then continues the utterance, while the more proficient speaker, in
this case a native-speaker of English, repeats the beginning of the phrase, with it’s conclusion, to make comprehen-
sion easier.
On the other hand, some students also used this strategy.
N2: they gonna … he gonna be a rich …
M: the man who doesn’t have a … who doesn’t have a knowledge
Learner Behaviors
Some students fail to hear grammatical items which have a low priority in their current interlanguage, and
‘hear’ others which are not actually there, perhaps because their current interlanguage grammar leads them to
expect them
J: so … they had them … (so) [they] bought … [they] built more houses for the people to live in?
(square brackets indicate items the teacher, but not the student heard on the tape; round brackets indicate
items the student but not the teacher ‘heard’ on the tape)
Something (that) I can say > Some thing[s] I can say
Some students hear correctly but cannot reconcile the sound with any meaning .
M: I mean, I’m just wondering sometimes … Is it a demand from .. the society (but) [that] … you have to keep
it <now OK?>
The student correctly heard the word ‘now’, but didn’t understand how it fitted into the utterance as a whole.
Some students fail to hear but fill in grammatically necessary items.
M: yeah, yeah, exactly
S: but the …
M: exact{ly} …exactly, yeah
(Curled brackets {} indicate items the teacher heard and the student was unable to hear but included in the
transcript because she judged them grammatically necessary.)
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Some students mis-hear, but make sense of their mis-hearing
M: But sometimes, you know, you … I mean it’s nothing, I mean it’s the same in (the moment) [Denmark],
those trends, everybody is following.
Some students demonstrated great skill in managing difficult conversations
O: Well, what clearly do you, what point do you want to make? When you make (the) [a] cultural point, you
have to be clear what is your point.
O: well, the question is a little too big …I can’t because they’re all different …
F: OK. So … then … what do YOU think about it?
Some students used effective communicative strategies for overcoming grammatical deficiencies, by re-
formulating utterances in simpler ways:
I hear that you go abroad near future. When will you go abroad?
Some transcripts and tapes demonstrated that turns can overlap because of politeness rather than rudeness
S: Before … they have to … cut their hairs like above … the eyebrow, like that, so … we … we’re feeling
about … against it …
M: yeah, yeah, exactly
S: but the …
M: exact{ly} …exactly, yeah
S … because … I don’t know …
M: But sometimes, you know, you … I mean it’s nothing, I mean it’s the same in (the moment) [Denmark],
those trends, everybody is following.
Conclusion
The data yielded by this activity, collected by the learners themselves, and analysed by learners and teacher
together, reveals an extraordinary richness. It is not difficult to identify numerous facets of real life language use,
often at odds with the simplified language typically presented in textbooks, and often hidden from awareness until
subjected to the kind of close analysis involved in transcription. In addition the process of data collection, carried
out and controlled by the learners themselves, renders the texts eminently suitable for classroom use, since it
contains an intrinsic interest by virtue of being deeply contextualised for each individual student. Small-scale as
this study is, it may point the way to further more systematic investigation of the uses to which student-generated
texts might be put.
References
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some ‘culture bumps’. Tokyo: Proceedings, International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA99) Con-
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Carroll, M. (1994a). Teacher-Learner negotiation in continuing curriculum development: A case study. In Jill
Burton,. CALUSA research on language and learning series Volume 1: Perspectives on the classroom pp
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Carroll, M. (1994b). Journal writing as a learning and research tool in the adult ESL classroom. TESOL Journal,
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Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (1997). Exploring spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Eaves-Walton, F. (1999). Native speakers get it wrong! English teaching professional, 12, 6-7.
Eggins, S. and Slade, D. (1997). Exploring casual conversation. London: Cassell.
Hirvela, A. (1999). Collaborative writing instruction and communities of readers and writers. TESOL Journal,
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