Facilitating Discourse Construction in Second Language

I feel sad and even annoyed when I hear teachers and parents complaining about the poor performance standards of students in English. ‘This is unfair,’ I would say to myself.  ‘Have we ever asked those kids to communicate their ideas?’ No. All what we have done is teach them bits and fragments of English in terms of discrete sounds, words and sentences. When we ask them a question we expect them to reproduce the information that has been given to them.  We don’t want them to come out with their ideas; nor do we encourage them to ask us questions, as both involve risk, the risk of making errors. Probably we have taught them hundreds of questions and answers and also have made them do several vocabulary and grammar exercises. We even go to the extent of teaching them nuances of pronunciation. By definition none of these activities provide space for communication, though we may claim that we are following communicative language teaching. I feel annoyed because this is a collective treachery inflicted on the learners as well as the teachers.

As teachers most of us are too obsessed with teaching lessons from the textbook. We don’t add anything to them and we don’t delete anything from them. This is by and large our notion of ‘covering the syllabus.’ At the end of the show we take pride in claiming cent percentage results without worrying much whether we have been helping them to learn English or learn about English.

So for a short while, let us not worry about teaching from the textbook. Instead, we will go for a series of activities that can make the learners independent users of English. Since language exists as discourses such as conversations, narratives, descriptions and so on, our objective is to help the learners construct these both orally and in writing. This in turn necessitates a pedagogy that will facilitate language production. This is where discourse oriented pedagogy1 comes in which intuitively translates the idea that the linguistic experience the learner gets both at the input and the output levels should be in terms of discourses.

How do we begin?

To begin with, we can have a series of activities which I would like to call as ‘bridging the gap activities’. The objective is to instil confidence in the learners by helping them construct a few primary discourses such as descriptions, conversations and narratives. This is done through interaction based on a theme picture. Let us see the classroom process for this.

Picture Interaction for producing a description in the whole class (Grades 3 to 8)

  • Display the chart containing the picture (e.g., a railway platform) ensuring its visibility to all in the class.
  • Put children in small groups (of three or four).
  • Draw a margin on the blackboard and ask questions to elicit the names of the things /people /animals they see in the picture (E.g., platform, ticket counter, etc.). Each group can say one idea at a time. Try to involve all the children in the process.
  • Now elicit a few action words (such as walking, standing, eating, etc. And write these words on the right side margin.
  • Now go on asking questions to elicit the actions done by the people animals, etc. as depicted in the picture.
  1. What are the people doing in this picture?
  2. What is the woman near the train doing?
  3. What is the woman at the counter doing?
  4. Who do you see on the platform?
  5. Where is the train?
  6. What is this place?

The teacher is not supposed to supply any ideas. Instead, she may ask supporting questions and an even interact with the learners using mother tongue to elicit ideas. Children need sufficient time to come out with their own ideas. The process continues:

  • Elicit eight to ten ideas in this manner through negotiation with the whole class. If students are saying the idea in mother tongue put it in English with the help of the other learners.
  • All the sentences may be written down on the board/ chart.
  • Call the groups to the front of the class and ask them to read the sentences. Each team may read only one sentence at a time. Involve all children in the reading process.
  • When the reading is over, interact with them in the following manner:
  1. These sentences are related to the picture. What is the picture about?
  2. What name do you want to give to this picture?
  • Elicit their ideas and write the title on top of the blackboard.
  • Let them re-sequence the sentences giving a number to each sentence.
  • Ask the children to write down all the sentences in their notebook without writing the number. They have to write down the title and the date.

Picture Interaction for producing a description in the groups

Another picture (say, the picture of a bus stand) can be used for interaction.

  • Ask them to observe the picture carefully. A few questions may be asked to elicit certain words related to the names of things and the actions (if you think they may not know them) and write these words on blackboard.
  • Let them sit in groups and say similar sentences related to the things they see in it and the actions of the characters depicted in it. You may supply them with specific vocabulary they may ask for.
  • Let each group present what they have written in their notebooks.  They can write the same on a chart that can be displayed before the whole class
  • Present your version of the targeted discourse. This also is to be displayed before the whole class.
  • Ask them to read this and identify ideas which they have not written.
  • Edit one of the group products by negotiating with the learners to address the errors in it.

Editing is not for teaching grammar explicitly. It is just to know how they make use of their intuitive knowledge of language. Each sentence is to be taken up for editing. Questions such the following will be useful:

Syntactic editing

Are there any missing words in this sentence?

Are there any excess words?

Is the sequence of words all right?

Morphological editing

Is the word form alright? Do you want to make any change in it? This will take care of errors related to tenses, aspects, affixation, and PNG agreement markers. Only after this the errors related to writing conventions (such as punctuations, spelling, capitalization, etc.) are to be addressed.

There are a few linguistic elements that affect both syntax and morphology. Examples are the Passive (be- en), the Perfective (have – en) and the Progressive (be –ing), which have disjoint morphemes. We can take up the first component in these morphemes for syntactic editing and treat the other component (which is a bound morpheme) under morphological editing, if necessary.

  • Let each group rewrite their description including ideas from the teacher’s version and from the other group products.

Picture Interaction for producing a description – individual work

  • Let each child select any picture (either in the book or elsewhere) and write a description individually
  • Ask them to refine their work with the help of suggestions from others.

You may sit in groups. Take turns and read out what you have written to others. Make necessary changes in your writing with the help of others.

Interaction based on the picture for producing a conversation

  • Show Picture I once again for eliciting the conversation between any two characters and write the exchange on the board. For this create the context as suggested below:

What is the woman at the ticket counter doing?

What is the woman saying to the man?

What is the man saying to the woman?

  • Elicit a few exchanges and write them on the blackboard maintaining the format of conversations.

Woman and clerk

Woman: Ticket, please!

Clerk: Where do you want to go?

Woman: To Hyderabad.

Clerk: How many tickets?

Woman: Just one.

  • Ask a few pairs to read the conversation aloud. Let all of them write it in the notebook
  • Ask them to observe the picture closely. Interact with them in the following manner:

Developing a Conversation in Groups

  • You may interact with the learners as suggested below:

A few other pairs in the picture are also talking. Can you identify them? (E.g. the man at the tea shop; the man at the book shop etc.)

  • Elicit the names and write them on the board:

Now select any pair and write the conversation between the two persons in groups.

  • Let the groups present their conversations.
  • Present the teacher’s version and edit the products.

Developing Stories / Narratives

  • Use Picture 1 for the whole class activity to help them write a story / narrative.
  • Ask children to think on what is happening in the picture, what would have happened before that and what would happen next. You may ask questions like the following for interaction.

In the picture you see the woman buying tickets.

Where was she before this?

What was she doing then?

Who were the others with her?

What were they doing?

What were they saying / thinking?

What happened after that?

In this manner a series of events and dialogues can be elicited and written on the blackboard which will make the text of the narrative.

  • Read the narrative with voice modulation.

As was done with the whole class description, children have to read the narrative, and write it down in their notebooks.

The next step is to ask children to work in groups so that they can develop a narrative based on another context as suggested in Picture 1 (e.g. the man buying a book from the bookstall). Follow the process of giving feedback, editing, presentation of the teacher’s version and refining the group work with the help of the new input. Once this stage is over, children can individually develop more narratives based on other contexts they get from the picture or any other picture.

The activities suggested above make use of interaction as a pedagogical tool. Interaction does not mean asking questions and eliciting ideas from the learners. The teacher has to build up on the responses so that dialoguing takes place in the classroom. A few linguistic devices may be used for dialoguing with the students. These include,

  • Reporting the responses of the students (Maya says that the woman is buying tickets.)
  • Seeking agreement (Do you agree with Maya?)
  • Asking for opinion (Does anyone have any other idea?)
  • Seeking confirmation (She is coming from home, isn’t she?)
  • Asking for explanation (Why is she going to Vizag?)

Once the learners gain confidence in producing language it will be easier for us to lead them through the reading passages. At the pre-reading stage a picture can be used as a trigger to develop theme-related constructs in their minds and to help them make predictions on what they are going to read. Reading is to be attempted individually, which can be followed by collaborative reading where the learners can share what they understood, what they were not able to understand and the parts of the text they like the most. The teacher can supply necessary information to address any residual issues at the end of collaborative reading. This can be followed by extrapolating the text with the help of a few analytical questions. The reading experience can culminate in the production of some discourse which is to be written individually, refined in groups and edited.

Let us stop transmitting information loaded in the textbooks; instead let us learn the pedagogical craft of asking questions that can help the learners think and develop their own constructs.


1For more information on discourse oriented pedagogy refer to Kerela Curriculum Framework 2007 at http://www.ssamis.com/web/downloads/KCF%202007.pdf


K.N. Anandan

K.N.Anandan is consultant to Telangana State Residential Schools Society, Hyderabad. He conceived Discourse Oriented Pedagogy for teaching English for Kerala and Telangana as part of revising the curricula in these states. He has developed various English Language Acquisition programmes under the constructive paradigm. His book Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics won him the Kerala Sahithya Academy Endowment Award in 2006. His second book Tuition to Intuition introduces his vision of second language pedagogy.

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