Making the most of Discourse

Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover

Making the most of the text

Before I begin this post I’d just like to say that I am aware of the constraints authors are under when writing coursebooks, and I don’t want to write yet another attack on the poor old coursebook. In fact, this summer I have been using the revised English File Intermediate coursebook on my intensive summer course, and it has proved to be very successful, with motivating work and topics, and, on the whole, well thought out activities, not to mention the online resources, which are excellent and freely available to all. (see the link above). Having said that, however, yes, you knew there was going to be a “but” somewhere, it was brought home to me once more, only too clearly this week that so often texts and discourse are not really exploited in meaningful ways, or at least as much as they could be.

Exploiting the text

I had decided to begin our morning’s work with the song “Our House” orginally by Madness (The video above is nice because it has the lyrics), and had chosen to use the worksheet provided in the Teacher’s book for this song. OK, so far so good, it was an excellent way to lead into a revision of house descriptions which we had been working on earlier in the week and would, I thought, wake us all up as it was 40° C at 8.30 in the morning and we had no air conditioning!

So, for those who don’t know the worksheet it goes like this:

1) Look at the lyrics with a nicely designed gap filler (with helpful prompts) that learners can use as a prediction activity:

Father wears his ………………. best ( a day of the week) etc. There is also a glossary to help with this stage.

2) listen and check

3) Answer general questions about the song such as :

Is the memory of the house positive or negative?

4) match adjectives to the house such as untidy, traditional etc. (as a T/F exercise)

Well, we did this with no trouble at all, and were actually rather bored by it as this type of activity did not make us think particularly hard, nor did it process the very rich language that can be found in this text. If I had limited the work to simply this then the learners would have missed out on an opportunity to look at the text itself in greater detail, and to see “discourse in action” and maybe even, well, why not?.. use it themselves. My students will also have to do an exam (B2 level) in September which includes a grammar/vocabulary component, that is based on a knowledge of discourse, because you simply cannot fill in the gaps in a text if you do not understand how the text works, so it would seem to me, following in the footsteps of all the linguistic researchers such as John Sinclair, or Mike McCarthy and Ron Carter (to name just one or two), that we need to go “Beyond the sentence” in the words of Scott Thornbury, and even “Beyond the worksheet” because if we do not there is a real danger that learners may simply do the exercise, only have a partial understanding of the text at best and not explore anything about the way language is being used here.

A Voyage of Discovery

So, having done the initial work, we then set out on a voyage of discovery to really look at the language and we discovered whole worlds of meaning to dig out of this text:

Cultural Aspects

Expressions such as “his Sunday best” to begin with say so much about cultural habits that it was interesting to discuss together. Why should we only wear our best clothes on Sundays? Is this the same in other countries? What class/type of people would do this?

Discussions about language like this are both interesting sociologically and also make these expressions memorable for learners, because, as we all know, the more you elaborate and think about an expression the more memorable that expression becomes for you.

Collocations and Phrasal Verbs

This text also gave us a whole series of great collocations like “to see someone off with a kiss” which can be extended to other collocations like “to see someone off with a smile/wave/wink etc.

Another one which was relevant for my learners was the phrasal verb “to hang around” and how it is connected to waiting in a physical space. It is a false friend for German speakers because the similar expression in German is like “to hang out with someone” in English, in the sense of spending time relaxing with friends. This was interesting for my students and useful as we had come across various other phrasal verbs with “hang” when discussion telephone skills, such as “hang on” or “hang up” and there was also, of course, the “hangover” which my university students are only too familiar with as they stagger blearily into the classroom in the morning. (Well a beer or two helps with the heat, doesn’t it?)


The final part of this song becomes nostalgic with the use of “would” to describe past memories you look back on nostalgically. This was the perfect place, in fact, to introduce this, since it came up in the text naturally, because we had been working on the form “used to” earlier in the week, and also on 2nd conditionals, so to see “would” being used in this way was an interesting, neat way of drawing the learners attention to it, without having to do elaborate presentations.

These are just a few examples of the treasures we discovered on our journey through the text, but having discovered them, we then wanted to “play with them”, The next ctivity then was experimentation.

Time to play

I took 5 lines or expressions from the text and wrote about myself:

Sharon’s tired and needs a rest.

Haggis (my cat who everybody knows very well) is playing up at the front door. etc.

I think asked the learners to do the same thing and then read their own versions to each other.

By this time they had thoroughy elaborated much of the language and used it in a meaningful way with each other, talking about their own houses with examples such as:

My house in the middle of the country in front of a mountain.

My dog is playing up at the garden gate.

The final touch was to listen to the song again, and this time I had the feeling that we were all really listening to this song and that it was definitely expressing something to us.

The language had come alive and was reaching out from the text to say something to us, but if we had not taken the time to go through the text thoroughly and to analyse it we would have missed out on so much. (Oh, and for those who think this is “not serious” because it is a song, at least two of the items we looked at appeared, strangely enough in an FCE gap filler practice test we did a day later (purely by chance).

I sometimes see colleagues cutting up, preparing and giving so many activities to their students that there is a risk of the learners being buried in paper, whilst not having the time to process any of the language supposedly being studied. So once again this made me think of the value of slowing down, and taking the time to appreciate the text you are using and above all of giving the learners the time to explore new worlds in the texts they read and experiment with language until they can make it their own….

Who knows where we’ll be going next week:


2 thoughts on “Making the most of Discourse

  1. “Sunday’s Best’ is a great example – such phrases always cause trouble for my weak students in Israel. Even thought they know on some level that other people’s “Sabbath” is on Sunday, not Saturday, they find such phrases puzzling.
    Great activities!

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