Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Beyond the Sentence by Scott Thornbury


Subtitle: Introducing Discourse Analysis


Why I Read This Book
          This book is part of my ongoing project to read for professional development.  More specifically, this book was recommended reading for the distance DELTA (W) course I’m currently doing.

The Review
          As with all the other TESOL related books I review on this blog, this book is not pleasure reading, and it’s only going to be of interest to other English teachers.
            But although the general public may want to stay clear, fellow English teachers should find this book worth their time.

            The title of the book Beyond the Sentence indicates the theme.
            Too often, Scott Thornbury says, we English teachers focus on individual sentences in isolation when we teach grammar. 
            (Yours truly is certainly guilty of this in any number of the grammar sheets I designed).
            However, as Scott Thornbury points out, the sentence does not exist in isolation, and it is the type of text, or genre, that determines much of the grammar and word choices of the sentences within it.  Therefore teachers and students should be encouraged to think about the text as a whole before analyzing individual sentences.
           
            With a subtitle like Introducing Discourse Analysis, you know ahead of time the book is going to be mostly broccoli. And it is.
            And yet, once you get into it, the book actually isn’t half bad.  Unlike a lot of teacher-training books, which can often get very pedantic, Scott Thornbury never talks down to his readers.  He’s an intelligent author who guides the reader through the subject material very well—never assuming too much, but never over-explaining either.
            His insightful explanations caused me to realize any number of things about spoken and written language that I never knew before.  (Language is a funny thing—you can use it every day, but never stop to think about how a text is actually constructed.)
            Scott Thornbury relies entirely on authentic texts to illustrate the points he is making, and because all of his text analysis is grounded in actual texts from real life, it makes his points all the more interesting.
            And he has just the right amount of sly winking humor throughout the book as he subtly pokes fun at many of the texts he analyzes. 
            All in all, you feel like you’re in the hands of a capable author, and even if the subject isn’t your favorite, you still appreciate the clear straightforward explanations of discourse analysis.

Notes and Other Observations

Spoken Discourse Versus Written Discourse
          I found Scott Thornbury’s section on spoken discourse particularly interesting.
            As Thornbury says: “Another effect of the spontaneity of speech is its ‘one-clause-or-phrase-at-a-time’ construction. Rather than being built up in sentence-length units, speech tends to be produced in smaller ‘runs’, each run representing a unit of meaning.  These runs are tacked on to each other, rather than being embedded inside larger units (as is typically the case with formal writing) and are often linked by the highly frequent conjunctions and, but, and so…..The cumulative construction principle tolerates the addition of sentence ‘slots’ that in written language would be considered ungrammatical.” (p. 64-65)
           
          This was something I never really thought of before.  (Strange how we can speak everyday, but never really give much thought to how we speak—at least in my case.) 
            As Thornbury explains, because of the processing demands on the speaker, we tend to speak in shorter phrases and chunks that would not be considered grammatical if we wrote them down.
            He goes onto explain:
            Of course, this segmentation into bite-sized chunks not only makes production easier, but it makes processing on the part of the listener easier too.  This is a fact that is sometimes forgotten when materials writers write texts for listening practice that are constructed out of sentence-length units, rather than clause—or phrase—length ones.  In a well intentioned attempt to ‘tidy up’ spoken language, they may, in fact, be making it harder to process. (p.65)

            Interesting.  I never thought about that before either.

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Lexical Repetition and Lexical Cohesion
          ESL students are often taught to avoid repeating the same words when writing an essay.  (I’ve seen this in a lot of textbooks and materials and occasionally I’ve even taught this myself, usually prompted by the textbooks I was teaching out of.)  The idea is that repeating the same word too many times bores the reader, and that students should instead be encouraged to vary their word choice by using pronouns, synonyms, paraphrases.

            This is all good in theory, but it can also lead to incomprehensible student writing.  When I’m teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes) classes, I often come across sentences that make absolutely no sense.  However, when I ask the student to explain the sentence to me, they usually can give me a clear simple oral explanation of the incomprehensible written sentence.
            “Well why didn’t you just write that instead?” I ask.
            “Because I didn’t want to repeat the same words I had already used in the previous sentence,” the student responds.
            The search for synonyms and paraphrasing had lead to incomprehensible writing.
           
          I therefore took interest in Scott Thornbury’s explanation of how good writers will actually repeat the same words over and over again to build cohesion in a text. 
            As Thornbury writes on page 62: “Explain to writers that lexical repetition is not necessarily a bad thing. Show, using authentic texts, how effective writers use both direct and indirect repetition to convey their argument and to create cohesion.”
           
            Since reading Thornbury, I have been telling my students not to worry about lexical repetition, and even encouraging them do to more lexical repetition.       
            (Although… I do worry somewhat this may be in conflict with the training the students get on the IELTS (W) courses, where they are told that higher scores are awarded for displaying a broad range of vocabulary.)

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Spaghetti Writing
          I found this quote particularly descriptive of the kind of challenges I face in marking student writing:

            Spaghetti writing is the kind of loose-jointed composition writing which second-language students can produce in paragraph after paragraph. It is characterized by long incoherent sentences and a surfeit of subordinate clauses in search of a main one. All language stimulates expectations, but so often these expectations are not fulfilled in spaghetti writing and a however or a so leads the reader to a wrong conclusion. It is difficult to correct, because tinkering with a relative or a conjunction will not solve the problem, and the usual correction shorthand (Sp, T, Art—spelling/tense/article) is inadequate: short of rewriting the passage, there is little the teacher can do.” (From page 61, although Thornbury is quoting another writer here, D. McDevitt)

            This paragraph very eloquently captures the frustration I feel in marking EAP essays. I have been given a correction code by my school which is similar to the short hand mentioned above (Sp, T, Art—spelling/tense/article), but which is inadequate to correct the types of incoherent sentences my students are writing.
            (Thornbury goes on to respond to the above quote by saying that spaghetti writing can not be solved after the fact, but it can be pre-empted before hand if the teacher tells the students to always keep their reader in mind.  Personally I’m somewhat pessimistic that the problem will be so easily solved, but I’ll give it a try.)

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Skimming Versus Reading
            I was, therefore, glad to find out that Scott Thorbury shares my ambivalence.  From page 112: “it has been argued that encouraging learners to process text at this very superficial level—eg by skimming and scanning—may be counterproductive, since successful reading involves a much greater degree of engagement with the text than such an approach allows. Successful readers may, indeed, ‘read every word’, at least some of the time. By discouraging readers from processing texts at anything other than a very superficial level, teachers may be giving learners the wrong message.
           
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Language Awareness Raising
          In the section on language awareness writing, Thornbury writes “Just as real texts and coursebook texts provide data for language study, so too can learners’ texts be exploited for the same ends.  In fact, there’s a good case for learners’ texts being the best resources for a focus on language.  After all, learner-produced texts are more likely to be closer to the developmental stage that other learners are going through. (p.155)

            One way of doing this, Thornbury says, is “The learner text is ‘tidied up’ before being made available to other learners. For example, errors are corrected and awkward wordings are reformulated. Yet the content—and ideally the flavour—of the original remains the same…What can be particularly revealing for learners is to see the two versions, the original and the edited, side-by-side and to make comparisons and notice differences. In other words, the awareness-raising process is self-initiated, rather than teacher directed” (p. 156)

            I’ve actually started doing this recently with some of my young learner classes by correcting their writings and putting the correcting versions on-line for the class to see.  So I was glad to see an idea I’ve already been using had been approved by the ESL experts.

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Parsnips Topics
          Information from this book came in useful the other day during a staffroom conversation.
            A fellow teacher was expressing frustration with the way heterosexuality was always assumed in all of the coursebooks.  “In all of the example sentences, textbooks just always assume that boys are going to love girls, and girls are going to love boys,” she said.  “The textbooks don’t even acknowledge that homosexuality exists.”

            “Funny you should mention that,” I said, “I was reading about that just the other day.”

            In Beyond the Sentence Scott Thornbury explains that because ESL textbooks are usually aiming for a global audience, topics that would be taboo in any country are avoided for all of them.  The textbook writers are told to avoid any PARSNIP topics (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms and pork).  (This is one of the reasons why many ESL textbooks are so inherently boring as well not inclusive.) 
            However, Thornbury also mentions that this is slowly beginning to change under pressure, and in some textbooks marketed towards Southern Europe, homosexuality is beginning to be included.

And Others
          There’s much more in this book.  (I didn’t even talk about Thornbury’s discussion of genre analysis, for example.)  But the above are just a few brief things that caught my attention as I read the book.

Link(s) of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Trans-Pacific Partnership is a “neoliberal assault”  The political theorist and linguist slams the agreement that has little to do with free trade 
and from cracked.com: 5 Terrible Things I Learned as a Corporate Whistleblower

7 comments:

angrysoba said...

I have one of Thornbury’s other books called How To Teach Grammar, in which he also complains that much of what is taught is sentence-level grammar, whereas he thinks that this is something of an artificial way of looking at language.

There also seems to be a growing consensus that agrees with that. For example, many sentences in a lot of texts cannot really be understood if taken in isolation. The first sentence in this paragraph is an example. So is the previous sentence. And that one. In these cases the sentences require “anaphoric reference” to be understood, and anaphoric reference can only be understood at the level of discourse. In some previous posts I mentioned Daniel Everett who attacks Chomsky’s assumption that language is basically about sentence-level syntax. Does Thornbury mention Chomsky at all?

Also, I recognize this problem:

“Thornbury goes on to respond to the above quote by saying that spaghetti writing can not be solved after the fact, but it can be pre-empted before hand if the teacher tells the students to always keep their reader in mind.”

Presumably this can be encouraged during peer-feedback if students are asked to be critical of their peers. Actually, there’s a relationship here with another point that Thornbury made:

“Just as real texts and coursebook texts provide data for language study, so too can learners’ texts be exploited for the same ends. In fact, there’s a good case for learners’ texts being the best resources for a focus on language. After all, learner-produced texts are more likely to be closer to the developmental stage that other learners are going through.”

I think it’s a great idea to use learners’ texts to encourage the students who produced them and also to show other students models of what you are looking for. I think the peer-feedback process also really helps encourage students’ sense of an “audience” (or at least that is the theory), as well as showing the readers what their classmates can produce. At Birmingham University there is an essay bank of previous student essays. I always look through these essays before I write my own. Presumably a similar thing helps students writing their own pieces.

angrysoba said...

“In Beyond the Sentence Scott Thornbury explains that because ESL textbooks are usually aiming for a global audience, topics that would be taboo in any country are avoided for all of them. The textbook writers are told to avoid any PARSNIP topics (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms and pork). (This is one of the reasons why many ESL textbooks are so inherently boring as well not inclusive.) “

Ha! This is so true. I can’t think of one textbook that isn’t incredibly bland when it comes to content. I seem to remember that there is some other acronym that is often used to describe the tendency for textbooks to all show happy, smiley, affluent, middle class, predominantly white heterosexual men and women out shopping and enjoying themselves, or planning holidays or going to restaurants. I think it came up in an essay I was reading about textbooks by Brian Tomlinson. He said that he once was part of a team of writers who produced some books with slightly more controversial fare to be used for discussion. But the problems tend to be that commercial schools worry about scaring their customers away by not giving them the dreamy experience, or perhaps the fear that arguments will break out in the classroom, which in turn makes publishers wary about producing a textbook which doesn’t sell. The same reason also explains why many textbooks are supposedly behind the curve in terms of teaching methods. Whatever looks like a textbook should be is preferred over textbooks that may treat language more realistically.

I also suspected there was something PARSNIPy going on as well, as I remember seeing textbooks which purported to teach British culture saying that an English breakfast consists of eggs and sausages, and was surprised there was no bacon, or black pudding (presumably because such items would be unpopular in Saudi Arabia, or Turkey where publishers may wish to flog their books.) And similarly, no beer!

I have thought that one way of potentially getting around this was to give the teachers an option to download supplementary material with more adult/risqué/controversial content.

Anyway, this book sounds interesting. I may have to look out for it.

Joel said...

>>>Thornbury mention Chomsky at all?

....Not that I remember. Or at least not in detail. (Chomsky might have gotten name dropped, but there was certainly no indepth discussion of his theories).

As for the Peer-Feedback, I have tried this and am still having problems. I don't know, maybe I'm doing something wrong. I tell my students specifically to read their partner's essays for comprehensibility, and tell their partner everytime they don't understand anything. I was hoping that this would pre-empt a lot of the incomprehensible essays I receive every term, but to my dismay it hasn't been helping as much as I hoped it would.

Your probably not wrong about the model essays though. I should be showing my students a lot more model essays before I set them lose. I don't suppose you have any idea about where to get ahold of them, do you?

And I agree with you 100% here:
>>.I have thought that one way of potentially getting around this was to give the teachers an option to download supplementary material with more adult/risqué/controversial content.

angrysoba said...

"Your probably not wrong about the model essays though. I should be showing my students a lot more model essays before I set them lose. I don't suppose you have any idea about where to get ahold of them, do you?"

Oops! I realize I may have confused two different things. I meant that when I write assignments for my university I find it very useful to see previous assignments to see what it is that the markers want. And then I was saying that our students could benefit from something analogous. Maybe a good way is to make copies of the best students each year and show the next grade what those students managed to do.

As for peer-feedback, it certainly does not always work out how we might hope. I think that a lot of students worry about being critical with their friends, or perhaps they worry that the English is perfectly okay but that they just don't understand it because of their level. Even worse is where students "hypercorrect" their peers and rewrite correct sentences incorrectly.

What I have done in the past is ask students to tell me what the message of the piece is. Or given them samples of "bad" essays (which I wrote) and had them explain what was wrong (too many changes of topics, or an abrupt change of topic, uninteresting etc...), and I insist on students expanding on topics, telling them to give me some examples or situations in which they had personal experiences. Perhaps if you then ask peers to look for those particular aspects in the piece then they can comment critically, but hopefully helpfully, on their peers.

octopus hearts said...

>>>Even worse is where students "hypercorrect" their peers and rewrite correct sentences incorrectly.

Yes, I agree. I try and pre-empt this as well by telling my students to read for comprehensibility and organization, and not grammar. But they still go through and focus on grammar and ignore comprehensibility. I think it's a hard wired habit they absorbed from when they were in the lower level classes that focused exclusively on grammatical correctness.

I like the idea of making copies of the best student from each term to show the next term's class. I may try that.

Joel said...

sorry, that was me. Using a shared Work Computer, and the previous person forgot to log out.

Joel Swagman said...

Addendum to this book review:

http://joelswagman.blogspot.com/2017/04/beyond-sentence-by-scott-thornbury.html