What do you think of when you think of your “classroom”? A place to learn, a place to study, a place to talk, a place to share experiences, a place to grow as a student and as a teacher…
In second language settings, the world outside the classroom serves to supplement English language instruction that goes on inside of the classroom. In foreign language settings, sometimes the transition between what students learn in the classroom and finding opportunities to use it can be more difficult. In both cases, most research supports the need for interaction in the language classroom. In this post, though, I’m going to encourage you to go even deeper beyond interactive activities in the classroom and begin to think of your English language classroom as its own discourse community.
A discourse community is a group of people who share a set of discourses, understood as basic values and assumptions, and ways of communicating about those goals (Swales, 1990). These communities will usually have a shared purpose; certain language or expressions associated with them; certain conventions in speech, writing, or behavior; typical modes of communication; and sometimes even unwritten rules for membership or audience.
For example, the discourse community of business professionals will have a shared purpose—usually to make profit for their company. They might use certain expressions related to business, such as “profit margin,” “in the black” or “in the red,” “ASAP,” or “corner the market.” Their communication might be more formal in writing or when giving a presentation about their business, and they may be frequently on their cellular phone answering email and performing work-related tasks as a mode of communication.
In comparison, the discourse community of teachers might use much different expressions, a different mode of communication, and have different rules for dress or behavior. Individuals usually belong to several discourse communities at any one time; some examples are one’s job or school, religion, geographic region, language group, hobbies or pastimes, family, sports team. You can see several examples of discourse community analysis examples by typing “discourse community” into the search bar of images.google.com.
As a TESOL educator, you may find it helpful to your students (and yourself) to view your classroom as a discourse community. What are your shared goals as speakers of English? Do your students want to learn English for a job? To succeed in school? To communicate about content concepts, like science, math, or social studies? To travel? To develop social skills in a new country?
From there, you can analyze what types of language you both plan to and need to use to participate in your identified discourse community. You can also analyze some of the unwritten rules for membership in that particular community, and discuss how they impact your students. For example, how does a scientist talk about what he or she knows? How could a customer service representative convey politeness? It might also help allay some of your students’ anxiety about learning English as the “rules” become less opaque.
Language is so much more than vocabulary terms and grammar structures that, rather than looking at it as a separate “subject” to be taught separately with rules to follow and memorize, Van Lier and Walqui (2012) change language from a noun to a verb, and coin the term “languaging.” This verb reminds us that even in the earliest stages of language learning, how we navigate one, two, three, or more languages is an active process. Van Lier and Walqui also help us remember that
- language is embodied physically in movement, posture, facial expression, gesture, and rhythm;
- language is integrated into the physical world around us, and helps us relate to space and time;
- language is embedded in the social world of relationships and identity; and
- language is representative of historic and symbolic worlds that humans create.
With these reminders at the forefront of our teaching, perhaps we can better create spaces for students to learn not just about English, but how to understand the different dynamics that accompany belonging to different discourse communities—the classroom included.
Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
van Lier, L., & Walqui, A. (2012). Language and the Common Core State Standards. Commissioned Papers on Language and Literacy Issues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, 94, 44–51.