Using Discourse Analysis as a Tool for Teaching
One of the challenges I face as an English teacher is teaching critical thinking skills to my students, as opposed to merely assessing for comprehension. Ultimately, texts are understood through a reader’s interpretation of the larger organization structures signaled by the writer (Grabe, 2002) and it is through this understanding that Discourse Analysis becomes useful to improve reading comprehension. “Discourse” is a word that is used frequently in my classroom, as it refers to written or verbal communication, and discourses are ubiquitous ways of knowing, valuing, and experiencing the world. Discourses can be used for an assertion of power and knowledge, and they can be used for resistance and critique (McGregor, 2004). When using the theory of Discourse Analysis through spoken narratives, language becomes primarily a social interaction, but how is that translated to texts? Or perhaps, more specifically, to texts that are assigned to elementary or secondary school readers?Students have multiple approaches to reading various texts, and as such, situated meanings become relevant to a specific discourse that is already inherent to a reader. As the reader activates the text, they construct meanings based upon context and past experiences. Such discourses are rooted in social practices and pre-established mentalities. James Paul Gee, in his book Introduction to Discourse Analysis, writes since humans recognize certain patterns in our experiences of the world, we assign certain explanations to these patterns based upon the sociocultural groups to which we belong. There are multiple meanings to words and as readers, we adapt these meanings to our specific content of use.
In becoming aware of this adaptability, as a teacher it is therefore necessary to take an ‘anthropological perspective’ (Rymes, 2009) and become critical of knowledge that is seemingly common to all readers. Moreover, by using the theory of Discourse Analysis, we discover that it is apparent that meanings are in fact relative to specific discourses due to unconscious recognition of patterns. In reading texts from a variety of perspectives, exploration is encouraged that may not normally be promoted by the educator when merely focusing on the assessment of comprehension. In learning to read texts while remaining conscious of both the dominant interpretations and the resistant interpretations, readers can become aware that each text can potentially generate an infinite range of meanings (Hebdige, 1979). As the teacher, I become an agent of such exploration, but not necessarily the arbiter.