Learning and teaching discourse analysis

Author: Nicola Woods


Learning and teaching discourse analysis engages students and tutors in the exploration of texts and talk. Analysis of discourse data encourages students to reflect upon and critically evaluate knowledge acquired in the study of, for example, syntax and semantics as well as naturally drawing students to the investigation of socially-situated language use. Such study provides students with the opportunity to examine how meaning is constructed and negotiated in discourse and to reflect on the role that language plays in social life. Teaching discourse analysis involves introducing students to relevant theories and guiding them in the application of these theories to real life language use. Learning is grounded in students' own experience and in the questions they ask about problems in the humanities and social sciences.

Table of contents

Aims and course content

The analysis of discourse - frequently defined as “language use above the level of the sentence” (Stubbs, 1983) - provides students with the opportunity to study the meaningful production and interpretation of texts and talk.  In undergraduate programmes in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Sussex, courses in discourse analysis are taught at level 3. Students therefore come to discourse studies after completing courses in syntax, semantics and pragmatics and the analysis of discourse encourages students to reconsider and re-evaluate the ‘rules’ of language with which they are already familiar. As Miller (2002) explains in his article on the subject of discourse analysis, the examination of texts problematises traditional word-class classifications and sheds new light on the functions and workings of grammatical categories (tense, mood and aspect, for example). Indeed, the study of the structure and texture of texts as whole units challenges the very concept of ‘sentence’ and, by adding to other approaches to language study, enriches students’ understanding of how language works.

In this respect, students may be encouraged to critically engage with the definition of discourse as ‘supra-sentential language use’ and explore how the meaning and interpretation of a text may be negotiated around the selection and use of particular syntactic and lexical forms or even aspects of pronunciation. For example, recent class-based analysis undertaken by my final-year students reveals how Tony Blair’s use of vernacular phonological features in party political broadcasts has increased over the past ten years. Critical examination of the reasons for Blair’s changing pronunciation leads students to consider, for example, the extent to which politicians may use strategies to ‘sound’ ideologically attractive to public audiences and, in the case of Blair, to manipulate his voice to (re-)construct himself as a ‘man of the people’. In undertaking such analysis, students therefore learn that there is an intricate (almost symbiotic) interplay between discourse approaches that take as their starting point the linguistic level at which the utterances are produced and those approaches that interpret utterances from the starting point of the context in which they occur.

Through the study of discourse analysis students may gain an advanced and sophisticated understanding of the concept of ‘context’. Also defined or described as the study of ‘language in context’ or (real life) ‘language in use’ (Brown and Yule 1983, Woods 2006), discourse analysis draws students to the investigation of socially-situated texts and talk. Students engage with the study of how, in social interaction, human beings convey their meaning not as an individualistic enterprise but as a result of dynamic and ongoing negotiation with their interlocutors. In this way, students gain knowledge and understanding of the (symbolic) function of language in social life, and the role that language plays in the construction and shaping of social relationships. Since such relationships are frequently characterised by differential patterns of authority and influence, students have the opportunity to explore how power relations underpin the construction and meaning of discourse, and to learn about the ways in which control, dominance and inequality may be both asserted and resisted in discourse. Experience shows that students are particularly drawn to this type of Critical Discourse Analysis and there is a wealth of data that can be drawn upon to teach and encourage this interest. While various forms of political discourse provide archetypal material, examples of texts taken from, for example, medical interviews, courtroom testimonies and classroom contexts also offer germane discourse data for critical analysis.

Other theoretical approaches routinely included in courses on discourse analysis include Speech Act Theory, Ethnography, Interactional Sociolinguistics and Conversation Analysis. It is clearly vital that students are introduced to relevant theories and it is equally important that they learn how to apply these theoretical perspectives to real life language use. While it may appear intuitively sound to introduce theory before practice, experience suggests that it is in the careful weaving together of the two that students gain the most advanced and highly developed understanding of discourse (perhaps to be seen at its best in Deborah Schiffrin’s (1994) Approaches to Discourse - a text which is most suitable for students with some experience of discourse analysis).

Different theoretical approaches can be applied to the discourses of various domains, and an advantage of teaching and studying discourse is that a wealth of relevant data is available for analysis: a conversation or a letter; a speech, a memo or a report; a broadcast, a newspaper article or a testimonial; a lesson, a consultation or an interview. While it is arguable that discourse analysis can be treated purely as a ‘research method’ (see Johnson (2002) for an approach which is grounded in this supposition), the study of discourse ought to encourage students to ask their own ontological and epistemological questions and, ideally, should lead students to an awareness of the way in which discourse analysis can be applied to (and is a way of thinking about and approaching) a range of problems in the humanities and social sciences. A particular advantage of locating discourse studies in the final year of undergraduate programmes is that students are likely to have gained the experience and confidence required to construct their own innovative research questions. Final-year students I am currently teaching are seeking to answer such questions as:

  • How does the discourse of pro-anorexia websites glamorise eating disorders through the construction of a virtual community of practice?
  • How is masculinity represented in football fandom?
  • Why is drug use and misuse represented differently in the discourse of the media and drug support agencies?
  • How are stereotypes associated with homosexuality perpetuated in ‘safe sex’ health education information?
  • Why does political discourse rely on metaphors of movement?

The investigation of such questions often involves the adoption of a set of methods that draw upon different approaches and so lead students to an understanding of the interrelationship (and tensions) between different ways of looking at and interpreting a text.

Learning and teaching methods

Students studying discourse analysis must undertake the analysis of discourse (a statement which may seem too obvious to mention but which is belied by evidence that, as Antaki et al (2003) point out, published papers on discourse are frequently flawed by under-analysis of discourse data). On my courses, before any theories have been introduced and before any ‘typical’ discourse material is discussed, students are encouraged to collect their own small sample of data and attend the first class ready to say something about it: e.g. to examine thematic links in the text and to analyse its structure and texture; to consider the construction and interpretation of meaning in the discourse (and to reflect on their role, as researcher, in interpreting the discourse); to discuss whether the discourse can be classified as belonging to a particular register or genre (and to examine how, for example, the interactional routines common to one type of discourse may be employed in other types for particular effect); to analyse the discourse in relation to assumptions made about the relationship between speaker/signer/writer and the recipient of the communicative message(s). In this way, students are introduced to important ideas at the outset of their studies and concepts which students find difficult to understand in the abstract –  presupposition, (synthetic) personalisation and intertextuality, for example – are made more accessible by being grounded in students’ own experience of collecting, analysing and interpreting discourse data.

From such beginnings, students soon learn that discourse analysis is applicable to every situation, and collecting and working with discourse data naturally becomes an integral aspect of all classes - whether the topic of such classes be focussed on a particular approach (Ethnography, Conversation Analysis etc.) or a particular context in which discourse analysis can be applied (e.g. the media, politics, law, medicine, religion, education). Indeed, the study of discourse analysis provides the opportunity to pursue a wide variety of practical learning and teaching activities. The following are just a few examples:

  • Students can be encouraged to build a ‘mini-corpus’ of data and, for example, to collect and analyse examples of a particular discourse type constructed in an array of diverse contexts: e.g. the language of political manifestos, campaigns, speeches and televised debates.
  • Students benefit from the opportunity to undertake comparative analysis. For example, much can be learnt about the nature and importance of ‘target audience’ in advertising discourse by the comparison of, for instance, car adverts that appear in magazines aimed at women and men. Public health information constructed across cultures provides interesting data for comparative study and the analysis of texts constructed at different periods in time is also revealing: e.g. contrasting political speeches of the past with those of the present highlights the particular features of each text and brings students to an understanding of, for instance, the ongoing and increasing ‘mediatization’ of political discourse.
  • Students should be encouraged to critically examine a form of (institutional) discourse in which they are regular and active participants. Experience reveals that learners often find it enlightening to analyse the conventions they follow in constructing an academic essay, for example. Such analysis leads students to a critical understanding of the traditional requirement for ‘objectivity’ in academic writing and to consider what is perceived to constitute ‘legitimate knowledge’ in this form of discourse. A similarly critical perspective can be encouraged in examining the typical interactional routines of university seminars: how are ‘rights to speak’ distributed? How is topic managed? What inferences are drawn about silent students?

It is in working with texts, and actually carrying out discourse analysis, that students can be led to an understanding of how human beings engage in discourse which shapes the way they construct themselves and their relationships with others. Students also come to understand how their engagement with texts and talk (in particular social and cultural contexts) can challenge and alter dominant discourses. The opportunity for such learning goes beyond the confines of the university campus, and students’ involvement with the subject is often revealed when they remark that they are finding it ‘difficult’ to, for example, listen to news broadcasts, have a consultation with their GP or read a letter from their bank without becoming, to use their words, ‘hyper-aware’ of the construction of texts and talk in such institutional settings and of the social roles that such discourses prescribe.

This level of awareness can be cultivated in class activities such as student-led discussions and debates. I find that the most fruitful starting point for such discussions is students’ oral presentations of discourse data. Presentations to peers are a particularly useful activity since they encourage presenters to reflect upon their own interpretations of a text in the light of alternative ways of approaching the data suggested by their peers. From this point, students can be encouraged to reflect upon the reasons for different interpretations and to consider, for example, the analysis of ‘stance’ in the text (as the expression of a speaker’s or writer’s value-system in the text produced), as well as their own (social and cultural) experience in seeking meaning from a text. Teaching discourse analysis therefore offers the opportunity to encourage students towards independent learning and the type of critical thinking which is vital not only for all areas of academic study but also for life-long education.


Formal evaluation of students’ knowledge and understanding can be achieved by various forms of assessment (a quick review of courses at British universities reveals the employment of a range of assessment modes including examinations, essays, dissertations and oral seminar presentations). However, in the light of the above discussion of aims, content and pedagogical methods, whichever form of assessment is used should involve students in doing discourse analysis. Ideally, methods of assessment should engage students in the full process of identifying a question or problem, designing a piece of research to address the question, collecting relevant discourse data, providing transcriptions (where necessary) and presenting their own analyses and interpretations. In this respect, there is little that can compare with (supervised) independent research (in the form of dissertations or other types of project work). This is the method of assessment used at Sussex for final-year students of discourse analysis. It has proved to be a popular form of assessment and one that encourages students to read beyond the prescribed texts and to research beyond the boundaries of the university campus. Over the past years students who have taken this course have undertaken supervised research projects on such topics as: cross-cultural communication in the classroom; the forms and functions of propaganda in World War II; the negotiation of professional roles in business meetings; and the transformation of ‘lifeworld’ experience into professional frames of reference in medical consultations.

While many disciplines “claim the term ‘discourse’ as their own” (Jaworski and Coupland, 1999:xi), discourse analysis is inherently interdisciplinary and, as the examples of research projects detailed above reveal, provides students with considerable scope to draw upon and relate different areas of interest and experience. In terms of the formal assessment of students enrolled on joint honours programmes, dissertation work in discourse analysis is a particularly useful means by which different areas of academic study can be interrelated and interwoven. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of discourse analysis is not confined to academic life. In what has been described as ‘turn to discourse’, an increasing number of professional fields draw on discourse analysis: social policy, social work, public relations, various types of counselling, media analysis and educational research are just a few examples. The study of discourse analysis therefore provides students with the opportunity to acquire areas of knowledge and understanding which not only enhance intellectual development but which are also relevant for a range of professional careers.

I have already made mention of some of the texts that I think are particularly relevant for learning and teaching discourse analysis. Other texts that are useful for both teachers and students include Schiffrin et al’s Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Cameron’s Working with Spoken Discourse and Fairclough’s classic (2001) study of Language and Power. Details of all texts cited here are listed in the following bibliography.


Antaki, C., Billig, M., Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (2003) Discourse Analysis Means Doing Analysis: a Critique of Six Analytic Shortcomings. Discourse Analysis Online, 1, (1).

Brown, G. and Yule, G. (1983) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (2001) Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications

Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power. London: Longman, 2nd edition.

Jaworski, A. and Coupland, N. (eds.) (1999) The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge.

Johnstone, B. (2002) Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Miller, J. (2002) Discourse Analysis. Guide to Good Practice in languages, linguistics and area studies.

Schiffrin, D. (1994) Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schiffrin, D., Tannen, D., & Hamiliton, H. (eds.) (2001) The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stubbs, M. (1983) Discourse Analysis: The Sociolinguistic Analysis of Natural Language. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Woods, N. (2006) Describing Discourse: a Practical Guide to Discourse Analysis. London: Hodder Arnold.

Related links

Discourse Analysis Online

Ethnologue: SIL publications on Discourse Analysis

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008. http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.