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Concourse 2

Spoken discourse


Please don't attempt this guide unless you happy that you know what is covered in the guide to cohesion.



If you have covered the material in the guide to cohesion then you will be able to see and analyse the cohesive links in the following dialogue.  There are examples of most of the types of cohesion which are covered in that guide.

think Task
Read through the dialogue and identify an example of the following six:
      anaphoric demonstrative pronoun reference
      nominal ellipsis
      nominal substitution
      use of a general word
      clausal substitution
      cataphoric reference
When John saw it, he realised how fine the garden was.
John: Where does the door lead?
Mary: That goes to the vegetable patch, every garden should have one.  Doesn’t yours?
John: It should, I suppose, but I have so little space.
Mary: You don’t need much, you know.  Why not start one?
John: I don’t think so.  Besides, I wouldn’t have time.
Mary: You’re making excuses because you don’t want the work.  Having a vegetable area in the garden makes real sense when you live in the city.
John: I prefer to keep my land for flowers and not that stuff.

Now click here for an answer.



Keeping things on track

The other thing to notice in this example, is the way the speakers maintain the discourse.  Essentially, there is something called theme-rheme linkage occurring.  Each speaker takes up the previous speaker's comment and develops it into a new theme.  It works like this.

Complete the (_____________________) parts in your head and then click on the table for the answer to check.
Don't worry if you don't have exactly the same answers, providing you have identified the correct themes and rhemes.

theme rheme 1

Of course, as we shall see, interactions between native speakers of any language are rarely so simple and orderly, especially if more than two speakers are involved.  Even in this little exchange, Mary makes things more complicated by deploying two theme-rheme couplets in her last turn (one of which John avoids, by the way).
However, we are not strangers to the idea of simplifying structures to help our students understand and learn and there is no real difference between simplifying, say, conditional structures to make things easier and simplifying the targets of skills teaching for the same reason.


Rules for speaking

One of the reasons why learners often find speaking the hardest skill to master is because it seems random and unpredictable with no rules to guide the user.  That's not entirely true as the example above shows but before we go on to look at what these rules might be, can you think of some more problems that learners have when they try to speak in English?

Click here when you have had time to think a little.

How do native speakers deal with these pressures?
Think again, click again.

Now click here for a short test in this area.


How is interaction structured?

a breakfast conversation  

Can you follow this?

M: Do you want some toast? 
S: You seen my green shirt? 
P: I’ve just had some. 
D: What time is it? 
M: It’s in your room. 
P: Is there any more tea? 
S: Half past.  Where? 
P: Have you looked?  Aren’t you late? 
S: Of course.  No, I don’t need to be in till 10. 
M: He didn’t mean you - I’ll go and look.  No, do you want me to make some? 
D: It’s OK. I’ll do it.

Given a little time, most of can unravel who is talking and whom they are responding to but it isn't easy.  We can, with the text in front of us, also identify the theme-rheme structures in the interactions.
Just as we don't just give learners a text and a grammar book and tell them to figure things out for themselves, we need to break down the skill of speaking into manageable units.  Theme and rheme is one such structure and here's another.


Initiate-Respond-Follow up

Look at this simple exchange:
    Have you ever been to France?
    Yes, I have.
    When did you go?
    Last year.

That may be a good way to practise the present perfect-past simple contrast but it doesn't sound very natural, does it?
Compare it with this:
    Have you ever been to France?
    Yes, I have.  Why do you ask?
    I'm thinking of taking John there for his fiftieth.  Can you recommend any particular places for a history buff?
    Well, I went for the skiing and the wine but I'll ask my brother.  He's lived there for over 20 years and will know something, I'm sure.
    No problem.

What's the difference you notice?  Click here when you have some idea.

This can be taught, of course, just as you can teach any other skill or system by getting learners (with your help) to unpack the speakers' acts and what they are doing and then try to construct similar conversations about something they want to say.

With all this in mind, it's now possible, by the way, to break down the breakfast conversation and see where all the initiations and responses actually go.  Like this:


Finally, we must consider the issue of turn-taking and how that is accomplished in Anglophone cultures.  For that, you need to consult the guide to turn-taking linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Now click here for a short test in this area.

Related guides
cohesion the guide to referencing in particular
speaking for an overview of the area in general terms
speaking in EAP for a guide to the kinds of speaking skills which are required in an EAP context
theme and rheme for a guide to this important area of coherence and cohesion
deixis the guide to here, there, now, then, you, me and how we can move the centre
turn-taking a guide to how this is accomplished in English
backchannelling a guide to a related area often seen as closely allied to turn-taking
sociolinguistics for consideration of the connections between society and language including variations in social class, region, nationality, sex etc.
adjacency pairs for a guide to some common ways of teaching speaking
semantics for a guide to how meaning is made

Halliday MA K & Hasan, R, 1976, Cohesion in English, Harlow: Longman
Tsui, A, 1994, English Conversation, Oxford: Oxford University Press