National Writing Project

Book Review: On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research

By: Lona Jack-Vilmar
Date: December 16, 2010

Summary: On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms offers an alternative method to rethink traditionally accepted theories and processes related to how language and literacy events that occur in classrooms are analyzed.


What comes to mind when you hear the words "discourse analysis?" If you've previously encountered discourse analysis texts laden with off-putting terms like strings of utterances, verbal turn-taking, interference, discourse markers, interruptions, and overlap, then you will find Bloome, Carter, Christian, Madrid, et al's On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research a refreshing read.

The book is the eighth volume of a collection on Language and Literacy Research published by Teachers College Press. Discourse analysis is a broad area of study that encompasses many disciplines including linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology among others.

In this volume prominent researchers in the field have crafted a book that shifts focus away from the discipline-oriented approach characteristic of previous studies. Rather, the text "sets multiple perspectives of discourse analysis against each other as a means of opening up the research imagination and redefining traditionally understood constructs and processes related to language and literacy events in classrooms."

Consequently, On Discourse Analysis in the Classroom is an accessible and comprehensive book that provides various entry points for all readers.

The Construct of Discourse

The authors have located definitions of "discourse" used in previous studies within two spheres. First, "discourse" as a noun, "a thing in and of itself." For instance, "discourse as text, discourse as language-in-use, discourse as identity and discourse as truth, rationality and common sense."

Alternatively and less prominently, "discourse" is used as a verb, primarily to "challenge actions that people and institutions take in response to each other and more specifically, actions done with language and other semiotic systems in order to create, recreate, change and maintain identities, roles and social contexts that people live within (and without)."

Some examples given of "discourse" as a verb are "They were discoursing the classroom into being," "She was discoursing him as a hero," and even "Stephen discoursed with Fred."

The definition of "discourse" is critical to how research studies are framed. The authors stress that because the research on discourse analysis is so massive it is of value to build upon the findings of previous studies.

A seminal idea introduced in On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms is the notion of "laminating," the integration and layering-in of definitions and insights from other studies. "A lamination bonds together a series of layers in such a way that each remains unrecognizable but together may be stronger and put to new uses." While maintaining the integrity of the individual study, the lamination process allows for the emergence of something new as a result of how the studies inform each other.

If you've previously encountered discourse analysis texts laden with off-putting terms [this book will be] a refreshing read.

"Discourse analysis is less a methodology than a set of ways of 'seeing' language and literacy events in classrooms." The authors identify four frames that are essential building blocks in discourse analysis studies:

  1. The linguistic turn in social sciences
  2. The foregrounding of local events and their relationships to broader cultural and social processes (i.e. micro- and macro-level approaches)
  3. Recognition of the importance of social and historical contexts
  4. Recognition that discourse processes always involve power relations.

Varied Lens: A Language and Literacy Event Up Close

About half the book is dedicated to an illustration of these frames. This material is reader friendly, making it possible for teachers to contemplate how these analyses might be used to look closely at language and literacy events in their own classrooms.

For example, in the chapter "Variations of Discourse Analysis," the focus is on in-depth analysis of one language and literacy event that occurred in a ninth grade language arts classroom. The analysis provides access to four different perspectives, an interactional sociolinguistic perspective, a sociocognitive perspective, an ethnomethodological perspective, and a black feminist perspective.

The language and literacy event takes place during a lesson in which students are engaged in a discussion of Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use." The analysis focuses on a discussion about why people change their names and then about the main character, Dee, who has in fact changed her name.

"At one level, the four analyses give four different perspectives on what appears to be the same event. But at another level, it is not really the same event that they are analyzing. They contextualize the target lesson segment differently and they focus on different aspects of the target segment (highlighting the fact that classroom events are not monolithic experiences)."

I was struck by how the significance of the discourse strands changed depending on the lens through which the researcher approached the event. Consequently the overall impact that the strand made to the event shifted as well.

On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms is rich in references and resources geared toward helping teachers to become researchers of discourse analysis in their own classrooms. The book also invites those already involved in discourse analysis research to shift and expand their perspectives by embracing the ways such studies have enriched our thinking about how we can observe and analyze language and literacy events in classrooms.

This text reminds us that language and literacy events that occur in our classrooms are about realities steeped in actions and power that become acts of identity, of various ways of being "human in the world." "It is these broader intellectual agendas and their potentials that are of significance for making a difference in the lives of teachers and students and other 'ordinary' people in their everyday lives."

On Discourse Analysis in Classrooms provides a valuable companion and guide for teachers who wish to explore layered meanings of the language and literacy events in their classrooms.

About the Author Lona Jack-Vilmar, a teacher-consultant with the New York City Writing Project, teaches ninth and tenth grade language arts.

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