The who, what, where, when, why, and how of the written discourse


`I haven't opened it yet,' said the White Rabbit,

`but it seems to be a letter, written by the prisoner to--to somebody.'

`It must have been that,' said the King,

`unless it was written to nobody, which isn't usual, you know.'

Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


I’m a proud language teacher!!! I truly am!!! By the time my students have reached B2 level, they barely make any spelling or grammar mistakes! Sure, there may still be some (minor) issues with more complex structures, you know, the ones that will skyrocket their performance towards exams!

I’m a worried teacher!!! I truly am!!! By the time my students have reached B2 level, some of them still find challenging to establish their own identity and perspective through their texts: who they are, who the intended reader is, what the purpose of their writing is, and what expectations their audience has.

Text by: Vasiliki Lismani

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to deal with this because, it is not about language (only), it is about LIFE!!! More often than not, students dealing with writing tasks tend to overlook who the intended reader, and the context/situation is. Trying to impress me (!), some of my younger students write friendly emails using vocabulary that would probably be more suitable if they were addressing the President of the Hellenic Republic herself! They have looked up in dictionaries for the best vocabulary that would never use in real life talking to a friend! On the other hand, my IB students are so competent that can write with great complexity (1 paragraph =1 sentence), although there are times they believe they have written a blog entry whereas their text has all the characteristics and conventions of an argumentative essay! Students are rather confused and disappointed when the feedback they get is not as triumphant as they expected after all the effort they had put on the task! Eventually, when I explain that inappropriate register and unreasonable, meaningless complexity can hinder communicative achievement and definitely do not help to show that they have obtained much of conceptual understanding whatsoever, they give me a look full of doubt!!

I’m a reflective educator!!! I truly am!!! By the time my students leave the classroom, I have already started to think of the challenges they have faced and plan my next move accordingly. It has turned out that their main concern is how to connect what they are asked to do in the writing tasks to their life experiences and real-life situations! 16-18 year old IB students have to be able to deal with a great variety of personal, professional and mass media texts with different levels of formality. It doesn’t come as a surprise when they admit that they have never read, listened to, not to mention, written most of these genres in their “real life”! And, here’s the problem in flesh and blood! First, English class is not part of their life but an artificial environment, a lab where they experience situations and life in vitro! Second, how can we define “real life”? Different students have different experiences depending on their background. How is it possible to deal with such diversity?

This challenge comes in different names, communicative achievement, communicative effect, conceptual understanding, genre appropriateness and writing conventions, authorial voice. Nonetheless, they all put much emphasis on the fact that we always write to somebody unless it is written to nobody, which isn’t usual, you know! Even when we keep a diary, we do so in a way that can actually reach the intended reader’s mind and soul! Our own selves!!!! Written discourses, just like spoken ones, are dependent on their immediate contexts (McCarthy, 1991, p. 149). This is what we should teach to our students in different ways:

  1. Grammar exists outside grammar books and interpretation depends on a variety of parameters related to the situation/context.
  2. Discourse and Critical Discourse Analysis show students the power that language actually has to form ideas and ideologies.
  3. Content, linguistic and formal schemata. Writers of any kind and genre cannot successfully address their readers with misleading information and inappropriate vocabulary in a text which is not what it claims to be!
  4. Early exposure to different authentic texts types.

As language teachers, we should help our students realize that when they write, even a boring homework task, they speak to their readers through their texts. Different readers in different situations/contexts should be handled in different ways. Students must be encouraged to make meaningful creative choices to construct meaning, present their identities and perspectives to life and communicate these to their readers. Pre-made ideas and structures are just like frozen convenience food! OK, in case of an emergency but extremely unhealthy if consumed on a regular basis.