Teaching the linguistic elements of a second or foreign language—grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation—is different when using a discourse-based approach rather than a more traditional approach. The term “discourse” itself refers to longer strings of spoken or written language that convey an overall meaning rather than isolated sounds, words, and sentences (Celce-Murcia & Olshtain, 2014, p. 424). A discourse-based perspective, then, focuses on “top-down processing skills,” or understanding the overall meaning of a conversation or passage of text, rather than the “bottom-up processing skills” of recognizing the structural elements of the language and piecing them together to build meaning (Newton, 2016, p. 430). In many traditional methods, such as audiolingualism, students practice form repetitively at the phrase or sentence level in a teacher-led environment rather than interacting with authentic spoken or written language. However, in discourse-based language teaching, “linguistic competence (knowledge of morphology, syntax, phonology, and lexicon)” is only one aspect of communicative competence (Celce-Murcia & Olshtain, 2014, pp. 426-427). Linguistic competence is viewed as a “[resource] for creating and interpreting discourse” (p. 427). Therefore, one of the major differences between discourse-based and traditional approaches is that discourse-based instruction includes working on many more skills than just pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. These elements are always presented in the context of meaningful use, not in isolation. For example, within a discourse-based approach, pronunciation is viewed as more than correctly combining sounds in words. Understanding meaning includes recognizing what is being communicated by the rising and falling of pitch or by the stress placed on certain syllables or words. Grammar is a tool that can be intentionally used by fluent speakers and writers to convey (and understand) precise meaning. Vocabulary is more than a list of words and meanings. There are subtle differences in connotation between synonyms, literal and figurative expressions, and deeper comprehension of words needed to communicate within specific interpersonal, academic, and professional discourses. In a discourse-based approach, these deeper aspects of the linguistic elements of the language must be taught in addition to the structures themselves. They are taught explicitly, but they are taught through communicative methods and are always tied to meaning. For example, when learning a certain verb tense, students practice real-world conversations that help them connect the grammatical form with what information they are trying to express, as in the example provided by Celce-Murcia and Olshtain in which students practice present perfect progressive by discussing how “[they]’ve been swimming every day” or other physical activities (p. 433). Also, within this approach, students are often placed in groups so they can participate in actual discourse while using and practicing correct form.
The difference between a synthetic approach and an analytical approach to language teaching is related to the difference in Question One between traditional and discourse-based approaches. “Synthetic” refers to traditional approaches in which “the phonological, the lexical, and the grammatical. . . systems are. . . broken down into their component parts [and] taught separately, one at a time” and then “put. . . back together,” or synthesized, by the learner in order to actually communicate (Nunan, 2014, p. 459). This is an example of focusing on bottom-up processes. “Analytical” refers to students “analyz[ing] the language” of an authentic passage of text “into its component parts,” which is an example of focusing on top-down processing. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage of a synthetic approach is its systematic organization that is based on a predictable sequence of grammatical structures and a logical progression of skill levels (Celce-Murcia, 2014, p. 6). Teachers can be sure that they have covered required linguistic content. A disadvantage is that students can learn individual language structures quite well but be unable to use the language creatively in real-life situations (Shrum & Glisan, 2016, p. 46). A definite advantage of an analytical approach is its attention to meaningful use. When creating such a program, language professionals “begin with an inventory of the sorts of things that learners actually or potentially need to do with language” and then build a syllabus around this content (Nunan, 2014, p. 459). This type of instruction is practical and ensures that students will actually be able to use the language in the real world. A disadvantage is the danger of forsaking form altogether to focus solely on communication. To avoid this problem, Nunan advocates approaches that offer ample “communicative engagement” but also provide “a systematic focus on language systems” (p. 460). This way, authentic texts are analyzed for meaning while explicit attention is also given to the structural components that enrich and clarify meaning.
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