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Review of  Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching

Reviewer: Anne Marie Devlin
Book Title: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching
Book Author: Richard F Young
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.4099

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AUTHOR: Richard F. Young
TITLE: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching
SERIES TITLE: The Language Learning Monograph Series
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2009

Anne Marie Devlin, PhD Candidate, Department of French, University College Cork


The purpose of this book is to introduce the concept of practice theory into the
domain of language learning and teaching. In order to achieve this, Young has
drawn extensively from the areas of anthropology, ethnology, sociology, applied
and theoretical linguistics to provide a theory which synthesizes important
findings from those domains. The fundamental starting point of the book is that
all talk is essentially practice (performance) in context. The author continues
by expanding the concept of context and moving it from the narrow focus of the
text to bringing in what he refers to as a 'network of physical, spatial,
temporal, social, interactional, institutional, political and historical
circumstances.' (p. 2). Considering the broad focus of context allows the
author to place prominence on answering the key questions of 'where?, when?,
who?, why? and how?' oral and written texts take place. This insightful
approach not only gives equal status to language and context, but also takes
into consideration the often overlooked area of nonverbal resources, noting that
semiotic resources such as gaze, gesture and body positioning are integral
components of constructing a participation framework. By doing so the author
has laid down a challenge to others working in the field of second language
acquisition to expand their sights to include the broad focus of context and to
award a place to the study of non-verbal resources.

Chapter 1 deals with Young's explication of discursive practice. He deconstructs
the various meanings afforded to both 'discourse' and 'practice' by different
theorists before laying down his interpretation of each word and then skillfully
reconstructing the phrase 'discursive practice' to embody the current
interpretation. The chapter then proceeds to focus on the relationship between
Discursive Practice (DP) and the second half of the title 'Language Learning and
Teaching'. With the purpose of exploring that connection, Young poses another
more fundamental question, i.e. 'what is the relationship between Discursive
Practice and language?' He provides a brief overview of the history of modern
linguistic theory before looking at social and cultural context and concluding
that language learning and teaching are practices which also occur in a social
context and that these contexts must be addressed.

The historical roots of discourse practice are explored in greater depth in
Chapter 2. Young begins by describing the controversy of the 1997 Firth and
Wagner paper, 'On Discourse, Communication and (Some) Fundamental Concepts of
SLA Research', which highlighted the dichotomies within the field, mainly based
on cognitive vs. social models of Second Language Acquisition research. He then
goes back in time to explain how the controversy arose. By doing so, he shows
the changing nature of the study of language: from language as a separate entity
to one where it is considered as occurring 'somewhere, somewhen [...] produced
by somebody' (p. 46).

Chapter 3 is devoted to the investigation of context. It starts with the
premise that talk and context are inseparable. This premise is underpinned by a
study of the Bakhtinian insights into genre, chronotope and heteroglossia. The
concept is further developed by detailed explorations of four different
approaches to language in context: an applied linguistic perspective, an
ethnographic perspective, emotional perspectives, and political perspectives.
Using research findings, he teases out the pros and cons of each approach with
particular attention paid to the amount of time spent analysing language and
that spent analysing context. Results show that the first approach spent little
time on context; whereas the remaining three threw only a cursory glance at the
analysis of language. He concludes that the aforementioned approaches are
inadequate to fully explain the symbiotic relationship between talk/language and

Young sets out to remedy the inadequacy of the above approaches by providing a
'Participation Framework' and an in-depth analysis of discourse resources in
Chapter 4. Goffman's 1974 framework is used as a basis for a Participation
Framework. Here the positioning of the participants in relation to each other
and the built environment are taken into account. The positioning of the
participants encompasses nonverbal semiotic systems such as gaze, gestures,
facial expressions and clothing. It foregrounds a more holistic interpretation
of communication. Of no less importance is the dynamic nature of the
participant status. By that is meant that the participant can change roles
throughout an interaction. Goffman identifies three main production roles:
animator, author and principal; and three main reception roles: addressee,
auditors and unofficial participants or eavesdropper. Young exemplifies these
positions and their dynamic nature with reference to a number of texts. This is
followed by a detailed study of discourse resources. He highlights three such
resources: verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources. The author then
subjects the 2002 Young and Nguyen 45 second transcript from a 12th grade
physics class to analyses using each one of the resources. Young considers
Halliday's Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) as the optimal framework for
analysing verbal resources. This is due to its positioning of context as
integral to a description of language. The interactional resource is analysed
by means of Conversational Analysis (CA) with its emphasis on structuring talk
and turn-taking, and the analysis of the text culminates with a Discursive
Practice (DP) interpretation. By doing so, Young subtly highlights the
shortcomings of SFG and CA as complete tools for analysing talk-in-interaction
and points to the superior nature of DP to successfully integrate all three

Chapter 5 represents a change in direction and the focus is transferred to the
second part of the title -- language learning. Young posits the question 'What
exactly is learning?' -- is it the acquisition or possession of knowledge or
participating? He answers the question from a DP viewpoint by surmising that it
is both -- that language learning is about changes in linguistic knowledge, but
primarily it is concerned with changes in participation. To illustrate his
point, he reviews two theories -- Language Socialization and Situated Learning.
Once again, through in-depth analysis of texts using CA and SFG, he is able to
show that by documenting a learner participating in practices we can see what
changes occur. Doing so gives invaluable information not only regarding how
participating leads to changes in language used, but also how the dynamic nature
of participant status and the presence of other participants can help. Young
ends the chapter with the statement: 'it is the participation framework of the
practice that affords the possibility for coadaptation and colearning by all
participants because what is learned is not the language but participation in
the practice' (p. 179).

The natural progression from language learning is to language teaching and
testing. Both these issues are considered in Chapter 6. To begin with, Young
introduces the concept of Practice Theory to language teaching. Practice Theory
focuses on the where, when, who and why of talk. It aims to put language
teaching in context. It expands the concept of context from the confines of the
classroom and its participants to include 'the architecture of pedagogical
practices' (p. 210). This refers back to the discursive resources discussed in
chapter 4, i.e. verbal, interactional and nonverbal. Young highlights the very
different discursive practices that socialize students inside and outside the
classroom. The analysis of Hall's 2004 study into a 'Spanish as a Foreign
Language' (SFL) classroom leads him to the conclusion that 'the differences
between pedagogical practice and a discursive practice outside the classroom are
irreconcilable' (p. 192). The reason he gives for this is the historical
privileges afforded to language over practice. However, an alternative approach
is suggested and that is a 'systematic observation of the practice in situ' (pp.
193-194). This should ideally take place in the target language country or
alternatively through broadcast media. It is envisaged that an expert (teacher)
would guide the learners through the discursive resources employed by the
participants. However, Young is also concerned with the transferability or
portability of such a procedure. What should be learnt is a schema for solving
future problems. For that to happen he, controversially, advocates a top-down
approach to language teaching -- that instead of having to work out rules and
underlying patterns, learners should be provided with them initially. In this
way, cross-cultural misunderstandings could be minimalised.

Current language testing contexts come in for considerable criticism. Young
questions the portability of test results. How can the results of a
knowledge-based test, for example, be transferred to a performance task? He
looks at the 'No Child Left Behind' policy, the 'Common European Framework' and
the IELTS and TOEFL exams as examples of undemocratic procedures and states that
more work is needed to analyse language in test and non-test contexts.

The final chapter, 'Prospects for Practice', summarises the preceding chapters
and makes copious reference to the studies used which give practical examples of
the theories. It clearly reinforces the nexus between language and context.
Young admits that this is not the full picture, but remains strong in his
beliefs that the only possible way to understand language and language learning
is through a synthesis of dynamic verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources.


From a practical point of view, the book is laid out into clearly delineated
chapters and subsections. Each chapter ends with a summary and looks forward to
the next. Following chapters make constant reference to what preceded, thus
providing useful links. Young builds on what went before. This technique of
nuanced layering of information is effectively employed throughout the book.
Each chapter describes the progress of language thought or theories, starting
with the simple or beginning and then layers on more information in digestible
amounts until reaching the main point. In this way, the reader is provided with
a thorough understanding of the context and/or time/space relationship between
the theories. The book is clearly divided into 2 sections. The first, chapters
1-4, deals with the theoretical and surprisingly, only chapters 5 and 6 deal
with the practical implications of DP in language learning and teaching and testing.

Chapters 1-4 work on two levels; the first as an exposition of the theory of
Discursive Practice. Young skillfully brings together the work of language
theories and shows how each contributed to DP in a progressive manner. Each
theory or approach is exemplified by lively examples as diverse as catechism
classes to Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' novels. However,
context is never far from the foreground. Throughout these chapters the
expansive nature of context is referenced and leaves the reader in no doubt as
to the central message, i.e. that context in its broadest form is integral to
the study of language. Each chapter represents a gradual build-up to showcase
the wealth of information, which may go unseen, provided by the DP approach.

The second level on which it works is maybe incidental. Possibly without
intending to, Young has provided the reader with a historical account of
language thought and theory. Instead of focusing on the seemingly
irreconcilable dichotomies, he has managed to synthesize fields such as
anthropology, sociology, ethnography, philosophy and linguistics showing how
each one can positively influence another.

It is in the latter half of the book, however, where the arguments and examples
become less convincing. While Young constantly stresses the symbiotic nature of
language and context, the learning/development/acquisition aspect tends to be
overlooked. His examples may be criticized as showing language in use instead
of concentrating on how it is acquired, i.e. how a learner moves from point a to
point b. This is exemplified by the engagement between Japanese and American
co-workers at a car plant. The extract sheds light on the importance of
interactional and non-verbal resources in cross-cultural communication, but does
not address language learning or development. It is a clear example of language
in use. Two examples were given which are directly concerned with language
acquisition -- Young and Miller's 2004 longitudinal study of a writing
conference between an ESL student and a teacher, and Nguyen's 2006 study of
native speaker trainee pharmacists. And while these examples illuminate the
extreme importance of 'practice' and 'participation' in developing language
strategies, their focus is on interactional and nonverbal resources. Verbal
resources seem to have been neglected.

The argument put forth in chapter 5 is even weaker. The fact that there are
wide chasms between what goes on in the classroom and what is needed for
discursive practice in the community is well known. However, Young's statement
that they are irreconcilable and his advocacy of a top-down approach to teaching
will certainly prove controversial. His argument would have benefited from a
better example. He uses Kinginger's 2008 study of American students spending a
semester in Paris. We discover an unexpected reaction by a French lecturer to a
student's request, but are given no indication of the discursive resources --
i.e. verbal, interactional or nonverbal -- used by either participant, and thus
guesses are made concerning the exchange based on very limited contextual
information. Testing is also dealt with unsatisfactorily. While established
tests and frameworks are, maybe correctly, criticized, Young fails to explain
the problem and offers no practical solution.

On the whole, the book works extremely well as an introduction to discourse
practice. It provides compelling arguments for its use as a tool for analysing
language in use, but fails to convince as a means for measuring language
development or acquisition. This deficit may be due to the examples chosen by
Young, many of which do not take into account all three discursive resources.
The questions of 'who', 'where', 'when', 'why' and 'how' are extensively
explored, but the reader is left wondering about the role of the 'what', i.e.
the language.


Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997) On Discourse, Communication and (Some) Fundamental
Concepts of SLA Research. Modern Language Journal, 81(3), 285-300.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

Hall, J.K. (2004). ''Practicing speaking'' in Spanish: Lessons from a high
school foreign language classroom. In D. Boxer & A.D. Cohen (Eds.), Studying
speaking to inform second language learning (pp. 68-87). Cleveden, UK:
Multilingual Matters.

Kinginger, C. (2008). Language learning in study abroad: Case studies of
Americans in France. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nguyen H.T. (2006). Constructing ''expertness'': A novice pharmacist's
development of interactional competence in patient consultations. Communication
and Medication, 3 (2), 147-160.

Young, R.F., & Miller, E.R. (2004). Learning as changing participation:
Negotiating discourse roles in the ESL writing conference. Modern Language
Journal, 88 (4), 519-535.

Young, R.F., & Nguyen, H.T. (2002). Modes of meaning in high school science.
Applied Linguistics, 23 (3), 348-372.

Anne Marie Devlin is a PhD student at the University of Cork, Ireland. Her project is concerned with the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation in highly advanced non-native speaker teachers of English. She is particularly interested in the role of time spent in the target language country and the role of identity in the acquisition or non-acquisition of the above. Other interests include sociolinguistics, second language acquisition theories, language teaching -- she has been involved in ESL for the past 16 years -- and teacher training. In addition to this, she is passionate about the Russian language and literature.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1405184442
ISBN-13: 9781405184441
Pages: 300
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