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Review of  School Discourse


Reviewer: Dalia Magana
Book Title: School Discourse
Book Author: Frances Christie Beverly Derewianka
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 23.3186

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Review:
AUTHOR: Christie, Francis and Derewianka, Beverly
TITLE: School Discourse
SUBTITLE: Learning to write across the years of schooling
PUBLISHER: Continuum Discourse Series
YEAR: 2008

Dalia Magaña, Department of Spanish & Portuguese, University of California, Davis

SUMMARY

''School Discourse'' takes a close look at the writing development of children and
adolescents using a Systemic Functional perspective, a social-semiotic approach
that views language as a function for meaning-making potential and offers
numerous tools ideal for fine-grained analysis. The contribution is timely
because even though various studies have looked at the writing development of
children or adolescents, few have included data that are representative of
various age groups in order to inspect how the development is being realized
across the years of schooling.

The database of the study consists of about 2,000 texts collected from previous
studies on writing development, among other sources, to investigate English,
history and science subjects. The study is the first of its kind to not only
draw from writing samples across both the curriculum and age development, but
also using Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) as a theoretical framework.

The book is broken down into eight chapters: the first is introductory; the
second and third cover genres in English; the third and fourth deal with the
history genres; the sixth and seventh discuss science genres; and the final
chapter provides concluding remarks on the findings and offers pedagogical
implications.

The first chapter of the text offers the readers an introduction to the
theoretical framework with examples illustrating the method for analysis.
Specifically, Christie and Derewianka discuss how context is considered at two
levels: context of culture, which is more abstract and deals with genre as
social processes; and context of situation, which is more concrete and deals
with registers composed of the field (i.e. topic), tenor (i.e. participants),
and mode (i.e. from oral to written). A related concept, the register, functions
simultaneously with the three metafunctions of language that provide the
specific tools for linguistic analysis: field functions with the ideational
metafunction; tenor with the interpersonal metafunction; and mode with the
textual metafunction. Further, the authors draw on the appraisal system, an SFL
based theoretical model that provides further resources for analyzing the
interpersonal metafunction, to measure the writers': evaluations (i.e.
''Attitude''); up-scaling and down-scaling of these evaluations (i.e.
''Graduation''); and dialogic interactions (i.e. ''Engagement''). With respect to
the appraisal system, Christie and Derewianka mainly focus on the first
component, “Attitude,” which includes ''Affect'' (for expressing emotional
reaction), ''Appreciation'' (for valuing things and ideas), and ''Judgment'' (for
judging people's behavior).

The second chapter, “Writing Stories in Subject English,” discusses narratives
and recounts. The difference between these two types of stories is that while a
recount includes an orientation and record, a narrative includes a complication
of some sort, followed by an evaluation and a resolution. These components are
referred to as 'schematic structures' in genre theory. The sample for analyzing
these genres consists of 9 texts from girls and boys between the ages of 6 and
18. The authors found that as writers matured, their writing became more
lexically dense (i.e. contained more content words other than those that are
commonly used), their expressions richer (i.e. had descriptive adjectives,
adverbs and prepositions), and their grammar less congruent (i.e. used varied
clause types).

Chapter 3, “Writing to Respond to and Evaluate Other Texts,” specifically
inspects “response genres”: personal response; book and film review; character
analysis; and thematic interpretation. The authors propose that each of the
genres becomes more complex, with personal response viewed as a simple,
immediate response to a text, while thematic interpretation is viewed as the
most abstract of the four. For these reasons, it is no surprise that the younger
participants produced the samples for the simpler genres, while older
participants produced the more complex genres. The authors offer a schematic
structure of each of the genres and explain that while these schematic
structures may vary slightly, overall, they are similar. For the character
analysis texts, the more successful authors provide little plot details, instead
focusing on interpretation of the characters and making connections with life in
general. Moreover, Christie and Derewianka note that the more mature writers
appraise the texts using Appreciation and Judgment, while the younger writers
tend to use simple Affect.

The next subject inspected is history, in Chapters 4 and 5 “Reconstructing the
Past: Recording and Describing Historical Events,” and “Reviewing the Past:
Interpreting, Explaining, Arguing and Debating Historical Events,” respectively.
Chapter 4 focuses on writing development during childhood to early adolescence,
while Chapter 5 reports on the writing of late adolescence. This age division is
due to the book's organization of the genres inspected and findings; whereas
Chapter 4 discusses recount and period and site study genres, Chapter 5 inspects
interpretive, explanatory and arguing genres. The authors found that the
participants shifted their control of genres according to their age, and thus
their development in writing complexity, from chronological recounts to
non-chronological period/site studies to explanation, interpretation, and
rhetorical argumentation. Specifically, they found that children's development
was evidenced as they demonstrated the following progression: from more concrete
to more abstract “processes” (i.e. types of verbs according to their function);
from representing “participants” (i.e. nouns) through simple nominal groups to
grammatical metaphor; from simple “Appreciation” through adjectives to attitude
enabling interpretation; and from “theme choices” (i.e. point of departure in a
sentence) that are repetitive and simple to more thematic progression indicating
shifts and sustaining extensive interpretation.

The third and final subject studied is science, in Chapters 6, “Observing and
Writing about the Natural World,” and 7, “Interpreting Phenomena of the Natural
World.” The genres selected for sampling in Chapter 6 consist of “procedural
recount,” “demonstrations,” “research articles,” and “field studies,” while in
Chapter 7, we see “reports,” “explanation,” and “discussion.” As with the
previous two subjects of study, the authors provide the reader with a schematic
structure of each of the genres, along with specific examples illustrating each
schematic structure. The findings revealed that in their scientific writings,
“participants” went from being realized as pronouns among younger children to
dense nominal groups among the older adolescents. Clauses were developed as
equal clauses among the younger writers to more complex clauses among the older
writers. As opposed to the previous subjects inspected, the authors found that
with respect to the interpersonal metafunction, younger writers used the first
person, while older writers mainly used the third person and, in general,
refrained from expressing attitude. The authors also noted a shift in theme
choices, from unmarked to marked.

Overall Christie and Derewianka found that the younger writers tended to use a
lower lexical density, congruent grammar and simple means of appraising. On the
other hand, the more mature writers employed a higher lexical density,
non-congruent grammar, and elaborate attitudinal expressions as well as opinion.
With respect to content, the authors drew upon Bernstein's notions of
“commonsense” and “uncommonsense knowledge” and confirmed that in early
childhood writers used simple commonsense knowledge, referred to as “everyday
community knowledge” (Bernstein, 1975: 99). On the other hand, writers in late
adolescence achieved uncommonsense knowledge, meaning knowledge that is “freed
from the particular, the local through the various languages of the sciences or
forms of reflexiveness of the arts…” (Bernstein, 1975: 99).

The concluding chapter, “The Developmental Trajectory in Writing,” discusses the
importance of teaching children and adolescents to write in academic settings.
After summarizing their findings, the authors outline a four-phase plan to
approach explicit writing instruction, with each phase targeting appropriate age
groups. The authors argue for an explicit approach to writing with particular
attention, for example, to metalanguage, genre/schematic structures and
grammatical organization, and suggest that teachers would benefit greatly from
specific pedagogical tools to foment writing development.

EVALUATION

The book is a welcomed contribution to studies on literacy development across
the curriculum (in this case, across various genres in English, history and
science) and to research in SFL. Christie and Derewianka provide us with a close
look at what writing development looks like at the language level and what
resources writers are utilizing at different levels of their development. The
presentation and organization are outstanding. The chapters discussing the
subjects of study being analyzed (2-7) maintain consistency with respect to
structure (we find an introduction, sample selected, a description of the genre,
analysis/discussion, and a conclusion), which makes it easy to follow and to
locate the information readers need. The tables are also consistent and the
examples are clearly labeled. The figures conveying ideas about how development
is realized are also very helpful (e.g. Figures 3.1, 4.1, 6.1, and 8.1).

Undoubtedly, the findings will be highly useful for researchers in discourse
analysis and writing development as well as for educators. The text is also
suitable for graduate students interested in functional grammar and/or literacy
development, given the clear explanations provided of the various analytic tools
available for inspecting academic writing using SFL. At the same time, in the
introduction, we see how the data analysis is applied in numerous examples. In
one such case, the authors explain how clauses could be divided by performing a
thematic analysis using the concepts of ''Theme'' (i.e. the point of departure)
and ''Rheme'' (i.e. the remaining information). After an introduction to these
concepts, Christie and Derewianka illustrate, with examples from their data, the
various forms that Theme can take (e.g. as a noun phrase, a pronoun, a
prepositional phrase, a dependent clause) (see pp. 20-21). Further, this
analysis proves suitable for the authors as they demonstrate that the more
mature writers aim to organize topics in discourse by carefully introducing the
Theme while the younger writers may struggle to clearly show not only the Theme
but also the thematic progression throughout the texts. Overall, the authors'
approach serves as guidance and reference to the novice researcher in the field,
as they present an exemplary project of how the numerous tools in SFL are being
applied.

Aside from the introduction, Chapters 2 and 3, which deal with genres in
English, are particularly compelling since the genres discussed (especially
personal responses, book and film reviews, character analyses, and thematic
interpretations) also apply to various other areas of studies in higher
education (e.g. foreign language courses, writing, literature, film studies, and
other such courses involving writing reviews and analysis/interpretation of
texts (including films, poetry, etc.)). The authors demonstrate how advanced
writers achieved writing effective analyses and interpretations, for example, by
using evaluative language, abstracting, and reflecting. To complement their
findings the authors offer pedagogical implications (in the final chapter)
regarding the value of teaching students explicitly how to use these writing
tools to accelerate their development. However, these lessons could be highly
useful not only for literacy development among children and adolescents, but
also for adults in the academic areas previously mentioned. For these reasons,
Christie and Derewianka's study benefits a much larger group than the one
originally proposed.

The following comments are solely intended as suggestions for improvement of
future research in the area and do not compromise the exceptional quality of the
text reviewed. First, one of the drawbacks of the study is its limited
information on the corpus. It would have been helpful to have more information
on the student population whose writing they collected to have a more
holistic/ethnographic view of the participants. For example, a brief mention of
information regarding geography, socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc., would
have been helpful for readers to contextualize the data. Even though the corpus
consists of some 2,000 texts, the samples discussed throughout the chapters are
smaller (ranging from 5 to 10 texts, which is necessary, given the fine-grained
analysis performed and the qualitative nature of the study) and therefore, the
authors could have included more information about the writers. It would also
have helped to know what the parameters were for selecting the samples (besides
age, gender, and genre). For example, was the student academically above or
below average? Also, was the sample representative of the corpus? Why and how?
Likewise, there are minimal details on the assignment. The reader would have
benefitted from knowing procedural details related to the written products
examined (Was it a first draft? A final draft? Had the student received feedback
or any other type of guidance?). This information could be very brief, but is
crucial, as writing is seen as a process. Again, this knowledge would allow the
reader to better interpret the findings.

Regarding the tendencies that the authors perceive among the writers (e.g.
younger writers using simple clause patterns), it would have been useful to get
an idea of how often this occurred by presenting the readers with simple
calculations (such as those used in presenting the results for lexical density).
The authors often resort to terms like “often,” “typically,” “more common,” and
“can occur,” among other such terms, to discuss their results; however, a basic
numeric frequency as to the tendencies of the writers (to complement qualitative
findings) would give the reader a more specific idea of the generalizations
proposed.

These observations do not weaken, in any form, the excellence of this research.
Comprehensively, the book provides enriching findings for the field of literacy
development using SFL and will undoubtedly afford researchers in the area
original insights evoking additional future dialogue and research.

REFERENCES

Bernstein, B. (1975). Class, Codes and Control Vol. 3. Towards a Theory of
Educational
Transmissions. London and Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dalia Magaña is a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish Linguistics at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include discourse analysis (especially of U.S. Spanish and medical Spanish), and Spanish as a heritage language.

Versions:
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781441131317
Pages: 280
Prices: U.K. £ 27.99