LINGUIST List 23.3186

Wed Jul 25 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis; Applied Linguistics: Christie & Derewianka (2008)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 25-Jul-2012
From: Dalia Magana <>
Subject: School Discourse
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AUTHOR: Christie, Francis and Derewianka, BeverlyTITLE: School DiscourseSUBTITLE: Learning to write across the years of schoolingPUBLISHER: Continuum Discourse SeriesYEAR: 2008

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


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

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

The book is broken down into eight chapters: the first is introductory; thesecond and third cover genres in English; the third and fourth deal with thehistory genres; the sixth and seventh discuss science genres; and the finalchapter provides concluding remarks on the findings and offers pedagogicalimplications.

The first chapter of the text offers the readers an introduction to thetheoretical framework with examples illustrating the method for analysis.Specifically, Christie and Derewianka discuss how context is considered at twolevels: context of culture, which is more abstract and deals with genre associal processes; and context of situation, which is more concrete and dealswith 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, functionssimultaneously with the three metafunctions of language that provide thespecific tools for linguistic analysis: field functions with the ideationalmetafunction; tenor with the interpersonal metafunction; and mode with thetextual metafunction. Further, the authors draw on the appraisal system, an SFLbased theoretical model that provides further resources for analyzing theinterpersonal 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 tothe appraisal system, Christie and Derewianka mainly focus on the firstcomponent, “Attitude,” which includes ''Affect'' (for expressing emotionalreaction), ''Appreciation'' (for valuing things and ideas), and ''Judgment'' (forjudging people's behavior).

The second chapter, “Writing Stories in Subject English,” discusses narrativesand recounts. The difference between these two types of stories is that while arecount includes an orientation and record, a narrative includes a complicationof some sort, followed by an evaluation and a resolution. These components arereferred to as 'schematic structures' in genre theory. The sample for analyzingthese genres consists of 9 texts from girls and boys between the ages of 6 and18. The authors found that as writers matured, their writing became morelexically dense (i.e. contained more content words other than those that arecommonly used), their expressions richer (i.e. had descriptive adjectives,adverbs and prepositions), and their grammar less congruent (i.e. used variedclause types).

Chapter 3, “Writing to Respond to and Evaluate Other Texts,” specificallyinspects “response genres”: personal response; book and film review; characteranalysis; and thematic interpretation. The authors propose that each of thegenres becomes more complex, with personal response viewed as a simple,immediate response to a text, while thematic interpretation is viewed as themost abstract of the four. For these reasons, it is no surprise that the youngerparticipants produced the samples for the simpler genres, while olderparticipants produced the more complex genres. The authors offer a schematicstructure of each of the genres and explain that while these schematicstructures may vary slightly, overall, they are similar. For the characteranalysis texts, the more successful authors provide little plot details, insteadfocusing on interpretation of the characters and making connections with life ingeneral. Moreover, Christie and Derewianka note that the more mature writersappraise the texts using Appreciation and Judgment, while the younger writerstend to use simple Affect.

The next subject inspected is history, in Chapters 4 and 5 “Reconstructing thePast: 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 isdue to the book's organization of the genres inspected and findings; whereasChapter 4 discusses recount and period and site study genres, Chapter 5 inspectsinterpretive, explanatory and arguing genres. The authors found that theparticipants shifted their control of genres according to their age, and thustheir development in writing complexity, from chronological recounts tonon-chronological period/site studies to explanation, interpretation, andrhetorical argumentation. Specifically, they found that children's developmentwas evidenced as they demonstrated the following progression: from more concreteto more abstract “processes” (i.e. types of verbs according to their function);from representing “participants” (i.e. nouns) through simple nominal groups togrammatical metaphor; from simple “Appreciation” through adjectives to attitudeenabling interpretation; and from “theme choices” (i.e. point of departure in asentence) that are repetitive and simple to more thematic progression indicatingshifts and sustaining extensive interpretation.

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

Overall Christie and Derewianka found that the younger writers tended to use alower lexical density, congruent grammar and simple means of appraising. On theother 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 earlychildhood writers used simple commonsense knowledge, referred to as “everydaycommunity knowledge” (Bernstein, 1975: 99). On the other hand, writers in lateadolescence achieved uncommonsense knowledge, meaning knowledge that is “freedfrom the particular, the local through the various languages of the sciences orforms of reflexiveness of the arts…” (Bernstein, 1975: 99).

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


The book is a welcomed contribution to studies on literacy development acrossthe curriculum (in this case, across various genres in English, history andscience) and to research in SFL. Christie and Derewianka provide us with a closelook at what writing development looks like at the language level and whatresources writers are utilizing at different levels of their development. Thepresentation and organization are outstanding. The chapters discussing thesubjects of study being analyzed (2-7) maintain consistency with respect tostructure (we find an introduction, sample selected, a description of the genre,analysis/discussion, and a conclusion), which makes it easy to follow and tolocate the information readers need. The tables are also consistent and theexamples are clearly labeled. The figures conveying ideas about how developmentis 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 discourseanalysis and writing development as well as for educators. The text is alsosuitable for graduate students interested in functional grammar and/or literacydevelopment, given the clear explanations provided of the various analytic toolsavailable for inspecting academic writing using SFL. At the same time, in theintroduction, we see how the data analysis is applied in numerous examples. Inone such case, the authors explain how clauses could be divided by performing athematic analysis using the concepts of ''Theme'' (i.e. the point of departure)and ''Rheme'' (i.e. the remaining information). After an introduction to theseconcepts, Christie and Derewianka illustrate, with examples from their data, thevarious forms that Theme can take (e.g. as a noun phrase, a pronoun, aprepositional phrase, a dependent clause) (see pp. 20-21). Further, thisanalysis proves suitable for the authors as they demonstrate that the moremature writers aim to organize topics in discourse by carefully introducing theTheme while the younger writers may struggle to clearly show not only the Themebut 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 beingapplied.

Aside from the introduction, Chapters 2 and 3, which deal with genres inEnglish, are particularly compelling since the genres discussed (especiallypersonal responses, book and film reviews, character analyses, and thematicinterpretations) also apply to various other areas of studies in highereducation (e.g. foreign language courses, writing, literature, film studies, andother such courses involving writing reviews and analysis/interpretation oftexts (including films, poetry, etc.)). The authors demonstrate how advancedwriters achieved writing effective analyses and interpretations, for example, byusing evaluative language, abstracting, and reflecting. To complement theirfindings the authors offer pedagogical implications (in the final chapter)regarding the value of teaching students explicitly how to use these writingtools to accelerate their development. However, these lessons could be highlyuseful not only for literacy development among children and adolescents, butalso for adults in the academic areas previously mentioned. For these reasons,Christie and Derewianka's study benefits a much larger group than the oneoriginally proposed.

The following comments are solely intended as suggestions for improvement offuture research in the area and do not compromise the exceptional quality of thetext reviewed. First, one of the drawbacks of the study is its limitedinformation on the corpus. It would have been helpful to have more informationon the student population whose writing they collected to have a moreholistic/ethnographic view of the participants. For example, a brief mention ofinformation regarding geography, socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc., wouldhave been helpful for readers to contextualize the data. Even though the corpusconsists of some 2,000 texts, the samples discussed throughout the chapters aresmaller (ranging from 5 to 10 texts, which is necessary, given the fine-grainedanalysis performed and the qualitative nature of the study) and therefore, theauthors could have included more information about the writers. It would alsohave helped to know what the parameters were for selecting the samples (besidesage, gender, and genre). For example, was the student academically above orbelow average? Also, was the sample representative of the corpus? Why and how?Likewise, there are minimal details on the assignment. The reader would havebenefitted from knowing procedural details related to the written productsexamined (Was it a first draft? A final draft? Had the student received feedbackor any other type of guidance?). This information could be very brief, but iscrucial, as writing is seen as a process. Again, this knowledge would allow thereader 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 getan idea of how often this occurred by presenting the readers with simplecalculations (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 basicnumeric frequency as to the tendencies of the writers (to complement qualitativefindings) would give the reader a more specific idea of the generalizationsproposed.

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


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


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.

Page Updated: 25-Jul-2012