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Review of  Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and Literacy Events

Reviewer: Charlotte Brammer
Book Title: Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and Literacy Events
Book Author: David Bloome Stephanie Power Carter Beth Morton Christian Sheila Otto Nora Shuart-Faris
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.96

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Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 14:08:53 -0600
From: Charlotte Brammer
Subject: Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and
Literacy Events

AUTHORS: Bloome, David; Carter, Stephanie Power; Christian, Beth Morton;
Otto, Sheila; Shuart-Faris, Nora
TITLE: Discourse Analysis and the Study of Classroom Language and
Literacy Events
SUBTITLE: A Microethnographic Perspective
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Charlotte Brammer, Department of Communication Studies, Samford
University, Birmingham, AL, USA

As the title suggests, this monograph presents discourse analyses of
language use in classrooms from a microethnographic perspective. The
authors' purpose is to demonstrate a complex and recursive approach
that "combines attention to how people use language and other systems of
communication in constructing language and literacy events in classrooms
with attention to social, cultural, and political processes"(p. xv) and to do so
reflectively, bringing theory to apply as it enriches the discussion and
description of the literacy event rather than using theory to shape, bound,
or otherwise determine the discussion and description. In the disparity
between the microcosm of the classroom and the macrocosm of the diverse
theoretical fields, researchers can use their "imaginations" to create frames
for viewing the complete research situation, meaning not only to see
research subjects but also to assess the behaviors and motives of
themselves as researchers and as members of a larger field of research(ers).
The result is a lucid account of not only how theory informs practice but
also how practice can inform theory that will be useful for graduate
students as well as experienced researchers interested in applied

The 244-page text begins with a foreword by Brian V. Street who
commends the authors for "demonstrat[ing] that it is not a matter of posing
the 'local' against the 'global,' the 'micro' against the 'macro' but of
understanding the relationships between them, as meanings are built in
their encounter" (p. xi). After a brief introduction, the authors launch into
the first of five chapters devoted to analyzing and describing classroom
language in use. In the first chapter, "A Microethnographic Approach to the
Discourse Analysis of Classroom Language and Literacy Events," as in each
subsequent chapter, the authors are deliberate in locating their approach
within existing schools of thought, notably sociolinguistic ethnography,
while emphasizing their theoretical frames, especially acknowledging their
belief that individuals have the "potential of agency" even in the most
unlikely situations: "People...create and re-create the worlds in which they
live; purposefully struggle with each other over meaning, action, material,
and social relationships; resist the imposition of unwanted control; and
fashion alternative ways of living their lives that eschew given structures
and strictures" (p. 4). This description of individuals seems similar to the
authors' notion of how researchers should exercise agency in selecting
differing, even opposing, heuristics for addressing various research
questions or foci. In this first chapter, as they do throughout the text, the
authors (1) favor the micro over the macro, at least in part because of their
privileging of context, and (2) question language use and motives of
researchers as well as the researched.

In Chapter 2, "A Microethnographic Approach to the Discourse Analysis of
Cultural Practices in Classroom Language and Literacy Events," the authors
explain that literacy events or practices can only be assessed and described
from the microcosm of the classroom because they are "after thick
description in motion," meaning they want extensive, rich detail in order to
better understand the contextual aspects and influences. In their
words, "what actually happens in any particular classroom with regard to
literacy practices cannot be predetermined." Part of the explanation for this
is the importance of "levels" within the communicative event (p. 68). This is
demonstrated with a careful and multi-pronged analysis of 175 lines of
transcript from a seventh grade language arts classroom. In their analysis,
the authors identify both surface and underlying levels of language use,
from surface level of informing to the sub-level of challenging. Their
insightful coding of the classroom discussion is convincing testimony to
their position that from the intimacy of the classroom, researchers can more
fully appreciate the multiplicity of how language is used and how literacy
events are orchestrated by teachers and students.

Similar to the preceding chapter's examination of cultural practices, chapter
3 scrutinizes social identities within the classroom. After reiterating their
belief in individual agency, the authors seek to "illustrate how a recursive
process can identify new questions and issues to explore and how it can
lead to reinterpretations of data" (p. 102). The construction of social
identities are influenced by social, cultural, and political events and beliefs
beyond the classroom, by the school's administration, the community,
parents, the state, etc., and by ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, etc.
These identities are also shaped by the classroom's socio-political
environment (teacher's pet, class rank, etc.), and social identities are also
shaped in the moment-by-moment events of the classroom. The authors
conclude that a microethnographic approach to discourse analysis of social
identity in classroom language and literacy events requires "documentation
and description of the social construction of social identities from how
people act and react to each other," which the authors provide in their rich
description of how students struggle to keep and re-define their social
identities in interactions with each other and with their teacher.

A key component of social identity is power, and in chapter 4, the authors
concentrate on how theoretical constructs of power as product, power as
process, and power as caring relations affect discourse analysis of
classroom language and literacy events. While employing each of these
notions of power in their explication of additional classroom transcripts,
the authors emphasize that one definition of power is not inherently better
or worse than another, but rather they posit that by acknowledging each
way of framing power, researchers can develop more robust descriptions of
how power influences language and literacy events within the classroom.
As the authors point out, if researchers focus too much on turn taking,
topic initiation, and interruptions, important aspects of power may not be
readily visible. For example, sometimes turn taking and topic initiation are
affected by the particular phase or part of the lesson. If the teacher is
introducing a new topic or assignment, he or she may hold the floor longer
and may not yield to off-topic comments. During a brainstorming activity,
the teacher may say little if anything, yielding the floor almost entirely to the
students, breaking in only to maintain focus and appropriate classroom
behavior. These and similar contextual cues must be considered when
assessing power relations in classroom literacy events.

Chapter 5 serves as the text's summary in which the authors reassert their
call for researchers to be more conscientious of the local and to adopt a
dialogic approach when applying theory to ethnographic research.
Research perspectives should be particularly germane to that specific
research project, "to a specific purpose at a specific time and place" (p. 241,
original in italics).

The authors go to great lengths to situate their writing within current
research on classroom literacy and ethnography. The bibliography is
substantial, some ten pages, and reflects solid grounding in major theorists
from Foucault to Freire, from ethnographers such as Ochs, Gee, Heath and
Street, and from rhetoricians such as Bazerman and Toulmin. While I would
like to see the authors include some reference to work in composition
studies in their discussions of classroom interaction and constructions of
power, perhaps A. Ball, L. Delpit, and V. Villaneuva, they certainly are not the
first to overlook the contributions from this body of scholars. This criticism
aside, the authors bring rich examples of classroom interaction and provide
multiple ways of analyzing what transpires in the classroom. The transcripts
are delightful, and the interpretations are insightful. The patterned
development of each chapter helps the authors to reiterate their argument
for recursive and situated application of theoretical constructs, and by
demonstrating how such a situated application works with a variety of
topics, the authors create a text that could serve as an example for many
graduate students.


Dr. Brammer is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Howard
College of Arts and Sciences, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama,
USA. Her research interests include writing pedagogy, technical and
professional communication, and sociolinguistics.

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