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Discourse Analysis

Barbara Johnstone
Blackwell, 2002
pp. xv +269

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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The textbook for those without a class
The bookstores are filled with books for teachers that fall into four general categories: graduate school "tomes;" desktop references; survival guides with tricks, tips and photocopiables; and "idiot's guides" or "lite" texts for those who want to learn the jargon. Few and far between are those that provide a detailed and comprehensive scholarly overview, as a graduate school coursebook should do, yet retain aspects of readability and self-learning to allow independent study. "Discourse Analysis" by Barbara Johnstone is one of those exceptional books that strikes the perfect balance.

For this author discourse analysis is simply an "open-ended heuristic" comprised of "a set of topics to consider in connection with any instance of discourse."

What is discourse analysis?
The title of the first discussion, Johnstone quickly establishes that she is tackling the subject from a different perspective. Rather than as a distinct discipline or subdiscipline of linguistics, Johnstone declares her definition as "a systematic, rigorous way of suggesting answers to research questions posed in and across disciplines throughout the humanities and social sciences and beyond." In "Discourse Analysis" Johnstone describes and explains her view: for this author discourse analysis is simply an "open-ended heuristic" comprised of "a set of topics to consider in connection with any instance of discourse."

Presentation is everything
Regular readers of this column know that I value books that can be read on the go. Not that I dislike traditional graduate school textbooks, but we practicing teachers juggle many tasks, and readings that fit our busy lives are appreciated. Johnstone's book is not quite a backpacker's delight, it is bigger, thicker, and deeper than the typical paperback intros that most ELT booksellers carry.

On the other hand, it has a number of very helpful features: paperback makes it a bit cheaper and lighter, it is one size smaller (height and width) than most textbooks, it incorporates subsection titles (and includes these in the table of contents), and it's a bit more reader-friendly without becoming the "Reader's Digest Condensed Books" version of a text. Yet it is a real textbook, Johnstone notes this is a book for those taking their first (or only) book in discourse analysis at the graduate level, coming in from a variety of majors (not just Linguistics/English education/etc).

Guiding the reader
This subject area can be very difficult. At least, it is for me, so I looked for help. And found it. As do many books, discussion questions encourage the reader to think more about the materials presented. Discourse Analysis does it better, I think, because of the sheer volume of questions, the variety of perspectives sought, and their placement. Coming at the end of subsections, we get 3-7 discussion questions every 5 pages or so. Some incorporate other languages, for students who are in advanced studies in those languages, others feature everyday life situations. It's not just "imagine a classroom of language students."

You know that "topic sentence" we encourage our language learners to write at the top of each paragraph? Johnstone hasn't forgotten how useful they really are. Discourse Analysis is based on all the features of an excellent roadmap: a good overview (table of contents), lots of landmarks (subsection headers and topic sentences), and frequent reminders of what you just gone through (discussion questions and integration into newer discussions).

Because I'm not a scholar of discourse analysis, I can't claim that the book is fully comprehensive. I can say that it addresses a wider variety of topics than some other books in the market. Johnstone's broad definition of discourse analysis is part of this, she includes researchers who probably aren't thought of as discourse analysts (even by themselves). Since most of us in TEFL consider ourselves as far more multidisciplinary than those buried in the bowels of linguistics, "Discourse Analysis" is probably more befitting our interests.

And all the details
Because this is not a 400-page textbook written in the condensed language of academia, scholars could argue that some detail is lost. There is a rather higher than usual reliance on a few authors, and the further reading bits at the end of each chapter are in narrative, rather than simply an annotated booklist, which might account for some of that. The type is a bit smaller than some popular teacher's resources, making it a tough read on the subway.

I am very disappointed in the 3.5 page Glossary, which is very insufficient despite Johnstone's heroic efforts to define and explain terms in the narrative. And the index is rather insufficient, much of it is only authors cited, and I think dividing into "author's index" and "general index" serves much better, particularly if each are very inclusive. But at least this index lists more than only the first instance of use of each term.

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