Discourse analysis serves as a device for systematically describing the kinds of interactions that occur in language classrooms. Drawing on initial work on content classrooms by Bellack (1966) and by the Birmingham School of linguistis (Sinclair & Coulthard (1975) discourse analysts give attention not only to the function of individual utterances but also to how these utterances combine to form larger discoursal units. They aim to account for the joint contributions of teacher and student and to describe all the data, avoiding the kind of ‘rag bag’ category found in many interaction analysis schedules (Ellis, 2008).
Ellis (1984) and van Lier (1988) developed frameworks based on discourse analysis to characterize the different types of interaction that can occur in the L2 classroom.
The discourse analyst studies texts, whether spoken or written, whether long or short, and is interested in the relationship between texts and the contexts in which they arise and operate. Discourse analysts always look at real texts – and in this they differ significantly from formal grammarians and philosophers of language, since these scholars tend to work with invented or constructed examples. Discourse analysts study language independently of the notion of the sentence, typically studying longer passages of text. In other words, discourse analysis is associated with ‘utterances’, i.e. sequences of words written or spoken in specific contexts.
In discourse analysis, it is important to note who participate in the discourse, that is, the writer(s) or reader(s), the speaker(s) or listener(s), what is their relationships? What are their goals? What does this piece of language mean in this piece of context? Or what does the speaker/writer mean by this piece of language? What clues are there in the surrounding texts which will enable us to apprehend the meaning?