Disciplinary talk
: a systemic functional exploration of university seminar discussions

  • Elizabeth Tanguay

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Despite the growth of spoken academic corpora in recent years, relatively little is known about the language of seminar discussions in higher education. This thesis compares seminar discussions across three disciplinary areas. The aim of this thesis is to uncover the functions and patterns of talk used in different disciplinary discussions and to highlight language on a macro and micro level that would be useful for materials design and teaching purposes. A framework for identifying and analysing genres in spoken language based on Hallidayan Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) is used. Stretches of talk sharing a similar purpose and predictable functional staging, termed Discussion Macro Genres (DMGs) are identified. Language is compared across DMGs and across disciplines through use of corpus techniques in conjunction with SFL genre theory. Data for the study comprises just over 180,000 tokens and is drawn from the British Academic Spoken English corpus (BASE), recorded at two universities in the UK. The discipline areas investigated are Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Physical Sciences.
    Findings from this study make theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions to the field of spoken EAP. The empirical findings are firstly, that the majority of the seminar discussion can be assigned to one of the three main DMG in the corpus: Responding, Debating and Problem Solving. Secondly, it characterises each discipline area according to two DMGs. Thirdly, the majority of the discussion is non-oppositional in nature, suggesting that ‘debate’ is not the only form of discussion that students need to be prepared for. Finally, while some characteristics of the discussion are tied to the DMG and common across disciplines, others are discipline specific. On a theoretical level, this study shows that an SFL genre model for investigating spoken discourse can be successfully extended to investigate longer stretches of discourse than have previously been identified. The methodological contribution is to demonstrate how corpus techniques can be combined with SFL genre theory to investigate extended stretches of spoken discussion.
    The thesis will be of value to those working in the field of teaching spoken EAP/ ESAP as well as to materials developers.
    Date of Award16 Jun 2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Aston University
    SupervisorFiona M Copland (Supervisor) & Sue Garton (Supervisor)


    • spoken EAP/ESAP
    • spoken discourse analysis
    • academic corpora
    • BASE corpus
    • speaking skills

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