March 2013
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Teaching Expressions for Academic Discussion: Corpus-Based Materials That Work
Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig, Heidi Vellenga, Sabrina Mossman, & Roosevelt T. Faulkner

Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig

Heidi Vellenga

Sabrina Mossman

Roosevelt T. Faulkner

Teaching academic discussion often presents challenges both in authenticity of the language samples and in the mode of measurement. This article reports on an investigation into the effectiveness of teaching expressions for academic discussion, namely expressions for agreement, disagreement, and clarification (of other speakers and oneself).

This study involved three challenges: identifying authentic expressions for academic discussion, developing teaching materials based on authentic discourse, and designing a means of assessing learners’ knowledge of the expressions. The source of authentic input for both the expressions and their contexts was the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE; Simpson, Briggs, Ovens, & Swales, 2002). For evaluation, we developed an oral, computer-delivered conversation simulation that allowed students to respond to turns taken by classmates.

Previous studies of disagreements relied on group discussion to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching (e.g., LoCastro, 1997), but discussion groups provide learners with neither obligatory contexts to agree or disagree nor identical opportunities for everyone. Previous studies of conversational expressions have used either multiple choice tasks (Roever, 2005) or C-test passages (Schmitt, 2004). Neither resembles communicative contexts in which learners respond orally in real time.

The oral production test used for the pre- and posttest includes 2 examples, 2 practice items, and 30 test items randomly arranged, including 10 agreement, 10 disagreement, and 10 clarification scenarios. Items start with a brief description of the setting and the topic (e.g., transportation, fast food, learning English) and then give learners a specific opinion. Students saw the descriptions on the screen as in Example 1. After students heard and read the setting and their position, they heard a classmate’s turn to which they responded.

Example 1: Disagreement

Narrator (visual and audio): Your group is talking about the news and media. You think that newspapers like The New York Times and The London Times are still very important.

Classmate’s turn (audio only): Nobody reads newspapers these days.

[Screen only] You say:

Agreement and disagreement items were further divided into items stating the respondent’s opinion relative to the classmate’s position (“You have the same opinion as your classmate”) and items stating the content of the respondent’s position (as in Example 1). There were five of each type for both agreements and disagreements.

Four 50-minute lessons were delivered as outlined in Table 1. The first lesson introduced five agreement expressions. The second lesson included two more agreement expressions (I agree, I agree with) and introduced the disagreement expressions. The third lesson introduced self-clarification expressions (What I mean, In other words) and also encouraged the use of all three types of expressions. The fourth lesson introduced requests for clarification (Do you mean, You’re saying) and ended with practice.

Table 1. Lesson Outline






That’s right, You’re right, Good point, Makes sense, that’s true



I agree and I agree with

“Yeah, but”; “Okay, but”; “I don’t think so”; “I agree, but”


Self-clarification + Practice

What I mean, In other words


Clarification + Practice

Your point, Do you mean, You’re saying, I have a question, What you’re saying

Instruction included three primary elements: noticing of expressions in context, explicit metapragmatic information concerning use, and opportunities for production. Focused noticing activities have been shown to be an effective means of instruction and have been used in multiple studies involving pragmatic instruction (Bardovi-Harlig & Vellenga, 2012). Each lesson began with a warm-up activity, followed by multiple focused-noticing activities. When each activity was completed, the instructor provided feedback to the entire group. The learners then engaged in additional listening and reading activities, which provided explicit information about the expressions. Finally, the learners engaged in a variety of interactive production activities.

A total of 37 students participated in either the instruction group or the repeated-test group. Five intact low-advanced communications classes taught by four teachers participated. Four listening-speaking classes were in an intensive English program and one class was a section of Academic Discussion offered for degree-seeking students (26 students). An additional two classes (11 students) received no instruction, taking the test twice to examine test practice effects instead. Responses were transcribed and coded by multiple raters for (1) performance of the speech act and (2) use of the targeted conventional expression

The students who received instruction improved at the posttest in both number of speech acts attempted and number of expressions used appropriately. Students who merely repeated the test showed no noticeable improvement.

Table 2. Experiment Results

Speech acts

Experimental Group

(N = 26)

Repeated-Test Group

(N = 11)













Total recognizable speech acts (k = 30)









Total instruction expressions (k = 30)









Learners demonstrated performance of the desired communicative function in nearly 70% of the pretest agreement and disagreement items, but in fewer than 40% of the clarification items. In the instructed group, responses to agreements, disagreements, and other clarifications rose to around 85%. Self-clarifications increased over 20%, but started lower. The use of expressions started at a much lower rate, but increased by three times at the post test. In contrast, identifiable production of speech acts increased by only 5% and use of expressions showed no change in the no-instruction group. Greater clarity in speech act production resulted from instruction even when students did not use the target expressions. Please join us for the fuller report!


Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Vellenga, H. E. (2012). The effect of instruction on conventional expressions in L2 pragmatics. System, 40, 1–13.

LoCastro, V. (1997). Pedagogical intervention and pragmatic competence development. Applied Language Learning, 8, 75–109.

Roever, C. (2005). Testing ESL pragmatics: Development and validation of a web-based assessment battery. Berlin, Germany: Peter Lang.

Schmitt, N. (Ed.). (2004). Formulaic sequences in action. Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing and use. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Simpson, R. C., Briggs, S. L., Ovens, J., & Swales, J. M. (2002). The Michigan corpus of academic spoken English. Ann Arbor: The Regents of the University of Michigan.

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