Discursive Practices Essay

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Briefly defined, discursive practices in education are the uses of language in an educational context (e.g., the typical pattern of teacher question, student answer, teacher feedback) or the use of language in context relating to education (e.g., state legislators’ talk when making new educational laws). Language includes spoken, signed, and written forms of communication. Context includes the aspects of the situation in which such communication takes place that affect the meaning of the communication either in its production or its reception. Part of the context of language use is the relevant language that comes before and after the particular discursive practice in question. Thus, discursive practices generally encompass language chunks larger than one sentence.

Discursive practices in education are increasingly of interest to a number of academic disciplines. Some of the discursive practices that have been examined include Rosemary Henze’s work on the metaphors used by school leaders use when discussing equity; Felecia Briscoe’s studies of the discourse of professional educational associations; patterns of conversational turn taking in classroom lessons; the frequency and relative positioning of men and women in history textbooks; the distancing, exclusion, or inclusion of some groups but not others; and even who should produce discourse about the different groups.

This entry discusses why educational discursive practices are important, how they can be researched, and finally how discursive practices might become part of the school curriculum.

Why Discursive Practices Are Important

Discursive practices are of interest to educational researchers because the social world is largely constructed through language. This includes the organization of social actions, practices, and structures of education. In order for groups to act in concert, communication between the members generally must take place. Human beings communicate with each other largely through language use. However, not only is language used to coordinate action, it is also the means by which groups develop a shared understanding of the world, that is, their ideology.

A group’s ideology largely determines which actions seem reasonable or unreasonable. Most discursive scholars contend that language always carries with it political or ideological implications. That is, there is no such thing as ideologically or politically neutral language. So when discursive practices are analyzed, both the actions directly proposed and the ideologies supported explicitly and implicitly by language use are investigated. Although preexiting ideologies constrain what sorts of discursive practices are possible, they do not determine which discursive practices might emerge, and it is primarily through new discursive practices that preexisting ideologies may be transformed. Given the integrality of discourse in developing, maintaining, or transforming shared ideologies, the discursive practices of schools are particularly important—especially the importance of understanding not only the ways that they induce particular ideologies, but determining what sort of ideologies are promoted by the discursive practices of schools.

Research Approaches

Educational discursive practices can be investigated through either discourse analysis or critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA is of especial interest in that it specifically incorporates an examination of both ideology and power. CDA is both cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary: incorporating research methods of linguistics, cognitive psychology, ethnography, anthropology, communication, media studies, literature analysis, and/or media studies as well as others. However, no matter which disciplinary method or combination of methods is used in CDA, establishing the relevant context is problematic.

The problem is that it is impossible to describe the entire context; it would in fact be like describing reality. Thus, the researcher must pick out the relevant aspects of the context. However, different aspects of the context will affect both the meaning and the effect of the discourse according to the producer or consumer’s identity (e.g., gender, ethnicity, economic status, nationality, and so on) that is the particular individual’s history. Thus, the researcher must rely upon generalizations produced by quantitative studies (generalizations that will not fit a portion of discourse participants), rely upon explanations by the producers and consumers of the discourse, rely upon the ensuing social actions (including discourse), or rely upon all three to determine which aspects of the context are relevant. For critical discourse analysts, power relations inherent in the context are always relevant. Rebecca Rogers in An Introduction to Critical Discourse Analysis in Education discusses the problem of determining which aspects of context are relevant. Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer in Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis provide systematic research procedures for CDA. Other well-known authors who provide alternative methods of CDA include Norman Fairclough, Tuen van Dijk, and James Gee.

Curriculum Issues

Aside from researching the discursive practices of education, many have proposed that CDA ought to be an integral part of the school language curriculum. Authors such as Tuen van Dijk maintain that public schools should focus on teaching students the analytic skills necessary to understand the implicit as well as explicit content of texts. His proposed objectives for secondary students also provide a rudimentary model for the aspects of language use that ought to be considered when analyzing discourse. By the final grades of secondary school, he proposes, students should have been educated such that they are aware of and capable of analyzing the following aspects of discourse:

  1. The relationship between a particular discourse and its historical and contemporary social context
  2. Discourse incorporating speech acts, social acts, and will—all of which occur strategically in interactions
  3. Different discourse types that are linked to and regulated by particular social contexts, situations, or circumstances and in which participants have different statuses and partake of different roles and functions
  4. The intentions, wishes, preferences, interests, and goals of the speakers that appear in their discourse
  5. The several levels of discourse: morphophonology, sentence structure, and semantics
  6. The dimensions of style of these levels, which are determined by personal and social context, perspective, and so on
  7. Different rhetorical flourishes that will enhance or detract from the goals of the discourse
  8. Nonverbal communication, which also forms part of the frame of a given discourse

Discursive practices are important in educational settings such as schools, and are of fundamental importance to our understanding of how schools work as social, political, and cultural systems within larger social, cultural, and political systems.


  1. Borman, K., & O’Reilly, P. (1989). The eighties image of girls and women in the educational reform literature. In C. Shea, P. Sola, & E. Kahane (Eds.), The new servants of power: A critique of the 1980s school reform movement (pp. 175–183). New York: Greenwood Press.
  2. Briscoe, F. (2005). A question of representation in educational discourse: Multiplicities and intersections of identities and positionalities. Educational Studies, 38(1) 23–41.
  3. Briscoe, F. (2006). Reproduction of racialized hierarchies: Ethnic identities in the discourse of educational leadership. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 4(1). Retrieved from http://jceps.com/index.php? pageID=article&articleID=60
  4. Duzak, A. (Ed.). (2002). Us and others: Social identities across languages, discourses and cultures. Philadelphia: John Benjamin.
  5. Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. New York: Routledge.
  6. Gee, J. (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis. New York: Routledge.
  7. Henze, R. (2005). Metaphors of diversity, intergroup relations, and equity in the discourse of educational leaders, Journal of language, identity, and education, 4(4), 243–267.
  8. McCollum, P. (1989). Turn-allocation in lessons with North American and Puerto Rican students: A comparative study. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 20(2) 133– 156.
  9. Rogers, R. (2004). An introduction to critical discourse analysis in education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  10. Santa Ana, O. (2002). Brown tide rising: Metaphors of Latinos in contemporary American public discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  11. van Dijk, T. (1981). Discourse studies and education. Applied Linguistics, 2, 1–26.
  12. van Dijk, T. (1997). Discourse as interaction in society. In T. van Dijk (Ed.), Discourse studies: A multidisciplinary introduction (Vol. 2). London: Sage.
  13. Wodak, R., & Meyer, M. (2002). Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage.

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