Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Language in Contexts: A multimedia resource for teaching discourse analysis to language students

Christy Pinfold
Multimedia Development Unit

Anne Thwaite
Language Education
Edith Cowan University


In preparing a new unit for external delivery, Languages, culture and learning in Australian society, it became immediately clear that the regular print-based instructional materials lacked the means for providing students with an appropriate range of learning experiences. The production of a set of mixed media resources was initiated. These included: In attempting an analysis of the language samples provided on the video, it is necessary for students to engage in a high level of interactivity between videotape and computer exercises. The use of interactive multimedia (IMM) was seen as a possible way of helping to streamline this process. This was made possible with funding through a National Teaching Development Grant (CAUT) in 1996.

Aims of the program

This program attempts to promote in students not only familiarity with the varieties of discourse from the situations presented, but also the development of transferable skills of analysis. These skills will enable them to discover new aspects of discourse as they encounter novel situations and also to reflect on their own everyday speech. Further, for teachers in the classroom environment where language is one of the most important media through which meanings are exchanged, it is important to recognise opportunities where their own knowledge about language will help students learn.

The target group

The immediate target group for this program is fourth year Bachelor of Education students who are undertaking the unit Languages, culture and learning in Australian society, by distance mode. The resource will also be used with the internal students who are undertaking the same unit.

The flexibility of the medium which allows students to work at their own pace on learning aspects of analysis addresses an important feature of this target group, as students come to Language Education courses with very varied levels of knowledge of language structure.

Feedback received on the prototype has indicated a further possible target group in users interested in Australian discourse in workplace and social contexts, such as students of English as a Second Language.

It was considered important to gather some preliminary data about student experience with and access to computers. A brief survey of internal students enrolled in the unit was conducted. Approximately 40 surveys were distributed with 11 completed surveys being returned. A summary of the results appears in Table 1.

Table 1: Internal students survey

Table 1

As can be seen from the table, most internal students were over 40. A large majority were female and most had no previous experience with computer based learning (CBL). Only three students cited some experience with CBL. One student had used a German language learning program, one had used IMM, games and spreadsheets, and the third listed MS Word as their experience of CBL.

A survey of external students conducted for the university in 1994 (Ring, 1994) indicated that 79% of external students had access to a computer, mostly at home, and of those 14% indicated that they were "not comfortable" with using the computer to which they had access. IBM and compatibles made up 85% of computers in use by external students and 25% had a CD-ROM drive in their computer. As a follow up to this, a survey of students enrolled externally in the unit was conducted in 1996. Of 29 surveys distributed nine completed surveys were returned. 66% of those students had access to a computer. Of those, 83% were IBM or compatibles; 83% had a CD-ROM drive; and 50% had monitors capable of 256 colours. This feedback has been used to guide the specifications for the program, which is CD-ROM based, utilises only 256 colours and although being developed on Macintosh is delivered on both Macintosh and IBM platforms.

The model of language analysis

The model of language informing the program is a functional grammar, which looks at language in the context of the society in which it is produced (eg Halliday, 1994; Halliday & Hasan, 1985; Martin, 1992; Ventola, 1987). This grammar links a description of the context to relevant features of the language that occurs in particular situations. The context is described in terms of the following three ('Register') variables:
Field - the socially significant action that is going on
Tenor - relationships among the people participating
Mode - the communication channel
Changes in these variables will result in changes in the discourse. However, the association between language and context is not one-way. For example, we can construct relationships through talk as well as expressing them through our speech.

Language is multifunctional. Whenever we say something we are simultaneously achieving different purposes. We are using language to:

A functional grammar specifies which parts of the language are most closely related to these three functions. It also links these functions to aspects of the context: The connections between language and its context are illustrated in the diagram below:

Figure 1

Figure 1: Relationship between language and context

Language is clearly a very complex phenomenon and the program only provides an introduction to some aspects of linguistic analysis. The language exercises are organised through the Register variables of Field, Tenor and Mode, and include:

In addition, the exercises deal with spoken and written language differences and introduce the idea of genre variation in written texts.

Design and production issues

In most multimedia development projects, the end product is the result of a long process of team discussion and brainstorming sessions which are followed by cyclic rotation through the three major areas of design, development and evaluation as suggested in the interactive multimedia development model shown in Figure 1 (Phillips, 1996).

Figure 2

Figure 2: The development process (Adapted from Phillips, 1996)

Some of the main considerations that have influenced the development of Language in Contexts are described below.

The Main Street interface
In an attempt to situate the learning within a real world context, it was readily agreed that the interface to the program should reflect a street in a town where users could enter a number of venues inside which they would experience the use of spoken language between people in that setting.

The Receptionist screens
Assignment work in the course requires that students collect their own language sample for analysis by tape or video recording a spoken interaction. Obtaining appropriate consent is an important step in the data gathering process, and so it was decided that users of the CD would be led through a modelling of that process via the 'receptionist' screens which follow the main street interface and block immediate access to the language sample until the consent has been acknowledged.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Sample 'receptionist' screen

Design and navigation concerns
In designing a multimedia interface, it is essential to ensure that users will be able to access the full scope of the information and interaction provided in the program with relative ease. It has been said of design that it "should make use of the natural properties of people and of the world: it should exploit natural relationships and natural constraints. As much as possible, it should operate without instructions or labels." (Norman, n.d.) During the design and production of the front end of Language in Contexts some concerns were raised regarding the nature of the pathways from Main Street through the Receptionist screens given that our target group was represented by largely novice users of IMM. One suggestion was that some text-based hints be presented on screen after a specified time of no action by the user. The final solution however, has been to incorporate authentic instructions into the receptionist screen designs, such as Please inform receptionist of your arrival in the Doctor scenario, and Please check reservation on arrival in the restaurant scenario.

Video presentation
There were many technical issues that arose concerning the use of video on a CD-ROM. When the focus of attention is on language in a video presentation, there are some important criteria that must be met. These criteria combined with technical constraints led to a process of investigation and trade off in terms of the display of the digital video in the program. Technical considerations included the need to limit the size of the video to approximately 300 megabytes which impacted on the length of video footage (language sample) to be incorporated, the physical size of the video images to be displayed, and the overall clarity of the vision including synchronisation of sound and image. The resulting specifications for the video were a display size of 576 x 218 pixels at a rate of 25 frames per second. Language considerations required that the faces of the speakers be clearly visible with facial close ups a great benefit. Given that the video was not to be displayed full screen size, it was decided to utilise the single-shot footage that was available, rather than the two-shot footage that had been used for the majority of the videotape, and to use a split-screen technique where possible.

Repurposing video footage originally shot for videotape presentation for use in an IMM program can create many difficulties which could be avoided if the exact use of the video on the CD is known in advance. Camera positioning, angles and movement, eye-lines and close-ups all need to be considered.

The written transcripts of the dialogues can be accessed while the video is showing and also while working in the notebook via a simple on - off control in the shape of a cassette tape. (The notebook is further described below.) A further option allows just the soundtrack from the video to be played in conjunction with the written transcript. This combination makes allowance for users with low-end computers which may not have sufficient video capability. Other suggestions such as for making the transcript scroll in time with the video, and even making the transcript selectable to take to you to specific words in the video dialogue have been made, however production resources have restricted the implementation of these features thus far.

The electronic notebook contains an Index of the different scenarios, a list of stimulus questions and a word processing facility which enables users to make their own notes as they investigate the different types of discourse. While students are responding to the questions they can refer back to the transcript or to the exercises. Students working on campus in a laboratory environment can save these notes to a floppy disc or they can be printed direct from the CD.

The language exercises
The language exercises were developed originally for delivery on floppy discs, so size limitation was always a consideration. A fairly high degree of interactivity and feedback has been achieved however. A cheat button was implemented on one occasion where students are required to enter their responses using the keyboard. It was felt that lots of programming and some user frustration might have resulted from the original design which allowed three tries before displaying the correct answers.

Many of these design and production issues required coordination between the various media professionals involved.


For those involved, this project has been a valuable experience in developing educational multimedia applications. Evaluation of the resource is ongoing in order to ascertain its effectiveness in teaching discourse analysis to language students.


Halliday, M. A. K. (1994). An introduction to functional grammar. (2nd ed.) London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. A. K. & Hasan, R. (1985). Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Martin, J. R. (1992). English text: System and structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Defending human attributes in the age of the machine [CD-ROM]. New York: Voyager.

Phillips, R. (Ed.). (1994). Developers guide to interactive multimedia: A methodology for educational applications. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Ring, J. (1994). Computer/Audio visual resources survey - 1994: Interim Report. Internal document, Edith Cowan University.

Ventola, E. (1987). The structure of social interaction: A systemic approach to the semiotics of service encounters. London: Pinter.

Please cite as: Pinfold, C. and Thwaite, A. (1997). Language in Contexts: A multimedia resource for teaching discourse analysis to language students. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p279-284. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/pinfold.html

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