A ‘discourse marker’ is a word or phrase that helps to link written ideas. These words are generally more formal lexical items that find little use in speech – which is perhaps why they do not always come naturally to students. Discourse markers can be used, for example, to link ideas that are similar (e.g. the adverbs, also and similarly); and they can be used to link ideas that are dissimilar (e.g. however, alternately). As such, this useful group of words is an essential part of a student’s writing toolkit. They work to help create a clear structure by acting as a kind of ‘linguistic signpost’ that contributes to a well-constructed essay or argument. They provide a sense of clarity, coherence, fluency and logic to a piece of writing.
The discourse markers covered in the resources provided with this ‘toolkit’ are, essentially, for essay writing, but a list of more generally useful discourse markers is also included.
Why discourse markers are an essential teaching tool
For students, clarity and structure do not always come automatically. Students may be aware of the more basic, commonly used discourse markers in speech, such as then, so, after that, instead of...., but when faced with new forms of writing, extended writing or more formal writing; or when faced with the rigours of an argumentative essay, they often have trouble in ordering and sequencing their ideas fluently. This is why discourse markers are an essential part of their own linguistic toolkit – and why they figure so highly in mark schemes and examiners’ comments.
Providing students with discourse markers as a ‘toolkit’ will help them in both their organisation of ideas and improve their written expression. More than this, a knowledge and use of discourse markers actually helps a student see how to write about a topic more clearly.
A straightforward example of how this works is to give a low set KS3 class who are stuck with ‘and and ‘then’, discourse markers which sequence simple materials such as: first, secondly, finally; ask them to find ideas to match with each discourse marker before and then write this up. An extension would be to teach more complex essay structures that require an opinion supported by a clear argument. By being able to use discourse markers, students will then be able to develop a clearer argumentative, persuasive and essay writing style: Some people think...., so…, therefore…, Some also believe........, …on the other hand other people think....., …however (for a rebuttal of the previous idea)...., In conclusion I believe.... . A useful idea is to ask them to create a list of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for an interesting argumentative topic and then to match them with suitable discourse markers.
GCSE students, writing their first comparative essay, might be given a list of ‘comparison’ discourse markers that would work to help them see how to compare. If given and practised before they collected the ideas for their writing, the discourse markers would work to develop hints on what they needed to look for in order to use them.
Likewise, A Level English Literature students given their first essay in which they should include ‘alternative interpretations’, may be given a list of ‘qualifying’ and ‘contrasting’ discourse markers – which would have the effect of not only helping them organise their ideas, but of recognising how to include ‘alternative readings’ in their work.
A way of using discourse markers in the classroom
WALL DISPLAY: it can be an excellent idea to keep a display of discourse markers on the walls so that students may refer to them at all times, even when not being explicitly taught to use them. You could remind them each time they write that they are there.
Studies at KS3 have shown that where a teacher has this sort of information displayed on a wall, later, in an examination, students are seen to glance to the area in the examination...