Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

If you are an English teacher involved in professional development, you have most likely come across Scott Thornbury’s work. I remember that when I was chatting with other teachers right after finishing my Delta Module One exam, one of them found something relevant on his phone and exclaimed, ‘Bloody Thornbury again!’ He has written so many books, articles and blog posts that when you search for ELT-related information on Google, Thornbury’s name will probably appear

What I really like about Scott Thornbury is that he isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. His ideas inspired me to start experimenting with the Dogme approach in my classes, which seems to work surprisingly well even when teaching online. I also recommend that you read his article Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. It’s common to encounter texts dealing with those topics now, but Thornbury wrote it in 1999, and I think that he deserves a lot of respect for that. All in all, he comes across as a genuinely good guy. He has written plenty of good books, but if I had to choose one that I enjoyed the most, it would be Beyond the Sentence.

Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

When I was at university, I took one semester of CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis). Since I studied journalism, we focused mainly on the media and analysed how one event is reported differently depending on the newspaper’s political leaning. Even though I found it quite interesting, I still didn’t fully understand what discourse was. It started to make sense to me only after becoming an English teacher. When I decided to study for Delta Module One, I knew that it was necessary to explore the subject of discourse much more, and Beyond the Sentence was recommended to me as a must-read.

As its name implies, this book invites you to go further than individual lexical and grammatical items. We use language to achieve something, and focusing only on single sentences isn’t enough. This has clear implications for language teaching because we have to think of the context in which communication takes place. Asking students to fill out exercises full of random sentences without any connection to each other probably isn’t the most motivating way to teach English.

I think that discourse is one of those ideas that aren’t that easy to grasp because it involves so many concepts. Fortunately, Thornbury is very thorough when it comes to terminology and providing practical examples. Words like cohesion, coherence, theme and rheme don’t sound very exciting, but Beyond the Sentence makes their importance perfectly clear. I guess that all Delta candidates are familiar with the phrase ‘activating schemata’, which is something we use in our teaching practice all the time.

What I really like about this book is that there are some genuinely funny moments in it. Scott Thornbury is a frequent speaker at conferences, and as you can see in this talk about methods, he is a very witty man. He can’t resist including humorous comments in his books, and that’s always nice to see. In Beyond the Sentence, he points out how contrived and unnatural some coursebook texts are, so there is no need to take them too seriously. Even if you are expected to use a coursebook in your classes, you don’t have to use the texts exactly as they were intended. When I see a stilted dialogue in a coursebook, I sometimes ask my students to create a backstory for the characters or come up with an alternative ending, which is always good fun.

Thornbury seems to enjoy referring to news articles, particularly from tabloids, which is another way of making English learning a more interesting experience for your students. Authentic texts, if utilised correctly, can definitely serve as a helpful resource. Even when you are supposed to teach something like the passive voice, showing real-life examples of how and why it is used is better than just doing gap-fill exercises. Beyond the Sentence also deals with ideology in texts, which is another area worth exploring.

I really like the fact that the book includes useful text-adaptation strategies and other ideas that can be used in your teaching practice. Beyond the Sentence has provided me with plenty of inspiration for my own lessons, particularly when it comes to teaching writing. I was a little worried that a book about discourse might be a bit too academic for me, but Thornbury managed to write it in a way that helps you understand the subject and its practical implications. Beyond the Sentence is a great book for developing teachers and you certainly won’t regret reading it.

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