Discourse Competence

Discourse competence refers to the logical arrangement or sequence of words, phrases, and sentences to form a coherent and cohesive written text or spoken discourse. Discourse is defined as “language beyond the sentence” (Yule, 2010, p. 142). Communicating orally or in writing does not only require knowledge of grammar or vocabulary but also the ability to construct sentences or statements that create a well-organized and comprehensible text or discourse. Some of the important features of discourse competence include cohesion, coherence, generic structure, and conversational structure.


This involves grammatical cohesion or the use of references, ellipses and substitutions, conjunctions, and lexical cohesion such as the use of lexical repetitions, collocations and parallelism (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). Cohesion is achieved with the help of these cohesive devices, which may also contribute to text coherence.

Reference is demonstrated through the use of words (e.g., determiners, personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns) that point backwards (anaphora) or forward (cataphora) to the referent.

  1. Despite the protests, the president continues his war on drugs. This appears to be his main objective.
  2. If it’s alright with you, I would like to provide some suggestions.

Substitution and ellipsis are normally used as cohesive devices in conversations when the topic of the statement is unambiguous to avoid repeating information.

Kevin: Have you seen my book?

Anne: No, I haven’t [seen your book].
Kevin: Didn’t I leave it here?
Anne: I don’t think so [you left it here].

Conjunctions. (coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, so and subordinating conjunctions such as however, furthermore, while) are also used as cohesive devices to connect statements or utterances together.

  • I would have done that if only I could.

Lexical cohesion involves the relationship between the meaning of two ‘words used in conversation. It is demonstrated by lexical repetitions (car-car), use of synonyms (e.g., achievement-success), use of parallel structure, superordinates (e.g. dengue-disease) and all-purpose words (e.g., stuff, place, thing). These devices contribute to the listener’s ease of understanding the utterances in conversation. For instance, with regard to the use of parallelism, “To exercise and eating healthy…” is a lot more difficult to understand compared to “Exercising and eating healthy…


This refers to the interrelatedness of sentences or utterances in a text. We can easily distinguish the difference between a coherent paragraph and a string of words and sentences jumbled together. While a cohesive text may not always be coherent, a coherent text generally consists of at least three clauses that make use of cohesive devices (Halliday & Hasan, 1989). Coherence involves the organization or sequencing of statements or utterances that follow patterns depending on the genre, content, or purpose of the communication (e.g., cause and effect, chronological order in narratives). A discourse is considered coherent if it is meaningful, interpretable, and serves a function (Grice, 1975).

Generic or Genre Structure

This is an important aspect of discourse competence. Knowledge of the structure of written and oral discourse helps one determine the function of the communicative event. Spoken or oral discourse consists of various types of structure ranging from formal speeches (e.g., reports, sermons, lectures) to informal speeches (e.g., conversations). A narrative, for instance, must begin with a setting, and present a conflict before reaching a climax. A thesis presentation has an introduction, literature review, analysis, results, and discussion. An interview also has its own structure and features.

Conversational Structure

This component of discourse competence deals with the turn-taking in oral discourse, such as conversations, interviews, and sermons. Knowledge of conversational structure includes being able to open and end conversations, establish the topic of conversation, control or change the topic, interrupt, collaborate (e.g., completing sentences for each other), provide backchannel (verbal and nonverbal feedback to keep the conversation going, e.g., nodding or saying “I see.”), hold and relinquish the floor, and repair breakdown or correct themselves in conversation (related to strategic competence).