Discourse Competence (Michael Canale & Merrill Swain)

Explanation of Main Features

Discourse Competence is one of the four components of Communicative Competence. Grammatical, sociolinguistic and strategic comprise the other three components. When speaking (conversation) or writing (textual), a person needs to be able to combine grammatical forms and meanings so that the parts make up a coherent whole. Discourse competence is the capacity to comprehend and create forms of language longer than sentences and includes understanding how instances of language are internally constructed.

A speaker may be grammatically and socially appropriate but may lake relevance to the topic at hand. Such a disconnect indicates a lack of discourse competence.

Discourse competence asks how words, sentences and phrases are placed together to create understandable conversations and other language. The term also refers to a person’s understanding of the rules that govern a language.


Canale, M. (1983). From Communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (Eds.), Language and Communication, 2-27. London: Longman.

Diaz-Rico, L., & Weed, K. (2010). The crosscultural, language, and academic development handbook. New York, NY: Pearson.

Theory of language assessment. (2009). Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.carla.umn.edu/assessment/vac/research/theory.html


One major criticism which deals with the theory of Communication Competence in general and applies especially to the aspect of Discourse Competence is that it is overly simplified. As McGroarty (1984) argues, competence is relative to context, and thus means different things in different situations. This is especially seen at various levels of education. The discourse needed to navigate a first-grade classroom is quite different than that needed to navigate a graduate-level course at a university, and thus the theory has limitations. Shaw (1992) further argues that Canale's four areas of Communicative Competence "are indeed aspects rather than components, both because they are unclearly defined...and because empirical analysis ... cannot ...demonstrate that they exist independently" (p. 10).

Shaw (1992) goes on to question whether or not Discourse Competence is a function of culture rather than one of language. He gives the example of the discourse needed to write a doctoral dissertation as a function of a subculture rather than one of language; clearly there are many native speakers who do not possess the skills necessary to complete such a task (p. 15). Thus, one must question the theory of Discourse Competence on the grounds that it is nearly impossible to determine where a barrier is a result of language rather than one of culture. Further, there are clearly L2 speakers who have mastered elements of discourse, and Shaw posits that some writing skills are universal, and "good" writers can be competent in multiple languages while some native speakers will forever remain ignorant of "patterns of organization" (p. 12). In fact, he cites studies conducted by Swain which show "nonnatives...actually exceeded the natives in a number of areas connected with the organization of written discourse" (p. 12). Coseriu (1980) and other theorists have tried to distinguish between culture and language, and Shaw suggests that we discuss competence more holistically by referring to "layers" of competence rather than levels (p. 22).


McGroarty, M. (1984). Some meanings of communicative competence for second language students. TESOL Quarterly, 18(2), 257-272.
Shaw, P. (1992). Variation and universality in communicative competence: Coseriu's model. TESOL Quarterly, 26(1), 8-22.