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Teenagers and adults

The genre-based approach to teaching writing

The key to the concept of genre is the purpose the piece of writing serves. This approach started with the Systemic Functional School of Linguistics inspired by the work of MAK Halliday during the 1960s and 70s. They viewed language as a resource for making meanings, and so started looking at whole stretches of discourse in context rather than looking at isolated chunks to uncover a set of rules. So far, so familiar. Their claim, however, is that all extended discourse can be categorised into just seven basic types.

Richard Sidaway

Have you ever been marking students compositions and found that the organisation of ideas is all over the place and you dont really know where to start? Have you ever wanted to be able to show your students where they are going wrong, not just in terms of grammar or lexis, but in how they string things together at sentence and clause level?
The genre-based approach claims to do all of this and it has proved so successful that much of mainstream English teaching in Australia is based on its principles. Its influence reaches across the world into the teaching of English in the UK and the sort of tasks that native speakers are asked to do at General Secondary Certificate in Education (GCSE) level.

The magnificent seven

These seven genres are usually defined, in no particular order, as follows: recount, narrative, information report, discussion, exposition, explanation and procedure To give you an idea of what each one means in more detail,

This article aims to be a basic introduction to the genre-based approach and to give examples that I and others have used in our teaching. It arises from project work currently being undertaken at the British Council, Lisbon amongst advanced learners of English, although I believe familiarisation with genres can and should start at much lower levels.

consult the table below (Fig 1). How does this analysis work in practice? Take the example of the typical film review, a common task at intermediate level and above. The key to finding out what makes it a successful piece of text is to discover what purpose is served by writing one in the first place. Is the reviewer merely giving us information about the film - the plot, the characters, and the use of special effects - or are we being persuaded either to go and see the film or not waste our money? A film review can usually be classified as an exposition, because the writer is following the convention of presenting some kind of argument (this is a must see) at the beginning, followed by various points, which are elaborated on, and

What is a genre?
It may be worth clarifying what is meant by genre first of all. Genre for most people is associated with the world of fiction writing, and categories such as thriller, science fiction or gothic horror spring immediately to mind. What most of our students need to produce when they need to function in English, however, are things like a letter to a prospective employer, a business report or the write-up of a scientific experiment.
Fig 1

Recount Purpose - to retell events in order to inform 1. orientation/ scene-setting 2. retelling of events 3. (reorientation) 4. (closing statement)

Narrative Purpose - to retell events in order to entertain 1. orientation 2. initiation 3. complication 4. resolution

Explanation Purpose - explain natural or social processes, or how something works 1. general statement of introduction 2. series of logical steps

Information report Purpose - to describe the way things are 1. opening general classification 2. (more technical classification) 3. description: - qualities - parts & their function - habits, behaviour, uses

Procedure Purpose - to explain how to do something 1. statement of what is to be achieved 2. list of materials/ tools needed 3. sequence of instructions 4. (diagram, illustration)

Discussion Purpose - to present arguments from different viewpoints 1. statement of the issue 2. argument(s) for + evidence 3. argument(s) against + evidence 4. (recommendation-summary/ conclusion)

Exposition Purpose - to promote a particular point of view 1. opening statement of position (thesis) 2. arguments - point +elaboration 3. restatement of opening position

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ending up with a summary and restatement of the original argument. It may contain elements of narrative, for example, but these will always be at the service of exemplifying the point that the writer is trying to make, not merely retelling the story for your entertainment.

speakers who are fully aware of the rules they have to conform to and are deliberately subverting them. Or students may produce a text which seems to be of a recognisable genre, but doesnt include all the necessary components. How many narratives have you read which somehow fall a bit flat? They include an orientation, an initiation and even something resembling a resolution of the events, but there is no complication - nothing dramatic or unexpected happens in the story for it to have been worth telling in the first place.

How can genre be useful in the classroom?

The reason students writing often goes wrong is not because of surface errors such as spelling or the inappropriate choice of vocabulary, but because they are not abiding by the conventions of the genre in some way. Students may simply be using an inappropriate genre - they need to provide a balanced account of an issue (Discussion) for example, and have in fact produced a very forcefully-argued piece trying to convince the reader of their point of view (Exposition). They may be mixing two types of genre in the same piece of writing, which happens in real life but is done by native

Some practical activities

A. You may feel that you want to give your students an overview of the whole genre approach as I have done above. A simple exercise is to find examples of genre so that students can label them and identify the characteristic stages of the genre. Here are some examples taken from websites and books:

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Teenagers and adults

Example 1 An elderly London couple decided, after years of putting it off, to drive north and visit their daughter and son-in-law in Leeds. So they got their old Ford Anglia out of the garage, washed the accumulated dirt and cobwebs off it, and set out. They were driving along the motorway for six hours, but still hadnt seen a signpost for Leeds. Puzzled, they resolved to ask someone in a service station. Youre in South Mimms, mate, five miles out of London. Theyd neglected to turn off the M25. C. Grouping activities are also useful to familiarise students Example 2 On August 1, 1774, Priestley prepared his first sample of oxygen by heating red mercuric oxide confined in a glass tube filled with mercury. To avoid having to heat the whole apparatus, he used a large burning lens with a diameter of about 12 inches, which allowed him to focus the suns rays on the powder inside the tube. As the mercuric oxide decomposed it produced mercury and oxygen, so the gas that formed in the tube was nearly pure oxygen. Example 3 This amazing property with great cultural interest is located just 12km from Sintra and 40km from Lisbon in a quiet rural setting. The views are breath-taking and look out onto the Sintra mountains and Magoito beach. The windmill has 3 floors, a ground floor kitchen (36sq m), 2 bedrooms on the first floor and a lounge (36 sq m) on the third floor which features the original mill stone. Outside there is a large paved area and lawn extending 3000 sq m in all. Refurbished windmill with sea and mountain view. Plot size in sq metres 3000. Bedrooms 2, Storeys 3 Example 1 is a narrative because not only is it telling us about some past event, it contains the complication that the couple couldnt find a signpost to Leeds after six hours on the road. Example 2 is a recount for the simple reason that it doesnt contain anything as entertaining as a complication but is merely a sober retelling of the events which led to the discovery of oxygen. Example 3 is an exposition because it contains all the necessary textual components to persuade you to buy the property. Rewrite this text as a procedure NB Purpose - explain how to do something 1. Statement of what is to be achieved 2. List of materials/tools needed 3. Sequence of instructions 4. (Diagram, illustration) The morning after heavy drinking, the body sends a desperate message to replenish its water supply usually manifested in the form of an extremely dry mouth. Headaches result from dehydration because the bodys organs try to make up for their own water loss by stealing water from the brain, causing it to decrease in size and pull on the membranes that connect the brain to the skull, resulting in pain. Biology of a Hangover: Vasopressin Inhibition When alcohol is consumed, it enters the bloodstream and causes the pituitary gland in the brain to block the creation of vasopressin. Without this chemical, the kidneys send water directly to the bladder instead of reabsorbing it into the body. This is why drinkers have to make frequent trips to the bathroom after urinating for the first time after drinking D. Here is one more activity which could be attempted once students are thoroughly at home with the elements of each genre and the stylistic devices pertaining to each. The object is to get students to transform a text into another genre. For example: with the components of different genre (see Fig 2 on the next page). B. Imperfect examples of particular genre can be as useful as good ones. I have used student attempts at exposition, transcribed them onto the computer and got the class to highlight where the various components are and what is missing. They then rewrite them and build up a more effective version. Students can be asked to do this kind of analysis by locating the phrases in each text that correspond to the characteristic stages outlined in the table earlier (Fig 1).

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Fig 2

- an opening general classification - arguments for, plus supporting evidence - a statement of what is to be achieved, such as how to make a pudding

- a description often including parts and their function - the arguments, often in the form of point plus elaboration - complication





The key to making this activity work is to get students to first decide what the purpose of the writing is going to be. Once they have decided what the Statement of what is to be achieved should be - for example, how to get drunk, the rest of the text will follow more easily. Here is a sample answer. Equipment: One pint glass, a series of intoxicating beverages, a comfortable chair and a coaster (to prevent unnecessary spillage and staining of surfaces) To reproduce as closely as possible the effects of a hangover, the following steps are advised: fill the glass with the aforementioned alcoholic liquids, take the glass in your right or left hand and empty the contents down your throat, making sure none of the beverage is spilt on the floor or on other drinkers. Repeat this procedure at least five times. You will know that the desired effect is being reached when the walls of the room begin to gentle pulsate. You may also need to visit the toilet on several occasions to relieve the pressure building up on your bladder. On waking the following morning, you should experience dryness of the tongue, a severe tightening of the skin around your skull and an irrepressible urge to imbibe large quantities of water. Having each produced a text, students can then exchange them to see if they can guess what genre was being attempted, and identify the elements of the text that tell them why.

I hope I have convinced you that a genre-based approach can provide a useful framework for the teaching of writing to non-native speakers. This article presents, of course, merely one layer of such an approach; there are whole other levels of functional linguistics which examine genre at clause level for example. That, however, must remain the subject of another article. Sources Genre Examples 1. Healey and Glanvills Urban Myths (1992) Virgin 2. Chemistry in the Laboratory (1997) WH Freeman & Company, New York p.202 3. 4.

Richard Sidaway is a teacher at the British Council, Lisbon and Almada.

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