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Teachers often say that writing is the least favorite type of lesson among their students, and that students often do everything they can to avoid having to write in class. Some reasons may include the fact that learners don’t know where to start, or that they don’t have a clear picture of what a good piece of writing is or how to get there.
Among the three approaches to developing writing skills which are currently popular in language teaching, the genre approach is gaining the most popularity as it can help students overcome these difficulties. While the process approach focuses on the writer and their actions, and the product approach focuses on the text itself, the genre approach focuses on the readers and what they expect from a specific type of text (Tribble, 1996) and hence creates more persuasive and more confident writers who produce more well-rounded texts.
When we adopt this approach, we shift the focus from more traditional features of writing, such as grammar, lexis, cohesive devices and punctuation, and draw attention instead to the purpose of the text; its intended audience and their expectations; the structure of the text; and sometimes less common elements such as typographical features and images. This way, our writing lessons become richer and more relevant to students because students walk away with a better understanding of how to produce an effective text which meets the purpose with which the reader will approach this text.
Stages of a writing lesson
Let’s look at the steps involved in a typical writing lesson within the genre approach by thinking about how we could teach students to write an Instagram post with personal reflections on a specific topic, such as going freelance (for adults) or choosing a future job (for teenage learners).
1. Introducing the genre
A traditional lesson would start with a lead-in in which students would be encouraged to talk about the topic of the lesson, i.e. choosing a job. In a genre-oriented writing lesson, the lead-in would be also focus on the genre, i.e. we could get our students to talk about how often they use Instagram, what they use it for, what posts they like and then narrow it down to asking them what they think of posts with personal reflections. Ideally, the teacher should already know that this topic is relevant to the students, possibly from a needs analysis done at the beginning of the course, or from observation.
In the next stage, we would show students some examples of Instagram posts with personal reflections on various topics. The students would read the posts and decide which of them they can relate to and why. Here it would be important to show the posts without any adaptations, to preserve all the features of the genre including layout and organization.
2. Analyzing examples
After we have received a personal response to the texts, we can dive into the actual work with the features of the genre. One of the main questions to ask here is the purpose of the text and what the reader would expect to see. In our example, the purpose of an Instagram post with personal reflections would most probably be to share an opinion on a subject and possibly to engage followers in a conversation; hence the reader would be expect to see elements such as a powerful visual, catchy details to respond to, and/or a controversial statement they could challenge. It’s always helpful if students are already familiar with the genre and can recall some of the characteristics.
However, . Here students can be encouraged to focus on elements such as the text structure, layout, organization, tone, content, grammar, vocabulary and cohesive devices.
For an Instagram post with personal reflections, this would include some of the following:
- an attractive photo which catches the attention of the followers
- an enthusiastic but contemplative tone of voice
- narration from the first person
- use of personal examples or a witty story
- an absence of formatting (bold font/italics are not possible on Instagram)
- use of capitals, or an absence thereof, depending on the desired effect
- use of emojis to liven up the post
- a maximum length of 2200 characters (between 315 and 500 words)
Note that the maximum length cannot be inferred by students, and this should be stated as part of the genre analysis, and that many Instagram posts are kept much shorter than 2200 characters to keep the reader’s attention.
Having the question What does a reader expect from this text? in mind helps students focus on the limitations suggested by a specific genre. For instance, students may be able to produce an Instagram post of 500 words, but it is unlikely that readers will read a post that long all the way to the end, and respond. This means that even if the post contains varied and accurate grammar and lexis, it will not achieve the communicative goal.
As teachers, we research these features before the lesson, and make sure we have a list of the ones we think are important so that we can help the students if necessary.
To conclude this stage, students are often given a handout which contains a list of features typical of this genre, with examples, sometimes highlighted and labeled in the sample text. This can then serve as a checklist for students to use when writing their own text of this genre.
3. Practice writing
Once the students have identified the key features and summarized them in a checklist, they can practice writing a text. This may involve writing a shorter piece, such as a paragraph, or producing a full text. When setting the task, it’s important to reinforce the purpose of the text and who it is being written for (in other words, the target reader), and choose several features which should be included. It’s important to prioritize here, because if we ask students to show too many features in one text, they will lose focus and their writing will be of a lower quality. Once students have produced the first draft, they will be able to look at it again and refine it, which is when we can ask them to focus on and add some more features.
4. Feedback and revision
Within the genre approach, a useful writing lesson will include the stage of feedback and an opportunity for students to refine their product based on this feedback. The importance of this stage can’t be overemphasized, as research shows that getting immediate feedback helps undergraduate students perform better on final exams (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). This is when the checklist we created at the analysis stage will come in handy.
Typically, students would read each other’s pieces and, instead of looking for mistakes in their peers’ texts, they would decide how well the features of the genre have been maintained. Students can be encouraged to include written comments on features which have been used well, as well as suggestions about how a text could be improved. In the genre we’re using as an example, students could comment on whether the beginning is catchy enough or whether the tone is enthusiastic, or they might suggest some lexical items to liven up the post.
While this is happening, the teacher can look at the students’ work and give their comments too. The teacher can, of course, correct some errors. However, this correction should be limited to the linguistic points which have been taught on the course or those which have significant impact on communication, and feedback on language should not outweigh feedback on features of the genre.
At the end of this stage, students take some time to rewrite their pieces into the final version.
5. Publication and sharing
When students are ready with their final product, they can share it with the teacher, their peers, and sometimes a wider audience if possible. In our example, students could publish their posts on their Instagram account and possibly get some responses from their followers. If students are reluctant to share the post on their own social media, the teacher could create a class Instagram page and publish posts produced by the class there. Students could then comment on each other’s posts. This will encourage students to read and respond to the primary communicative purpose of the text, rather than seeing the text only as a piece of class work.
A final note on the genre approach
While a genre-based writing lesson may look like one which requires a lot of time and effort, it can help us make learning richer and more valuable. This can be more effectively achieved if we adopt the genre approach in a series of lessons or even for the whole course, because it is crucial to expose students to a variety of genres rather than using one genre (e.g. articles or essays) to practice writing on different topics. With more advanced groups, we can get students to compare different genres, their purposes and how those purposes dictate the features, which, in turn, makes students more reflective and more autonomous learners.
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7
Tribble, C. (1996) Writing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.