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The genre approach to writing assessed.


The objective of this paper is primarily to evaluate the strengths of the genre approach to the teaching of writing in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom. Theoretical and pedagogical references will be identified and exposited upon in both first and second language learning contexts, with specific reference to Japanese learners at the college level.


In recent years the methodological field within linguistics has yielded yet another approach, the focus of which rests largely on the writing and reading/interpretive skills of the student. The genre perspective, which rose chiefly in Australia over the past fifteen years, (Martin 1986; Martin and Rothery 1986; Cairney 1992), attempts to develop literacy across a broad range of identifiable categories by raising the learner's awareness of the linguistic elements of genres. As such, its modus operandi acts as a pedagogical springboard from which the learner is elevated to new heights of privity, cognizance and competence. Essentially, the procedure is based on the linguistic definitions of Functional Grammar (Halliday 1994), an expanded version of the descriptions of language which involve how a text is bound together to create meaning in its particular context (Halliday and Hassan 1976). This paper evaluates the effectiveness of the genre approach to the teaching of writing, particularly to non-native English-speaking students or ESL students based in Japan. A sub goal will be to determine how far the genre approach can successfully couple process pedagogy as a teaching tool for the ESL writing classroom in Japan. Initially, however, a definition of genre will be presented and its evolution as an educational force described.

What Is Genre ?

The term genre goes beyond the traditional definition of a recognizable category of literary composition, to include any distinctive form which has attained a general level of identification. Degree of formality, mode of argumentation, textual structure, and purpose are all specific characteristics imposed on a genre which influence the use of language. As mentioned above, the genre approach is underpinned by a functional model of language which discusses the association between discourse and the context in which the language is used. The social constructionist position (Johns 1990, Swales 1990) which evolved out of dissatisfaction with the psychological theories of behaviourists (Lado 1964) and the naturalistic pedagogy of the process methods (Murray 1980), holds that writing is a social phenomena, in which each audience and context is idiosyncratic. That is, each discourse community has individual qualities. Further, Fiske (1987:114) views genre as a "means of constructing both the audience and the reading subject".

Indeed, there appears to be common ground between genre analysis and schema theorists. From the perspective of the latter, genres are "textual schemata" (Chandler 1998:2) and our background knowledge plays an important role in decoding a text:
 From the point of view of the producers of texts within a genre, an
 advantage of genres is that they can rely on readers already having
 knowledge and expectations about works within a genre (ibid: 1).

Bakhtin (1986) developed the concept of intertextuality whereby the orienting framework of genre is created by units of prevailing knowledge which organize analogous expectations based on prior experience:
 The linguistic significance of a given utterance is understood
 against the backdrop of other concrete utterances on the same theme;
 a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view, and
 value judgements (Bakhtin 1935/1981:281).

Here, the pieces of conventional knowledge overlap and interact intertextually so that any text is interpreted in relation to others, any utterance understood in relation to other utterances. Expectations of an audience within a genre form a code; and by using this code as a guideline, the writer is able to streamline his/her work. Consequently, one advantage of the genre approach is the way in which the learner is endowed with the skill of communicating in a more efficient, focused and economical manner. The account of academic articles written by Swales (1990), may well help the learner to gain confidence in his/her own writing. Again, the role of the audience is emphasized:
 The principal criterial feature that turns a collection of
 communicative events into a genre is some shared set of communicative
 purposes (Swales 1990: 46).

For Swales, the discourse community provides channels of feedback to the writer suggesting a certain amount of inter communication is to be expected between the two parties, both of whom possess common objectives. But what of scenarios where such dynamics are not present ? Wood (1998), tracing the pedagogic potential of film reviews, observes that the film critic-reader relationship falls outside the framework provided by Swales. There are no palpable avenues of feedback, no perceivable common purposes and consequently "genre conventions" may become ambiguous (Wood 1998:21).

However, he contends that text will recreate certain models due to the "conventionalising function of the genre" (ibid:30). These patterns establish reference points and produce the "contextual framing of the text, the means of conceptually structuring the text for the writer" (ibid). That is, one of the strengths of the genre approach is raising the learners' awareness of the availability of the various choices on offer:
 Generic framing will have informed the writer's choices; and an
 awareness of how and why these choices have been made can inform the
 development of genre skills. And these skills ... can be practically
 developed (ibid:69).

So far, the significance of schemata, the audience and its relationship with the writer has been described, revealing chiefly constructive aspects of genre. Next, the focus will shift to pedagogy and uses of genre theory in the classroom to establish the strengths of the approach, with, firstly, a summary of its successful implementation in mother tongue primary schools and, secondly, with reference to young adult Japanese learners.

The Use of Genre For Children

A fundamental target of the genre approach is to "determine what kind of texts are valued (and why?), and also to make these genres accessible to students" (Gallagher 2000:14). Various language patterns will be used by children in writing about experiences, information or ideas. Language is concerned with meaning, and such knowledge of the language pattern and meaning should be made as lucid as possible to allow for this 'accessibility' to take place, which should be facilitated by the instructor. That is, a genre based approach may open the genres of recount, report and procedure, for example, so that young learners can recognize the generic forms and ultimately create their own structures. One strategy designed to encourage children to be more autonomous about their learning experience and to heighten awareness about their written work, was that of writing frames. Lewis and Wrays' (1992) definition of a writing flame is as follows:
 It consists of a skeleton outline to scaffold children's non-fiction
 writing. The skeleton framework consists of differing key words or
 phrases, according to the particular generic form (Lewis and Wray

Any given writing frame will therefore contain a unique generic set of starters, connectives and sentence modifiers which help students expand their writing whilst acting as a substitute for the teacher's interventions. Frames should be used initially with teacher-led discussions and modeling of the generic form which teaches vocabulary and connectives. Then, the child undertakes the writing phase supported by the frame. In low-level classes many oral sessions with the teacher acting as a scribe may be required before pupils are ready to write using the frame. This template acts as a tool to enable children to focus on communicating their thoughts within a form rather than using incoherent structure. One aim was to practice writing frames until the children "become familiar enough with these written structures to have assimilated them into their writing repertoire" (ibid:l). It is therefore proponed that teachers wean the children off the frames as their knowledge of the generic pattern increases.

One of the great strengths of the writing frames strategy is its scopic applicability. Indeed, this course has been employed with children from key stage 1 to key stage 3 in British primary schools, but genre literacy has also been successfully applied to the grades of kindergarten through high school. Moreover, teachers "have found the frames particularly useful with children of average writing ability; [sic.] and with those who find writing difficult" (Lewis and Wray 1992:7). Additionally, it was discovered that after one or two applications of a frame, the competent language users annexed the genre and its linguistic elements into their repertoires and, "without using a frame, produce fluent writing of high quality in the genre" (ibid:8). The ultimate aim is for all the children to reach this plateau of accumulating the generic patterns and linguistic features into their proverbial writing banks. Teachers have observed a distinct improvement in both the quality and quantity of work produced by children who have utilized the frames, a clear indication of the value of the genre approach to the teaching of writing.

A Note of Caution

One weakness of the framing project mentioned above maybe detected when teachers use the writing frames to teach the generic forms from a skills-centered platform. This direct use (or abuse) of the scaffolding blueprint will negate any sense of purpose; that is, texts studied in isolation without a goal may lead to demotivation. This caveat has been echoed by several influential genre theorists including Martin (1986:64) who states that "it is important to recognize that genres make meaning; they are not simply a set of formal structures into which meanings are poured." Gallagher's elucidation is also illuminating:
 It should be pointed out that a genre approach is not a matter of
 applying formulaic prescriptions of how a text should be structured.
 Instead, it is based on an analysis of how a text creates meaning in
 its context of use and then how this knowledge can be utilized by
 students to write in the same genre themselves (Op:Cit.: 14).

To redress this chink in the armor of the genre approach, it can be argued that it is more propitious to set the generic forms within a topic based format, adhering to the notion that "learning is always context-dependent" (Lewis and Wray 1992:6). With regard to writing frames then, contextualisation seems to be a simple but powerful solution to the problem in question.

The Relevance of Genre for Japanese Learners

In a study whose data allowed comparisons to be made between ESL learners of five nationalities, Kroll (1990) found that the written work of the Japanese group was "the most flawed" (Kroll 1990:147). Indeed, the essays produced by the Japanese subjects were the "worst in terms of rhetorical competency" (ibid:153). These findings suggest that a genre based writing course may be relevant in Japan where the greatest challenge for students resides beyond the sentence level and in the creation of coherent and cohesive texts as whole entities. This is not to suggest that Japanese students have no problems whatsoever at the sentence level, but that secondary education in Japan concentrates on grammar within the sentence, and consequently students have little experience in producing coherent texts such as essays and reports which are expected at the tertiary stage. Studies into the writer-reader relationship provided by Hinds (1987) is also useful. He maintains that in the English language, responsibility for successful communication rests with the writer, whereas in Japan the emphasis shifts to the reader since in Japan "there is a different way of looking at the communication process" (Hinds 1987:144). This has cultural and schematic implications for the ESL writing class in Japanese colleges. Moreover, Jarrell (2000:4), echoes the importance of genre for Japanese students precisely because of their lack of experience creating coherent texts above the sentence level:
 In a way, it is fortunate that writing even in the first language is
 de-emphasized in Japanese high schools. The playing field is level
 because few students have had experience in writing instructions,
 narratives, opinions and advice. Therefore, emphasizing generic
 structure in writing is beneficial to everyone no matter what their
 level of English.

Another advantage of genre in the writing class is its capacity to exploit authentic materials. Gallagher (2000:14), remarks that "an integral aspect of a genre approach is working with texts from the beginning; authentic texts that represent genres that are used outside the language classroom". Jarrell notes that authentic materials are motivating since they are "geared towards the students' interests and awareness" (op.cit.:4). Using the anecdote section from an American magazine for teenage girls, he identifies three further advantages; firstly, the basic generic pattern is abundantly demonstrated via numerous examples. Secondly, the material is flexible enough to cater for learners at differing levels and, finally, a low lexical density exists within the subject matter which is "crucial to a writing task where students need a model" (ibid:4). The generic structure of these materials complies with the form for narratives, as described by Martin and Rothery (1986:254-255) as "orientation," "complication," "resolution," and "coda." The orientation element of the anecdotes mentioned above revealed habitual use of the past continuous tense in the first sentence: Embarrassing Anecdotes

Anecdote 1 'I was swimming at a lake one Summer when I saw these two totally hot guys on shore. When I ...'

Anecdote 2 'Over the holidays I was shopping with my Mom in a record store when I ...' (Adapted from Jarrell 2000:4).

Rather than presenting this structural item in isolation, Jarrell maintains that by emphasizing the generic pattern in its writing context provides the learner with a deeper understanding of how to use the past progressive. After the vital phase of exposure to the genre by reading, considering and discussing examples of it (Gallagher 2000:14), Jarrell found that by using a generic structure, students were able to decode the anecdotes and that most were able to reproduce their own amusing stories in the written form. This suggests that used in an appropriate context, the incorporation of authentic materials within a genre approach can facilitate foreign students' comprehension of the anecdote genre.

Critics of the genre based approach state that it is akin to that of product-oriented pedagogy, teacher-led with a list of formal recipes. Conversely, Process oriented instructors attempt to foster learners' creativity followed by guiding them on the path of refining their writing. Britton et al. (1975) emphasize the significance of expressive language use over fake prescribed forms. The generation and exploration of new thoughts and ideas becomes the goal of writing. They suggest that written composition is a process with several stages, and that the capacity to use written sources adequately develops over time. Bartholomae (1985) also highlights difficulties college students have acquiring appropriate academic discourse. Ultimately, the eradication of copying is developmental. Although writing from personal experience is an essential element in the process of becoming a competent writer, it is vital for instructors to judge when ESL students require assistance in adopting other genres. In Japan, where college students lack experience of different English genres of non-fiction and their structural organization, writing frames and genre based pedagogy may well reduce their textual inexperience and improve their rhetorical competence. Like the elimination of copying, the use of frames is a developmental process. As the genre and its linguistic features are approximated greater responsibility passes over to the student and the frame is eventually discarded.

The description of the pedagogic strengths of genre literacy has so far embraced adult/tertiary level EFL learners as well as young mother tongue students. This suggests that when implemented, success is not confined to one grade alone; indeed, the genre approach has been equally effective across the educational spectrum.


The present paper, in assessing the strengths of the genre method to teaching writing, identifies numerous advantages. Undeniably some limitations exist, but they are far less substantial than their antipodal numbers. It would appear that the use of generic patterns can complement the dicta prescribed by the Process approach, and coordinating the approaches offers learners genuine opportunities to develop skills to reproduce coherent and cohesive texts. This approach is relevant for foreign learners who lack exposure to practical writing tasks, which is particularly the case in Japan, where one study found that Japanese learners had low cohesive writing capabilities. The conclusion that students' writing proficiency will only benefit from genre is based on the evidence presented above; most notably from data collected 'in the field' by Jarrell and the project with British primary school children. These studies which used generic frameworks produced significant results. Additionally, its broad applicability and ability to employ authentic materials are further reasons confirming the importance of this approach. There remains some latitude for further research to validate the claims of the genre movement made here, particularly with more research on whether teaching via the genre approach actually helps Japanese students become better rhetors. In conclusion, a genre structured framework is viewed in an indisputably favorable light, and the opinion held here suggests that Japanese college students of writing can only profit by its implementation.


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Roberto Rabbini, Bunan Senior High School, Saitama Prefecture, Japan

Roberto is Coordinator of the EFL Course at Bunan SHS & holds an MA in Linguistics (TESOL). Other research interests include bilinguistic development.
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Author:Rabbini, Roberto
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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