As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?