Tag Archives: writing

Using a genre approach for writing

Real Life Adv Pearson (1)Real Life Adv -Pearson (2)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?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, IELTS, Planning, Teaching methodology, Writing

‘Real world’ writing activities

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‘We don’t just ‘read’ and ‘write’: we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.’

David Barton

Outside the classroom, any writing our learners do will have a specific purpose and context. Inside the classroom, by definition, any writing is likely to be more simply for the sake of developing skills and language, and displaying those skills.

However, the difference between ‘real’ writing and display writing isn’t a binary distinction; it’s more of a continuum. Our job, as teachers, is to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, and help students to see the links.

How much do you know about the purposes for which your learners need to (or aspire to) write in English?

Obviously, if your learners are in an ESE (English-speaking environment), they are likely to have many pressing needs, such as form filling, work-related paper-work, emails, notes to school and so on. There are literally endless ways in which these learners can carry out real-world writing tasks, including writing to local papers, to their MPs and so on. Even in NESE contexts, learners may well need to use written English for work, especially with the growth of the internet and the increased tendency to communicate in writing.

For younger learners and most General English learners in NESE contexts, however, they may not have a current need to write in English at all, but it is still important for writing to be clearly contextualised, and have an audience. We don’t speak without any sense of who we are speaking to, and neither should we write in that way.

That said, I don’t believe that all classroom writing activities have to connect directly to the real world. The important thing is that the activity has a significance or personal value for the learners and that they know why they’re doing it. In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look more closely at some different ways to support learners in developing their writing skills, looking at genre-based and process-based approaches. All of these will, of course, have a purpose and an audience, but not necessarily an actual, immediate real-world one.

Writing for the public can, however, be extremely motivating. Below are some ideas to try, which would work with learners not in an ESE. Feel free to add anything else you’ve tried in the comments, it would be great to build up as long a list as possible:

  •  Writing to a favourite author. Many authors now have blog pages or other ways in which they can be contacted. Learners could choose their own author (which might be someone they have only read in translation), or this could be part of a class extended reading project.
  • Writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do regularly on sites such as Amazon.
  • Writing on behalf on victims of human rights abuse. Assuming this is appropriate in your context, this is a very real-world writing activity and could really make a difference in the world. See the Amnesty website  where you will find sample letters and advice.
  • Writing fiction for the internet. How about writing an 140 character story for Twitter [#140novel]? Or use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com? For younger learners, try Littlebirdtales,  where learners can create a picture story which is then emailed to specific friends and family, rather than being open to the whole internet. Or, a personal favourite, www.futureme.org.  On this site, people write letters to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. Still a real audience….
  • Comments on news articles and opinion pieces. Most newspapers now have online version where readers can comment. A particularly good source is the BBC, which asks specifically for comments in the Have your Say section. For example, this article and comments on ‘Invisibility cloaks: will we ever really have them?’

 

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