The Teaching-Learning Cycle

I spoke today at Penn-TESOL-East’s fall conference on the beautiful campus of Penn State-Abington. My presentation was titled “Discovering Writing with the Teaching-Learning Cycle” and it followed on from my earlier campaigns “beyond the five-paragraph essay.”

>> Here are my materials:  PowerPoint slides and handout

I was running against the clock, so I wasn’t able to do justice to this powerful technique for teaching writing. The method was developed in the 1990s for Australian elementary schools, and in itself, it makes no distinction between L1 and ESL learners. The teaching-learning cycle (TLC) is a challenge to the dominant pedagogy in second language writing in the US, which is a strange amalgam of process writing, the writing process, and current-traditional rhetoric; or to put it another way, we’ve become really good at teaching a process for writing a five-paragraph essay.

Whereas process writing (the expressivist approach to writing typified by Murray, Graves, Elbow and the writing workshop idea) takes essentially an individualist view of writing (the lonely writer in the university library searching for a muse), the TLC is grounded in genre theory, which sees all writing as socially situated. In Martin’s formulation, a genre is a “staged, goal-oriented social action.”

This insight suggests that our job as writing teachers is not to help learners find their voice or discover their inner author, but rather to make explicit the stages and social purposes of the genres that will facilitate students’ success.  These genres can be described in many ways but might include exposition, discussion, recount, and report. Each of these has different required and optional elements (some have thesis statements; others don’t!), but the stages are described in terms of their function not their structure. So, we don’t prescribe a certain number of paragraphs (the entire text might be a single paragraph), but rather describe the ways that writers typically arrange information to achieve their goals. This is coupled with attention to the ways that language choices make the writer’s meanings at three levels: experiential (the content), interpersonal (attitude), and textual (information flow), to use the terminology of Michael Haliday’s systemic-functional linguistics.

The TLC consists of five stages, in Rothery’s (1996) version: building field, deconstructing and modeling the genre, joint construction, independent construction, and linking to other genres. These are explained more in my powerpoint and in far more detail in Feez (1998), Rothery (1996), and Martin & Rose (2008) — all in my reference list on the handout.

Some of the advantages of the TLC that I have seen in my classroom are:

  •  reading, discussion, and writing are integrated
  • errors of genre awareness and organization can be prevented rather than corrected and remediated
  • students are empowered to write well
  • deconstruction improves both reading and writing skills
  • students understand the social function of the stages (not just “because you have to”

I hope this brief synopsis explains better what I was trying to say. There’s a list of references on my handout, and I welcome comments and discussion here, as I have only scratched the surface of this powerful technique.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

2 thoughts on “The Teaching-Learning Cycle”

  1. I am a Teach First participant in the UK and this article has really clarified the use of the TLC for writing and I will definitely be incorporatating it into my classroom. Thank you! :).

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