Starting out with genre-based writing instruction

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper

To mark the publication of Inside Writing, a series of genre-based writing textbooks from Oxford University Press, I’m writing a series of blog posts about my understanding of genre-based writing pedagogy. Today’s post is inspired by a conversation I had in the faculty lounge yesterday. A colleague told me he was interested in breaking away from (your friend and mine) the five-paragraph essay, but he wasn’t sure where to start. After the break, I’ll tell you …

Many of us teach courses that include learning outcomes (or in some places, objectives) that vaguely direct us to teach “descriptive paragraphs,” “argument essays,” or (from the department of unnecessary redundancy) “compare and contrast writing.” These rhetorical modes, however, are not genres. We do indeed write descriptions, arguments, comparisons, and so on, but we do so for particular reasons in specific contexts. To do so just for the sake of writing a paragraph produces what Elizabeth Wardle has colorfully called a “mutt genre” — a piece of writing utterly divorced from any communicative purpose.

A genre-based approach would start by asking this question: when, why, and where do we write descriptions, comparisons, and arguments?

For example, my intermediate-level writing class was supposed to cover descriptive writing, so instead of assigning descriptions of students’ heroes, or hometowns, or dorm rooms, I looked for genres and tasks that demand good description. I asked them to write a product review for a website like amazon.com (this is one of the units in Inside Writing 2, incidentally!). I also asked them to write an essay (yes, I teach essays!) of 4-5 paragraphs (goodness, a five-paragraph essay!) for a magazine in which they describe a vacation destination and explain whether or not it is environmentally friendly, and why. My colleague here at the University of Delaware ELI also has students write restaurant reviews and post them on her blog and — my personal favorite — write letters of complaint to their landlord in which they describe three problems with their apartment and demand redress! And not surprisingly we see some fantastic writing. One student even wrote a parody of the famous reviews of a banana slicer, which are themselves parodies of the online review genre!

Arguments are certainly found in student essays, and that’s a valid genre to teach. But they’re also found in more interesting places. For instance, in Q: Skills for Success, Reading/Writing 5 (also from Oxford), we have students imagine they are an advertising agency, and they write a proposal to a (usually fictitious) client describing an ad they would make (think Mad Men, ESL style, and with less smoking and drinking). By way of peer review, they swap papers, and readers take on the role of executives who decide whether or not to run the ad: that is, are they persuaded by the writers’ arguments? In Inside Writing 4, one of our argument units is a true piece of persuasive writing: a fundraising letter for a charity (we used the actual charity Music and Memory as an example).

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t also teach students to write highly-structured essays for standardized tests. However, I do argue (to anyone who’ll listen to me) that we do our students a disservice if we only teach formulaic, simplistic, five-paragraph essays. As a former colleague used to say, writers need a toolbox, and the traditional essay is one tool. But if you need a screwdriver and you’ve only got a hammer, you’re likely to make a mess.

What do you think? How could you incorporate genres in your course and still meet your learning outcomes? What assignments have worked for you? How could you modify your current assignments to make them genre-based? Leave a comment below!

Next time, how to analyze (or, deconstruct) models of your target genre.

Photo credit: Overcoming Writer’s Block, Creative Commons license, via Flickr

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

6 thoughts on “Starting out with genre-based writing instruction”

  1. Thanks for the explanation, Nigel! I now have a better understanding of what genre-based writing is. I now need to give your questions some thought.

  2. Thanks, Robbie (who, by the way, is the mystery colleague referred to in the first paragraph of this post!). Let me know if you have any other questions. I know this is quite a shift from our traditional sentence/paragraph/short essay/5-paragraph essay model of teaching writing.

  3. Letters/emails in general seem to go over well with students — they are immediately recognizable as something useful for accomplishing their own communicative goals. My intermediate students loved writing to the textbook committee with their observations about the differences between print textbooks and ebooks and their recommendations for which type of books the ELI should adopt. In addition to giving their comparisons a more meaningful purpose than just writing an essay stating that the two types of books have important differences, the task also increased students’ confidence in their ability to communicate their opinions to native speakers in a way that would be listened to and respected.

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