Genre Makeover: The Process Essay

One of the strongest arguments against the five-paragraph essay is that the 5PE approach to writing (textbooks) tends to confuse mode with genre. Briefly, rhetorical modes are patterns of development, such as description, comparison, causation, or — the focus of this post — process. Genres are the ways we get things done with language in social contexts. Genres might include pedagogical genres (describing an economic principle on a test; writing a lab report), professional genres (user manuals; methodology sections), or home genres (recipes, Facebook rants). We know we use genres, but for some reason we don’t always teach them.

You can read more about the distinction between mode and genre — and why the 5PE is neither — in our new volume Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay, edited by Ann Johns and me, from the University of Michigan Press.

In this series of posts, I am taking some mode-based assignments and reworking them as genre-based assignments.

The process paragraph/essay is one of the most puzzling to me. It’s often presented without any attempt to understand where, when, and why writers explain processes. The result can be frankly bizarre: how to make an egg-salad sandwich, how gold is formed, or on this website “how to find a new boy or girl friend.” Really?

OK, so let’s dispense with assignments that are dull, meaningless, or completely inappropriate. Your students don’t want to write them, and you certainly don’t want to read them unless you have a very peculiar obsession with egg-salad sandwiches.

Here are a few suggestions for genres that involve explaining processes. In fact, it helps to think of “process” as a type of explanation or procedure.

  • Write a series of Q and As for a website/booklet for new students at your school/university, explaining how to do important tasks, such as registering for classes, buying textbooks, setting up an email account, getting a driver’s license.
  • Recipes are a predictable but effective assignment, especially when students describe how to make something that is unfamiliar to you and other readers. You can expand the task by having students examine food blogs first. These often include an additional process: explaining how the writer discovered or adapted the recipe. You can have students do a simple genre analysis first!
  • More advanced students can try out a common academic procedural text, the methods section of a scientific research paper. I did this in an EAP course a few years ago, ditching a rather dull process assignment (something about carbohydrates) and had students keep a food diary over a weekend. They then analyzed their nutritional intake, comparing it the FDA’s recommendations. The assignment was a mini research paper with an intro, methods, results, and discussion, drawing on information about nutrition (carbohydrates, saturated fats, etc.) in their textbooks. This USDA tool shows the nutritional info for many common foods. But you could just have them write the methods section if you really want to focus only on procedural writing.
  • I’ve been fascinated recently by Word of the Year and other blog posts and magazine articles about interesting words (e.g., Oxford Learners Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Word of the Day, Cambridge Dictionaries,’s awesome All the Words blog). Part of the text is often an explanation of how the word developed its (new) meaning. I haven’t tried this out, but it strikes me that this would be a great explanation genre: students write about a new word, a word from their home language/variety, or a word that has a particular meaning on their campus or in their discipline.

The rhetorical modes are valuable when they are seen as patterns of development that writers employ and combine in different contexts, but we do students and ourselves a disservice when we just stick the word essay after them. Student writers need to learn not only how to write in the modes, but also when, and we all write best when the task is meaningful now, not as some vague preparation for the future.

What assignments would you like to give a genre makeover? Leave your comments and suggestions below!

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.

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