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The Genre-Based Approach: TESOL 2021 Session Reviews

April 2, 2021

The TESOL 2021 International Convention was virtual this year. Though our team really missed talking to teachers face-to-face (and reuniting with remote coworkers), it was still a great opportunity to give presentations about ESL Library and attend some wonderful PD sessions. We always come away from the conference feeling inspired and refreshed, and this year was no different in that regard.

Although I attended many excellent sessions on a variety of educational topics, one theme really caught my eyes and ears this year: the Genre-Based Approach (GBA). I was unfamiliar with this teaching method, but a quick overview of session descriptions piqued my interest. 

What Is the Genre-Based Approach?

The word "genre" is defined in Merriam-Webster as "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content."

In a nutshell, the Genre-Based Approach (GBA) is a teaching method that focuses on content over form. Genre here refers to a category—a set type of content. 

The GBA is becoming more and more common in writing classes. With the GBA, you don't have students write for the sake of writing practice alone—you have them write with a purpose or action in mind, following a formula (or prototype) with common expressions that are specific to the genre.

For example, "write a recipe" would be an example of a genre-based writing task, but "write a paragraph about your last vacation" would not be. Recipes follow a certain, familiar prototype (usually a list of ingredients followed by instructions in sequence) with common expressions (measurements, "cooking" action verbs, etc.).

How Can We Use the GBA in Our Teaching?

Ann Johns and Christine Tardy gave an informative presentation on Friday, March 26, 2021, called Genre-Based Instruction: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers. Later on Friday, Colin Ward and Alice Savage gave a compelling presentation called The Genre-Based Classroom: Whys and Hows.

Johns and Tardy mentioned that it's important to teach not only the genre prototype (common practices developed over the years), but also the variations. They gave an example of a wedding invitation. Students from other countries may not be familiar with the localized genre (i.e., they don't necessarily have the "genre-specific knowledge" they need to understand or reproduce something from that genre), so a good place to start would be to show examples of a typical wedding invitation. Once you've taught them the formal language and expressions used in a typical invitation, you can start pointing out the variations (e.g., some wedding invitations spell out the dates, whereas others use numerical forms).

Johns and Tardy summed up by saying it's important to assign writing tasks based on everyday genres such as advertisements, menus, product reviews, emails, etc. They reminded us that any writing should be meaningful right now and should never be writing only for the sake of writing (as is common in a typical academic essay assignment). "The actions the genre is used to accomplish" was reiterated throughout their presentation, and they concluded that the goal of any writing class should be "to enact writing, not to practice writing."

In their presentation, Ward and Savage discussed three pertinent questions about teaching writing nowadays:

  • Why is the five-paragraph essay under attack?
  • Is genre the solution?
  • What do genre-informed writing lessons look like?

Ward and Savage said that though the typical academic essay can help guide lower-level students, it's too strict and too focused on form over content. They explained how writing with a clear audience in mind helps students have a sense of purpose with their writing (e.g., writing to a politician vs. writing for the professor).

They mentioned that genre helps teachers rethink the way they teach writing. For example, if you wanted to teach your students to write a recipe, you could start by teaching the vocabulary, grammar, fixed expressions, and patterns of language that are common to that genre. Ward and Savage reminded us that genre-informed writing tasks always have a clear audience and purpose and prioritize content over form.

Using the Genre-Based Approach with ESL Library Materials

Not everyone teaches and learns in the same way. At ESL Library, we have always tried to include a wide variety of teaching methodologies in our materials, and many of our writing lessons could be used to teach with the GBA.

Our Writing in English section contains many lessons that focus on how to write for a genre such as text messages, emails, recipes, tweets, and various business topics such as resumes, cover letters, and business letters. Try some out with your students and see if they respond better to a content-focused writing lesson (rather than form-focused). 

It's important to keep in mind that different students will respond to different methodologies. For those students who crave more guidance and a step-by-step approach, we also have writing lessons that focus on structure (including lessons on how to write an outline, introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, concluding paragraph, and summary).

Conclusion

Have you ever used the Genre-Based Approach in your classroom? We'd love to hear from you in the comments section below. What worked and what didn't work?

Personally, I'd like to try the GBA, though I'm always wary of all-or-nothing styles of teaching. Ideally, I'd combine GBA-style lessons with structured lessons and see what my students responded to. I have a feeling that, much like with grammar (I love a combination of the implicit/inductive/Socratic method where I elicit the target or have my students learn in context, followed—or sometimes preceded—by the explicit/deductive method where I present the target's rules and exceptions), I would use a combination of content-focused and form-focused materials to teach writing in my classroom.

Related

If you want to give the GBA a try in your writing class, here are some ESL Library lessons you could use:

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