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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Genre-based Approach for Teaching English Factual Writing

Ji Lingzhu, China

Ji Lingzhu is an associate professor in Foreign Languages Department, Taiyuan Normal University, Shanxi Province, P. R. China. She has published over thirty articles and one book on EFL teaching methodology in China, Japan, UK and USA. Her major research areas are: listening comprehension in a foreigh language and teaching young learners. Email:


The ‘Genre’ Approach
The curriculum package
A concise summary of the package and its components


As EFL teachers, we all understand the challenge of writing in a foreign language. We work very hard to improve our learners’ writing ability in English, but always face an unsatisefactory and even frustrated outcome. This is not surprising because the rhetorical conventions of English texts - the structure, style, and organization - often differ from the conventions in other languages. It requires efforts to recognize and manage the differences (Leki, 1991).

In recent years, Communicative Approach of Writing method is adopted in secondary schools in China. The theoretical base for this is that mechanical writing activities do not motivate students. Therefore it is necessary to engage them in some sort of act of communication. This means either writing for a specific recipient, e.g. writing a letter to a friend or parents, or engaging in an act of creative writing where their work is intended to be read by other people, in other words, an intended audience. Students are given more freedom to write about their real life. As a result, the products they produce should be more meaningful and communicative. However, this method does not emphasize the rhetorical conventions of English texts. Leaners’ attention is not called upon the structure, style and the organization of their writing. Their work is still very Chinese although the sentences are written in English. Many of our students, although enrolled as English majors, often organize their ideas in Chinese, and then translate them into English when they write. This usually leads to the weak structural organization and improper use of language.

As they receive instruction in English, their language proficiency is improving. It is necessary for us to teach them what real writing in English should be and raise their awareness of the rhetorical conventions of English texts. A good way, in my opinion, is to teach them the structural organization and linguistic features of different genres.

The ‘Genre’ Approach

In the 1980s the genre approach became popular along with the notion that student writers could benefit from studying different types of written texts. Derewianka (1992) defines genre as the schematic structure of a text which helps it to achieve its purpose. Texts differ in terms of their purpose, and different cultures achieve their purposes through language in different ways. Texts also differ according to particular situation in which they are being used.

In essence, genre theory is a theory of language use. The genre-based writing teaching is actually developed on the basis of child language studies undertaken within the systematic functional model that shows how young children learn language and how, in particular they learn to develop texts. (Halliday, 1975, Paiter, 1986, Oldenberg, 1987) These studies demonstrate that in the course of adult care-takers and children interaction, adults are constantly modeling genres in their discourse with young children. So we must find ways to introduce strategies familiar to students from their experience of learning to talk. Usually in the course of learning, the adults and the children share the same experiences. Therefore the classroom genre for teaching genres should include the three basic stages: modeling, joint construction and independent construction.

Sawyer and Watson (1982) stresses that learning to write is learning to control genres. Genres are identified by their generic structures. Students should learn first of all the structure, but the emphasis on structures should not detract from the essential emphasis on meaning.

Rothery’s (1985) suggestion for a genre-based approach to teaching writing includes the following steps:

  1. introducing a genre: modeling a genre by reading to the whole class,
  2. focusing on a genre: modeling a genre explicitly by naming its stages,
  3. jointly negociating a genre: teacher and class jointly composing the genre under focus,
  4. researching: selecting material; assessing information before writing,
  5. independent construction: students individually construct the genre

The curriculum package

Proficiency of the Learners: 1st or 2nd year College English majors

Number of students: 30 ( one class)
Time / Duration: one semester
Aim and objectives:

  1. The general aim of this curriculum package is to encourage students to learn the structure and language features of different genres of English factual writing in order to put across their meanings clearly when they write. They cannot be expected to master the organizational structure and linguistic features of each genre before they are able to use them for their own writing. Six commonly encountered factual genres will be covered in this package: recount, information report, explanation,instruction, exposition and narrative.
  2. After the course, the students will be able to:
    1. understand the use of each genre.
    2. Know the generic structure and linguistic features;
    3. Be able to tell a well-structured passage from a bad one;
    4. Be able to organize their composition better, using comparatively proper language;
    5. Develop specific writing skills including writing skills required for examination purposes;
    6. Cultivate and sustain their interests in English writing.

Our students are young adults aged about 20, who are learning English as their foreign language. They are able to write very well in their mother tongue---Chinese. The important thing is that their Chinese writing is taught on a genre-based approach although the Chinese primary school teachers may not know anything about genre at all. So the urgent thing for us English teachers to do is to introduce the genre under focus in English structurally and linguistically, since what the students need is the structure of the genre in English. Considering the actual situation of our students, I would like to modify Rothery’s genre-based approach to teaching writing:

  1. preparing to introduce a genre (mainly to activate students’ prior knowledge about this genre in Chinese so that they are able to know what they will do.
  2. introducing the target genre in English
    1. social function ( or general uses )
    2. organization (both the generic structure and organization of paragraphs )
    3. linguistic features
  3. comparing the English genre with its counterpart in areas like social function, structural organization and linguistic features
  4. reinforcing what have been taught about the target genre
  5. jointly constructing
  6. individual construction

A concise summary of the package and its components

The whole package will include six English factual genres: recount, information report, explanation, instruction, exposition and narrative. For each genre, three lessons will be needed: Lesson one concentrates on generic structure of each genre; Lesson two on the linguistic features, and in Lesson three, students jointly and independently construct a text of the same genre.

For pre -teaching activities, students are usually asked to find some example passages of the genre to be taught in Chinese from newspapers, magazines, textbooks or even operation manuals, and read carefully to recognize some of the characteristics. Both successful and unsuccessful samples are used for the purpose of modeling and reinforcing exercises. Lessons will be taught mainly on a student-centered activities with pairs and groups of students reading the sample passages and discussing questions concerning social function/general uses, structural organization and linguistic features of the genre under focus. After the students representatives report their results, teacher makes comments and add necessary information. And then students do some exercises to reinforce and put into practice what they have learned, usually dividing a successful sample into several parts according to the generic structure, or giving example to indicate the language features used, or even examine what is wrong with an unsuccessful samples. In the constructing stage, students again will have group activities on a given topic: observation, note-taking, discussion, rehearsing and role play. And finally they will write a passage independently.

1. Teaching recounts

A. Teaching structural organization of recount
The teaching will be divided into five stages.
Stage 1 connects pre-class activities with the teaching of social function/general uses of recount: to reconstruct and interpret experiences and past events, and to keep the past alive or keep permanent records of things that have happened. At this stage, students will have the Chinese examples found by themselves before class and the successful English sample given by the teacher.
Stages 2 and 3 are the core of the lesson, which focus on the generic structure (three stages; orientation, events and reorientation ), and the organization of events ( temporal sequence ). At Stage 4, students are given an exercise to do so that they can be more familiar with the generic structure.
At Stage 5, teacher will give students a topic, and ask them to outline a recount in groups. After all these teaching, students will have their assignment aiming at reinforcing what already have been done and preparing them for the teaching of language features in the coming session.

B. Teaching language features of recount
There are mainly four language features for recount: focusing on individual or specific participants; using the past tense; focusing on temporal sequence of time; using mainly material or action processes. Students will re-read the given samples and find out these language features. Teaching sequence is again divided into several stages. At stage 1, teacher has the students report the pre-viewing part of their assignment, asking the students to use examples from samples to support their point of view. Then the teacher will teach the language features one by one, encouraging and praising students from time to time if their pre-viewing is successfully done. At stage 2, students will be asked to revisit the samples and find out all the uses of the features according to teacher’s instruction. At stage 3, there is a new sample for the students to read, discuss and do the exercise given by teacher in groups (eg, Asking students to change a recount written in first person, and retell as the narrator/3rd person. ). At stage 4, teacher summarizes the major points covered in the lesson and answer students’ questions if they have any, and give them their assignment.

C. Joint and independent construction of a new text
The main aim of the joint construction step is to show students how to translate their meanings expressed in spoken language into written language. Teacher and students will jointly build up the introductory paragraph ( or orientation ), clearly establishing a context for the events which follow. The remaining paragraphs develop the temporal sequence of events, ending with a re-orientation ( optional ). They will again be organized into groups of four with a reporter and a secretary. Teacher walks around helping each group, and keep reminding them to use the appropriate generic and grammatical terms throughout this stage. There are also many opportunities to teach drafting, editing and proof reading skills here.

After the joint construction stage, teacher and students will jointly choose a new topic, and students will write a recount independently on this topic. If they are not ready for independent work, they can be organized into small groups or pairs to discuss for a while. Then we may use other processes: teacher consultation, peer conferencing, editing and reworking. Finally teacher will help the students to apply this genre to other fields. ( from personal recount to historical recount)

2. Teaching information reports
Again the teaching will be divided into three lessons: teaching of social function and generic structure, linguistic features and joint & independent construction. The function of an information report is to document, organize and store factual information on a topic, clarifying and describing the phenomenon of our world. The topic of a report is usually introduced by an opening general statement / general classification. The rest of the report will consist of facts about various aspects of the subjects. Paragraphing may be used to introduce different areas of the topic. They generally focuses on generalized participants, a whole class of things rather than specific participants. The writing is in a relatively formal and objective style. The use of 1st person pronouns and the writers’ opinions are not generally appropriate in this type of writing. Action verbs, linking verbs and timeless present tense should be used. The writer should use the descriptive language, which should be factual and precise rather than imaginative or likely. Different activities will be organized in the course of teaching.

3. Teaching explanations
Explanations are used to give account of how something works or reasons for some phenomenon, account for why something is as it is. They are more about processes than things. In the school curriculum, they are often found in science and social studies. Since explanations have a process focus rather than a thing focus, they are often concerned with a logical sequence. There is usually some statement about the phenomenon in question ( often in the form of heading or question ), followed by a sequenced explanation of how/why things occur ( usually a series of logical steps in the process ). Explanations focus on generic, non-human participants, using simple present tense, temporal and causal relations, mainly material processes, and also some passives used to get theme right. The lexical density of explanation is very high, with sentences consisting one or two clauses, but those clauses are each packed with meanings. To achieve these purposes, writers commonly use nominalization. The whole teaching will be divided into three lessons, each focusing on different areas of the genre.

4. Teaching Instructions
Instructions belong to a group of text-types concerned with procedures, which tell us how something is accomplished through a sequence of actions or steps. It is a very important genre in our society because it enables us to get something done, and it is equally common in the oral and written mode. The focus of instructional texts is on a sequence of actions. The structure is easisly recognised, usually consisting of:
Goal ( often indicated in the main heading)
Materials ( listed in order of use)
Method ( steps oriented towards achieving the goal)
Instructions have their own specific language features.
Teaching instructions will be divided into three lessons.

5.Teaching expositions
Expositions are used to put forward a point of view, or argument. (eg, essay or letter to the writer) They use logical rather than temporal sequencing, usually divided into three parts: Part 1. thesis, the author states his/her point of view, preview it;
Part II. arguments, there is/are points and elaboration of these points.
Part III. there is the reiteration ( the author restate his/her thesis ). Exposition focuses on generic human and non-human participants, and use simple present tense, logical relations and material, relational and mental process.

6. Teaching narratives
There are many types of narratives. They are typically imaginary, but can be factual, too. The basic purpose of narratives is to entertain , i.e. to gain and hold the readers’ interest in story. But they may also seek to teach or inform, to embody the writer’s reflections on experience, and- perhaps most important- to nourish and extend the reader’s imagination. The focus of the text is on a sequence of actions. They usually begin with an orientation, where the writer attempts to create the possible world of this particular story. The story is pushed along by a series of events, during which we usually expect some sort of complication or problem to arise. In a satisefying narrative, a resolution of this complication is usually brought about:

  • Language features of narratives:
  • Specific, often individual participants with defined identities
  • Many action verbs
  • Normally past tense
  • Many linking words to do with time
  • Dialogues often included
  • Descriptive language creating images in the reader’s mind
  • Can be written in the first person, third person or the second person ( in that case the reader is involved in the story as a main character)

The teaching of narratives will be divided into three or four lessons ( 6 or 8 teaching hours)


Assessment refers to the set of processes by which we judge students’ learning. It is generally assumed that such learning has come as the result of a course instruction. Within the curriculum framework here, it refers to the procedures for measuring the extent to which students have achieved the objectives of a course. Assessment is generally a diagnostic process providing guidance to teachers when designing teaching/learning programs. It also satisfies another need--- that of investigation into information about the students’ performance, and if they are not performing satisfactorily, to diagnose the cause or causes and putting forward some suggestion or remedies. My assessment planning is based on explicit and specific objectives stated above. I will have a number of different strategies over a period of 12 weeks so that they can provide me with a comprehensive account of students’ achievements. These strategies can be grouped into two different categories: informal and formal.

A. Informal assessment strategies are an integral component of any assessment program, providing valid data for assessing the extent to which learning objectives are being achieved. The validity of the data, however, will depend on the teacher’s ability to link the informal methods of assessment to the criteria for establishing levels of achievement. The informal strategies will include the following:

  1. Collecting work samples to trace students’ progress.
  2. Observing students
    1. use check lists which focus observation on specific criteria and aid quick recording;
    2. interview individual students to discuss progress;
    3. have students write periodic reports on their progress;
    4. maximize opportunities for observation during occasional team teaching sessions.

B. Formal assessment strategies are designed to provide specific information about a particular aspect of students’ achievement in formal setting rather than in day-to-day classroom activities. Cloze exercises will be used to assess knowledge of specific language features, using labeling activities to assess students’ knowledge of text organization of and generic structure. I can also give students text reconstruction tasks, and we can also give students writing tasks, writing a whole passage according to a common topic.


Writing skill in English is developed almost exclusively within the classroom instruction in China, therefore it is necessary to make explicit the purpose of the genre and structure through which the text achieve its purpose so that the students gain tools to use to shape the text appropriately for content and knowledge to be independently of the teacher ultimately. They can also have a conscious awareness of text and their own purposes, and then be able to choose for their own purposes both in university and in society.


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