A Process Genre Approach to Writing
It is through the mastery of writing that the individual comes to be fully effective in intellectual organisation, not only in the management of everyday affairs, but also in the expression of ideas and arguments.
Writing is inexorably linked with power, especially in the workplace, and for many of our students, the workplace is where they use, or want to be able to use English, hence the focus on transactional letters. In this assignment, I am going to be looking at how we can guide our students on the road to the mastery of writing through the process genre approach, a blend between the genre approach, which I shall briefly describe later, and the process approach, which is worth explaining before we start, it being the approach which is probably most widespread in current classroom practice.
The process approach focuses, naturally, on the process of writing, as opposed to the end product, which had always been key to the product approach. Learners are encouraged to become collaboratively involved in planning, organising, drafting, revising (through ‘conferencing’) and editing. Language is concentrated on at a discourse level, in contrast to the sentence level focus of the product approach, and meaningful communication and quantity over quality are other features of this approach. The product approach has its methodological roots in imitation and mechanical grammar exercises (Nunan 1991).
I chose to look at the process genre approach because I have never felt comfortable with the prohibition of models in the process writing classroom and so I was naturally intrigued by the alternative suggested, although not named, by Tribble (1996). Typical problems students have in my experience are related to format and appropriateness of language. The process approach attempts to deal with these inductively, whereas I have always found a deductive model-based approach more effective. Other typical problems for learners involve lexico-grammatical errors, erroneous use of logical connectives and insufficient planning. This last point meant that a return to the product approach was never on the agenda for this particular writer.
These problems will be dealt with in the following sections, but now I would like to analyse some of the broader issues for learners involved in writing transactional letters. I shall do this by looking at what a skilled writer needs to know in terms of; the audience and their relationship to them, the type of letter and its content, the purpose for writing and writing skills.
What knowledge does a successful writer need?
A writer needs to know who the audience is and what their relationship with them is. This is sometimes called the ‘tenor’ of the communication and will affect the style of writing. Depending on factors such as social dominance and social distance, linguistic choices will be made. These may be grammatical choices, for example the use of the passive, or lexical choices, for example the level of lexical density, the tendency to use low frequency lexical items or the use of a nominalised style (Tribble 1996) in more formal writing. This raises two issues for learners. Firstly, they need to be capable of making a stylistic choice based on the context of the writing. Even assuming that they can do this in their mother tongue, cultural differences may mean that rather different choices would be made in the student’s L1. Students also need to be capable of implementing their choices, thus requiring complex knowledge of language systems.
Richards (1990) states that a good writer will produce ‘reader based prose’, that is, that s/he will produce clear, unambiguous text by considering the reader’s perspective, predicting what questions s/he may ask his/herself as s/he is reading the text and taking into account any shared knowledge. In terms of coherence, this means that there must be an orderly development of ideas, continuity and no irrelevance, appropriate emphasis on ideas and a sense of completeness (Richards 1990). For the learner it can be very problematic to consider the reader’s perspective, particularly when, as is so often the case in the classroom, the reader is not only absent and distant in time and space (Nunan 1991), but does not even exist! This can additionally cause motivational problems.
Richards’ (ibid.) idea of coherence takes us to our next focus; that a writer needs to respect the accepted textual form according to the genre s/he is writing in, sometimes referred to as the ‘mode’. A reader will expect a particular layout and schematic structure of the discourse depending on the context of the communication and a failure on the writer’s part to provide this could lead to an unsuccessful piece of writing (Tribble 1996). Tribble (ibid.) also goes so far as to suggest that the success of the piece of writing relies more on making an appropriate choice here than it does on having a full control of the language system. In the case of transactional letters, a problem-solution pattern of discourse is favoured. This, however, may not be the case in our students’ cultures. Middle Eastern students I have taught seem to have enormous trouble with organisation of ideas and it can sometimes be difficult to persuade students that it is not just the control of the English language system which is important. Spanish students seem to have problems with issues of layout in transactional letters, especially where the norms are only slightly different in Spanish.
While discussing the structure and organisation of a text, it is necessary to mention cohesion. Cohesion can be effected lexically (through reformulation or use of lexical fields or, particularly in speech, through repetition), through conjunction or grammatically (use of pronouns, articles, substitution, tense or ellipsis) (Thornbury 1997). In my experience, students tend to have problems with articles (especially learners whose L1 does not have them), tense agreement, overuse of repetition (acceptable in some languages) and use of conjunctions. This last item is, I feel, inadequately dealt with in coursebooks which tend to overload students with logical connectives of various functions but do not sufficiently explain when or when not to use them at a discourse level.
Finally in this section on ‘what’ a writer is writing, the subject matter, or ‘field’ needs to be referred to. Writers need to have the relevant content knowledge (Tribble 1996). This is rarely a problem for students writing transactional letters in the learning environment where the content is usually provided and/or non-specialist and we can probably assume that in the working environment our students already have this knowledge.
A writer needs to know the purpose or function of his/her is writing in order to make it meaningful. Hedge (1988) cites purpose as indispensable in kindling motivation. Genre analysts consider it pivotal to genre. Swales (1990:58) defines a genre as: ‘(comprising) a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes’. Badger and White (2000) add that:
Genres are also influenced by other features of the situation, such as the subject matter, the relationships between the writer and the audience, and the pattern of organisation.
So far then, we have been concentrating on the genre related knowledge that writers need, but what of writing process knowledge?
Writing Process Knowledge
This can be most effectively explored through describing the process writing approach, where linguistic skills are emphasised over linguistic knowledge. In this approach learners are encouraged to go through the same stages as skilled writers do. Richards (1990) identifies three key stages leading to publication: prewriting or rehearsing; drafting; and revising. The prewriting stage includes consideration of the audience and the purpose of the letter, generation of ideas and organisation of the text (Hedge 1988). It is important to note that this process is not considered as being linear (see, for example, White and Arndt 1991).
Although this approach may seem, at first sight, the ideal solution to the above-mentioned issues, it has attracted a great deal of criticism. Tribble (1996) points out that it does not provide EFL/ESOL students with knowledge about genre conventions while Badger and White (2000) add that there is insufficient input in terms of linguistic knowledge and propose a marriage between this approach and the ‘genre approach’.
Solutions – The ‘Process Genre Approach’
As already suggested, this is a hybrid of the process approach, discussed above, and the genre approach, which we will turn to now. The genre approach bears more to a passing resemblance to the product approach in that a model text is analysed and perhaps some controlled writing is carried out focusing on aspects of vocabulary or syntax. This is followed by some guided writing before a final free writing stage. Both approaches view imitation as important in learning. The main difference and the key aspect of the genre approach is that the model texts are seen as belonging to specific genres defined by social contexts and purposes (Badger and White 2000).
The process genre approach, according to Badger and White (ibid.), involves the provision of a situation from which the learners are helped to identify the purpose and consider the field, mode and tenor of the text they are about to produce. Texts within the genre (in our case transactional letters with a particular function) will have been selected and researched by the teacher who then encourages student research into the genre (Tribble 1996). Language awareness activities may be carried out. Perhaps with the help of flow-charts, the students will plan and organise their ideas before drafting and revising with the purpose and audience in mind. These latter stages will probably not be linear and students may jump between them as they find necessary. The collaborative aspect of process writing (as highlighted by Richards 1990), which in my experience has always suited the learning styles of most of my students, is maintained, as is the learner-centred approach (ibid.), particularly if the situation is chosen wisely.
Let us now look at the stages in a little more detail, relating them to the issues we raised in the previous section and suggesting some practical ideas for the classroom. First we need to select, or ideally involve the students in selecting, a situation which provides motivation and a clear purpose. Perhaps this could be a letter requesting information from an English-speaking company or institution or a letter that a student needs to write for work. Alternatively, students tend to become highly involved if asked to write to each other, although this does require an amount of characterisation in order to create the social distance inherent in professional transactional letters.
Ideas could then be generated by looking at a sample letter from the genre and producing a question related to each piece of information included. They could then ask each other these questions. Another means of brainstorming, which I have found works with some learner types, is through quickwriting.
The students can now be encouraged to consider the (real) audience and make stylistic choices together, before later being given the opportunity to compare their choices with those made by a skilled writer in the sample letter(s). At this stage, students can be lead to notice how these stylistic choices are implemented through tasks which may involve highlighting noun phrases (to raise awareness of nominalised style), or comparing with a spoken equivalent to the text (a wonderfully clear way of raising awareness of low-frequency vocabulary or sentence complexity). A production stage could follow in the form of solid, traditional transformation, word ordering or gap filling exercises. Translation into L1 is another technique that could possibly be used with monolingual classes.
Before looking at the sample texts the students could also be given the opportunity to consider the discourse structure and layout of the genre. Then later, with the samples, they could be asked to produce reusable templates for a standard letter in the genre. Together they could be asked to order a jumbled text, or match or give titles to each paragraph, depending on its function. (Again, these ideas are commonplace, due to their effectiveness.) With more than one sample within or across genres (perhaps inferring sources), students are more likely to appreciate the conventions. Analysis could then take place of a particular type of cohesion present in the texts which the group have previously found problematic. Some good ideas may be to ask students to find lexical sets or, with the logical connectives deleted, ‘sketch the progression of the stages in the arguments’ (Crewe 1990:324) before attempting to replace the connectives and comparing their version with the original.
Based on this research the groups will then work together to prioritise (through ranking) and organise their ideas into a plan, with the teacher explaining the value of this exercise or giving a demonstration with a commentary of his/her thought processes, although this could be difficult to administer. The students should aim for clarity and logical progression at this stage and could be encouraged to use logical connectives neither at this stage nor the drafting stage in order that due care is taken to achieve this. Crewe (1990) sensibly advises that connectives should be present to ‘express cohesive relationships that already exist in the writer's thinking’ (ibid.:320) and not to create relationships.
Drafting could involve the interesting idea of groups of students quickwriting individual sections of the letter, or the learner-centred peer counselling, where students write individually, but have an assigned partner to discuss problems with during the drafting process.
The revising stage could involve students reading each other’s work and offering (positive and negative) feedback on the clarity of the message, which if prepared carefully, can reap great rewards. The students could decide on key criteria to assess the work. They could also discuss the biggest problems they had with the draft and say what they would add/remove if they had to. In rewriting, suitable logical connectives could be inserted where the message requires a greater degree of clarity.
We have looked at a variety of solutions, within the process genre approach, to the issues raised at the outset and throughout the discussion. Many of these solutions are commonplace in our classrooms. In fact, the approach itself smacks of common sense. Perhaps all that is new is an ordered structure to the approach and recognition that model texts have their place in a process writing approach.
Although the lexico-grammatical problems will not disappear overnight, we have highlighted the greater importance of respecting the conventions of genre through a process which mirrors the way I have written this assignment.
I am sure that this new awareness will have an important influence on my future teaching. It has helped me to gain insight into how to use model texts in an organised way, and how to use them to raise awareness of and practise key language areas in the relevant genres. What is more, I have learned some useful techniques to create motivating, collaborative, communicative, learner-centred writing activities which involve raising the learner’s awareness of what is involved in successful writing.
Badger, R. and White, G. 2000. ‘A Process Genre Approach to Teaching Writing.’ ELT Journal, 54/2: 153-160.
Class Profile: The class consists of 3 male and 5 female students who live in Madrid. Some have been coming to English classes twice a week in the evenings for 3 hours each time since October. Some members of the class plan to take the First Certificate in English examination in December. Others are taking the course purely for personal or professional reasons. Most of the students prefer to learn through games and communicative activities and it is particularly important for this group that lessons are paced appropriately. Sandra is a Colombian who misses many classes due to her other studies. She is also has problems with retention and is finding herself increasingly out of her depth as the course continues. All of the other students are Spanish. Patricia is a very strong, very motivated student, largely due to her interest in British culture. As a scientist, she has a logical mind which accounts for her superb grasp of grammatical concepts. Unfortunately, however, she is reluctant to confine her numerous useful contributions to L2 and has problems with listening activities. Her writing is fluent but often too informal in style. Paloma is a strong, conscientious student who travels around Europe with her work and as such is often absent, but has a excellent level of spoken fluency. Graciela is a weaker student (particularly in terms of listening and hence pronunciation) whose confidence is growing in proportion to her interlanguage. She puts in a lot of effort outside the classroom and her writing has improved enormously throughout the year. Santiago is orally fluent and prefers fluency work to language systems work. He is older than the others and has retention problems. Lucia is a highly motivated fluent speaker who takes a great deal of interest in accuracy too. Possibly the strongest all-round student in the group and her written work supports this although she has problems with the correct use of logical connectives. Antonio Manuel is an eager new student who seems to be lacking in vocabulary but not in effort. His writing lacks logical progression. Antonio has made steady progress throughout the course. He tends to work hard in the background. Although quiet, he has no problem in expressing himself when required. His writing lacks focus and organisation.
Timetable Fit: This lesson follows on from the one discussed in the lesson rationale and within the larger frame of a writing syllabus which is preparing some of the students for the FCE examination. Prior to the stages in the lesson plan, I will have stated the aims of the class and reasons for these aims in relation to the session discussed below. The students will then have selected an institution or organisation to write to in order to request information. This will have been chosen in groups after having looked at a wide choice of options. They will have then generated ideas for the letter individually through a quickwriting activity.
After the observed part of the class, the students will look at the sample texts from the genres again and this time the focus will be on logical progression of ideas. They will see the texts without logical connectives and try to work out the relationship between clauses, before deciding which connective might fit into the text, and then comparing with the original. This will produce a very limited number of simple, commonly used connectives of the four main types (addition, order, contrast, cause/effect) for the students to use where communication breaks down in the texts they will have just written together. We will then elicit criteria by which they can judge each other’s work. After providing positive and negative feedback, there will be a revision stage and one student from each group will be asked to type the letter up at home. The replies that we will (hopefully!) receive can be used at a later date to study the genre of letters offering information.
A brief summary of the lesson then, is:
ii)To guide students to consider audience and appropriate style in written work (stage 1, 3, 4 &6)
ii)To raise awareness of discourse structure and layout in a letter of request and to provide opportunity to practice its reproduction in the students’ own writing (Stages 2, 5 & 6)
Lesson Rationale: As the coursebook we are required to use is heavily focused on exam preparation, I am left with a familiar dilemma. I need to provide classes where there was a balance of activities to cater for the needs of students who do want to take the FCE exam and for those who do not, and where possible activities which are relevant to all. In terms of writing this meant asking the students what they are expected to write in English in their daily lives. The majority said, typically, that producing emails and letters in a professional context were their major requirements. As the FCE exam also requires candidates to write transactional letters I chose to focus this session on transactional letters. I decided to focus specifically on transactional letters of request as the other types of transactional letters included in the FCE exam (letters of application and letters of complaint) were found not to be relevant to many, if any, of this particular group.
Having decided on my focus, the next logical step was to analyse the students’ strengths and weaknesses in this area. I chose a writing question from an FCE past paper (see Appendix A) and without offering any guidance, asked the students to write their answers while I observed the approaches used. I then analysed each letter using the following criteria; accuracy of lexis and structures, range of lexis and structures, appropriacy, task achievement, organisation (including paragraphing and coherence), presentation (i.e. format) and cohesion.
The most significant problem was that the work was inappropriate in style. In addition: there also seemed to be some confusion as to the accepted norms of presentation in this genre, particularly in terms of openings and closings; the group had problems with logical connectives; there were several non-impeding errors in terms of lexico-grammatical accuracy; and not one student engaged in an organised prewriting stage. On the other hand, the necessary content was covered, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the work was generally well organised and many students redrafted their work. The importance of the prewriting and rewriting stages has been stressed by many including Nunan (1991), Hedge (1988) and White and Arndt (1991).
The aims for this lesson therefore involve looking at layout, appropriacy and the prewriting stage. In Part 1, I discuss why I would like to experiment with the process genre approach to writing to tackle these problems using a deductive (or at least guided deductive) approach with model texts and a relatively strong focus on language systems. This marriage of approaches is particularly suitable for this class for two reasons. Firstly, the students seem to respond better to a deductive learning style. Secondly, this approach still allows for the learner-centred, collaborative, communicative atmosphere of the process model and these aspects are particularly important in order that the lesson is appropriate to the learning styles of this close-knit group of young professionals.
Assumed Knowledge: The studentsshouldbe able to list some basic differences between speech and formal writing. They should not have many problems matching lexical items between the text and the tapescript. We have done similar activities to the above before. The gap filling and transformation activities should not pose too many problems to these students working in groups.
Anticipated Problems and Solutions: The students mayfind the exercise dealing with layout and discourse in stage 1 difficult, but stage 2 is present for this reason. They may find ordering the paragraphs difficult, but working in groups with assistance from myself should ease the strain. I predict problems when adjusting the titles, but these can be dealt with as a class. The students are unlikely to know what noun phrases are, but as I do not foresee problems with the other activities which will be taking place, I will hopefully be free to assist the stronger students who I provide with this task. The group dynamic should help to simplify the sentence ordering exercise. I will provide ample support at the ranking and ordering stage, if necessary.
model 2 connectives