Blog 4: Genre Pedagogy

After my third blog I promised I would give examples of how I have used the teaching and learning cycle in my own practice. However, I think I need to do one more explainer about the theoretical background to the pedagogical approach we are using before I launch explicitly into how I’m actually walking the talk.

So this post is about ‘genre pedagogy’, which is probably a more accurate label for what we’re implementing than ’language-based pedagogy’. Its chief developer is Professor Jim Martin of the University of Sydney and the best summary of the approach is his book ‘Learning to Write, Reading to Learn: genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School’ (Equinox 2012) co-authored with Dr David Rose. The book is an account of the work of the ‘Sydney School’ of linguistics practitioners who developed a language-based approach to teaching in Australia from the late 1970s onwards.

Please read the book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Learning-Write-Reading-Learn-Scaffolding/dp/1845531442/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364163236&sr=1-12) and then forgive any elements of recontextualisation in what follows. As with all of my blogs, they reflect my understanding and implementation of these theories, which are still developing; as such any inadequacies/inaccuracies are mine and not those of the theorists.

As I laid out in blog 1, Halliday’s theory of the functional model of language starts with the context of culture: the ‘genre’ or the ‘why?’ of any text or communication – ‘genres’ are ways of getting things done or achieving a social purpose. Martin and his colleagues identified, through extensive sampling, the most common written genres of each school subject or discipline at each stage of schooling. From this they were able to map out a taxonomy of school genres which identified the main forms of writing that school pupils needed to gain control over (because they were the ones which occurred the most often). This work has been continually refined and the taxonomy of genres in my discipline, history, has been taken up and developed best in the UK by Professor Caroline Coffin of the Open University in her article ‘Learning the language of school history: the role of linguistics in mapping the writing demands of the secondary school curriculum’ (http://oro.open.ac.uk/5529/1/revisedschool_hist%2B_lingSept.pdf).

Sticking with the historical genres, as you will see in the article they are grouped into ‘recording’, ‘explaining’ and ‘arguing’ history, with subdivisions within these genre families. We could construct taxonomies for any school subject in similar ways (if anybody wants copies of suggested taxonomies for geography or science just yell). The important thing about these genres is that they are predictable and patterned ways of achieving a purpose – to recall events in the past, to explain why the event took place or to argue about its significance. By predictable and patterned I mean we can identify the particular characteristics that make up each genre at the whole text, paragraph, sentence and clause levels in terms of field, tenor and mode (Halliday’s three aspects of language that make up register). As such we can teach these characteristics to pupils in a very explicit way, leading them to mastery in the production of such genres by way of the teaching and learning cycle (see blog 3).

So what I am working towards at my school, and what I would advocate for all teachers, is that we plan each scheme of work around a focus genre. Working with my colleague Helen Handford we are beginning to identify focus genres for each of my history schemes. When she asks me ‘So what are we doing this lesson/week/half term?’, and I answer ‘The League of Nations’, she follows up with ‘Yes, but what do you want the pupils to know about it, and which genre(s) do you want them to be able to produce?’. This forces me to consider how my pupils are going to demonstrate their knowledge of the topic and prompts me to match this (rightly or wrongly) against the kinds of genres they need to produce in their GCSE exams (I only teach KS4).

This avoids me going off on tangents (as I ashamedly used to) by asking pupils to produce irrelevant pieces of work (or genres) like newspaper reports on the Wall Street Crash, transcripts of conversations between Hitler and Chamberlain or government reports on the Manchurian Crisis. (It should also stop other ridiculous occurrences such as poems about volcanic eruptions in geography or white blood cells narrating their journey through the bloodstream in science.) Such pieces of writing are linguistically inappropriate in terms of pushing pupils towards producing contextually-appropriate abstract knowledge and understanding; the pupils will also likely not be able to effectively produce such pieces as they will have been almost randomly asked to write in a particular genre, rather than being apprenticed into its production through the teaching and learning cycle. Thus we can see that genres and language development are integral to pupils learning the knowledge of any discipline. You can’t ‘do’ the science and then ‘do’ the literacy; they are one and the same. Aiming towards a focus genre enables me to plan to systematically teach the necessary language features at various levels of the text whilst explicitly pushing my pupils from using everyday/familiar/spoken-like language to control over technical/formal/written-like language.

Next post (I double promise) will run through how I have used all of these ideas this year when teaching the topic of the League of Nations to my year 9 GCSE (we start a year early) group, who are studying OCR Modern World B.

Until then…

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9 thoughts on “Blog 4: Genre Pedagogy

  1. Sup Lee.

    I am an English teacher and am going an MA assignment on inclusion. I like your blogs, they’re very interesting. Could you possibly post the titles of the academic work that this stuff is based on? (Cummins, Halliday and Martin ect). You’d be giving me a real hand.

    Thanks pal. Keep it up.

    Max

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  6. I think a curriculum that doesn’t allow pupils to explore language by writing poems about volcanoes – in whatever random curriculum subject area we impose on them – must be a pretty depressing experience.

  7. Congratulations and thank you so much. I am going to start researching about it here and I loved you blog with your explanations. Really good.

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