Blog 5: genre pedagogy in action

The first thing that is important to say is that everything I describe in this blog has been implemented in conjunction with the wonderful Helen Handford, language consultant and genre-pedagogy expert, who co-planned and co-taught this lesson sequence with me (therefore wherever in this sequence I have said ‘I’ or ‘me’ I really mean ‘we’). Being true to our belief in the naturalness and effectiveness of the teaching and learning cycle described in my third blog post, this sequence represents the joint construction phase in the development of my own practice.

The setting the context and building the field phase was represented by my completion of the teacher professional learning course How Language Works (  in November 2011. The modelling and deconstruction phase was represented by my watching Helen implement the pedagogy arising from this course (with me virtually a spectator) in a scheme of work on Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England with my bottom set year 7s between January and April 2012. This was a class of 12 whose average reading age was 8.5 years, but who Helen managed to scaffold to producing the topic sentence ‘Henry’s desire for divorce, money and power led to the establishment of the Church of England.’

The joint construction phase is described below and took place between November 2012 and March 2013. I think I’m pretty much now ready to enter the independent construction phase in my use of genre pedagogy (not because I know everything, but because I now know I can use it, recognise when I use it well and am able to reflect on how to use it even more effectively).

This sequence was taught to my set 2 year 9 class, who have begun their study of OCR History B Modern World GCSE (we have a two year KS3) and whose KS2 English/Maths baselines are a mixture of high level 4s and low level 5s. Thus their minimum expected target grades are B grades, but their aspirational (school’s term, not mine) targets are A grades by the end of year 11. We started the course by studying Unit 1, International Relations 1919-39 and this sequence on the League of Nations followed on from our study of the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties signed at the end of the Great War.

The specification’s key question on the League is: To what extent was the League of Nations a success?’ and it lists the focus points for this topic as:

• What were the aims of the League?

• How successful was the League in the 1920s?

• How far did weaknesses in the League’s organisation make failure inevitable?

• How far did the Depression make the work of the League more difficult?

• Why did the League fail over Manchuria and Abyssinia?

The ‘specified content’ is then listed as:

  • The aims of the League, its strengths and weaknesses in structure and organisation; successes and failures in peacekeeping during the 1920s; disarmament; the work of the Court of International Justice; the ILO and the Special Commissions; the impact of the World Depression on the work of the League after 1929; the failures of the League in Manchuria and Abyssinia.

Considering this specification in light of the types of questions pupils will be expected to answer in their exam I was able to produce my own list of key questions that should, providing pupils could be taught to independently re-produce them, be comprehensive. The list is as follows:

  • Describe the aims of the League of Nations
  • Describe the structure of the League of Nations
  • Explain the powers of the League
  • Explain the League’s successes and failures in peacekeeping in the 1920s
  • Explain the League’s successes in its humanitarian work during the 1920s, and its limitations
  • Explain the impact of the Depression on the work of the League
  • Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria
  • Describe the events of the Manchurian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to resolve the Manchurian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to achieve its aim of disarmament
  • Explain why Italy invaded Abyssinia
  • Describe the events of the Abyssinian crisis
  • Explain why the League failed to resolve the Abyssinian crisis
  • What was the most important reason for the failure of the League by 1937?

This blog will describe the sequence of teaching the question ‘Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria’. When I have more time I will be able to put this question into its broader context alongside and within the teaching of the other questions, but please bear with me!

I set the context for the sequence by linking Japan’s actions in Manchuria to a previous statement we had arrived at as a class about the impact of the Depression on the work of the League, as follows: ‘The rise of extremist governments, a result of unemployment and social problems experienced in several countries, caused difficulties for the League‘. The invasion of Manchuria is thus an example of the difficulties caused by these extremist governments in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression. I also set the context by showing the group a map of Japan and China with Manchuria clearly marked.

I began building the field by showing the class a YouTube clip about the impact of the Depression on Japan and the reasons for the invasion ( and asking the pupils to jot down any reasons they could see for the invasion. We then fed back to produce the following slide:


We arrived at this point firstly by my asking pupils how they would link the fragments of sentences ‘Japan invaded Manchuria…’ to whatever reasons they had gleaned from the clip. This produced the list of causal connectives down the left hand side of the slide with the pupils then feeding back their notes in full sentences, such as ‘Japan invaded Manchuria so that it could provide its growing population with the resources it needed’ and ‘Japan invaded Manchuria as a result of the Mukden Incident’. Thus I was already scaffolding pupils’ movement from spoken-like to written-like language by insisting on them using ‘reporting back-type’ talk in their responses.

As a class we discussed these reasons a little more and decided there were three main reasons for the invasion, which we summarised in the following slide (in type) and then added to with more detailed notes from the clip:


At this point I suggested that to answer our question we needed a brief introductory paragraph that identified the reasons for the invasion. I dwelt on the question of what was actually being asked – which was the important word in the question? We decided it was ‘why’ and I asked how else that could be phrased, which elicited the answer ‘the reasons why’. Thus the class were able to recognise their answer really needed to be about the reasons for the Japanese invasion. This is important both for the introduction and for their subsequent paragraphs answering the question.

Next I showed the class an introduction I had written:

After the First World War Japan was a very important, powerful country in Asia.  It already had control of lots of other parts of the Pacific.  But the army wanted to make Japan even bigger no matter what.  Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression.  So, the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria.  Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932.

I explained that this was written in very ‘everyday’ language and we needed to improve it by making it sound more like what a historian would write. Pupils discussed how they would do this in small groups and we then jointly re-drafted the paragraph, with me prompting, probing and clarifying the pupils’ suggestions until we came up with this:


The main shift here, as I’m sure you can see, was that we nominalised the factors that led to the invasion: ‘…the army wanted to make Japan bigger no matter what’ became ‘the army’s overwhelming desire to expand further’; ‘Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression’ became ‘the need to find a solution to its economic problems’ and ‘the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria’ became ‘the pretext provided by the Mukden Incident…’. The class are quite well versed in nominalisation (turning verbs or adjectives into nouns or ‘things’) as I bang on and on about it being a key feature of abstract historical writing. Also, you will notice that the nominalised paragraph is shorter; this is because nominalisations pack a lot of meaning into one word, which is why they’re features of abstract, technical writing.

I was then able to introduce pupils to the whole-text schematic structure for our answer, as follows:


Through questioning we were able to establish why we had ordered the factors as we had – we had arranged them in chronological order, in that the desire to expand had been there since the end of the First World War, the economic problems had come about after 1929 and the Mukden Incident happened immediately before the invasion. As we had ordered them in this way in the introduction, we then had to order them the same way in subsequent paragraphs in order to maintain whole-text coherence.

The next step was to write each paragraph and having jumped around the teaching and learning cycle so far, here was the point at which I would now stick to it closely. I decided I wanted to nail down the topic sentence for each paragraph first, before completing the rest of each paragraph in turn. The first step, then, was to model and then deconstruct the first paragraph’s topic sentence. Here’s how I did it:


I went back to the statement ‘Japan invaded Manchuria because the army wanted to make Japan’s empire bigger’, which a pupil had come up with from the YouTube clip. At this point the fact that the question was about the reasons for the invasion became important. The statement above has Japan as its theme (ie at the start of the clause), but the question doesn’t, it has why (or the reasons why) as its theme. Thus our answer needs to thematise the reasons, not Japan. If we look back at the introductory paragraph we find our first nominalised reason for the invasion was ‘the army’s desire’, and so I explained that my topic sentence would have this nominalistion in theme position – hence it started ‘The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s Pacific empire…’.

I then explained that I wanted our topic sentences to do two more things: firstly to give the factors that led to this reason (in this case the desire); secondly to then link back to the question. I reminded the class, drawing on our knowledge from the clip, that the desire was a result of the army’s nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government. These two things made up the second clause of our topic sentence, which would also be a dependent clause thus making the sentence a complex one (teaching grammar in context!) and therefore necessitating bookending with a pair of commas. The final phase of the sentence (after the embedded, dependent clause) would directly reference the invasion and would also locate this reason chronologically as ‘the long term cause’. We therefore ended with a topic sentence of: ‘The desire of the radical Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its Nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.’

Having modelled the first topic sentence I then moved on to jointly constructing the second with the class, which produced the following:


We followed the previous pattern of: nominalised factor as theme – embedded, dependent clause giving reasons for the factor – link back to question, and came up with: ‘The need to find a solution to Japan’s economic problems, sparked by population growth during the 1920s and deepened by the effects of the Depression, was the short term cause of the takeover of Japan’.

I asked the pupils to independently construct the final topic sentence about the Mukden Incident, sticking to our phasing. Here are the two great examples of what the pupils produced:


Not all pupils produced perfect topic sentences, but all were able to stick to the phasing, use nominalisations and link back to the question by referring to this incident as the ‘trigger’. Reading their efforts made me realise I needed to be more explicit about showing pupils how the dependent clause was embedded between commas and also that pupils could therefore ellipse some words (for example a few wrote ‘The excuse provided by the Mukden Incident, which was [my italics] brought about by…’, when they needed to miss out the words in italics.

I then asked pupils to share their independently constructed topics sentences and we used these to take the best bits and jointly construct an ‘ideal’ version, which left us with the three following topic sentences:


Our job now was to complete each paragraph using our topic sentences as starting points. I now moved back into the modelling and deconstruction phase and gave pupils the following sentences that would complete the paragraph on the army’s desire to expand:

  • Manchuria was an obvious target for expansion because during the 1920s the Chinese government was weak and had little control over the area.
  • The army believed that Japan was superior to other nations and should, therefore, control more territory. 
  • The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long- term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
  • Therefore, the Kwantung army not only wanted to annex Manchuria but would have found it easy to do so.

I asked pupils in groups of 4 to decide in which order these sentences should go to complete our paragraph and, more importantly, why they thought this and what each sentence was doing in the paragraph. This shows a summary of our discussion:


This shows that pupils were able to correctly sequence the sentences and then explain their choices: the second sentence explains reason 1 from the topic sentence (‘fuelled by its nationalist ideology’); the third sentence explains reason 2 from the topic sentence (‘weakness of the Chinese government’); the final sentence links back to the question, starting with a causal connective (‘Therefore’).

The next step was then to jointly construct the rest of the paragraph on ‘The need to secure land and resources’, with the result thus:

Part way through…


And the final product:


The final stage was then for pupils to independently construct the rest of the final paragraph.  Again, here is the best example:


The quality of the scan isn’t great so here’s what it says:

The pretext provided by the Mukden Incident, staged by the Kwantung Army to create a justification for the invasion, was the trigger for Japan to invade Manchuria. In 1931, the Japanese falsely claimed that Chinese soldiers had blown up the Manchurian railway in China. As a consequence, this false claim triggered Japan’s invasion to annex Manchuria in late 1931.

In discussion with the pupil we then altered the final sentence to read:

As a consequence of this false claim, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria began in late 1931.

Phew! We had finally arrived at an entire essay: an introduction and three paragraphs in answer to the question: ‘Explain why Japan invaded Manchuria’.

Let me know what you think!

15 thoughts on “Blog 5: genre pedagogy in action

  1. Pingback: Language and pedagogy « The Learning Spy

  2. This looks great. I currently teach a year 9 English class with similar levels as yours and I’m excited to try this process of essay construction with them. How long did this take? My lessons are 1.5 hours, possible or not?

  3. Wow, what a thought provoking series of posts. perhaps the best I have read on embedded literacy. Alas, I think that many of my lessons are similar to the Henry VIII’s break from Rome that you described earlier..I would love a copy of the geography genres that you are using.

  4. I reacted quite strongly against this, and I’m wondering whether my feelings are fair or not.

    “I explained that this was written in very ‘everyday’ language and we needed to improve it by making it sound more like what a historian would write.”
    I thought: but focusing on the style and not the content makes for bad history.
    However, it is of course true that there is a characteristic academic style, and it is useful for children to learn it. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of telling them that writing this way makes for better history, but perhaps they need that as a concept to help them learn it better.

    In your initial rewrite of the everyday paragraph into a nominalised form, you lose some important information: the depression, the account of what the Mukden incident is. So I’d hate to call the formal paragraph “better”. As a supporter of “plain English”, I liked the first version very much!
    But again, I can see how this has value as a writing exercise.

    “The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long- term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.”
    This sentence seems like an example of how academic-style writing can go wrong. It’s bad in that the logical connections between the noun phrases aren’t clear, and it’s bad in that it actually engages in victim-blaming. The weakness of the Chinese government was why the Japanese invaded?! That sounds like bad old thinking if ever I heard it.

    So I’m in two minds. I can nitpick at quite a lot of this, as above. On the other hand, it does look like a rather excellent exercise in writing, in which children get to think about and apply a lot of historical knowledge. I wonder if it could be done without the prescriptivist “this is how historians write” idea. Or maybe that doesn’t matter… maybe I’m overthinking it.

  5. Phil, a proper response to your comments would require a very lengthy response so apologies for this terse comment of mine. Halliday and others would never separate language and content since language is a our primary resource for making meaning and all other meaning-making resources are initially underpinned by it. So, your “focusing on the style and not the content makes for bad history” would not be possible from that perspective. The other point is about nominalisation. Nominalisation has a long history from physical sciences to social sciences so it has come to construe the technical and abstract meanings we consider quite “normal” even in many everyday situations. However, because it has “power”, it can be overused and may, thereby, obfuscate meaning (ironically, the plain English people use nominalised meanings to argue against using nominalised meanings), and it can be double-edged in the sense that it can make invisible or implicit the logic that was more or less explicit in a more spoken form. Therefore, it is a tricky process of balancing clarity and getting across the abstract and technical meanings (History has more abstraction than technicality). What I would say would be fair to observe about Lee and his students’ work is that what people call the topic sentence could be improved. I think it is unfair (and incorrect) to say that the linguistic resources he and his students choose to make meaning in the topic sentences are not the right ones.
    Finally, in all our teaching, we are apprenticing students into the discipline. An apprenticeship means learning to “behave” in all its forms (actions, discourse etc). So, I cannot see what the issue is with Lee’s “more like what a historian would write”. As students move through their apprenticeship(s), they become more knowledgeable about all the different ways there are of behaving and, if they are fortunate enough to engage in the discipline as a professional, then they will know how to play or push against the conventions in ways that are admired. I would say that most, if not all, historians have not been constrained by their education in history throughout their schooling. They would definitely not agree on their interpretations of past events but they know how to engage in the language practices of history.

  6. Thanks, John. I agree with you that nominalisation is a double-edged sword. It can be used incredibly badly, and that’s why I’m a bit dubious about teaching it. Students who are going to write in that particular style will probably come to it naturally, through their reading. Students who aren’t naturally inclined to that style will probably use it badly, so I worry that teaching it could actually make their writing worse.
    It’s important to note, I think, that there is no sense in which a nominal phrase-heavy style is better or more logical. It’s just one style among many. So I disagree when you refer to “the conventions…the language practices” – I don’t accept that there is only one set of conventions/language practices. The kind of language that the OP is talking about here is typical of a certain genre of history: analytical geopolitical history. That’s certainly an important genre, and its language style is worth learning. But to be clear, it is far from the dominant genre. In the UK, at least, the dominant genre of history is fairly obviously the biography. And there are many other kinds of history: oral history, economic history, ancient history/archaeology, history of ideas, history in literature, etc.
    I’m a China guy, and in our field, Jonathan Spence is particularly well known for experimenting with form: he wrote a first person biography of the Kangxi emperor. Or think of Studs Terkel. It would be pretty unfortunate, I think, if we were to be teaching students that what he did was not real history.

    Finally, Halliday certainly doesn’t say there is no such thing as style (or that it cannot vary independently of ideational meaning). And obviously there is such a thing, as in the OP’s original introduction and rewriting thereof – he was explicitly asking the students to convey the same information in a different style.

    • Don’t disagree with anything you have said here. My “additional” point would be that iconoclasts (to whatever degree), in the main, know which icons to “clast”. I don’t think I would be recognised as the equivalent of John Cage and be silent on stage with my piano even though that would be my default position, seeing as I don’t know how to plink along!

    • Phil, I should have said that there was one thing I didn’t agree with. Just because people use nominalisation badly does not mean it should not be taught. I believe that students should be taught how to develop control of the maximum range of linguistic resources and then they, from a position of understanding, can make a decision about which resources to choose.

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