The Language Teacher
December 2003

The Role of Genre in TEFL

Kim Bradford-Watts

Osaka Gakuin University, Kyoto Institute of Technology


Genre studies evolved from studies of texts in Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology, and seeks to examine common patterns of grammatical and text structure in specific text types. Genre research evolved from studies of texts in Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology, examine common patterns of grammatical and discourse in specific text types. According to Swales (1990),

A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognised by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. Communicative purpose is both a privileged criterion and one that operates to keep the scope of a genre as here conceived narrowly focused on comparable rhetorical action. In addition to purpose, exemplars of a genre exhibit various patterns of similarity in terms of structure, style, content and intended audience. If all high probability expectations are realised, the exemplar will be viewed as prototypical by the parent discourse community. (p. 58)

Or, more simply, in the words of Martin (2002), genre "is a term I use to name configurations of meaning that are recurrently phased together to enact social practices" (p. 269). It is important to note that genres are not fixed. They change over time, reflecting changes in society.

What Exactly Does This Mean?

In past discussions of genre I have used shopping as an example (see Bradford-Watts, 2003). Here I will provide the example of a conference presentation to further the description of genre and identify the linkages between genre and other components of text analysis.

Imagine I am giving a short paper—a kind of lecture—at a conference of professionals. The lecture text would be constructed according to our shared expectations, built from experience in our discourse community. It would be a lecture (a specific genre) in which I, one with a degree of "knowledge," would speak for a short while, and in which you, the audience of my peers, would listen. You would be able to ask questions later, if you so desired, time permitting (tenor). You would expect me to approach topics in my speech in a particular order, and to confine my comments to the topic at hand (field). You would expect to hear the lecture from me in the flesh, not via broadcast through a public address system or through an intermediary, pre-taped video, or even a webcast (mode). Macken-Horarik (2002) comments that, "These four variables—categorised as genre, field, tenor and mode—can be used to contextualize the interpretive and the productive demands of any situation" (p. 25).

Reflecting the multi-disciplinary background of genre studies, Flowerdew (2002) has identified two streams of genre research and associated application: Linguistic and Non-linguistic. This is an important distinction for us to bear in mind. The linguistic stream of research and application draws upon work by systemic functional linguists in the tradition of Halliday. According to Flowerdew, it "concentrate[s] on the lexico-grammatical and theoretical realisation of communicative purposes" (p. 91) most often associated with the Sydney School and Teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Paltridge (2001) notes that, in this stream, "genres are often referred to as a kind of text, e.g. description, procedure, or exposition" (p. 2) and mostly examine language, discourse, and contextual factors.

The non-linguistic stream of research and application, on the other hand, evolved from research questions involving what Flowerdew (2002) identifies as "the purposes and functions of genres and the attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours of members of the discourse communities within which genres are situated" (p. 91). Johns (2002) refers to this stream as the contextually grounded approach. It is most often associated with the New Rhetoric. In the non-linguistic stream, according to Paltridge (2001), genre "refers to a class of communicative events, e.g. a seminar presentation" (p. 2) and examines social, cultural, and institutional contexts. Therefore, the non-linguistic stream tends to be more ethnographic and critical in application. Although Flowerdew has used these classifications, all genre analysts draw to some degree on the growing body of work undertaken in genre studies across the root disciplines from which it evolved.

Additionally, Grabe (2002) claims that there are two macro-genres&narrative and expository—while Martin (2002) makes the counter-claim that this number of macro-genres is too few if groups such as service encounter, interrogation, or control genre families, for example, are included. Bhatia (2002) contends in response to these claims that there are a number of levels of generic description. According to Bhatia, these are generic values, genre colonies, and individual genres, and are represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

The top level on the figure is labelled generic values. These are classifications which are "independent of any grounded realities of social context" (Bhatia, 2002, p. 282). Included in this would be some of the genres identified by Bradford-Watts (2003) in the example of constructing a genre-based course for first year Japanese university students: for example, explanations, recount, comparing, and contrasting.

The middle level comprises what Bhatia (2002) terms genre colonies, which are "rather loosely grounded in broad theoretical contexts and are identified on the basis of flexible and fluid overlapping of generic boundaries" (p. 282). Bhatia suggests that the macro-genres discussed by both Grabe (2002) and Martin (2002) are situated within these genre colonies. A unit of work broadly defined as service encounters, and covering, for example, shopping for bread, furniture, and cars, as well as auctions and online shopping, could well be considered as the teaching of a genre colony.

The bottom level on the figure is labelled individual genres. These individual genres are more typically and narrowly grounded in socio-rhetorical contexts (Bhatia, 2002, p. 282). There has been much research in genre at this level (see Bradford-Watts, 2003). Much of the work of both ESP and the New Rhetoric is focussed on this level.

Why Teach Genre?

According to Johns (2002), in the 70s and 80s the focus on psycholinguistic/cognitive approaches led to learner-centered classrooms. Common in writing classrooms was the teaching of the process approach, and in speaking classrooms, focus on form gave way to some extent to a focus on fluency. However, there has been a shift over the last decade to an approach that focusses on situations in which speaking or writing occurs. Burns (2001) considers that

progressive ESL pedagogy has failed to make explicit to learners the knowledge they need to gain access to socially powerful forms of language. It has emphasised enquiry learning, process, and naturalism, but has neglected to offer learners systematic explanations of how language functions in various social contexts. (p. 200)

Therefore, "[a]n important reason to consider genre-based instruction is that of empowerment: if students are able to understand, access and manipulate genres, they acquire 'cultural capital'" (Bradford-Watts, 2003). Failing to teach this explicitly "denies students the means to participate in and challenge the cultures of power they will encounter when interacting with members of the target culture" (Bradford-Watts, 2003).

Paltridge (2001) states, "The notion of genre . . . provides a basis for extending current syllabus models, as well as for selecting and sequencing syllabus items and, in turn, focussing on them in the language learning classroom" (p. 9). This includes constructivist or instructionist approaches to instruction. Furthermore, in demonstrating to learners how language choices are actualised through the ways that key vocabulary and grammatical structures associated with a particular genre interact with the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the text in terms of situation and context, the relationship between culture and language can be directly addressed.

Genre in the Foreign Language Classroom

Referring again to Figure 1, we see that Bhatia (2002) suggests that teaching in the Sydney School (whose writing methodology was first used in primary and secondary schools, but has now been extended to include tertiary and adult ESL writing courses) proceeds in a top-down manner, whereas in ESP, it proceeds in a bottom-up manner. It is suggested that this is appropriate since the Sydney school concentrates on opening up a wide array of possible genres with which disadvantaged and NESB (Non-English Speaking Backgrounds) students need to become familiar, while in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and ESP, the focus is on developing only the genres necessary for success within a very specific social context.

In the EFL situation, we find ourselves working from both directions: we pick and choose specific genres as the need arises, and we also work from generic values. On the way, we occasionally stop and explore genre colonies more closely, depending on student needs. This is as it should be, since much of our teaching involves the development of pathways of use for the learner with limited exposure to the target language. One component of the development of such a network is the laying of infrastructure, or generic values. Another part is the development of specific regions of this infrastructure, which involves the greater specification of context (specific genres and genre colonies).

In an example of how to prepare a genre-based course for first year university conversation classes in Japan, Bradford-Watts (2003) basically describes a top-down approach. In the following example of using a genre approach in teaching interviewing and survey reporting genres in second and third-year classes, I am describing the use of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

In the first class of the year, students interview each other and record everyone's names, birthdays, interests and contact details. Prior to the activity, we brainstorm ways of approaching people unknown to us, ways of asking questions, and ways of thanking people. This is done in a very general manner, and can be used in a great variety of settings. This is a top-down approach, and the generic value is "interviews."

The second genre-based theme I introduce is "survey reporting". In the second class of the year, I perform a needs analysis with all 2nd and 3rd year students. Students are divided into four groups and are given a different set of "Yes/No" survey questions. The survey sets are Learning Styles, Learner Skills and Strategies, English Needs, and Attitudes and Motivation. Groups divide the questions from their survey sets amongst themselves, and proceed to interview every member of the class, again practising the interviewing genre from the first week.

When the interviewing is completed, students are told that they will be analysing their questions and reporting back, as a group, the following week. Then we brainstorm what needs to go into their group report, in what order it could be presented, and common linkages between sections. This gives me the opportunity to highlight, or introduce, key features of survey presentation (introducing a survey report, including the number of people in the sample, their age/gender breakdown and the number of questions asked; reporting percentages of responses for each consecutive question, and hypothesising reasons for these responses; concluding a survey report; and key vocabulary associated with the survey report genre). Following this, the groups collaborate to write their introductions.

In the third week, groups report on their results while other students record the responses on prepared worksheets. These are used in the fourth class to discuss learning styles, strategies, needs, and attitudes and motivation in the class, and how the students themselves can contribute to their learning and further "learn how to learn." I analyse the results reported by the groups and use the results to plan the year's work for each particular class, including analysing other kinds of genre that the students in the class may find useful, based on the English Needs and Attitudes and Motivation survey sets.

The survey report is modelled several times through the year in the form of classroom materials. Students also tend to take surveys and include them in individual, pair, and group presentations throughout the course. The fact that, since the genre was first explicitly taught, so many students have been reporting survey results to support their presentations shows that learners have found it to be an empowering genre to understand and use.

I hope that this short paper has given you a bit more of an idea of what genre is, and its usefulness in the EFL classroom.

Note: A prior version of this paper was presented at the 2003 JALT Pan-SIG conference in a joint session with Kite, Fujioka and Yamashita: What is the relevance of pragmatics to language teaching? (Part 2) held at the Kyoto Institute of Technology on May 11&12, 2003. A copy of the handout used in this presentation can be found at


Bhatia, V. J. (2002). Applied genre analysis: Analytical advances and pedagogical procedures. In A. M. Johns (Ed.), Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bradford-Watts, K. (2003). What is genre and why is it useful for language teachers? The Language Teacher, 27(5), 6-8.
Burns, A. (2001). Genre-based approaches to writing and beginning adult ESL learners. In C. Candlin & N. Mercer (Eds.), English language teaching in its social context. London: Routledge.
Flowerdew, J. (2002). Genre in the classroom: A linguistic approach. In A. M. Johns (Ed.), Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grabe, W. (2002). Narrative and expository macro-genres. In A. M. Johns (Ed.), Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Johns, A. M. (Ed.). (2002). Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Macken-Horarik, M. (2002). "Something to shoot for": A systemic functional approach to teaching genre in secondary school science. In A. M. Johns (Ed.), Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Martin, J. R. (2002). A universe of meaning—How many practices? In A. M. Johns (Ed.), Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives. Marwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Paltridge, B. (2001). Genre and the language learning classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kim Bradford-Watts has been living and teaching in a great variety of situations around Kansai since December, 1987. She completed her M.A. (Applied Linguistics) programme by distance from Macquarie University in 2000.

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