G is for Genre

3 03 2013

reading newspaperIs a blog post (like this one) an example of a genre? If so, what would you call the genre?  And what are its generic features?

The question raises some of the thorny issues associated with the term ‘genre’. In An A to Z of ELT I define genre as ‘any type of spoken or written discourse which is used and recognized by members of a particular culture or sub-culture’. Blogging is a kind of written discourse. It’s not so clear, though, how culturally specific it is. Anyone can blog, after all, and anyone with access to the internet can read a blog.

My definition continues: ‘As a genre becomes established, it acquires a conventionalized structure and often a characteristic vocabulary and grammar’. Blogging is established, without a doubt (over 181m blogs at one recent count), but are blog posts conventionalized to the extent that their structure, vocabulary and grammar can be described?  Or do they simply replicate (or even cannibalize) the features of other genres, such as op-ed pieces, or news reports, or diary entries? In short, if you were teaching students how to write blog posts, what would your model be?

Swales (1990) regards some discourse types, such as conversation and narrative, as being too baggy and pervasive to qualify as genres. Blogging would seem to be such a one.

McCarthy and Carter (1994: 32-33) would probably concur. They argue that ‘there may… be an endless continuum of genres with some genres mixing with one another to form generic blends. It may be that there are too many exceptions for the rules to be proved with the result that the notion of genre becomes as slippery as the notion of register… Thus, instead of talking about the genre of report it may be more appropriate to talk about reports (plural) or the activity of reporting’. So, no blog genre, just blogging.

card playersThe problem may be partly resolved by greater granularity: that is, by specifying the audience, topic, but especially the purpose, of the discourse. Thus, Swales (1990: 58) defines genre as comprising ‘a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre’ (my italics).

So, let’s re-categorize this blog post as an example of the genre: blogging to language teachers in order to understand more about language teaching. In this sense it shares a rationale with other blogs, such as Willy Cardoso’s, or Carol Goodey’s, to name just two.

Ignoring the issue of how specific is specific enough, we might now ask: What are the generic features of this genre, and how do you get at them?

Burns et al (1996:2) make the interesting observation that ‘the concept of genre is an abstraction: it involves an averaging of the structure of those texts which aim to fulfil the same purpose’.

‘Averaging the structure of texts’. How would you do that? Assembling a corpus of texts would be a start, and specifically those texts that the members of the parent discourse community have validated as good exemplars of the genre. Could you ‘average’ a corpus of blog posts in such a way as to extrapolate generic features?

Probably yes. A crunching of my posts and Willy’s and Carol’s might reveal certain common features, at the level both of overall organization (the macrostructure) and of the lexico-grammatical micro-features.

But how interesting would this be? And why would you want to do it? Presumably for pedagogical purposes, e.g. to induct aspiring members into the discourse community.

doctor patientHowever, critics of genre theory reject this approach as being too prescriptive and too rigid. Cook (1994: 46), for instance, argues that ‘notions of genre operate rather like school rules, which take no account of the individual. In the classroom of genre, there is no room for the creative misbehaviour of the artist (which demands both awareness of genres and some disrespect for them)’.

This tension between convention and innovation is well captured by Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 190): ‘When we make use of genres in speaking or writing, we use the stabilized patterns but exploit the variability around them to create what is uniquely needed for that particular literacy or discourse event’. And they add that ‘any simplification of the notion of genre loses something of its complexity’ (p. 191).

In similar spirit, Freadman (2012: 547) argues that ‘any genre… alludes to, or carries, the history of its own practice ….  The pedagogical question … is how to bring a student to take her or his place in this history — to discover how something has been done before, and how it can be adapted to particular needs as occasions arise’.

Discovering how something has been done before is anathema to many proponents of genre theory, such as the ‘Australian school’. They would rather students were told how something has been done before. Anything less is disempowering. Genres (they argue) are heavily implicated in questions of power, since ignorance of genres can exclude people from effective social participation. Hence, genres should be taught, and taught explicitly. ‘Conscious knowledge of language and the way it functions in social contexts … enables us to make choices, to exercise control. As long as we are ignorant of language, it and the ideological systems it embraces control us’ (Martin 1989: 62).

But this doesn’t answer the question: How do you recognize a genre when you see one? And what is its own best example?

party scene introductionsReferences:

Burns, A., Joyce, H., & Gollin, S. (1996) ‘I see what you mean’: using spoken discourse in the classroom: a handbook for teachers, Sydney: Macquarie University.

Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature: the interplay of form and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freadman, A. (2012) ‘The traps and trappings of genre theory’, Applied Linguistics, 33, 5, 544-563.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. (1989) Factual Writing: Exploring and challenging social reality (2nd edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (1994) Language as Discourse: Perspectives for Language Teaching, London: Longman.

Swales, J.M. (1990) Genre  Analysis: English in academic and research settings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Illustrations from  Elías, A. (1920) Método Práctico de Inglés, New York: National Paper & Type Co.



33 responses

3 03 2013
Gareth Knight

Thank you, Scott. My view has always been that a genre is defined by the expectations of its discourse community. Thus, a blog written for a group of beer buddies is a different genre to a blog aimed at an academic community. The fact that the medium for both is a web-based blog is secondary to the purpose. Your blog here is recognisable as a genre. It is easy for us to identify the discourse community. You raise questions you feel your readership ought to be addressing and quote authority in a way a journal article does. Swales (1990 p234) talks about a ‘rhetorical consciousness’: “a perceived rationale for the communicative behaviour”. I would argue the aims of your blog posts define the genre.

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

… a genre is defined by the expectations of its discourse community.

Yes, agreed, an in this sense a genre is an ’emic’ phenomenon, i.e. one that is significant to, and is defined by, members of a particular culture, but which might not be generalisable or even perceptible to other cultures. Bhatia provides a neat definition: ‘Genres are recognisable communicative events, characterised by a set of communicative purposes identified and mutually understood by members of the professional or academic community in which they regularly occur’ (Bhatia, V. K 2004. Worlds of written discourse: a genre-based view, London: Continuum, p.23).

3 03 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Thanks for the article, Scott.

Setting ‘blogs’ as a single genre on it’s own may perhaps be too difficult, as you imply. Though, I would imagine certainly you could try to categorize varieties of blog (instructional, persuasive and so on, plus of course obvious tags like ‘music, cooking’ etc…).
I am not at all qualified to suppose what the actual categories could be, if we wish to teach students ‘blogging genres’, I think there could be a reasonable, prescriptive plan for this, after someone had been kind enough to collect and organize the data (if they haven’t already)!

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Avi – the problem is (I guess) how far you take the categorization: e.g. blogs for EFL teachers about teaching children in Asian contexts; blogs for teachers of EAP in US university contexts…

I suppose where there are even a handful of examples of such a specialism, and if the people who write them read one another’s, AND there are distinctive textual features that the members themselves have come to expect, then they constitute a genre. I think this last condition might be the hardest to apply.

3 03 2013
Sandy Millin

Thanks for the post Scott – it’s particularly relevant to me at the moment as I’m doing quite a lot of genre analysis for my Delta.
Reading the comments has made me realise that classifying blogs as a genre is as perhaps as misguided as classifying books as a genre. As you say, there are many different categories of blog, in the same way as there are categories of book. While there might be features of layout in common, such as a series of dated posts, normally with the most recent at the top, the actual content is incredibly diverse, in the same way that most books have covers, but the words inside differ. The same point could be expanded to websites, which I have recently had to analyse as part of my Delta exam preparation.

3 03 2013
Mike Harrison

Hi Sandy,

Apologies for jumping in to reply here, but I wanted to add my thoughts to yours as someone who recently did the DELTA, and like you had to analyse texts for the exam component of one of the modules on the course.

I think it is slightly different for the DELTA task, as it is asking you to identify the features of a text, rather than those of an overarching genre. Of course, genre will have a bearing over a webpage text, just as it would for printed texts. For example, the genre of the travel magazine article will include a lot of descriptive language, such as adjectives, whether it is online or in print. There are other features like those you mention for blogs, like chronologically organised posts, and also expanding to hyperlinks, flash animations if we start looking at the wider category of websites. I’d like to categorise these last examples as features of the medium rather than of genre (much as you say all books have covers, but what is inside is different).

Good points and thank you for helping me articulate my own thoughts 🙂

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Sandy. I agree that blogs are a very baggy category. But the very fact that a blog is recognizably different (both in form and function) from an email, or a forum posting, or a website (while sharing characteristics of each) suggests that it does have some idiosyncratic features, hence would qualify as a genre (a macro-genre perhaps?) I guess the point of NOT excluding blogs from a genre analysis view is simply to flag the problems of the concept of genre itself. Or to define it in terms of its purpose and its community, and assume that any textual/linguistic features are a byproduct of its purpose, and not defining features of the genre.

3 03 2013
Mike Harrison

Hi Scott,

Thanks for writing on this particular topic this week! It’s interesting, since genre is such a feature of assessment, for example in reading and writing papers in EFL and ESOL exams of all types, and I am in fact wrestling with how to best prepare my own learners to write in different genre in the lead up to their exams.

As to how we recognise a genre, one thing I’d say is that you have to be able to look at a particular text and say ‘Ah yes, that’s a (letter/magazine article/recipe)’. The fact that a blog and blog posts may not form a genre in themselves is highlighted by the comments above, in which the writers have identified your writing as an ‘article’, a ‘blog post’, and the shortened form ‘post’. If someone printed out a blog post, one of yours for example, I doubt whether I would actually know straight away whether it was an online blog post text or one that had appeared in an English teachers’ journal or magazine.

Other than that, I’d have to agree with the comments above that a) blogs and blog posts are too broad categories to be classed as a genre (as Sandy says, we don’t call ‘books’ a genre), and b) the purpose of the blog is what defines its particular genre (which could be akin to articles, recipes, diary entries, etc. etc.)

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

If someone printed out a blog post, one of yours for example, I doubt whether I would actually know straight away whether it was an online blog post text or one that had appeared in an English teachers’ journal or magazine.

Interesting thought, Mike. In fact, when I embarked on the task of preparing some past blog posts for publication in the form of an ebook, I did have to adapt them, both at the macro-level (e.g. cutting out the comments) and the micro-level (e.g. tidying up typos, citations etc) because the medium and the purpose had subtly shifted. What does this tell us? Perhaps register theory is enough to explain this, i.e. that the context of a text’s production and consumption (e.g. its field, tenor and mode) will impact on its linguistic form.

5 03 2013
Andrew Walkley

It is interesting that you refer to genre in terms of exams and DELTA. I once saw an example lesson of a teacher preparing students for a CAE exam to write a leaflet, by looking at and analysing ‘authentic’ leaflets. I think the fundamental problem with this is that exam genres are genres in themselves and distinct from the ‘authentic’ ones they refer to. So if we take a leaflet, in the exam they won’t contain photos, or be in, say, a gated / folded format. They will have a restricted word limit. This is a fundamental problem with IELTS as an exam, testing or ‘preparing’ students for university study: the genre of texts and essays are fundamentally different to those students encounter in even undergraduate study (and certainly Masters). The last point, I’d make is that in analysing the ‘genre’ there can be a tendency (especially among teachers) to reduce the genre to categories of language: ‘lots of adjectives’, ‘passives’ ‘introductions’, rather than focusing on the specific words and phrases that realize those categories within the genre.

6 03 2013
Mike Harrison

Thanks for replying, Andrew.

It’s even more interesting if you compare EFL reading and writing exams (for example, Main Suite and IELTS) with ESOL exams, and the Adult Literacy Reading paper as well. The latter features more realistic examples of genre, e.g. an article or leaflet with a photo, or presented in columns as though it would be folded like an actual real life leaflet.

For example, see page 16 here: http://www.move-on.org.uk/downloadsFile/downloads1584/Lit_Level1_TestM_Jan08.pdf

6 03 2013
Andrew Walkley

Thanks for the link. It is apparently more realistic, but who is this really aimed at, and where? I’d say it neither a model of what a student might do in say a CAE if asked to write a leaflet, nor is it authentic outside the class. Interesting to compare it with this site which I googled using the headline of the exam text:
In terms of language there are some interesting shared patterns though – instead of …ing / There are lots of alternatives to X – why not stretch your legs / bike or walk.
conditionals with imperatives: if you work nearby, try walking.. / if you must drive, then see our tips ,,,
patterns of three (persuasive): aids congestion, means you don’t,,,, and decreases… / It’s fast safe and comfortable.
As well as other patterns which one or other presents: e.g. using elision in questions Can’t get to work ,,,,? or the chunk “you may be surprised at how …”
Also there is lots of vocab connected to the field which the two share: cycling, walking etc.safe / easy, alternatives, journey, routes, fuel, save you money, information / secure (or security), employers, etc.. and for which you could explore collocates.
There is even more synonymous language that they share: plenty of / many , pollution / air quality etc.
So I guess analysing the language across different examples of the broad genre (information leaflet) could be valuable if they are within the same field, but that both the mode (often handwritten text on an answer paper) and the ‘tenor’ (an examiner) kind of makes the exam leaflet a genre of itself, which means ultimately students need to see models of the exam texts to be able to write them effectively for the exam!
The other thing I found interesting here is the massive amount of cultural references – tombolas and raffles on p12! In fact that whole text!), but that’s a different matter…

3 03 2013
Cindy Hauert

As I was mulling over this topic it occurred to me that an interesting way of evaluating different types of blogs would be to look at the way people reply to them.
For example, people leaving comments here invariably are respectful of you, Scott, and of each other, and write thoughtful, well-written replies that can be as illuminating as the original blog post.
Not so on sites that have a broader audience, such as newspapers, political organizations and so on. I’ve been shocked and appalled by responses on even such lofty platforms as The Economist. There’s even a name for this: online disinhibition effect!

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Interesting observation, Cindy – and I think it’s the comments (or at least the comment function) that really defines a blog as a special kind of ‘discourse’ (whether or not we call it a genre). All texts are dialogic – or have the potential to be – even ‘frozen’ texts like novels, in the sense that we are constantly, if subliminally, interrogating them. But blogs take that dialogic function to a much more explicit level – which situates them on a kind of cline of interactivity, informal conversation being at the far end.

As for the ‘well behaved’ nature of the comments, this might be testimony to the fact that the target discourse community is relatively small and cohesive. At the same time, having the option of rejecting comments means that there is a certain degree of censorship imposed. Not much, I am happy to admit!

3 03 2013

It is the prescriptive, ‘tell them how to do it’, cup and jug nature of ESP that I find so dreadful. I understand the pressing need for students to equip themselves with the skills to ‘get into the club’ if they want to ‘get onto the level playing field’. I understand the need for ESP. But, for a teacher, teaching it can be dreadfully dull and, I suspect, de-skilling.

3 03 2013
Cindy Hauert

Glenn, I know what you mean. I’ve been teaching Business English for many years and the task of presenting a list of gambits for students to copy-paste into their practice correspondence is a challenge to make fun and creative. On the other hand it’s what they need to function in today’s business world, in order for them to be taken seriously. So I just turn it into a game, support them as best I can and get on with it. I always manage to squeeze in some other activities that offer more scope for critical thinking. I call it stealth teaching.

5 03 2013
Andrew Walkley

Isn’t that more about us as teachers than the students?! Obviously for us, it can be a bit dull as we might do it repeatedly, but for the student it’s one lesson and, as Cindy suggests, quite useful! There will still be a lot of skill for teachers in a) noticing patterns and language, b) devising / choosing tasks and material to teach them and c) helping students to say what they want to say within the genre and around the ‘gambits’ Cindy mentions.

9 03 2013

Indeed. My comment was made primarily with teachers in mind.

But I think that’s OK. I mean we do have to consider our own psychological welfare in the classroom, too.

I teach English for Business to uni students who have no experience of business. You can imagine just how much that affects classroom content in terms of real unpredictable communication. There isn’t any other than that which is used to teach and check the target language! That can be pretty damn arid for a teacher (and the students too! :->)

11 03 2013
Andrew Walkley

Fair point!

3 03 2013

I think the format of blogging sites lends itself to journal-type (or serialized) forms. As Cindy noted, if you’re analyzing blogs to identify common characteristics, do include comments. For example, comments on “personality” blogs (readers are following the person more than the topic) may differ a lot from comments on a “professional interest” blog and these may differ in tone from those on a “hobby/enthusiast” blog. Is this due to genre expectations? What role does the blog author play in setting those expectations? (Sorry, I don’t have answers … Just questions!)

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Kathy – I have the same questions! As I said to Cindy, a defining feature of blogging might be the comment function. Would a blog be a blog if the comment function were turned off. Or, if no one commented. (A bit like the tree crashing to the earth in the forest – did it make a noise if there was no one there to hear it!)

29 04 2014
Anthony Gaughan

Actually, one of the most popular (in terms of hits, subscribers etc.) has long had its comment features disabled – Leo Babauta’s zenhabits.net – as he argued that they did not align with the spirit or intention of the blog, which was to focus on simplicity, and branching chains of comments such as arise here are the antithesis of this. Ironically, though, Leo still encourages readers to comment, but via Twitter, where their comments are forced to adhere to his other preference, that of minimalism!

Funny, as I type this, I realise that this blog itself has been mothballed. Thus I am left with the question: will my comment make a noise if there is no longer a blogger around to read it?

And is unrequited comment a genre?

3 03 2013

Genre in linguistic analysis always seems to awaken a lot of debate, which makes the genre of discussing genre interesting in itself! A couple of points from my perspective. 1) the idea that genres are product-oriented or rigid like school rules misses the point that they are empowering. If your teaching takes that extra step and includes analysis of how text types differ within the same genre, then you’re likely following the principle that you can’t subvert a genre until you’ve mastered it. 2) it’s really only “elemental genres” (narrative, description, instruction, etc) that are readily recognisable, because many texts are combinations of genres, or have one genre embedded within another (think of the recipe – instruction, that includes a recount of how the author came across the dish on their travels). To me, that underscores the importance of working out the goals, or purposes of the author by looking at how the text flows and how the author makes use of linguistic tool, another great classroom analysis activity. I do believe analysis activities are quite OK in Australian schools 😉 Thanks for the usual thought provoking text, Scott!

4 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil – yes, proponents of genre theory (and especially those hailing from a systemic functional (SF) linguistics background) can get quite protective of the notion of genre, to the point of stridency at times! To be fair, many of them would agree with you that mastery of certain genres confers access to social, economic and cultural benefits for those who would otherwise be marginalized or disenfranchised, e.g. immigrants, or children not brought up in a world of books. I don’t think you have to be an Australian to concur with this view! Often it comes down to questions of pedagogy, (Australian) genre theorists, such as Jim Martin, taking a fairly uncompromising line that genres should be taught explicitly, preferably using the metalanguage of Hallidayan SF grammar, and that anything as wishy-washy as ‘process writing’ should be proscribed.

5 03 2013

Yes, there have certainly been swings and roundabouts, Scott. I prefer to look at process writing as being incorporated into an approach that models and unpacks text structures and linguistic features. A slightly dated but still very useful book that deals with this is Susan Feez’s ‘Text-based Syllabus Design’, where she does just that and builds brainstorming, drafting, editing, etc into a curriculum cycle based around texts. Another good application of the ‘both … and’ rather than the ‘either … or’ principle!

5 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil. The Feez book is still a favorite of mine, and, along with Derewianka’s ‘How Texts Work’, one of the best books to come out of the SF stable.

5 03 2013
Benjamin Stewart (@bnleez)

“How do you recognize a genre when you see one? And what is its own best example?”

To know what genre is, is to know the relationships it has with context, audience, and purpose. That is, to know any one of these tenets of an overall discourse structure is to know them in aggregate. This is the approach I would take in the (English) language learning classroom.

I would stress to English language learners that blogging (i..e, open authorship) requires one to think beyond the technology as simply being a means for delivering an idea, opinion, position, etc. Then I would pose the following questions: (a) What is the activity or subject matter one wishes to present (whether spoken or written); (b) What is the (power) relationship between the writer and the audience; and (c) What is the writer trying to do with language? or How is the language coming across? Addressing field, tenor, and mode would complement a related discussion on discourse structure (i.e., context, genre, audience, and purpose).

Before having language learners develop their own texts, I would show ample examples of different discourse structures that would illustrate the points above. In doing so, the intention would be to recognize that genre is linked to other tenets of an overall discourse structure. In other words, if I asked my language learners, “How do you recognize a genre when you see one?”, they would reply, “It depends”. Then go on to explain examples linking genre to context, audience, and purpose.

5 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Benjamin, for a very clear and well-grounded approach to teaching genres. I like the fact that blogging is related both to the medium (or mode) and its social purpose, both in terms of its function and audience (or tenor).

Incidentally, by chance there is an article on academic genres in the latest Applied Linguistics (which arrived yesterday). Using a corpus of texts, the researchers set out to identify what they call ‘genre families’ in academic writing. Their taxonomy was also ‘informed by course and assessment documentation at national, university, and department levels, as well as by interviews with academic staff and students’ (p. 34) Nevertheless, they adopt a more ‘etic’ approach, looking for shared textual features: ‘We first developed a corpus of writing from across academic disciplines and levels of study, then classified texts by grouping those with similar purpose and staging into genres, and grouping those genres were similar purpose and staging into genre families’ (p. 31). They identified 13 genre families in all, such as Case Study, Essay, Literature survey, Proposal, Research Report, etc.

They conclude: ‘Knowledge of the genre families can help all teachers explain the requirements of individual academic writing tasks. For example, by referring to the stages within a relevant genre it is possible to identify those that are missing in the writing of less successful students, or cases where students have responded in an unconventional way, successfully or not, to a given prompt’ (p. 47).

Apart from the fact that there is no recommendation, in terms of classroom practice, to relate the genres to their socio-cultural function (as suggested in your comment, Ben), this approach seems to me very much redolent of the prescriptivism that Guy Cook rejects, i.e. writing to ‘school rules’, and it’s interesting that originality is discouraged whether successful or not!

Nevertheless, I imagine that many teachers and materials writers will find this study very helpful.

Gardner, D., & Nesi, H. (2013) ‘A classification of genre families in university student writing’, Applied Linguistics, 34/1, 25 — 52

5 03 2013

Thanks for sharing the study on genre families. I’ll be sure to look it up.

24 05 2015

Scott, this blog post is missing from your index – I happened across it while googling.

25 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andrew. I’ve now added it. Cheers, S.

19 10 2016

Like many other constructs, genre is a slippery concept and overlapping with discourse. Given the above posts, I gather that even a tour to a historical site could be described as a sort of genre. It involves the use of a special register relevant to history mainly, has a purpose, a group of interested participants (visitors), makes use of modalities (tour guide, means of transportation), requires the participants to observe certain rules (conventions), and is iterative.

25 10 2016

Thank you for this insightful article.
I wonder how you would make a distinction between discourse and genre.

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