Number one for English language teachers

Reading matters: Genre

Type: Article

This article explores the issue of text types and includes a number of practical activities.

Introduction

In What is reading? we talked about how different texts have different purposes and that the reason we read texts may also differ. Because of these differences, the way in which we read the texts – and the techniques we use in reading – will also vary.

However, it is not just at the level of purpose that texts differ. They are also varied in terms of structure, choice of vocabulary, grammar, style and formality, and so on. These are all issues that we think about when teaching writing but which are often neglected when it comes to teaching reading.

In this article we will examine exactly what we mean by text genre, why it is important and how we can teach it.

What is text genre?

When we think of films or books we often categorize them in terms of their genre. For example, some people like watching horror movies while other people prefer comedies. When talking about books, some people like historical novels, others sci-fi and others non-fiction. These are all examples of genre, and we can identify which genre a certain film or book fits into because it has a particular set of characteristics (plot, setting, characters, style of writing or visual representation, etc).

In exactly the same way, written texts can also be categorized according to genre. They have a set of 'rules' that govern how they were written and by which they can be identified. For example, a menu, a horoscope and a text message are all genres and can easily be identified as such.

Look at the following and identify the genre:

Life over the past year has been quite difficult, but don't worry: 2007 promises to be a fantastic year for you.
c u @ 8 outside cinema
A lovely lamb dish with a fantastic mix of spices. Sure to set your taste buds tingling. Best served with a nice light white wine.

Could you identify the different text genre? How? Were there any particular features that made it easy? Was it simply vocabulary that helped you or were there other aspects of each text that helped you decide?

Why is genre important?

Genre is important for a number of reasons when it comes to reading. Firstly, if we can identify the genre of a text we will be able to predict some of the content and language that will be used in it. Predicting language is a technique that is used a lot when reading and which enables us to become proficient readers.

Secondly, by identifying the genre of a text we can employ some top-down strategies that will also help us during the course of reading the text. If we can identify the text as a horoscope or a set of instructions, for example, then we will expect to find certain features and certain instances of language (both structural and lexical).

Thirdly, identifying genre may even help us decide whether or not we want to read the text in the first place! For example, I do not believe in horoscopes and would feel that I was wasting my time if I read one. Therefore, if I can identify that a text is a horoscope, I can make a decision not to read it.

Is it easy to identify genre in a foreign language?

In some instances 'yes', in others 'no'. Many genres cross over cultural and linguistic boundaries and display similar characteristics. In many cases it is possible to identify a menu (even when you are not sitting in a restaurant or café) and often possible to work out, to some degree, what is what. The reason for this is that menus follow a set of conventions that are quite widespread (as do many other text genres). If you are aware of these conventions you can often order a meal even when you do not understand all the words written on the menu.

However, there are cases where conventions vary and it then becomes much harder to identify the type of text you are reading. Quite clearly, working on different texts when studying a language will help you identify the genre more quickly or confirm conventions and differences, enabling you to read a text to a higher level of proficiency.

What are the implications for our teaching?

In What is reading? I mentioned how important it was to think of the purpose of a text. That is, not just the purpose of the person who wrote the text, but also that of the reader. The question of why someone reads a text is important because it helps us identify how they might read the text and enables us to teach students the right techniques and strategies.

Identifying the genre has similar implications. As we saw in the section about why genre is important, people often choose whether or not to read a text based on the initial identification. Once they have decided to read a text, they then use certain techniques to extract the information they want, or to read in the way they want. Helping our students to do this will help them develop their reading skills.

Another implication is that context is a key consideration. Texts are not written in a vacuum and they should not be read in one either. Simple comprehension-type activities do not do justice to a reading text. They often ignore the context and, ultimately, do not help students really understand the text.

When should we start teaching text genre?

One reason for this question is that people often think it is quite a complex thing to teach. In fact, the opposite is true. If you start with texts that are of the appropriate language-level it isn't too difficult. At lower levels, texts that contain the passive voice or other fairly complex structures, those that are extremely long, or those that have high-level vocabulary are non-starters, but there are many forms of texts that low-level learners can be introduced to. It is also quite important that students are taught how to identify text genre as early as possible. Doing this will help them choose and develop the appropriate reading techniques and strategies. The earlier they are able to do this, the less likely they are to become frustrated when reading in English, and the likelihood is that they will become better readers.

Some practical ideas

1. What's the genre? – One

Choose three different text types and remove any words that give away too easily what the text is. For example, if you choose a menu, remove the word 'menu' from the text. Put students in small groups and hand each group the texts. Ask them to identify the text genre (type of text) and to say what particular features (structure, grammar, vocabulary, style, format, etc) helped them identify the text. Ask students to make a list comparing and contrasting the texts. What are the similarities between the texts? What are the differences?

2. What's the genre? – Two

Ask your students if they think they could identify a text genre from just one or two lines of a text. If they say yes, ask them how they think they could do it. If they say no, ask them why they think it would be difficult. Put students in groups and hand them the text extracts. Repeat the procedures from the activity above but with just one or two lines of text.

Rationale: Students might actually be surprised at how easy it is to identify a genre from just a line or two of a text. Of course, it is easier to do with texts that are normally short (phone texts, instructions, recipes, etc), but it is also possible with longer texts when students get the hang of looking for particular features.

3. What's the field?

Often a particular text genre contains specific vocabulary linked to that field. Choose a text that is subject specific or a good example of a particular genre (film reviews, recipes and directions are good examples of these). Choose six to ten words that exemplify this genre and write them up on the board. Ask students to predict the type of text they are going to read.

Note: This can also be done using phrases and expressions (e.g. letter of complaint: I am writing …; refund …; When I spoke to your representative …; I look forward to …; I'm sorry to have to …; I hope you appreciate …, etc).

Rationale: Being able to identify genre from specific linguistic features is a great skill for your students to develop. It will enable them to become not only better readers but also better writers and language users.

4. Wrong genre?

Choose a short text and change it slightly so that it no longer conforms to the genre. This can be done at the level of formality, vocabulary, language or style. Hand out the text to the students and see if they can identify (and possibly correct) the mistakes.

Rationale: This activity type can range from quite easy to extremely complex. Ultimately, it aims to provide students with the analytical skills required or desired to become very good language users.

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Teaching Reading Skills

A handbook with practical strategies to help your students develop their reading competence to a higher level.

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