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Genre matters in academic writing by Thomas Baker

Genre matters in academic writing

by Thomas Baker

At the University of Michigan, a genre-based approach is used to teach academic writing (hereafter AW) (Swales and Feak, 1994, 2004) for graduate, nonnative students and undergraduate students (Feak, 2007).  According to Paltridge, its basic premise is that language is “functional … through language we get things done” (pg 1, 2004).  Students are encouraged to engage with texts to discover functional language use at the whole text level. Thus, the conventions of a particular genre are acquired.  This is considered to be crucial for students writing in a second language (Johns, 1990).  There are, however, few (if any) published accounts of a genre-based approach and a process-writing approach being integrated and used with English Pedagogy students in Chile.  This article presents an account of an integrated, genre-based/process-writing experience in the Chilean context.

Teaching Context

The present author is a new instructor of Academic Writing II for English Pedagogy students at Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago.  The students are in their third year of studies, having previously taken Academic Writing I as a prerequisite.  Class size is approximately twenty students.  The course description defines the writing process approach as the guiding paradigm for the course.  The development of the students’ ability to use academic rhetoric successfully is considered an essential aim of the course.

Which genre and which journal?

Academic articles from the field of ELT were the obvious choice of genre to be used. The question of an appropriate journal(s) to use was not as transparent, however.  Criteria to be considered were: relevance to the field of ELT, long term benefit to the student, uniformity of style and rhetoric, electronic access, and cost.

Relevance to the field of ELT was considered for two reasons.  First, a journal should be widely read by ELT teachers in many countries.  This assures the student that the conventions and rhetoric, once acquired, would meet the expectations of a majority of the members of the ELT community.  Consequently, writing done by a student would be recognized as belonging to this community.  Equally important, the journal should promote, in an exemplary way, a sense of pride in belonging to the ELT profession.

A second criteria, long term benefit, is not easily conceptualized.  A sense of belonging to the ELT profession, critical thinking, teacher research, membership in a professional organization, and the habit of life-long professional reading are all possible examples of sustainable benefits.  It is likely that many of these benefits will persist in direct proportion to the quality of the journal that is being read.

When uniformity of style and rhetoric is considered, the case for a single journal is amplified.  A single journal increases the probability of student success in identifying the salient, recurring features of AW in context.  Generalizations are proved or disproved based on the repetitive nature (or lack thereof) of lexical and rhetorical items which have been previously identified.  As a result, a tendency to overgeneralize would cause little, if any, harm being done.  On the contrary, it may promote the internalization of the features of AW through noticing (Swain, 2005).

The fourth criteria, electronic access, takes into account the technological world in which students live.  Nowadays, most students have been using computers all their lives.  In fact, many would most likely find a world without computers unimiginable.  Therefore, having electronic access to the journal being analysed is responsive to the multiple ways students interact with text through a digital medium (Barahona, 2009).

Finally, cost has to be taken into account.  It is prohibitive for a large number of journals that otherwise would have made the choice of a single journal extremely difficult.  Many students, especially those from a low socioeconomic background, do not have the financial resources to buy a large number of  back issues of a professional journal. Therefore, the primary option should be a high quality journal which gives students free access to back issues.  In sum, could one journal possibly meet all five criteria outlined above?

English Teaching Forum

The present author was informed by the Program Coordinator of English Teaching Forum, Ms. Paulette J. Estep (personal communication, June 11, 2007), that articles published in English Teaching Forum are seen by, “more than seventy thousand readers in over one hundred countries”.  Additionally, hard copies of new issues are distributed free of charge to ELT teachers worldwide.  Furthermore, a web site is maintained where past issues can be downloaded free of charge.  More importantly, most of the authors published in English Teaching Forum are classroom teachers.  Thus, English Teaching Forum easily met all five criteria that were established for a journal to exemplify academic writing for undergraduate English Pedagogy students.

How was the journal used?

It was decided to use articles with similar content in the Prewriting Stage of the writing process to promote academic vocabulary learning in context.  Thus, the topics of reading, writing, vocabulary, and teacher research were recycled.  In addition, the articles chosen were judged to have long term professional value to the students.  Here are the articles that were used:

Error Correction and Feedback in the EFL Writing Classroom

Applying Reading Research to the Development of an Integrated Lesson Plan

SWELL: A Writing Method to Help English Language Learners

Conditions for Teacher Research

Two Writing Activities for Extensive Reading

Making Sense of Words”

( All articles taken from: http://exchanges.state.gov/englishteaching/forum-journal.html )

The following steps were followed with each article:

  1. Students read the article outside of class.
  2. The students’ reaction to the article was discussed in class.
  3. Students underlined citations, rhetorical phrases, lexis and signpost language.
  4. The rhetorical use of the underlined language was then discussed.
  5. A three-paragraph, reader response was written.

Results and Discussion

This reading, speaking, noticing, and writing cycle allowed the students multiple opportunities to actively engage with academic vocabulary in context as well as to begin to incorporate the features of AW into their own writing. The students were able to articulate an understanding of the features of AW as seen in the English Teaching Forum as follows:

  1. The first person “I” can be used.
  2. You” is never used to address the reader.
  3. Introductions include the three-move “CARS” model (Swales, 1990).
  4. Contractions are not used.
  5. Modals are used to soften claims (hedges) and mark degrees of certainty.
  6. Citations are a prominent feature and positively affect the writer’s credibility.
  7. Conclusions are short, precise and restate the aims of the article.
  8. Passive voice is a prominent feature.
  9. Formal vocabulary is used.
  10. Noun phrases (nominalization) often replace verbs.
  11. Phrasal verbs are rarely used.
  12. A rich variety of rhetorical phrases are used to achieve cohesion and coherence.
  13. Sentence length, word order, and word choice affect the writer’s “voice”.
  14. Impersonal language is seen as objective and unbiased.
  15. Unsupported claims negatively affect the writer’s credibility.

Conclusion

The aim of this article was to share an integrated, genre-based/writing-process approach to the teaching of Academic Writing in the Chilean context.  The students’ ability to articulate the conventions of Academic Writing suggests that it is a viable approach and thus merits further research.  Nevertheless, the present results should be taken with caution due to the small number of participants involved.

References

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