Genre-based approaches in the language classroom: the appeal and the challenges

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

It's back to school time, so time for this blog to resume as well! Onto the topic . . . 

I first learned about genre-based approaches to language teaching in a pedagogy class in graduate school, where we read two articles describing various aspects of the Georgetown German Curriculum.  I was immediately attracted to this approach, and have been working to implement this type of curriculum for the last six years in our Arabic classes (it’s been a long process!).  In this post, I want to focus on the reasons I find this approach so appealing, and why I keep coming back to it despite the challenges I’ll discuss, and also how I hope to expand it in the future.  

The Appeal

1) Functional texts as the source of language to be learned.  This is probably the reason I find genre-based approaches most appealing or language learning: they start with examples of people doing things with language and choose the linguistic elements to teach based on what actually happens in these examples.  While this may seem obvious, it’s almost never how academic “language learning” is done, where there is a tendency to start with a linguistic element (e.g. present tense) or vocabulary groups that you would almost never use all of at one time (unless you are in kindergarten, e.g. colors, numbers, family members) or imagined dialogues (at the restaurant, at the doctor, an improvement but often via an imagined dialogue rather than actual people doing these things).  Sociolinguistics research shows us time and time again that the way we think we talk is rarely the way we actually talk, so starting from actual examples rather then created ones is key (though at times very difficult, a point I’ll get to below).  

2) Cultural constructions are inherent.  Too often in language classrooms, culture is relegated to a “culture” box in the textbook, or a “cultural discussion”, or a focus on cultural products, rather than how we construct and maintain culture in interaction (including with texts).  A key tenet of genre-based approaches is that the steps we take to effectively do something with language are culturally determined.  Although we tend to focus on (pan) nation-state definitions of culture in the language classroom (e.g. American v. Arab or French culture), there are many other overlapping ways of defining cultures that are also relevant for doing things with language, including race, ethnicity, class, geographic region, generation, workplace, activity, and more.  While genre-based approaches have been critiqued for being too deterministic (e.g. you must behave this way in this culture), I don’t think being aware of the culturally constructed nature of doing things with language has to lead to deterministic behavior.  Instead, it leads to informed choices—do I want to do learn to do it this way because that is what is expected in this context? Or do I want to resist? Most importantly, why? 

3) Pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are essential, rather than advanced or extra. I’ve written before about how we tend to ignore social practices in the beginning language classroom especially for a focus on basic vocabulary and grammar (perhaps because these also feel easier to teach!).   If we use examples of people actually doing things with language, these will be present, and it’s important to understand how they work, rather than ignore them to get to the “basic meaning” of the interaction.  In Arabic of course, there is the additional benefit of looking at how people actually use dialects and MSA, rather than assuming that these are separate, or completely determined by medium (e.g. writing or speaking) or social context (e.g. social or academic).  

The Challenges

While I hope I’ve made genre-based approaches sound fairly appealing, if you are a teacher, you are probably also thinking . . . yeah, but how does this work in reality? That is an excellent question, one that I struggle with myself, and something that I think is really not addressed well in the research literature.  Especially in research articles, there is a tendency to gloss over or actively hide the challenges that occur while trying to implement research practices in the classroom.  I personally think this misrepresents the ease with which you can implement research in the classroom, but will admit I have also given into reviewers’ request to remove this “irrelevant” information (though I had more success with my recent chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Arabic Second Language Acquisition, I did have to argue to keep this information in!).  So, here are some of the things I’ve found most challenging in implementing this approach.  

1) Finding example texts of people doing things with language.  This is far and away the greatest challenge.  While the internet is amazing, I have limited time to search for texts on the internet, and I’m not always able to find multiple examples of the language functions I want.  This is why in the past we have used texts from the textbook or made our own, but these suffer from the limitations discussed in point three above, where the pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are not exactly like we might find in more authentic texts (although authenticity itself is definitely another post!)

2) Analyzing texts.  In addition to taking time to find texts, I also have to take the time to analyze the text.  In addition to time constraints, this is also a challenge because analyzing texts according to systemic functional linguistics (SFL) is not something I was trained in, and the other teachers I work with have no training in any type of linguistic textual analysis.  So, this is intimidating and causes us to wonder if we are doing it correctly.  However, we decided to just start, hoping that any analysis that was trying to point out the different steps to “doing” the can-do and the crucial linguistic elements would be better than no analysis.  We’ve also tried to work on distinguishing between larger functions or genres (recounts, narratives, etc.) and the specific topics that can fill those genres (a daily routine, a trip, etc.).  We have not quite made it up to using all of the SFL terminology, but even our basic attempts are an improvement over what we did previously.  

3) Focus on writing.  Most of the research on genre-based pedagogies in the language classroom focuses on writing, and becoming aware of the steps and linguistic conventions to produce certain types of genres (not to be confused with literary genres such as a novel).  Yet writing is only one way we do things with language, so I would like to see this expanded to other mediums, including establishing and maintaining social relationships, or requesting information, or so on.  So, if you are aware of any research on genre-based approaches in the language classroom that doesn’t focus on writing, please let me know!

So, this is an overview of why I find genre-based approaches so appealing and also so challenging to implement in the the classroom.  If you are a language teacher, have you tried this? Would you? Why or why not? Any suggestions for overcoming my challenges?