The Internet TESL Journal

Helping Students to see "Genres" as More Than "Text Types"

Ramona Tang
ramona.tang [at]
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
In this article, I outline a classroom activity that aims to teach students that "genres" are not just "text types" with arbitrarily-fixed forms, but are instead motivated by real social purposes. I use as an example of a genre the acknowledgement emails sent out by internet companies to customers who place an online order for a product, but suggest that the activity would also work if centred around other genres.


One common problem associated with the teaching of the notion of "genre" at any level of schooling is that students often leave with the idea that different "genres" are quite simply different "text types" each characterised by certain pre-determined textual features. Thus letters, for instance, are thought of as that sort of text which necessarily has a date, a salutation, a message, a closing and a signature at the end. Narratives are thought of as necessarily having stages such as an orientation, a complication, and a resolution.

While being a convenient way of teaching and thinking about "genres", I would suggest that focusing purely on the formal features of different genres in fact leaves out one of the most important elements of writing -- the fact that writing is done for communication, and that we write to accomplish social purposes (e.g. to inform, to entertain, to
apologise, to maintain friendship etc.). To put it another way, people do not write to produce a product. We do not write letters, for instance, so that we can hold in our hands a text that has a date, a salutation and so on. We write letters for real social and communicative purposes -- to express gratitude to someone, for instance, or to try to get out of paying a parking fine, or to maintain a connection with a loved one in a distant country.

A genre, thus, is much more than a "text type" with a fixed, static, and arbitrary form. Rather, genres have evolved in response to certain social purposes that certain types of writing have to serve; genres come to have the textual elements that they do because those textual elements have been found over time to be capable of accomplishing what writers typically need to accomplish with those sorts of texts. In this vein, Miller (1984: 151) has argued that
"a theoretically sound definition of genre must be centred not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish" (my emphasis). And, along similar lines, Freedman and Medway have also written:
While recognising that genres can be characterized by regularities in textual form and substance, current thinking looks at these regularities as surface traces of a different kind of underlying regularity. Genres have come to be seen as typical ways of engaging rhetorically with recurring situations. The similarities in textual form and substance are seen as deriving from the similarity in the social action undertaken ... (1994: 2)

We need ways therefore to emphasise this point to students in the classroom, to emphasise the fact that although written genres are usually characterised by certain regularities of form, the form that a written genre is typically recognised as having is in fact driven by the social action that we want this writing to accomplish.

In this article, I outline a classroom activity which aims to do precisely this. Although I use this activity with university undergraduates, I believe that the activity (or a variation of it, perhaps with different texts) would be suitable for use with younger students as well.  

The Classroom Activity

Stage One

Students are introduced to the theory behind "genres".

Stage Two

Students are then introduced to the task they have to do in groups.

In order to encourage students to see the very real relation between social function and textual form, I suggest starting the activity by focusing first on a real and specific social situation that most of the students would be familiar with and would be able to call up from their mental schemas. For the undergraduate class that I teach, I choose to get the students thinking about companies that offer products for sale over the internet. Thus, I ask them to either imagine themselves running such an internet business or recall a time when they themselves ordered something over the internet. With this scenario in place, I then steer the students' attention to the kind of text that typically gets exchanged between online sellers and buyers -- the (often automated) confirmation or acknowledgement emails that internet companies send out to customers who place an online order for a product.

This whole process, I highlight to my students in the terminology of genre research, is a type of "recurring situation" because internet companies (hopefully at least) do not get merely one customer order, but orders from many people, all of whom would need to be sent confirmation or acknowledgement emails. And this situation is also a recurring type of situation, because there are clearly many companies offering products for sale over the internet, and each company would need to send their own customers such emails. I argue in my class, as I do now, that the writing, the text, that is emerging to deal with this recurring type of social situation is becoming a genre in its own right, with recognisable characteristic features. Clearly, teachers who wish to adapt this activity for use in their own classrooms may decide to choose other more established genres. On my part, however, I find that using this particular newly emerging genre in the classroom has the benefit of being relatively familiar to most of the internet-savvy students in my class, while being at the same time new enough that not many of them will have fossilised notions about its typical textual elements, and they can therefore more readily see how situational necessity impacts on generic form.

These, then, are the instructions and guidelines that I project on a powerpoint slide at the front of the class:
Your task:
Although the ultimate aim of this task is to get students to think about what lies behind each textual element gaining status as a "typical" feature of the genre under discussion, notice the sequence of what is required of the students:
  1. The students are first asked to consider the social purposes of the genre.
  2. The students are then asked to think about its typical form or characteristic features.
  3. And finally the students are asked to relate the social purposes of the genre to its typical textual form.
Prioritising social function over textual form in this way, I suggest, emphasises that genres are motivated by real social purposes and are not merely arbitrarily-decided-upon text types.

Stage Three

After the students are given sufficient time for discussion, the various groups come together again to share with the whole class the ideas that they came up with. As the teacher, I typically type the ideas that they offer directly into Powerpoint, so that we can then use those points for further discussion. For the reason given above, I start by asking the students what they think the overall social purposes of the genre under discussion are. As an example, the following are the points that one of my classes came up with in response to the question of what the broad social purposes of confirmation / acknowledgement emails might be:  Following this, we move the discussion on to what the students think the typical textual features or elements of the genre might be. Once again, it is useful to type the students' responses straight in to Powerpoint as the students call out the textual elements that they have identified in their groups. It is also a good idea at this stage to ask the groups to sequence the identified textual elements in the order in which they think the elements would appear in an actual confirmation email. The following is an example of what my class came up with: 

Stage Four

As the students' ideas about the social purposes of the genre and the characteristic features of the genre are now both on powerpoint slides, we can toggle between the two slides while engaging the students in a discussion about which social purposes might underlie the various textual elements they have identified. This is the stage at which I would guide students into integrating the function(s) of genres with the textual form(s) they take, and drive home the point that the textual elements which people understand to be typical of a genre are in fact motivated by real social purposes and needs. 

Occasionally, students will find that a particular textual element cannot be explained by the list of "social purposes" they have identified, and this leads them into thinking more deeply about other possible underlying social purposes of the genre. In one of my classes, for instance, the notion of a business company needing to "reassure" its customers only surfaced during our attempts to explain why students felt that elements such as the company's contact information and details about delivery times were necessary in an acknowledgement email.

If time and the organisation of the class timetable allow it, I find that it is useful for the students if some consolidation of the discussion is made by the teacher. The first time I taught this to my undergraduate students, I had the luxury of this lesson on genre being spread over two one-hour sessions on two different days. I thus returned in the second session with a consolidated overview of how the various textual elements the students had identified as being typical (i.e. generic) features of a confirmation email related to the underlying social purposes accomplished by such emails. I made sure that I worked off the powerpoint slides that we had used in the previous class, so that (a) there would be continuity to the discussion, and (b) the students would feel that the ideas they had come up with were valued. This was what my consolidated slide looked like:


Stage Five (optional)

To concretise and to add authenticity to the discussion, I have found that students find it interesting to look at genuine samples of the genre under discussion, to see if the textual elements they identified are indeed found in actual examples of the genre. This is a particularly useful stage of the lesson if the genre chosen for discussion is a fairly new one. In one of my classes, for instance, I brought in two of the acknowledgement emails that I had received over the years -- one from an order I placed with, and the other from a purchase I made of a plane ticket from a budget airline. The students seemed to find great satisfaction in noting that the features they identified were indeed found in authentic samples of the genre.

This exercise is also potentially rewarding in that it is highly unlikely that two authentic instantiations of the genre under discussion will be exactly the same, and the differences can then serve as a springboard for further discussions about the ways in which social purpose impacts upon textual form. For instance, the Amazon email and the budget airline email that I brought to class were clearly different in a number of ways. One of the most glaring differences was in the length of the terms and conditions set out by each company. Asked why they thought there was such a disparity between the two in the precise manifestation of this particular textual element of the genre, it did not take the students very long to come up with the answer that many more, and far more important, things are at stake when selling someone a plane ticket (e.g. unscheduled stopovers, flight delays, lost baggage, injury or death) than when selling someone a book. As one of the social purposes of the "terms and conditions" element of the genre, according to the students, is to protect a company against claims and lawsuits, it stood to reason that the greater the potential complications, the more lengthy and thorough the "terms and conditions" had to be.


I have tried here to set out the steps involved in a classroom activity aimed at teaching students that "genres" are more than just "text types" with arbitrarily-fixed forms. I find it fruitful centreing the activity around the acknowledgement emails sent out by internet companies to their customers, and my detailed examples in this article all relate to my experience using this particular genre with an undergraduate class. However, I believe that other genres (e.g. recipes, school or university homepages, instruction manuals) could also work very well, and I hope that other teachers will be able to find a genre for discussion that best suits the interests and abilities of their students.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 8, August 2006