Home > General Overview of the Competency Model > Modes of Cognitive Representation > The Social Mode > Social Background Knowledge > Overview of Genre Types > Literature Note - Genre


It is useful to connect genres to the social context by defining genres by their communicative purpose: that is, by the speech act that defines their fundamental rhetorical goal. This is not an uncommon claim (Martin, 1992; Swales, 1990). It does, however, simplify matters somewhat, since genres, as such, are complex gestalts characterized by their position in specific social settings, by characteristic register choices, by characteristic organizational patterns or templates, and by a variety of other elements; and the purpose of a text as defined by a speech act is hardly the only purpose a text written in a genre can have (Askehave, 1999; Askehave & Swales, 2001). We will consider some of these other aspects of genre shortly, but it is useful to consider texts as performing some specific fundamental speech act in some larger discourse, which may be distributed in space and time. Doing so means that classifications of discourse acts in conversation can be extended to define categories of genres, and the individual texts can be conceptualized as part of an ongoing discourse, with the fundamental speech act of the text helping to define its position in that discourse.

Tsui (1994) presents a taxonomy of speech and discourse acts that can be applied to this purpose, although Tsui’s analysis focused on the general structure of English conversation. Tsui’s analysis includes both the turn-based structure of conversation and speech acts, placing the latter within the structure defined by the former. Tsui’s taxonomy includes three basic categories of conversational turn: initiating, responding, and follow-up. Speech acts are then defined partly by the role they play within this three-part structure, and partly by the social transaction they define between speaker and hearer. Of the three major categories, response and follow-up are relatively restricted: a response can be positive, negative, or temporizing. Follow-up can involve endorsement, concession, or acknowledgement. The families of genre types described in this section are based in large part on initiating moves in Tsui’s system, and they provide examples of extended discourse forms whose unifying speech acts belong to each category, thus extending the system to include texts as well as conversation.

These genre types partially reflect general studies of English text types and include categories identified as regularly being used in college and graduate level classes in a number of studies (Biber, 1980; Bruce, 2005; Gardner, 2008; Hale et al., 1996; Martin & Rose, 2006; Nesi & Gardner, 2006; Rosenfield, Courtney, & Fowles, 2004). They also include selective instances of other text types that are important in legal, commercial, literary, or educational settings, with which an educated adult might have to deal, and which are often noted in studies examining document literacy (Kirsch & Jungeblut, 2002). One of the more thorough accounts of school genres is provided by Martin and Rose (2006), whose categories have been used as partial inspiration for the categories presented in our discussion. While the categories we have listed may not exhaust the possibilities, they cover the full range of speech act types across a variety of important social contexts.

It should be noted, however, that this approach applies an analysis above the level of individual document types, since it implicitly assigns each genre a role within some network of social communication (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1993; Martin & Rothery, 1986; Russell, 1997; Toulmin, 1999). In a legal context, for instance, contracts, warrants, verdicts, and injunctions are text types with specific purposes but also with specific places within the network of interactions that define a particular community of practice (Flower, 2002). This general picture of how genres function in social contexts has a particular bearing on how writing should be taught (Donovan & Smolkin, 2006; Englert & Dunsmore, 2002; Englert, Mariage, & Dunsmore, 2006; Kamberelis, 1999; Langer, 1986; Wenger, 1998), since it implies the need to include that social context, and the set of practices it entails, as part of instruction.

In particular, an extensive literature indicates that approaches to literacy will be more effective if they have two characteristics:
  • They provide instruction that enables students to understand the complex of practices within which each text genre functions, enables them to understand the communicative purpose of each text type, and supports the kinds of thinking and reasoning involved in each practice (Alverman, 2002; Kamberelis & Bovino, 1999; Mercer, 2002; Palincsar & Brown, 1998; Wells, 1999).
  • They create an environment that effectively serves as a sociocognitive apprenticeship in the sense defined in sociocultural theory (Rogoff, 1990), enabling students to develop competency in performing the various roles defined for that community of practice. This includes expert modeling of actual activities, sharing strategies for successful performance, and creating environments in which the apprentices are meaningfully engaged with the practices they are trying to learn (Baker, Gersten, & Graham, 2003; Gersten, Baker, Russell, & Scott, 2001; Mariage, 2001; Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000).

It should be noted that the discussion of genre entails that there are certain kinds of activity systems—particular communities of practice—that appear to be relatively important, or privileged, for people to participate effectively at a high level of literacy. Minimally, these include those listed in our overview of literate activity systems.

It goes without saying that these categories reflect a set of broad generalizations across a great variety of specific communities of practice. Specific professional communities, for example, involve considerable variations in practice from a generic academic activity model (Nesi & Gardner, 2006). But it is quite clear that the activity structure of education will either support students’ achievement of full participation in the great variety of communities of practice summarized above, or it will fall short; and if it falls short, it will do so by failing to prepare students to participate in a wide array of genres and social activities involving reading, writing, and thinking.

If, as the analysis presented above suggests, genre knowledge is fundamentally part of the social mode, it is probable that the efficacy of explicit genre strategies (whether for reading or writing) depends upon a clear, immediate payoff in the efficiency of central executive processing. However, genre as a category crosscuts the different levels of cognitive representation: while motivated at the social level, genre has major impacts on document structure and the choice of verbal structures (including a variety of code-switching choices, in particular, register). These aspects of genre will therefore be discussed in greater detail under the headings of structured expression (in the discourse mode) and code switching (in the verbal mode).

References
Alverman, D. E. (2002). Effective literacy instruction for adolescents. Journal of Literacy Research, 34, 189-208.

Askehave, I. (1999). Communicative purpose as genre determinant. Hermes - Journal of Linguistics, 23, 13-23.

Askehave, I., & Swales, J. M. (2001). Genre identification and communicative purpose: a problem and a possible solution. Applied Linguistics, 22(2), 195-212.

Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Graham, S. (2003). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: Research-based applications and examples. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(2), 109.

Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. (1993). Rethinking genre from a sociocognitive perspective. Written Communication, 10, 475-509.

Biber, D. (1980). A typology of English texts. Language, 27, 3-43.

Bruce, I. (2005). Syllabus design for general EAP writing courses: A cognitive approach. Journal of English for Adademic Purposes, 4, 239-256.

Donovan, C. A., & Smolkin, L. B. (2006). Children's understanding of genre and writing development. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 131-143). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Englert, C. S., & Dunsmore, K. (2002). A diversity of teaching and learning paths: Teaching writing in situated activity. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Social constructivist teaching: Affordances and constraints (Vol. 9, pp. 81-130). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: JAI Press.

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Flower, L. (2002). Intercultural knowledge building: The literate action of a community think tank. In C. Bazerman & D. Russel (Eds.), Writing selves/societies: Research from activity perspectives (pp. 239-279). Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.

Gardner, S. (2008, June). Genre families of assessed student writing in the context of the framework for higher education qualifications. Paper presented at the Writing Development in Higher Education Conference, Glasgow, Scotland.

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Langer, J. A. (1986). Children reading and writing: Structures and strategies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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Martin, J. R. (1992). English text: System and structure. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Benjamins.

Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2006). Genre relations: Mapping culture. London, England: Equinox.

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Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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

Toulmin, S. E. (1999). Knowledge as shared procedures. In Y. Engestrom, R. Miettinen & R. Punamaki (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory(pp. 53-64).
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Vaughn, S., Gersten, R., & Chard, D. (2000). The underlying message in LD intervention research: findings from research syntheses. Exceptional Children, 67(1), 99-114.

Wells, G. (Ed.). (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Toward a sociocultural practice and theory of education. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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