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(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

A Genre-Based Literacy Pedagogy: Teaching Writing to Low Proficiency EFL Students

Arthur Firkins1, Gail Forey2, and Sima Sengupta2

TWGHs Mr and Mrs Kwong Sik Kwan College, Hong Kong


The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Abstract This paper describes a genre-based literacy pedagogy, which can be used with English language learners. The pedagogy discussed involves a combination of two explicit teaching methodologies, a genre-based and activity-based pedagogical approach. The pedagogy was introduced in an English Club at a local Hong Kong school, as part of a collaborative research project 1 . In this paper, we discuss the approach used and present examples of the students work. The findings are particularly suitable for educational contexts where the students are low proficiency English as a foreign language (EFL) learner. Keywords: low proficiency, genre, EFL, activity-based, writing, learning disability. Introduction Teaching low proficiency EFL students to write whole texts is often fraught with difficulties (Cumming 1989). The student writer has to create a text that is both rhetorically and linguistically appropriate. Often, the teaching of English to low proficiency EFL students tends to be taught in a way that focuses at the sentence level and these learners often have minimal, if any, awareness at the level of complete texts. In order to empower students with the consciousness to recognise textual and linguistic features that are used to construct and shape whole texts, there has been a move towards explicit teaching of genres in many contexts. Australia has led the way by introducing genre-based pedagogy in to the school system and other teaching environments (Christie 1999; Macken-Horarik 2001; Rothery 1996). Genre-based pedagogy views language as an open dynamic system, where knowledge about language is taught in an explicit manner; and genres (types of texts) are used as the starting point for modelling, deconstructing and understanding language (Martin, 1999). In this paper, we briefly describe the theory of genre-based pedagogy and combine this theory with a very practical activity-based pedagogy. We discuss how these two approaches were adapted to develop a contextually appropriate teaching plan and modified to suit the needs of EFL students who have a Learning Disability.

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

The teaching plan was developed around the introduction of two specific written genres procedure and information report (see Macken-Horarik 2001: 21-23). First, we outline the activity/ genre-based approach that was applied to the teaching of writing procedural texts. Then we evaluate the approach and discuss how it was revised to provide students with the essential linguistic tools to scaffold their learning of information report genres. Our aim is to demonstrate how the conceptual level of the genre approach to teaching writing could be effectively applied within a specific context. In addition, we illustrate how the genre approach could be supported through the incorporation of activity-based tasks. The genre approach has been tried and tested in a number of different contexts, including contexts where children were identified as being disadvantaged (see Christie, 1999). However, very few studies discuss the practical details of how the model could be introduced by a teacher in a low proficiency EFL context. In this paper, we attempt to show that this approach is rich enough to be modified to suit low proficiency EFL learners. Background: Students with Learning Disabilities (LD) The pedagogy described was introduced to students with Learning Disabilities (LD). Learning Disability can be seen as a problem, which affects most areas of literacy. Students with LD typically produce writing samples that are shorter, less coherent and less refined. They have difficulty organising text, generating ideas and applying metacognitive skills (McAlister et al. 1999). These are the difficulties the students in our study experienced and were identified by English teachers at the school in initial interviews. Teachers frequently express similar concerns in relation to low proficiency L2 students (Cumming 1989; Sasaki and Hirose 1996). These difficulties compel the teacher to find ways to reshape learning environments and instructional strategies. This is a difficult task for the English teacher, given the fundamental problems low proficiency students have due to a lack of linguistic and rhetorical awareness. Methodology The study took place in a secondary college, which specialises in the education of students 11-18 years with LD (for more details see, Firkins, 2004). The research team comprised two English teachers from the school (one a native English speaker, who is a co-author of this article, the other a Hong Kong, Chinese English teacher), a Research Associate (RA) and two Assistant Professors from a nearby university (also co-authors). Initial interviews were conducted with the principal, four English teachers and a focus group of eight parents, and writing was identified for the reasons given above as a particular area of difficulty. The interviewees reported that students demonstrated consistent difficulties with both the mechanics and organisation of writing. In addition the interviewees reported that students obtained poorer results on writing tasks than their peers from the wider community in Hong Kong. Thus, the research team decided to focus on strategies that would enhance the students English language writing.

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

All students were in the normal range of intelligence and met the definition of Learning Disability provided in D.S.M. IV (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Students were selected using the following criteria. Firstly, all students were diagnosed by a professional (usually a psychologist or paediatrician) as having a Learning Disability and were thus placed in this special school. However, it should be noted, that we were not using a deficit model of disability and limited information was available about the exact nature of each students Learning Disability was available from the school records. Secondly, all students demonstrated consistent low performance in English and Chinese as judged by the class teacher. Thirdly, no participating students had behaviour problems or an intellectual disability, i.e. students with autism, dyslexia and other intellectual disabilities were not included. Finally all participating students volunteered to take part. Due to the limitation on the number of participating students, students were selected through file reviews and teacher recommendations. In total, thirty-two secondary students were selected from seventy students who expressed an interest in taking part in the project. The students who were not accepted were informed that they would have an opportunity to participate at a later date. There were two groups of eleven students in the first semester and one group of ten in the second semester. The students and the parents were provided with information (in both English and Chinese) about the project and the consent of the teachers, students and the parents of students involved were sought. Regular interviews with all parties, classroom observations and close examination of documents such as teaching materials and students work provide the data for this paper. The genre-based approach Following the decision to focus on strategies to enhance student writing, the genre-based approach was selected as language was seen in context and was presented to the learners as part of a complete text and not as unrelated sentences. The approach offered a teaching methodology enabling teachers to present explicit instruction in a highly systematic and logical manner, which were factors we believed would assist students with the cognitive organisation of information. A genre-based approach is based on a systemic functional theory of language developed by Halliday (1978, 1994), and elaborated by Martin (1992), Christie (1999) and MackenHorarik (2001) among others. This model of teaching writing has been successful with students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Christie 1999; Macken-Horarik 2001; Rothery 1996). The approach is based on a teaching-learning cycle where strategies such as modelling texts and joint construction are promoted. The approach is based on learning through guidance and interaction (Painter 1986, cited in Macken-Horarik 2001:26). The learning-teaching cycle as shown in Figure 1, involves three stages: 1. Modelling a text 2. Joint construction of a text 3. Independent construction of a text

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

Figure1. Teaching and learning cycle (from, Rothery, 1996:102)

Teaching can start at any one of these stages, and whichever stage is introduced first the teacher should offer maximum assistance to the students. The aim is that there is a shift of responsibility from teacher support to learners taking responsibility for their own learning. In our case where students were learning a foreign language we tended to offer greater support in the modelling of a text and joint construction. These two stages were repeated a number of times using a range of texts and tasks incorporating activities which modelled the target genre. Contextual reshaping of the genre-based approach Although the genre-based approach appears to aid students in organisational skills, we suggest that it needs to be used in combination with other explicit teaching methodologies as part of a holistic approach to writing instruction. To augment this method we decided to utilize an activity-based approach where language is scaffolded in

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

a manner where the students physically modelled the genres through a range of different activities. The types of scaffolding used involved: developing contextual and metacogonative awareness (schema building), i.e. drawing on the students existing background knowledge using authentic texts as a model, a number of which would be familiar to students in their daily lives (although perhaps familiar to them in their first language) introducing and reiterating a metadiscourse i.e. providing students with a language they could use to talk about language linking texts (intertextuality) by explicitly discussing similarities found in a genre, e.g. the types of lexico-grammatical features which were commonly found in procedural texts In our study, modelling involved students in role plays and physical activities where the genre was produced in a physical environment. This was relatively easy for procedural genres and again did not prove difficult for information report genres. This complemented the focus of the Hong Kong secondary curriculum, which promotes a task-based mastery of learning (Hong Kong Department of Education 2002). We focused on the procedural genre and planned activities that were linked around a particular topic, Halloween. Halloween was familiar to the students and was topical for the time of year. The topic was explored through a number of related activities, each repeating the genre through a text and providing opportunities to reiterate, develop and practice vocabulary, metadiscoural and lexico-grammatical features. In addition, we also kept the language of instruction tight and consistent, utilizing an approach associated with direct instruction (Engelman and Carnine 1982). The instruction involved a high degree of redundancy, we repeated relevant vocabulary, reviewed generic structure of the text and reinforced lexico-grammatical patterns in each session. The emphasis of instruction was on doing i.e. understanding the texts within the context of the topic through experiencing the language by physically being involved in activities. So the students, through the different learning experiences were living the text. Macken-Horarik argues that students frequently fail as many students are thrown back onto their own resources too early and thus fail to produce texts that are both contextually adequate and educationally valued (2001:27).
Planning a party

How to make a mask

Theme Halloween

Halloween recipes

How to make Halloween decorations How to make cool aid

Figure 2: Procedural text around the topic Halloween

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

Twelve 35 minute sessions were held, concentrating on one activity per session related to writing procedural texts. All sessions were logically linked to previous sessions, providing a high level of reiteration to maximize the students opportunities to practice particular skills. Links were provided through the consistent use and reiteration of instructional and metadiscoursal language. Macken-Horarik (2001: 22) presents the generic structure of procedural texts as {Goal ^ Step 1 n ^ (results)}; results are an optional element (indicated by use of brackets) and ^ represents followed by. In each lesson we modelled the genre and presented the stages of a procedural text with reference to the goal, steps and materials. For example in making a Halloween mask, the goal was to make a mask to wear to a Halloween party, the steps were the steps involved and the materials were the tools and resources needed to make the mask. These terms became familiar to the students in both English and Cantonese. In the task, the students were asked to identify and thus became familiar with the usage and terms of some lexico-grammatical features, such as imperatives. The students recognised that imperatives were a key feature in procedural texts. As activities were presented in similar ways, and there was a reiteration of linguistic choices, students were also able to generalize from one activity to the next. The range of procedural texts used for the activities are illustrated in Figure 2. The entry point into each teaching session was via a particular activity, which had at its core a procedural text. The instructional sequence utilised for each activity is illustrated in Figure 3.
Establishing background knowledge
Introducing topic, genre and key vocabulary and brainstorming about topic


Activity based modeling of genre, e.g. getting students to make a mask.


Post activity joint construction through verbal reiteration of activity incorporating metadiscourse of genre. Writing started with joint construction led to independent construction, where they wrote about one of the activities. In discussions, they compared and transferred knowledge from one procedural text to another. Thus, showing an appreciation of the generic conventions of procedural texts.



6 Figure 3. The instructional sequence

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

The learning-teaching cycle applied (see, Figure 1) are outlined below with reference to one instructional sequence. Modelling a text: A model text was selected and an overall plan for the activities was developed. The students engaged in the activity of deconstructing and modelling the text to appreciate how the text achieved its functions. We situated each activity by getting students to recognise how the text functions in real life, i.e. the social purposes of the text were related to the context. For example, in the procedural text of making a mask, sessions one and two concentrated on making a Halloween mask i.e. the students participated in physically constructing a mask by following the procedure, as shown in Figure 4. Students modelled the text by firstly discussing vocabulary, through the action of making the mask. Thus, the students were able to understand how the procedural text functions in context.

Figure 4. Students masks Joint Construction: The students jointly constructed a procedural text and revised vocabulary and language patterns. The teacher led discussions of how the mask was made and remodelled the written procedural genre, by asking students to recall and discuss each step. In doing this we developed with the students a metalanguage to describe the process, familiarity with intertextuality and lexicogrammatical features of the genre. Both modelling and joint construction were repeated before independent construction was introduced. Independent Construction: On completion of several activities, we asked students to independently construct a procedural written text attempting to ensure that the three elements goal, steps and materials are understood. The students wrote their own instructions on how to make a mask, an example of a student text is shown in Figure 5.

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

Figure 5. Student worksheet During the making a mask the students were able to physically, verbally and cognitively experience the genre and the procedural written text was used as a model text, which was deconstructed and jointly constructed by students with the teachers assistance. This discussion of language both in the deconstruction and joint construction lead later in to the independent construction of procedural texts. In the subsequent sessions, students focused on different activities such as making Halloween decorations, planning a Halloween party, following recipes for Halloween party food, making a drink and making directions for the party, all tasks and activities again were focusing on procedural genres. For each activity the modelling and joint construction were repeated. Revising the approach: Focusing on the information report genre An evaluation of the first semester indicated that students were able to understand and produce the key generic stages of procedural texts. However, the students expressed and experienced problems with vocabulary. We continued with a genre approach in the second semester and this time focused on the information report genre. Information

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

report genres are key educational genre across the curriculum (Macken-Horarik 2001). The generic stages of an information report text are {General statement^ Description of Aspects^ Description of Activities}, (Macken-Horarik 2001:21). Information report genres are found in a variety of texts across the curriculum and are relevant for locating information on a topic. As a key part of information report genres is description, activities related to vocabulary building tasks were incorporated into the instruction. Figure 6 below shows how the first and second levels were modified.
Establishing background knowledge
Introducing key vocabulary and generic stages


Activity based modeling of genre, by describing different stages and activities related to a particular genre, e.g. getting students to identify smells from real objects.

Figure 6. The Macro sequence for Descriptive texts When introducing the information report genre, we addressed the students difficulties identified in the first phase. In working with procedural texts we found that although the students were able to grasp the generic structure of the text and eventually produce a text following the generic pattern, they were frustrated by the limitations posed by available vocabulary. In the information report genre we built up vocabulary along side the activity approach, using vocabulary cards containing words to describe particular areas of description. Our topic centred on describing sensing, touching, smelling and hearing. The first part of instruction concentrated on building vocabulary, through a direct manipulation of an object. For example, smelling involved students smelling a range of real life examples and selecting vocabulary, which described the smell. Tasting involved the sampling of different foods, touching involved the touching of a range of objects with different texture. Directly after each session, student wrote a sentence to describe each experience. In systematically addressing the area of vocabulary, we were able to quickly move to joint and independent construction of a text. These smaller activities were integrated into a larger information report writing activity. An actual pizza was ordered so that the students could utilise each of the senses, including the sound of people eating. For example, students wrote a text to describe their favourite pizza, utilising both the new vocabulary and generic structure of an information report. Thus the activity-based genre approach was further enriched with explicit teaching of vocabulary through the clustering of smaller concrete activities.

(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

What did the students learn? There were a number of positive learning experiences noted in the study related to texts, genres, lexico-grammatical features, metadiscourse and the overall enjoyment expressed in the learning experience. The activity-based genre approach appears to have merit in explicitly providing students with the cognitive awareness that language is part of a complete text that occurs within an identifiable context. At a text level, students were able to move beyond the sentence and understand that texts are related to real world contexts. Students were able to identify and, discuss the generic stages of both procedural {Goal^ Steps 1-n^ (results)} and information report texts {General statement^ Description of Aspects^ Description of Activities} and to construct these texts. These are key cognitive skills, which aid the planning, and organisation of a text, an identified difficulty experienced by students with L.D. Furthermore, at the end of the twenty-four sessions students were able to identify certain lexico-grammatical features and patterns within the two genres. For example, in deconstructing the procedural texts students discussed processes (e.g. stir, pour), temporal conjunctions (e.g. first, then), tense, modality (e.g. should, could) and the nouns required of each text and the mood (imperative, declarative and interrogative). An evaluation of the approach We have demonstrated above how the genre approach was made applicable for a group of EFL students with Learning Disability and we believe that such an approach could be innovatively modified for other classes. However, in applying the approach within any new context, there is a need to reshape it to the needs of students and the educational situation. During the study, one limitation which was identified was time. We found that the students needed more time to practice language skills and establish vocabulary. Given more time and more teaching sessions, we felt that the students would have developed the flexibility to independently construct a variety of procedural and information report texts. We endeavoured to combine the genre approach with other explicit methodologies, in assisting students to organise their writing. We then combined these basic principles with the current educational philosophy within our context by planning an activity-based approach of living and creating the text rather that merely writing sentences. We found that students engaged with each text in the context of the activity, making it both motivating and relevant. We also had to take into account our specific micro context. Although the genre approach provides an explicit teaching methodology suitable for students with LD or students with low English proficiency, we believe it is more successful if it is supported by other methodologies. For students with LD it needs to be paired with teaching methodologies utilized within special education (Wheldall and Glynn 1989). Two key instructional strategies typical of special education, 1) modelling, demonstrating, prompting and praising and 2) instructional language, typical of direct instructional approaches are, we believe, effective with students struggling to write in L2.


(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

However, we realised that direct instructional approaches involve more than the use of carefully structured and tightly sequenced teaching materials presented in standardized formats (Wheldall and Glynn, 1989:143). There also needs to be a continued emphasis on developing the sub-skills of writing and the building of field knowledge and vocabulary, so the students have the resources to construct and deconstruct the text. These building blocks, we had expected would be naturally occurring as we went through each activity as well as explained and discussed at each step. But in retrospect we realised that the approach needed to be further enhanced with focused work on building the schemata essential to live the text type in focus. In addition, as it was possible to look at the approach in great detail with a range of data available from classroom videos as well as all the work produced by students, we realised that the use of code-switching (the teacher would switch to Cantonese to explain difficult terms and instructions) was a particularly useful strategy to efficiently explain concepts which students displayed difficulty in grasping (Celik, 2003). On these occasions, students requested clarification by framing their questions in Cantonese and directing it to the bi-lingual teacher, who responded in both Chinese and English. Code-switching between English and Cantonese was used in a positive manner to reinforce the instructions for activities and to bridge difficult concepts. This method of bridging concepts through code-switching was used as a resource throughout the project. Finally and most importantly, the approach was seen to be positive by all the English teachers and has been included as part of the writing programme in the general English curriculum, making it possible to develop the above ideas and results. Conclusion This paper has described an activity-based genre-approach to teaching writing to students with Learning Disabilities, an approach we found to be suitable to deal with low English proficiency that is typically found in this population. The genre approach, paired with a sequenced and well-structured teaching methodology, within a motivating theme of activities, can be an effective way to teach writing to students. The approach clearly assists students to organize their writing and understand the nature of a text within an activity based context with texts that can be deconstructed and reconstructed using concrete examples. Teaching low proficiency as well as LD students to write by developing rhetorical awareness will remain a significant challenge within ESL and EFL contexts. We need to build what could be described as hybrid pedagogies, drawing from the relevant research in both English language teaching and special education and marrying approaches together to provide teachers with a battery of strategies to utilize in the classroom. In this paper we demonstrate how we combined, modified and applied a positive learning environment, for students who are generally stereotyped as underachievers. We hope teachers who read this paper would be encouraged to do the same.
This project was funded by a Departmental Research Grant (G-T800) from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University


(forthcoming, Oct 2007) English Language Teaching Journal

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