Monday, November 23, 2015

Genre Writing, Courtesy of Nigel Caplan

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

How great is it to be an ESL/EFL teacher? To me, it’s absolutely amazing to have worked in a field for as many years as I have and to still be learning new things. I suspect you might feel that way too, no matter how long you’ve been teaching, because you are reading this blog. Anyway, a few weeks ago, there I was in a professional development workshop organized by my school, listening to the dynamic and engaging presenter Nigel Caplan talk about writing, and becoming giddy about learning something new.

Now, these days I don’t teach many writing classes, but I found what he had to say really interesting and potentially applicable to other skills. My two big “take-aways” from Nigel’s presentation were related to (1) genre writing and (2) collaborative writing. Today, I’ll share what I learned about genre writing. Stay posted for more on collaborative writing in my next post.

What Kind of Writing?

Nigel began his presentation by pointing out that when we write, we write in genres. He cited Hyland (2004) when he explained what he meant by the term genre. Specifically, genres are easily recognized by members of a community, they serve a social purpose, and they demonstrate a recurring way of using language. For example, right now I am writing in a blogging genre. You would not mistake this post for, say, an email to a friend or a text or a PhD thesis. Why not? Well, because you recognize certain linguistic patterns associated with the Teacher Talk blog, like the abundance of subtitles, the limited word count, the English Language Teaching (ELT) subject matter, the familiar tone, and so on. Also, this blog serves a social purpose; it is a place to share information with other ESL and EFL instructors about all things ELT.

Down with the Five Paragraph Essay!

After establishing a definition of the word genre, Nigel proceeded to ask, if we write in genres and there are a bazillion different genres, many of them potentially very useful for our students, why do most writing classes focus on the five paragraph essay? I have to admit, when Nigel started to bash the five paragraph essay, I got my back up a little. Aren’t they useful? Don’t students need them when they go to university?

Well, when I really thought about it, no, they don’t. So ask yourself, when was the last time you wrote a five paragraph essay? I do a lot of writing for my job and for pleasure, and honestly, I can’t remember when the last time was. This past week alone, I’ve written emails (way, way too many emails), texts, a job description, some ongoing work on a chapter for an academic tome on the teaching of pronunciation, some lesson plans, a couple of PowerPoint presentations, minutes from a meeting, advising sheets for students to prepare for Spring registration, an application to conduct a research project next semester at my school and, well, you get the idea. I did a lot of writing. However, at no point did I even come close to writing a five paragraph essay. Even university students, who also do a lot of writing, don’t tend to write many five paragraph essays. They write essays on final exams that don’t adhere to the rigid five paragraph essay format and they write multi-page papers which are also not five paragraphs essays. In fact, it is just as Nigel said, “My challenge is to find a five paragraph essay in the wild.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with teaching students to write academically and a five paragraph essay can be a nice vehicle for this. But, we are not preparing students for the rich and varied writing they’ll do outside the ESL/EFL classroom very well if we ONLY teach them to write five paragraph essays. Instead, Nigel contends, we need to expose students to other genres.

Genres Step by Step

Well, Nigel would probably love it if you bought his textbooks, Inside Writing. We are using it in our program and our students like it a lot. However, if that won’t work in your teaching context, it would be useful to follow a few simple steps. First, find out what writing your students currently have to do or will have to do in the future. Second, provide several examples of the genres that are most important to your students. Third, go through the samples with students and illuminate the patterns that emerge.

For instance, if your students are interested in getting a job, perhaps they would benefit from exposure to the genre of cover letter writing. After handing out a sample of a good, typical cover letter, read through it with your students. Discuss the appearance of the letter, how long it is, the format. Also, ask them to identify the purpose of each of the paragraphs. Ask them specific, leading questions about the word and grammar choices of the author. Try to draw students’ attention to all of the things that make a good cover letter. Once they’ve seen a few strong samples, they are ready to move on to the next step, collaborative writing.


Caplan, N. and Bixby, J. (2014). Inside Writing 4. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Caplan, N. and Bixby, J. (2014). Inside Writing 2. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hyland, K. (2004). Genre and Second Language Writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


Pingback from Teacher Talk » Collaborative Writing, Courtesy of Nigel Caplan
November 30, 2015 at 2:05 pm

[…] my most recent blog post, I wrote about the workshop Nigel Caplan recently delivered for teachers at my school. He […]

Pingback from Inside my genre-based writing presentation! | Nigel "Teacher" Caplan
December 2, 2015 at 11:21 am

[…] was there, but if you weren’t, you might enjoy reading about how she was converted to genre-based writing and the teaching/learning cycle. Thanks for the kind shout-out, […]

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