October 2013
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Nigel A. Caplan, University of Delaware, Delaware, USA

I had two degrees before I knew what a thesis statement was, and I am not sure I have ever consciously written a topic sentence. That is not to say my papers never had a thesis nor that I write in a stream of consciousness, but I had never considered the formal features of what is reductively called “the academic essay” until I had to teach from a traditional L2 writing textbook. Suddenly, I had to demand a formulaic structure for every assignment, restrict the number of paragraphs, and anticipate endless repetition. The results were mediocre: My weaker students produced dull essays devoid of analysis, creativity, and voice. My strongest student was driven to tears trying to fit her complex, original thoughts into a straightjacket of conventions. There had to be a better way to teach writing.

For some years after this, I would present with my colleagues at conferences, railing against the five-paragraph essay. We were often preaching to the choir: fellow teachers who needed to hear affirmation that paragraphs are less important than ideas, thesis statements irrelevant without an argument, and topic sentences only one aspect of cohesion. However, from time to time, a skeptical voice from the back would ask, “If we don’t teach the five-paragraph essay, what should we teach?” I now have an answer to that valid question: We should teach genres. And that’s my thesis.

This article consolidates the ideas about genre in L2 writing that I have presented recently at TESOL and elsewhere, along with theories and research from the 2012 Genre Studies conference at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Handouts from my presentations are available on my blog.1

The essential difference between traditional ESL and genre-based writing pedagogies is that a genre approach requires far greater attention to the context of writing. The five-paragraph essay model with its predictable structure, neat connecting lines, and suggested word counts per paragraph (Reid, 2000) is generic and decontextualized: it implies that one model will fit all assignments. While this can be a useful tool, especially in timed persuasive essays, the five-paragraph essay quickly breaks down: What is the thesis for a narrative, and why would the writer give away the message of the story at the end of the first paragraph? Why does a procedural text need a thesis, given that thesis means an argument (“only in this way shall you make the perfect egg salad!”)? If a writer has two really good supporting ideas, does one need to be split up to meet the tripartite structure? Or, as one student nervously asked me, is it ever acceptable to write six paragraphs?

By contrast, researchers in the various schools of genre studies (Hyon, 1996) contend that communication can only occur within genres because “we cannot not mean genres” (Martin, 2009). Genre theories are sociocultural in origin: That is, they are concerned with the role that writing (the action and the outcome) plays in different cultural contexts (Martin & Rose, 2008). This week, for instance, I have written e-mails to colleagues, friends, new acquaintances, and my director; messages on discussion lists; TESOL conference proposals for three different session types; data analyses and reports; a PowerPoint presentation; a textbook chapter; Facebook status updates; blog comments; feedback on student papers; and this article. Each task required me to choose an appropriate form and medium, use different sets of conventions (including paragraphing), select relevant information at an appropriate level of detail, and adopt an effective register. To generalize across these tasks would be futile. To apply a five-paragraph essay model would be ineffective. To write them all in the same style would be catastrophic. Context is everything.

The 2012 Carleton conference brought together researchers and practitioners representing the three traditional schools of genre studies, and many other related approaches. Rather than reconciling differences, this had the effect of highlighting differences between the various theories, which stimulated thought-provoking dialogue and often fierce questioning after the plenary speeches. Although reconciling the different approaches is beyond my scope and capacity, several common themes emerged that can guide teachers of L2 writing.

First and foremost, there is no single written product that can usefully be called “the essay.” There are many types of essay, and they vary enormously across disciplines and even over time. Furthermore, essays are not the only form of academic writing. Nesi and Gardner (2012), for example, identified 13 “families” of genres in an extensive review of undergraduate writing in British universities. In the tradition of the systemic functional linguistics (SFL) orientation to genre studies, they divide the “essay” family into its constituent genres (cf. Rose & Martin, 2012): challenge, commentary, consequential or factorial essay, discussion, and exposition (argument). Each genre has its own staging and purpose, and each is very different from other academic assignments, such as literature reviews, critiques, and design proposals. At the graduate level, Cooper and Bikowski (2007) found that only 7% of courses across 20 disciplines assigned “essays.” Even the most common assignment in their study, the research paper, has been shown to be not a fixed genre but a “loose” label that covers at least two quite different tasks (Melzer, 2009; Samraj, 2004).

One reason for this variation is that genres emerge from and are inextricably embedded in academic disciplines. Consequently, as Elizabeth Wardle (2009) has argued, attempts to teach them outside their native habitats risk devolving into mindless mimicry, genres whose purpose is just “to write the genre.” The resulting “mutt genres” are empty because they have been divorced of their social function: to create and transmit knowledge between members of a disciplinary discourse community (Wardle, 2009). This raises difficult questions for ESL, and especially English for academic purposes (EAP), teachers. Is it possible to teach the underlying skills of academic writing outside the context of an actual content-area graduate or undergraduate class? Many scholars in rhetorical genre studies would resist such generic genre teaching (e.g., Miller, 1984), but others are more hopeful that genres can be effectively taught in sheltered classes.

Exactly how to teach genres, and do so effectively, is an ongoing debate. The SFL approach argues that all students need to expand their linguistic repertoires in order to write in genres that will recur and be recombined in different contexts (Rose & Martin, 2012). EAP, on the other hand, holds that ESL teachers can help students investigate, understand, and learn the genres that meet the communicative needs of their current or future fields of study (Feak & Caplan, 2013). In addition to the grammatical patterns that are typical of academic writing in most fields (Caplan, 2012c), students can be taught the strategies that successful writers in their major or discipline employ. More important, as Chris Feak demonstrated in our TESOL workshop (Feak & Caplan, 2013), graduate students in particular should be compiling their own minicorpora for each key genre in their discipline and using the data to challenge, confirm, or extend the advice in their textbooks and ESL classes. This is more fraught, but not impossible, for undergraduate students, who may have to negotiate genres across multiple disciplines. However, the need for students to develop versatility and genre awareness (Johns, 1997) remains, even if the full range of writing contexts cannot be predicted.

Both the EAP and SFL, therefore, eschew generic formulae on the basis that “students should have clear guidelines for how to construct the different kinds of texts they have to write” (Hyland, 2004). Therefore, genres are taught through their typical organization, or staging, although the stages may be defined differently. (Roughly, SFL looks for linguistic patterns, while EAP examines the shifting communicative purposes in a text.) For instance, Swales & Feak (2012) teach the typical structures of general-specific, specific-general, and problem-solution texts, as well as “sub-genres” such as data commentaries and research paper introductions. In my contribution to the Carleton conference, I proposed a genre structure of MBA case write-ups in the context of the business school at my institution (Caplan, 2012b). These stages are not immutable formulae that can be applied regardless of context, and they do not necessarily correspond to paragraphs. They are functional in particular social contexts in order to achieve specific communicative goals (Rose & Martin, 2012). Furthermore, certain linguistic resources (grammar and vocabulary) can be identified as characteristic of each stage, so that genre and language can and should be taught and learned together.

One of the most widely implemented genre-based writing pedagogies is Rothery’s (1996) Teaching-Learning Cycle (TLC). The TLC is a model for curriculum design that differs significantly from process writing, as David Rose explained in his plenary address at Carleton: Process writing starts with learners’ current stage of linguistic, conceptual, and rhetorical development (brainstorm everything you know now), which teachers then have to remediate through feedback and successive drafts. The TLC, by contrast, starts with the target and then supports learners’ development towards that goal; genre staging and language are taught in the context of a “shared experience,” (Martin, 2009) and learners only write independently when they are ready to succeed (Rose, 2012). Specifically, instruction begins with “deconstruction” of multiple exemplars of the target genre in which students, guided by the teacher, deduce the required and optional staging of the genre, build “field” (content knowledge), and develop pertinent grammar and vocabulary. Next, students work in groups or as a class to write a new text in the same genre together, the teacher recasting their sentences and modeling effective writing strategies (“joint construction;” see Caplan, 2012a). Finally, they are prepared for the independent writing stage and then another iteration of the cycle. This text-based approach helps students understand the choices writers make, the constraints genres impose, and the variation that occurs between instances of the same genre.

The last step in Rothery’s (1996) original version of the TLC was to compare the genre to others that are similar or different to the one that has been taught in order to encourage students to build a repertoire of genres. This raises one of the thorniest debates in the genre community: Can we teach for (positive) genre transfer? The underlying assumption behind the generic five-paragraph essay is that the decontextualized skills it practices—rather than the surface form itself—will unproblematically transfer to the real world, the university classroom, or at least next assignment. In this way, the essay students write comparing their best friend and their sibling will somehow enable them to write an essay discussing the differences between Kant’s Theory of Freedom and Hume’s (Nesi & Gardner, 2012, p. 100). This is at best optimistic, as any teacher can attest who has asked a student, “Didn’t you learn this last semester?” Even if such transfer were possible and useful, Elizabeth Wardle observed at CCCC that her undergraduate students treated each assignment as isolated and unlike any other (cf. Wardle, 2009). That is, they could not see how to transfer the writing skills that the five-paragraph essay purports to teach (organization, cohesion, supporting ideas, etc.). In a fascinating piece of research reported at Carleton and at CCCC, Amy Devitt and Anis Bawarshi found that even when high-school students did transfer genres that had been successful for them before—their “genre baggage” (Devitt, 2012)—they wrote ineffectively in their university courses because college professors do not want to receive five-paragraph essays (see also Reiff & Bawarshi, 2011). That is, students had learned the formula so well that they were unwilling or unable to recognize that new educational contexts required new genres.

In conclusion, here is a partial answer to the question of what we should teach if we break our unhealthy attachment to generic writing. Writers need explicit instruction in (some of) the genres they will encounter. They need tools for identifying and analyzing writing tasks and assignments, understanding how they are similar to and different from their prior genre knowledge. They need a broad linguistic repertoire and the ability to make appropriate choices in the right registers to instantiate their target genres. They need practice constructing meaningful texts in authentic genres through content-based instruction. And in place of formulae, restrictions, and the usual commandments of good writing, they need to be shown George Orwell’s (1946) final rule of writing: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”


1 There is much more to be said about the wide and growing field of genre studies. A more thorough introduction to and justification of genre-based writing pedagogies can be found in resources such as Hyland (2004), Hyon (1996), Rose & Martin (2012), Swales (1990), and Swales & Feak (2012), among many others.


Caplan, N. A. (2012a, September). Collaborative writing in the preparation of ESL graduate students. Paper presented at the Symposium on Second Language Writing, Purdue University, Lafayette, IN.

Caplan, N. A. (2012b, June). Genre and cognition in an MBA program. Paper presented at Genre 2012: An International Conference on Genre Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Caplan, N. A. (2012c). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Cooper, A., & Bikowski, D. (2007). Writing at the graduate level: What tasks do professors actually require? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6(3), 206–221.

Devitt, A. (2012, March). Genre baggage. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, St. Louis, MO.

Feak, C. B., & Caplan, N. A. (2013, March). Teaching the genres of graduate writing. Workshop at the 2013 TESOL Annual Convention, Dallas, TX.

Hyland, K. (2004). Genre and second language writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Hyon, S. (1996). Genre in three traditions: Implications for ESL. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 693–722.

Johns, A. M. (1997). Text, role and context: Developing academic literacies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, J. R. (2009). Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective. Linguistics and Education, 20(1), 10–21.

Martin, J.R. & Rose, D. (2008). Genre Relations: Mapping Culture. London: Equinox.

Melzer, D. (2009). Writing assignments across the curriculum: A national study of college writing. College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 240–261.

Nesi, H., & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English language. Horizon, 13(75), 252–264.

Reid, J. M. (2000). The Process of Composition (3rd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson.

Reiff, M. J., & Bawarshi, A. (2011). Tracing discursive resources: How students use prior genre knowledge to negotiate new writing contexts in first-year composition. Written Communication, 28(3), 312–337.

Rose, D. (2012, June 28). Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. Paper presented at the Genre 2012 Conference, Ottawa, Canada.

Rose, D. & J.R. Martin (2012). Learning to Write, Reading to Learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. London: Equinox.

Rothery, J. (1996). Making changes: Developing an educational linguistics. In R. Hasan & G. Williams (Eds.), Literacy in society (pp. 86–123). Harlow, England: Longman.

Samraj, B. (2004). Discourse features of the student-produced academic research paper: variations across disciplinary courses. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 3(1), 5–22.

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

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Wardle, E. (2009). “Mutt genres” and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write the genres of the university? College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 765–789.

Nigel A. Caplan is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute located in Newark, Delaware in the United States. His research interests include genre-based pedagogy, collaborative writing, and support for matriculated ESL university students. Nigel is also the author of several textbooks, including Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers (Michigan, 2012) and two levels in a genre-based writing series, to be published in 2014.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed