Writing as a Social Act: A Genre-based Approach to Writing Pedagogy in the Foreign Lang. Classroom

As both students and instructors of foreign languages move into intermediate- and advanced-level courses, they participate in increasingly more complex interactions with each other and also with the texts that they study and create. Students in the second-year French program (French 3 and 4) are expected to work equally in the four areas of language study: speaking, listening, reading, and writing, preparing them for more critical discussions, reading, and writing. This last area is frequently the most challenging for students as “the social struggles in which the self is implicated through the act of writing” (Ivanic 1998: 2) can be laid bare. Students as writers are engaged with identity work involving relationships with their own native languages, the target language, and language in general. The semiotic potential that exists at all levels of language, from phonological representations to pragmatics, becomes more transparent as words and phrases take shape through the physicality of the written text. Implicit in this type of work are cultural values and expectations as well as writing habits that these cultures inform and shape. This process of writing in a foreign language offers students and instructors the unique opportunity to analyze specific writing genres that are culturally embedded and socially reconstructed through their very use.

Project Rationale and Process
In this particular project, I wanted to develop an online collection of writing lessons and activities that build on the existing writing curriculum in the second year French language program in order to enable instructors to teach different genres of composition effectively. Currently, students produce up to six formal compositions a semester in a variety of genres, yet a rich discussion of these culturally and historically embedded forms of writing has not traditionally been part of formal lesson plans. These activities provide instructors and students with a shared metalanguage for discussing the elements of composition in various genres, allowing students to gain a broad understanding of different discourse models in writing as well as to strengthen discrete components of their writing systematically. Ultimately, the use of these tools during classroom interaction provides a meaningful way for instructors and students to discuss not only the constraints of specific writing genres but also the historical and cultural constraints that have shaped their forms and usage.

I envisioned the work of the semester to move through these stages:
1. Literature Review of Genre Analysis in ESP and ESL contexts
2. Interviews with graduate students, language coordinators, and professors in language departments and College Writing Program
3. Creation of digital and print graphic organizers and text-based writing lesson extensions to foreground conventions and contextualized use of writing genres
4. Pilot and review the use of selected graphic organizers and writing lesson ideas in French 3 sections during Fall 2010
5. Provide web-friendly versions of materials to Second Year Language Coordinator for addition to the student and instructor websites

Through regular meetings with French 3 instructors and the language coordinator, I was hoping to receive immediate feedback on lesson implementations as well as their reflective critiques that would lead to the refinement of these lessons as the language coordinator added them to the online curriculum available to both instructors and students.

Genres, Writing, and Identity Work: Theoretical Underpinnings
For this project, I focused on the working notion of genre as referring both to a kind of text and to a class of events or social activities that help people create and interpret particular texts (Paltridge 2001: 2). This latter definition offers a rich invitation to the work that can be done in a foreign language classroom as students and instructors sort through significant yet unfamiliar, culturally rooted structures for organizing and understanding information. As instructors ask their students to create texts in genres that emerge from the target language and culture, the opportunity for students to place those genres in specific times and places as well as “to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture” (MLA Report 2007: 4) enriches the writing process for these burgeoning foreign language writers.

As students use the lens of the Other in learning about linguistic and organizational forms in the target culture, they are able “to recognize that they are involved in a process of self-attribution: forging their own allegiances to particular traditions and sets of values by their language choices” (Ivanic 1998: 3). Ivanic underscores the complicated process that this forging of allegiances and the reevaluation of those allegiances presents to the L2 writer; she reminds instructors and students to be mindful of “the tension between the freedom people have to identify with particular subject positions through their selection among discoursal resources, and the socially determined restrictions on those choices” (Ibid.: 11). This tension can be eased through direct instruction of both the forms of distinct writing genres and the cultural contexts in which those genres have existed.

Developing Writing Tools: Building Bridges without Reinventing the Wheel
Over the course of the semester, I met with a variety of instructors of writing from several departments to form a global understanding of the ways in which writing is taught on campus.  I was hoping to see what bridges between departments, if any, existed regarding the instruction of genres in writing. Through interviews with instructors in the College Writing Program and in language departments such as Near Eastern Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, German, and French, I gained insight into the complicated relationship that language instructors have with the instruction of writing. I asked the same set of questions to instructors in each department:
• What are your/the department’s desired outcomes for student achievement in writing?
• How do you assess student writing in the target language?
• What is the overall vision for Lower Division writing in the target language?

Specifically, instructors and professors alike cited the difficulty in presenting to their students genres strongly associated with foreign cultures and which may seem alien to students at an American university. Although writing provides a site for the intersection of language and culture, instructors appear to be at a crossroads of how to balance the demands of teaching both the language of writing and the culture of writing. If, after all, “each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions” (Bakhtin 1981: 273-274), how does the language instructor invite students to learn not only form but the intentions that “populate” these forms?

The College Writing Program situates the study of writing genres squarely into its curriculum. In meetings with instructors in this program, I asked about any implications in foreign language instruction that their work might suggest. While discussions in College Writing classes might not focus on the national or ethnic social values present in the ongoing use and variation of those text types, students do learn the significance of specific text types in different academic and disciplinary cultures. It is this type of presentation that gets lost in a foreign language writing lesson during which many discrete aspects of language and form impose on the time of the lesson, relegating to the sidelines a discussion of the implications of uses of specific text types. It is precisely in these discussions where students and instructors alike can find meaning and value in “the ability to operate between languages” and in “critical language awareness” (MLA Report 2007: 3-4).

Tackling One Specific Genre

Writing as a Social Act: A Genre-based Approach to Writing Pedagogy in the Foreign Lang. Classroom

Figure 1. Graphic Organizer: Explication de texte

The work being done in the College Writing Program complements the vision in the French Department, where effective communication in all aspects of language learning is at the core of the department’s Undergraduate Student Learning Initiatives. Over the course of the semester, as I created support lessons that drew upon thematic units in the French 3 syllabus, I was able to pilot drafts of writing activities in several course sections. In monthly meetings, instructors provided feedback on the value and efficiency of the newly created activities. For example, as instructors presented the explication de texte1to their students, they provided graphic organizers in both digital and print forms (Figure 1) which not only presented the step-by-step workings of this genre but also its function in the cultural and scholastic tradition in French schools. This type of lesson offers much to these intermediate students of French: an understanding of what and why they are learning; a glimpse into a hallowed scholastic tradition in the target culture; and familiarity with a writing genre which they may be expected to replicate if they should study abroad in a French-speaking university.

Feedback from both instructors and the BLC Fellows illuminated potential problems in the instruction of genres, particularly when studying poetry. Specifically, the formal, conventionalized structures of a prescribed explication de texte could lead to a paint-by-numbers scenario for developing writers if they believe that the genres that they study are fossilized and inflexible formulas. Discussions with instructors and the fellows presented alternative ways to underline the patterns in genres that have both easily identifiable characteristics as well as unfixed elements, allowing for student creativity within a more flexible structure. By using critical thinking during every step of the writing process in a foreign language, from the selection of appropriate genre to the use of an expansive toolkit appropriate to that genre, students are able to develop strong analytic and writing skills in the target language, skills which are transferable to academic writing in their native languages in other disciplines. My project has made opportunities for this sort of critical thinking more readily available through clear explanations and samples that help students and instructors understand the value that a genre-based writing pedagogy could offer them (see Figure 2 for a sample comparison of a classically “American” style of argumentation and a classically “French” style).

1A methodical style of textual analysis, particularly used for poetry analysis, in which the poem is parsed minutely, with attention given to how the presence each individual element creates an overall aesthetic value of the text. This particular genre is a hallmark of the French scholastic tradition in the presentation of French literary poetry.

Writing as a Social Act: A Genre-based Approach to Writing Pedagogy in the Foreign Lang. Classroom

Figure 2. Graphic Organizer: Comparing Two Culturally Situated Types of Argumentative Writing


Instructors in the second year program of the French Department have reported the benefits of attention paid to the hows and whys of writing genres in their classes. Specifically, they have shared positive student feedback regarding the scaffolding that lessons created for different text types have provided. Identifying, modeling, and replicating genres is not a foolproof formula for creating critical writers; too much emphasis on structure in an ahistorical lesson presentation reduces the deeper understanding that students may have of genres. Indeed, by not linking the historical and cultural contexts which frame academic genres of writing to the genres that L2 writers are expected to learn, L2 writing instructors miss an opportunity to integrate culture and language instruction while satisfying students’ curiosity about the object of their study. Ultimately, students who understand the academic and cultural purposes for various writing genres have the flexibility themselves to employ them appropriately in a variety of disciplines as well as the understanding of the cultural identities that they may index. This type of learning provides yet one more example of the benefits of foreign language education in a total vision of higher education.

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Culham, R. 2003. 6+1 Traits of Writing. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.
Ivanic, R. 1998. Writing and Identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1-106.
Kern, R. 2000. Literacy and Language Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 171-218.
Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, C. 1994. ‘Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre’ in Genre and the New Rhetoric, ed. A. Freedman and P. Medway, 67-78.
MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. 2007. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
Paltridge, B. 2001. Genre and the Language Learning Classroom. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Schultz, J.M. and M.P Tranvouez. 2010. Réseau: Communication, Intégration, Intersections. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall