Developing Students’ Genre Awareness

By Jennifer Fletcher

The first time I used an emoticon in a work email it just felt wrong. Years of being told to follow the “rules” of business communications—no exclamation points, nothing cutesy or personal—made that little smiley face seem like an act of rebellion. But I was far from being a rebel. The slang, sentence fragments, and dropped salutations and signature lines that eventually began to characterize my emails were part of a widespread shift toward more casual language in the workplace. I used an emoticon only after repeatedly seeing my colleagues do this and realizing that the conventions of work emails had clearly changed.

Noticing When Genre Conventions Change

Genre awareness—i.e, attention to the social purposes of different genres and genre features—is important because genres change. Linguist John Swales talks about “living genres,” forms of writing that continually morph and evolve (110). This is why our expectations for different genres need to be adaptable, too. Just because business letters or research papers were written a certain way back when we were in school, doesn’t mean the genre has remained frozen in time.

Whether new (e.g., Twitter chats) or old (e.g., parliamentary debates), flexible (e.g., science fiction novels) or relatively fixed (e.g., a research abstracts), all genres bear traces of the collective decision-making process that mark distinct forms of communication. Rhetoricians define genre as “a typified response to a recurring rhetorical situation” (Miller 23). As the rhetorical situations common to a discourse community change, the ways its members communicate change, too.

In long-lived genres like the research paper, some conventions come in and out of fashion. First-person narrative, for instance, has shifted from being a key feature of this genre (documenting the individual researcher’s skill), to being almost entirely absent from the genre, to once again being a popular convention associated with this form of writing. In these changes, we see historical shifts in attitudes towards the roles of researchers. Improvements in research methods and instruments in the 19th and 20th centuries meant valid findings no longer depended on the distinct and exceptional abilities of star scholars. Fast forward to our own postmodern age, and we’ve seen the return of the first person narrative in research papers in candid acknowledgment of the limits of objectivity. Social change drives genre change. 

Classroom Applications

Rhetorician Elizabeth Wardle explains why teaching genre awareness and analysis is more important than teaching genre knowledge (i.e., the “facts” about particular genres): “Recent findings about the nature of genre suggest that genres are context-specific and complex and cannot be easily or meaningfully mimicked outside their naturally occurring rhetorical situations and exigencies” (767). In other words, we need to study living genres in their natural settings. We need to notice how genres work: what they do, why they do this, and how they change. The graphic organizer that follows guides students through the process of genre analysis.

The value of genre awareness is what students learn about the process of analyzing a mentor text in preparation for writing in that genre and situation themselves, not a stock notion of what, for instance, a “short story” or an “argument essay” looks like. The goal is not so much the ability to classify texts as to learn from contextualized models. See my Genre Feature Analysis Matrix under the “Resources” tab on the blog for another activity you can try with your students.

I love the tips for teaching genre awareness Anne Beaufort shares in College Writing and Beyond:

  • Type up a horoscope in poem format (short lines/verses). Ask a student to read this “poem.” Then reveal the true genre and discuss how one’s mental schema for a genre influences the way one reads and interprets texts.
  • Give students a short reading selection without disclosing the source. Ask them to infer the genre, then discuss its properties and how that influences the meaning of the text.
  • After students have collected multiple examples of a genre, analyzed the genre, and have written in that genre, have small groups write a “how to” guide for composing in this genre that other writers can use. (Beaufort 178-179).

Beaufort’s book offers lots of engaging, inquiry-based activities like these.

Cultivating Independent Writers

Genre awareness also enables students to take a principled approach to rhetorical decision-making. In Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being, Deborah Dean explains, “Once students understand the social aspects of genres, they can begin to consider the implications of choosing to follow or to resist the expectations associated with those expectations” (27). Strategic resistance to audience expectations—especially when those expectations deny students the right to their own language resources—can be one of the most important choices students can make.

It’s not our job to give students step-by-step formulas for writing in particular genres. It’s our job to help students learn how to learn how to write in diverse genres and settings (Beaufort 15). That involves learning how to navigate—and sometimes even change—the social aspects of genres.

A Special Note to Colleagues Attending NCTE 2022:

I am very excited to be presenting at NCTE 2022 in Anaheim on 11/18 and 11/20! Please DM me on Twitter or stop by any of my sessions if you’d like to meet. I’d love to chat with you!

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title:  Fire and Words: Igniting Equitable Writing Instruction

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 3:30 PM PST – 4:45 PM PST
Location: 202-A

Sunday November 20, 2022

Event Title:  “Unseen: Our Past in a New Light”: Theoretical Perspectives on Literary Occlusion

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 9:00 AM PST – 10:15 AM PST
Location: 210-CD

Event Title:  Cultivating Compositional Agility: Shining a Light on Learning that Transfers

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 10:30 AM PST – 11:45 AM PST
Location: 202-A

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Works Cited

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond. Utah State University Press, 2007.

Dean, Deborah. Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being. National Council of Teachers of English, 2008.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, pp. 151–67.

Swales, John. 1990. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “ ‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 765–789.

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