How to Plan for Effective Genre Instruction

how to plan for genre teaching

I’m in the middle of running the Writing Traits Masterclass at the moment (and LOVING it!) and I’ve had lots of questions about planning for genre instruction.

So, here’s my 5-step guide for planning for effective genre instruction (with a little treat at the end).

Step 1: Familairise yourself with the genre

Before you begin ANY genre planning you need to spend time collecting samples of writing in that genre.

These samples don’t all have to be published texts either. They can be samples of student writing, magazine articles, newsletter items, website pages, podcast interviews, flyers spotted in the community or even examples from teacher reference books, such as Lori Jamison-Rogg’s The Write Genre.

You want to collect as many samples of the genre as you can to help you develop clarity on what the genre can look like.

That’s right- what is CAN look like, not what it ‘DOES’ look like!

You see, contrary to what many school writing programs tout, there actually isn’t a one-size fits all model for each genre.

Take persuasive writing for example; if you go out looking in the real world for examples of persuasive writing, you’ll find that the classic three-paragraph essay ‘hamburgered’ between an introduction and a conclusion is actually not the only way to write and effective persuasive piece. Who knew!?

We need to be telling our students the truth about writing and that means approaching genre from a much broader perspective than simple one-size fits all recipe for each genre.

Once you’ve collected a bunch of different samples of writing in the genre, you should discuss these with your colleagues; compare and contrast each sample in order to find the common features of effective pieces of writing in that genre.

Your focus here is developing absolute clarity about the different elements that are unique to the genre you’ll be teaching. What makes one piece more effective than another? What insights can you gain that might be useful when working with your students?

Once you’ve used these texts to help build your content knowledge, you’ll be able to put them aside to use them as mentor texts with students as well.

Step 2: Write in the genre yourself

Don’t even THINK about scrolling past this step!

You absolutely MUST do this.

Why?

When you write in the genre yourself, you’ll gain invaluable insight into both the genre and writing in general.

You’ll no longer be a bumbling imposter.

After writing just one piece yourself you’ll be able to teach the genre with confidence, credibility and nous.

Questions to consider as you are writingHow this will help with your teaching
How did you come up with your idea for writing? This will enable you to speak with authority to students about how they can come up with their own ideas.
What knowledge did you draw on when you were writing? Eg. knowledge of the structure of the genre, topic knowledge, knowledge of language features or even writing process knowledge.This will give you a heads up on the knowledge your students will need to be equipped with in order to write successfully. It’ll also give you a better idea about when this knowledge would be most helpful in the writing process.
What were the challenges of writing in this genre? This’ll assist you to preempt challenges your students might have and help you to provide both preventative and just-in-time measures to support them.
What would have made the task of writing in this genre easier/more successful? Your responses here will form the considerations you have in mind when planning and teaching your unit.

You don’t have to make your writing piece perfect and it doesn’t even need to be published.

You just have to force yourself to sit down and have a go.

A couple of tips for this:

  1. Don’t skip this step.
  2. Composing a piece of writing in your mind while having a shower is NOT the same as writing it down. (Fine, you can brainstorm in the shower, in fact I highly recommend this, but you MUST follow through by putting your pen on the paper and actually writing.)
  3. This step needs to be done BEFORE you start planning your genre unit. The lessons you learn from this should guide what and how you plan.
  4. Don’t skip this step.

As Mem Fox says:

“If we are not writers ourselves, we will not know, we will not be able to understand, we will not remember that writing is a process, a slow process, an arduous process at times, requiring draft upon draft. And we might therefore teach in an asinine fashion, making ridiculous demands such as: I want this handed up by tomorrow.”

(Cited in Turbill, Barton & Brock, 2015)

Step 3: Have students do a cold-write in the genre

What’s a cold-write?

It’s when you ask students to have a go at writing a piece in the new genre before you’ve given them explicit instruction in that genre. It’s used as a way of giving you information about what they already know about that genre and about writing in general.

Before you start planning the teaching that will happen as part of your genre instruction, you need to work out what the students in this year’s class actually need you to teach them.

  • What do they already know?
  • What DON’T they need you to teach them?
  • In which areas can you strengthen their writing?

Too often, teacher planning for genre instruction happens without consideration for the needs of the current students.

Unfortunately, this is a common problem across all areas of teaching, with one researcher finding that 50-60% of material taught in a lesson is already known by students (Nuthall cited in Hattie & Clarke, 2019).

50-60%!

You can easily remove yourself from being part of that statistic by spending time learning the strengths and stretches of your students BEFORE you start planning your teaching.

Step 4: Set goals for your genre unit

You’d think it goes without saying but…once the students have completed the cold-write, you need to read their writing.  All of it.

You are looking for recurring patterns as well as individual needs.

Here, I suggest jotting your observations on a two-column chart:

What don’t we need to teach them
(i.e what do they already know?)
Where could we nudge them forward?
(i.e what do they need to know now?)




Using the information from your two-column chart, I suggest you create a list of 4-6 goals for your unit.

Consider: What do you want to see MORE or LESS of in their warm-write at the end of the unit?

Remember: you can’t teach them everything there is to know about the genre in one writing unit.

You need to do less and do it well!

Some examples:

By the end of the unit students will have developed their capacity to:

  • add specific detail to their writing to create a strong picture in their reader’s mind
  • craft a relevant and engaging lead
  • include specific technical vocabulary to show their knowledge on the topic
  • experiment with the use of compound and complex sentences

The goals that you create will give you the focus for your teaching across the unit.

Because these goals direct the focus of all the lessons you take in the unit, they can help cure any bouts of “this-looks-like-a-fun-activity-itis” (when you plan your teaching based on ‘fun activities’ rather than by focusing on achieving overarching goals).

Basically, if a teaching suggestion or activity won’t help you and your students to achieve the goals you’ve set, it needs to be crossed off the planner (irrespective of how ‘fun’ it would be!)

(It’s all about clarity!)

Step 5: Consider the end (assessment)

With knowledge of your genre, students and unit goals in hand, you’re well placed to consider how you will assess students’ growth across your genre unit.

Don’t be tempted to print off someone else’s premade rubric or assessment criteria here.

Effective assessment is about measuring the growth and development gained as a result of the teaching and learning throughout the unit.

The assessment therefore needs to be crafted to measure students’ progress against the specific unit goals you set in step 4.

It doesn’t make sense to teach students all about developing strong leads and adding clarifying details if your assessment rubric is focused on assessing their ability to use synonyms and adverbs.

Alignment is critical.

A word on mentor texts

Mentor texts provide students with the “show don’t tell” of writing: “Oh, that’s what it looks like in real writing! NOW I get it!”

A hot tip on finding mentor texts: The piece you wrote yourself will be one of the BEST mentor texts you can use with your students:

  1. It makes the students think you know what you’re on about.
  2. It helps the students to think that if you (a mere mortal) can write like that, maybe they can too.
Oz Lit Teacher mentor texts

Another way of finding good mentor texts is by putting a call out on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group. As has been demonstrated time and time again in this group, ask for assistance and you’ll be surprised with the generosity and helpfulness of all the other members.

Finally, I’ve just updated the mentor text list available for people who sign up to my email list. This has been a HUGE amount of work (but a complete labour of love).

I’ve reviewed 95 (mostly Australian) texts and provided suggestions on the writing traits and reading comprehension strategies they would be useful for teaching.

The best thing about this updated list is that I’ve now separated the books into both year level and genre to make it easier for you to find good quality texts (and help reduce the reliance on American books in Australian classrooms).

To get your hands on a copy, just head over to the sign up page. (Already on my list? You should have received a link to download the list in this week’s email update).

References

  • Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2019). Visible Learning Feedback. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Turbill, J., Barton, G., & Brock, C. (2015). Teaching Writing in Today’s Classrooms (pp. 8-9). Norwood: Australian Literacy Educator’s Association.
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