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In my last post I looked at Swales and his parting thought in that article called for a greater focus on learner/participant uptake and mentioned Cheng’s  ‘Understanding learners and learning in ESP genre-based writing instruction‘ as a starting point for this analysis.

Synopsis:

The impact of genre based approaches in EAP has been quite remarkable, and while it informs much of modern EAP/ ESP teaching, Cheng questions the failure of ESP genre research to fully address “what learners learn from … genre descriptions and … how they develop as learners and writers of genres in ESP” (p. 76).

Cheng divides her article into three sections. Firstly looking at previous ESP genre-based research and how it manages to underrepresent the learner and learning.Cheng embarks on a comprehensive listing of research from the ESP school of genre theory and pedogogy as it is the one that she argues has had the greatest influence on the teaching of English for specialised purposes to L2 learners. Cheng states that a number of ESP/ EAP writing teachers are of the opinion that “explicit attention to genre in teaching provides learners a concrete opportunity to acquire conceptual and cultural frameworks to undertake writing tasks beyond the courses in which such teaching occurs” (p.77). Cheng then quotes Swales’ definition of genre as “structured communicative events engaged in by specific discourse communities whose members share broad communicative purposes” (quoted on p. 77).  Cheng argues that while there is clearly a plethora of research into what defines genre theory and how genre theory translates into pedagogy, what limited investigations of how all this interacts with learners exist are often flawed.  Although Cheng admits to not being the only one to have noticed this shortcoming (she cites Johns (2002) as one other example) the case remains that the genre approach “privileges the analysis of learner’s target genre needs and the preparation of teaching materials but has relatively little to say about the actual learning by the learners who are consigned to learn in such an approach” (p.77). Cheng ends this section by calling for an equal focus on learning in genre research so that the approach fully deserves its place as one of the most effective ESP approaches.

Secondly, Cheng goes on to justify this call for action, stating that the import of documenting learning in any pedagogical approach “is almost axiomatically evident because everything that transpires in a pedagogical context has to be filtered through the learners who ultimately define the end goals of the instruction” (p. 78). She goes on to say that filling this gap in the research field is imperative in order to directly respond to the criticisms levelled at genre-based writing instruction, from sociologists of writing as well as those concerned with L2 writing (albeit outside of the realm of ESP). Cheng then goes on to criticise the critics, highlighting the limitations of their criticisms – namely that studies relied on inadequate “documentation of the processes or the contexts of learning” (p.79) or were overly reliant on “insightful student reflections” (quoting Johns and Swales 2002 p. 79). Cheng concludes this second section with a call for more “intensive efforts to study learners and learning in the ESP genre-based approach to writing” (p.80).

Finally Cheng turns her focus to ‘two deeper issues and the research opportunities they generate’. Namely focusing on the learner and secondly the deficiency within ESP to theorise ‘how’ people learn prefering instead an overemphasis of  ‘what’ people learn. Much is discussed in this section on the labelling of students. Cheng surmises that these labels could be a focus of research and that a “potentially productive research direction is to turn these labels on their head and use them as heuristics to explore the complexities of genre-based learning” (p.80). By way of an example Cheng examines what it means to be labelled an ‘advanced learner’ discussing how closer examination of the term ‘advanced’ at “three interrelated levels (definition, pedagogy and theory) can transform the term … which can direct us to a more learner- and context-sensitive research agenda” (p. 82). Very briefly, the second issue of focusing on the ‘how’ of learning can possibly be addressed by applying the tenets of the Language Awareness approach to a “concrete ESP genre-based research project” (p.86). This would, Cheng argues, “generate some meaningful research questions and provide lenses for the microgenetic analysis of data” (ibid).

Cheng concludes by observing that “elsewhere, researchers have proposed that the T(eaching) word should be put back into EAP research, given our relatively less developed understanding of teaching in EAP… equally important, if not more so, the L(earner) word also needs to be put into a more focal position in the ESP genre-based approach” (p.86).

Cheng’s article catalogues a great deal of research into genre-based pedagogy and as such is a good springboard for becoming more knowledgable about the ESP school of genre-based pedagogy in particular.

I find Cheng’s discussion of learner labels an interesting one. I, like most people, am quite particular about how I am categorised and find it contractictory that we give little thought to how we label our students. It would make for a very interesting project to discuss identity and categorisation with students themselves. Also the kind of research that Cheng is calling for needs to take into account the learner, not as a passive subject to be analysed and deconstructed, but as an active voice within the research. Learner involvement is key to any investigation of their learning.

Cheng’s overarching thesis is sound but her eulogising of the need for learner centred analysis becomes that which she is so critical of – research focused and theoretical. It also seems, sadly, to have not had the impact she aspired for. I put ‘learner’ into the search function of both the JEAP and the Journal of English for Specific Purposes and found that there are few (if any) articles with the L word in the title, let alone directly addressing the issue of the extent to which learners are actually proficient in employing the genre-based pedagogy levelled at them. Mostly the articles deemed relevant to this search focus on the teacher and teaching. Cheng does have an article in the Journal for English for Specific Purposes published in 2007, perhaps the only one in direct response to her appeal. This of course is not because Cheng’s plea is without merit, it is simply testament to how complex the area of investigating learner attainment and their ability to translate input into output is.

Much research has been done and data collected on student output (the BAWE of course and serveral articles that analyse learner corpora), however Cheng’s questioning of how well students actually translate their new found genre awareness is a poignant one. I would be very interested to know, for example, how and where the writers learnt to write their contributions to the BAWE – was it in an EAP classroom? How many are actually NNS?

I need to see whether it is possible to answer these questions. Finding some of these answers would go some way to identifying whether the genre approach that so defines current EAP and ESP teaching is actually effective for the learner. I have first hand experience of students rote learning phrases from the likes of Academic Phrasebank; which has its merits. However, students know the phrases and where they need to go, but they do not appreciate the how and in some respects the why. This is mirrored in a student’s genre awareness, they know the form but cannot apply it as effortlessly as one would hope. This makes for very ’empty’ writing, a simulacrum of a genre but without any real body, any real meaning. It’s all form over substance. This troubles me about genre-based instruction.

What I need to do then is to think about how I can unpick what troubles me and find a meaningful way to analyse whether learners actually can (or even should), not just be genre aware, but genre proficient.

Cheng, An. (2006). Understanding learners and learning in ESP genre-based writing instruction. Journal of English for Specific Purposes,  25 (1), 76-89.

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