Imagine this scene: There are a few minutes before school starts and you’re walking to your room. You see a colleague and say “Hey, how are things?” Your colleague pulls you aside and begins, “Well, I have to tell you, not too good right now. I’m having problems at home,” and then proceeds to tell you in depth about the argument he/she had with his/her spouse. How would you feel? My guess is that next time you saw that colleague coming down the hall, you might turn around and walk the other way. Why? Because your colleague violated the rules of hall talk. The only response you get to make to “How are things?” when you’re asked in the hall is some variation of, “Good, how about you?” A close friend could maybe say “I’ll have to talk with you later,” signaling that hall talk just won’t do under the circumstances. Now imagine a different scene: You meet a colleague for a drink after school and say, “Hey, how are things?” Your colleague says “Well, I have to tell you, not too good right now. I’m having problems at home,” and then proceeds to tell you in depth about the argument he/she had with his/her spouse. You wouldn’t turn and walk away. Instead you might order another drink. Hall talk and bar talk are different, you see.
This little thought experiment makes what we think is a crucially important point: our communication is patterned. Those patterns are called genres. Each genre encourages and rewards certain kinds of activity while discouraging others.
What’s true for talking is true for reading as well. When experienced readers begin a text, one of the first determinations they make is the kind of text they are reading, for that determination significantly impacts the way they go about their business. Let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine that you‘re reading the label of a new prescription that you’ve just received. Where is your focus going to be? My guess is the dosage. Now imagine that you’re reading a recipe someone just sent you. My guess is that your focus will be the list of ingredients to see if you’ll like it or maybe the time for preparation to see if you’ll undertake it. You’ll likely focus on the amount of each ingredient the recipe calls for only after you’ve decided to make it.
As experienced readers we have at least a tacit understanding of the importance of genre. As teachers we have to make that understanding explicit so we can teach our students to notice the genre of what they are reading and to use that noticing as an aid to understanding. Unfortunately, the traditional way that genre is taught in the United States doesn’t help them gain that understanding. Most textbooks regard non-fiction as single genre, distinguishing it from novels and short stories because it is “true.” This approach to genre is worrisome for two important reasons. In the first place, even a cursory look at the editorials surrounding the election unequivocally establishes that nonfiction texts take radically different positions on the same issues. How can all of those texts be true? We want our students to be critical readers of nonfiction and not just accept them as gospel. In the second place, a grouping that includes both a public service announcement and a 900 page biography is just too broad to be useful. Think about all of the differences that exist in letters, a small portion of that huge nonfiction terrain. Letters to the editor work differently than do cover letters for job applications which work differently than do letters of recommendation which work differently than do “Dear John” letters, and on and on.
The problem with the multiplicity of nonfiction genres is figuring out how we can teach them all. Genres can easily become the foundation of the curriculum. Primary schools in South Australia, for example, teach eight nonfiction genres: recount, narrative, procedure, information report, explanation, argument, discussion, and review. Secondary schools add five more. But even that much more elaborate delineation of genre doesn’t capture the variety of genres with which kids must engage. Therefore, in Diving Deep into Nonfiction, Jeff Wilhelm and I take a different tack. Rather than investigate the details of a wide variety of genres, we help students understand what a genre is and how recognizing the genre of a text helps a reader understand it.
Let me walk you through the sequence of activities we use to do so. We start by displaying a wide range of photographic portraits. (If you Google candid and conceptual portraits you can see a couple of examples of what we mean.) Engage students in thinking about what they have to do to understand them and when, why, and how they would take them. Then we do a think-aloud to model how the kind of thinking they did about portraits informs reading. To give them practice in applying that thinking, we ask them to work with comic strips, sorting them into different genres and articulating how those different genres require readers to do different things. Then we move to a focus on letters to the editor and letters of recommendation, asking students to name the kind of text they are reading, to determine the essential features of that kind of text, to identify how the author employed those features, and to consider the author’s purpose in employing them that way. Then we cast them as editors to respond both to published writers and to their classmates about how those writers employed the features of the genre they were writing. Next we ask them to share how they employ an understanding of genre outside school, for example, by explaining the different kinds of situation comedies they watch and how they watch them differently. Finally, we put it all together by using all that they’ve learned to understand two inaugural addresses. You can see how we spin out these lessons in Diving Deep, but even this quick walk through should make it clear that we give students lots and lots of practice in noticing genre and in being mindful about that noticing so they can transfer what they do to new reading tasks.
Noticing genre is a crucially important reading skill, so it’s crucial that we teach our students how to do so.