Skip to main content


Reading strategies: Working with genres to unlock texts

May 20, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What are the most practical reading strategies you can share with your students? We asked ourselves this question and came up with 8 different approaches which we will share with you throughout the year. Reading in a foreign language is both fun and challenging. Students discover new worlds through a new language, and not only does this experience make them feel good, but it also gives them access to new territories. However, reading in a foreign language also poses challenges: these new words often open up new areas of knowledge, and there’s a new logic in the sentences, paragraphs, genres, and narrative structures. In this series, we share some tips you can adapt and use with your students. 

In the fourth post, we focus on GENRE

What makes certain texts resemble each other? How do we know which genre a text belongs to? How can students benefit from knowing the characteristics of various genres? These are just some of the questions that can be raised in connection with genre-based reading and learning. In the language class, genre has a special significance. In this post, we approach the topic from two perspectives: literary genres and genre pedagogy. 

What is genre? 

There are several genre theories with different views on the topic, but they all agree on some main characteristics of genres. In terms of literary genres, there is a general understanding that there are three forms of literature: poetry, prose, and drama. These three forms can then be divided into further subgenres such as sonnets within poetry, short stories within prose, and tragedies within drama. As Martin Montgomery, Alan Durant, Nigel Fabb, Tom Furniss and Sara Mills point out in their seminal book Ways of Reading, a combination of approaches is used when defining genre, based on formal arrangement, topic, mood/anticipated response, occasion, and mode of address. Most typically, within prose, we tend to categorize texts by their length and subject matter. For example, Dubliners, by James Joyce, is a collection of short stories written in a realistic/naturalistic style and is considered to be an early example of literary modernism.

Genre-based pedagogy (often called Sydney-school or systemic functional genre-based pedagogy) focuses on context, and enables students to understand discipline-specific characteristics of a text in order to produce other texts in a similar style. Ken Hyland describes this approach as “abstract, socially recognized ways of using language”. David Rose and James Martin’s definition of genres as “staged, goal-oriented social processes” has been widely accepted and adopted. To continue the quote, “Staged, because it usually takes us more than one step to reach our goals; goal-oriented because we feel frustrated if we don’t accomplish the final steps; social because writers shape their texts for readers of particular kinds”. This view categorizes texts by their social purpose: engaging, informing and evaluating. The main genre families are Stories, Chronicles, Explanations, Reports, Procedures, Arguments, and Responses.

Why is it good to know about genres?

Learning about various text types helps students organize, understand and interpret texts more meaningfully. When we decide to read a historical novel, a romance or a detective story, we have certain expectations which help us understand the narrative structure and characters of the story. We also notice if the author diverts from generic conventions to create a surprising or entertaining effect. In terms of genre-based pedagogy, noticing the difference between a report, a review and an argument will help students write well-structured texts which inform their readers effectively. Knowing about genres also helps students create their own texts in creative or academic writing assignments.

How can you recognize literary genres?

Literary genres are usually identified by their generic characteristics such as the subject matter, setting, characters, and narrative structure. Here are some examples.

Bildungsroman (also known as an apprenticeship novel) is a type of coming-of-age novel that follows the story from childhood to young adulthood. For example, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens belong to this genre.

Novel of manners focuses on the manners of a society by representing the behaviour and relationships of its people. It also analyzes the class system, often in a comic way. Jane Austen’s novels are great examples of this genre.

Gothic novels are often set in a mysterious, desolate places such as haunted houses or castles. We often meet ghosts, doubles and the occult, and these stories are full of horror and suspense. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson are typical gothic stories.

Detective stories focus on solving a crime or mystery, and they emphasise the logic and intelligence of the detective. In classical detective stories the main character is often highly intellectual and entertaining, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are a good example of this. 

In the Helbling Readers series, each novel is categorized by its subject matter which also indicates its genre. 

How can you recognize and teach school genres?

The three main characteristics of genre-based pedagogy (staged, goal-oriented and social) help us determine the various features of a given text. For example, in a review you will typically find: 

  • an introduction of the context of the piece being reviewed;
  • description of the piece being reviewed;
  •  an evaluation/assessment of the piece from the reviewer’s perspective. 

Since these texts are goal-oriented, we can talk about what we want to achieve by writing such a text. Finally, the social aspect helps us understand the audience and define our relationship with it. These factors will determine the register and style we use for our text.

For more on genre-based pedagogy, please check out the detailed research and classification introduced in the work of David Rose and James Martin. We recommend two of their books, Reading to Learn and Genre Relations: Mapping Culture).

We will be back with Narrative Structures in our next blog in this series in September.