Text types & writing purposes

Thursday 29 January 2015

I have been revising and re-organising the 'writing' section of the site over the last few days. This means that there are now a complete set of pages about the text types, and this is distinguished from a section about what I have called writing purposes. You can find the text types under Text type conventions , and the writing purposes (unsurprisingly) under Writing purposes .

I feel that the distinction between 'text types' and 'writing purposes' is important. The two categories overlap, but they describe different aspects of writing, for different reasons, and indicate different priorities for teaching. They are two distinct sides of the same matter, as in the Mobius graphic above. Let me explain...

The term 'text types' is essentially descriptive, in that it sets out to define the recognisable features of varieties of writing produced in different contexts. To illustrate, we recognise an 'article' as something produced within the context of journalism, which specifies a typical format (e.g. headline, byline, etc), and a typical approach (e.g. a style which aims to both interest and inform the reader). Note that the key term in Criterion C is 'recognisable' - and so we set out to teach the typical, standard features of each type of text, so that students can reproduce these conventions as required.

The term 'writing purposes' is essentially prescriptive, in that it sets out to define what different varieties of writing set out to do. To illustrate, the purpose of 'explanation' involves presenting to the reader how something works: the logical connections which make up a process or technique or situation. We would all accept that such explanation can be written in the format of an article, or a blog, or a set of guidelines, or an informal email. To some extent, the conventions of format are secondary - provided that the explanation works because the development of ideas is 'coherent', and 'effective', as Criterion B puts it.

I would argue that the teaching of writing purposes is more important than the teaching of text types because it involves teaching students how to use writing deliberately, rather than simply reproduce conventions automatically. Don't get me wrong - students need to know how to deploy conventions when necessary, such as when formal address is expected and informal chat would be quite wrong.

The challenge of teaching writing purposes is that it absolutely involves teaching students how to think. This is because purposes involve transmitting meaning - and meaning varies constantly according to the nature of the ideas to be conveyed, to which audience, and for which conscious effects. Using text types well requires disciplined conformity; using writing purposes well requires engaged imagination.

The writing purposes proposed are essentially lifted from the 'old' Subject Guide (last exam Nov.2012), and the text types are listed in the 'new' Subject Guide (first exam May 2013). Why should the text type approach have replaced the writing purposes approach? I have no hard knowledge, but a reasonable guess would be that 'text types' are easier to list, and easier to examine - since you just award marks for how many recognisable features a script displays (see the page Text type conventions ). In contrast, the "engaged imagination" of writing purposes is significantly more difficult to define and to mark.

I strongly believe that good practice for English B involves teaching both text type conventions and writing purposes. Which is why this site now contains two interlinked sections covering both.


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