An ELT Glossary : Product, process and genre approaches to writing

The product approach to writing is based on the idea that learning to write involves understanding the grammar and lexis of the language and then reproducing those features accurately. it was used in the 1960s and 70s until the process approach became more popular. Recently though, a modified version of product writing, the genre approach, has brought it back into greater favour.

Typical stages in  a "pure" product approach would involve :

1. Presentation of a model text. Eg if the title of the piece of writing to be produced was My Favourite Room the teacher might present a text describing her own favourite room.

2. The linguistic features of the text (here, perhaps the use and position of adjectives, prepositions of place, lexis describing furniture and colours etc) would be focused on.

3. Controlled practice would be given in these features.

4. Learners would write their own text, using the features practised and imitating the model. 

5. This would be marked and graded by the teacher. 

Criticisms of this approach focused on the fact that the writing process involved far more than just starting to write with the first word and finishing with the last. various processes (thinking of and selecting ideas, organising them into a logical sequence, drafting, reviewing and rewriting) also had their part to play. These were emphasised in the process approach to writing. The simultaneous development of the communicative and humanistic approaches also led to an emphasis on collaborative learning and autonomy, so that all these stages, including the review and grading stages, were often done not by the teacher but by peer or self evaluation, often scaffolded by the use of checklists.

The process approach was in vogue before the widespread use of computers, however, and these days, although they are certainly still relevant, the stages no longer happen in the linear sequence necessary when texts would be written by hand or on a typewriter and which was therefore emphasised by the process approach. 

At the same time as the process approach was coming into vogue, however, the rise of the communicative approach, the realisation that texts are written for a specific communicative purpose and that that this purpose will affect the features of the text, has meant that the product approach has been reconsidered.  The example given above - Write a description of your favourite room - is in fact very unrealistic. Why might someone actually want a description of a room? Well, for example they might be someone writing an advert for a room to let in a house, which they wanted to to put on a noticeboard in the local Students' Union, hoping to let to a student. Or it could be that the student who rented the room sent an email home, describing what the room was like. In each case of these cases the same room would be described - but the content, organisation, style etc of the text would be very different.

It is this realisation which lies behind the genre approach.  Each genre has conventional features of layout, content, organisation and language, and these may not necessarily be known to the writer - either because they have never tried to produce that genre before or because the same genre in their own L1 has very different features (see eg McCarthy 1991, pp.164-165). 

This means that we cannot necessarily assume that our learners know what the genre features of the text types we want them to produce are. and consequently,  if learners do not analyse them in an example or examples and practise them as necessary before writing, they are liable to produce a text which is unsatisfactory because it breaks the expectations of the reader, potentially leading to a negative reaction to the text.

A genre approach therefore brings back the centrality of the model text, but the emphasis is on the text as an example of a specific genre - an advertisement, an informal email, a job application, a restaurant review etc - and the analysis is of the specific features of that genre. A typical approach might be to give the learners two versions of the text - one a "good" example of the genre, and the other "bad" in that it does not follow the expected conventions and contain the expected features. Learners are helped to analyse the difference between them, and are given practice in each of them, before being asked to write a text of their own. At this point, there is no reason why aspects of the process approach cannot also be incorporated, thus merging the most useful elements of all three approaches. 


McCarthy M.(1991) Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, CUP