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, and the influence of social constructivism,  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 in pairs or groups, and 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 model text might be presented and the learners given various guided discovery activities to focus their attention on the information structure of the text, the paragraph structure, specific linguistic features etc. 

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 the expected features, 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, as well as elements from more general approaches to learning, thus merging the most useful elements of each. 

An excellent example of this approach can be found in Goldstein, The Big Picture B1+ Intermediate p.152 where learners are taught to write a promotional leaflet. After some warm-up and comprehension activities they first analyse the information structure of the model (matching the information provided to specific paragraphs), and then, through a guided discovery activity, they "notice" the use of various linguistic features such as exclamations, questions, imperatives etc and the effect that these have on the style of the text and the reader. Practice of the features is then given.

So far, a genre approach has been used, though already the use of pair work, and the discussion of their own opinions in the warm up and comprehension stages is reflecting the collaborative and personalised approaches central to social constructivism and humanistic approaches. However, the activity sequence then continues by asking learners (in pairs) to brainstorm ideas for their own leaflet, to plan which of the genre features they will include, to write the leaflet and then to peer evaluate another pair's leaflet. Here the inclusion of elements from the process approach to writing (brainstorming, planning etc) can clearly be seen. This could be continued by then asking the learners to rewrite the text based on any ideas they had been given which they agreed with - thus incorporating drafting/revision stages into the sequence. Again, the use of collaborative work is a reflection of how elements of humanistic and constructivist learning have been incorporated.


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

Other Recommended Reading

Harmer, J. How to Teach Writing, Pearson