Thursday 8 July 2021

Some teaching ideas to do with language

 It only takes a moment's thought to remember that 'writing' is not simply or only one thing. It is not writing a sentence. Writing is a matter of producing many types or kinds of genres of writing. These types are in effect a kind of blueprint for whoever wants to write that type of writing. In my previous blog I called them agendas. Please feel free (of course) to invent your own metaphor or name for them.

However, though they are blueprints they are not fixed, watertight forms that can't be moulded, remoulded and mixed with others to make hybrids. 

Anyone reading this could make a list of types of writing in a matter of moments. We might also be able to sub-divide them into smaller categories. For example, we used to say that 'literature' was made of poetry, plays and novels. And if we stick with that for a moment, there are clearly many different types of poems (eg epic, lament, lyric, ballad, sonnet, Limerick, nonsense..or we might try to categorise them by technique alone (?) - rhyming, non-rhyming, blank verse, free verse, tetrameter, pentameter and so on. Or we could use the digital way of identifying these with 'tags' or 'labels' so any given poem might be several of these eg a sonnet, written in iambic pentameter or a nonsense poem written as a ballad, and so on. 

We could do this with fiction - thriller, adventure, romance, fantasy, horror and so on. And then sub-divide these into, say, adult, YA, children's etc.

But outside of literature there are hundreds of other types of writing: emails, ads, songs, self-construction instructions, shopping lists, wikipedia entries, birthday cards, directions for using medications, science text books...and so on.

So here's my teaching idea: we can introduce this general field, giving a few examples. Then we ask students to 'collect' some types and bring them into eg groups or in  pairs. We could then invite them to come up with categories for these types. Suggest that any given piece of writing can have several 'labels'  or 'tags'. 

After a bit, pool these, discuss them, see if it's possible to come up with a shared 'taxonomy' for these different kinds of writing.  This  will involve comparing and contrasting the 'ingredients' for any given type. 

Compare the taxonomy the class have come up with, with the categories in eg Guides or Encyclopedias. 

It's possible then to introduce eg an idea like 'tragedy' or 'comedy' in relation to eg Shakespeare. Where did Shakespeare get these ideas from? Was he working to a template? 

Now we can also discuss how this might help with writing. Is it possible to take a type - like, say, the school story, or the horror story, and say to oneself, I can 'borrow' the necessary ingredients and write my own? Or, is it possible to mix types eg turn a travel guide into a love letter? Or a school story into a fantasy (oh hang on, someone's done that already!).....

Out of this kind of work, there can emerge a sense that there is a grammar beyond the sentence, that writing is about working with and against 'genre'. In fact, you can't escape genre as there is always writing that precedes writing and we write with what we have read. 'What we have read' is the ink of our pens. It is the means we use in order to write. 

I ask myself the question whether it would be worthwhile to turn this into a set of suggestions that teachers could use, with examples and explanations and descriptions of types of writing, plus examples of how scholars have tried to create categories and genres...