by Toni Czekanski, Intermediate/Middle School Trainer
Noticing, sorting, and classifying. We start doing this when we are toddlers: putting red blocks in one pile and blue in another. We call the piles by their names: “the blue blocks,” “the red blocks.” Later on we notice that there are some letters of the alphabet that have tails and some that have stems. Some have neither, and we sort them into groups as we learn to copy them and name them. When people read to us, we begin to notice that some books have similarities, and understand that there are happy endings, villains, heroes, and magic. We come to expect these things and even predict who will appear next or what the outcome will be. We know it will be a happy ending no matter what.
Genre study is like that. You collect many examples of texts within a genre and each day read one aloud to your students, allowing them time to enjoy the text and talk about what they are thinking about it. Later, you come back to consider what they have been noticing about the books they’ve heard. What are the similarities? What are the differences? You begin to create a list of common traits. Once they begin to notice these characteristics, you provide even more texts within the genre that they can explore on their own. They cannot help but notice even more. You have activated their thinking and together you work to form a working definition of what a particular kind of text is. Together, you define the genre. How is this helpful to them as readers?
In their text, Genre Study: Teaching with Fiction and Nonfiction Books, Fountas and Pinnell say, “Through experience with texts, readers recognize common elements, as well as ways that texts in the same genre can vary. They use their knowledge of the predictable elements as a road map to anticipate the structures and elements of the text they are reading” (2012, p. 11). Think back to your own experiences as a reader. If you loved mysteries and read a lot of them, it was not long before you were spotting clues and differentiating between those that mattered and those that were potential red herrings designed to lead you off the track.
Readers who are hooked on one genre and read many texts come to learn the bones of that genre and anticipate what they will encounter even before they begin to read. Being able to anticipate the structure or other elements of a text frees the mind to look more closely at other aspects of the text. For readers, this is a helpful tool that can enhance not only what the they understand about the author’s message or meaning, but also how the author crafted the text to support and develop that meaning within the structure of the text.
If you make time in your reading instruction to delve into genre study, you will be helping students to investigate texts more closely. This close reading and rethinking will help them consider how and why authors write books. “Knowing these features helps you begin to comprehend a text even before starting to read. You have expectations and a kind of in-the-head graphic representation of what the text will be like – how the information will be presented and organized” (Fountas and Pinnell, 2012, p. 11). These expectations are not only applied to this text, but to other similar texts.
When studying genre in the classroom, many teachers do so through inquiry as outlined above. This process of inquiry in itself teaches students that they can apply these steps to analyzing other genres as well. Students learn that if they examine several texts from a particular genre, they will begin to notice characteristics that are true across the genre.
Even without your help, they will form conclusions about how the genre works and what to look for and expect as they read other texts that are similar. “Taking an inquiry stance enables students to learn how to learn. They become empowered and develop a sense of agency…they believe in themselves and their ability to find out, and the process itself is inherently pleasing to human beings” (2012, p. 5-6).
Learning about genre with your students can have far-reaching benefits. As readers it helps them to look at texts more closely, and have meaningful discussions with one another about how the author’s decisions affect the way the text works. Students can use specific examples to support their thinking about the text as they write about it. As a teacher, you build the confidence in understanding the genre that will help you take your students deeper through your modeling and prompting as you engage in the work together.
Professional Development in Genre Study For Teachers
If you are interested in learning more about genre study, consider attending the four-day Summer Literacy Institute, Genre Study: Teaching With Fiction and Nonfiction Books in a Reader’s Workshop, Grades K–8 with Irene Fountas and Lesley University faculty from July 15–18, 2013 in Cambridge, Mass. This is a process-oriented, hands-on literacy professional development event. The format and structure of this institute will be very different than previous summer institutes. You will leave this institute with a genre study plan that you created, ready to use in your classroom.