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Review of  Academic Writing and Genre

Reviewer: Ursula McGowan
Book Title: Academic Writing and Genre
Book Author: Ian Bruce
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.67

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AUTHOR: Ian Bruce
TITLE: Academic Writing and Genre
SUB-TITLE: A Systematic Analysis
PUBLISHER: Continuum
YEAR: 2010 (Reprint of 2008 edition.)

Ursula McGowan, School of Education, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia


This monograph is a paperback reprint of the original 2008 edition. A review that appeared in LINGUIST during that year (Santini 2008) provides a detailed description and critical review of each of the chapters in turn ( The content of the reprint appears to be substantially unchanged and is therefore introduced and summarised here just briefly while an overall evaluative comment is provided in the final section of this review, with a personal perspective on the likely effectiveness of the overall purpose and aims of this book.

In “Academic Writing and Genre,” the author, Ian Bruce, presents a review of existing approaches to teaching academic writing genres, with a focus on two main strands of genre pedagogy: Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). After establishing that there is “considerable diversity of views of how genre should be defined” (p. 7), and declaring that this disagreement is more than a matter of terminology, but of “fundamental disagreement about the very nature of the object of enquiry”, he constructs his own two-fold categorisation of genres as a means of clarification and “as benchmarks” for his book. The labels given these categories are “cognitive” and “social” genre. Under cognitive genres are grouped those which have a single rhetorical purpose, such as recount, argument, explanation; while applications of these for specific social purposes (letters, novels or academic articles, for example) are categorised as “social genres.” This distinction is explained and justified in the following terms:

“The term cognitive genre is used here to refer to the overall cognitive orientation of a piece of writing in terms of its realization of a particular rhetorical purpose, something that is reflected in the way in which information is internally organised and related. Different types of rhetorical purpose (such as: to recount sequenced events, to explain the process, to argue a point of view) instantiate different cognitive genres” (p. 8). In contrast, the category of “social genre” is characterised by the fact that these “may draw upon a range of different cognitive genres in relation to the different rhetorical purposes that may characterize different sections of the overall message, for example presenting an argument or providing an explanation” (pp. 8-9).

The purpose for the author’s focus on genre is clear at the outset: an increasing need for effective methods of teaching of English as an Additional Language (EAL) to higher education students studying at English medium universities, at a time of increasing use of English as an international language.

The description and sampling of a postgraduate level writing course taught by the writer, to illustrate the interrelationship “between social and cognitive genre constructs in the context of one unit”, is located in chapter 7. This chapter is preceded by six chapters providing a wide-ranging discussion of concepts and terminologies of genre pedagogy and related aspects of academic literacy development. While this is a potentially over-ambitious and possibly confusing field, the author provides ample projection of the structure of the entire volume to guide the reader, at the outset and progressively within each chapter.

Chapter 1: ''The teaching of academic writing'' establishes the need for courses, materials and continuing research, to further the effective learning of English as an Additional Language (EAL) in response to a currently ''increasing phenomenon of English as an international language'' (p. 1). The author gives a brief overview of the concept of discourse competence as ''a key element in of an individual's overall academic writing'' and of ''genre based'' approaches as a means for learners to achieve such competence. In this chapter two fundamental questions are posed that “need to be addressed by syllabus and course designers, materials writers and teachers” (p. 9). These questions are: ''What are the genres that occur in academic discourse that need to be taught?'' addressed in chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6); and ''How do we teach them?'' (addressed in chapters 5 and 7). Chapter 1 concludes by raising the much debated question of whether genre based pedagogy for EAL students should be ''critical'' or ''accommodationist''. The author takes the view that ''effective writing pedagogy'' should be both: ''accommodationist'', in the sense of the learner being able to understand and apply the structures and language choices that are prototypical for various established genres in academic writing; and ''critical'', but only in the sense of the learner being able to present a personal perspective, that is, ''exercise an authorial voice'' (p. 10).

Chapter 2: ''From social genre towards pedagogy'' relates genre to language learning and presents the author's summary view of Systemic Functional Linguistics and English for Specific Purposes, as the two major streams influencing his coinage of ''social genre''. For further evaluative comments on this chapter see below.

Chapter 3: ''Constraints on a cognitive genre construct'' begins by reviewing a wide range of concepts and theories, from key concepts of ''prototype'' and ''hierarchy'' as fundamental to cognitive approaches to categorisation; to a range of other schematic constructs: ''scripts,'' plans,'' ''goals,'' ''frames,'' and ''scenarios;'' and a range of theories on ''procedural knowledge''. The author concludes that ''in the variety of possible approaches to discourse categorization that have implications for creating discourse, the organization of language output is not a homogeneous activity to which a single type of categorization can be applied'' (p. 77). The ''intermeshing systems of categorization'' involved are summarised as 1. conceptual content; 2. type of language (spoken or written); 3 procedural knowledge; and 4. the language itself.

Chapter 4: ''Operationalizing cognitive genres in academic writing'' presents a sample of empirical evidence to support the author's decision of focussing on cognitive genres in the academic literacy course sampled in chapter 7. Two studies on the use of cognitive genres in texts are presented. The first is a corpus investigation of the use of each of four cognitive genres (Report, Explanation, Discussion and Recount) identified in published academic texts; and the second, an investigation of the the extent to which the features identified were also used by three groups of writers: teachers; students who are native speakers of English; and students who are non-native speakers of English. The author's tentative finding is, unsurprisingly, that ''experienced writers'' (teachers in this study) produced writings that more closely resembled the usage identified as ''prototypical'' in his corpus investigation than those texts produced by inexperienced writers (students); and that in a comparison of native and non-native English-speaking background students, the ''inexperienced native speaker writers produced more prototypical responses than inexperienced non-native speaker writers'' (p. 107).

Chapter 5: ''Relating cognitive genres to the teaching and learning of writing'' is in large part a reprint of a 2005 article by the author, as acknowledged in a footnote (p. 109). In it the author discusses principles of curriculum design for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) courses. He makes a case for ''procedural knowledge'' being taught in a way that can be re-applied to constructing discourses for a variety of social purposes, and develops a ''common core'' curriculum design based on the learning of cognitive genres. The four-part structure of the chapter covers learning theory, curriculum design and the place of cognitive genres in syllabus design, and outlines a ''general EAP syllabus unit based on the report cognitive genre''. Table 5.1: ''Proposal for a general EAP writing course'' provides for 10 units that deal with the cognitive genres of Recount, Report, Explanation and Discussion. Table 5.2: ''Sample general EAP syllabus unit'' provides the aims and detailed learning outcomes against five categories: ''Overall'', ''Schematic'', ''Discoursal'', ''Interpropositional Relations'' and ''Lexical''. It needs to be said in passing, that while the author references this table to his earlier article as ''Bruce 2005'', this item does not appear in the book's reference list and can only be found in the p.107 footnote.

Chapter 6: ''The scope of social genre knowledge'' is constructed in two parts, firstly to examine ''the kinds of knowledge used in the construction of social genres'', and secondly to consider the relationship between social and cognitive genres ''particularly in terms of the application in the learning and teaching of academic writing''. In introducing this chapter the author draws on his summaries of ''theories and research relating to a number of aspects of discoursal knowledge'', as detailed in chapters 2 and 3, and concludes that the knowledge required for ''a grounded understanding of the nature and operation of a social genre'' includes the following five dimensions: ''context'', ''epistemology'', ''stance'', ''content schemata'' and ''cognitive genres''. In this chapter, as in chapter 2, the author exhibits a mystifying omission, or misreading, of the approaches in systemic functional linguistics (SFL) where he states, ''the lexico-grammatical characteristics tend to be regarded as genre-defining'' (p. 130). By this he fails to acknowledge the centrality of ''context''or the concepts of ''field'', ''tenor'' and ''mode'' (Halliday & Hasan 1985, Halliday 1994, Eggins 1994) that are basic to SFL, and which would map easily across all five dimensions of knowledge distilled in this chapter. In introducing the second part of the chapter, the question is posed on the level of consciousness at which genre knowledge is acquired in relation to each of the two genre categories. The author makes the point that cognitive genre (procedural) knowledge is acquired by native speakers through long-time interaction with examples of the genre, so that they will employ it ''almost in an automatic way'' in their own production, but that social genre knowledge tends to be more consciously developed as part of a writer's induction into the genres and conventions of a specific professional, occupational or academic field'' (p.143). This point underscores the need for specific induction for EAL learners into genre analysis to accelerate their literacy development (see also McGowan 2005 p.54). The chapter concludes with the staging of an EAP syllabus unit, based on the 1992 approach by Hammond, Burns, Joyce Bosnan and Gerot for a learning cycle that begins with ''a small sample of authentic texts as a basis for examining the social and cognitive elements of the genre''; and an analytical marking guide (Table 6.3) that provides for transparent criteria and feedback for the learner.

Chapter 7: ''Teaching genre knowledge in an advance writing course'' demonstrates the author's application of the development of genre knowledge in an advanced level tertiary writing course for non-native speakers of English.. This details one unit, the Results section of the course which follows the IMRD (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion) structure, as an example of a research reporting genre, in order to provide a general prototype or baseline against which the disciplinary differences and references in research reporting can be identified and analysed'' (p 151). By choosing the Results unit the author was able to draw on the Report cognitive genre demonstrated in chapter 5, to illustrate his construct of the ''integration of cognitive and social genre knowledge'' (p. 152). His method of examining examples of both social genre and cognitive genre constitute a ''dual focus'' which the author bases on the principle (referring to Johns 1997) ''that genre knowledge, rather than being prescriptive by offering formulaic patterns or ready made knowledge to novice writers, should involve providing tools to investigate the genres of their particular field.'' This leads to a statement of the central aim of the approach, that is ''to encourage novice writers to become discourse analysts as they uncover the attitudes, expectations, conventions and textual patterns that relate to writing within their particular discipline'' (p. 152). The chapter, as indeed the book, ends on a high note: that while ''teachers themselves cannot … deliver the necessary knowledge and skills that comprise a discursive competence as pre-digested, readily absorbed modules that are specific to each discipline […] what the teachers can do is to assist their students to develop their own capacity'' (pp. 168-9), that is to develop the ability ''to deconstruct, understand and reconstruct discourses in ways that are linguistically correct and socially appropriate, but also in which writers as individuals are able to achieve their own communicative purposes through their own authorial voices'' and concludes: ''Thus it is the aim of the teacher of academic writing to assist novice writers to achieve this ultimate measure of success, which is the exercise of their own authorial voice within the disciplinary community to which they are bidding for entry'' (p. 169).


The overall purpose of the book is clearly directed at the teaching of English as an Additional Language at advanced level. The specific aims are stated and extended in retrospect in the conclusion: ''the aims of this book have been twofold: first to present a critical review of genre theory as it is currently applied to pedagogy, and secondly to present and exemplify a framework for systematising approaches to genre and their application to the teaching of writing'' (p.167).

It is difficult to judge whether both these aims have been achieved, and indeed precisely who the intended audience for this book would be. The educational practitioner will be interested in applying genre pedagogy in designing an appropriate induction for EAL students into the culture of academic writing, and in developing their skills for deconstructing and reconstructing specific genres, but may not be interested in, or in fact have the time to engage with, the lengthy critical review of genre theories presented here. On the other hand the researcher, whether linguist or educator, may find that the range of academic writing theories in chapter 2, and the varieties of cognitive approaches to categorisation which are examined in chapter 3, are indeed somewhat over-ambitious. Nevertheless, readers of both motivations will find of gems of insights to stimulate their thinking and application to research and practice. So for example, the following insights have the power to stimulate creative applications both in the design of genre-based courses, and in pursuing further research:

“Taken in its widest sense, a genre-based approach to language teaching refers to pedagogy that involves examining and deconstructing examples of genres… using a sample text (an example of a particular genre), learners engage with tasks that focus on the organisation and constituent features of the text in order to acquire the types of knowledge necessary for creating their own examples of the same genre” (p. 6); or:

“If epistemology is considered to be a major influence on the creation of discourse within specific academic disciplines, the task, therefore, for the novice writer is to gain a clear understanding of the epistemological viewpoints that underpin and influence the writing of the field… [This] has to be done over time during the beginner writers engagement with their particular discipline, since this type of information is not always overtly taught” (p.135); or in the final chapter (as quoted above): ''[the aim is for] novice writers to become discourse analysts as they uncover the attitudes, expectations, conventions and textual patterns that relate to writing within their particular discipline'' (p. 152).

A critical review of “two main pedagogic approaches” to academic literacy, informed by the Systemic Functional Linguistics and the English for Academic Purposes movements respectively, is in itself a vast field. The breadth and depth of the practices, research and scholarly publications that have emanated from the SFL movement are not well captured. In dismissing the SFL based approach for “narrowness of the types of knowledge integrated within existing pedagogy genre constructs” (p. 167), the author ignores its basis in a comprehensive theory of meaning making that is explicitly located in the “context of situation” and the “context of culture”, and that describes language from a social-semiotic perspective (Halliday & Hasan 1985, Martin 2009). The author's judgment also ignores the large output of implementations of genre pedagogy, at all levels from primary to tertiary and in the workplace by educators whose pedagogic approaches are grounded in SFL (Martin & Rothery 1986, Cope & Kalantzis 1993, Halliday & Martin 1993, Christie & Martin 2005 and many more). In contrast, see a recent comparative analysis of SFL and the Academic Literacies movement by Coffin & Donohue (2012).

In relation to the terminology of “cognitive” and “social” genres, while it is fair to provide a benchmark terminology for this book, it is ironical that the introduction of a new pair of terms has meant adding further to the variety of terminology that has been critiqued by author as confusing. While the terms “cognitive” and “social” genre have been well-defined at the outset, there may be a need (for some readers at least) to return to these definitions, as the use of “social” versus “cognitive” is not intuitively obvious, particularly as there appears to be a generally inclusive understanding in the recent literature of all genres as “social processes” (see Hyland 2002, Coffin & Donohue 2012). In fact, the need to re-name the two categories is not entirely convincing, since the author equates his new terms with a pair of categories already in use (Pilegaard & Frandsen's “text type” and “text genre” ). Other terms already coined are “macro genre” (Martin, 1995) or “genre agnation” (Martin, 2005), or what Hyland (Hyland 2002:123) refers to as concepts of “genre sets” or “systems” (citing work by David and Bazerman ). Hyland suggests that “genre sets may be an important way of conceptualising social contexts and understanding the ways texts cluster to constitute particular social and cultural practices” or, citing Swales 2000, that they “may more loosely cohere as a repertoire of options in a particular context” (Hyland 2002:123f.). Citing Martin, Hyland refers to ''systemicists'' who “talk here of 'genre agnation' and seek a model of systems of genres through a topological perspective which locates texts on a cline of fundamental similarity and difference. These systems can then be used to identify learner pathways for teaching about texts and provide students with a means of making sense of non-prototypical cases” (Hyland 2002, p.124).

The book culminates in a description and sampling of a design for a course in which EAL postgraduate students are intended to learn to understand and master the complexity of academic writing across a variety of genres. It is expected that an intensive focus on one part (the Report section) required for thesis writing, would establish the students' capacity to engage in the ''dual analysis'' of procedural and discipline-specific aspects encapsulated in the author's construct of cognitive and social genres, and to be empowered to transfer the insights and strategies from this approach to the remainder of their thesis writing requirements. However, this chapter leaves the implementation of such a course unexplored. Any reader who is interested in emulating the author's approach will expect some discussion of whether, or to what extent, the practical implementation of the framework ''for systematizing approaches to genre and their application to the teaching of writing'' (p. 167) achieved desired learning outcomes.

While the course design aims to induct students into “a systematic analysis” of academic writing genres, I have a reservation about the effectiveness of the course for the individual learner. There may be a danger in overloading students with information about genres and activities that may not appear to the students relevant at the time. The question arises whether the very comprehensive nature of the course may work against its effectiveness, particularly for time-strapped EAL students, if they fail to connect the relevance of the range of required activities (Table 7.2) to the thesis writing task before them. Educational literature has indicated the power of “authentic” tasks, whose usefulness is readily identifiable to the student. An answer to this reservation might therefore be to tailor this approach to the individual students by linking assignment tasks specifically to the written genres required of them in the content courses students are studying concurrently with such a course. While conceding that this was indeed the case for part of the course, it is only mentioned incidentally (p. 152), whereas it could more profitably be reported as a major feature of such a course.

Finally, it would have been interesting to see some follow-up research, such as a) the percentage of classes undertaking this course that continued through to the end b) the extent to which students applied the principles of systematic genre analysis in the subsequent writing of their thesis drafts, and c) the level of success in improving their own general writing. These would be useful areas of future research.


Christie, Frances & J.R. Martin. 2005. Genre and institutions: Social processes in the workplace and school. London: Cassel.

Coffin, Caroline & James P. Donohue. 2012. Academic literacies and systemic functional linguistics: How do they relate? Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 11(1). 64-75.

Cope, Bill & Mary Kalantzis. 1993. The powers of literacy: A genre approach to teaching writing. London: The Falmer Press.

Eggins, Suzanne. 1994. An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics. London. Pinter Publishers.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1994. An introduction to functional grammar. Second edition. London, Melbourne, Auckland. Edward Arnold. A member of the Hodder Headline Group.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Ruqaia Hasan. 1985. Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Mebourne: Deakin University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. & J.R. Martin. 1993. Writing Science. Literacy and discursive power. London: The Falmer Press.

Hyland, Ken. 2002. Genre: language, context, and literacy. Annual review of applied linguistics. 22. 113-135.

McGowan, U. (2005c). Academic Integrity: an awareness and development Issue for students and staff. Journal for University Teaching and Learning Practice 2(3) 48-57.

Martin, J.R. 1995. Text and clause: Fractal resonance. Text. 15(1) 5-42.

Martin, J.R. 2005. Analysing genre: functional parameters. In Christie & Martin (eds.) Genre and institutions: social processes in the workplace and school.

Martin, J.R. 2009. “Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective”, Linguistics and Education, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 10-21.

Martin, J.R. & Rothery, J. 1986. Working papers in linguistics: Writing project report, Linguistics Department, University of Sydney, Linguistics Department, University of Sydney.

Pilegaard, M. & Franzen, F. 1996. ''Text type.'' In J. Verschueren, J.-O. Oestman, J. Blommaert & C. Bulcaen (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 1-13.

Santini, M. 2008. Review: Applied Linguistics: Bruce (2008) Academic Writing and genre. A systematic analysis. LINGUIST List 19.3079.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Ursula McGowan is a Senior Lecturer, Higher Education, in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide. Her prior background includes university appointments as Lecturer in German Language and Literature, and as Adviser for students with English as an additional language. More recently she has been active as academic staff developer, inducting new staff and providing ongoing support, with a particular focus on academic literacy development and promoting a research-based approach to academic integrity. Her current research is in the area of embedding genre-based academic literacy development within academic disciplines.

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