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An invitation

This book is for teachers of English as a foreign, second, or additional language (EFL, for short). It is the result of our interaction with many teachers whose drive and vocation lead them to wonder about how to make teaching EFL as significant as we can.

We would like to invite our readers to consider ‘learning to mean’, as Halliday (1975) puts it, as the most compelling way to conceive EFL teaching and learning. It would be hard to think of learning to mean without considering the situational contexts and the semiotic ‘settings’ in which meanings are made, that is, the genres we participate in as we live our lives. So we cannot really separate making meanings from the familiar, communal and cultural contexts in which they are made. Teaching our students to mean involves enabling them to understand and produce genres, to function effectively in the social activities in which language is a key resource. Telling an anecdote, applying for a scholarship, writing up an ad to sell our bike, filing a complaint because the rafting excursion we took fell short of the promised deal, writing a letter to the school principal arguing for more sports facilities at school are just some of the multiplicity of significant genres that we can engage in as we build our individual and social identities.

Besides being conceptually central, genres are productive in terms of our pedagogic practice: they constitute a middle ground between the concrete wordings we need to teach our students so they can use language effectively, the contexts that determine the meanings they need or care to make, and the wider culture in which social activities are carried out. Teaching genres is a way of resignifying the grammar and the vocabulary we teach. It is not replacing them, it is just changing the focus. It is teaching grammar and vocabulary not as a goal in itself but rather as a resource to mean in socially significant ways.

This view on EFL teaching is very much akin to the current contents and teaching objectives specified in official national and provincial documents in Mendoza, Argentina that regulate the teaching and learning of foreign languages and that can be summarized as the need to teach language in socially relevant ways. This conception is also reflected in the EFL course books that are used locally and nationally in both public and private education. And it can also usefully co-habit with several theories and frameworks, such as those informed by cognitive and neurolinguistics. The genre-approach to teaching language is a means of enhancing our teaching practice, adjusting its focus, if need be, not of doing away with what is already working for us.

As we explore the ways in which we mean as members of communities, we draw upon Systemic Functional Linguistics, as theorized seminally by Michael Halliday, Ruqaiya Hasan, Christian Matthiessen and James Martin. It is a theory that describes language functionally and contextually, and helps us to think about it as a huge array of meanings we need to make and of wordings at our disposal to make them. We complement our discussion of genres with the Genre Approach to teaching and learning texts as developed originally by Joan Rothery, James Martin and Frances Christie.

In this book, we initially describe what thinking of language functionally and contextually entails and, in each chapter that follows, we stop to consider a genre that will take us step by step along the family, school, public and academic contexts relevant to our students’ lives. As we take up each genre, we discuss features that are critical to it as well as to other genres. Our approach all along is descriptive and pedagogic. We describe how texts do what they do and how we can teach them in our classroom as key pedagogic objects.

We invite you to consider our ideas and to think along with us about ways in which we can make our teaching as relevant as we can to us and to our students. Teaching genres makes our profession so much more compelling: enabling our students to mean what they need to mean in the contexts in which they wish to enact interactions, represent experience and use language effectively.

 

Alejandra, Cristina, Emilia, Grisel,
Mercedes, Pedro and Samiah



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