Genre and English for Specific Purposes

Brian Paltridge

Professor of TESOL, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Posted November 2011; updated version posted 2020.

The field known as English for specific purposes (ESP) began as an international movement within the field of English language teaching, focusing mostly on helping international students in English-medium universities with their academic writing and researchers in non-English speaking countries get published in English. The field has now expanded to include areas such as English for occupational purposes, English for vocational purposes, English for science and technology, English for medical purposes, English for business purposes and English for community membership (Belcher, 2009, 2013; Paltridge and Starfield, 2013).

The origins of ESP lie very much in the field of linguistics where early interest was in the grammatical features of specialized texts such as scientific reports. Following parallel developments in linguistics, ESP researchers then moved their interests beyond the sentence to the discourse level, and focused on 'rhetorical functions' (Trimble 1985) such as descriptions, narratives, definitions, exemplification, classification, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and generalizations in specific purpose texts. Research has now moved to a further level by looking at linguistic forms and discourse structures within the context of specific texts, or genres.

The notion of genre is now an extremely important one in ESP teaching and research. Many ESP genre analyses have been based on Swales' (1981, 1990, 2000) work in this area. These studies have examined, for example, the discourse structures and language features of research articles, masters theses and doctoral dissertations, job application and sales promotion letters, legislative documents, the graduate seminar, academic lectures, poster session discussions, and the texts that students need to read in university courses (see Hyon, 2017; Paltridge, 1997, 2001, 2013, 2014; Hyland, 2004a, 2018, 2019; Swales 1990, 2004 for reviews of this work).

Genre analysis in ESP research

One model that has had a particular impact in ESP genre studies is what has come to be known as the CARS (Create a research space) model. This model derives from the work of Swales (1981, 1990) and describes the typical discourse structure of the opening section of research articles in terms of a number of moves. Language description in ESP genre studies draw mostly on what might be called a pedagogic view of language (see e.g. Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 2020). Sydney School genre research, by contrast, uses the terms schematic structure (Martin and Rose, 2008) to describe the discourse structure of texts and works, rather, with a systemic functional view of language (e.g. Halliday, 1985) in its analyses.

Swales has shown how, in research article introductions, authors establish the territory of their research by showing that it is important and relevant in some way (Move 1: Establishing a research territory). Move 2 (Establishing a niche) then indicates the gap in previous research that the author’s study aims to address while the third move (Move 3: Occupying the niche) states the purpose of the author’s research and how it will fill the gap in research that earlier sections of the Introduction have identified. This model has since been applied to the Introduction section of other genres such as theses and dissertations (see Bunton, 2002; Paltridge, 2020; Paltridge and Starfield, 2020). Cross-cultural examinations of the CARS model are summarized in Connor’s (1996) Contrastive Rhetoric and in her (2011) Intercultural Rhetoric in the Writing Classroom.

The analysis of discourse structures in ESP research has not been confined to academic genres, however. Professional genres that have been examined in ESP research include corporate disclosure documents, letters of application, newspaper law reports and popularized medical texts. Much of this work is informed by Bhatia’s research such as his (1993) Analyzing genre: Language use in professional settings and his (2004) Worlds of written discourse: A genre-based view. Bhatia, and others (e.g. Askehave and Swales, 2000; Swales, 2004; Flowerdew, 2002) suggest researchers might take a ‘text-first’ or a ‘context-first’ approach to the analysis of a particular genre. That is, they may start by looking at typical language and discourse patterns in the texts (a text-first approach), or they may commence with an examination of the context of the texts they want to investigate (a context-first approach) and then proceed to examine typical language and discourse patterns in the text. There is no hard and fast rule on the sequence an analyst might take in carrying out an analysis. Rather, it depends on what the researcher is aiming to find out and the overall goal and purpose of the research; that is, whether the researcher is primarily interested in looking at linguistic and discourse features of the texts (text-first), or understanding more about the context in which the text is produced (context-first).

The issue of purpose has been given particular attention in ESP genre work. In his book, Genre analysis, Swales (1990) argued that communicative purpose was the key factor that leads a person to decide whether a text is an instance of a particular genre or not. He has since, however, revised this view, saying that it is now clear that genres may have multiple purposes and that these may be different for each of the participants involved (Askehave and Swales 2001). Also, instances of a genre which are similar linguistically and rhetorically may have, in the words of Swales and Rogers (1995, p. 223) ‘startling differences in communicative purpose’. The communicative purpose of a genre, further, may evolve over time. It may change, it may expand, or it may shrink (Swales 2004). Communicative purpose, further, can vary across cultures even when texts belong to the same genre category. Bhatia (2004) discusses ‘genre colonies’ as an extension of this discussion; that is, genres such as annual reports and feasibility reports that share a communicative purpose, but are different in other respects such as discipline, profession, and context of use.

Further directions in ESP genre studies

ESP genre studies have continued to consider contextual aspects of genres, taking up Swales’ (1993) argument for the need to go beyond structural and linguistic examinations of texts in order to better understand social and contextual features of genres (see Paltridge, Starfield and Tardy, 2016; Paltridge and Wang, 2011 for further discussion of this). Genre studies in ESP, then, have increasingly moved from linguistic descriptions, of their own, to studies which aim to understand why genres are shaped as they are, and how they achieve their particular goals.

At the same time, analyses have moved, increasingly, to being computer-assisted (see e.g. Biber and Conrad, 2019; Biber, Connor and Upton, 2009; Flowerdew, 2011; Nesi and Gardner, 2012), allowing for analyses to be based on a larger set of texts and, thereby, providing greater generalisability of the results. Biber’s research into variation in spoken and written English has had an important influence in this work (see e.g. Biber, 1988, 2002, Biber and Conrad, 2009, Biber et al., 2002), In his research, Biber has found a wide range of linguistic variation within the genres that he has examined, some of which he describes as “surprising and contrary to popular expectation” (Biber, 1988, p. 178). Biber's (2002, p. 133) conclusion is that “different kinds of texts are complex in different ways (in addition to being more or less complex)” and that many earlier conclusions that have been reached about specific purposes language “reflect our incomplete understanding of the linguistic characteristics of discourse complexity” (p.135). Hyland (2004b, 2017), equally, argues for specificity in ESP teaching and research. His work has shown how the use of language varies in terms of rhetorical patterns and linguistic features across disciplines, especially in their written genres, and this needs to be accounted for in the teaching and researching of specific purpose genres (see Hyland and Wong, 2019, for work which examines specificity of language in disciplinary and professional genres).

Researching genre in ESP studies

Bhatia (1993) presents a number of steps for carrying out the analysis of genres, in his case, written genres., although it is not necessary to go through all the stages he lists, nor in the order in which they are presented. The first step is to collect samples of the genre that will be examined. Bhatia suggests taking a few randomly chosen texts for exploratory investigation, a single typical text for detailed analysis, or a larger sample of texts if the interest is in investigating a few specified features of the texts. The next step is to consider what is already known about the particular genre. This includes knowledge of the setting in which it occurs as well as any conventions that are typically associated with the genre. For information on this, existing literature such as guidebooks and manuals are useful as well as practitioner advice on the particular genre. It is also helpful to look at what analyses have already been carried out of the particular genre by looking at research articles or books on the topic. The next stage is to refine the analysis by defining the writer of the text, the audience of the text and their relationship with each other; that is, who uses the genre, who writes the genre, who reads the genre, and the role/s that readers perform as they read the text. It is also important to consider the goal, or purpose, of the texts. Typical discourse patterns for the genre also need to be considered; that is, how the texts are typically organized, how the texts are typically presented in terms of layout and format, and language features that typically re-occur in the particular genre. A further issue is what people need to know in order to take part in the genre, and what views of the world the text assume of its readers; that is, the values, beliefs and assumptions that are assumed, or revealed by the particular genre. It is also important to consider the networks of texts that surround the genre and to what extent knowledge of these is important in order be able to write, or make sense of, the particular genre. Further matters that need to be considered are genre play and genre mixing in student writing (Hyon, 2017), as well as genre learning transfer; that is, ‘students’ application of what they learn from a genre-based course to new [writing] contexts’ (p. 176).

Genre-based teaching in ESP

Genre-based teaching emerged, in many ways, as a response to the process approach (White and Arndt, 1991) to teaching writing, with teachers and researchers arguing that process-based teaching does not address issues such as the requirements of particular writing tasks and variation in individual writing situations. It also, they argued, with its focus on personal meaning, gives students a false impression of what is required of them in academic settings (Horowitz 1986). The genre-based approach has not, however, been accepted without criticism. One key criticism has been that it is a product-based view of learning (only) and that it encourages learners to look for fixed patterns and formulae for their writing. Flowerdew (1993), in his proposal for a process approach to genre-based teaching, argues that models of genres should not be treated as fixed, rule-governed patterns, but rather as prototypes which allow for individual variation. He also argues that genre-based teaching should incorporate ‘learning about’ genres, rather than just the end product, or specific variety of genre. Badger and White (2000) take a similar view, arguing that process and genre-based approaches are complementary rather than in opposition to each other and that both have their place in the language learning classroom. As Johns (2008) argues, genre-based classrooms need to focus on both genre awareness and genre acquisition; that is, learners need to be given strategies for responding to new and different tasks and situations (genre awareness), at the same time as they need to acquire the genres that are important to them (genre acquisition).

Writers such as Hammond and Mackin-Horarick (1999) have argued that genre-based teaching can help students gain access to texts and discourses which will, hopefully, help them participate more successfully in second language spoken and written interactions. Others, such as Luke (1996), have argued that teaching genres of power leads to uncritical reproduction of the status quo and does not necessarily provide the kind of access we hope it might provide for learners. Martin (1993), however, argues that not teaching genres of power is socially irresponsible in that it is the already disadvantaged students who are especially disadvantaged by programs that do not address these issues. Making genre knowledge explicit, then, can provide learners with the resources they need to participate in the genres that are important for them that will, hopefully, enable them to participate better, not only in their day to day lives, but also in their imagined futures in the worlds of work, study and everyday life (Belcher, 2006).


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