Genre Theory

Learning Cultures employs genre theory (Genre Practice & Cooperative Unison Reading) in all classes:

Research has found that reading development is genre specific. Reading fiction will not help students become better at reading recipes, a content textbook, or a manual.

Readers and writers engage in different processes to different degrees when reading different kinds of text.
— Duke, N. K. & Roberts, K. M. (2010). The genre-specific nature of reading comprehension. In D. Wyse, R. Andrews, & J, Hoffman (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of English, language and literacy teaching. London: Routledge.

“Language [oral and written] arises from a man’s need to express himself...” (pg 67). “Language enters life through concrete utterances and life enters language through concrete utterances as well. The utterance is an exceptionally important [concept]” (63).

“The boundaries of each concrete utterance as a unit of speech communication are determined by a change of speaking subjects, that is, a change of speakers. Any utterance—from a short (single-word rejoinder) in everyday dialogue to the large novel or scientific treatise—has, so to speak, an absolutely beginning and an absolute end: it’s beginning is preceded by the utterances of others, and its end is followed by the responsive utterances of others (or, although it may be silent, others’ active responsive understanding, or, finally, a responsive action based on this understanding)” (71).

“The fact is that when the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution, and so on. And the listener adopts this responsive attitude for the entire duration of the process of listening and understanding, from the very beginning—sometimes literally from the speaker’s first word” (68).

“The speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his own idea in someone else’ mind. Rather he expects response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth...” (69).

“...the role of [the listener/reader] is not that of passive listeners, but of active participants in speech communication. From the very beginning, the speaker expects a response from them, an active responsive understanding. The entire utterance is constructed, as it were, in anticipation of encountering the response (e.g., I agree, I object, I execute, I take under advisement, and so forth)” (94-95).

“The sentence as a unit of language [is] distinct from the utterance as a unit of speech communication” (73) “The sentence as a language unit lacks [the properties of an utterance]; it is not demarcated on either side by a change of speaking subjects; it has neither direct contact with reality (with an extraverbal situation) nor a direct relation to others’ utterances; it does not have semantic fullness of value; and it has no capacity to determine directly the responsive position of the other speaker, that is, it cannot evoke a response. The sentence as a language unit is grammatical in nature...” (74).

“We speak in definite speech genres (all our utterances have definite and relatively stable typical forms of construction of the whole)...and it is quite possible for us not even to suspect their existence" (78).

At the finalization of “the utterance there is the possibility of responding to it, or more precisely and broadly, of assuming a responsive attitude toward it (for example, executing an order)” (76).

“Unless one accounts for the speaker’s attitude towards the other and his utterances (existing or anticipated), one can understand neither the genre nor the style of speech” (97-98).

“A single integrated real utterance has a real author and real addressees whom this author perceives and imagines” (98-99).

The better our command of genres, the more freely we employ them.
— Bakhtin, M. M. (1986) Speech genres and other late essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.


"Genre is a universal dimension of textuality" (Frow, 2). "Genres actively generate and shape knowledge" (Frow, 2). "Genre [is] a form of symbolic action" (Frow, 2).

"Genres create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility, which are central to the different ways the world is understood in the writing of history or philosophy or of science, or in painting, or in everyday talk" (Frow, 2).

"Genre is central to the social organization of knowledge" (Frow, 4).

"Genre is a set of cues guiding our reading of texts" (Frow, 4).

"Genre is central to human meaning-making and to the social struggle over meanings" (Frow, 10).

"Genre is not just a matter of codes and conventions, but that it also calls into play systems of use, durable social institutions, and the organization of physical space" (Frow, 12).

"Genre classifications are real. They have organizing force in everyday life" (Frow, 13).

"The work of genre, then, is to meditate between a social situation and the text which realizes certain features of this situation, or which responds strategically to its demands. Genre shapes strategies for occasions; it gets a certain kind of work done" (Frow, 14).

"Genre theory has something important to say about how realities are constructed and maintained. For Bahktin, genre is 'an aggregate of the means for seeing and conceptualizing reality'; a central implication of the concept of genre is thus that the realities in and amongst which we live are not transparently conveyed to us but are mediated by the systems of representation: by talk, by writing, by acting (in all senses of the word), by images, even by sound" (Frow, 18-19).

"Genres create effects of reality and truth which are central to the different ways the world is understood" (Frow, 19).

"The post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida in 'The Law of Genre' wrote: '...a text would not BELONG to any genre. Every text PARTICIPATES in one or several genres, there is no genreless text, there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging'" (Frow, 25).

"Genre matters to the reading of every text" (Frow, 28).

"What we learn in 'doing' genre (in performing and transforming it), is the values we share or don't share with others and the means with which to challenge or defend them. Through the uses of genre we learn who we are, and encounter the limits of our world" (Frow, 144).

- Genre: the NEW CRITICAL IDIOM by John Frow. London: Routledge, 2005.

Synthesis by Sarah E. Dennis, Ph.D. (June 2014) v.1