Genre and register in language education

Why are genre and register useful concepts in language teaching?

How can we use them to maximize learning opportunities in the EFL classroom?

Here are 5 tips on using register and genre to promote language learning.

Register is concerned with the linguistic features of a text that reflect the social context in which the text was produced. The term was developed by Halliday (1997) as part of his theory of language as social action. Halliday views register as a “system of meaning that relates linguistic choices to the context of situation”. The study of register shows how language use varies from situation to situation (unlike dialect, for example, which studies how language varies from speaker to speaker).

    The language we use reflects and helps to create the social situations we are involved in. The lexico-grammatical options we choose greatly depend on the context and the purpose of our communication. For example, during a job interview, we will be using language in a very different way from when we are chatting with friends. The specific configurations of field, tenor and mode (i.e. register) are a representation of the context of situation. Certain configurations tend to be solidified based on our specific culture/ context and are being repeated by speakers in a specific way and order. These are then called genres.

Martin (1989:25) defines genre as a “staged, goal-directed, purposeful activity in which speakers engage as members of our culture” and shows the relationship between genre, register and language in the following way:

When it comes to language teaching, genre and register can be very useful concepts and can foster language learning in many different ways (Based on Painter 2001:178):

  1. Choosing authentic texts for language study: focus on our learners’ specific needs

       In many EFL teaching environments, students have limited exposure to L2 input outside the language classroom. For effective learning to take place, it is therefore important to ‘feed’ our learners with a lot of useful, relevant and meaningful input. We always need to take into account the length of the text, the authenticity of the language used and whether or not the lexis and grammar included match our students’ level and specific needs. Our learners need to receive input from a variety of L2 sources and (always according to their level) to read and explore a variety of different writing styles and genres (newspaper articles, train timetables, authentic brochures, abstracts from books/plays, poems, etc.).

    It is important for language teachers to identify and examine the different features of register and genre when choosing samples of authentic texts for their language classrooms. We need to be able to recognize the various discourse types, the community they address and the purpose behind each text as well as the specific schematic structure and linguistic features of genres in order to decide whether they can be appropriate for classroom use depending on our specific contexts and our learners’ level.

    Doing a register analysis of the texts we are planning to select for classroom study can be very beneficial to language teaching as it can give us detailed insights on the grammar/lexis and the text structure that we can then examine in order to decide whether the text is relevant to our students’ age, level and linguistic needs. The field, tenor and mode of a text are reflected in its lexis, grammar and text structure and for spoken texts in their phonological features.

Halliday proposes the following three parameters on register analysis:

2. Linguistic input: variety and authenticity

   Using genre in language teaching pays attention to the sociocultural contexts of language use and relates the choices of lexis and grammar to text types which fulfil social purposes. By carefully choosing the texts we want to introduce to our learners we can identify the sociocultural features of different text types, analyze them and make them explicit to the learners. Our learners (depending on their level of knowledge of the TL) will benefit from the exposure to a variety of different texts and text types and will be trained to be prepared for the specific linguistic choices that will be expected with these different text types.

3. Providing useful feedback

 Some of our learners may be unfamiliar with certain genres in the target culture, or may lack technical vocabulary for a specific field. Others may lack a sufficient range of interpersonal forms to create a required tenor or lack the textual choices needed for a more sophisticated written mode. By exposing our learners to a variety of different genres and types of register, we can therefore more accurately diagnose and take steps to solve their language problems or possible linguistic ‘gaps’. Knowledge of genre and the response we receive from our students’ output can allow us to identify and focus on the types of language in use our learners mostly need help with.

4. Controlling the difficulty of tasks

Through a detailed examination of the text’s linguistic input, the grammar/lexis used, the analysis of register, its purpose, the audience it addresses, etc, teachers can make decisions on the difficulty of the tasks that will accompany these sources of authentic input. We can, for example, choose to introduce new genres in familiar fields or to get our learners to re-write the texts varying the tenor or mode only.

5. Focus on the curricular design (exposing learners to a variety of different text types)

    Knowledge of genre can also inform curricular designs, as target genres can be identified and their properties analyzed for teaching. Our students need to receive adequate practice in order to be able to detect and identify the different types of register and genre as well as the adequate lexis that needs to be used in each specific context. They need to be trained to read/listen to authentic language usage from a variety of different sources both for gist and for specific information. We need to train them not only on the skimming and scanning techniques but also on making accurate predictions about the information they need to extract. They need to be able to get the general picture, to successfully grasp the main points and to be able to effectively deduce meaning from context. They also need to be able to ‘interpret’ the language, to read between the lines and use a variety of clues in order to find out what the writer/speaker is suggesting/implying based on the text’s specific type of register and linguistic context.


Halliday, M.A.K., and R. Hasan. 1989, 1997. Language, context and text: aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University. Chapters 1, 2 and 4.

Martin, J.R. 2001. Language, Register and Genre. In Burns, A. and C. Coffin (Eds). 2001. Analysing English in a Global Context: a reader. London: Routledge. Chapter 9.

Painter, C. 2001. Understanding Genre and Register. Implications for Language Teaching. In Burns, A. and C. Coffin (Eds). 2001. Analysing English in a Global Context: a reader. London: Routledge. Chapter 10.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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