Forging Literacy: A Genre Based Approach

Joan Chevalier, Brandeis University

Heritage learners have language skills and needs that are different from the foreign language learner. All heritage learners are bilingual. They are generally not "equilingual" –equally proficient in two languages –but they have competence in more than one language (Valdés 2000). The main feature shared by heritage learners across languages and across the spectrum of language competencies is a lack of familiarity with the full range of stylistic registers available to the educated native speaker (Zemskaja 2001; Valdés 2000, 386-387). Linguistic evidence suggests (Silva-Corvalán 1994) that language attrition is due to a gradual reduction in exposure to language across a full range of stylistic genres. As the functional range of language use (both written and spoken) becomes more limited the stylistic range shrinks and is ultimately restricted to the conversational register.

One of the current problems underlying the teaching of heritage learners is the lack of a suitable theoretical model for the specific needs of the heritage student. L2 acquisition proficiency-based models seem inappropriate for the heritage classroom. While learners of Russian as a foreign language strive to develop basic language skills, bilingual heritage learners need to develop confidence in whatever native language skills they have retained, expanding the functional stylistic ranges of their spoken and written language. Valdés identifies four instructional goals common to heritage language teaching: transfer of literacy skills, acquisition of the prestige dialect, language maintenance, and expansion of bilingual range. I propose a pedagogical model for the heritage learner combining all of these goals under the general rubric of the development of literacy skills. Literacy in its broadest sense can be defined as the construction of meaning within a social and cultural context (Pérez 1998). Development of full literacy requires becoming familiar with forms of discourse and registers across a wide range of written and spoken styles. The focus of teaching heritage learners should be to expand the stylistic range (spoken and written) of the learner. I propose a genre-based approach to literacy development. Genres are socially patterned texts. Language is shaped by the social context and the purpose of the genre (Cope and Kalantzis 1993). A genre-based approach is based on a successive series of stages within a framework of content-based inquiries. Genres featuring conversational register (such as informal letter writing) should be presented first followed by genres featuring more formal language . The goal of the first stage is to present the student models of the target genre. The second stage involves explanation of the linguistic norms of the genre and how the context, the purpose, and the audience shapes the language of the text (or speech). The third stage involves information gathering. The students do the research necessary for an assigned topic. Then the students write their results using models of the genre they are to produce.

The paper will conclude with a discussion of the practical applications of a genre-based approach.