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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Looking at Written Language: A Framework

Teachers do not normally have any reason to classify their students' writing in terms of text structure and the language features used, and we are not suggesting they should do so. The above information is designed to assist in the teaching of reading and writing. Teachers who understand how purpose affects the choice of genre, and how situation affects the choice of language features, are better able to respond to their students' writing in terms of the kind of writing that will meet the writer's intentions. There is no such thing as good writing in a vacuum. Teachers need to think about the situations students are asked to write in, the purposes given for writing, and the audience the students are writing for, because all these factors influence the kind of writing produced.

The following questions may be a useful framework for looking at students' writing in terms of their choices (both conscious and unconscious) about the structure and language that suit their purpose and intended meaning.

  • What is the writer's goal?
  • How is the text structured? What specific language features show this structure?
  • What is the text about?
  • What kinds of action or process are there?
  • Are the verbs concerned with:
    • actions?
    • ways of behaving?
    • emotions?
    • processes of communication?
    • describing things?
  • What tenses are used?
  • What is the relationship between the reader and writer? How is this relationship shown?
  • Does the text read as a coherent whole? Has the writer achieved coherence by:
    • linking clauses and sentences?
    • vocabulary?
    • references forwards and backwards?

When thinking about these questions, consider the range of choices that writers can make about the presentation and layout, the structuring of the text, the language features, and the vocabulary.

The following text was written by an eight-year-old girl. Amy wanted to persuade her father to buy her a dog, and she chose to do so in the written mode in the form of a letter. The way she has set this out shows that Amy is aware of the conventional layout of letters. That this is a personal letter to her father is reflected in her choice of personal pronouns. The main body of the text is structured as an argument, and Amy addresses her intended audience directly as "you".

Dear Dad,

I feel very disappointed and sad. Ricky and I want a dog to have as a friend. A dog can be trained not to dig up the garden - cats can't. Dogs can come with me walking to keep me safe - people with dogs don't usually get attacked. Do you want me to get attacked? I have no sisters or brothers around my age to play with and I get lonely. A dog could be my friend and play with me. Sophie and Ripley don't play with me. All the playing is done by me. I have $600 in my bank. That would pay for food and stuff for our dog for ages.

Love from

your lonely daughter


P.S. I will give you time to think about it.

The next extract is taken from a seventeen-year-old student's science report about the impact of haemophilia on the lives of sufferers. The assignment was an independent research project, and no instructions were given as to how the findings were to be presented. Tim presented his work as a booklet and structured his text as an information report. In doing so, he showed his understanding of the text structure of this genre.

His major focus was on a thing (Haemophilia B), which meant Tim had to find a way of grouping his information into a sequence that was not chronological. He began with an opening general statement that defined his topic, and he used paragraphs to help organise his information effectively. The language choices Tim made also demonstrated his understanding of this way of writing. His writing was at the impersonal end of the continuum, so he made use of noun phrases rather than personal pronouns. He was writing for an unknown audience, so no reference was made to the reader or writer in the text. Tim wrote the report in the timeless present tense and used linking verbs to give coherence. He used specific technical terminology related to the topic.

Haemophilia B is an inherited disease that affects eight people in Dunedin, and one in every ten thousand New Zealanders. While the disease has been around for a long time (members of both the Russian and British royal families suffered from the disease last century) it is receiving a great deal of public attention. Haemophilia is caused by a deficiency of part of the protein in blood plasma called antihaemophiliac globulin (factor VIII). The lack of clotting factors in the blood causes spontaneous bleeding in sufferers. In the past having haemophilia meant years of suffering and an early death. Quality of life has improved since the late sixties, when methods of treatment became available, thus increasing the life expectancy of sufferers. The treatment itself is causing the most disastrous side effects, the threat of contracting the HIV virus through contaminated blood products. While the treatment and quality of life of haemophiliac sufferers is improving, their treatment by the community is worsening. Many people see haemophiliacs in the same way they see drug addicts and homosexuals, that is, as potential carriers of Aids.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009