Johns, A. M. (1999). Opening our doors: Applying socioliterate approaches (SA) to language minority classrooms. In P. K. Matsuda, M. Cox, J. Jordan, & C. Ortmeier-Hooper (Eds.), Second-language writing in the composition classroom (pp. 290-302). Beford/St. Martin’s: MA. [link]
In “Opening Our Doors,” Ann Johns describes her socioliterate approach (SA) to college-level writing. It is a kind of reaction against humanistic, “personal identity,” and “inward-looking” approaches that seem prevalent in many composition and writing courses (p. 290-291). She sees more value in approaching multiple genres and working with genres that exist in the world around them, not just the world within them. She writes that focusing on personal identity comes as the expense of “other goals much more important to their future lives” (p. 300). Situated within an EAP context, this notion makes a great deal more sense, as writing here is mostly outward-looking.
What she calls a socioliterate approach is based on the understanding that texts are socially constructed and that they are “produced and read by individuals whose values reflect the communities in which they belong” (p. 291). In other words, SA looks at the social function of texts – including the audience, purpose, genre, and language.
Johns makes the bold but apt claim that if students can seek help on grammar elsewhere (e.g. writing centers which are dedicated to proofreading), teachers can focus on more important issues in regards to audience, purpose, genre, etc. Understanding the context of a text and its social construction through analysis is a major principle of the SA approach. This is achieved through analyzing multiple texts within a genre and trying to understand “text-external and text-internal features” (p. 292).
Johns outlines five goals of SA:
- Use student background knowledge of genres as a starting point for analysis
- Analyze texts in order to develop or revise the mental template for a genre
- Johns points out that even within a genre (e.g. summary), the text itself differs depending on discipline (i.e. social purpose)
- Work with strategies students use to approach a “task” so that both the teacher and students can understand how they approach different assignments, what works, and what doesn’t
- Develop different research skills that focus on texts, tasks, roles, and context. This can include asking and working with their teachers or professors in order to better understand the assignment or their own writing
- Developing the ability to talk about texts, i.e. metalanguage
The goals and ideas of SA are a bit abstract. Thankfully, Johns paints a picture of what an SA classroom might include, and then gives some examples from her own teaching. In general, an SA classroom might have the following features:
- working with multiple genres, familiar and unfamiliar
- analyze a number of texts from a genre before beginning writing
- analyze the purpose of texts
- writing various texts that simulate what is required in university classes (e.g. summaries, abstracts, timed writings)
- reflection and examining strategies for approaching particular genres
From her own classroom, John provides two major examples of SA:
- She had her students work with Newsweek articles. Some of the tasks students did were:
- Students used the articles to write texts for different audiences.
- Students used Newsweek to practice argumentation and writing from sources.
- Students worked together to write a letter to the editor after they read an article they felt misrepresented Asian culture.
- The students looked at the construction of other letters to the editor to determine their structure and language usage.
- They discussed audience and the factors that go into publishing a letter.
- She had her students draft a letter to the university’s president because he was visiting their department.
- Students researched his speeches and comments to understand his values (know your audience).
- Students discussed their role as the writer writing to the president and the need to be clearly understood. This caused the final assignment to be better written than others.
- Students determined the structure and topic of the letter, including introducing themselves, their goals, and their suggestions for improving the university.
- The results of this letter was the president asking the department to look into the testing requirements (a common suggestion from the students)
I think that, while Johns’ description of SA seems to be a bit abstract or impractical at times, the principles of it are noteworthy. An approach to writing that focus on the social context of a text, written or read, is important because it leads to a better understanding of the structure and language that can be used while writing, the development of strategies to analyze texts, and – because of its social nature – a more informed understanding of audience. The understanding of audience, in particular, is important. Many have argued that an authentic audience creates a more motivating and meaningful writing experience for students. If an analysis of audience is involved, it may be likely that writing tasks could be crafted for more authentic or realistic audiences, which is a direction I think many writing courses need to go.