Genre theory and adolescent information retrieval



The purpose of this study is to describe how a high school student retrieves information in order to write a history research paper, and to investigate the role genre plays in this process of search and paper construction. This study interrogates the conditions under which students are sent to the library to complete research assignments. What is absent from the research of school library use is how the kinds of knowledge expected from the students, and how the kinds of uses and manipulations that information is to be put through are connected to the access and retrieval of information. Because use is the final stage in the information process, this problem is approached by examining the assumptions about language, knowledge, and genre that teachers and students bring to research assignments in the school library. Rhetorical genre theory may be used to construct a representation of information use within an educational setting. Rhetorical genre theory will also be used to determine the method of analysis. By examining a few instances of high school history research, we can begin to systematize the features found beyond the sample to a larger study. An interdisciplinary approach that integrates classification theory, information seeking behavior, and rhetorical practices may help to characterize effective models in information retrieval.


High school students face a bewildering number of seemingly relevant books, articles and other materials from which to choose in the preparation of a research essay. In the school library, they find resources suitable for their topics and grade levels, but the kinds of writing and resources (scholarly or public) that are acceptable are determined by the context of the classroom. It is paramount to view information searching as a situated rhetorical activity that depends on the interaction between the classroom and school library. One means of examining the intersection of library and classroom is genre. Here genre is about function not form, a pragmatic scheme for making certain types of meaning. The purpose of this study was to investigate the role genre plays in the process of search and paper construction by identifying and describing the strategies employed by three upper level high school history students as they searched for information to compose an analytical history essay, and by examining their representation of the ideas and resources found.

Literature Review

Genre theory explains the patterned activities that people employ in order to accomplish a social action (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993, p. 62). Genres are not only a set of formally definable features that certain texts have in common across various contexts, but they inform and are informed by systems of social activity and action (Giltrow, 2005). Each instance of a genre is modeled on and bears an analyzable relation to a genre(s) of a discipline (Russell, 1997). This framework elucidates the interplay between formal features and social situations.

Pedagogical guides have established that the best method to teach history is to use primary sources as a means of fostering research skills, critical thinking, and interpreting multiple viewpoints; this leads to an increased understanding of historical context (Tally & Goldenberg, 2005). High school history assignments often do not require students to gather primary source material from archives. In the case of the high school history paper, the teaching of history in the classroom is often independent of the need to write the paper and use the school library.

Information Search Process

Current conceptions of student research have the student identify a topic, gather background knowledge, and reformulate the task; that is, they ‘discover aspects of their topic’, ‘find a focus’ and ‘narrow down their searching’ (Kuhlthau,1985). Historical research in the context of the Information Search Process (ISP) Model would begin with a bibliographic survey of general secondary sources (e.g. encyclopedias and textbooks) and then move toward more focused secondary sources (e.g. museum exhibits, journal articles, etc), and then primary sources. What this process does not do, however, is show how diverse resources are actually sought for, transformed and integrated in specific disciplinary tasks. We need “contextually aware” models that enable the integration of specific information into a task in the appropriate context to meet the student's need at that point in time. The strategies adopted for reading and using multiple texts may be different from those used to read single textbooks, especially in order to produce analytical essays. The classroom activities of analyzing and synthesizing information may actually precede the location of pertinent information sources. These higher-level thinking skills are often presumed, but not explicitly taught in the context of information seeking. To date, what has been absent from the research of school library use is how the kinds of knowledge expected from the students, and how the kinds of uses and manipulations that information is subjected to are connected to information access and retrieval.


This research was conducted at a university preparatory school. The object of analysis in this study was the final paper for Grade 12 History class, one that approximated university-level research. The task, as represented by the teacher, was to learn to write in the style of the disciplinary genre. Students were asked to pick a topic in Middle Eastern history, as suggested by the teacher, or to come up with an original topic. They were then required to hone their focus through research questions and write a five-page research paper, and they were given four weeks to complete the task. They were required to locate their own source texts using computer-mediated information systems.

Approach to Data Analysis

Data consisted of interviews with the teacher and students, transcriptions of the class, and student essays. Understanding genre expectations and appreciating the variation across disciplines provided a foundation for this work. Students spoke about how they wrote their papers, and the steps they followed when researching— particularly how they sequenced activities, selected resources, sought help, and completed assignments. The interviews were the first of several techniques used in this research. The students' essays were also analyzed according to pragmatic analysis and linguistic regularities. A professional history article was used as a comparative. Pragmatic analysis provides a more nuanced picture of genre that is more situation-specific. Linguistic regularities interact with situation-specific rhetorical goals; in other words, the motives of the rhetorical act shape the formal discursive patterns. The analytical approach taken in analyzing the research essay data was that of case grammar, which examines how students represent history in their papers, and identifies salient patterns. Case grammar emphasizes the fact that no matter what syntactic structures one chooses to use to talk about an action, the actual roles of the participants (people, objects, forces, and locations) in that action remain unchanged. The filling of these roles correlates with a linguistic encoding of the world. Students may represent institutions, economic forces, or certain people as drivers of historical change. This research proposes to examine the contexts of use as projected through the writing of the high school history student. A series of research questions can be developed based on the relationship between the information behavior observed and the writing produced by the students in this study:

  • 1.How does the formal shape of the students' texts relate to their understanding of the purpose of research? What view of the world and of knowledge is represented?
  • 2What searching behaviors interact with the students' understanding of the research genre?

Results and Discussion

The findings focused on the connections between the students' representation of genre and how they search for information through an examination of linguistic data (to support analytical claims about how the text is produced and received) and regularities in particular linguistic features that occur under certain conditions in the discourse data. The teacher envisions a rubric that defines the expectations of the assignment—for students to produce historical discourse which reflects the disciplinary assumptions as represented in the classroom. The teacher expects students to engage in library research to fulfill the requirements of historical discourse. Interpretive terms such as ‘freedom fighting’ and ‘deterrence,’ for example, were defined in lectures as examples of events in a chronology; however, students were not to taught to explicity synthesize and organize their data according to categorical concepts. Terms at higher levels function as the bridges or synthesizing terms between different documents. Disciplinary terms that came up in the classroom were not translated by the students in their research. As well, the history essay rubric as represented by the teacher, did not supply these terms. The teacher's view is the research process as begining with a bibliographic survey of the most general information available on a topic and then narrowing that survey to a sharper topic. Students do some research then come up with questions, i.e. they get the lay of the land first. Once all the information has been sorted/evaluated for points of view then the student writes the thesis. This study did not find evidence that students began research with a general bibliographic survey. In their first stage, they looked for general background info to include in the essay—this made the bulk of the citation. They used topical keywords ‘Irgun AND terrorism,’ for example. How the author of the document constructs and places various knowledge claims in the document in order to attempt to persuade the audience of the validity of an argument may be represented by typical keywords. Using ‘armed struggle’ as a keyword would have resulted in a different information map.

Let's look at some stylistic examples and imagine their “information profile.” These are library assignments, and the students were required to locate and use documents to construct their research papers. We would expect to see students apply discipline-specific reasoning to accumulated research. The student samples displayed a tendency towards extremely generalized participants or towards themselves as subjective experiencer. One student's sentences established the pattern of a generalized experiencer of negative affect. For example, she began her essay with: “If only people could apply the lessons learnt in pre-school to everyday life experiences, we could live in a significantly more pleasant and peaceful world.” In this sentence construction there is a subject position who experiences negative affect: ‘we’. The subjective emotions of agitation and distress are attributed to a common source—in this example, ‘people’ not applying the lessons learned in pre-school. The student is speaking for like-minded others.


Figure 1.

Subjective Experiencer and Negative Affect

Again, there is a subjective experience. [Someone] experiences a distate towards Hamas. The student sample continued this pattern throughout the text. Much of the information presented could be known by anyone. The performance of historical rhetoric by the students reveals the ‘student as authority’—as centre of knowledge.

When asked to write descriptive papers, students are mainly unable to represent the different viewpoints in different documents. When students are asked to write opinion papers, they mainly write generalizations without support. It is the students' understanding of the information seeking process that seems to influence the formal shape of their texts. The situation of library use by students produces a kind of “information-seeking genre” in which the process itself leads students to imagine and produce a certain kind of genre. There is a de-contextualization from the situation. This leads to searching behaviour which I describe as “plucking:” students view examples as having equal authority. Thus, there is also de-contextualization from the surrounding text. The genre features of their writing derive from their information-seeking process, yet the process itself is not acknowledged in the classroom. The genre that they have conceived then provides the situational context for determining the relevance of sources. The students represented significant players and events in the development of the chronology. But the ideas, practices, proposals, terms, and quotations that are embedded in social, intellectual and educational contexts were not represented. Students' misinterpretations of language led to a lack of engagement with resources.


Throughout the search process students were unaware of the need to negotiate between the genre expectations of the history classroom and the variety of genre resources provided by/through the school library. The concept of genre may prove to be a strong conceptual approach for classroom teachers and school librarians to share with students as students work through the information search process associated with a research project. The library reference interview is an attempt to reconstitute that context, i.e. the classroom motivation to write, with genre in mind. However, it may be possible to develop information retrieval systems with genre features that go beyond the characteristics of the document itself to incorporate the contextualized use of these documents with expanded subject descriptions (Blair, 1990, p.303). We must account for the disciplinary assumptions that may influence the process of accessing information to complete a research paper. Information retrieval systems may obfuscate these contextual distinctions by organizing information solely through topical indexing. This research examines the contexts of use as projected through the writing of the high school history student in order to propose ways of more tightly coupling the genre of history as represented in the classroom and the school library. The high school research paper should reflect the activity of producing knowledge in the classroom: for example, through embedded assumptions, vocabulary, and informed structured controversies. The classroom constructs a context with its genre characteristics—linguistic/pragmatic features and patterns. The library constructs a context with its information storage characteristics. These contexts need to intersect with each other. Activities that cluster around information systems, though, may be producing a genre that reflects a universalizing conception of knowledge. If genre is to be a useful concept in information retrieval in educational settings, it needs to be substantive—arising out of the typical tasks and assigned resources in a particular course of study. Further investigation of linguistic regularities and the development of a corpus of data may inform how we may be better able to anticipate pathways into organizational domains of disciplinary knowledge. The overall aim is to direct students to particular kinds of available resources, even as students follow the logic of their own inquiry.

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    1Students look for information they are already familiar with, that they have learned in class or from the media. For example, that the King David Hotel was bombed in 1946, or that George Bush refuses to negotiate with terrorists.