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Bessie Dendrinos and Bessie Mitsikopoulou

The KPG-English-exams development-team adheres to a functional view of language that has led to the adoption of a genre-based approach to assessing writing. This is evident both in the test items (i.e., the writing activities contained in the test papers) and the evaluation criteria used in order to mark candidate scripts. As the evaluation criteria were discussed in the summer article, this present one responds to readers’ demand that we provide an account of our approach to writing assessment and make clear its impact on writing-test items.[1]

A functional view of language and the notion of genre in the KPG exam battery

According to a functional view of language, what language users say or write and how they say or write it crucially depends on the context of their talk or script. That is, the context controls what but especially how oral or written speech is articulated. In other words, context is a fundamental factor in the organization and the selection of the lexicogrammatical features that make up socially meaningful texts. The more the textual and linguistic choices respond to contextual rules, the more socially meaningful the text is. As pointed out by Dendrinos and Mitsikopoulou (in press)[2]:

…people do not simply write expressing their own unique ideas born out of nowhere, but … they write as members of communities, producing texts which conform to social rules. These rules depend on a variety of contextual factors, such as who is writing to whom and for what purpose, and in what discourse environment a text is to appear. These rules are institutionally bound and determine what kind of language is appropriate in each instance and how language is organized into text.

As the notion of genre is a key concept for the KPG writing test paper, it is important to point out that genres are viewed by the test development team both as products (text types) and as processes (courses of linguistic action). Each text type, such as news report, letter, email, interview, promotional leaflet, newspaper article, encodes the purposes and meanings of the social institutions of a cultural milieu. Text types are characterized by a relatively stable structural order (i.e., they have certain beginnings, middles and ends), a consistent way of organizing information (i.e., in paragraphs, in bullet points, sections, etc.), and lexicogrammatical features and structures that materially articulate the social purpose of each text.

Each genre, viewed as product –a socially situated product– is not generated each time from point zero; it is created on the basis of the constraints of the context in which it operates. As language users, we all become familiar with the rules and constraints as we increasingly develop text type awareness. This happens over time, as we come in contact with texts. Every time we encounter a new text, we bring with us the knowledge we have developed from the interaction with all the previous texts we have encountered in our mother tongue or a foreign language. The familiarity we develop with different types of texts allows us, as members of a community, to identify similarities and differences among text types and to recognize easily what kind of text each one is –a recipe, an office memo, a letter, a comic strip. We also recognise and can tell the difference between an argument and a narrative, a description and a debate, an apology and a request. How is this possible? How can tell a newspaper article from an advertisement or a recipe from an article? We can tell because we recognize that the textual features of, say, a narrative are different from those of a description. The language features of a text give shape to and are shaped by its course of linguistic action. There are many courses of linguistic actions, but these are usefully organized into five basic generic processes by Knapp and Watkins[3], each one of which demands the use of different text organization and different lexicogrammar. These five processes are:

  • Description: when texts describe, they order things into commonsense or technical frameworks of meaning

  • Explanation: when texts explain, they sequence phenomena in temporal and/or causal relationships

  • Instruction: when texts instruct they sequence actions or behaviours in a  logical order

  • Argument: when texts argue, they expand a proposition to persuade the reader to accept a point of view

  • Narration: when texts narrate, they sequence events, actions and people in time and space.

The impact of the genre based approach on test items

Given the above understanding of genre, the activities of the writing test papers (from the B1 level onwards) are intended to assess the test takers’ ability to produce scripts following the essential conventions of a specific genre. Therefore, when developing the writing test, genre variability is an important consideration and the appropriate use of conventions is an essential element when marking scripts. In fact, unlike the writing test papers of other exam batteries, KPG writing activities intentionally engage candidates in the production of different text types. What is more, expectations with regard to producing generic conventions increase with test level and these expectations coincide with literacy level demands. The higher the level of the test, the higher the literacy demands on the candidates, understanding that being able to produce (and comprehend) texts conforming to generic conventions is, ultimately, a matter of literacy level. Therefore:

  • The first part of the B1 level test asks the candidate to produce a text for which a model is provided, and the candidate is required to reproduce the text type and articulate the same generic process but on a different topic.

  • The first part of the B2 level test asks the candidate to produce a different text type every time, but, while there are cues concerning the content to be produced, there is no model for the generic process or the textual features which articulate it. 

  • The first part of the C1 level test asks the candidate to produce a variety of text types as at B2 level, but the generic process and the features articulating it are more demanding, as are, for example formal reports, letters to the editor of a newspaper and book reviews.

Writing test activities

To illustrate the KPG approach to writing assessment let us consider two examples extracted from B2 and C1 level test papers, since these two level tests make greater demands on the candidate’s part to use appropriate generic conventions.[4] Both examples are from the first part of the test papers (Activity 1). We will postpone discussion of Activity 2 simply because the second part of the KPG writing test papers (B1-C1 levels) makes an additional demand on the learner; that is, to assume the role of mediator.

B2 level example Activity 1

Candidates are asked to produce a text (about 150 words) for a leaflet [text type] for foreigners living in Greece [audience], warning parents about the dangers of leaving children unattended [communicative purpose, as part of the generic process which is to instruct]. Cues about the text content are provided (leaving children unattended at home, on the beach, at the playground, in the street, in shops).[5]

For successful completion of this task, candidates need (a) to resort to their lifeworld experiences in local contexts and to consider the dangers facing children left on their own, and (b) to make use of their language awareness so as to produce a text for a leaflet (produced by local authorities or the local community, as texts of this type commonly are), warning parents about these dangers and advising them not to leave them out of their sight (e.g., Don’t let your children play in the balcony alone because if something falls below they will try to catch it… or Never allow children to swim alone, even if they know how to. The sea is always dangerous…). In addition, drawing on their literacy, they need to decide how they will organize their texts, given that they have a number of options: their text may be in bullet form or in numbered points; it may be presented in the form of a series of statements with DOs and DON’Ts; or it may be in the form of a cohesive text which however will not resemble an essay, a personal letter or a report.

By designing writing activities which require candidates to tap on their resources and use those which are most suitable for each text type, the KPG writing test articulates a systemic functional view of grammar which also permeates the evaluation criteria for marking scripts. At the level of text organization, there is consideration of the text’s appropriate grammatical features, responding to generic and contextual requirements that have to do with purpose, audience, message and text structure. At the level of text grammar (cohesion and coherence), there is consideration of how all parts of the text are structured and organized to make a text effective for the purposes of a particular context and a given communicative situation. Finally, at the level of sentence grammar, it considers how language is organized within sentences, dealing with lexicogrammatical features, such as prepositions, modal verbs, negation, etc. Needless to say, in order to produce such texts, candidates are expected to be aware of the forms that the English language takes in the contexts in which it is used, and of the grammatical structures that make up these forms.

C1 level example Activity 1

Candidates are asked to produce an article [text type] for the 17-year-old readers of a school paper [audience] under the title “It’s (no) fun being an adolescent!” (about 200 words) in order to support the view that adolescence is both a very difficult but also a really wonderful time for most people [communicative purpose, as part of the generic process which is to argue].[6]

The rubrics of the activity are followed by a 400-word article entitled “So, how tough is it to be an adolescent?” which has an adult perspective of what’s difficult about being an adolescent. Candidates are asked to read this article, draw information from it and then produce their own script, on the same topic, but from a teenager’s perspective.

Contextual constraints in this activity determine to a great extent what would be appropriate in terms of genre and register. For example, scripts in the form of an essay about adolescence would be inappropriate since they would not conform to the conventions of the required text type. Similarly, scripts written from the perspective of an adult, who gives advice to adolescents, or who is reflective about his/her personal experience as an adolescent would be equally inappropriate. Moreover, since the produced text is to appear in a school paper and present the perspective of an adolescent, its tenor could be personal with elements of personalized language. Formal linking expressions such as ‘To conclude’ and ‘All in all’ would not be appropriate for this type of text.

Is KPG writing easy or difficult?

A question that KPG associates are often asked by parents and candidates is whether KPG writing activities are easier or more difficult than those of other exam batteries. EFL teachers know better than to ask an invalid question such as this. They know that demands are different –not harder or easier– in each writing test motivated by a different theory of language and a different approach to writing. So, for example, in exam batteries which test writing skills or writing performance through a limited number of text types (e.g., letter and essay) and very few courses of linguistic action (e.g., argue and report), the focus is on the language system per se, rather than its social or communicative value. Interest is concentrated on assessing grammatical accuracy and vocabulary range and these two focal points constitute the demands made upon candidates. Given the concern of KPG writing with activities which capitalize on genre variability, it is obvious that interest is directed to the appropriate use of language (the choice of grammatical patterns and lexical items), as determined by generic conventions. KPG candidates preparing for the writing test are advised and should be trained to exploit the social knowledge and literacy they have developed in both their mother tongue and the target language, as well as to use all their linguistic resources so as to make textual choices whose appropriateness depends on the contextual cues. Interestingly enough, our research, which will soon be published, shows that even candidates without training or special preparation are able to draw on their literacy, their background knowledge, their sociocultural experiences and their language awareness to write according to generic conventions. Assessment of their performance is more concerned with candidates’ ability to use the target language to convey social meanings rather than to use it accurately but inappropriately.  


Dendrinos, B., & Mitsikopoulou, B. (in press). The KPG Writing Test in English: a Handbook. University of Athens. RCeL Publications.

Knapp, P., & M. Watkins. (2005). Genre, Text, Grammar: Technologies for Teaching and Assessing Writing. Sydney: University of South Wales Press.

[1] Three associates of the RCeL helped make sure that this article deals with teacher concerns regarding KPG writing assessment and that it addresses questions posed to us: Virginia Blani, Vasso Oikonomidou and Maria Stathopoulou.

[2] Dendrinos and Mitsikopoulou (in press).

[3] Knapp, P. & M. Watkins. Genre, Text, Grammar: technologies for teaching and assessing writing. Sydney: University of South Wales Press, 2005.

[4] Readers, interested in seeing what our theory looks like when put into practice, may look at the past papers uploaded on the Ministry of Education site (http://www.minedu.gov.gr/eksetaseis-main/kpg-main.html), as well as on the webpage of the RCeL (http://rcel.enl.uoa.gr/kpg/en_index.htm).

[5] For the actual test paper activity, see the November 2005 B2 level exam, Module 2. 

[6] For the actual test paper activity, see the May 2007 C1 level exam, Module 2. 




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