If you want to see immediate improvement in your students' work, give them opportunities for authentic audience when writing. Authentic audience can come in many forms, which we will get into, but no matter which one you choose, you'll see that your students have more buy-in to the assignment and the results will be undeniably better.
Benefits Of Writing For an Authentic Audience
Often our work in class focuses on writing with the teacher as the only audience, however, in our ever-changing world and in our desire to prepare students for life after high school, there is a need to shift the audiences for our students’ work. Opportunities to expand the possible audiences for student work exist and could be beneficial in expanding students’ writing abilities, getting them more engaged, and making change in the world too!
Over the last 20+ years, researchers Nell K. Duke, Victoria Purcell-Gates, Leigh A. Hall, and Cathy Tower have focused on the need for authentic writing and authentic literacy. Their research findings points to the effectiveness of writing instruction that is tied to real writing for real purposes. They contend that the strongest base for literacy instruction and overall comprehension of texts can be tied to authentic audiences for student writing.
In short, when students write for an authentic audience:
- They are more invested in the assignment
- Their final product is better
- They take more time to proofread, and in general hold themselves to a higher standard
- They see the relevance of the assignment
- They are more motivated
- Their confidence in their own writing improves
Over and over I have seen all the above benefits when I've taken the time to allow my students an actual audience (that is not me) to read or hear their writing. An added benefit (which is no small thing), is that it takes the burden off of you, the teacher, to hand hold or constantly be the editor through the writing assignment. Students will hold themselves to a higher standard, and they will be more motivated to produce quality work.
Teach Audience In Conjunction With Purpose
Before having students draft, it's critical they think about the purpose of what they're writing and with that they should consider the audience. If they are writing to persuade, who are they are persuading? This would also, of course, inform the tone and diction they use. That's why it's great to teach these concepts early in the writing project and in tandem with one another.
In my narrative writing unit, from the day students start drafting, they must think about their audience and purpose. They must consider how they want that audience to feel at the end of reading that narrative. That will inform many decisions they make throughout the writing process.
When I was teaching AP Lang, I’d use Purpose-Audience-Style-Tone (PAST) framework when analyzing essays and also when students wrote their own essays. You might also be familiar with a similar approach under the acronym RAFT - Role-Audience-Format-Topic. These are a great starting point to expand writing assignments and their audiences. With either option, students might write letters to the editor, fan fiction, online reviews, etc. However, PAST and RAFT require a next step to really establish an authentic audience: sending the writing out into the world beyond our classroom walls.
4 Authentic Audiences For Your Students' Writing
Authentic Audience Opportunity 1: Writing Contests
Writing contests, particularly those for nonfiction narratives, abound. Why not take advantage of these contests to have students send their work out into the world?
A few options for writing opportunities beyond the classroom walls include:
- NY Times Essay Contests: These include contests for narratives and more.
- Young Arts Contests: These contests are for students 15-18 years old and includes a creative nonfiction section (narratives would fit here).
- Narrative Magazine Student Contests: This is also a great place to find more mentor texts, but you do have to sign up (it’s free).
- Teen Ink: An online magazine for teens by teens
- Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest: This contest challenges entrants to compose opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels. This would be a great chance to review mentor texts and then have students work on their own versions.
Even if you don't require your students to enter a writing contest, you can still give them an opportunity to write for an authentic audience of their peers or classmates. Have students students read each other's narratives and do a pass and post-it activity. In this activity, students read a peer's narrative, comment on a post-it about specific observations, and then pass it on to another peer. Students can use student numbers instead of names, if you'd prefer, but even knowing someone else will read their work gives them an audience beyond the teacher.
When I've used this with my students, I've loved seeing how much they enjoy reading about each other's stories and life experiences. Sometimes at the end of class I'll ask about a narrative that stood out to them, and they'll discuss key parts of the narratives they enjoyed--all while not really knowing who wrote it! I love to see the author silently beam in their seat!
I give you a step-by-step method for doing this in my full narrative essay writing bundle that can take you and your students from brainstorming to writing for authentic audiences within and beyond your classroom.
Authentic Audience Opportunity 2: Write Stories For Elementary Children
Did you read about the second-grader in Idaho who snuck his book onto the library shelves? When it was found by the librarians, rather than throw it out they added it to their collection!
We can take a cue from this kid--students want others to experience work of which they are proud. One year I tried this with my group of 9th graders who were struggling readers and writers. They wrote a children's story in small groups with all the elements: setting, rising action, conflict, and resolution. They made their stories unique and illustrated them.
Then, we went across the street to the elementary school and took a single class period to read the stories to a group of kindergartners! Every single student loved the experience!
There are amazing resources available for doing this in your own classroom. You could start by checking out NCTE's resources for doing this in your classroom here.
Authentic Audience Opportunity 3: Writing To Bring About Change
Another opportunity for an authentic audience is through writing for the purpose of influencing change. This is a great way to incorporate persuasive writing and to extend students’ research skills as well.
You can have students use their writing to make change in their community or the wider world. They could research a topic or social issue, study the conventions of persuasive writing and the formats of letters, and then send a letter to someone with the power to make change, be it at a local, state, national, or world level.
One option is to read nonfiction work about activists such as Malala Yousufzai, Greta Thunberg, or Autumn Peltier and the issues they fight for - rights of girls and women, climate change, and water justice, respectively. These issues, along with so many others, could spark something in your students.
Amnesty International has a campaign called Write for Rights, which includes a free toolkit that teachers can use in their classrooms. The campaign provides background on different cases plus guidelines for who to write to and what to write.
Other opportunities are to focus closer to home - or rather to school! Where do students see the need to make change in their school? Student voice is powerful and done well, an in-school campaign can be effective and empowering.
Authentic Audience Opportunity 4: Digital Writing Alternatives
If we’re speaking of authenticity and preparing students’ skills for beyond our classroom walls, then we must include digital options as well.
Podcasting is an ever-growing field and students can create a podcast about a social issue, a personal narrative to share, or any number of options to share their written work. Whatever format you choose, have students listen to a podcast or two in the genre to make note of the form and structure. Then, they can tackle their own writing and production.
During the height of the pandemic, many children’s authors made recordings of readings of their books on YouTube. Your students could do the same as a way to create a channel to share with community schools, or even feeder schools, to see more about writing in high school.
Maybe it’s a matter of curating reviews of books through online videos. Students can write scripts, plan their shots, and record and edit their videos all with free online programs such as these suggestions for scriptwriting or Canva for Education for video editing.
If you’re still wondering about the reasons to have students write for an authentic audience, check out this 2018 article from The New York Times with 10 reasons from teachers across the US who have found success with this approach.
There really are so many options for authentic audiences for student writing in high school English. It’s a matter of matching curriculum requirements with student interest, then teaching about audience and purpose for your chosen assignment, and finally, moving forward with opportunities.
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