Students Write Better for Authentic Audiences
Designing writing assignments that allow middle schoolers to write to an authentic audience can shift their mindset from writing to achieve a grade to writing to achieve a goal.
Writing for an authentic audience motivates students to do their best work, reinforces that writing style should be dependent on audience, provides a practical reason to revise and edit work, allows students to share their ideas with others and creates a sense of pride as students see the impact of their writing in public spaces.
Some Key Ideas
► An authentic audience can be anyone that the student is writing for other than their teacher for the purpose of a grade.
► Teachers don’t need to create all new writing assignments – current assignments can be altered to be written for an authentic audience. If a current writing prompt or assignment is for a “fake” audience or is only for a teacher to read, consider how that type of writing might be used in the real world and who would read it.
► Depending on who they write to, students may not receive a response or even an acknowledgement of their writing. This is something to talk to students about before they send out their writing. Explain that sometimes you don’t hear back and other times you may get a much more significant response that you anticipated. This is a great real world lesson for students to experience.
► Anything written for an audience should go through some form of revision before sharing. The time spent revising and the number of drafts created will vary based on the purpose and audience for the piece.
► After completing the writing assignment, the work can be shared in any format that is logical for the intended audience. It could be turned into a podcast, movie, cartoon, email, etc. Sometimes it is appropriate to assign a specific format and other times it could be part of the assignment for students to find the best format for sharing with a particular audience.
I often give my students the example that it would likely not be best to send a congressman a cartoon to share their opinion about an issue, in the same way it would not be best to give a first grader a research paper to read.
Designing Authentic Writing Assignments
► Begin with a learning goal. Consider if the goal is for students to demonstrate content knowledge, practice the writing process, and/or demonstrate mastery in a specific style of writing.
► Think about how the type of writing that best works with the learning goal(s) is used in the real world. Consider the following questions when making this decision: Who do mathematicians, scientists, artists or historians write for? What do they write? In the real world why do people write fiction and who do they write for? Who uses writing to persuade, inform or describe in the real world? How do they do it? Who is their audience? Who would benefit from knowing the information that the students will be sharing?
► Choose a topic that is both interesting to the students and that can connect to the real world.
► Provide students opportunities to read mentor texts before beginning their assignment. Ask them to consider how they will use the model to impact their own writing.
Restructured Assignment Examples
► A traditional research paper can be transformed into a letter to someone in the community, a government official, friend, family member, an open letter to the public, etc. This allows the student to share their research with appropriate stakeholders who may benefit from what they have to offer.
► A classic novel rewritten as a children’s story to be turned in to the teacher for grading can be restructured as a digital book created to share with elementary students or published online for children to read. The assignment is essentially the same, but students are now writing it with a specific purpose and audience in mind.
► A reflection or summary about a current event can be changed to a letter to the editor or an elevator pitch to a friend to share the main facts and importance of the current event. Students are still required to understand the main ideas of the current event and reflect on it, but now they are writing up their ideas to share with someone who could benefit from the knowledge and/or take action.
► An essay about what makes a good leader can be changed to a presentation to peers about what leadership qualities they should look for when voting for student council representatives. This allows students to transfer their knowledge about what makes a good leader to something relevant to them and then share that information.
► A book report can be transformed into a book review on Goodreads to share with a large audience or a recommendation to their peers via a podcast, vlog, or oral presentation.
General Implementation Ideas
Teaching or Sharing Information with Younger Students. For many topics students can write the content in a way that would help a younger student understand it at their level. The complexity and format would depend on the target audience.
An 8th grade student could create a podcast, vlog, how-to document, etc. to share with a 5th or 6th grader. Any middle grades student could create a cartoon, storybook, video, etc. for an elementary student. The key is that they would have the opportunity to share their work with their target audience.
Writing to Inform. Students can choose a topic/issue they are interested in or think would be helpful for others to know more about and then write to inform them about it. This could be a situation where they are using the information provided to them during class or where they need to go out and research information on their own. They could be writing to their peers, a company, a government official in their community, their parents, etc. They would share their writing in the format that was most logical for their audience.
Writing to Share an Opinion. Middle grades students have many opinions and most often enjoy sharing them with others. A key learning goal for this type of writing could be for students to support their opinions with facts. Students could practice this by offering their opinion about a current event to someone who has the power to bring about change. It may take a little research to figure out who their audience should be and how they will share the information, but that would be a great learning experience in itself.
Script/Song/Poem. Students can write a script, song or poem to be performed before a class, school or public audience. This could be a way to act out an historical event, show a scientific or mathematical process or theory, explain what happened in a story, make a prediction supported by facts, demonstrate their understanding of an event, etc.
Instructions. Students can write out instructions for their peers or younger students. This could work especially well if there are multiple activities that students need to do within the class. Students could be divided into small groups and each group would be responsible for figuring out how to do something and then writing instructions to teach their peers.
What Students Say
“When I write something that I am going to perform in front of an audience I try to make it my best…also I try to revise and edit as much as I can…” – Lillian
“When writing for an audience I make sure that it’s perfect! I want to make a good impression for the audience that I am presenting too.” – Sutton
“It really boost my confidence when I know that people can connect to my writing…what makes it better is when I can get a response…it is always good to hear someone’s thoughts on my work…it is what makes writing so fun.” – Auden
Kasey Short attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade English teacher as well as English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.