Yes, We Do This in the Real World: Inspiring Students to Write through Audience Awareness
Often students are reluctant to write because they don’t perceive the value of writing: they think their papers are only read by the teacher for a grade.
In general, there is in most modern, industrialized nations a school/”real world” divide, where what one does in school is seen as wholly separate from the rest of life, which is alarming because of course school is meant to prepare people for life. This divide is very apparent in writing instruction: the writing done in school is seen as not like any “real” writing, such as love letter or employment inquiry, with a specific audience the writer cares about, and therefore will take care about organizing the communication to this audience: choosing words and crafting sentences to convey meaning in a precise way. The writing in school seems to take place in a vacuum because the students often have no sense of any real audience that they want to share the school writing with.
So how does the teacher create the sense of audience? Some methods follow.
How to Inspire Students to Write through Audience Awareness
Lecture on Purpose and Audience
Talk about writing not being just “notes to yourself.” Discuss the differences between personal writing and writing for an audience: in notes to myself I have strange abbreviations, for example, that only I can decipher: “cll on ref” means I should call someone about repairing the refrigerator. I wouldn’t give that note to my husband if I want him to be able to actually read it and make the call. This is why we have to take trouble with our spelling and punctuation when writing for an audience. Furthermore, if I’m going to write the company who produced my refrigerator with the intent of getting a replacement, I’m going to be even more careful about my language, and I’ll have to write at some length to achieve my purpose.
Work with a Peer
Share ideas with a partner: discussing ideas with a partner creates an automatic sense of audience. Once students are discussing their writing ideas with someone else, and getting feedback like, “What? Could you explain that?” or “Could you give me an example of what you mean?” they gain in understanding of where they need to think about their ideas more, express themselves more clearly, and choose words in a more precise manner, and this understanding carries over to their writing.
Peer Review Groups
Have students work in groups to review each other’s work. They should exchange papers several days before the due date then come in and discuss the papers in groups a day or two before the paper is due, focusing on each group member’s paper in turn, with the rest of the group all contributing to the discussion. Remind the students they are there as readers of each other’s work: their role is not to correct it but to respond as readers—what moved them, what confused them, and so forth. Often the students’ critiques are very perceptive, and again a sense of audience is created.
Visualize the Audience
I usually visualize an audience when I’m writing, imagining I’m reading out loud to it. Often this audience is my writing group. While I’m writing, I’m led to asking myself such questions as “Will the group understand that particular image, or is it too personal and idiosyncratic?” or “Will that language offend them?” This visualization leads to revision and self-editing. If students are finding that their peer review groups are working well, have them remain in the same groups for the duration of term. Tell them to imagine themselves in a dialogue with their peer review group as they are writing. In this way, sense of audience becomes internalized.
Ask a Peer to Edit Work
Before handing in a paper, students can have a peer edit it for errors only. You might focus each time on a specific kind of concern: commas, past tense endings, and whatever problems seem to be particularly prevalent in the class. If students know their papers will be edited by a peer, they are more likely to work on the papers themselves at home, rather like tidying up before the cleaning person comes because having her find a mess is embarrassing. Similarly, we wouldn’t want a reader to be exposed to a messy paper.
Create a Class Publication
There are some more advanced techniques an instructor may choose once students are comfortable sharing their writing. One is developing a class newsletter, done on desktop publishing, and publishing parts of student work in it periodically. If students know their work might be published, they will work to polish it. A simpler and more traditional way to do this is to read from student work occasionally at the beginning of class, using it as an example of some technique, such as use of dialogue. Both of these methods, the class publication or reading aloud, can be done either anonymously or revealing the students’ identities; either way, student consent should be gained first.
Post Online. Ask for Reviews.
Have students post their work on a blog and ask for reviews. This can be done by setting up a class blog; students can volunteer to post their work, and their classmates can respond. Again, some instruction is needed on the appropriate way to critique work: “It was great; I liked it” is not a critique but a compliment. However, “Your grammar stinks” is too general and inconsiderate to be useful. It can be helpful to give a couple comments on a work, one positive and then another suggesting an area for improvement. Remind students the goal is give the writer direction for revision.
Encourage Students to Enter Contests
There are many writing contests, such as the numerous ones offered by Writer’s Digest. Some of the prizes are significant, such as cash rewards or travel and entrance fees to conferences. Encourage students to enter: entering a conference also creates a sense of audience and purpose because students have to follow the rules on word count, topic, and so on faithfully to qualify to win.
Creating a sense of purpose and audience for writing isn’t easy: too often writing is viewed as a dull exercise removed from real life.
But by faithful application of a few strategies, the teacher can lead students into understanding that writing does have purpose and is meant to communicate with an audience.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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