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Is anybody out there? The importance of audience for student writing

This post has been shortlisted for the British Council’s Teaching English blog post of the month for May!! If you would like to vote for it, please click here and then click ‘like’  Thank you so much for your support!

Most ELT teachers (hopefully) discourage students from the idea of only wanting to speak to the teacher. However, it strikes me that, in contrast, most writing is only read by one person – the teacher. Regular readers of Creativities might have noticed that most of the lesson plans I write finish with me suggesting that the writing that has been done is shared in some way. This post is about why I believe this to be important.

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

I understand that some students have fears about sharing their writing. They are worried about having made mistakes, worried that their ideas aren’t clear, sometimes worried about sharing things that are personal. Students shouldn’t be forced to share their writing, and some writing (such as journal writing) might be personal and only intended for the teacher to read. But I think it is good to try and give students the confidence to put their writing out there. In the same way that in their future English lives they will not only be talking to a teacher, they also will be writing for others too. Whether this is work emails, facebook updates, tweets, comments on blogs, application letters or university dissertations, they all have an audience. And that audience aren’t necessarily going to be looking for the correct use of the present perfect, but are definitely going to be looking at their ideas, how they express themselves, their communication.

It can also be very motivating for students to know that their work is going to be read, whether that is by their peers and classmates or a wider audience. They will often make more of an effort to redraft, to make sure their meaning is clear and to try and be more creative when they are writing for an audience. For creative writing I think it can be especially motivating as the ideas are often more diverse, students will often inspire each other as well as giving very encouraging (although at times a bit brutally honest) feedback.

If work is going to be shared with classmates, I find the readers often need some motivation to read too. Collaborative writing can be a good way to do this. If you have had a hand in the initial ideas for a story you will naturally want to read the result. Another nice way is to give students the writing anonymously and have the students guess who wrote it.

So, how can you find an audience for your students’ writing? Here are some ideas I have used, if you have any others I would love to hear them!

Posting on Walls

Simple and low-tech. I like to post work up anonymously with blu-tac around the room (as mentioned above) and have students guess who wrote what. Younger learners often like to make posters with their stories or poems and you can put them up to decorate the rooms, your own and other classes will often then read them before or after classes.

Swapping and reading

You can put students in pairs and ask them to exchange and read each other’s stories. You can ask them to do peer error correction but I often find it better with creative writing to ask for feedback on the ideas, which can be asked for specifically by the writer (ie. was the ending believable? Do you think the main characters are likeable? Do you understand why s/he did X? Can you think of a better way to describe X?). It’s a great way to get students to focus on what the writer is saying it, as opposed to ticking boxes on how many connectors they have used, if they have a topic sentence, etc.

Letter/E-mail Writing

Not strictly creative writing (although letters can be creative!) but encouraging real letter writing is nice. I used to ask my young learner classes on summer school in the UK to write postcards home and then we would go to the post office and send them.  You can also encourage fan letters to movie stars, pop stars, writers, etc.  If they receive a reply even better! Also, emails asking for information, complaining, saying thank you or applying for jobs can all be useful things to explore that will help students get used to the idea of writing for an outside audience.

Reading aloud

I’m not advocating asking students to read out pages and pages of a story, as even the greatest authors can be dull doing this. However, poems are perfect to be read aloud. It is important students are given time to rehearse before though, and it can be a great opportunity to focus on pronunciation, stress and rhythm.

Role-Plays

Role-plays are creative writing too! And they can be great collaborative writing tasks. Again, it is good to give students plenty of time to rehearse and help with pronunciation so they are confident enough to perform in front of the class or to record.

Class Wiki or Blog

Having a class blog or wiki is a great way for students to share work, and also potentially be able to share it with other people (particularly if they are studying abroad it is nice for the family to see what they are working on). I have used the wiki pbworks successfully with students, and I know other teachers use WordPress, Edublogs or Blogger with their classes. The advantage of blogging is that students can post easily, it is easy for you to give feedback and also you can set homework tasks to write comments on each other’s work. (See Chris Wilson’s great series on setting up class blogs for more information on doing this with your class).

Online flip-books

I recently came across a couple of online tools for making flip-books (for just pdfs and for various formats). I think they would make a lovely way of presenting the best of student writing at the end of a course, and could easily be shared with friends and family, and they can even be embedded onto blogs or websites. They look very professional too.

School Newsletters, Local papers, Online, Competitions

When your students have built up confidence in their writing, it might be time to bring it to a wider audience! If your school has a newsletter, why not ask if you can have a creative writing corner? You can publish one student’s work every issue (maybe voted for by the other students). Local English papers might also have a section for poems or stories you could submit your students’ work to. There are also places online you can submit work to (see my post on very short stories for some ideas for publishing them), and you could even keep an eye out for short story or poem competitions to encourage students to enter.

Is it more important for creative writing to have an audience than other types of writing? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do think though is that the purpose for other types of writing might be clearer (for example exam practice, practising particular vocabulary or grammar) whereas creative writing is often more about confidence and finding a ‘voice’ so perhaps there is a need for more of an aim to it. Also, it can really help with confidence for students to share and get feedback from people other than their teacher on creative writing. I think it is important to tell students the aim, purpose and audience for the writing before they do it, and also to discuss how to give feedback. Hopefully, in time, students will enjoy sharing their work and find it useful and rewarding to discuss it and reflect upon the writing process.

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