Make writing real: 5 reasons authentic purposes and audiences empower student writers

There was a heightened sense of excitement, a noticeable hum in the air, as we walked into the middle school library. The space was filling up fast with parents, siblings, teachers, and community members, each wearing ear buds and holding a digital device. Every sixth-grade student stood dutifully behind a colorful poster that advertised their chosen topic of study. Each poster prominently displayed a QR code that, once scanned, took attendees to a multimedia presentation of the student’s research and writing.

At first, my son was nervous to engage with an audience he mostly didn’t know. But by the end of the evening, he was brimming with confidence. Assuming the role of an expert, he talked (and talked) with complete strangers and became even more passionate about his cause: saving spider monkeys.

Beyond this personal experience as a parent, studies of writing offer more insights into why authentic writing can be so empowering for students. “What do sociocultural studies of writing tell us about learning to write,” a seminal work by Charles Bazerman, for example, gives us five specific reasons to ponder.

1. Writing is a social activity, situated within social contexts

If writing is social, then what do we consider authentic purposes for writing? Expert Steve Graham provides us with a good list in “Changing how writing is taught.”

Graham says we write to “learn new ideas, persuade others, record information, create imaginary worlds, express feelings, entertain others, heal psychological wounds, chronicle experiences, and explore the meaning of events and situations.” It is the audience for our writing, however, that makes the context social. And too often, says Graham, the only audience for student writing is the teacher.

Graham is not the only expert advocating for more authentic writing in schools. Other researchers have found that writing for real-world purposes has a positive effect on students’ writing and reading abilities. Even college-level students report having greater motivation to write for audiences beyond a professor, citing a strong desire to win their audiences’ acceptance or approval.

2. Writing builds relationships with readers

Extending the audience beyond the classroom lets students become the experts, a more typical role for a writer. It also gives students an opportunity to build relationships from a position of knowledge and authority. This can be empowering for many students whose writing is often read by people who know far more about the topic than they do. Authentic audiences can push students to think more deeply about a topic, too. In Growing Writers, veteran teacher Anne Elrod Whitney says real-world audiences make writers anticipate and plan for the reactions of readers they don’t know.

Within the classroom, Graham emphasizes the need to build an engaged community of writers, which includes the teacher, an idea my colleague Lauren Bardwell explores in “Ask a teacher: How to create a classroom community of empowered writers.” Teachers who share their writing with students experience the same vulnerability students feel when sharing their work with others, which can build mutual trust. Teachers who write live in front of a class can also model their own struggles with the writing process and show how good feedback (from students, no less!) can improve writing.

3. Writing is a product of the self

When students are part of a community of writers, they are more likely to develop a voice and identity as a writer. They’re also more likely to adopt a growth mindset, including a set of shared beliefs about writing. For example: Everyone has the capacity to write well. I can learn to be a better writer. My teachers can help me improve my writing.

Engaging in a daily writing practice is a great way to build community, as well as support students’ social and emotional well-being. Many teachers discovered and experimented with new forms of daily writing during remote learning.

Giving students greater agency over writing can encourage their development of a writer’s voice and identity, too, since agency is critical to motivation. Opportunities for student choice in writing might include what to write about, what lens to apply to a given subject, what processes or tools to use, what products to create, or even what style is appropriate for a given context. Multilingual learners also need agency to draw from their full linguistic repertoires when producing written texts, as my colleague Kayla McLaughlin explains in “Translanguaging as part of the writing process.”   

4. Writing has evolved in a digitally connected world

Students who write in newer genres or forms (e.g., podcasts, vlogs) can become even more flexible and adept writers. While traditional essays and research papers still have a place in schools, digital writing that is published for a mass audience can yield powerful results. Just consider the reach and impact of the student-created podcast at Stilwell High School, a year-long collaboration in which students investigated why The Washington Post gave their small town an unfortunate nickname.

Integrating digital tools with writing instruction is another way to increase student collaboration and mimics the type of real-world collaboration that occurs in online spaces where multiple writers can compose simultaneously and receive almost instantaneous feedback. Increasing students’ access to digital technologies, such as laptops, can actually improve student writing and problem-solving, especially when students work together on authentic tasks.

5. Writing has material consequences

Authentic writing, at its core, is real-world problem-solving. We can use writing to solve problems for ourselves, like when we gather research and need to understand differing perspectives on a topic, when we take notes or draw diagrams to make a complex concept more digestible, or when we journal to process our experiences and emotions.

We can use writing to solve problems in society, too. In fact, all disciplines use writing to solve problems. By giving students more opportunities to write for real-world purposes and audiences, they can learn how writing has real-world impacts and consequences, too.

Social psychologist David Yeager and his colleagues say students are more likely to persist through a difficult task—and can often find a deeper motivation for writing—when they reflect on their goals. The most successful students are ones who understand how a writing task can benefit them (a self-oriented goal) and how the writing task can connect to or benefit the wider world (a self-transcendent goal).

Closing thoughts

Let’s return to my son’s community event for a moment, where I overheard this conversation:

“Why did you choose to write about spider monkeys?”

“I’ve been interested in monkeys for as long as I can remember.”

“What’s the biggest issue facing spider monkeys?”

“They are losing their habitat. People are destroying rainforests to build palm oil farms.”

“What can we do about it?”

“Stop purchasing products made with palm oil. You can buy one of these grocery bags I made. It tells you what ingredients to look for on food labels so you don’t accidentally buy something made with palm oil.”

“That’s a pretty clever form of writing.”

“Yeah. My mom thought so, too.”

A few days later, at the grocery store, I caught my son reading the food label on a bag of chips. He stared at the bag with a furrowed brow.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“These are my favorite chips. But I can’t eat them anymore,” he sighed. “They’re made with palm oil.”

“Are you sure you want to give them up?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, with conviction. “If I don’t make sacrifices to protect spider monkeys, how can I ask other people to?”

To learn more about the NWEA vision for the future of writing instruction, read Writing for all: NWEA stances on writing.” Thank you to my colleagues Lauren Bardwell, Kellie Schmidt, Kayla McLaughlin, and Carolyn Frost for their input and feedback on this blog post. 

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