ESL Writing: Determine Essay Audience Using a Class Survey

The concept of audience is crucial when writing an argumentative paper. Students should be able to understand that their awareness of their audience will help them effectively formulate their claim as well as select appropriate evidence. I usually introduce three types of audiences when we work on the argumentative paper assignment: supportive, neutral, and antagonistic.

Supportive Audiences

  • Generally familiar with the issue
  • Tend to agree with your position, but may look for additional reasons and evidence
  • Hope you can effectively rebut the opposing arguments
  • Most likely to be receptive to what you have to say
  • Not necessarily in need of many facts and examples

Neutral Audiences

  • May be interested in the issue
  • Have not formed definite or strong opinions
  • Most likely to accept your claims if well supported
  • Very likely to become suspicious of your objectivity and fairness if overtly emotional language is used

Antagonistic Audiences

  • Strongly disagree with your position
  • Usually can offer a number of reasons to explain their claims
  • May have strong evidence to support their claims
  • Less likely to dismiss your arguments if you present yourself in a reasonable and logical fashion (e.g., provide enough facts, examples, and logical explanations) and avoid emotionally charged language

In order to help students immediately apply these concepts, we the following activity.

1. The teacher conducts a short survey in class by asking the students to express their attitudes toward several claims. The examples of the claims:

  • All high school graduates with an A average grade should receive a free university education.
  • The use of cell phones negatively affects interpersonal communication.
  • All universities should include a diversity course as a mandatory course for all freshman students.

You can use the Likert scale to gather students’ opinions about the claims (e.g., Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly disagree).

2. Tabulate the results and present them to the students. You can also use charts in PowerPoint because it gives you the opportunity to record the results in an Excel spreadsheet and immediately build the charts. Quick, visual, and convenient!

3. Have the students discuss the results: “What kinds of audiences do we have in class in terms of the first issue? Second?” Etc. Let the students discuss how they would address each of the issues (if they were to write a paper) and what kinds of evidence (support) they would use based on the type of the audience indicated by the results. Ask the students to provide specific examples (if possible).

4. Since often the readers for students’ papers are their classmates, you can ask your students to conduct a similar survey applied to their own arguments.

This is a great interactive activity and it will definitely give students a better idea how to approach their topic and construct their argument in a more reasonable fashion. What ways have you helped your students assess their essay audience?

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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3 Responses to ESL Writing: Determine Essay Audience Using a Class Survey

  1. Nikita says:

    Great post! Keep sharing such a great stuff.

  2. Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

    Hello Weijuan! I am glad you find this activity potentially helpful! Let me know how it goes.

  3. Weijuan He says:

    In China, students are not very good at writing in English to express their opinions. They cannot think very well in English, so it is a little hard for them to write well. I think I will help my students try this.

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