Teaching About Audience Through Public Service Announcements

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, the concept of audience is not always easy to comprehend for second language writers.  And even when students seem to have an idea what this term means conceptually, they may still struggle applying it to their writing.  In my post today, I would like to share a few activities built around video Public Service Announcements (PSAs) which, as we know, are freely available online and thus are easily accessible to most students and teachers.  I found these videos to be an excellent tool in helping second language writers better understand the concept of audience.

A PSA is a short video (15 – 60 seconds) thats purpose is to bring to attention a social issue and motivate the audience to action.  PSAs are different from commercials because they are not selling anything, but instead, they raise awareness of a problem or give people advice.

You can find a numerous PSAs on a variety of topics and social issues.  These videos are stimulating and powerful, and thus they provide a writing teacher with a wealth of opportunities to teach about the concepts of audience, purpose, and other components of rhetorical situation.

Here are a few activities:

Activity 1

To help students understand how audience might influence the content, the visual and sound effects, the overall feel, etc., of a PSA, show two PSAs on the same issue but created for different audiences.  For example, you can show them these two anti-drug videos:

As a class, discuss the following questions:

  • Who, according to what you’ve seen, is the target audience?
  • What details from the video, specifically, signaled that to you?
  • Why do you think these details would draw in that specific audience? (You can bring the social/cultural norms or tendencies into the discussion)
  • Why do you think the authors of these PSAs decided on this audience?

After you discuss these questions as a class, give the students the worksheet and ask them to fill it out while watching several PSAs of your choice.  For this activity, you may select videos absolutely arbitrarily, or you may choose ones that address the same issue but are made for different audiences, or ones that address the same type of audience but with different subjects.

After the students are finished with the worksheet, you can pair them up to discuss their observations, or you can have a class discussion.  From my experience, students always bring interesting perspectives and insights into the discussion, so I prefer class discussions.

Activity 2

One of my colleagues shared this activity with me, and I found it quite effective for teaching students about audience.

Show the students a powerful PSA, something like Brain on Drugs.

Discuss the purpose of the PSA or the issue that it addresses.  For example, the purpose of the PSA Brain on Drugs is to tell the audience about the danger of drugs.

Put the students in small groups.  Ask each group to select a piece of paper from pile A and a piece of paper from pile B. Pile A = varying audiences. Pile B = varying objects.  For example, the students may choose college students (audience) and textbooks (object).

Keeping the purpose and stance the same as in the PSA, the students have to decide how they would approach the PSA now with the new audience and object.  You can even have them outline the PSA in a storyboard (see the template).

For example, the group that selected college students and textbooks would need to “create” a PSA about the danger of textbooks. It would be absurd! But this very absurdity uncovers the issue: that you cannot disentangle the rhetorical situation without creating resonance/unity/coherence issues.

Note: It’s a lesson on failure! You’ll have to control the slips of paper to make sure that each combination will result in a failure.

Activity 3

As a multimedia group assignment, you can have each group create their own PSA.  Each group will have the same purpose but different audiences.  This project, however, includes more preparation and instruction (such as visual rhetoric, creating a storyboard, editing a video, etc.)

Important Note: Be careful when selecting PSAs.  Some of them may address sensitive topics, which may not be appropriate for your students.  Consider the individual characteristics and backgrounds of your students.

List of PSAs

Smokey Bear




Social Media

Biking Rules

Worksheet and storyboard template

Please share how you might use PSAs in your classroom!

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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